Perfect Sound Forever


On Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade and his new band Ultrabomb
interview by Austin Woods

This year, Hüsker Dü's massively influential sophomore album, Zen Arcade, will celebrate its 40th anniversary. With its rock opera format, washed-out piano interludes, and deft songcraft, the record offered an iconoclastic take on the dogmatism of hardcore punk, earning the band critical acclaim and, eventually, a short-lived major label deal. It remains one of the most crucial albums of indie rock's salad days, and of the 1980's in general.

The story behind the album, and the band's overall history, is well-documented from the perspectives of guitarist Bob Mould and drummer Grant Hart. But the group's hirsute bassist, Greg Norton, often goes overlooked. Mould's and Hart's songwriting may have dominated the Hüsker Dü oeuvre, but Norton was every bit as integral to the group's sound. On Zen Arcade especially, his lithe, melodic basslines allow the sonic fury of his comrades to cohere, bringing just enough order to the chaos to keep the tunes afloat. In the noise/pop balancing act that defined Hüsker Dü, Norton was indispensable.

After Hüsker Dü's acrid breakup in 1988, Norton played in a short-lived band called Grey Area before leaving the music business entirely to become a restaurateur, not touching his bass for the next 14 years. He was drawn out of his music industry retirement in the early 00's to play bass in The Gang Font, a jagged, Minneapolis-based math rock outfit. In 2016, he joined indie rock group Porcupine, and, as of 2022, currently plays bass in UltraBomb, a punk rock supergroup that also features members of The Mahones and U.K. Subs.

After Norton was diagnosed with prostate cancer last summer, UltraBomb halted its tour schedule so the bassist could get treated. Norton has since recovered, and he's expected to continue pounding away at his bass for plenty more years to come. As for UltraBomb, the band will embark on a U.S. tour later this year, and even has a new record under its belt, hopefully to be released later this year.

PSF recently spoke with Norton about the legacy of Zen Arcade, and his current projects.

PSF: Tell us about the first time you picked up a bass. Was it your first instrument?

GN: It was my first instrument. I got kind of a cheapy bass on my 13th birthday, and just kind of always wanted to pick up the bass as opposed to the guitar. I didn't really do a whole lot with it in those first few years. There was a neighborhood kid that played bass in a local high school band that gave me some lessons. He wasn't a great teacher by any means, but he taught me enough of the basics to kind of start noodling around.

I didn't really do a whole lot with it until I met Grant (Hart). Grant and I started doing some drum and bass stuff. And then, of course, you know the well-known origin story of Hüsker Dü being the gig at Ron's Randolph Inn, where we played three sets of covers. One of the best motivations to learn how to play is to get yourself a gig, because then you don't have any choice but to learn the songs.

I really started playing in earnest at that point. That was the birth of Hüsker Dü being a three-piece after that, and writing our own original material. We had a rehearsal space in the basement of Northern Lights Records on University Avenue in St. Paul. Every night at nine o'clock, we locked the shop up, and we would just go down and jam, and play, and write music, and have fun. That's how Hüsker started, and that's really how I started too -- Hüsker Dü being my first band.

PSF: What attracted you to the bass as opposed to the guitar?

GN: I really liked listening to the basslines in songs. I grew up listening to Paul McCartney play, and Chris Squire from Yes, and John Paul Jones, and John Entwistle, and Larry Graham. There was just something about the drive of the bass that resonated with me.

PSF: When did you discover punk?

GN: I started working at Melody Lane in February of 1978. I met Grant about a month later. Working in this record store, all of these great punk records were coming out. There were only a handful that came out in the couple years prior to that, so it really hit at the right spot. I was like, 'Holy crap, this punk rock is great.'

Then Grant joined the team at the record store, and he and I both ended up having a voracious appetite for that. Any record that came through the shop that even looked like it was remotely punk, we would open it up, and play it. From there, Grant and I started going to see shows at the Longhorn Bar in Minneapolis. Grant was 16, but he looked like he was 25 with his sideburns. One of the first shows that we went to together was Pere Ubu at the Longhorn. That was really great.

It was the fall of 1978 when Bob Mould showed up in St. Paul to go to college. Bob and Grant kind of became friends first, and then the three of us ended up hanging out, and the rest is history.

We didn't start off as a hardcore band. We did start off playing fast, and we liked to play fast. We were inspired by bands like the Ramones and the Dickies. But we also were inspired by a lot of the bands that came out of Manchester. The Buzzcocks were a big influence on us. Joy Division was a big influence on us. Wire.

We started in 1979, and we didn't really do a tour until the summer of 1981. And that tour took us over to the West Coast, playing with bands like D.O.A., and the Dead Kennedys, and 7 Seconds, and that's really where we hit the hardcore phase. As a matter of fact, when we got back and recorded Land Speed Record, I think we shocked a lot of fans by the hardcore edge that we picked up. I'm sure we pissed some people off, because we weren't the same Hüsker Dü that left on tour three months prior to that.

I also think Bob heard the Jealous Again EP by Black Flag, and I've always felt he was like, 'Yeah, I can write hardcore too.' Grant never really embraced hardcore the same way that Bob did. But the hardcore phase didn't last as long as some people think it did, because we did get back to writing melodic songs, But they were hard and fast, you know? Hardcore that you could whistle.

I think it was a natural progression for us to go through that hardcore phase. One of the things that put us off on the whole hardcore thing was all the dogma surrounding it. You had to have a certain look, and you had to have this political stance... and that's not really who we were. We just wanted to be us. So we kind of shook that off, and never really embraced it as a fashion, which I think a lot of people at the time were doing. So I think it was a natural progression, and learning how to write better songs, learning how to play better, play better together, and be better storytellers.

PSF: How long was the idea for Zen Arcade floating around among the three of you?

GN: It had actually been floating around for a while. When we got to the studio, we knew the concept, the whole flow of what the record was going to be, and the overall arc of the story. It came from when we got back from the road after releasing Metal Circus, and started writing new material. As we were writing the material, the concept for the story came together, and the songs started to fill in. We intended it to be a double album. We were writing a rock opera -- that was the goal.

PSF: So the songs and the concept came about concurrently?

GN: That's accurate... The only song that preceded the concept was "Standing by the Sea," which we recorded for Metal Circus, but we didn't have time to finish that as a full album. So that's why it was released as an EP.

We were rehearsing in an old church in St. Paul, that Grant was also living in at the time. We would get together to rehearse and work on new material, and we'd sit around talking about it. The story emerged as the songs were being written. We'd just sit around and kind of spitball the story, and more songs would emerge... it was all three of us all working (the storyline) out.

PSF: Do you have a favorite bassline on the record?

GN: I've got a few. One of my favorites of Grant's that I really, really enjoyed playing was the bassline to "Somewhere." Bob's backward guitar solo on that turned out fantastic. The bassline to "Newest Industry" was one that I really liked to play as well. Obviously, the bassline everybody talks about is "Something I Learned Today," which is fantastic. I was still learning how to play it when we recorded it, so Bob actually laid out the bass on the album. But I've played it live ever since.

The basslines kind of worked themselves out. I played off a lot of what Bob was doing on the guitar. I guess that's always been a thing with Hüsker Dü -- that interplay between the bass and the guitar that made it sound like we were more than a three piece.

PSF: Tell us about the recording of the album.

GN: One of the things about seeing Hüsker Dü back in the '80's was that if you went to a show, you were always going to hear the album that we hadn't recorded yet. You would probably only hear a few songs from the album that just came out... so we would literally tour the new record on the way to record it. So by the time we hit the studio, it was tight and ready to go. (Before recording Zen Arcade), we booked a tour and started playing our way to California. Some things were created in the studio -- all the piano interlude stuff was written in the studio as we were recording it. Spot had the foresight to roll the tape when we played "Reoccurring Dreams," which closes out the record. That was live, and it was too good to not do anything with. We were like, 'Oh my god yeah, that's got to be on the record.'

It was a couple of overnights. Spot had a deal with the studio where we would go in and start recording, I think at 10 o'clock at night. We'd record until six o'clock in the morning... we had some shows up in the Pacific Northwest -- up in Seattle, San Francisco, and Portland. So we drove up the coast. Actually, we stopped along the Pacific late one night, and had a fire on the beach. That's where we recorded the fire crackling sounds that are on the record.

Bob and Grant were still kind of learning how to produce records, so Spot helped guide them. I think Spot gets a bad rap for the sound of the records sometimes. But I think Metal Circus still sounds great. I listened to it several times last year after Spot passed. I think the record holds up really well. I think it still sounds good. Do I think all the SST records should be remastered? Yes, I do. Will that ever happen? I have no idea. I hope so. But beyond that, I think Zen Arcade still sounds great.

PSF: What was life like for you immediately after the release of Zen Arcade?

GN: We were a band that critics already were paying attention to... but Zen Arcade was the record that started directing major label interest at us. We started to get a flood of letters from A&R departments from all over the place. I can't remember which label it was, but (in) one letter, the guy wrote, 'I love your band, I love your band, I love your band, I love your band.' He just had a whole page that said nothing but 'I love your band.' So not really a selling point to jump to a major... At that point, we were doing everything ourselves. We didn't necessarily see the benefit of jumping to a major. So we stayed put, and just kept doing what we do.

I was waiting tables at a family-owned Italian restaurant in St. Paul (before the release of Zen Arcade). They were gracious enough to give me leave to go on tour, and when I came back, they always had a job for me. That was good. But we started touring so much after (Zen Arcade). At this point, the band is charting on all the college music charts, and we're getting a lot of airplay. Playing bigger venues, getting better guarantees, it was a lot easier to not have to have a job when I got back.

PSF: I wanted to get your take on something Bob said in 1990. He called Zen Arcade the "beginning of the end" for the band, and said, "It was the best record we made, but it was the one that we emulated. And when we went to Warner Brothers we couldn't change because we would have sold out." Do you think that's accurate?

GN: I think, to a point, that's accurate. Zen Arcade marked the first time that there were individual songwriter credits on the album. Every record recorded up to Zen Arcade was, 'All songs by Hüsker Dü.' So we were saying, 'This is our work. It's the work of these three guys.' Once it went to individual songwriter credits, that changed the money. All of a sudden, Bob is writing more songs, Bob's getting paid more. And that kind of starts the battle between Bob and Grant for, 'how many songs do I get on this record? How many songs do you get on this record?' Bob was definitely very prolific. Grant didn't write as many songs, but I think Grant wrote more keepers.

We signed with Warner Brothers because we decided that they were truly an artist-oriented label, and that they were going to let us be ourselves. It's pretty common knowledge that they would have absolutely loved to have Flip Your Wig, and instead we gave them Candy Apple Grey for the first record... how opposite from Flip Your Wig can you get, right? Then we turn around and give them another double album. At that point, the songwriter battle was pretty much in full effect, to the point where, when we recorded Candy Apple Grey, I'm like, 'I'm just gonna let you guys battle this out.' I did my parts, and I got out of there and let them duke it out.

One of the other things about jumping to a major is that major labels require management teams, and they just want the artist to be the artist. They don't want you to do all this other stuff that they think other people should be doing for you. We had done everything ourselves. Now, all of a sudden, we started being slowly relieved of those duties, so we could concentrate on just being the artist. But part of who we were was that we were the artist, we were the band, we were the management. We did have somebody that was booking tours for us, but besides that, we managed ourselves. So that was also, I think, a contributing factor, particularly for Grant -- being stripped of responsibilities.

PSF: Do you ever revisit Zen Arcade today?

GN: Yeah, like I said, I listened to it a bunch a bunch of times recently. UltraBomb was just in England in December, and we added "Broken Home, Broken Heart" to our setlist. I think it's such a great song, and a fun one to play live, and one that Bob probably hasn't played in ages. When people hear something off Zen Arcade, they're like, 'Yeah!' It's a good record. I still like it. Like I said, it's held up well.

PSF: Has your approach to the bass changed at all since your time in Hüsker Dü?

GN: People tell me that they can recognize my basslines, so I guess I have a style. I've never really thought about it. For the most part, I've always been self-taught and learned things by ear. Gang Font was a good way to get back into (the bass), because I could play whatever I wanted, or whatever I heard, and was encouraged to do so. I was thinking, 'Well, this is what you get when you pull out a guy that hasn't played bass in 14 years.'

I've always played what I hear. I'll hear a part in my head, and just try to go with that. Something that fits. I'm not a big music theory guy or anything like that. So I'm not like, 'I'm gonna do this, and do that, and play this chord.' I just play what I hear in my head. And playing with UltraBomb has been great, because I think it's really sparked a lot of things from my early memories from playing with Hüsker Dü... that sense of camaraderie and collaboration, and that we're all working on this together... it feels good to be back in a creative situation like that.

PSF: How did UltraBomb come together?

GN: UltraBomb has been together for almost two and a half years now. It all started because Finny McConnell, who is the leader of The Mahones, recorded (a cover of) "Makes No Sense At All." Through Facebook Messenger, he sent me a link to it, going 'Hey, I really love your band. We did this.' So Finny and I became Facebook friends. I had been playing with a local Twin City band called Porcupine, and things didn't really work out there, so the band briefly disbanded... (McConnell) saw that I was not playing with anybody, so he contacted me and said, 'Hey, I've got this great idea. I know this drummer in London, Jamie Oliver, who plays with the U.K. Subs. Let's put a band together.'

His original concept was that we'd just play Hüsker songs, The Mahones, and maybe some U.K. Subs, and we'll just go out and play some festivals and have a laugh. But a month after that, Jamie and Finny. were both in Berlin. Finny had some studio time booked, and, more on a whim than anything else, decided that I should buy a plane ticket, fly to Berlin, and meet these guys for the first time just to see if this was actually something that could happen. I didn't even know if I would like these guys. I got there, and Finny's like, 'I've got all these riffs,' so we literally wrote 10 songs in two days, and it felt like I had been playing with these guys for years. We also got along great, like we'd known each other for years. That's how the first record, Time to Burn, was recorded. We had that record recorded in four days. I had all these lyrics that Finny picked up, like, 'Oh, these will work,' and he sang my lyrics to the music that we'd just written. And it turned out fantastic.

We had some setbacks with tours, due to COVID, a visa issue getting Jamie to Canada, and then I ended up getting diagnosed with prostate cancer. We ended up canceling a lot of a lot of tours, which kind of sucked. But last year, we went out and played our first tour in May, through the Midwest and West Coast... and we just did a tour in England with the Barstool Preachers that went really great. We recorded another record in London, again written and recorded in four days. That still needs to be mixed, but we're hoping for a late spring release on DC-Jam Records here in the States.

UltraBomb will be on the road again after that comes out in the U.S. Hopefully we'll tour quite a bit in 2024, get back over to Europe, and hopefully play some festivals over there this summer. That's it -- keep writing new material, and just having a great time.

Also see our Q&A interview with Grant Hart from 2011

And a later interview with Grant Hart from 2013

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER