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‘Minnesota Hardcore’: A Q&A with producer who chronicles the Twin Cities’ ’70s-’80s punk scene

David Roth: “I didn’t want to punch home a thought, like ‘This is what this meant,’ but if you get enough people talking about it, you get the understanding of how exciting and energizing it was.”

“Minnesota Hardcore” promotional graphic.
“Minnesota Hardcore” promotional graphic.
Courtesy of Twin Cities Public Television; photo by Nancy Jane Nicolai

For punk rock fans, one of the best binges of late has been producer David Roth and Twin Cities Public Television’s newly released documentary “Minnesota Hardcore,” which chronicles the loud, fast and furious hardcore punk scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s in the Twin Cities.

Augmented by archival footage and photography, and with narration provided by Cows/Heroin Sheiks lead singer Shannon Selberg, Roth expertly traces the scene’s beginnings as an offshoot of the first wave of punk, with bands like Hüsker Dü and Final Conflict leading the way, and also its evolution amid hard-and-fast rules that were born to be broken as the original architects of the scene grew up and moved on. Along the way there are smart and funny insights from a host of experts, including Peter Davis, Dale T. Nelson, Lori Barbero, Michelle Strauss Ohnstad, Doug Anderson, Chris Patrick, Tom Hazelmyer, Danny Murphy, Dave Pirner, Tommy Stinson, and the late, great music champion Terry Katzman.

Roth talked with MinnPost about the making of “Minnesota Hardcore,” which can be streamed here.

MinnPost: What is your story with hardcore? Where did you grow up, and how were you introduced to the music?

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David Roth: I grew up in south Minneapolis, near Uptown. And when I was 12, my family did a yearlong move to England (in 1979), because my dad was an English professor. So I got exposed [to a lot of new music]. When I was in England, too, I was a rude boy. Ska had just exploded, so I was not into punk rock. I actually was really into the second wave of ska in 1979 — The Specials and Madness, and I had every Two Tone single from 001 to like, 14.

But in England, we’d walk to the bus, or to the train station to go home, and everyone would pick up the NME on Tuesday. Everybody was into music. So you had The Jam, you had The Specials, you had Stiff Little Fingers on primetime TV once a week.

David Roth
Photo by Matt Mead
David Roth
Also, seeing that movie “This Is England,” that felt like that you’d lived through it, and at that time the [white supremacist movement] National Front was peaking. I had no idea about hardcore until we moved back to America. My sister Jennifer was the one who always got the cool records first, and the Dead Kennedys’ “Rotting Fruit” was the first thing she got. And she bought me Black Flag’s “Damaged” for Christmas that year, and I really didn’t completely understand Black Flag.

And then I became friends with [Replacements bassist] Tommy Stinson in seventh and eighth grade, and started kind of hanging out with him and he would take me to Replacement shows, and one of the first times might have been a REMs-Replacements double-bill at Goofy’s Upper Deck, or Regina High School. That was some of the first [live music] I saw, and I just remember the bands playing half-hour [staggered] sets, and the nuns walking around looking really confused at what was going on.

MP: What about records, and discovering more hardcore records?

 DR: I would hang out at [legendary south Minneapolis record store Oarfolkjokeopus], and I’d ask Terry Katzman, “Are the Dead Boys good?” and he’d go, “Oh yeah, yeah, get that!” I wasn’t into hardcore yet, but I think going to some of those shows with Tommy and then being exposed to … I remember very clearly when Twin/Tone [Records] got the first Discharge EP.

That was one of the most memorable moments, because I was sort of hanging out with Tommy, and we’d go back to Peter [Jesperson]’s apartment at the Modesto [building in south Minneapolis], and we were in Terry Katzman’s basement apartment, and they were playing Discharge. They were like, “What does this mean? What’s going on here?” Like, they were all really concerned with how fast it was, and just how it was the most noise they’ve ever heard.

Not long after that I was able to sneak into Goofy’s Upper Deck and see Discharge live. So it all kind of had to do with being able to get into shows. And when I got back from England, [Soul Asylum leader] David Pirner, because I was this little 14- 15-year-old punk rocker with no friends, said, “There are a group of punk rockers in Northeast, and you should call this guy. He gave me Paul Paiement’s number, who was playing in the Blue Hippos, and I took a 4 bus over to Northeast and started hanging out with those guys and getting into their shows, and they were playing hardcore, and I was like, “Wow, people are playing hardcore here.”

So, long story, but to me that was kind of a part of it: It wasn’t a straight dive into hardcore; it was an evolution of culture and music that led up to it.

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MP: You were hugely impacted by that scene. How did you come to land at TPT, and did the story burn in you to tell it all these years?

DR: Yeah, definitely. I had been at TPT for a while doing line producing and got really sick of that, and left to do more creative stuff because I had a history in directing and producing. So I left and I worked on “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” for a while, and then came back to TPT with an understanding that I would get an opportunity to start producing.

And very quickly I kind of landed on my own music show, “The Lowertown Line,” which was an opportunity for me to do something music-oriented again. I remember the first show I had for “The Lowertown Line” with The Blind Shake and Kitten Forever. It was the first punk show, and I think TPT were a little concerned.

It’s funny how punk has always been demonized. Even to this day, 40 years later, 50 years later, punk is still [villified]. But in the mainstream it’s starting to get a lot of documentaries about it right now, and a lot of people really looking at it. So yeah, this has been burning in me for a long time. I even started talking with [musician and archivist] Ron Clark; we were talking about making like a Goofy’s Upper Deck documentary for a while because I definitely wanted to explore some of this stuff.

MP: It requires someone like you to go, “This was my youth, and this was very important to me, no one knows what I’m talking about, I need to put it down for posterity.” And there’s the genesis of the doc; it really takes one person with a vision, and I’m really grateful for it that way.

DR: That’s really interesting because when I was in the middle of it, I was like, “Why am I doing this? This is way too much work.” But I thought, “Well you know what? When it’s done at least my kids will have a sense of what it was like when I was a kid and what was important to me.” Because you’re kind of right, making a doc is a lot of work, and there’s a lot of docs out and there’s a lot of docs out right now about a punk rock scene or about punk rockers since I made this. There’s one about Alberta. There’s one about Detroit that just came out, and there’s one about Sioux City, a little later but about their punk scene.

And then there’s another one that I just started talking to somebody about. So it’s like everybody’s starting to do this now, which is great, because nobody [regularly] wrote about it [at the time]. It was still underground.

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MP: But that’s what generates a scene in part; that secret handshake underground thing. That original hardcore scene lasted about two years. Part of the allure is that it was an underground movement that only a few true believers really took part in. What would you tell people who weren’t there? Why was it important?

DR: Part of it had to be the context of our culture at that time. What was it that 15- to 20-year-olds could do as far as us youth activities, culture, music, being a part of something, participation? I tend to look at it like this for some reason: In the mid-’70s, there was maybe one PG movie released every week, or maybe every month. There was a dearth of stuff for kids to do that wasn’t school-related, and so I think it was kind of perfect timing for that, and I think it was this idea at that time that we could actually make something. We could make a band or make a fanzine and other people could see it, and it would help enrich our sort of community. There was something really infectious about wanting to be a part of it. The participation.

Fifteen-year-old “Minnesota Hardcore” producer David Roth chicken-fights his way through a Minor Threat show.
Photo by Suzanne Beauchaine
Fifteen-year-old “Minnesota Hardcore” producer David Roth chicken-fights his way through a Minor Threat show.
MP: That’s a great point. It was participatory, for bands, fans, everyone involved.

DR: It had to be, right? If you didn’t have anybody at the show, the show sucked. It felt like it sort of just spontaneously grew, like, you’d see someone at Goofy’s that you hadn’t met before, and after that then they were part of your club.

MP: Have you ruminated on why it happened, sociologically? Watching it, I thought about the oppressive ’80s with Reagan/Thatcher, gang life, youth culture, and the need for speed and chaos and headbanging, post-Ramones and Sex Pistols, etc. Then again, I like how Hazelmyer says, “Fast, sloppy, and move on to the next thing. You know, you weren’t writing a thesis; you were making a flier for a show in a garage that was probably gonna get shut down by the cops.” He’s right, but your thesis is valuable because it validates a little-known but really important scene. As you did interviews and compiled archival material, did the importance grow? Did it morph from personal passion to realizing that you were documenting something that people will watch and learn from 50 years from now? 

DR: A lot of times, I was feeling unsure of that, so what I kind of landed on is [making something that] made sense to me and, after that, try to look at it in some way objectively. I didn’t want to punch home a thought, like “This is what this meant,” but if you get enough people talking about it, you get the understanding of how exciting and energizing it was. Rather than making grandiose statements about what this all meant, I thought it would be great to try to show how exciting a scene can feel, why people would want to be excited about joining.

A theme that I was trying to kind in there is that any music scene is a continuum. One of the things that also inspired me about hardcore and all of this was [Otto’s Chemical Lounge singer] Dale T. Nelson, and his tales about the Twin Cities in the late ’60s. I couldn’t even imagine how cool it was, with all these garage bands playing in clubs that kids could get into.

MP: “Minnesota Hardcore” comes on the heels of “Hayday,”  “Color Me Obsessed,”  and “Jay’s Longhorn” in chronicling the punk rock explosion of the ’70s and ’80s. Did those inspire or inform you, and what other music documentaries either informed you or inspired you?

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DR: Absolutely. I mean, your Replacements book [“The Replacements: All Over But The Shouting: An Oral History”] to be really honest, really inspired me. That oral history really did it; it starts with [Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s] “Please Kill Me,” which to me is the granddaddy of an oral history of a scene. So there were a couple inspirations, and one was the oral history genre itself, which I just love, and I loved your book but it was like the Replacements were a part of it and I wanted to [dig deeper]. I went in with the understanding, too, that I did want to tell a story that was not going to be as told.

The Longhorn story was told, and I think Cyn [Collins] definitely covered Goofy’s and a lot of this in her book [“Complicated Fun”], but, as soon as I landed on “I’m gonna make a documentary on Minnesota hardcore,” I knew it would be pigeonholed. So I just decided to make something that would be part personal essay and part chatting with my friends. There was a movie called “American Hardcore” that came out 10 years ago. And they had nothing about Minneapolis. So that, absolutely made me go, “It’s up to me; I’ve got to tell it.”

The funny thing is you were kind of talking about street gangs, which I’ve been thinking about a lot, because I almost felt like there was this really almost magical period in the beginning of hardcore where it really wasn’t like gangs. But within four or five years, Minneapolis was full of gangs and a group of those were little punk rock kids. That’s actually my next documentary, about the [‘80s anti-racist punks] The Baldies. It’s kind of a sequel, how this little group of skinheads from [Minneapolis] Southwest High School who started an anti-racist gang that grew into one of the largest anti-racist organizations anywhere.

MP: It’s very moving to see [late producer/engineer/record store guru] Terry Katzman on screen. His enthusiasm and support was so genuine, and so emblematic of that time. What do you remember about your interview with him?

DR: I did all the interviews with just me and a camera, so they were all pretty intimate. I’ve known Terry for a long time, but I hadn’t seen him for quite a number of years so there was a little bit of getting know each other again. And on some of the questions I think, he’d been asked some of these questions so many times, so a lot of his answers were like, “Well if you read Cyn Collins’ book,” or, if you read the liner notes on the “Savage Young Du” box… I mean, he’s been pumped for Hüsker Dü history for a long time.

I remember standing next to Terry Katzman at Goofy’s Upper Deck while he did sound, and I remember him being incredibly excited by Social Distortion, and I remember him just being so enthusiastic about music. He was always just kind of there with a reference or something; he was an institution around here.

MP: Punk rock was so influential in how you live your life. I was singing/screaming in my band at the time, and part of the fun of your doc is seeing my old buddies on camera talking about the old days. It’s sweet to see the footage of all this angst and chaos and all the mosh pits, juxtaposed with, say, smiling [Rifle Sport singer] Chris Johnson and his kids, talking about the past almost like it happened to someone else. In your subjects, and in you, how did that rebellious spirit live on into adulthood?

DR: [He was] the most crazy destructive punk rocker you knew, and now to see him … You know, a lot of people watching this will have no clue what Chris Johnson was like on a Saturday night in the 7th Street Entry. But there he is, 25 years later with these two adorable kids and this really stable business. How do you reconcile that? Part of the documentary that I have never been able to reconcile is some of the excitement and possibility of those times with the reality of growing up and becoming an adult. You can’t make money out of hardcore so either you become a squatting crusty who doesn’t need money the same way, or you kind of have to enter society.

MP: Whenever I think of the phrase DIY, I always think about those early days of punk, and visiting the Spanish Fly/Reflex Records/Twin Tone Records offices, where, especially, Hüsker Dü was doing it all themselves, from posters to art to records to tours. That was part of the fun of it: Making it up as you go. “Minnesota Hardcore” captures that so well, and itself feels very DIY, even though it’s via public television.

DR: I think that’s interesting because I do think about that too. There was a certain knowledge that I wasn’t going to have the kind of time or money on this doc to make it look like a Hollywood doc, so part of that [DIY] thought process went into making it. I did have some help with graphics, and there’s only so much original footage, and you want to give the spirit of the punk rock aesthetic so it can be a little bit more homemade. It some ways it was really cool that way, and it really reminded me of making a fanzine.