This article originally appeared in the December 1985 issue of SPIN.
Hüsker Dü‘s music smells like grainy old film stock to me, like a trip to the local repertory cinema to see Dziga Vertov’s avant-garde experiments in which thousands of black and white images of daily life in Russia are spliced together into a pastiche as violent as everyday life. Except that Hüsker Dü, in addition to being the second or third greatest group of rock ‘n’ roll superheroes in the world, happens to be a quintessentially American task force of working-class bohunks dealing with the here and now by way of the way back, when bass/drums/guitar ruled the world.
Hüsker Dü (the name comes from a formerly popular board game) means “Do you remember” in Swedish. I’m always amazed by how this psychepowerpopapunk trio from Minneapolis—guitarist Bob Mould, drummer Grant Hart, and bassist Greg Norton—can plop me in the way-back machine and force me to feel as great about sheer sonic substance as when I first discovered the magic’s in the music and the music’s in me. Both live and through the band’s most potent recordings, Hüsker Dü revives the deepest race memories of just exactly what raking strings and bashing drum heads at superhigh volumes can mean.
Hüsker Dü history is taken care of in the following interview with guitarist Bob Mould. As for the present, their latest album, Flip Your Wig, finds the group levitaling its supplicating vocals from the mix’s mire and further into the forefront, blending them even more appropriately into the miasma of highend hysteria. I don’t know about you, but for me Hüsker Dü represents a non-negotiable demand for autonomy in this, the most mismanaged of all possible worlds. Zen Arcade’s apocalyptic anthems were quickly superseded by New Day Rising’s relatively upbeat tracks. Flip Your Wig catches them in the uncomfortable position of band-with-the-answers. The question: “Someone wants to know if you know all the answers, or am I just guessing?/Guess we’ll never really know.” The response: “You gotta keep hangin’ on.” Tried and true, sure, but I get all the minimorality I need from the group’s behemoth electric noise and brilliant versions of “Eight Miles High,” “Love Is All Around,” and “Helter Skelter.”
The following interview is a montage of sorts itself, in which two separate Bob Mould conversations—one with Drew Wheeler, the other with Mike Welch of Minneapolis radio station KABL—are spliced together for maximum effect. SPIN suggests: Turn it up. —Richard Gehr
How does Flip Your Wig differ from Hüsker Dü’s earlier records?
Some of it is less live-oriented and more studio-oriented, more listening-oriented. There’s also more emphasis on the vocals, they’re a little more out front. The general sound overall is a lot cleaner, a lot more defined. You can hear what’s going on. On New Day Rising and Zen Arcade I think we consciously buried the vocals. This time we said, “let’s put them out front so people can hear what’s going on.” I think it paid off. Also, the songwriting’s a lot better. Everything has progressed. The production is the main thing: clearer vocals and less emphasis on guitar, the crazy solos… I think we’re a little out of that now. Not that we’re out of it live.
The B Side of your latest single is a cover version of “Love Is All Around,” the Mary Tyler Moore Show theme, and you’ve previously released a slightly altered version of the “Gilligan’s Island” theme. Are there any other TV themes you think are worth playing?
Not offhand, no. I don’t know why “Gilligan’s Island” got rewritten in the first place. The “Mary” thing started as a joke for encores in Minneapolis, our hometown. Then we did it on the road. When we went in to record Flip Your Wig last March we said, “let’s do it.” At first we thought it was sort of funny to do it in town, then it became a nationwide joke. We’re into Minneapolis, but we’re not the chamber of commerce or anything. It’s a cool song. The guy who wrote it, Sonny Curtis, also wrote “I Fought The Law,” so there’s nothing wrong with the song.
What inspired you to start playing guitar?
I picked up the guitar in ’76. It was probably the first Ramones album, figured that if they could do it, anybody could.
Did you play with anybody before Greg and Grant?
No. This is first and probably only band. I don’t think I’ll get another band after this. In ’77 or ’78 I was going to a school called Macalester in St. Paul. Grant was working in a record store right down the street. We ran into each other and had common interests, mainly music. Grant knew Greg from the record business, and we just said, “Heck, let’s start a band.” Our first show was March 30, 1979, at a place called the Randolph Inn. The first record was January ’81, that was the Statues single. January ’82 was the Land Speed Record, January ’83 was Everything Falls Apart, October ’83 was Metal Circus, May ’84 was Eight Miles High, July ’84 was Zen Arcade, and January ’85 was New Day Rising.
Your first LP, Land Speed Record, was an extreme hardcore statement.
BM: Yeah, we played really really fast and kept it together, and we did it live with no overdubs. Most bands are used to “Let’s put out five records and then do a live album.” We just said, “Let’s do a live album first.” By the way, we do have a live album in the can, but I don’t know if it’s ever gonna make it out or not. It’s a full 24-track recording, all mixed and ready to go. We may do a cassette. We also have a three-camera video that goes with it.
How do you feel about your older records now that they’re part of Hüsker Dü history? Do you still like them?
Not as much as I used to, but I’m not ashamed of them, they’re a part of the band’s history. Without the earlier records, the latest wouldn’t have happened. You progress, you can’t look back too often. We have a lot of old songs, too. I think we’ve come full circle. When we started out we were real melodic, then we got real aggressive, then we got real depressing, then we got real noisy, then we got sort of melodic again and sort of quiet, now we’re loud but melodic. We’ve been through just about everything, from experimental jazz up to straight acoustic ballads and heavy metal. I think with the last three albums we’ve just about everything that need to be done. And for every song we record there’s probably at least three that have been thrown out.
I’ve heard that you consider the Beatles and the Who to be big influences on your music.
I guess it sounds pompous to say they are influences. They’re not really influences, but groups where I hear a lot of things I enjoy. The Who were pretty big thinkers for their time, Townshend in particular. The Beatles were just chameleonlike, they changed so quickly towards the end. They did all kinds of crazy stuff. I think Rubber Soul and Revolver are their two best albums overall. We do “Ticket To Ride,” and we do a real good version of “Helter Skelter.” “Strawberry Fields Forever” is on tap.
Does the band have any favorite TV shows?
I don’t know. I used to like NBC News Overnight Wrestling. We’re not gonna get into wrestling again, though, not another interview about wrestling.
What music do you listen to?
Oh, Cher (laughs), H.P. Lovecraft, I don’t know. I really don’t listen to much new music. Right now I like a band we’ve played with, the Volcano Suns from Boston. There’s also this band from Louisville called Squirrel Bait that I think is real good. They have an album out on Homestead Records and, to be honest, it’s on a par with anything we’ve done.
You guys recently signed with Warner Bros. Do you think the company sees another Prince in Hüsker Dü?
No, definitely not, that’s not what they’re looking for with us. They’re looking for what’s already there. I don’t know if I’m trying to flatter myself, but I think Hüsker Dü’s a kind of diamond in the rough right now. I think the fact that we’ve put out five records in six years with the same members and have done all this touring ourselves is a little testament to the band. And we’re not planning on going away, we’re just starting right now. We may end up like the Grateful Dead, we may be around in 15 years, I wouldn’t doubt it. As long as we still have fun with it, we’ll always be around.
Could Hüsker Dü ever “cross over,” as they say in the industry?
From AOR to white trash or what?
To appeal to a broader group of people.
We don’t have any control over whether we cross over or not, that’s not part of the plan. The plan is to record another album and write songs we all just write. If anything else happens, so be it.
Will Hüsker Dü ever make a video?
Yeah, we’ve got two of ‘em done: “Makes No Sense At All” and “Love Is All Around.”
Who produced them?
Did you direct them yourselves, too?
Tried. We worked with some avant-garde filmmakers and tried to make them like pop videos, without any of the trappings. Very down-to-earth, without tricks or anything. These people were more experimental, it was interesting. You see, the thing with Hüsker Dü is, when people ask and I guess this goes back to the crossing over or the changing or whatever—we always try to present ourselves as commercially as possible, believe it or not. But it never comes out that way (laughs). If we just tried to be abrasive it would be so noisy no one would ever understand it. In our minds we thing we’re the ultimate pop band. Something’s getting lost in the translation. We do strive to be commercial and it doesn’t seem to work (laughs).
What are your personal political leanings?
Probably completely noncommittal Isolationist?
Personally Isolationist as opposed to nationally?
Yes, personally. I’m not a politician so I don’t understand what’s supposed to be good or bad. You know, if they start imposing martial law I’m gonna get a little upset. I think Americans still have more freedom than anybody else to do pretty much whatever they want. As long as they don’t start putting the big fool on top of our heads, I’ve got my own little things that I think are screwed up, but I don’t go on record with it because I don’t want to influence anybody’s political thinking. We’re having a hard enough time influencing people to take a look at their own reality.
Is punk dead?
Nope! You can still buy it at the K-Mart. You can still buy it at the record store. You can still buy it at the hairdressing salon. When hardcore was cool—Hey man, when hardcore was cool (laughs) there was no rules. Throbbing Gristle was cool, too. But all of a sudden somebody started putting the rules on it. Somebody started telling everybody what was right or wrong or that you couldn’t drink and that you had to have your hair shorter than this or that. Everything became another peer group and another subset. We just sort of looked at it and said, “Wow, that’s really fucked.” That was what punk wasn’t supposed to be. Punk rock used to be fun. People used to go out and have a couple of beers and listen to people make fun of things in songs. Bands used to take the starch out of everyday bullshit. Then it became too much, it took itself way too seriously as a movement as opposed to individual parts.
Have people either changed with it or dropped it?
Anybody who’s involved with it—it affects the way they look at things. I don’t know about the people involved in it, I’m not sure what they’re trying to do anymore. A lot of it is politically motivated right now, as it has been, punk became serious about politics with no real idea of how to initiate change, sort of like an inside joke. The fact that punk is dead or alive or in a coma doesn’t really matter.
Do people feel they have to behave “punk” at your shows anymore?
I hope not. We don’t like people jumpin’ and knockin’ our shit over. Each club has a different policy, so club behavior is fairly dictated by where we play. But we can instigate behavior, too. We can start a riot really easy, it only takes a couple of songs. All we have to do is pull “Helter Skelter” out, that’ll do it, or “Masochism World” or something earlier. We can pretty much instigate any kind of emotion we want.
If Hüsker Dü knew there would only be seven minutes left before the missiles fell, which one of your songs would you play?
“Makes No Sense At All,” though any of them would be appropriate. Anyway, we like the sound of the bomb going off.
Does your cover version of “Eight Miles High” make you feel like you’re winning or losing?
It makes me feel like I’m winning. It makes me feel good. A lot of people interpret the catharsis—or all the tiny, scary angst, frustration or whatever as negative. Quite on the contrary, if you’re frustrated, let it out. That’s what makes you feel good.
Do you still play long instrumentals as encores?
We add them when the show asks for it; it depends on what the level of weirdness is that particular night. And you can tell, you can feel it coming back at you. We’ve done things where we’ve played the same two notes for 45 minutes as an encore and pinned people to the wall. It depends on the kind of effect you want to put across on people and on what they want. You can look at them and tell after about a half-hour what the deal is, and whether you’re gonna put the experimental wig on or put the rock ‘n’ roll wig on and keep it on, or whichever other wig is going on. Hüsker Dü wears many wigs.