As a member of the trailblazing Hüsker Dü, Hart split songwriting and vocal duties with guitarist Bob Mould—a two-headed monster of stellar material that proved exceedingly influential to both the punk and alternative rock genres.
Hart, whose songs provided melodic counterbalance to Mould’s sandpaper aggression, penned some of the group’s best loved tunes, including “Pink Turns To Blue,” “Diane” and “Books About UFOs.” After Hüsker Dü’s breakup, Hart performed in Nova Mob and issued a few solo records, but his discography has been a bit sporadic at times. Now, he’s back in a big way.
On July 22, Hart released the most ambitious record of his career, The Argument.It’s a double concept album based on John Milton’s epic poem “Paradise Lost,” and is also inspired by a treatment of the poem by William S. Burroughs, who was a personal friend of Hart.
Grant played nearly every instrument on the sweeping, dramatic work, which runs the gamut of musical styles including rock, pop and classical. He hopes to put together a tour where The Argument is performed in its entirety, perhaps accompanied by an orchestra or ballet dancers.
Hart is also the subject of a new Gorman Bechard-directed documentary, titled Every Everything: The Music, Life & Times Of Grant Hart, which is slated for release later this year.
These are heady times for Hart, who recently spoke with me about the new record, his creative process and appreciation of privacy.
Tell me how you began work on The Argument. How did you get connected with the material?
Well, James Grauerholz, who was William S. Burrough’s secretary and still handles the literary estate, showed me a copy of the manuscript and told me there was some desire to stage another one of William’s works, just like “The Black Rider.” It caught my attention. I pretty much decided before I left that the project interested me and that I would pursue it.
When you first gained interest, did you feel you’d be involved with a stage production of it, or you felt all along that it would be an album?
Originally, I was thinking both, and I still am. I would like to tour it in a situation where there’s more dramatics and more stage technique that could be put into it, rather than just a band playing in a bar. I’d like to perform it in a situation where people at the back of the crowd aren’t yelling, “Diane!!”—although, I’m probably just sick of drunk people.
We live in an age where the concept of the album is almost dead. Many people tend to download individual songs and not listen to albums front-to-back anymore, but certainly you’ve made a project that tells a story and is meant to be listened to in its entirety.
Yeah, well, Cadillac is making a car with 500 horsepower, but you’re only gonna need about 75 of those to get where you need to go. I believe in the old saying that you should give them a little bit more than expected.
You’ve had experience telling stories or narratives before, like with the Nova Mob album Last Days Of Pompeii. Was it your goal to make another concept album like that?
Every once in a while, there’s a story worth telling that way. What I’m trying to resist right now is the “what if I don’t want to make a concept record for the next album” feeling. Do I have to reinvent myself in order to make a regular album again? Time will tell.
You’ve always had a knack for writing catchy songs with distinct pop elements, but you’ve also managed to write material that’s very creative and literary. Is that your intention, to aim high as much as possible?
Well, writing a very simple, basic song can be more of an achievement, really. You can always add more, but I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of a constant melody line, or a constant bassline that doesn’t change throughout the entire song, yet the music around it changes the way it fits into the big picture.
Were you always a big fan of Milton’s poem?
I had never read the entire thing, but I was familiar with the dynamics of the story. As a part of my investigation for this record, I went into the detail of it. The biggest challenge with this album was to only make it a double album. Every page of Milton’s poem contains three great songs. There is so much detail and nuance there that it was tough finding a way to minimize the content in order to make it something that a consumer can even deal with.
With the subject matter of The Argument, were you deliberately trying to draw any parallels between the concept of the fall of man and the current state of society?
Well, I think if you go back to any age of mankind, there will be people saying that society is falling. Any type of change has disturbed the status quo, or the complacent citizens of the world. Most humans are complacent. People are looking for a secure foothold—a dependable life, where they know where the next morsel of food is coming from, or they know where to lay down and be warm for eight hours a night. Humans are just like any other animal, but the difference is we want to have bling.
As an artist, what inspires you to create, and are your inspirations the same as they were, say, in the Hüsker Dü days or at other points in your career?
Let’s put it this way: To be inspired all the time would almost be a Faustian bargain, with the ability to be able to sit down and write successively greater and greater material. But it doesn’t work like that. The things that inspire you, you don’t know what they are until you’re inspired.
It comes unexpectedly?
Yeah. You can’t predict. I know there are certain conditions and activities that provoke that kind of thought for me, but the minute you start depending on them is the minute they start failing.
The Argument is probably a good example of unanticipated inspiration, when you were handed those manuscripts by William’s secretary.
Yeah, it happened to resonate with some ideas that were already kicking around. And that’s the nature of inspiration, I guess. Some concept or idea strikes a thought that resonates with how you’re already thinking. You walk into the big surplus store of life, and you see an orange pillow, and you say, “Hey, that’ll look great with my couch.”
Hüsker Dü cast such a broad shadow. After the band broke up, did you want to distance yourself from their legacy a little bit?
Well, one thing is, I was very tired of people looking to pigeonhole me. It seemed everybody needed to refer to me as “the long-haired, barefoot drummer.” It’s like, why don’t you just call me by my name instead of having to say things about my conduct or my personality to pigeonhole me by? People want to use words as a scalpel to dissect you with.
I think the media acted the same way with Hüsker Dü‘s split. Any reference of Hüsker Dü in the press, even to this day, mentions a “stormy breakup.” They always find a way to throw that in there somehow, instead of just talking about the music.
Yeah. Sometimes an enjoyable sightseeing excursion ends with a horrible accident that makes people forget about the pleasurable trip that preceded that. But I think every band breaks up eventually, unless you’re the Rolling Stones. I think because we had two people in the band with undiminished potential at the time we broke up, people weren’t going to allow us to continue without inventing more conflict than actually existed.
You think the concept of a feud gets overblown in people’s minds?
There’s people out there that think that Bob and I ring each other’s doorbell and run away! (Laughs)
Or leave dog poop on each other’s porches…
(Laughs) Right, the burning bag trick! And Bob’s yelling, “I’m gonna get that Grant!” and shaking his fist. It’s never been like that. I would have to say that the relationship has been more strained over the years because of the public perception than it was strained originally.
Can you talk a bit about the documentary film that’s coming out about you? It was directed by Gorman Bechard, who made the film about The Replacements, Color Me Obsessed.
I’ve seen it once. I felt a bit likesilly putty that they formed into their object. Gorman’s a great guy, and the films I’ve seen of his are spot-on. I thought his film on The Replacements was very interesting, mostly because it didn’t have any performance footage in it. It was just the reminiscing of the fans.
How did it feel to watch yourself on film and look back on your career like that?
It makes me very happy that there are things in life that I decided not to share. That which you keep private is not subject to other people’s interpretation or criticism. Not a single scene in that documentary takes place in my home. I had my limits about how private it was going to get and how comfortable I was with things I didn’t want to talk about.
You’re glad you were able to maintain a certain level of privacy?
I’m glad that I’m not one of those people who want a reality show about themselves. I resist being an ass in public. I’d rather be an ass in private (laughs).
Has it been a challenge to maintain some anonymity, especially because you’ve continued to live in your native Minnesota, where people obviously know who you are?
There’s a difference between people getting all excited and mobbing you, and the quiet recognition and appreciation that some people show. There’s a satisfaction that comes from being treated well by people and treated respectfully because I’m not taking advantage of any celebrity or popularity. It’s nice to be able to be reflective, but you’ve got to be able to laugh at yourself and keep your accomplishments in proper perspective.
Grant Hart’s new album, The Argument,is available now on Domino Records. For more information, go to granthart.com.