Caroline Sullivan is despatched to Hamburg to investigate much-chronicled Yanks HÜSKER DU and finds a boys band with no time to lose. Will Caroline flip her wig? How can melody convert into noise? Answers below.
"What kind of strings do you use on your axe, man?"
It pains me to report that the above poser was directed at major Dümo Bob Mould not at the inception of his career in the mid-Seventies, when that sort of thing was as routine as Zeppelin tours, but last Sunday, backstage at Hamburgs Markthalle.
I dont remember Moulds answer because the fan - a transplanted Minneapolis-ite attending the university in Hamburg - began to hold forth on the far more absorbing topic of the presumed faggotry of Graham Parker and Bruce Springsteen. Its something to do apparently with the straight-leg-trouser fashion affected by the pair. Honest. If pants-width is a criterion of sexuality, Bob Mould out-heteros Rod Stewart.
Its not that Bob and co- Hüskers bassist Greg Norton and drummer Grant Hart are deliberately retrogressive - Hüsker Düs business is business, and clothes are merely functional, in the Dü ethos. Clothes cover the body while the band get down to the more essential business of perpetuating the myth that rocknroll is anything more than ephemeral fun and, sometimes, pretty good entertainment. Hüsker Dü are serious about their work, and as a manifestation of their gloomy determination, Bob Mould addresses the opposite wall when he speaks to me. Young glums go for it, anyone?
Its no wonder, really, that Hüsker Dü are the quintessential boys band. Its boys who embrace the thrash aesthetic espoused by this trio and by the others - Black Flag, Swans, Sonic Youth spring most readily to mind - to whom theyre compared. Girls appreciate visual distraction while boys make do with sticking their heads in the bass cabinets at the front of the stage. Everything Ive seen in the press re Hüsker Dü has been written by men, and its hardly coincidental.
Bob says, "We just sorta write songs for ourselves, regardless of gender. We havent genderised our material. We get more boys, but thats a symptom, rather than a cause. Men are more into going out."
A friend - male, irrevocable Hüsker fan - says, "Theres an element of cultural retardation in men."
Both theories are borne out by the Markthalle audience. Mostly male, 90 per cent punk, for the most part they watch, bemused, as the band whip through 20 or 30 numbers from "New Day Rising" and the soon-come "Flip Yer Wig." A frontal faction slam-dance, hurtling at each other with un-Teutonic vehemence. Apparently, neither is the reaction to which Hüsker Dü are accustomed.
"They came expecting hardcore, and they were sadly mistaken," Bob says. "We just play rocknroll."
Bob is messing around with semantics here. If the two poles of existence are order and chaos, Hüsker Dü create a fine tension, vinylly, by counter-balancing thrash with melody, and the appeal of their music is the listeners inability to determine which will prevail. At the Markthalle, the melodic element was lost through overloading the PA with uncontrolled distortion, the basis of hardcore.
Mould maintains: "Hardcore is your Suicidal Tendencies, your MIAs and MDCs and PUKs and other bands with three initials."
Well, whatever. Do you think reducing the live distortion would enable an audience to relate to you better? Most of tonights crowd clearly werent enjoying the first, thrashy half of the set, although the more tuneful remainder snagged an encore ("Ticket To Ride", a long time Hüsker favourite).
"Frankly , I dont care what the audience think. I like hearing our sound the way it comes out. Thats our sound. It pleases me. Its very recognisable I dont wanna tone it down. If I do, its because it makes me happy to turn it down."
Surprisingly, he claims never to have heard the best-known Brit exponents of the Dü-esque sound.
"Its evolution to have two different events that coagulate at the same time in different places and explode in different areas. Its not unusual at all. I havent heard The Jesus And Mary Chain, to tell the truth, so I wouldnt want to make a comparison. It happens though, bands having similar sounds in different areas. I guess Ill have to give them credit for hitting on the same theory that we did."
Do you consciously obscure the lyrics when you sing?
"No. When youre playing - I dont wanna make this sound pompous, but, sometimes, it transcends actual words. Sometimes the emotional state you can get yourself into is a lot more overpowering than the use of the English language. Sometimes Id rather yell, or sometimes Id rather mumble. We really dont have time to contrive anything. Sometimes I dont particularly feel like singing the words people wanna hear."
Hüskers dual tenets of feedback/clouded lyrics have been the basis for some of the most hyperbolic features ever to appear in the British music press. "What is that feel of Husker Du? What is it? "Ive read in an article that refers to their "ineffable power". Steady on, you guys - I mean "holistic"?
Bob displays far greater objectivity about his music as he explains this ineffable power. "I think were a rocknroll band. Rocknroll is coming out of a garage with a guitar and saying, Im gonna tell normal stories about being happy, being sad, being drunk. Like folk music. Its not that we have any great insight (itals mine). Its just that we tell sort of normal stories, about getting rejected or losing friends. I think our music is for very normal people. Id like to think of us as friends, as opposed to some lofty pop stars, or something."
The iconoclastic level to which the more extravagant members of the rock press have elevated the group must seem weird?
"I always talk to papers, cos if I dont, Ill be misconstrued. I like to clarify the grey area so people know what were doing. Well definitely become a legend if we dont talk to the press."
I think of Morrisey, who met the press with the intention of creating a legend, even if that legend has turned out to be as capricious as shifting fashion, and the "messiah" tag once straightfacedly attributed to him by Johnny Marr.
"Were not messiahs. We never pretended to be, nor will we ever pretend to be. Were just three people playing music, thats all. I know that sounds boring, but thats the bottom line, and anybody else who gets up on the stage and pretends to be something theyre not, well, thats their tough luck. They can go down with everything else."
I find his philosophy incredibly rejuvenating. Bob, though, says that theyre reviled in certain sectors - press or fans? He wouldnt specify - for not playing along.
" A lot of people genuinely hate us because were not everything weve been built up to be. They yell, Sell out, heavy metal f*** you, f***ing pop stars because we dont look like them. And its all supposed to be political, too."
"Were completely apolitical. Now why? Cos I dont know anything about politics."
Thats never stopped anyone from devoting reams of copy to the subject, Robert, especially in Britain.
"I dont wanna get up there and tell people something Im not sure of. Everybody is different. We dont get up there and preach. We dont have our sermon written out. We play what we feel like playing that night. We tell our stories, and pack up our equipment and go on our merry way."
"We get slagged 10 times a day for not holding some political rhetoric. I dont care. We get it from the kids: Why dont you sing about the government? And its like, well, Im singing about myself, and if you dont understand that, you just go to f***in hell. Were not out to please everyone."
Its not his lack of political awareness thats admirable, but, rather, his refusal to feign an interest. The second issue of the HiT (slogan: "Harder than the rest") features a summarisation of Handsworth on page four and an introduction to Hüsker Dü on page seven. The 15-to 19-year-old boys at whom the mag is aimed probably wont give a toss about the former, being far too absorbed in diversions like clothes and pop music. Love it or shove it, thats real life, and Bob Mould is far more honest than certain born again Socialists of the pop world. Like, he just doesnt care .. he wants to play rocknroll.
Predictably, when I ask why the Hüskers dress although theyve come directly from some Midwest truckstop (his shirt, in fact did), Mould says, "I just dont have time for fashion". A lack of time its a refrain he employs frequently, whether the subject is clothes, politics, MTV or any of the other forbidden fruit that might cause him to waver on his single-minded rocknroll path.
On clothes: "Everything that everyone wears is their uniform. This is my uniform, for better or worse. I picked this shirt up cos I need a new shirt. Im a very pragmatic person. I dont put people down for the way they look, but I really dont have the time for it. I like to occupy myself with things that make me happy and interest me, and clothes are not high on the agenda. I wear what I wear cos it dries out quickly, and I can hang it on a hanger every night.
There are some who equate Hüsker Düs singularity of purpose with genius. To a small faction, theyre of enormous consequence, the pure embodiment of rocknroll. In 1974, Bad Company received similar accolades. After I finish this feature, I dont think Ill be listening to Hüsker Dü much. Nonetheless, itll be interesting to watch their progress and to see how faithful they can remain to their manifesto.
Reproduced from Melody Maker 28th September 1985
[Bob Mould Index]***[Grant Hart Index] *** [Husker Du Index]