Saturday, 3 March 2012

Grant Hart

From his role as drummer and co-vocalist/songwriter in legendary 1980s US hardcore genre-definers Hüsker Dü, to his time at the front of critically acclaimed post-hardcore outfit Nova Mob, to his solo albums, to being the man behind a bewildering musical interpretation of Milton's epic story-of-creation Paradise Lost, Grant Hart is anything but unfocused. Since winning a battle with heroin while simultaneously losing (a moral) one with his Hüsker Dü counterpart Bob Mould, he's been writing and touring like a maniac. As we await the release of his take on Milton's 17th-century masterpiece, we stopped him at a recent show for a few words...

Grant Hart. Photograph by Hanna Pribitzer.

What's happening tonight?
Tonight people are going to hear a wide variety of things. From old favourites to stuff from my soon-to-be-released album which I've called 'The Argument'. It's based on Paradise Lost by John Milton, but I've decided to avoid the title, because if you Google 'Paradise Lost' you're gonna find all manner of odd stuff. Whether it's heavy metal or whatever. It's a very loaded pair of words.

How do you even begin to approach this? It's a massive piece of writing.
Well, I decided very early that I was going to make no attempt to compose in order of things occurring in the Milton. By hopping around a bit I was able to make chunks of it coagulate, and then you link the chunks together. Along the line you notice when you have to become more interested in the greater work. You're gonna write what appeals the most to you, and the thing that I have noticed about other people's adaptations of Paradise Lost was that it was very concentrated in the early books of it, and then all of a sudden Adam and Eve are getting kicked out of the garden. It goes straight from the gates of hell to eating the apple from the tree.

The edited highlights.
Yeah. Of course these are interesting bits. There's a lot of material in the original that can be found elsewhere, so I didn't put a lot of emphasis on 're-writing the Old Testament'.

Are there any parallels in what Paradise Lost is about to the sentiment behind (Nova Mob's) Last Days Of Pompeii?
(Long pause) They've very climactic stories. I never really gave it a great deal of thought, but... Last Days Of Pompeii doesn't really take in any elements of jealousy and forgiveness, or vindication or vengeance. Y'know? This is more emotional. Did you have to read it in school?

No, never. I only properly came to know it when I saw an illustrated version of it. Do you consider this a Grant Hart solo album?
I'm working with a couple of extra musicians, but they're more or less playing what I've chosen for them to play. It's one of the closest relationships between me and an engineer that I've ever had. I'm working with Mike Wisti who did three quarters of (Grant's previous solo album) Hot Wax.

Is that relationship a result of the success you had with Hot Wax?
 A lot of times a person's actions can be compared to sleepwalking. You steer away from disasters and you don't even think of following a path that works. When you walk into a room you know where the light switch is, so you throw your hand up at that particular time. It's only when the light doesn't come on that you really give it much consideration. To draw conclusion from that, you continue doing things that work for you - you change it according to the ideas that you have, and if you have an idea to fine-tune whatever, you polish that up. Sometimes success is - and I don't mean financial success, I mean artistic success - can be defined by the absence of failure.

There aren't that many musical takes of poetry.
Pop music has got very dull. It's just a repetitive process. I was playing this for a friend of mine as we were driving up to London from Brighton and we were kind of, like, strapped for what to call it. It's not an opera, the closest thing we could define it as would be a musical. That was part of the inception of it. Something that could be staged as an entire work. I made the decision early on that I was going to avoid writing stuff that couldn't stand independently of the project, so a lot of the major songs in it have meanings elsewhere in the world, and not just in the context of the greater work.

So because the basis for the work already exists, in the form of the poem, and it's a poem that you're obviously a fan of...
Well, I - like you, and anybody that's read it in the last hundred years - was attracted to the Gustave Doré illustrations, which are very dramatic, very cataclysmic. It gives you an idea of what has been drummed into people's heads. It's up to me if I repeat it or resist it.

So which is it?

A lot of bands reform these days to play their 'best' album live. 18 year-old kids have seen Sonic Youth and the Melvins play their old songs now. What do you make of that?
There's a lot of things going on with the heads of those people. I'm disinclined to move in that direction. I could see conditions being imaginable that would make somebody want to go for that. I have new ideas that I want to give and chance, and give some time to. Not necessarily in the case of Sonic Youth or the Melvins, but there's a lot of bands out there who feel that Nirvana or Smashing Pumpkins, any of those early-to-mid nineties 'super punk' acts got all the glory that everybody worked for throughout the eighties. Y'know? I don't look at it the same, I think that there's a price that you pay for being ahead of the ballgame. Not cashing in is the result of that.

Do any of the bands who cite Hüsker Dü as an influence impress you?
The event of me hearing a song that I didn't write, and thinking to myself, "Man, I wish I would've written that one" is the closest to that that is gonna happen. When somebody says they're influenced by me, or influenced by Hüsker Dü, I shouldn't be able to hear the influence. I should just be able to hear it and go "Oh, nice song!"

Can you hear your own influence in any of Bob Mould's post-Hüsker Dü stuff? He's been quite unkind in the press.
In Bob's repertoire there are a couple of songs where I think, "Man, that's a great song", almost to the point where I wish I wrote it. I doesn't happen that frequently, but it's not impossible. What people have to realise, is that neither Bob nor I have worked with anybody for as long as we worked with each other. I think when you have a situation like that you can't really determine what people are saying when they're reflecting back on that.

Are there songs of yours you think he wishes he'd written?
Given the same conditions, it would stand to reason that it'd be possible, y'know? With Bob's psyche, and with Bob's apparent emotional injury by me, it would be the biggest surprise in the world to ever hear him admit something like that. Bob is a very sensitive writer. He explores the depths of his pain with his music, and I wish that he could put it into the words that explain to me what it is that I did to hurt him so badly.

Do you think about that much?
I'm answering questions in an interview, y'know? But that's not to say I'm not concerned with his well being. He is a very important person in my life, and I would assume that any conflict between us will eventually become meaningless to either both of us or one of us.

Do you have a release date for this record?
We're still sorting out some things. It's hard to believe that there is no UK label that will take a 'risk' on England's greatest epic poem. I'll find someone before I'm done with London!

What are your plans beyond this record?
Having experienced the situation before, where you release something that you think is pretty major, and you have to follow that with something, I've given some thought-time to the old "How am I going to follow this?" There's a few ideas that I'm investigating, but I have no need. I'm not going to be disappointed if the next record is just going to be an ordinary record. They can't all be Paradise Lost, right?


Italian-English electronic duo Walls have recently returned from a tour of America with the mighty Battles, and are enjoying some amazing press for 'Coracle', their second full-length album. Acclaimed across the board, with 'Album of the Month' accolades from everyone from Vice and NME to Mojo and the Guardian, Sam Willis and Alessio Natalizia's shimmering analogue future-dub joins the dots between Four Tet, Burial, Animal Collective and Nicolas Jaar while it blurs the boundaries between Chicago House, shoegaze and Krautrock. People are starting to wise up to Walls, thanks in part to the band's label - Cologne's impeccable Kompakt - so we spoke to Sam before they get too big to talk to people like me...

Walls. Photograph by Robert Bellamy.

How was the Battles tour? What kind of places were you playing in? Did you get to go record shopping?
It was amazing! The venues were mostly around 1000 capacity, often theatres... We got to see the Redwood Forest and Mount Rushmore. Also, getting to go to the less travelled parts of the US like Idaho, Minnesota, Ohio, Montana and so on was fascinating, the real America basically! The Battles guys have been super welcoming and friendly, we get on great together. We went to Amoeba Music in LA which is massive - we were happy to see that they'd racked out our album with a nice description! Also we went to Powell's Bookstore in Portland which was a real treat - it's huge and has an incredible selection. Such a welcoming and cosy environment. The sad thing is that it's hard to imagine a business like that getting off the ground nowadays...

What's your live set-up? How much of your studio gear can you take on tour with you?
We have a bunch of hardware - samplers, sequencers, monosynths, lots of delay pedals and mixers.. It's a real pain to travel with, but it's so much more fun when we're playing. Using a laptop was never really an option!

It hasn't taken you long to put two albums out on Kompakt. Did you have your debut ready to go when you signed? How did your deal with them come about?
Yeah, we had already composed a bunch of tracks before they asked us to do the record. Originally it was due to be an EP but we decided to expand it into a short album. It took us about six months of work. It was mostly original compositions but some older stuff was cannibalised as part of the process! We've been friends with the guys there for a while and would always talk on email. It all just happened very quickly and naturally, and when the first tracks came together they were the natural first choice for our music!

Did you get a trolley-dash of the Kompakt warehouse when you signed?
More a dash through the Kompakt archives - they have an incredible back catalogue. The GAS boxset reissue was a particularly prized acquisition, alongside some of the earlier label compilations... Things were a lot more raw and minimal in those days!

What other labels are you digging just now?
We love what our friends at Border Community do...

The new album sounds a lot more rhythmic than the first one. Is this a reflection of what you've been listening to in the last year or so?
It's more a reflection on us playing a lot of live shows to be honest. With the first record, we were really exploring where we wanted to take our collaboration. We really enjoy making people dance, but also tripping them out! 

What have you been listening to anyway? Has it changed much since Alessio moved to London? 
We're always discovering new stuff that excites us, of all different genres and eras. It seems crazy to us that the vast majority of people focus so strongly on the music being released now when there's so much incredible stuff out there. We've got the entire history of recorded music at our fingertips!

Can you elaborate?
Loads of individual tracks. It all depends on the time and context really. Personally I've been getting really into going back and listening to classic pop records from the 70s, just to marvel over the wonderful analogue sound. And the masterful production, joyous melodies and songwriting! Like Carly Simon's 'You're So Vain' for example - putting a song like that alongside Lady Gaga really makes you wanna weep about how music is going...

You're getting a lot of praise in the press - is it possible to continue doing what you do without paying too much attention to this? 
We just carry on making music all the time regardless. We try our best not to be swayed by other people's opinions on what we do. For us to release anything, it has to be something that we both really love. We've come this far by staying true to ourselves, so that's the simple plan for the future too!

Do you see much of each other? How much of the writing is done together? Is everything recorded and mastered with the pair of you present?
We see each other pretty much every day at some point. We do quite a bit of both writing apart and together, that definitely yields different results, so it's fun to play with the process in that way.
What kind of different results? How much would it affect your music if you lived in the same house? Like The Monkees.
We'd go crazy living in the same house! we definitely enjoy our work together, but it's vital to have separate space to develop ideas, explore new possibilities with plugins and equipment that we can then bring back into the fold

You endlessly get referred to as either krautrock, shoegaze, or both. Does that offend you?
It's fine, it's pointless trying to fight against that stuff!

It's great that your LPs come packaged with the CD too. What's your thinking behind this? Most people only bother putting in a download redemption code.
That's Kompakt's idea. We're really happy about it, as it means that people can buy the vinyl and still have the CD too. We must prefer the aesthetic of the LP anyway, it's a much more pleasing format!

There's talk of the majors phasing out CD albums now. Do you think vinyl might actually outlast CDs?
Absolutely, it's just so much more of a pleasing format than a jewel case CD, although we understand that some people really treasure their CD collection... It's always going to change for successive generations, each format means something different. We grew up in the 80s, just as CD was starting to come in, so that seems somehow the more authentic medium 

Where and when were you skating?
Back in the mid 90s, in the heyday of Tom Penny and Geoff Rowley, and around the Manchester gasworks area. I still love to watch the odd skate video now and then - 'Video Days' has to be a favourite!

Can you think of any videos that stand out, musically, from the past?
I'm really bad with titles, but I remember hearing Mobb Deep 'Shook Ones' for the first time via a skate video, and that was really one of the first tracks to turn me on to hip-hop properly. (BMW guesses Sam heard this on Rick Jaramillo's 'Profile' in 411 #24).

Nik Freitas

Former Thrasher photographer Nik Freitas has released five albums since leaving the magazine in 2002, toured with Bright Eyes, Grandaddy and Rilo Kiley and he still finds time to skate. His new record 'Saturday Night Underwater' is out now.

Nik Freitas.

Who, or what inspires you to create music? Do you consciously sit down to write songs?
I think the inspiration starts as a feeling, and it can happen pretty much whenever. I hate to say it, but I think the best stuff starts happening when you're feeling down and shitty about something. Or pissed off. It usually starts as a melody, with maybe a few words. I don't really sit down and try to write a song anymore, if you do that, it usually ends up sounding forced and fake. It's been the case that for the past few years that I usually have a song written out in my head before I sit down with a guitar or at a piano, and by that point I'm just trying to figure out the chords to what I'm hearing in my head. 

Do you think pro skateboarders nowadays have a different attitude to those in the 80s and 90s? What do you think of all the changes skateboarding's been through?
To be honest, I haven't really kept up with skateboarding. I've occasionally tried to check out some new videos and stuff, but that's about it. Everyone looks pretty much the same from what I've seen. Don't get me wrong, I mean, the tricks they're doing now are mind-blowing - a switch backside lipslide down a handrail is just insane. It's sick. But at the same time it almost seems robotic, like a video game. When I grew up skating, there was so much style involved. Each skater had his own way of doing tricks. Tom Knox doing a kickflip looked totally different to when Salman Agah did one. There was no 'right' way to do a trick. Any way you did it was dope. Now with all the videos and video games, everyone's kickflip looks the same. I remember it was so hard to learn a kickflip, and if you could to do a kickflip, you were super good. It took me forever to figure it out... Just trying to land one took forever! Now kids have videos on 'how' to do a kickflip. We didn't have that. A kid now learns how to do a kickfip in the first week of skating. He can barely ride down the street but knows how to do a 360 flip. It's so crazy.

Do you think modern skate videos have lost their soul? It's all about HD cameras and composed soundtracks now. 
Again, I haven't really kept up with the videos, but I think a composed soundtrack to a skate video is a great idea. I'd love to do a music soundtrack for a skate video. You can't fight the progression of stuff. Music, movies, art, skate videos... It's gonna change. Maybe it loses some 'soul' along the way, but what are you gonna do? When I started, skating was dead. I was the only person that skated in my class when I graduated high school. It was such a revolutionary time period, when street skating was really starting to begin - the possibilities seemed endless - dudes were doing so much cool shit. You had to really use your imagination to come up with new stuff. 

Do you think skateboarders are naturally creative people?
Totally. At least that's how it was when I was growing up skating. I got into skating for exactly that reason. I was drawn to it. The artwork, the vibe... I loved being in the streets, you see things differently and you're just part of everything around you. I remember skating for miles, just pushing for like, hours, to go skate some curbs in a parking lot. If someone asked you where you were going, they wouldn't even understand it!  You weren't in a car protected from the world around. When you were on your board skating, you were in the middle of it. Regular people see a red painted curb and they think, "I can't park there", whereas when I see a red painted curb I think "5-0 grind!"

Nik Freitas

What are your favourite places in the world? Places that either skateboarding or music have taken you?
New York City. Prague. Paris. I love Europe. There are a lot of great cities in the U.S. too. I love Austin, Nashville, Athens and New Orleans.

Do you have a home-studio set up?
Heck yeah. I record all my records at home. I'm really into recording gear, the old vintage stuff. Old synthesizers. I love the way it sounds. 

What pictures in skateboard magazines stood out to you?
So many! I was a big fan of Tobin Yelland's photos. His photos really captured the whole thing, not just the trick, but just everything involved in it. There was a real mood in his photographs.

Did you get into photography through skating, or vice versa?
I grew up skating, so I got into photography through that. It just seemed to co-exist to me. I took a class on the basics of photography and started taking my camera everywhere when I went skating with my friends.I tried to make my pictures look like the ones in the mags. After a few years I started sending my photos to Thrasher, and eventually they thought they were good enough, and they printed them in the magazine. I just kept at it for many years. Eventually they asked me to be on the staff. Jake Phelps was my boss.

What was the story behind Rowley socking Phelps? He's not the only person to have done it...
Oh, I didn't know about that. My friend Richard Paez socked Phelps and broke his glasses. Jake loved it, he was always down for Richard after that.

Was it hard to leave the mag? Was music at the point where it was overtaking your work at Thrasher?
I was over it. Jake knew it, I think. I wanted to play music. That's that. I remember walking into Jake's office and just sitting down and telling him that I quit. He was really cool about it. I know it sounds cheesy, but he said "If your heart isn't into it, then you shouldn't be doing it". He shook my hand and told me I was always welcome at Thrasher. 
Working for Thrasher had a pretty big influence on my life. I was young, 21, 22, 23 years old...  Thrasher isn't just a mag, it's the whole thing. I was proud to work and represent Thrasher. I learned how to take criticism, but also to stick by what you do. I learned that the most important thing, when you're making something, is to make sure it represents you, even if nobody gives a shit. I learned how to say "Fuck you, this is how I do this."

What about music? Did being around skateboarding help you get into music?
Yeah, all the music in the skate videos was rad. More than anything, it was the mood the music would put you in. You would skate differently depending on what you were listening to. If I was gonna skate a pool, I wanted to hear Slayer. If I was gonna skate a ledge, I'd want to hear hip-hop. If I was trying to do a line in a parking lot with like a bench, manual pad, and some stairs then I'd want to hear some punk rock or something. I really got into all styles of music early on. I played drums in the jazz band in high school too. I loved all the music in the first Stereo video, or Gonz's part in the Blind video, just cruising the streets to jazz music and killing it! The old H-Street videos too. I think the first Consolidated video had great music - Karma's section was where I first heard King Crimson.

What are you listening to at the moment?
Umm... I'm not really listening to music at the moment. I was listening to some stuff last year. The last Bright Eyes record is super good. Jenny and Johnny. The Dawes record is really good. Blake Mills made a record last year that's one of my favorites.

How did you get hooked up with Conor Oberst?
I was playing guitar on tour for my friend Jim Fairchild's band All Smiles. Jim was the guitar player in Grandaddy and was friends with a lot of people out there. Jim encouraged me to bring CDs of my own music to pass out to people, he's super cool. We played the last show of a tour in Omaha, Nebraska - I've always loved Omaha and the people there, just always a good vibe - and there was an after-party and they passed around a guitar, and I played a song. This guy Ian, who we had been hanging with the whole night, came up to me and asked if I had made records, or had a CD, so I gave him one. Ian turned out to be Conor Oberst's cousin, and he passed the CD along to him. I've since become really good friends with everyone who was at that party and of course, Conor.

You played a lot of shows in 2011. Do you get accustomed to touring life? 
I've been traveling in cars, vans, buses, trains and planes through either skateboarding or playing music for 15 years. It's become second nature to me.

What are your plans for 2012? Are you bringing 'Saturday Night Underwater' to Europe?
I'm not sure about 2012 yet, but I really want to get back over to Europe and play some more shows. I had a really great time playing over there this summer, the audiences were so cool and respectful. When the audience is like that, it really helps you play better, you want to give back and try to stoke people out.