Grant Hart has made a name for himself as co-founder of Hüsker Dü, the Minneapolis punk trio whose stormy split is as storied as its music. At the moment, Hart is rising from the ashes of some personal travails, including a fire that destroyed his South St. Paul home and the death of his mother, Annetta, in 2011 and the death his father, Vernon, earlier this month.
All of which has inspired something of a newfound verve for music in the 52-year-old artist. A new double album, “The Argument,” is set for release this summer via Domino Records, and a new documentary, “Every Everything: The Music, Life & Times of Grant Hart,” is in the works from Gorman Bechard and the folks behind “Color Me Obsessed: A Film About The Replacements.”
On the eve of a tour of England and Ireland, which kicked off Friday at the Cork Stout Fest, Hart sat in the Turf Club’s Clown Lounge for an interview with Minnpost.
MinnPost: Tell me about the new music. The album is based on your old friend William S. Burroughs’ reimagining of John Milton’s poem “Paradise Lost.”
Grant Hart: I decided that at this age Picasso was doing the Minotaur series; Duchamp was looking at the classics, and I had this “Paradise Lost” project kind of dumped into my lap by James Grauerholtz, the secretary to William Burroughs. William had written a treatment of “Paradise Lost” called “Lost Paradise,” which they were considering putting on stage.
Now, James was tossing around names and I asked him who he was thinking about doing the music. He said Rufus Wainwright, and I’m thinking, “William wouldn’t have even stayed in the same room as Rufus Wainwright.” I mean, I don’t know and I don’t know Rufus, but, y’know. I think that …
MP: He’s a hell of a singer.
GH: Yeah. And his family’s very musical. I just couldn’t see the Burroughsian angle. We don’t have to drag Rufus through the mud, but I’d decided I was going to pick this up because I’d already been working on some songs, one of which was pretty much apocalyptic and written from the perspective of the expulsion from paradise and “You’re out of the wilderness now, boy.”
So I’m at this point now where “I can put into all this energy into getting last year back, or I can move forward.” Here I am, the house is gone, no insurance, I’m sleeping on a friend’s couch, and going through this very Zenlike reassessment of personal property and fitting the absence of my mother into my life, making room for this hollow. So I continued, and started sending mixes, one or two or three at a time, to the Domino people, and eventually it became a contract.
MP: And now you’re heading to London.
GH: It started out as a gig, but it’s turned into a showcase in London: There’s 13 rehearsal shows and a tour of Ireland. The back-up band is Irish, the guitar player was born the year Hüsker Dü broke up (1987).
MP: What about that idea about Hüsker Dü being influential, and having Hüsker Dü being out there as a …
GH: An albatross?
MP: I was going to say something like a “barometer of punk rock excellence.”
GH: It’s nice to have … . As much as I try not to fall back on it, I’m glad it’s there. I think more difficulty exists between [Hüskers co-founder] Bob [Mould] and me as the result of people’s speculation than it is a result of any direct contact between the two of us. I’ve stated it before where people will pick the toniest comment and inflate its importance. If I said, “Bob’s a monster guitar player,” it’d end up, “Bob’s a monster.”
Bob, for all the bluster, is a super-sensitive guy. I don’t want to say fragile, but yeah. He can be knocked out of balance very easily. He’s got a lot of pressure, playing with [Superchunk drummer John] Worster, kind of surrounded with things that I – and I’m not comparing this, saying one’s better – where I would not want to play with a group of old people. I’m finding it more exciting to be in a band of 20- and 30-somethings because it’s invigorating, it’s motivating, there’s contrasts there. There’s experience combined with energy.
MP: “Paradise Lost” is about the fall of man. What do you know about the poem, and do you think there is a true fall of man? Does that happen, and by your lights is that happening now?
GH: I’d never digested the whole thing in one chunk until I started investigating this project. Read it through once and it’s one of those things if you don’t recite it to yourself, you’ll find yourself 10 pages along without being able to remember a single thing that you read, because it is just that heady. It’s like walking into a room full of the dankest incense and trying to detect a small vase of violets in the corner. It’s so overwhelming.
But then I started reading it out loud to myself, and I started accessing other people’s attempts at adapting it. It’s really a family story, where Lucifer, the Morningstar and most beloved by God is replaced by Christ. So Lucifer is, “Well, I’m the heir apparent,” and a third of the angels agree with him. And I was able to process that with the biographical information about Milton, who is talking about some heretical things, disguising it as an epic poem. And in the end, Adam and Eve are left to bring order out of the chaos, order out of the wilderness, where every achievement by man is the result of them being thrown out of paradise.
MP: You think very epically as an artist. You think big. You certainly write pop songs, but you also swing for the fences with your intellect and creative juices.
GH: I don’t know. There’d be no joy in dumbing it down. I might be satisfying or denuding a resentment that I didn’t matriculate because of Hüsker Dü. I think there’s a reaction to … you know, my father was the son of a sharecropper. I’m the grandson of a sharecropper, and I think there should be progress. My dad was one of the few people in his field with a master’s degree. I don’t really know what you do with a master’s degree in industrial arts education, but being the master of the shop teachers has got to be good for something. Kept food on the table at home.
There’s the Quaker ideal that you pass on more to those who come after you than was passed on to you. And maybe there is a desire to be worthy of what I think is a lot of what is maybe in some ways undue acclaim from [Hüsker Dü]. It would be a fairly meager lifestyle, but I could probably tough it out with just the royalties from Hüsker Dü. Not in Uptown, but …
MP: But that’s not the point of life, anyway. You’re going to England and Ireland, and you’ll be playing for a lot of very appreciative people.
GH: Yeah; 800 hits on the website in the last two days. I mean, I avoided the technological leap. I didn’t send my first email until 2009, and I still try to be very careful with the amount of time I spend on a computer. It’s very tempting to be in front of it and go, “What else can this thing do?” That’s the time to stand up and walk away from it. I wouldn’t doubt that there’s some kind of encoded betawaves or something; those people are too smart to not cheat.
MP: What do you want England and Ireland to know about Grant Hart at this point?
GH: I want them to know that Domino Records is releasing a double-album by me. I have had a mixed attitude towards the commerce end of what I do, and there are some things I find easy to be apathetic about. Maybe part of it is a resistance to throwing pearls before swine. I see the comments on some of the videos that are posted of me, so I know that …
MP: What do you think of that? What stick in your mind, if any?
GH: So many people are still fighting a Bob versus Grant (theme), and I think in a big way Hüsker Dü to some people is like fantasy sports: “Bob Mould could kick Grant Hart’s ass any time he wanted to.” Fantasy sports, man.
MP: Maybe, but it struck me that when you were talking about Bob being fragile and sensitive, you could have been talking about yourself. You guys are absolutely more alike than you are different.
GH: Well, amen. And … I would have to say that a lot of … . There’s been a good for the goose, good for the gander reality since [Hart’s first solo album] “Intolerance,” which is pretty much since the end of Husker, where Bob releases a record [and] my sales jump up a little bit as well; I release a record, Bob’s sales don’t jump up that much (laughs).