Thursday, September 14, 2017

RIP GRANT HART / HUSKER DU 1987 interview (the glam versus antiglam dialectic) + reviews of Candy Apple Grey and Warehouse: Songs and Stories


Melody Maker, June 27th 1987

by Simon Reynolds 

In Atlanta, Georgia, the Replacements play me a tape of Husker Du’s live appearance on The Joan Rivers Show. It’s more than a little mind-blowing. The band unleash the great grey gust that is ‘Could You Be The One’, then troop over for a ‘chat’ with the lady herself.

It’s one of the most embarrassing pieces of television I’ve ever seen. Rivers is clearly terrified of the band, doesn’t know how to place or approach them, stammers out something to the effect that they used to be kind of radical and underground, but now aren’t quite so radical and underground, isn’t that so?
What’s unnerving her is that the band aren’t selling themselves on any level, either as outrage or as light entertainment, aren’t making anything of this opportunity to project themselves. They’re polite, awkward, somehow not-there. It’s not so much that they’re deliberately aloof as that they’re irretrievably apart. Rivers asks a question and I think she’s saying: "Which one of you is the wild member of the group and which is the commie one?" – turns out she said "calming". Then they traipse off again, to play ‘She’s A Woman’, having left an irreparable crease in the sleek fabric of the show.
It made me wonder whether a group like Husker Du can interact with this thing Pop. The Smiths, at least, make a drama of their exile – their anti-glamour can be consumed as glamour.
But Husker Du refuse to act up – the ‘outrage’ they perpetrated on Joan Rivers was of an altogether quieter, less ostentatious order – they didn’t play up to the role of Misfit, they just failed to connect, to communicate on Pop’s terms at all – an eloquent incoherence. How, then, do they cope with things like videos?
Grant Hart: "The videos are of straight performances of the songs. Seeing as none of our songs are particularly etched in fantasy, they’re best portrayed naturalistically."
Like the other American thinking rock bands I’ve encountered (Throwing Muses and The Replacements) Husker Du loathe the exigencies of presentation and marketing, have a chronic fear of anything that suggests contrivance. American rock has never seen image and packaging as a means of expression in the way that much British rock has.
Perhaps this is because American daily life is more heavily saturated with showbiz glitz and advertising pizazz than British life, and so it seems more urgent to escape the all-pervasive environment of kitsch, escape from the escapist, into the authentic, the Real. Probably, it has a lot to do with the absence in America of the artschool/artrock interface that’s has been so hugely important in British pop history.
Either way, American rock (outside New York) has no notion of glamour as something you can radicalise: Throwing Muses will turn up for photo sessions in their tattiest, most everyday clothes, The Replacements will refuse to throw shapes for the camera and Husker Du will resist anything in the way of video presentation that’s redolent of advertising and its manipulation of the consumer.
Bob Mould: "The problem with videos is that, before they existed, you’d make up your own story, your own mental pictures, to go with a song. That’s what music’s for – attaching your own meanings to."
Somewhere along the way, pop ceased to be something that gave people a heightened sense of their own agency, and became something that programmed desires. What Husker Du hate above all is when things get fixed – they like to leave things open, in a flux. Maybe they’d get on better if they did give people one easy handle, if they weren’t so keen to leave things up to people’s imagination. Maybe the only way to get a hit is to work from the premise that most people’s imaginations are enfeebled, through under-use. As it is, they’re not even let near those kind of people.
Bob: "Our videos don’t get heavy rotation. Our records get played on college radio and on the progressive commercial radio stations. Whereas all the people in here - " (gestures at Billboard) "- get played several times a day on every radio station in America."
Ah, Billboard – whenever I look at magazines like Billboard or Music Week, it does my head in: I think of all the things that music means to me – dissension, speculation, complex pleasures, never-never dreams, the criss-cross currents of making sacred and sacrilege – and then look at how these people discuss pop – crossover between different radio sectors, aggressive marketing, instore promotion... Who knows which kind of talk is more out of touch with the ‘reality’ of pop.
"Well, yes, it all depends on whether your conception of success is related to the outside world or to your own mind. With us, it ‘s the latter, so every song is a ‘hit’."
Quite. What is a ‘hit’ these days? Something that wreaks havoc in the private lives of a few people, or something that resounds widely and weakly across the surfaces of the globe? We’re back with Stubbs’ dichotomy between the small and significant and "huge insignificances" like Alison Moyet or Curiosity Killed The Cat. Two rival definitions of impact – purity of vision or breadth of effect.
All I know is that Husker Du hit me – this feels like the elusive ‘perfect pop’, the swoon and the surge. In one sense (sales) Husker Du are a ‘small’ band – in every other sense they are massive – in the scale and reach of their music, in the way they give a grandeur to mundane tribulations and quandaries – a musical equivalent of the pathetic fallacy (thunder and lightning as the dramatic externalisation of inner turmoil).
What is it about this ‘perfect pop’ that dooms it to be as distant from real Eighties Pop as the moon? That the music is too imposing, while the band, as individuals are too self-effacing, hiding behind the noise? That the music’s too violent, while the feelings that inspire it are too sensitive. That the songs deal with the loose ends of life but refuse to tie things up satisfactorily, instead confronting the listener again and again with the insoluble?
All these things distance Husker Du from today’s secular pop, with its twin poles of levity and sentimentality. But there are more material reasons why they don’t belong. The very fabric of their sound has no place in pop ’87, a blizzard that makes no appeal to the dancing body, but dances in the head.
Move in close and you see activity too furious for pop – flurry-hurry chords, febrile drumming – step back ten paces and you can take in the sweep and curve of the cloud shapes stirred up by the  frenzy. Only AR Kane come close as sublime choreographers of harmonic haze. The stricken voices, the almost unbearable candour of their bewilderment and desolation, jar with Pop’s soul-derived universal voice of self-possession and narcissism.
‘Ice Cold Ice’, the fabulous new single off the Warehouse double, says it all – the chill of awe instead of the fire of passion, frost instead of flesh, the ghost of folk instead of the residue of R&B. Pop ’87’s aerobic humanism can’t take on this kind of enchantment.
But what do they think is the most unique thing they offer?
Grant: "The outlook, I guess... we’re creating music for human beings, not pop idols."
Bob: "I don’t see many people trying to be as honest as we are... I think the lyrics are enlightening without being too philosophical... I don’t think you associate a clothing style or a lifestyle with what we do... in that sense we’re not exclusive to anyone, we don’t exclude."
Do you agree that part of the appeal of being a band is the chance to prolong adolescence, to leave things open a little longer, to avoid the closures of adulthood?
Grant: "Well, there’s growing up and there’s growing boring, and the two are not necessarily inseparable. Generally, though, as a person gets established in their life, and the things that surround them are theirs rather than their parents’, they start to settle down. I see friends that are worrying about their bank overdrafts – all the things I worry about too, but not to the exclusion of everything else. And the next step is that you start playing the game, kissing up to the boss, all to ensure the security you’re afraid to lose. But what you do lose is the ability to live for the moment, because life gets so bound up with planning and providence. People get conservative as they look to preserving their life investment."
One of the first things to go when this settling down sets in, is music, or at least rock of the Husker Du ilk. People cease to be able to take on such music. It’s too demanding – literally, in terms of investment of energy and attention; but also in the sense that rock is like a reproach, can get to be an unwelcome nagging reminder of dreams that have been foregone. It becomes unbearable to listen to music, after a while.
Bob: "Well, almost everyone does give up music, sooner or later – it’s a matter of when..."

Grant: "But there are those who give everything up all the time and right from the start. So even to hold out for a while is not so bad."

Who do they feel are their kindred spirits in rock?
Bob: "Who’s at Number 186 in the Billboard Chart this week, ha ha ha ha! No, there are some like-minded groups about, groups that have abandoned the idea of pop stardom – we’ve even been accused of triggering that off... bands like R.E.M., Meat Puppets, Black Flag... bands who can be widely successful in their own minds because of the psychic rewards of what they do. A band like R.E.M. that has a very internally run programme – they’ve got a manager that’s been with them since day one, they’re very homebase-oriented, having refused to move to New York or L.A. Similarly, we decided to stay in Minneapolis right from the start. Now things are turned around so that a friend of a friend knows a musician who moved from Hollywood to Minneapolis, in order to be discovered!
"I like the fact that we’re self-sufficient, that we look after our own finances, that we don’t have a set regimen dictated by a corporation or anybody. One of the results of the life we lead is that we don’t divide work and play. When I’m not working on music or doing specific administrative tasks, I’m writing or reading or drawing, but all these things have an input into the music."
How do you want people to be affected by the music?
Grant: "This may sound a little overwhelming, but I’d like them to come out a better person than when they came in, as a result of an effort by both audience and the performers. We’re appreciated by a different enough range of people – rednecks, hippies, punks, 50-year-old jazz buffs – that I personally am really satisfied that there’s so much love going down. I’m also proud of the pride we take in what we do... I wish they made drums like that!"
Is there a kind of politics in Husker Du, in that you deal with the discrepancy between the promise of America and most people’s lived reality of deadlock and impasse?
"There’s politics in the sense of people trying to gain control of their own destiny. Life is too short to worry about who’s on top at any given time – politics is like advertising, the basic products beneath the different wrappers are much the same – it’s more important to avoid being stepped on, to find a life that doesn’t involve a giant foot hovering over your head perpetually. The golden rule is: be neither a foot over someone’s head, nor a head under someone’s foot."
And are there ‘spiritual’ concerns, too?
Bob: "I’m a questioning person. I’d like to find out why certain things are the way they are and, if that’s spiritual, then I’m a spiritual person. Things like time interest me. I overheard a guy on the airplane saying that the Japanese are 25 years ahead of us. Now which 25 years did he mean – 1780 to 1805, or 1962 to 1987? How do you qualify time? Is time the same for a guy aged 25 who’s never eaten meat and for a guy of the same age who’s taken speed for the last 10 years..."
Grant: "In hamburgers!"
Bob: "A good question is so much better than a bad answer. If you had all the answers, why go on? There goes all your spirit, your reason for living."

Husker Du

Candy Apple Grey
Melody Maker, March 22nd 1986
by Simon Reynolds 
Listening to this vast, volatile music, swept up in its power and space, I suddenly realised that these attributes are the precise opposite of the experiences Husker Du actually sing about — the lived reality of inertia, claustrophobia, isolation. The paradox of transfiguration — Husker Du's music wrenches numbness into fury and exultation. Only the Smiths make an equivalent alchemy of the grey areas of existence.

The Byrdsy harmonies, the desolate purity of Hart and Mould's voices, a discreet trippiness, these are further clues. Husker Du (like the Smiths) use traces of folk, a roots music, to write songs about rootlessness. Both groups look to the ‘60s only to reinvoke what's most positive about the time — doubt about the costs of living a normal life, yearning for an indefinable more.

Husker Du's music trembles with all the nameless longings that ache beneath the skin. Sometimes they remind me of the Jimi Hendrix Experience — another power trio of virtuoso ability who created a rock noise that was spiritual. And I wonder if Husker Du's 'Somewhere' was our lost 'I Don't Live Today'.

But Husker Du have an ascetic quality that contrasts with Hendrix's febrile sensuality — their music rises above the body, refuses to solicit it (says don't dance, flip your wig). Their love songs are chaste devotionals, almost hymnal. Husker Du approach the world, and their loves, with a mixture of pained bewilderment and awe. Their flight from the flesh is the only response to pop's soulless, sweaty sextravaganza.

I think also of another ‘60s-obsessed group. Where the Jesus And Mary Chain make pop fresh again by juxtaposing its sweetness with noise, Husker Du turn pop into noise — flaying these songs into a haze, smudging voice into guitar.

The feared corporate bland-out has not happened. There's a touch more clarity, a few more ballads. But this was coming anyway — Husker Du had taken velocity and noise as far as they could. The only way forward for them is to become gentler. Husker Du's achievement is a musical violence untainted with machismo: a violence that, paradoxically, heals. All they've done is to bring out more clearly the grace and compassion that always did rage at the heart of their ravaged sound.

Besides, these soft songs are the cruellest. No music mangles my heart so completely. The intimacy of 'Hardly Getting Over It' almost destroys. 'Eiffel Tower High' features a sublime loop of melody that will crush the breath out of you.

There's never been anything cultish or difficult about Husker Du — please don't deny yourself this beauty any longer. For I don't know how much longer it can last — already Husker Du repeat themselves, musically and lyrically.

For the moment, though, I live for this pain.

Warehouse: Songs and Stories (WEA)
Melody Maker July 1987

by Simon Reynolds

This is ROCK. Not rock’n’roll, not swingin’, groovy, lean and compact. Not even raunch. this is ROCK -- powerchords that would crack apart the sky. Husker Du don’t belong with the new authentics, bar bands sweating out a closeknit clinch with their fans. Unlike Springsteen (who by sheer presence can shrink stadiums back to the dimensions of the primal R&B joint), there’s no intimacy, no sweat, nothing earthy. Husker Du are making a monument, a mountain, a glacier, out of rock again, rather than burrowing along at grass roots.

Oblivion. “Nothing changes fast enough/Your hurry worry days/It makes you want to give it up/And drift into a haze”--“These Important Years.” Rock noise is the uptight white adolescent’s release, emptying the mind, then filling it with nothing but its own dancing frenzy. Noise as metaphor for inner turmoil and  its transfiguration. Over five LPs (and this is their second double) Husker Du have turned over and over the details of drift and bewilderment, yet still manage to wrest an improbably grandeur from the small squalor of everyday inertia. Fuck the chirpy, unforgiveable “Road to Nowhere”-- this is the true, hurting sound of the spirit chafing against the rut of existence, chafing at the intractable. The “violence” of this music is an attempt to flay past numbness, through dulled senses, to reawaken feeling.

“Think with your hips” has been the message of rock’n’roll, of pop. But this rock says: rise above, kiss the sky. Like U2/REM/J&MC, this music is psychedelia without drugs, a rock that has left behind loins, juice, even heat, and found a new, frosty kind of intensity. A celestial impulse.

This is a new sound. Heavy metal is bastardized R&B, R&B sexuality coarsened and stiffened and blunt. But Husker Du “bastardize” or metallize folk. They strip folk of roots and soil, blast it to the heavens. Imagine the Jimi Hendrix Experience playing The Byrds’ Younger Than Yesterday.

Better than ever. Voices midway between scar and balm, savaging as they soothe. Harmonies that swell, soar, then bleed into the horizon. Divine lullabies like “Up in the Air,” cracked apart by blocks of noise. “No Reservation,” “She’s A Woman,” “You Can Live At Home,” “Friend,” “You’re A Soldier,” “Ice Cold Ice”…classic pop structures, almost borne under by the foaming weight of noise brought to bear. 

My fantasy. A million heads wigging out, blissed out, in rock noise. A soulboy’s bad dream. Style, rhetoric, tassled loafers, import 12-inches, blown, scattered to the winds. A million heads, lost in music, in worship. The return of ROCK.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Donald Fagen

Donald Fagen

The Observer, The, 9 May 1993

by Simon Reynolds 

With their jazz-tinged soft-rock and mordant lyrics, Steely Dan were critics's favourites and a staple of FM radio throughout the Seventies. After classic albums like Countdown To Ecstasy, Pretzel Logic, and Katy Lied, and hits like 'Rikki, Don't lose That Number' and 'Reeling In The Years', co-founders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker went their separate ways in 1981. Fagen quickly resurfaced with The Nightfly, an elegant and witty album of veiled autobiography, concerning the dreams of a late Fifties/early Sixties adolescent caught up in the anticipation of Kennedy's New Frontier.

But after this successful album, Fagen succumbed to a mid-life crisis and a severe writing block. "I fell into a depression," recalls the singer, who is now 45. "I wrote every day but disliked what I produced. I went into psychotherapy, and eventually realised that I'd run out of steam."

In Fagen's absence, the legacy of Steely Dan lived on. In northernmost England and in Scotland, a crop of groups emerged – Prefab Sprout, Danny Wilson, Hue and Cry, The Kane Gang – who aspired to Steely Dan's blend of opulent music and sardonic lyrics.
One band, Deacon Blue, took its name from a song on Steely Dan's Aja LP. Even more unlikely, mellow rappers De La Soul sampled a lick from 'Peg', another Aja track.
Eventually, Fagen "figured stuff out, went through a transformation," and re-emerged. His creative ducts started flowing again, and the result is a new solo album, Kamakiriad. Set a few years closer to the Millennium, it's a concept album in which a Fagen-like protagonist sets out, in his ecologically sound, steam-powered Kamakiri car, across an American landscape that's alternately futuristic and decrepit.
Fagen admits that it's a science fiction allegory of his Eighties experiences, although the word 'allegory' makes him grimace: "I remember they were always the most boring things to read at school. I hope the album isn't as dull as Pilgrim's Progress. But, yes, it's a journey of loss. I like the sci-fi idea because it divorces you from the present. It lends itself to a mythic, heroic plot, gives the story a magical quality. Plus you imagine all kinds of marvelous technologies."
From Steely Dan through his solo records, Fagen's work turns around a paradox: his music is steeped in the lush romanticism of jazz, but his lyrics are suspicious of romance, even cynical.
"Odd, isn't it?" laughs Fagen. "I've grown more suspicious of romance as I've grown older. When Walter Becker and I were first working together in the late Sixties, we were jazz fans, but the vocabulary of jazz had already been co-opted for commercial purposes. Our idea was to use that already corrupted vocabulary, with its romantic connotations, and combine it with anti-romantic lyrics."
The burnished, deluxe quality of Steely Dan's music was, it seems, always ironic. "It was pseudo-opulence. I remember that as a child I was conscious of the world moving from the aesthetic of the immediate post-War years, which seemed authentic, to the Fifties aesthetic, which seemed inauthentic. That pseudo-luxe sound I use is a symbol for a loss of authenticity, which was exchanged for an illusion of the good life. To this day, my parents' values are still bound up with comfort and convenience. A lot of values were dropped after the war. So I grew up with the paradox that the music I love, jazz, was commodified before I was even born."

On Kamakiriad, Fagen is still playing his favourite trick of juxtaposing romantic music was with anti-romantic lyrics. The song 'On The Dunes', he says, "has a very romantic setting, but it's where the character reaches his lowest point," while 'Counter-Moon' is about "a moon that makes people fall out of love."
'Tomorrow's Girls' likewise concerns relationships going sour. "People change, and the extreme case would be if you woke up one morning and you’re suspicious that the woman in bed with you is actually an alien. I've put the song into a sleazy B-movie context, where aliens are replacing yesterday's girls with pseudo-women."
But the album ends happily in 'Teahouse On The Tracks', when the hero reaches a nightclub in a run-down urban zone called Flytown. Fagen admits it's a very old idea: "dance away the heartache".
The making of Kamakiriad saw Fagen reunited with his former partner, Walter Becker, a development which may presage the resurrection of Steely Dan. Lacking confidence, Fagen felt he needed someone to lean on. He and Becker have a telepathic understanding when it comes to making music, he says, and, they share a sense of humour. "I know when we've done something good because we start laughing at it. That's how I respond to excellence. I don't relate to art that doesn't have a sense of humour."


I like the obvious things you hear on the radio - especially "Reeling" - but  I've never managed to get fully into Steely Dan, despite a couple of efforts over the years. It's a bit too smart for me - "smart" in both the non-scruffy, un-scuffed superslick sheen sense and the clever-clever encrypted 'n' oblique sense. I don't see why I should be having to sit there puzzling out what a song is saying  (come right out with, man - time is short!). The cynicism that must have seemed so bracing and so valuable in its bleak disillusion in the Seventies amidst the surrounding soft-headedness .... it doesn't appeal that much nor seem necessary or remarkable in a New Wave, post-Costello world. 

But I love love looooove The Nightfly, so much more open-hearted and lyrically direct. 

Kamakiriad is not a patch on it, sadly. I remember getting to hear the album for the first time in a Manhattan listening session shortly before the interview - maybe even the same day - through some kind of incredibly expensive hi-fi set up, or possibly even off the mixing desk in a recording studio. Massive speakers, sound so crisp.   A couple of the tracks in particular sounded incredibly burnished and intricate, like your ears were staring into the inner workings of a clock, copper and silver cogs whirring and interlocking in perfect precision. Unfortunately, listening at home later on, off a compact disc on a much lower-end music system, the effect was more of a fussed-over sterility.  

Very nice guy though, Mr Fagen. I enjoyed meeting him, which is more than can be said of my other broadening-my-range Observer feature of that era, which entailed visiting Paul Simon at his office in the Brill Building.