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Husker Dos and Don’ts: Grant Hart’s Secrets to Success

Grant Hart

Even as Hüsker Dü started to crumble around him in the late ’80s, one could never accuse Grant Hart of lacking ambition. Alongside fellow Hüskers Bob Mould and Greg Norton, drummer-singer Hart crafted aesthetically ambitious albums (Zen Arcade, New Day Rising) that emphasized grandiose storytelling as much as musical economy. Though their early material hinted at breakneck speed and phlegmy vocal takes, Grant Hart’s hookier, more melodic contributions ensured that Hüsker Dü would never be regarded as just a hardcore band. In the ensuing years, both on his own and with Nova Mob (his only other post-Hüsker Dü band), he’s trod a similar path.

So when word emerged that Hart’s latest solo record, The Argument, out July 22 on Domino, would be an adaptation of an unreleased treatment of his late friend William S. Burroughs’s update of Paradise Lost, nothing seemed amiss. If any songwriter sprung from the SST Records stable were built to tackle John Milton’s 17th century masterwork, it’s Hart.

Speaking over the phone from his hometown of Minneapolis, Hart, 52, speaks energetically about what he’s learned over his three decades in music, and what he might tell the ebullient 17-year-old that first sat down behind the drumkit for a band that went on to become a punk landmark.

Since the breakup of Hüsker Dü, I’ve made people understand that I am the songwriter.
That’s not exactly a fair situation, but there’s a lot of people that don’t write and there’s a lot of people that do write that are willing to put it aside. That was the thing with Hüsker Dü. After writing together for a long time, we started writing separately. We started competing rather than working together. That starts happening the first time a record is reviewed and one song is liked more than another. The other person has their feelings hurt. In the case of Warner Bros. and Hüsker Dü, the worst thing that ever happened was when they picked two songs of mine in a row to become singles. Bob [Mould] was used to regarding himself as the main songwriter simply because he was the guitar player.

You have to know as much as you possibly can about a label before you sign with them.
Case in point: Rough Trade International was courting [Nova Mob, for 1991’s The Last Days of Pompeii] and we ended up signing with them. We did a Dun & Bradstreet investigation on them and it showed that they were perfectly sound financially. Within a couple weeks of our record coming out, they went bankrupt. You never think your label will go bankrupt while they’re releasing you. It stymied the band. We couldn’t keep up the momentum that you like to have when you’re with a label. It’s not always the record that you’re releasing that’s important, but the record after that. You want to sign a contract that has some sort of plan for the future. I don’t like signing for one record, but for a lot of records, if possible.

You have to keep the momentum happening until the show has been performed.
When four people are traveling in a band, every five minutes that you waste is five minutes of everyone’s time. I’m not very good at watching my time get wasted. There’s a real uncomfortable situation when you’re more well known than the people you’re playing with and you have to say “We can’t go to the hotel before the gig.” To the other people, you’re just going to seem like you’re some dictator-asshole. But I know from experience that if you stop at the hotel, everyone is going to stop moving for an hour. It’s just the nature of things. People treat their hotel rooms like they’ve arrived at home. They start unpacking and combing their hair. Until the show has been performed, my time is everybody’s time and everybody’s time is my time.

You can travel through the world a lot easier on your own.
There’s something really great about hopping on a train with your guitar in one hand and your gig bag in the other. I like the economy and the streamlined procedure. When you’re working with a band and the backline, so much energy is put into just moving the goddamn equipment from place to place. It seems a bit ridiculous. Every city has a Twin Reverb [amplifier] and a drum set. I understand people wanting to play with their own stuff, but it gets a bit ridiculous after being able to just hop onto a train.

Every album is a concept album.
It’s a journey from one emotion to the next. You can’t have a song about breaking up with somebody and then the next song is “Oh, we’ve been together for 20 years.” You have to have organization, but you have a little bit more freedom than when you’re holding your work up to a previously known project. The thing about Milton’s use of words [in Paradise Lost] is that there’s something on every page that can inspire a song. It’s the project that’s required the most organization. In a normal record the songs will have been inspired by something out of my life rather than something in a work of literature. Sometime in the mixing process or the recording process, I have to start arranging them in the order they would work the best on the album.

Have a plan to address difficulties.
It sounds simple. A lot of times something unexpected happens and there are situations or conditions that make it really difficult for people to operate. Having some method of addressing grievances is important. You need to know how to internally criticize other members without hard feelings and arguments. [Hüsker Dü] didn’t have any way to do that. You end up having occasions where one person hurts another person’s feelings or one person is in the doghouse with two different people. It’s always good to have a plan to fall back on. You’re broken down on the highway. Who’s going to go get the parts? It’s stuff as simple as that. You need to know how to deal with the unexpected.