INTERVIEW: Andrew Earles, His First Book & Hüsker Dü (Part 1 of 3)
POSTED TUESDAY 11.23.10
This is one of those weird introductions that I don't know where to begin. I met Andy Earles via his fanzine Cimmaron Weekend in 1996 or '97. I immediately found his writing to be arresting and he, too, was from the South, and well, a quick friendship was formed. Since then, I've been fortunate enough to have Mr. Earles contribute to each subsequent issue of Chunklet along with our two published books. Andy's prolific writing career is in tandem with his equally prolific career as part of the Earles & Jensen comedy duo which was originally a self-released CD (Just Farr A Laugh) which has since been paired by Matador along with their second CD. Recommended? Uh, yeah.
To say that I admire and respect Andy as a peer is to put it mildly as I've watched him steadily climb his way up the freelance writer ghetto to a full-fledged author of his first book: Hüsker Dü: The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock. I remember when Andy and I originally discussed his pitch to do a 33 1/3 book about Hüsker Dü and it was shot down. Of course, that didn't come as a surprise, but what I loved is that Andy repackaged his pitch and got a book deal out of it. Well, that phone call and pitch was over two years ago (possibly three?) and now Andy has his first book out and, man, is it a doozie.
What had originally started as me thinking of a casual interview turned into a behemoth of an email discourse between us two. Andy went to town with my questions and this being one of Andy's first homes, I feel obligated to let you read everything he wrote back to me. What follows is part one of three delving into his debut book, the obvious questions about Bob Mould and Greg Ginn, his comedy pursuits and well, everything in between.
It's my sincere pleasure to present this to you.
It takes a brave designer to use Courier in 2010
After reading the book, I was impressed by how you deftly were treading a tightrope between three very sensitive, and separate, camps (Grant, Greg and Bob) while only two (Grant and Greg) were willing participants. Was the temptation ever there to dip into the more scandalous aspects of the band? Were you, in a way, trying to stay true to all three in the band by being both passionate and objective in your writing?
Thanks to Paul Hilcoff’s excellent Hüsker Dü Database site and the absurd amount of music-based non-fiction (zines/magazines, books, saved clippings, etc) that I’ve amassed since succumbing to “the disease” at age 16, I have probably read and attempted to process at least 95% of the preexisting music journalism/criticism/coverage relating to Hüsker Dü in some way. I guess every band, once you hit a specific level of exposure, becomes a magnet for dumb questions, but wow…I learned that it may seem like people don’t pay attention these days, or that we’re in some era of the short attention span, yet this has always been a problem. Writers were asking Bob and Grant about hardcore, in the present tense, when Candy Apple Grey was out. I think the smarter the band, the dumber the questions seem to be during an interview. Or that’s an automatic illusion for a third party who’s privy to how smart band members happen to be, as I was with this band. What I’m getting at is…this band has always had, to this day, a uniquely negative relationship with music writing/journalism/criticism. So here I come along with such a project, and it’s of massive scale, and my unconscious inclination from the get-go was to distance myself from the past quarter-century of writing about Hüsker Dü. I’ve already been accused of a journalism no-no when I admitted that I considered Greg and Grant to be “friends” in my intro. That’s relative usage of the term; of course, I didn’t go golfing with Greg. I didn’t help Grant restore one of his Studebakers. But these guys don’t let you in unless some sort of friendship is developed, some degree of trust that goes hand-in-hand with the applicable degree of friendship. But that’s not why my angle at the band is different from past angles. That has more to do with me as a person, two very bad years of my life having coincided with the writing of this book and my natural approach to writing, meaning, if I’m able to (control-wise), I will hopefully create something that doesn’t get lost in the mire of mediocrity that is music writing as a whole.
Some people actually thought I was writing some critical beat-down of the band. I got an e-mail asking if I was going to "let 'em have it, Street Team-style, or at least bag on Grant and Bob's solo careers." Why would the first book about Hüsker Dü be irreverent and negative, exactly what a historically neglected and misunderstood band doesn’t call for? What Hüsker Dü's music did for the past quarter-century of whatever-you-want-to-call-it rock music cannot be overstated, yet it was never even STATED to begin with because irresponsible writers and editors went with the easy hook. I really enjoy being ass-deep in the virtual (online) and physical clutter of research, reading zine interviews from almost 30 years ago, following the band as they reach one tiny achievement or hurdle one massive obstacle at a time, watching the amount and type of music press change as the band builds a following, hearing live clips from 1982 of the band playing freshly-written content that wouldn't appear on record until two or three years later, and I should stop before I lose the plot again. My point is: This band broke way too much ground on way too many levels, and the casual but curious future-fan only knows them as the band that didn't get along, or the band that was gay, or the band with a drug problem, or the band that did Zen Arcade, or the band that's suing their old label, etc. There are so many reasons why I either didn’t want to be a part of that, or wouldn’t be a part of that without even thinking about it.
Early on in the book, you say something that HD fans have probably not considered which is that before the band even entertains reuniting on stage, they need to sit in a conference room with attorneys and settle the business side of things. Providing that happens, do you think the band could pull a Mission of Burma and record new material that is as fresh and new as, say, Metal Circus?
That's in the intro, and it's in reaction to several e-mails and a couple of ridiculous phone conversations. And I should clarify that in no way was I wishing for or advocating the reformation of Hüsker Dü. I was stating that another type of reunion would be much more important and rewarding, both for the band and their fans. Someone's living room, hotel conference room, or a Food Avenue inside of a Target location, the point was...in the same room. And I was not implying that lawyers would need to be present for the purpose of inter-band moderation, they would need to be present so that no game plan misunderstanding or miscommunication took place outside of that room, once an agreement is reached as to how the back catalog can move into the hands of a label capable of a proper repackaging/reissue campaign. There are other important parties that have to be involved in this, too, like Terry Katzman, who is quite literally the friend that was there at the beginning and who will be there in the end. Terry is the closest thing that Hüsker Dü has in an archivist, especially regarding the first half of the band's lifespan. Also, since I have already read several complaints about my dismissal or exclusion of information about SST's or Greg Ginn's control over the band's most important and best-known albums, and past issues centered around the non-receipt of regular royalty statements/payments, my decision to more-of-less bypass this situation was one made with the band member's best interest in mind. I also refused to report on this in any detail unless I was able to get Ginn on record, explaining his side of things. This is not the black and white, label-screws-band problem that it's been painted as. Ginn, or someone affiliated with SST, has been sending statements and payments to the band members in the past couple, three years. I could not get an accurate assessment of the regularity or the amount paid out, but it's important to note that an effort has been made to deal with what must be a monumental clusterfuck. After I made a couple of e-mail attempts at contact, Ginn happened to come through town with both of his improv/jam-type bands. I wrote a preview of the show for The Memphis Flyer, then attended out of curiosity and the faint hope that I might be able to get him on board in an official capacity. About five people showed up. Ginn was walking around with his pre-performance glass of red wine, all chatty and in the best of moods. We spoke briefly and the guy was disarmingly nice, and I just didn't feel right about getting all up in his shit about participating in my book, like it might steal his mood away right before he was to get on stage. Not my place. Grant once said that it was unfortunate how each time Hüsker Dü and SST are discussed, the heyday years are always overshadowed by the negativity of the royalty/money issue. I simply didn't feel like being "another one" at that moment in time, asked for a primary e-mail address that he checks most often (the same one I had on file), and left it at that. Maybe I'm not cut out for this shit.
You delve into the band's live set lists which I don't think I've seen before in a band biography. The band was legendary for performing material before going into the studio, but what was the main motivation behind including the set lists?
Meaning, did I have some hidden agenda? No, my point behind doing that was the point that you just made. Oh, and the point that I made in a previous answer. To younger readers, or those just now getting into and trying to understand music from or related to what's known as "the underground", the idea that a band would get in front of an audience and knock out half of the record after the next record....is a bewildering one. It's expected of bands today - even those considered to be embedded in an untouchable sheen of scene-cool or those rocking a willful dance with obscurity - that there should be an unspoken or understood call-and-response with their audience based upon released recordings. Bands have moved away from unleashing hair-parting new material upon unsuspecting patrons just to show they're good enough to produce a positive reaction that's wholly unrelated to fan familiarity. The reason for this is too depressing to pinpoint for readers. It’s a fact that, live audiences of over 15 years ago, in a punk rock, underground, indie, post-hardcore, hardcore, whatever sense…had a larger percentage of knowledgeable fans. Today it’s sub-literate halfwits with their beautiful faces lit up in iPhone glow, who can’t process a brand new musical experience without knowing how their peers feel about it first.
Bob Mould's book that's being wrangled by Azzerad, did you or the publisher look at its release as a threat or an opportunity for both books to sister each other?
I'm not going to speak for my publisher, but I will say that I never viewed Bob's book in a negative or threatening way. I adopted an idealistic view of the future that saw my book existing harmoniously with Bob's, and who finished first was never a concern of mine. Doing the best I could do given the circumstances....that was my primary concern. Again, this is the ground I personally held throughout the writing of this book. I do not have a gun to my head as I write this answer - it's the honest to god truth, despite its resemblance to the text found inside of a Hallmark card or on a Successories poster.
A stranger sent me an e-mail saying that there was a rumor flying around about Bob and Michael ceasing work on Bob’s book until mine came out, so my book could be eviscerated within those pages. This is outlandish.
(End of part one. In part two, Earles delves into American Hardcore, revisionist history and why he doesn't have a comedy alter-ego.)