As Grant Hart bravely dealt with a godawful fire that nearly gutted his boyhood home in his native South St. Paul last year, the drummer/guitarist and visual artist—formerly of American noise-pop legends Hüsker Dü—found an emotional outlet, positing his brilliant pop songsmithery towards arguably his most immense effort to date, the double-concept-LP sprawl of The Argument.
Not many artists besides the intrepid Hart—who already has struck concept-album gold with the monumental opuses Zen Arcade (with the Hüskers) and Last Days of Pompeii (in his post-Hüsker outfit, Nova Mob)—would tackle 17th-century poet John Milton’s epoch Paradise Lost (which was originally published in ten books) and transform it into a galvanizing, theatrical 90-minute set. The Argument, rich with Hart’s trademark masterfully crafted ’60s Spector-isian pop song glory, does just that.
Sound of the City spoke to Hart in length about The Argument, his hardships as of late, his recollections of the Hüsker Dü memories put forth in his ex-bandmate Bob Mould’s recent memoir See A Little Light, and the possibility of getting back together with his former band.
So, you paneled a seminar at this year’s South by Southwest?
I had a good crew for the seminar. I don’t know how long it was; I imagine it was an hour of talk. I chose the title “Writing from a Narrative: Zen Arcade to The Argument.“ It pretty much covered what I know about dressing up your record and calling it a concept album.
Who else was on the panel?
No one. I was pretty much driving blind. I got a nice turnout. I expected it to be maybe five people, just seeing how unbusy that particular end of things were. The whole thing seemed dumbed down from two years ago when I was last an attendee.
You didn’t go to SXSW last year?
No, I was in Skopje, Macedonia attempting to see the sun rise over the ancient observatory at Kokino. I hunted for a time that would be astrologically significant—or, let’s say, “astrometrically”—but too bad for the weather, it was overcast and windy, we still had a really good time. Since so much of (John Milton’s) “Paradise Lost” is in and of the movements of the planets and such, he really worked as much into that.
And The Argument, your new record, is based on Milton’s Paradise Lost?
It flows musically but sometimes the verses may jump ahead, a book or so. It pretty much flows in time, as do the books by Milton.
Did you play everything yourself on the record? The instrumentation is pretty expansive.
There’s a bass player I worked with who played some stuff on Hot Wax and there’s an upright bass player that came in. At different points, I approached different people. For me, there’s a super tight budget that this one would be on due to the loss of my house a year ago in February [due to the fire]. Emotionally, I had to dedicate myself to [The Argument] and I’m glad I had a project like this to absorb my attention and to absorb my energy.
Grant Hart, “All Of My Senses”
You were able to use your new record as somewhat of an escape from the terrible circumstances that were happening in your life?
Yeah. I’ve also been involved in a big investigation of the prosecution of this woman that embezzled quite a bit of money from my father while he was in her care in a nursing home facility.
That’s awful. And the fire happened while that investigation was going on?
A friend of mine was watching the cats while I was doing a short tour. He monkeyed around with the thermostat. Thankfully, I was there when it erupted because I was able to save the animals. But smoke damage on a lot of stuff. When all that gets cleaned up, I’ll be a happy man. I just shoveled a lot of stuff into my friend’s warehouse. Two rooms were completely gutted.
I read there was a benefit in your hometown.
Dave Pirner played and Yanomamos played. I was the drummer for Yanomamos. It was the first record any one of the three of us from Hüsker put out—that yellow slab.
Oh, right. I actually have that in my record collection.
Right, see how forgettable it is?
Was that the first time you’ve played drums in a while?
Um… the last time (Mike) Watt came through I jumped up onstage with him.
It must have been nice, though, that people came together for the benefit to help you out.
This whole last year has been people who I haven’t been in touch with who are like “Hey! I got your email address from someone who saw something about the fire and blah, blah, blah.” It’s been a year of reunions.
This is the home you grew up in, correct?
Yeah, it was built by a family member in 1919, to be exact.
I read you lost a guitar in the fire that was pretty important to you.
Oh, man. The guitar I thought I was going to play for the rest of my life. I came home from tour and it was the first tour I left this guitar home. I’d gone out with a different guitar. It was really prophetic; it’s almost like I betrayed the guitar by disappearing and leaving home with a different guitar. It was a single-pickup ES-25 by Gibson.
Had you already hatched the concept for The Argument at that point?
I’d been writing lyrics [for The Argument] before even Hot Wax came out. We were trying to figure that out. I was talking to [William Burroughs’s] old secretary, a guy that takes care of Willam’s estate and writings. He had been looking through some of William’s typescript, hunting for something to possibly put on the stage like The Black Rider. Bob Wallace was happy working with William’s librettos, having worked with William on The Black Rider with [Tom] Waits. James and Wallace about doing William’s version of Paradise Lost, which William calls Lost Paradise.
Now, William inspired me and—he was dead by the time, anyway—it kinda pointed out a good example of something that seems to happen quite a bit with Milton—that is, people will extrapolate on their favorite part of the ten books and then the attention they give it is very uneven, where particularly rock and roll people, the hero is the anti-hero. William has all of the action pretty much spelled out within the first three books of the Milton. When I set out upon this, I was like, “I’m going to do something that will address the entire thing,” and I jumped around. I was inspired by different parts of it and it was a heck of a lotta work to fill in all those gaps to get the reader, get the listener from the fall of the angels to the fall of man.
I would think so, working within the hour-plus timeframe of a record.
Last I timed it, it was 89 minutes. We’ve known that it was double for a while. I had planned three things: there was going to be no re-mixing until everything was mixed, I was going to approach it like I had the freedom of jumping around and I was able to keep track of how great those chasms were that I was jumping, The listener needs to know how we ended up here from there. I would contemplate that until an idea or metaphor came up. The third thing that I tried to keep as a constant was that as much as possible I would write songs as if they were the only song in the project that if I was working a single, it would be totally understood as a single song without having to be Paradise Lost or The Argument.
Growing up—when I was 9, 10, 11—Jesus Christ Superstar was quite popular. It always took me that they were able to pull a single off of every side of that record without throwing the Bible or God in your face. With the Milton, I have skipped over anything it has where it could be obtained in other sources. My listeners did not need a rewrite of the Old Testament.
Nova Mob, “Old Empire”
When you tour behind The Argument, will you play the entire album from start to finish like you did with Nova Mob’s Last Day of Pompeii?
What I would like to do is do it as a ballet; kind of like a perverted ballet where the band and the singers are accompanied by dancers on stage. I see some real inexpensive ways of staging certain things. I think it would be more than a string section but having five or six vocal sections would add more to it.
Do you think a production like that is feasible?
I could see finding some school music department that would make it a quarterly project. Taking it to the schools would be the shortcut, where at some university some people would be making the scenery and I’d integrate the audience with the ballet as well.
How do you think your fans that have followed you since your Hüsker Dü days would react to that?
Maybe it’s time to let them know that, “Hey, I love you, but I want to be free to do what I want to do.” Really, it’s been the last three years. But, I hope Bob knows what he’s getting into with this Sugar reunion. The amount of nostalgia, this midlife crisis. Our older brothers bought Corvettes when they reached 40. Now, people go see a reunited band and yell out the names of 25- to 30-year-old songs, whether that artist is performing them again or not.
So you’re saying with The Argument, you’re looking forward instead of to the past.
They can bring their kids. What is fair? People are paying a ticket price for something and just because Hüsker Dü would play our future catalog doesn’t mean… It’s gotten to a point where that’s what people expected, like, “Oh, they didn’t play any new stuff this tour.” I’ve been more agreeable to hold their hand as we walk down memory lane. I like changing up those old songs. The trouble is if I don’t get [the old Hüsker Dü songs] out of the way early, people are so drunk by the end of the show that they can’t think of anything else but that.
Wasn’t Mould at SXSW the same time you were?
Yeah. I didn’t run into him, though. I thought that would be nice. What would happen though is if, say, he came to my show or I came to his show, the most-watched person in the room would be the person that’s not on stage. Bob’s got some hurt to put behind him yet. I think the world of the guy, but he doesn’t even want to talk about the pain that I’ve been able to work out by talking to other people and if I sincerely wounded him, you know, I’d like that put that right. This is supposed to be the part of a person’s life where they start thinking about how they’ve lived their life, who they’ve touched and who they’ve affected.
Did you read any of Mould’s book?
I ended up reading out of disbelief initially. I’d hear a report about something in it and I would [react] by saying “Oh, that’s not what he said” or “I have to see what he phrased this around.” To tell you the truth, I was really surprised [at what was in the book].
It really sounds like like it was written by the President of the Bob Mould Fan Club rather than by Bob Mould.
It was written with Michael Azerrad.
Yeah, I know Azerrad. It’s also on Little, Brown so there apparently is, I don’t want to say more Azerrad’s influence than meets the eye. But there’s a connection there that by it not being explained, it makes me curious. The thing that gets under my skin and I touched on it briefly with the “President of the Bob Mould Fan Club” remark, is that you find out a little something like there’s a tribute for Bob at the Disney Center at some place in L.A., and you hear so and so is playing. I was talking to one of the No Age guys and he said “Well, we’re pretty much doing what Bob wants us to do” and I go “You’re paying tribute to him, how can he control what you say to him in a tribute?” The No Age guy says, “Well, he’s the musical director.” So, I’m thinking “Okay, the guy is musical director for an event that is booked as a tribute to Bob Mould.” This is sounding wrong, like someone has the information screwed up.
Hüsker Dü, “Don’t Want To Know If You Are Lonely”
But Mould is admittedly very controlling, as he talked about in his book. You did experience that in Hüsker Dü, right?
Because of my reputation and my relationship with the press, let’s say twenty years ago, it was looked upon more as being a feud and it got blown way out of reality—especially by the English press, who like to have something nasty going on that they can write about while they are getting around to writing about music. I’ve always—well, first thing, I try not to speak in absolutes like things like “always,” whenever possible. I try to be as self-criticizing and as open to criticism because—this will sound immensely egotistical—I am just as interested in how am I getting across, as a person. The important ways that people come to an artist is dictated by how they are with their personality, their approach in dealing with people who they know and people who they don’t know. So, if you say he (Bob) is known for having that (controlling) reputation, I would have to say I have felt that way for a very long time. To me, there are things where I would like to be the final arbiter. If it’s all yourself, you don’t even need a guitar case; you don’t even have to leave your room to be the greatest in the world.
The Voice interviewed Mould recently and he said he would speak to people about specific stories he was writing about and he’d get different recollections from each person. He then went with what he remembered.
That’s a clever defense for lying.
I would like your response to Mould’s passage in the book where you brought your song “2541” to the sessions for New Day Rising. Mould rejected it to be on that album and that was allegedly the beginning of the strain between you and him.
Well that’s when Bob really trips over his dick. People hear a story like that and they go “Why is Grant Hart being told what songs are on a Hüsker Dü album or not anyway? Why is Bob, in his defense of himself, about the way he’s handled Grant—and things of Grant’s… ” I think when it’s put in terms of what album [“2451”] would possibly be on, blah, blah, blah, it sounds like it has a lot more to do with… the first thing I think of is “Celebrated Summer.” The Bob that I know would be afraid of having a “2541” on the same record as “Celebrated Summer,” regardless of which one has the better bridge, you know?
Or the story that Mould presented as never being told: the day Hüsker Dü broke up with your parents present in your house.
Pure and utter bullshit. Bob and Greg (Norton) did come to my house, but the last year of the band it would have been the next June that I would have paid back $10,000 to the band. When we started recording Warehouse, we had a meeting discussing things. Greg had property he wanted to buy, and I wanted to buy a house for this woman and my son. So [Mould] knew what date that Greg needed his money and I needed this money. And David Savoy was there at this meeting. David was chosen by Bob [as manager], and I could work with him pretty well. There were times where he would be talking to [Warner Bros.] in such a way, like, “David, why are you selling the label on the idea of me personally making 500 postcards to give away with the promos of the record when in doing so I’m selling a Grant Hart painting for nothing?” I wanted to give away a small sampling of trees in a package that looked like the trees on the cover (of Warehouse), because given the nature of the Hüsker Dü fans and the time of their life that was taking place, I could really see it as a copacetic clue where they—the boyfriend and the girlfriend or the couple or whatever—plant a tree together in a place that they’re going to remember or something like that. At this meeting with Warner, David was like, “Oh, come on Grant!” [in response to the idea]. So I say “David, somebody is gonna get fired.” I was so bothered with him by that. That friggin’ kid was a goddman fan. So Bob says to me, “What’s this about you firing David?” I say “I didn’t fire David.” “What’s this about you threatening to fire David?” Bob says to me. “How’d you know I threatened to do it?” I say.
Then, anyway, we’re having this meeting discussing the finances and the advance schedule for Warehouse. Bob looked me straight in the face—pretty much the week before we were to get this division of the money that was in the bank—and said, “This is the first I heard of this. I’d never heard about this before.” Greg [at this point] is exhaling heavy and he’s like [imitating Greg] “Now Bob, we had a meeting about this.” The only way I could make the final down payment [on the house I was buying] and I already paid huge earnest money for this house, I put $60,000 into the earnest money—because I could. Put as much as it down as quick you can—borrow low. I was looking at taking a huge beating if this payment didn’t happen. What Bob and David came up with is I would borrow $10,000 from the band, “payable with interest in one year’s time.” So when the band broke up, Greg was given $12,500 and then I don’t even know what Bob took. I saw it all on paper. I got a big, thick sheet of stuff from this woman who took over after David Savoy died. But, you know, that is the kind of businessman [Bob is]. When you’re in a band with people, you don’t make money off of them and you don’t establish that kind of business with them by doing it. Yup, that didn’t make it to the book.
Music made me enormously happy until it wasn’t enough for him. Just the sex bits [in his book] alone, I mean. I’ve had people come up to me and go “I know the answer already is “no,” but why does Bob write about you and him as a couple you were seeking?” Friends of mine that are girls say, “This is how people write about somebody that they wanted to get somewhere with and didn’t.”
Then the way he talks about Dave Barbe. David Barbe telling him that I was hitting on him at a Sugar concert? I mean, I won’t even give stories the compliment to denying them because it just lowers my expectations for life to have to address that kind of a sickness.
Hüsker Dü on The Joan Rivers Show, 1987
Why do you think Mould sustains the credibility that he has over the years?
I lay it on the doorstep of the quality of the media. I guess [Bob] played Copper Blue while he was [at SXSW]? First off, I don’t think he puts himself in a position with his audience to be questioned by them. Imagine people who don’t have anybody close enough to them that can say things to them that they might now want hear. I think [Bob] has burned more bridges than the interstate highway system ever built.
Do you think both of you are guilty of keeping the feud and rivalry alive by him writing his book, and you talking about it in interviews like this one?
In general, Grant and Brad have gotten around to talking about this. But let’s say in part of what resonates more as a conversation between a couple of intellects rather than the standard rock interview, or what have you. I spent a little less than ten years being in a band with Bob, being friends with, participating in a musical adventure that I don’t think I’ll be given again. But ultimately, I don’t think he has the character to be able to handle working amongst peoples.
Can you talk about the documentary about you, Every Everything: The Music, Life and Times of Grant Hart, by the guy that made Color Me Obsessed, the Replacements doc?
It’s literally brand new. I did a talk with him (Gorman Bechard), a question and answer, in Brussels, actually. I don’t make films; I only watch them. It’s hard to say because I know a lot of what the story is. I ran into [the Replacements’] ex-manager Peter Jesperson down at South By [Southwest], and he was telling me that [Color Me Obsessed] would have come out years before because of the stuff that he dealt with and put to rest. I guess that it kind of reminds me of the Mould situation, because he seems to like to pull our names out of a hat when there’s a little bit of controversy. I heard in an interview just a couple of weeks ago, but it could have been considerably older than that, someone was asking Bob about the possibility of a Hüsker Dü reunion and he said, “Never say never.” I don’t know. It seems like he’s spent years saying never already. He’s been challenged for years on that whole issue of “just because Bob says it, doesn’t make it necessarily so.”
Let’s say Bob called you up to discuss a Hüsker Dü reunion. What would your reaction be?
Provided everybody is on board, I would say,” Let’s go into the studio with some new material.” I would want it to happen where, like, a big-boy, mature-people band goes, where you get together some song ideas. From the scratch, I would dictate “Grant and Bob are the songwriters and Greg, if you got something that would hold up next to the other stuff… ” Greg went years without bringing a song to the band. From Landspeed Record to Warehouse, he brought in one song, and at the end there when it reached the near-parity between Bob and I, all of a sudden Bob is talking about how the three of us are equal songwriters and the three of us write songs equally, amongst themselves. I was really hurt with the hypocrisy of that, because it was like, “You know, Bob, you might be able to say that but let’s see if you hold true to that.” Greg’s song was not allowed on the album. It was a piece of throwaway, but a throwaway of mine and a throwaway of Bob’s wasn’t necessarily a deal killer. We didn’t ever hold up an album because there was something that was imperfect. What I resented was the hypocrisy of it.
Now if we rehearsed and got to the point where it was spot-on, maybe have some secret shows or something like that, just to practice recording of it. At that point, I wouldn’t want word to get out about the project.
So you’re saying if Hüsker Dü were to ever play again, there would need to be preconditions.
Let’s put it this way: it has a lot more to do with Greg Norton actually knowing the parts and being able to play them well than it does with any differences that Bob and I may have.
Grant Hart, “Radiate Away” (live in 2011)
Obviously this is all speculation, but you’d be against having a full-on nostalgia tour where you’re just playing the old Hüsker Dü favorites and hits?
I wouldn’t want the work that any other band would have to do or on moral grounds, I would make damn sure that not just the worthiness of say a “Baby Song” or “Whatcha Drinkin,'” a worthiness of like the canon, this mystical, indefinable Hüsker Dü thing—those condition would have to be met. It would not just be “piss on the name, piss on the reputation, collect a paycheck and go home.”
Wouldn’t a reunion tarnish the Hüsker Dü name anyway, and why, after all the publicized vitriol between you and Bob over so many years, would you even do it?
At the heart of the matter is if there was any call for a reunion, and part of the agreement [would involve the shows] not only [sustaining] but [enhancing] the reputation for the band for doing what needs to be done. I mean, whether it is… as into our embrace of pop; by far we weren’t the only band that went more pop-sounding, but as far as making that travel from where we originated to where ended up, it was a great leap. But the doing of the right thing started with The AIDS Project. One of the things that kept me in Hüsker Dü was the fact that we were feeding two dozen people. My father was involved in education, and both my parents were involved in the labor movement starting in the 1940s, and that’s ultimately what a corporation’s first responsibility is: to feed its workers. Ultimately, the workers’ main responsibility is to work in such a way at such a wage as to produce a certain amount of profitability for the company.
I think there would be a lot of happy people out there (if a reunion would occur). We would probably have it set for the rest of our lives if it was done right.
What would it take physically for you get behind the drum kit again for those Hüsker Dü songs?
It wouldn’t be the easiest transition, going from guitar to drums again. But I’d continue to play my own stuff. I don’t know much hardcore would be required [laughs]. Well, you see the thing is, though, we are having mid-life crises and we’d have to show [how], much like old men have trophy wives, old punk rock bands have trophy bands.
But wouldn’t you want to leave well enough alone as far as a reunion would go? So many bands have reunited, while Hüsker Dü and the Replacements have not.
I’ve always lived with the doctrine of Patti Smith: “I don’t fuck much with the past but I fuck plenty with the future.” I tend to like that philosophy. I like the way John Cage used to sign his correspondence: he would just write: “Looking forward.” I have seen some pretty sick things happen over money, and I think being the fan of Marcel Duchamp that I am, I think the answer to the Hüsker Dü reunion dilemma would be for us to do it and earn not a penny. That would be an example I’d like to set, because that way there would be no one member making any less than any other member or if it was purely charity only, and not to mention it as such. It’s not charity if anybody knows.
Grant Hart plays Cake Shop on Friday, April 6.