A few months ago, Grant Hart heard the rumor. He had spent nearly three years recording his new solo album, Good News for Modern Man, under the jokey but descriptive working title Sgt. Jesus's Lonely Pets Club Sounds. Hart's open-ended agreement with his label, Pachyderm Records, stipulated nothing more than that he keep cooking until he was finished. Engineer Brent Sigmeth was busy remixing Hart's remixes into re-re-remixes. Meanwhile, news was spreading across the Internet that Hart had died.
"I got a lot of messages like 'I was afraid to call,'" says Hart, recalling how he learned of his own demise. He chuckles and taps the steering wheel of his '89 Oldsmobile. "I said to Jim Nickel, my A&R man, 'Hey, death is a tough act to follow; let's get this album out.'"
Local fans who are used to seeing Hart sip coffee at First Avenue might puzzle over the rumor, but the musician's national profile has been low-riding for years. Sitting in the purple vinyl interior of his "get-around" car a block from the Ave., he wears his typical uniform: a black, double-breasted blazer; a well-worn paisley-patterned shirt (untucked over a paunch); blue jeans; black leather boots; and a chopped, shoulder-length Hanson 'do. In other words, he's the spitting image of himself 15 years ago in Hüsker Dü, the profoundly influential Eighties trio with which he may forever be identified.
Hart penned some of the band's most memorable songs, wailing his voice hoarse and playing a breakneck blur of cymbals and snare behind bassist Greg Norton and singer-guitarist Bob Mould, the band's other songwriting force. In what became something of an Ivana-and-Donald Trump divorce in indie-rock lore, Mould effectively placed the blame for the group's 1987 split on Hart's addiction to heroin, one reason a death rumor might still find kindling years later.
Holding the steering wheel, Hart's drummer's hands are still thick, but his thumbnails are grown out long, perhaps the better for strumming his acoustic guitar alone onstage. This is what he does these days, making sporadic live appearances around town in support of local acts, rendering formerly feedback-drenched love-hate numbers in more naked arrangements. Hart starts the car and lowers the power window before lighting a cigarette and turning the beast off again. He stares into space as he speaks, remembering aloud old songs and old bands.
It is here, in this rusting boat of American steel, that Hart wrote most of the tunes for Good News. They came to him gradually, over the three-year period since he released 1996's live acoustic Ecce Homo, his last album, which culled material from his nine years in Hüsker Dü and five years in his second band, Nova Mob. On the routine drive between his native South St. Paul to Pachyderm Studios in Cannon Falls, Hart listened mostly to oldies radio and work tapes for months, rarely tuning in modern rock. "That was my most productive half-hour of the day," he says.
This regimen of avoidance is a deliberate part of Hart's routine. Although his songs have often had a familiar yet maddeningly unplaceable quality to them--as they do on Good News--the songwriter remains unusually diligent about eschewing any trace of musical plagiarism. "There are mornings when I wake up and the same melody has been going through my head the entire night," he says. "When that happens I worry, God, is this that Sheryl Crow hook? I'll hear a recording that's 20 percent like some idea I had and have to abandon it because I've lost faith in its originality."
Hart's cultivated obsessiveness works well for Good News, an album that might be taken as a declarative indication of life for dejected Hart fans. It's a sprawling jukebox of nostalgic pop songs, filled with deceptively simple choruses that follow the listener to sleep. Overdubbing himself on every instrument, and inviting only labelmate and blues-guitar wunderkind Mato Nanji of Indigenous to join him (on "Seka Knows"), Hart could have backed himself into a corner of overindulgence and overproduction. Instead, he has made the best album of his post-Hüsker career, his distinct vocal quaver wrapped warmly, but not too tightly, in a crazy quilt of guitar and synthesizer textures.
The album's tone is nearly celebratory--no less so, perhaps, because the years preceding its genesis were so bleak. Hart still keeps a cardboard box in the back seat of his Olds with gloves, clothes, and candy bars in case of a breakdown. He remembers well how the bitter Minnesota cold immobilized his bandmates' wheels outside Pachyderm during the agonizing weeks spent recording Nova Mob's final, self-titled opus in 1994, a work Hart refers to as "terrible." He says cabin fever, along with recurring label frustrations, effectively finished off the band.
"With Nova Mob I was trying to keep a democratic unit with people who didn't know how," he says. "I could have made a better album by drumming myself."
Hart's assessment seems ungracious: Even his friends testify that he can be a difficult, arrogant son of a bitch to work with. (My first memorable concert experience as a local-music writer for City Pages was getting yelled at by Hart for bumping into a friend of his: "Watch where you're going, asshole!" he said.) Besides, as drummer Marc Retish told Britt Robson in these pages back in 1994, Hart was still using in the Nova Mob years. Hart makes no bones about his addiction, but says the group's dissolution had as much to do with an experience gap within the band. Hart had recorded his first Hüsker Dü vocal, "Statues," the day after his 19th birthday. By the time he was fronting Nova Mob a decade later, he'd spent a third of his life on the road. He says he plans to tour with a new group behind Good News, but a permanent combo seems unlikely.