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An Interview with Andrew Earles, Author of Husker Du: The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock

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This interview with Andrew Earles, author of Husker Du: The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock, came about for two reasons. First, I previously interviewed  punk rocker Cheetah Chrome for Blogcritics here and so the publisher also sent me this book since both involve rock music. Second, while I did not like Husker Du as much as, say, the Replacements, I do find them intriguing and agree with the author that they were quite influential.

So I arranged to set up an interview and this is the result. This is quite a good book – obviously Husker Du fans will enjoy it the most but I think others will also find it interesting. The only drawback is that Bob Mould, the band member I find most interesting (who went on to front Sugar and do other projects) did not participate in the book along with bandmates Grant Hart and Greg Norton for reasons we’ll talk about shortly in the interview.

How did this book come about? I understand you first made a pitch to do a book on one of their albums?

I was incredibly hungry for a book deal. Starving. I submitted a pitch to Continuum Books for a 33 1/3 installment about Flip Your Wig. It was rejected, and because I fine-tuned and labored over the perfection of those particular 1,000 words, it pained me to see the effort wasted, so I posted the pitch on my blog with full disclosure (what it was, why it was there, etc). About eight months later, a different publishing company, MBI Publishing/Voyageur Press, got in touch about the possibility of me writing a full bio of the band. One thing led to another and two months later I was signing a book contract. My publisher is located in Minneapolis and my editor is interested in locally-themed books with an appeal that stretches beyond the region, which I’ve always thought was a good angle in these economic times.

What are your own three favorite Husker Du songs and why? Your favorite album?

Tell you what, I’ll give you my three favorite types of Husker Du songs…

1. “Exhilarating, raging, w/ top-shelf hook” — Bob wrote more of these. It’s these songs, along with the next category, that broke the most ground re: the future of underground rock. This is why the band was ahead of its time, because you can hear so much of what came later in these songs. But what’s more important than that? I can still get a feeling in my gut from listening to these songs, or rather, some of the feeling that initially went into the writing and performing of these songs… still has a positive or emotional impact on me as a listener. Some white people claim to actually feel the “soul” in soul music or R&B or blues, but the environments, demographics, and other circumstances surrounding those musical genres might as well be another planet to me, and the emotion in traditionally-understood “soul” music has never translated to my heart, or brain, or means of processing such things.

While early-to-mid ’80s Minneapolis was much different from the surroundings that informed, or continue to inform, my creativity, deregulated hardcore along with the first strain of post-hardcore (Husker Du falls into both, and had a weighty hand in launching the latter) is the earliest form of music that induces an emotional reaction from me that isn’t connected in some way to nostalgia. I do consider it to be my “soul music,” if you will. The songs: “First of the Last Calls,” “Chartered Trips,” “Something I Learned Today,” “Erase Today,” “Private Plane,” “If I Told You,” “I Apologize,” “59 Times the Pain,” “Everything Falls Apart,” “It’s Not Funny Anymore,” and “Every Everything,” to name a few off the top of my head.

2. “The pop-gem” — Grant’s arsenal is heavier with these. Much of what I rambled about in the previous category can apply here, minus the bursting energy, with is replaced with an inescapable sense that one is hearing a grade-A pop song with a real hook (not a melody… there’s a difference). “Green Eyes,” “Pink Turns to Blue,” “What Promise Have I Made,” “Diane,” “She Floated Away,” “Makes No Sense At All,” “I Don’t Want To Know If You Are Lonely,” “I Don’t Know For Sure,” “You Can Live At Home,” “Sorry Somehow,” “Celebrated Summer,” “Up In The Air”…

3 “Eight Miles High” — Their cover of the Byrds’ hit has long been cited as one of the greatest moments in rock and roll… relative to the time period. There’s a reason for this. I’ve attempted to articulate it already, and no longer feel comfortable doing so, therefore it’s up to the listener and the song.

In your introduction you hit head on one issue of interest — that you never saw the band live (you were too young for that, I guess, at 36). Did you really, as you seem to suggest, expect resistance from some to this book since you were not part of the scene when the band was active? Is that a worry that’s come true?

So far, no, to the best of my knowledge. My disclaimer was rooted in something that happened to a colleague, and it ruffled enough of my feathers to result in what might be an over-defensive preemptive strike on my part.

Was it hard writing around the fact Bob Mould would not comment directly for your book? Did he do that to save the good stuff for his own book, which I also look forward to reading?

I didn’t send along a follow-up question asking why he declined to participate, because I try not to be an irritating human being… in every aspect of life. Furthermore, it’s not like I had to rack my brain for possible explanations, such as… his lack of time considering work on his own book plus his music career (touring, writing of new material), and his DJ events. Then you have the fact that I’m not exactly a known personality within the music-writing realm, or at least I don’t feel like one. Conflict of interest. Distrust of music writers.

Oh, and to answer the first part of the question: The research (locating and finding usable quotes) could get intensive because I was concerned about a feel of gross imbalance, and I don’t even want to think too hard as to whether or not I avoided that. But that’s simply work. I knew what had to be done and I just tried to come as close as possible to some semblance of natural balance, and something that didn’t beat the reader upside the head with “YOU ARE READING A CLIP-JOB!!”

I like working, and that was just work, albeit involved at times. What was actually hard about the situation was my own internal conflict with the fact that I was writing, in a long-form biographical nature, about someone who, more or less, did not want this to be happening. I know writers do it all the time, and some base entire careers around 100% unauthorized works, and that I probably should not have been stressing about my 1/3-unauthorized work. But I don’t associate myself with clip-jobbers, and I put myself in Bob’s place (as much as I could) and realized that there was no reason for him to separate me from the legions of past writers who had misrepresented him and the band… in magazine articles and what-not. And here I was doing a long-form treatment. If I was Bob, this would stress me out. I didn’t enjoy being a source of stress for someone I admired as an artist, and someone who had created music that assisted in the development of my taste, my frame of reference, etc. This is a simplification of the overall conundrum that slowed my work on the book for a few months there, in the middle of things.

I noticed you referred numerous times to Michael Azerrad’s book Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991 Why is that? Some of the time it seemed to be you noting errors in it, other times others noting it. What do you think, overall, of his book? I’m not sure what to make of the fact he’s co-writing Bob Mould’s memoir — if that’s good or bad news given what you seem to suggesting is a spotty record.

This is the one thing that’s really going to come back to bite me in the ass, hence this question and others I’ll have to answer in the future. I never suggested, or meant to suggest he had a spotty record. I was getting an earful from some sources who had been interviewed for that book and who have a problem with it. As a book, I regard it as an important work. Especially in the context of younger people who seem to be increasingly in need of a good history lesson. Why do you have a problem with Michael assisting Bob (or whatever the dynamic happens to be)? Bob’s really busy, and what he’s writing is not easy, in fact, it’s really, really fucking hard to self-examine in a credible and honest fashion, despite the publishing industry’s knack for grinding out memoirs. Keep in mind that most are written by people who haven’t actually done anything. Bob is the consummate example of a “do-er”… and he’s had what appears to be an emotionally-mercurial life and career, one that is very much moving forward at all times. He doesn’t have time to conduct all of the interviews and do all of the fact-checking and everything else that comes along with writing a book. I mean, I would get stalled for an entire week on one paragraph, and I turned my book in, well, a little bit past the deadline stated in my contract.

I will state, once again, that my book was never envisioned as an “anti-Bob” or “anti-Bob’s book” affair. That’s just what some people want my book to be because they are approaching Husker Du and the Husker Du legacy from a totally different angle. I guess it’s a little less-obvious that I don’t have a hard-on for Our Band Could Be Your Life, and I regret having portrayed myself in that way, or in a way that was easily taken out of context. Or both.

I’ll ask a question I ask all of music journalists be they authors of a book on Springsteen or, in this case, Husker Du: Should the book be read while listening to the music by the band being featured? Is that what Appendix X — a list of Husker Du songs — is for?

No, and no. My appendix was directly influenced by one of the greatest examples of music-based non-fiction, Ian Christe’s Sound of the Beast: The Headbanging History of Heavy Metal. Throughout that book, Christe gives the reader many “breathers” or intermissions in the form of pertinent lists, capsuled info, time lines, etc. It’s one of several aspects that make that title succeed at what all biographies and cultural profiles should strive for: Encourage active intake re: those unfamiliar with the music. And to answer backwards again: I do not read books while music is playing in the background or foreground. I have to read in relative silence or in a situation that does not invite disturbance.

Was it hard deciding how to structure this book, deciding whether to do it chronologically in the manner you chose or, say, the oral history route used by the recent Replacements book and, of course, Please Kill Me?

No, it was not hard. I will never write an oral history. And this is where our language becomes problematic for me. Oral histories are not “written,” they are edited and transcribed. I more-or-less regard oral histories as the reality television of non-fiction. They are not linear narratives, which are written. Oral histories require a lot of work, it’s just that the work is much different from what goes into a linear narrative.

And there are oral histories that I admire and love, such as Please Kill Me, the Saturday Night Live oral history, and Legs McNeil’s follow-up to Please Kill Me, his expose of the pre-internet porn industry, The Other Hollywood : The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry. These books transcend the trappings of most oral histories and exist as works of art. Otherwise, most oral histories can’t avoid this disjointed choppiness that’s almost inherent to the form. Source’s quotes sometimes automatically feel out of context, vague, cryptic, or flat-out unrelated to the subject at hand, and this is because the form injects the reader’s mind with certain expectations.

Way too often, the “writers” who author an oral history are obviously filling space with quotes that do not belong anywhere in the book. One must be a master interviewer — not an easy feat — to pull off an oral history that doesn’t smack of “easy way out” to me, personally. And the Replacements book was assembled in chronological order, it was an oral history/linear narrative hybrid, another form that I have issues with, but they are lesser issues.

You say that Husker Du has not received the credit it deserves for its influence and catalog — why do you think that is? Were you surprised a book on this band had not yet been written?

Yes, I’ve always been surprised by this. There are what, three Pixies books? And you answer your first question with your second question.

You know the book I found myself longing for as I read this? One about the Minutemen. Now I’ve read ones on the Replacements and Husker Du and would love to read one about the Minutemen… or maybe there’s one and I’ve just not encountered it.

There is a 33 1/3 installment based on Double Nickels on the Dime. I can state from experience that Mike Watt is a superb source, and a genuine, big-hearted personality. I interviewed Mike extensively until Ron Asheton died, then I sort of backed off a bit. Mike and Ron were close and Mike loved playing with the reformed Stooges. And Frank Navetta, founding guitarist for the Descendants, passed away while I was working on the book. This was an additional death that had a very negative impact on both Mike and another regular source of mine, Joe Carducci. Actually, a lot of death punctuated, and temporarily derailed, my work on this book. Depressing.

You talk in this Memphis Flyer interview about making some first book mistakes. Can you talk about what some of those were and what you wish you had done different?

I’d rather not at the moment, because it seems that too much of my interview content has taken on a defensive tone, or is in outright defense of my book, and this needs to be tempered a bit.

Also can you elaborate on this from that interview?:

What was the hardest part of the band’s story to tell?
The Husker Du part. No, really… this was the most difficult undertaking of my life so far. It would be unwise of me, at this early juncture, to elaborate on the finer points of the aforementioned claim.

I’m afraid not, as we are still amidst the aforementioned “early juncture”….

It was not until I read that interview that I realized you have done some kind of comedy albums/projects — can you talk about that work and what it has entailed?

Perhaps another day. The mood escapes me.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.