In the 1980's, few bands bridged the gap between hardcore punk and what would become alternative rock quite like Minnesota's Hüsker Dü.
The personalities in the trio, however, were not as harmonious, and their partnership dissolved before the decade's end. Guitarist Bob Mould went on to a successful recording career. Bassist Greg Norton dropped out of music and became a chef. And that leaves ... drummer Grant Hart.
Since the end of Husker Du, Hart has been either incredibly productive or absent from the public eye for years at a time. Now, after four years away, he's back with a very ambitious concept record. It's based on an unpublished work of the late William S. Burroughs, who had adapted Milton's Paradise Lost for the stage — and renamed it Lost Paradise.
"I've always been attracted to the [Milton] line, 'Awake, arise, or be for ever fall'n," Hart says. "There's a revolutionary in me that really loves that kind of thinking."
Grant Hart spoke with NPR's Jacki Lyden about the making of his new double album, The Argument. Click the audio link to hear more of their conversation.
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
And if you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. And it's time now for music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T WANT TO KNOW IF YOU ARE LONELY")
HUSKER DU: (Singing) And I don't wanna know if you are lonely...
LYDEN: In the 1980s, few bands showed where punk was headed more clearly than Minnesota's Husker Du. But the personalities in the trio wouldn't co-exist beyond the decade. Guitarist Bob Mould went on to a successful recording career. Bassist Greg Norton dropped out of music and became a chef. And that leaves drummer Grant Hart. Since the end of Husker Du, Hart has either been incredibly productive or absent from the public eye for years at a time.
Now, after four years away, he's back with an ambitious concept album, a double album, even. It's based on an unpublished work by the late William S. Burroughs. Burroughs had adapted Milton's "Paradise Lost" and renamed it "Lost Paradise."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IS THE SKY THE LIMIT?")
GRANT HART: (Singing) Is the sky the limit? What is the apogee? Is the sky the limit for me?
LYDEN: Grant Hart's new album is called "The Argument," and he joins us from the studios of Minnesota Public Radio. Grant Hart, how nice it is to have you here.
HART: Well, thank you very much.
LYDEN: This double album is a project that's been a long, long time in the making. How far back does it go?
HART: Well, the actual inception goes back to 2008. William's secretary, James Grauerholz, was poring over some unpublished things, looking for a project to be turned into a musical, and he showed me this "Lost Paradise" that William had monkeyed around with sometime last 10 years of his life. And by the time I left, I was convinced that I was the person that should compose the music for it.
LYDEN: So you knew him before his death in 1997?
HART: (Chuckling) It was a lot easier than knowing him after it.
HART: Yes, we've known each other for about 11 years.
LYDEN: It seems like such an extraordinary adaptation of an adaptation. Was there something - a line that spoke to you, or just the concept of reinventing this yet again that gripped you? What was it?
HART: Well, I've always been attracted to the line: awake, arise or be forever fallen. You know, there's a revolutionary in me that really loves that kind of thinking.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
HART: (Singing) I would never serve in Heaven when in Hell I can command. Let us leave this boiling brimstone; come and join me on solid land...
LYDEN: And, of course, Milton's poem is based on the biblical story of the fall of man. You're using a lot of different songwriting styles on these two albums. "So Far from Heaven," for example, that had an almost '50s feel to me, a kind of "Earth Angel" by The Penguins or a Bobby Darin song.
HART: Well, thank you very much. That's high praise. That was a favorite of my late mother's. And I love the fact that she was able to see that performed a few times.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SO FAR FROM HEAVEN")
HART: (Singing) I sit and watch the world alone from the star. I see you approaching. I wonder who you are. What's a little angel doing so far from heaven?
LYDEN: In your work, are you thinking about characters, Satan and Adam and the Archangel, or are you thinking - was anything in the poem informing your music?
HART: Well, one of the early things that I decided was that Lucifer was not going to go through the name change, that he was - I was going to not transform him from, you know, a sympathetic character to an evil character. I was going to excise the religious content, which is half of the book. And when you're condensing something into a mere two records, 70 minutes' worth of music, you got to chop a lot of "Paradise Lost" out.
HART: At first, I thought, oh, I'm going to, you know, every detail, every comma, every exclamation point is going to be addressed. And as I went along, I realized that the songs in between the songs in between the songs are going to just pile up. So I started skipping around and then connecting the dots. And I think that's one of things that made the project possible to conclude.
LYDEN: Yeah. Did you actually reread Milton or just the Burroughs poem when you tried to pair the mood of the music with the story you're telling in the lyrics?
HART: I reread Milton. I had the Burroughs typescript until I had a house fire, which - I'd already stopped directly accessing the stuff. Instead, I took a lot in, and then I channeled it. Once I knew what the story was going to be, I put the books away and told it my own way.
LYDEN: Hmm. My guest is Grant Hart, and his latest project is a double album based on Milton's "Paradise Lost," and it's called "The Argument." Let's talk a little bit about the song "The Argument."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE ARGUMENT")
HART: (Singing) Never have I seen with so much pleasure / that result in so much beauty / that is so a joy for ever / ever will we seek it in our / being cast from heaven and its treasure I can find in all my duty...
LYDEN: You're using call and response here in the war between good and evil, and the lyrics are: Never have I seen with so much pleasure, pleasure the result of so much beauty, beauty that is so enjoyed forever, ever we will seek it out in our being. And I love the way that you've doubled this. You know, the last line of the first refrain then becomes the springboard for the next line. Really, really clever wordplay. That had to be a real musical challenge.
HART: It was a very tough challenge. And there's also a strange coincidence that happened there. In order to make an eight-count with the lyric, I had to use 10 syllables per each line, and then they share two syllables, which makes it, you know, the metrical eight. And Milton's original was 10 syllables per line, and I didn't realize that until I barely nearly completed writing the song. So I thought that was a nice - nice tap on the shoulder from the fates.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE ARGUMENT")
LYDEN: You know, I read that you're thinking about staging it as what you have called a perverted ballet, and I'm almost afraid to ask how you do envision this on the stage.
HART: Well, I see the core as a, you know, a rock band, and then I see additional instrumentation, a lot of voices, but there are places where I could see some kind of like exercise routine going on or... You know, I'm not seeing "Swan Lake," that's why I used the description perverted ballet.
HART: Courtney Love would be perfect...
HART: ...because she's got the voice, she's got the delivery. You know, just ballet without the tutus, maybe spacesuits.
LYDEN: Maybe a trampoline for the fall...You know...
HART: A trampoline? That would be great.
LYDEN: ....Satan and Lucifer can go up - they can go up and down with sin and death.
HART: Bungee cords.
LYDEN: Feel free to take my contributions here.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LETTING ME OUT")
HART: (Singing) Put away your poisonous darkness, nothing to kill in this angel's heart.
LYDEN: Grant Hart was one third of the legendary rock band Husker Du. His new solo album comes out on Tuesday. It's an adaptation of Milton's "Paradise Lost," and it's called "The Argument." Check out a few tracks in our website, nprmusic.org. Grant Hart, it really has been fun taking to you. Thank you.
HART: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.