Grant Hart has sadly passed away. He will always remain a great inspiration. Imelda Michalczyk met him in 2013 to talk about playing live, the new album at the time and how he approached songwriting.
Grant Hart has cast an intriguing figure across the musical landscape for more than 30 years. From his early work as one half of the songwriting core of the influential US band Hüsker Dü, through Nova Mob and solo albums, Hart has created a body of work that attracts admiration and curiosity. In anticipation of the new album The Argument, due out next month, Grant and his new band played a handful of shows in the UK and Ireland.
On a sunny afternoon, the day after his well received London showcase at Water Rats, I met up with Grant in a quiet corner of south London. I asked him about his vision for his soon to be released literary-inspired new record, his take on song-writing and life on the road again. Welcome to the enigmatic heart of Grant….
It was great to see you performing with the new band at Water Rats. It struck me that you really played as a cohesive unit with a lot of interaction – it could so easily have been ‘Grant Hart with backing band’ but it didn’t feel like that at all.
Yeah, I’m proud of them. I knew from the beginning that we could spend the initial rehearsal time learning specific songs but if you take the same amount of time and learn how to learn, learn how to communicate on stage, learn how to get a message across even if you’re in the middle of this, like ‘wind tunnel’, then that will lead you to the ability to do better shows. Repertoire’s important but the communication….especially when it’s something that you want to have a lot of free interpretation to. There’s songs being reflected but there’s also a great deal of the here and the now: this is how I’m going to approach this song today. So, musically a song has taken an angry tone but it’s like, OK I can add this to it or something sounding particularly one way or the other. It’s cohesive rather than split up amongst five people.
You made a comment last night on stage about how you can be very difficult to drummers. What did that mean?
Well, in the past, I’ve had the experience where any commentary directed at a drummer can be loaded. I’ve had certain people in the past be like: “Oh, that’s how you might have done it but this is my way – you still want to sit behind the drums but you gotta let me do it”. Stuff like that. The drummer in every band is in a critical position where they have to play with the entire group but they also have to set up something for everybody to follow Depending on different factors that ability can change for them. It’s so easy on any instrument to get distracted without even realising it – it’s easy to bring up two dynamics at the same time when you only want to bring up one dynamic.
If a drummer speeds up, which most drummers will, that produces a situation – if it’s going to continue speeding up, it gains in expressionistic intensity, then there’s a limit to how high you can take it at one end before it becomes a nightmare. My stuff ends up being pretty wordy and sometimes I might only have a quarter of a beat to inhale because the stanzas are full of words and if the band is playing too fast that quarter of a beat becomes very preciously small. So, there’s a lot of different things that rely on the drummer’s concentration. Whereas the other instruments can end up having, I don’t want to say not as great of an impact on the total performance but yeah… if the drummer has a bad night, the band has a bad night.
Do you still play drums?
In the studio.
Would you play them live again?
Oh, I don’t think I would do it for a regular thing. Never say never. Maybe with somebody else, a different kind of combo, A cosy little wedding band or something like that. I could see getting up and doing the dollar dance as they call it at weddings, where the bride and the groom dance with the guests for a dollar per privilege. Which is really cheap nowadays I haven’t considered it for a long time, but when I was 13 paying a dollar to dance with the groom or the bride was a little bit of an investment and they accumulated. I mean, that was worth doing at the wedding reception because it paid for the honey moon.
The band that you’re playing with now is not the band that played on the album?
There is no band on the album.
It’s all you?
Yeah. There is a fellow that’s come in and done some bass.
The album doesn’t come out until next month (July) – did you intentionally tour before the album came out?
No, actually the album was delayed. We cancelled a bunch of gigs on the tour because the album wasn’t going to be out. But we decided the Irish part of the tour and the London show was a great opportunity to have a little pre-album tour. There’s a million reasons why the show shouldn’t have happened last night but they’re all practical reasons rather than the reasons you really do things.
So are you coming back to the UK?
Oh yeah. We’re now looking at being back for the tour in mid-August.
The new album is thematically based on John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost – how did that come about?
I had a song on the last record that was pretty much inspired by the story of Echo and Narcissus. It was more rock-a-billy pop and it kind of intrigued me, the fusion of the subject and the way it was portrayed. And it was a chance encounter with friend of mine who is the executor of William S Burroughs’s literature. He was poring over some unpublished manuscripts, including William’s version of Paradise Lost which William called Lost Paradise and is less than five pages long. It had tremendous impact on the final product but it’s William’s retelling of something that I’m also retelling. To try to tackle Paradise Lost in only a double album – you’re cutting off an awful lot. Instead of Dante’s Inferno you get Dante’s I. (Laughs.)
Has the literary inspiration impacted on the music itself?
In Peter and the Wolf by Prokofiev, he had an instrument represent each one of the characters. Now, instead of that I had different musical licks that would infer the involvement of the presence of Adam, The Archangel, Raphael, Lucifer, the Messiah, Eve, and that held pretty much true through the entire thing. When all the rebel angels are conspiring during one part or another there’s a musical interlude that happens that is applied to different structures but still remains intact.
Have your sources of inspiration for song writing changed over the years?
I would say that it’s probably more broad now. Quite a bit more broad. For example on the last album released, as well as there being the Echo and Narcissus song, there’s a song about Charles Hollis Jones, who’s a furniture designer, as well as something that is based on a remark made by a Buddhist monk during the selection of the Panchen Lama. He said, in reference to the candidate for Lamahood: “Oh, he is like the reflection of the moon on the water but he’s not the moon” and I used that as an inspiration. I guess I would have to examine the earlier stuff but I think it was probably more like emotional involvements, feeling your way through relationships and things like that. But that seems to find it’s integration into the new stuff as well.
Do you make time to write or do you only write when you feel inspired?
A variety. It’s dreadful to go through but there’s times where you gotta try and just accept that it’s not going to happen today to your satisfaction. Looking at something the next day and throwing it away is always preferable to looking at nothing the next day. I have found that the act of writing itself, or the act of attempting to write, can be stimulating but not dependably. As far as words go, the different ways of selecting anything can be utilised in selecting words and sometimes you find new ways. Like OK, how do you select a drink? Well a drink is either something on a list or something you particularly are in the mood for but you have to think, what am I in the mood for? Oh I’m feeling romantic today, a wise person might embark upon a love song at that time.
Do you start with lyrics or music – are you led by one side or the other?
It’s usually been the chorus, which usually contains the title and in order to have either of those, the concept of where the song is going to go. Then you fill in the actual details of where does this song start, what does it lead to and if it’s a story telling process you just have to figure how you’re going move your story.
Do you ever approach the drums as a melodic rather than rhythmic instrument and write that way?
No, I’ve never been able to write on drums. I can write to a rhythm but don’t have a lot of experience writing to rhythms that I’m producing at the same time. But, never say never!
How is this tour comparing to previous tours?
Well, 99% of the touring that I’ve done in the last ten years is me hopping on some form of transport with a guitar in one hand and whatever else I get to take with me in the other hand. Now, I’m trading convenience for the band. By myself I can’t be distracted, so I have time for everybody on the tour. With the band, and especially men who haven’t visited all the places in the world and who have great musical experience but they don’t have that travel and touring experience, they sometimes might wonder why I employ different expedients. They’re pretty open minded that if I take the time to mention something that it will be for a reason. But I can’t deprive them of discovering things on their own and there’s nothing that I can say to anybody that will make a greater impact than that conclusion which they come about on their own.
What sort of music are you listening to at the moment – old and new?
I will go out to see something live. For a long time I have feared the hazard of my flow being interrupted by having something else in my head. I made the remark to somebody yesterday that: “Oh no, I’m in London – I might end up with a Kinks song stuck in my head!”. It takes so much antibiotic to get over a Kinks infection. (Laughs.) Bloody pop! You know, so perfect. I have this condition where in the quietest of my silences, underneath everything else, I will be hearing the same song a month later. Just at different levels of how things are repeating themselves in my head. In my teens it became difficult to select a record, but that was because I had so many records and you always want to put on the perfect record to suit you. Years later I would find myself writing that song that I want to listen to rather than finding it and listening to it.
So you have to avoid listening to music when you’re writing?
Yeah, it’s a double edged thing where if I hear something that I’ve been working on in somebody else’s stuff – throw it away, I’m plagiarizing! I don’t take that completely seriously, because you know, there’s only so many notes but I’m careful of what level of absorption takes place. But also the other way around, where I hear somebody else’s stuff in what I’m writing. But for some reason going out to a club and seeing someone that’s been recommended, that is something I’m very happy to do.
What was the last good concert you went to?
I went to see a band called Rank Strangers at the Turf Club in St Paul. I don’t go to many big events. The public eye is something that I don’t mind being under when I’m working but there’s just too many pitfalls.
With this, Grant replaces his sunglasses and melts back into the crowd – keeping his potential pitfalls in check and readying himself to head back home to the US and out of the public’s beady eye once more.
Interview by Imelda Michalczyk on 19 June 2013, London. Check out Imelda’s work on her own site Rebeladelica
The Argument was released on 22 July 2013 by Domino Recording Company. www.granthart.com