Tuesday, November 13, 2018

"I Love Playing With These Guys": My Interview With Greg Norton Of Porcupine (And Husker Du!)

It's hard to quantify just how important Husker Du was to me when I was 19 or 20. I'm sure other young men would say the same thing but, really, I can remember stuff "These Important Years", from 1987's mammoth Warehouse: Songs And Stories, really speaking to me at a low point in my life, and giving me some kind of hope.

A few months after that album dropped, the band played Lisner Auditorium in D.C. My friend Wolfgang and I went. He knew some guy from The Meatmen -- not sure if it was Tesco Vee -- who worked at Tower Records across the street. After the show, Wolfgang and I got separated and I saw this Meatmen guy in the line to get backstage at Lisner. I sidled up to him, made small talk, and pretended to be with him when the line moved backstage. I remember WHFS DJ Tom Terrell (RIP) being in line too and everyone knew Tom (I'd know him better a few months later when I'd start working at the Record and Tape Exchange in College Park and Tom would sometimes unload stuff there).

Seeing the 3 members of the band goofing around on a couch back-stage like actual dudes and not as huge rock-stars made an enormous impact on me. The ferocious music that the trio cranked out -- stuff like "Crystal", and "New Day Rising", come to mind here -- ringed in the ears and lingered in the heart. The act's straddling of the boundaries between hardcore punk and college rock seems even more impressive now, especially given that the band actually crossed over a tiny bit.

Still, they were never going to be as big as R.E.M., but that was okay too. Their music was invigorating and life-affirming in an era filled with cynical New Wave and silly hair metal, and I thank them for making it.

Bassist Greg Norton has recently joined Porcupine and, having reviewed the band's superb new album, What You've Heard Isn't Real, I sat down yesterday to call the legendary musician for a wide-ranging discussion of the past, present, and future.

On the break-up of Husker Du:

GREG NORTON: "The break-up of the band was pretty contentious... And pretty well-documented between Bob's point-of-view and Grant's point-of-view. Bob had already been in the back of his mind preparing himself for the 'Bob Mould' career. According to Grant, he quit the band the night we got off the stage at the Blue Note in Missouri."

The fact that Grant had a side project (The Swallows), irritated Bob and that didn't help matters, it seems. And years later, tensions remained high.

"Bob's not talking to any of us. I think Grant always liked to include me in some things, like it was Grant and Greg against Bob, even though I was trying to remain neutral..." Things remained strained, Greg explained, since the very legacy of Husker Du was still in the process of being determined.

"The 3 of us started trying to get the SST catalog back out and reissued and that led" to a conference call between the band members and some lawyers, "but that didn't go anywhere but it started a dialogue which led to Numero Group" putting out the Savage Young Du box-set.

[Note: That amazing box-set was reviewed by me here late last year.]

On the death of Grant Hart in 2017 and the possibility of further Husker Du reissues:

GREG NORTON: "Last summer, the summer of '17... I would still see Grant," and "Grant would always have his idea of how things should go." And in 2017, "Grant was headlining a small club called the Hook and Ladder," at an event put together by Lori Barbero of Babes in Toyland, at a time when Grant was clearly not doing well in terms of his health, having kept details largely private. The night at the club served as a tribute to Grant and that's where Greg and Porcupine did a 5-song Husker Du set: "What Do I Want?"; "What's Going On?"; "Dead Set On Destruction"; "It's Not Funny Anymore"; and, finally, "Standing By The Sea" from Zen Arcade (and a song included on Porcupine's new album, What You've Heard Isn't Real).

"We literally moved some people to tears in the audience when we played 'Standing By the Sea' and," Greg explained, after that, "Grant and I talked for the first time as friends, good friends, in a real long time. It was like... It was kinda liberating to push the bullshit of the band business aside and get back to the 'you were my friend and you always will be my friend'-kind of thing."

"The last time I saw Grant he said, 'Let's get together for a coffee soon'... and I regret we never got to do that."

"But shortly before he died, Bob flew in from Berlin," and apparently he and Grant, "talked about a bunch of stuff... I don't know if they buried the hatchet..." Greg explained, sounding cautiously optimistic.

"Maybe we could have gotten together at the time of the box-set, or something."

On Husker Du signing to a major label and confounding expectations in the Eighties:

"We started getting major label interest right after Zen Arcade came out, and we continued to put out records on SST because we didn't think there was anything a major could offer us that was better than what SST was doing for us at that same time," Greg explained. "Warners was not going to mess around with us in the studio," he said about the band's decision to sign to Warner Brothers thanks to the efforts of Karen Berg. "Flip Your Wig could have been pretty substantial for Warners," but, having held out on SST for a bit longer, "We gave them Candy Apple Grey," a record that Greg feels was the first evidence, perhaps, of the emerging "battle" between Bob and Grant as songwriters, with Bob recording "Too Far Down" on his own, and then Grant running off to record "No Promise Have I Made" on his own.

"I think that the tension between Bob and Grant was evident," on Candy Apple Grey and in that era, and, coming after the straightforward Flip Your Wig, the band goes and gives Warners that record and the reaction was, as you can imagine a bit of shock. "Once we did sign to Warners and we ran into people who said 'Wow, you guys sold out', but we were like, 'What do you mean we sold out?' since we had complete control over what we were doing." Not only that, but they had made an idiosyncratic and personal record in Candy Apple Grey (1986).

As far as the SST records getting the reissue treatment, "It's long overdue," Greg explained. "But the whole SST thing exists in a universe of its own. It all boils down to can Greg Ginn be persuaded to work with that stuff? I don't know. I'm holding out hope that it happens sooner rather than later."

On joining Porcupine:

"I saw them for the first time in La Crosse opening for the Meat Puppets," and, he elaborates, "I hadn't seen Curt and Cris [from the Meat Puppets] in years," but he ended up being blown away by Porcupine. Having struck up a friendship with Casey Virock in Porcupine, Greg became a fan of the trio, while having his own band (Con Queso) around the same time.

So when Porcupine needed a bassist, Casey called and asked if Greg was still playing bass -- "Um, yeah!", Norton remembers saying to Casey on that call -- and Virock then asked Greg to join the group at a time when Porcupine were actively searching for a bass-player.

On the songwriting process in Porcupine:

"In Husker Du, Grant would come with something on guitar, or something rough on bass, and then we'd hammer it out together. Bob, on on the other hand, would come in and say 'Here is a song, and here are the chords, and here's the arrangement.'" But with Porcupine, "Casey is handling all the lyrics but those kind of 'evolve' as the song is being processed, and the song is being worked out live. For the 4 Casey tunes on the new release, he finalized the lyrics at the time of recording," the process a considerably looser one that plays to the strengths of Greg, Casey Virock, and drummer Ian Prince. "We start out where someone will have an idea for something, real basic, then eventually the intricacies of the whole thing will fall into place. Ian's got a unique way he hits the drums... and that's a real fun thing," to play opposite. "It does remind me of the earliest days of being in Husker where the 3 of us would work out things together."

"And I love playing with these guys!"

For now, the future belongs to Porcupine and Greg Norton couldn't sound happier. For a guy who lists Chris Squire and John Entwistle as 2 of his bass-heroes, it gives this long-time fan real pleasure to hear this bass-legend enjoy himself so much in Porcupine, the supple and rhythmic alt-rock of the band indicating that 3 players are meshing supremely well together.

On the legacy of Husker Du, and their unique inspiration on fans and bands in the Eighties:

"It's something that's always nice to hear, that what we did had a positive impact on so many people."

Many thanks to Greg Norton for his time today. And thanks also to Leigh Greaney at Big Hassle for arranging the interview.

What You've Heard Isn't Real is available on vinyl from Dead Broke Records, and on CD and digital from DC-Jam Records.

More details on Porcupine from the band's official Facebook page, or the band's official website.

[Photos: Husker Du pictures from Husker Du official merchandise Facebook page by Doug Humiski (leaping Greg), January 20, 1984, and Jennifer Leazer (group shot), April 4, 1983; Porcupine group photo by Dan Corrigan]