Interview with Hüsker Dü bassist Greg Norton and Numero Group co-founder Ken Shipley | By Ryan Bray | Photo by Laura Levine
For Ken Shipley, the process of putting together a Hüsker Dü box set began with trying to make a believer out of the late Grant Hart. “I was told that the best way to get a Hüsker Dü box going was to convince Grant first, because he’d be the most difficult person to convince,” says Shipley, cofounder of the Chicago-based reissue label, Numero Group. “I kind of frontloaded all my energy into that: ‘If he’s the hardest guy, then what do I have to do to convince him that this is a great idea?’ That took a herculean amount of effort.”
Seven years later, that effort has been validated in the form of Savage Young Dü, a sprawling four-LP or three-CD box set covering the first four years of the legendary Minneapolis trio’s career. Due out Nov. 10 and comprised of 69 songs—47 of which are previously unreleased—and a 108-page book of unreleased photos, fliers, quotes, and essays, the set brings fresh perspective to the work of a band whose history many thought had long ago been written.
The completion of Savage Young Dü feels like a special kind of victory, especially given how dormant activity has been on the Hüsker front since the band’s 1988 split.
But the final product will regrettably never reach the man whose approval first spurred the project into action back in 2010. Hart, the band’s drummer and co-songwriter, died of cancer on Sept. 13 at the age of 56. “I met Grant when he was 17, so we’ve had a long history,” Hüsker bassist Greg Norton says. “He wasn’t always the easiest friend to have, but I’ll miss him dearly. Man, that guy could write some tunes.”
“I’m super bummed that we didn’t even get a finished copy to him,” Shipley laments. “We had one finished copy, and we were too busy shooting the photos. If I had known that was going to be it, I would have at least driven it up to him so he could have seen it.”
To truly appreciate Savage Young Dü is to understand just how improbable such a project was for so many years. The band’s catalog, while still in print, has largely been left untended. There have been no remasters or reissues, a result of both fractious relations between band members and legal issues with the band’s former label, SST Records.
It’s also never been the band’s wont to look back on things. Hüsker Dü moved at a furious creative clip, evolving from punk to hardcore to more melodic material that begat alternative rock in less than a decade together. Interest in revisiting the past lessened further after the trio’s breakup, with vocalist and guitarist Bob Mould and Hart pursing solo careers and Norton, for a time, breaking from music to become a chef. “We weren’t a band to linger in the past,” Norton says. “The way we recorded our records was a testament to that. We were always touring the record we were about to record as opposed to the record that we just released.”
Efforts to document the band’s earliest recordings go as far back as 2000. Terry Katzman—who started Reflex Records with the Hüskers and handled sound for the trio’s live shows until 1985—had an extensive collection of tapes that he suggested the band consider mastering and releasing. While they didn’t dismiss the idea, they didn’t jump at it either, Norton recalls. “At the time, we really didn’t know what to do, and it was hard to get the three of us together to talk about it,” he says. “And from what I’ve been told, Bob didn’t really think the timing was right for it.”
Years later, Numero Group reenergized discussion about a new release. The label initially wanted to rerelease the band’s SST material, but legal hang-ups led to a project that instead focuses on the period between 1979 and 1983. In addition to the band’s early 7”s, an alternate version of their 1982 debut, Land Speed Record, and the self-released Everything Falls Apart from 1983, Savage Young Dü includes songs from Katzman’s remastered tapes and material that was previously only circulated on bootlegs and lost demos. “It was a great period,” Norton recalls of the era captured on the set. “If we weren’t playing a gig, we were rehearsing. All of us were writing. Everyone was throwing stuff out there. Bob, songs were just pouring out of him. In a sense, it was us teaching ourselves how to write songs.”
“Listening through the box set, you kind of see the evolution happen sonically and stylistically,” he adds. “We started as a punk band writing songs like the bands we were listening to. Then, the songs evolve, and you can hear different influences pop up. We came up through American hardcore, but we still continued to evolve. All of that melody made its way back into the music. By the time of Everything Falls Apart—or even [1982 single] In a Free Land—it had a lot more going on to it than just hardcore.”
The band’s members first tested the waters with Numero Group by letting the label reissue the 1981 7”, Statues, for Record Store Day in 2013. From there, the label zeroed in on about 100 songs for inclusion in the set before narrowing everything down to the final 69, which were transferred and remastered at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio studio in Chicago. “The band had a pretty killer tape archive hiding out in an old storage space,” Shipley says. “Once we were able to get that material, it really opened the doors for what was possible. For years, I’d been told that the master tapes for ‘Statues’ and ‘Amusement’ were lost—and lo and behold, here’s the original multitracks, mixdowns, and all the additional stuff they recorded in the sessions. That kept happening. Every time we opened up a box, we found something new.”
Norton, Hart, and Mould kept tabs on the project through email with Shipley and others at Numero Group. Shipley says that while coordinating between all three members was challenging at times, the band showed a commitment to seeing the project through to completion, especially with the news of Hart’s sickness. “Having all three of them together at one point in time with a common goal, that hadn’t happened since 1987,” Shipley says. “I think Grant being sick helped it a little bit, because everybody pulled together and rallied around it.”
“I think the Bob and Grant battle has been well-documented in the press over the past several decades,” Norton says. “Now, we can get away from that and put the focus back on the music, which is where it should have been all along. We can concentrate on that legacy and that alone.”
Both Shipley and Norton say Savage Young Dü could be the start of an ongoing relationship between the band’s surviving members and Numero Group. The label hopes to dive further into classic Hüsker records like 1984’s Zen Arcade and 1985’s Flip Your Wig and New Day Rising. By Shipley’s estimation, there’s still about 200 tapes worth of material to comb through. Norton, meanwhile, says the band hope to launch a new website, where streams of old Hüsker Dü shows could eventually be made available.
“The thing that I think is really important [to acknowledge] is that bands that are sort of locked away from people end up getting forgotten,” Shipley says of delving further into the band’s history. “It’ll be exciting over the next four, five, 10 years as we continue to try to bring about a new story about this group. We just hope their music finds some fresh ears.”