Grant Hart contemplates his losses and the stories behind his music
Grant Hart's had a rough go recently. Upon returning home from a tour he describes as disastrous, his house caught fire and burned to the ground, and exactly one month later, his mother died.
"It's been kind of a rough time since then," Hart admits. "I had gotten home from a disastrous tour. I did not grow up using a computer, and the guy who was promoting the tour said, 'We've got to advertise by starting up a Facebook site, and we've got to expand your web presence.' In the meantime, things like the van to get to the shows and the actual details that are more important were fucked — but, oh, we have some web presence. He made sure we had an in-store for every city we were playing, and people would come to see the in-stores for free, but then the same number of people weren't showing up when there was a payout expected."
After the tour, due to a problem with his house's furnace and ninety-year-old wiring, Hart's house burned down. Hart and his cats survived unhurt, but it seemed the universe wasn't yet done with him yet. "A month to the day after the fire," Hart recalls, "my mother passes away for reasons that a rich man would sue for malpractice. It's just been one curious domino after another. One thing that's interesting is that in the meantime, I've been working on this adaptation of Paradise Lost, where I'm putting John Milton to pop music, sometimes quite literally and sometimes quite obliquely. It has almost brought me to the conclusion that I've made enemies with the very, very higher-ups.
"Channeling too much Milton," he adds with a laugh. "Some systems are being reinstituted better than ever, but right now, I'm trying to save as much of the best parts of my old life as possible. I lost my lifelong guitar in the fire, and it's nice that — when all is said and done — that you find out you're the guy who worries more about finding a cat than the material things."
Before embarking on a solo career, Hart was a member of the critically acclaimed Hüsker Dü, a band that was one of the first — if not the first — of the underground bands of the '80s to sign to a major label. Serving as a pillar of what came to be called "alternative rock," Hüsker Dü has often been cited as an influence on countless artists that followed, including Nirvana.
Hüsker Dü was well on its way to becoming a household name before the pioneering rock band broke up in the spring of 1988. Having fused a seething energy with melodic hooks and thought-provoking lyrics, the Minneapolis trio caught its break in the early hardcore circuit of the late '70s and early '80s. In 1984, Hüsker Dü released its classic, epochal double album Zen Arcade, whose central concept articulated the fears, uncertainties and hopes of a generation reared at a time of cultural and political crisis — when the president himself glossed over the country's problems with insipid statements such as the pronouncement that it was "morning in America."
Playing its first show on March 30, 1979, less than a month after forming and right around the time of Hart's seventeenth birthday, Hüsker Dü was driven by two talented songwriters: Hart, who played drums, and guitarist Bob Mould. As a percussionist who also sang, Hart was a rare exception at the time.
"It had just not occurred to me that it was that difficult an activity," says Hart. "I'd seen a lot of bands with singing drummers. It was like any kind of rehearsal through which you acquire competence in something: The more you do it, the easier it gets, and the more complex what you're doing can be. Nobody had told me that it was difficult, so it was easy."
The unique visual style of Hüsker Dü's album covers reflected Hart's own aesthetic, as he also designed the act's album covers — a job that he has occasionally taken on for other musicians, as well. "I've done a few on the sly," Hart confides. "It was something I did because it was internal — the band doing its own work. There's plenty of people doing that work. It's nothing that I'm seeking any listing or credit from anymore. You gotta let some things be mysterious."
Before joining a rock band, Hart had been more interested in other forms of music, including film soundtracks. In a sense, his own songwriting has something of a cinematic quality, with its ability to conjure vivid imagery and its capacity for poetic storytelling.
"I like the stuff from the old Warner Bros. musicals and the stuff Busby Berkeley did the choreography for," Hart explains. "I don't know if I was attracted to the Broadway elements of those films, because they all take place on the stage, but I really loved those. I also loved the Herb Alpert Casino Royale soundtrack and the Burt Bacharach-composed stuff."
"It's funny," muses Hart, "but in my early twenties, I ended up kind of playing a game of catch-up with the music that my peers were listening to. What had happened was that I came into the punk thing because I had really gotten into Gene Vincent. I started hanging around the record store when I was fourteen, and Gene Vincent was pressed upon me. I liked the wildness that I ended up finding in a lot of rockabilly artists, but the stuff that Elvis almost had weaned out of his character — he was still rocking, but he wasn't the screaming hillbilly that Gene Vincent was. Gene Vincent was kind of the Saint Sebastian of rock and roll, the way he would expose his mangled leg — and wearing the leg brace on the outside of his leather pants, I thought, was an unbeatable look."
After the breakup of Hüsker Dü, Hart didn't waste much time before recording solo material in addition to forming a new band, Nova Mob. Although Nova Mob broke up in the mid-'90s, the band's album The Last Days of Pompeii was recently reissued on vinyl. "The original story," Hart says about Pompeii, "is pretty much a blending of the last weeks of World War II and the last weeks of the culture in Pompeii, and how there was a similarity in the ticking time bomb that were both societies. One knew the end was coming, and one didn't. There was quite a bit that didn't make it to the recording stage, because it would have required a much larger release, so we stripped away a lot of the literal and left certain bases existing."
The song "Narcissus Narcissus," from 2009's Hot Wax, was Hart's attempt to combine "Ancient Greek mythology and American rockabilly," as he put it in a recent interview. And that style certainly defines that period of his career. "In 1951, for a white guy to spend so much time on his hair, as, say, a Little Richard," Hart points out, "displays quite a bit of narcissism that was an attractive thing then.
"That streak of defiance — it's hard to tell how long it lasted, if it did end," he says. "I guess things are more underground nowadays. The computer serves more to keep things quiet than to bring them to light. That's just the nature of the users, I guess."
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