Underground lifer

Hardcore punk’s pop dissenter, Grant Hart finally hits the road

In the Bible of Rock — somewhere around Lamentations and just a few years after God created punk — Minnesota hardcore trio Hüsker Dü emerged. And Hüsker Dü begat Nirvana, and Nirvana begat the explosion and exploitation of underground rock music, which of course, begat Creed and Blink-182.

The Hüskers mix of loud-fast punk and pop still sounds vital, 14 years after their final album. In fact, it’s tough to name five bands who have had more influence on rock’s sound during the last two decades. And whether they like it or not, Hüsker Dü also paved the way for punk-based bands jumping to major labels, a practice that hasn’t turned out so well for many of the bands that made the leap.

“One calf isn’t afraid of walking up the ramp onto the killing floor, but instead of being killed, that calf is used to lead the others up the ramp. That’s basically analogous to Hüsker Dü,” says former Hüsker Dü drummer Grant Hart, who shared songwriting duties with guitarist Bob Mould.

But the Hart who plays The Earl Saturday, June 2, as part of a three-week solo tour, armed with only a hollow-body electric guitar, might be tough to identify if you stopped paying attention after the Hüskers’ posthumous live release The Living End. Hart’s most recent release, Good News for Modern Man, is closer to the London Suede than London Calling. One look at Hart’s Hüsker Dü’s output, however, shows the groundwork. Take the band’s 1983 album, Metal Circus. While Mould was still screaming his throat raw, Hart offered the just-right rock of “It’s Not Funny Anymore.”

“I was never very successful at hardcore,” Hart admits.

Apparently, he also has problems mounting a tour. While Good News came out in 1999, Hart is just now getting around to hitting the road in support of it. He tried touring with a backing band, but the effort didn’t add up for Hart, known for being both exacting and demanding. Witness the rotating list of drummers for his post-Hüskers band, the now-defunct Nova Mob.

“They knew the material,” he says of the band he tried to form. “[Their playing] just wasn’t as spirited as I would have liked it to be.”

That put Hart a few months behind in kicking off the tour. But he says it’s not something he really thinks about in terms of affecting album sales. The people who bought the album existed with or without a tour, he says; the album doesn’t have to be sold. “My job was done and my satisfaction made when the record was finished,” Hart says.

Expect about a third of the current live show to feature his new solo material, another third his work with Nova Mob and early solo work, and the final third culled from the Hüsker Dü grab bag. But don’t expect Hart to pull a Burt Bacharach just because the focus is more clearly on pop. At 40, Hart says he likes the volume up now, maybe even more than his younger days.

Hart’s opinions haven’t softened either, and clearly, he is incredulous about the continued perception that he played second fiddle to Mould, a fact he attributes to Mould’s PR machine and Mould’s post-Hüsker success. He says he still gets people who come up to him astonished that a Hüsker song was his and not Mould’s. “You just smile and nod, but inside I think, ‘I’m not going to waste any time with this person,’” Hart says.

Of course, the Britney-fied America in which Hart now tours doesn’t much resemble the one he surveyed at the peak of his former band’s popularity. The indie music scene has been “knocked on its ass,” he says, attributing much of the decline to Napster and a more timid college radio.

College radio used to spearhead the search for “bold, new music,” Hart says. Now you go to a college radio station, “and they’re the biggest bunch of conformists on campus. They’re a bunch of fashion monkeys. You have kids who are thinking that all they have to do is dread out their hair and put on a pair of hemp trousers and they can buy radicalism.”

Tough words aside, Hart doesn’t seem particularly bitter about the lack of limousines and bathtubs full of cash in his life. He says he never envisioned major rock stardom, and instead admired American rockabilly pioneers such as Gene Vincent and Duane Eddy. He sees himself today in a place not far removed from the one he imagined in 1979, when Hüsker Dü formed.

“As long as you keep your reputation and your health, an artist can start fresh every day,” he says. “I knew I would rather have more texture, romance and adventure in my life than security. One thing I realized pretty damn young was that everything is comprised of a choice between freedom and security. Knowing that, a person can make choices accordingly.”

Grant Hart plays Sat., June 2, at The Earl. For more information, call 404-522-3950.??