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Grant Hart - Interview

  by Paul Waller

published: 31 / 8 / 2013

Grant Hart - Interview


Paul Waller speaks to voclaist and one-time Husker Du drummer Grant Hart about his remarkable new album 'The Argument, which takes its concept from an unpublished William S. Burroughs manuscript inspired by John Milton’s epic poem ‘Paradise Lost’

“Do you want to pause for a while; do you want to call me back?” It was an odd way to begin an interview. That’s for sure, Grant Hart, the legendary vocalist and drummer with Husker Du, was on the other end of the phone. I was calling him to discuss his incredible new album ‘The Argument’, which takes its concept from an unpublished William S. Burroughs manuscript inspired by Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’. It is heavy duty stuff and one of two records this year that has really stood out for me, so I was truly excited to communicate with the man about it and find out how he put this double LP together. So, I call him and we introduce ourselves (“Joe’s Laundry” is his opening salvo when picks up the phone), and he just made an off the cuff comment about how he was going through a strange time at the moment due to his girlfriend’s sister being ill and in hospital at the time of the call. He’d had to blow off a couple of interviews before mine because of this, and he was apologising if he seemed a bit off. Empathy can be a boisterous beast. I mentioned that I was shooting off to hospital after the interview myself in order to see my mother and, of course, we got into why, and I said that she has terminal cancer. Grant has been through so many awful things recently with his mother passing and losing his house to a fire to top it all off that we found some common ground, be it horrible common ground. So, we talked some more about loss and it hit me at that very point. Shit, my mum is going to die. Off course, I welled up. Five minutes after we began to talk I found myself not being able to speak anymore. Great interview technique huh? Don’t try it at home. Of course, Grant was more than understanding, I couldn’t call back later, I had to see my mum, so we moved on. I couldn’t not know how this incredible body of songs came to be, so I trashed up my prepared questions and just delved into the new album. I cannot recommend ‘The Argument’ highly enough. Below is a pretty insightful exploration into the making of his masterpiece. PB: 'The Argument‘ has been out a while. It’s such a heavy concept. Are you tired of explaining it to everyone yet? GH: Well, I’m bored of people mentioning Husker Du and Bob Mould before my name in the reviews (Laughs). There was more time between the break-up of Husker Du and now than the Kennedy assassination and the break-up of Husker Du. PB: It’s an odd one. Everyone knows who wants to know already. The information has been juiced dry from Bob Mould and yourself and yet here we are today still speaking about it. You must be thinking to yourself after releasing this record, “What else do I have to do to surpass all that?” GH: It’s a Google world that we are living in. PB: I suppose you can at least take from the reviews that they have all been overwhelmingly positive. GH: It’s a fucking great piece of work, I hate to stick a feather in it and call it macaroni, but I worked very hard on this thing and there was no way that it could have been pared down. It’s ‘Paradise Lost’. To do that with a triple album, it would be short. PB: It’s a pretty tough sell describing the concept behind the record in a short review, but I think the press have done a pretty good job of it. I came to the record knowing what it was about. GH: Well you are English; you should know the poem, right? The Germans simply have no concept of ‘Paradise Lost’. They were like “Is this a new poem? It seems to be a lot like Faust”, and that’s what they have – they have Faust, we have ‘Paradise Lost’. PB: Apart from this almost constant referencing to Husker Du and Bob Mould, are you happy with the way the press have handled this somewhat heavy concept? GH: Um… I’m not totally gobsmacked. Not to keep on with this self-love here, but I knew when I delivered this record that it was going to shake things up a bit. I mean there is nothing so disappointing as to work in rock and roll and music and be really challenging your audiences for record after record in that band that I hate to bring up again, and then go into fifteen years or two decades of just “Oh, it’s another record”, whether it’s me or any of my peers like Mike Watt. We are a generation that not only said stick it to the music world, but the music world stuck it to us right back. There has been very little doled out to my peers. Any of them that are still in music are working very hard to provide for themselves. We have a determination to continue doing what we do, not to be distracted by the hypothetical day job or what have you. The fact that so many of us are uninsured… You know I don’t know where my next transplant is going to come from or what have you. All I wanted was to throw another curve ball at the world, and for too many years I have been you know, self-funded, this record as well in fact. I had the thing three quarters of the way done before I had the deal done with Domino and the advance from that went to pay off the studio bill, but with every record I’ve made in the past I would have to play shows in order to pay off those studio bills. That’s fair enough, but for them to be just another piece of content out there then it’s sad… The rate and the manner in which the world just gobbles up content is somewhat appalling. Unfortunately those two words will never disappear from my résumé and I think it’s the same with the other guy. We are going to keep trying to go on, surpass it and move on upward. Supposedly we should be getting better at our craft the more we do it. PB: The release of ‘The Argument’ is different from say the release of ‘Hot Wax’ in 2009. There was already a hint of mystique about this project before it hit the shops. GH: Thank you, Domino. PB: Now it’s out there, it has the feel that an all time classic record has; it doesn’t seem like it will be bettered by anybody else this year. So far it’s in this class of its own. You must have known you were onto something when you were making it, something special, something unique? GH: Oh yeah, you know life sometimes tells you that you are on the right track by the miracles and the coincidences that it throws at you, when all of a sudden the magic in your work jumps forth and hops into the work and you go, “God, where did that come from?” For example, the end of ‘Is This Sky the Limit?’; by the time that I had started to record that song I had an idea to try and find a recording of Sputnik and I was going to incorporate that into the music. It was very hard to find a recording of Sputnik that was of a long duration. Most of them were about ten seconds long and I needed more. Then I found one that was forty-five seconds long and I just repeated it, you know, just put it on a loop. Now not only was the pitch dead on, but so was the timing. It came in on the exact and correct key and rhythm without there being any preparation for it whatsoever. I was ready to slow the tape machine down and do some pitch correction just to make it musical, but this one idea that I had in the back of my head turned out to be the exact component that would make sense there. Can you comprehend the astronomical odds against that? That’s infinity times infinity. I am still gobsmacked by it. There is just no way that that should happen. And another one that may have been a bit more deliberate was in the song ‘The Argument’. I am overlapping two syllables of the call and response lyrics, and in order to sustain that with an eight count each line has to be ten syllables. The original Milton was written with ten syllables per line. There are little things like that that tell you that what I was making here was not just fiscal and mental work. There is an element of alchemy going on here. PB: It’s those alchemic elements that bring people back to albums time and time again over years and years. GH: Yeah, that’s very likely. To tell you the truth all of a sudden I have had demands for interviews and for photographs of me, all these things that I have grown accustomed to not having to do. In all practical purposes within the world that I occupy one photograph should be enough for a whole year. PB: (Laughs). GH: If you put out another album then you put out another photograph just to prove that, yep, you are still there, maybe an EKG reading to let people know that you are functioning, and that tells me that it’s not all about the lyrics or the music or what have you. People are actually looking for stuff that I am not accustomed to or even willing to discuss. It’s not all bad. I’ve invited you into my home via the phone, but I’ve had requests from people that want to hang out for a week and do a big article on what it’s like to hang around with Grant Hart, the maker of ‘The Argument’, and that is really not a very attractive thing for me. But I can also speculate that people that know my work and know my music don’t expect that from me. I guess I am getting attention again in a world that is too wrapped up in the superficial to come up with something other than Husker Du and Bob Mould comparisons. PB: Surely, though, when Domino got involved with their clout and independent dominance that by having songs with huge pop hooks such as ‘Shine, Shine, Shine’ and ‘Underneath the Apple Tree’ that these requests could have happened, you must have been a little prepared for it? GH: Yeah, but what about ‘You're the Reflection of the Moon on the Water’ (the pop fuelled opener of ‘Hot Wax’)? I would love to reassemble everything that I have done that has been ignored and just put it out there. “Oh wow, another new record, it sounds retro!” This is the record that, with the loss of my parents – Well, my dad didn’t actually go until May - and I lost my house and a bunch of trophies and crap that I’d accumulated over the years, well, it made me very philosophical. There were times when this work was a lot more of a struggle than on other days. When you have a million ideas for something, sometimes some of those ideas are like a hard rock. There were times when I thought that the record would just maybe be a great unfinished work, so, yeah, like you were saying that I did know beforehand the scope of what I was doing. I guess you don’t accidently make a double album based on ‘Paradise Lost’. PB: Did you take any inspiration from any other concept albums? GH: I was growing up with older brothers and sisters who were quite enamoured with ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’. As was I. One of the things that was a challenge to me on this one was knowing that that album told a huge story, even though it was only a couple of days in the life of Christ, and yet the label was able to pull four singles off of this concept album, and for some reason I think that is quite remarkable. Maybe it’s a sign of good storytelling that not only is the chapter good but the paragraphs and the sentences are good within themselves. I’ve always loved the way that album starts out with ‘The Overture’. The overture for that is very classical, how it begins with that really thin guitar. (Grant theatrically sings the first 40 seconds of the guitar line) and then it goes (he then launches into the brass/electric guitar section – by all accounts he truly loves it). PB: It’s so theatrical, so over the top. GH: Yeah, it’s almost a shame to waste so much grandeur on Christ. Not to sound sacrilegious or anything, but with such grandeur it should have been about a mortal. I don’t know why I said that but… PB: (Laughs). GH: I’m giving my love to the common man. They have done everything to Christ to make him far from a common man. He was a carpenter, right? PB: You have spoken to the press recently about how difficult it was for you to “blaspheme” knowing how religious your mother was. GH: Well, the way I tended to work on this album particularly was to have, say, eight petri dishes on the go at one time ,and each one would be germinating a song. Rather that than build a song and then set it on the shelf and then build another song and so forth. I let everything bubble away organically and also left as much time as possible for the lyrics to find their final form. There were early versions of this song, ‘Glorious’. Now, in ‘Paradise Lost’ and in ‘The Argument’, there is very little referencing of Jesus Christ, but he needed to have a song because after all he is sort of the source of all the conflict there in the terms of how I presented it at least. I tried to put more of a human face on all of the characters. We could talk for two hours about the nature of divinity and the nature of angels and all that, but there needed to be a victory song because Christ has not only smitten one third of the population of Heaven but he has opened up this great crack there which allowed them to fall through to their punishment, to their Hell. With the positioning of Lucifer as the anti-hero I sort of played around with presenting Christ as an anti-villain. After all if it is Lucifer who is the real protagonist then Christ is at best a...tool. He doesn’t have intentions one way or another. He is basically a tool. Now him being the sort of God that can smite Lucifer, yeah, he does have the authority of his father. but even from right early on I wanted to present him as a right daddy’s boy, as the heir apparent. He had nothing to do with the creation of the world. He’s a guy god and he’s half angel and half ape and just happens to be the son of God. I didn’t really want to trivialise him, but I wanted to somehow bring a little ridicule to his character. Anytime you mock Christ you are using a lot of other people’s clichés, all the arguments for atheism and what the New Testament really says and how broadly or incorrectly it has been interpreted, well, let’s just say there are a lot of smudges on Christ’s tablecloth. There was a lot of contemplation because of the death of my mother and me not wanting to bring offence to the table. It was a part of the way in which I presented him. In the big picture she heard maybe parts of four songs, nothing in its final form but ‘What’s a Little Angel Doing So Far from Heaven?’ was her favourite song that I’d ever written when I wrote it and I am very happy for that, but different changes made me accommodate the way I presented Christ. It was okay for me to take him a little bit more seriously in the work. PB: Has this project and your mother’s death changed the way you feel about Christ now in reality, your day to day life? GH: You are talking to a man who has never had that white light experience with Christ. I am basically what some people would call an agnostic. I believe that there are things that were mysteries ten years ago that science can explain perfectly now. Maybe, my personal jury is still out. I don’t think divinity is something that can be handed down from generation to generation and I think the Bible is a pretty fair set of outlines and guidelines for human behaviour, but there is a lot of outrageous behaviour that is depicted in there as well. What more should I give to the traditional white people’s canon, the white people’s book of ‘true’ magic, should I take that any more seriously than the witch doctor from Madagascar who shakes a rattle at a dying man. Well, culturally yes, but when it’s all boiled down probably not. I don’t know if I could ever be convinced of the common concept. It seems hand in hand with political situations. Eternal damnation is a pretty heavy concept to throw out to people if you want to make them conform to your will. The old saying only a pope can make a king and a king can make a pope, it’s part of the whole governmental, theological co-conspiracy of the ages. PB: And how the hell are you going to follow up an album like ‘The Argument’? GH: You had to ask that one, didn’t you (Laughs)? Well, here is the deal, should I even try? Just look at the conditions in which I made it. I would have to put myself through a reconstruct of the rollercoaster that I have been on during the making of it. I believe there were ten studio days before the house went, burned down and I estimate this by the number of discs that have smoke damage to them. I would have to endure situations again that to put a record like this out there again that I am not willing to go through. I don’t want this place I’m speaking to you from now to burn. I don’t want the worry of wondering if my cats survived or not, and they did, quite craftily I might add. PB: Finally Grant, the concert dates that you had planned for September in the UK were cancelled. What happened there? GH: There were just some dodgy situations where I was forced to un-commit. Otherwise it would have been pretty much disastrous. I was working with these Irish people. Before I realised what was really going on I had inherited a couple of booking agents and a cast of characters that were not up to my standards, and the booker in particular was so powerless that he was getting fees that were less for the entire band that I was getting two years ago alone without a new record. PB: Are you going to reschedule? I would love to see songs taken from ‘The Argument’ in a live setting in the UK. GH: Oh definitely, I want to prepare a full on presentation of the argument with let’s say, all my ambitions met for the piece. I would really like to be able to present it as a set piece in venues where there wouldn’t be a drunk in the back yelling out for ‘Diane’. I am not only battling my own midlife crisis, but I am also battling the midlife crisis of a lot of people that come to my concerts. PB: Thank you.

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Grant Hart - Interview

Grant Hart - Interview

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