To say the legendary bass player influenced a generation would be a massive understatement…
BY DANNY R. PHILLIPS
Let’s get one thing straight from the start: Greg Norton (Husker Du/ Porcupine) is one of modern music’s greatest and most influential bassists; his playing, a static and aggressively melodic force, an always solid spine to the Husker Du’s often high-speed tears, fueled by frustration, alienation, the often hum drum existence that was the Midwest during the Reagan Era.
I sat in my downtown apartment, staring at the phone, waiting for Norton to call, nervously anticipating the ring; I’m never anxious for interviews but this time, this time was different. I would be interviewing one of my heroes, a bassist whose playing has influenced an entire generation of players and was there, alongside Bob Mould and the late Grant Hart, at the beginning, the early 80s births of not one but two genres: what we recognize now as “alternative music” and the brutal and often beautiful beast that is Noise Pop.
As for spending his time in the stoner rock meets power pop trio Porcupine, Norton seems nothing but happy. “A friend of mine and I saw that The Meat Puppets were playing in LaCrosse, this was around 2009, Cris (Kirkwood) was back in the band and I hadn’t seen him since like, ‘87 and we decided to go check them out. Porcupine was the opener. I thought they were great and was like, Holy shit, these guys are local? Casey (Virock, Porcupine guitarist/vocalist) gave me a copy of their record Trouble in Mind and we stayed in touch.” Norton continued, “In the summer of 2016, there was a Porcupine Facebook post that their bassist Dave was leaving the band. About a week later, Casey calls me up and started telling me the story of Dave leaving, how they were trying out this new guy but it wasn’t working and asked if I still played my bass. I said, well, yes. I went and tried out and joined the band.” Norton’s joy with the band is evident within his bass lines on What You’ve Heard Isn’t Real each holding a groove that is classic Norton, augmenting Porcupine’s sound with a dominance that hasn’t been heard since the glory days of hardcore.
“The new record (What You’ve Heard Isn’t Real) is probably the best sounding record I’ve ever played on, musically and lyrically, it ranks right up there near the top of anything I’ve recorded.” Norton’s confidence in the material is obvious on tracks like “Pull,” the snarling “Distraction” and the live recording “Exit 180,” a recording that showcases the band’s strengths and power while showing how much Norton brings to the band, much like his performance on the Husker Du launching pad that was Land Speed Record, an album recorded at the 7th Street Entry in their hometown of Minneapolis.
“I’m sure a lot of Husker fans there that night were surprised, maybe a little shocked at how fast we were playing. (on Land Speed Record) Our goal when Husker first started out was, let’s play faster than the Ramones. When we got that down, it was let’s play faster than The Dickies. We always wanted to go more, to push it as hard and loud as we could.” Drawing influence from bands like Joy Division, The Sex Pistols, Stiff Little Fingers and The Attractions, Norton formed a sound that is distinctly his own, brutal and punishing one minute, stylized and razor sharp the next.
Beginning with the live recording Land Speed Record, Husker Du helped redefined what it meant to be punk, all while sharing a roster at SST with some of the most powerful and varied acts of the early to mid-80s; bands like Black Flag, the country fried acid punk of The Meat Puppets, the jazz and rock leanings of The Minutemen and the power punk of Saccharin Trust. “I can never think of one bill that stood out from another. We opened for REM in ’83; Peter Buck was a fan of our records and asked us to open. That was a solid bill,” he continued, “The SST Tour with Black Flag, Saccharin Trust, The Meat Puppets, Minutemen and SWA was a good powerful lineup. It was always good playing with D. (Boon of the Minutemen), you never knew what he would do.” Norton was always certain of Husker Du’s dominance, knowing where they stood on any given night. “Oh yeah, there were nights that I knew, I just knew we’d blow whoever off the stage. And if we didn’t make the other band look bad, we’d at least make them work harder.”
Husker Du’s magnum opus, double album 1984’s Zen Arcade was radically different from other hardcore records, while it did possess moments of the breakneck speed that was definitive Du, it was the beginning of Mould and Hart becoming one rock’s best songwriting teams, often clashing, fueling the fire that gave the listening world albums like Flip Your Wig, New Day Rising, Candy Apple Grey and Metal Circus, each album different than the last, showing the three members ability to change, adapt, play at super-human speed and volume, or finding a delicate place to put a ballad or psychedelic trip around the piano keys. “People always tell me that Zen Arcade is the one that changed their lives. I can see that, it shows Grant and Bob at their best writing wise.” The band was able to twist and bend in any direction they wanted to go, looking ahead to the next thing, pushing themselves, along with their fans to new places, always growing, building songs that stand the test of time, like “Diane,” “Everything Falls Apart,” “Hate Paper Doll,” “Writer’s Cramp” and “Celebrated Summer,” songs that both help define and shatter what it means to be punk, to break barriers, to force listeners to embrace the unknown and to find who they are along the way.
All this Husker talk brought us around to Norton’s band mate Grant Hart, who died from cancer in 2018. “When I think of Grant, what comes to mind is the music, how good of a songwriter he was, truly great. And another thing about Grant is if he liked you, he could be hard on you, just brutal. I think his illness softened that somewhat but, yeah, he could be hard on you. I miss him.”
Norton is a man that is comfortable talking of the past, getting nostalgic for times gone by, friends lost. He isn’t all about the past though, not one of those rock heroes content to not move forward, to play the old music night after night, to relive the former glory and create nothing new. Norton is a man that still loves his craft, loves lying down a snarling bass track and rocking on toward the horizon. Happy to talk about the past at the same time looking forward to what comes next for Porcupine.
“I’m really excited about the new record (What You’ve Heard Isn’t Real), every one of those songs could be on the radio, no question. Writing songs with Casey and Ian is a good experience, they’re two of the most gifted musicians I’ve ever worked with.”
When reflecting, I asked Norton if there was anything he’d do differently on Husker Du’s SST output, he said without reservation. “I’d like to see the albums remastered,” a move that would undoubtedly prove the band’s greatness to a whole new generation, to slap kids back to reality, to show them what real punk is and answer the question “What Would Husker Du?”