The Hardcore Evolution of Greg Norton
Hüsker Dü and Porcupine bassist makes punk rock mindset a lifetime commitment.
Posted Aug 29, 2019
“I carried you to a new place / Where you were able to hide / And picked away at the newness / You weren’t able to find” —From “Distraction” by Porcupine
How does hardcore age?
I don’t mean the music per se – as far as I’m concerned the ferocious sound of hardcore punk bands such as Bad Brains, Black Flag, and Minor Threat still stands tall decades later. More, the hardcore ethic seems to have pervaded current societal consciousness, as the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) mindset epitomized by labels such as SST Records and Dischord Records has become something of a cultural norm.
I was thinking more about the hardcore punk musicians themselves. If you were part of such a groundbreaking and incendiary musical and cultural movement, where do you go from there?
Well, for Greg Norton, bassist of the seminal band Hüsker Dü — now of Porcupine — it turns out that the true spirit of hardcore never really goes anywhere. It manifests the same way it did 40 years ago at its inception — as an ongoing commitment to innovation and evolution.
To understand the hardcore mindset, it is critical to consider the cultural context that spawned punk — and particularly hardcore punk music. “Punk was just a response to what the youth at that time felt was a bloated, boring industry. It was once something that was really great and challenging and shocking,” Norton told me. “And then it settled into excess … they got fat and lazy. So young kids do what young kids do — they picked up guitars and said, ‘Well we’re going to do it the way we want to do it and we’re going to do it better.’ And the great thing about punk was — it was anybody could do it. You want to be in a band?
“Start a band.”
As time went on and hardcore became more established, Norton felt that some artists stayed with their initial sound. In contrast, some bands such as Hüsker Dü continued to experiment with new approaches to their music.
“For a lot of us that ended up being groundbreaking, pushed the envelope, changed the narrative … we kept evolving. And we kept challenging the things in our worlds,” Norton told me. “Some people keep following the same formula over and over again obviously. But a lot of people continue to push and evolve and challenge things when they look at them.”
One may have naturally assumed that ongoing evolution would have been well received by a culture whose very birth was based on challenging norms. However, Norton felt that there were many in the hardcore community who created a new set of norms, and were not appreciative when Hüsker Dü violated those norms.
“Even within punk there became rules. It was like, you’re not hardcore enough, you’re not this, you’re not that,” Norton described. “Hüsker … we didn’t buy into any of that. We hated the whole mindset of ‘be like us or we’re going to beat your ass into the ground.’ It’s like, you know what? Screw that. So we’re just going to do what we’re going to do.”
Perhaps nothing was more radical at the time than Hüsker Dü’s decision to sign with a major label. Ironically, Norton felt that he found the very freedom that epitomized hardcore with this decidedly “un-hardcore” move.
“We absolutely caught flack as the band evolved and the sound evolved. And we had people that called us sellouts because we signed to Warner Brothers. But Warner didn’t step in and say, ‘Well we think you guys should do this.’ They let us be. They let us do what we wanted to do. And we gave them a couple of records,” he said. “In the Hüsker canon, Candy Apple Grey gets kind of slagged off. And Warehouse – a lot of people are like ‘the record’s brilliant.’ A lot of people say it would have made a nice single album. And it all boils down to: You’re not going to make everybody happy. You’re not playing to the lowest common denominator.
“We’re just doing what we like, and how we evolve.”
After Hüsker Dü broke up, Norton explored different musical paths. In fact, Norton feels that his experimental jazz project Gang Front was definitively “punk” because of its challenging, innovative style.
“I’ve always listened to a wide variety of genres. And I’ve done a lot of different things musically. I am in this band called Gang Font, which is with some of the top improvisational jazz players in the world … It makes the listener think. You can’t put a label on it,” Norton described. “When I was in the studio recording, I was like, ‘This is what real punk is.’ It’s that feeling that you’re doing something that’s going to challenge people, challenge yourself, hasn’t been done before. You know that some people are going to flip out and love it. Some people are going to flip out and hate it.”
And despite the fact that Norton’s current project, Porcupine, has a very different sound from either Hüsker Dü or Gang Font, he feels that the basic mindset of evolution is the same. “When Hüsker was happening though, we didn’t think we were doing any of that. We were just three kids making rock and roll. Porcupine is completely different than what I’ve done in the past,” he explained. “But there are similarities there because the medium is basically the same. It’s a three-piece rock and roll power trio. But how that changes and evolves is the viewpoints, the personalities, the songwriting style evolves and changes.”
More, Norton feels that the DIY mindset of hardcore — that anyone can do anything — has permeated other areas of his life beyond music. “I think for a lot of people that came out of American punk rock — they took that Do It Yourself — they learned how to get out there are do things for themselves. I don’t know if empowerment is the right word. But basically, I think it showed a lot of people that you can do this if you want to do it. And it’s not as scary as you think it’s going to be,” Norton recalled. “Like after the band broke up, I went into the restaurant business and learned how to cook and eventually became a chef and owned my own restaurant. And I think having that experience in Hüsker Dü helped make that move.”
Norton cautions emerging artists that the cultural landscape that initially spawned hardcore has changed somewhat. Paradoxically, as hardcore has become more accepted and DIY culture has become more pervasive, the community supporting hardcore has grown, but become more diffuse, thus making it more difficult for bands of any genre to “plug-in” to a scene.
“Being in a band starting in 1979 when we did — the forefront of that whole punk wave — there was this great community sense and scenes around the country. Back in the 80s in Minneapolis, there were maybe three, possibly four clubs at times — that you could count on for music. You would start trying to figure out, where is there a scene? Where is there a club that we can go play? And you’d go out and you’d find them, and you would play there. And everybody in that town would come to see you because that’s the only way that they could check you out.
And also at the time, there was this great college radio scene that was broadcasting your music all over the country,” Norton explained. “Now in one way it’s so accessible that it’s … I don’t want to say diluted … It’s just too many options for people to focus on, so everything’s kind of fuzzy. It seems like it’s almost harder to get people to come out to shows. And college radio isn’t anything close to what it used to be like. YouTube and Bandcamp and Spotify — there are all of these places where you can go and kind of check out music. But I don’t think people check out anything thoroughly anymore. I think they’ll go and they’ll click on something. And if it doesn’t catch their interest in say 10 seconds — they’re clicking onto something else. I think people do tend to be a bit more jaded.
“It’s like ‘Oh you’ve got your little band – that’s cute.’”
As a result, even though hardcore is more widespread, musicians face many of the same harsh financial realities today that hardcore musicians faced in the past. “To put it into historical perspective, musicians are basically making the same amount of money at clubs playing live shows today as they did 40 years ago. Record sales are pretty much nonexistent these days except for what you happen to sell at your shows,” Norton recalled. “In the early days of Hüsker Dü, I waited tables probably until Zen Arcade came out. And then we started touring so much and making enough money off of touring that I didn’t need a day job. Then when we signed to Warner Brothers, our lawyer who wrote the contract with us told my mother, ‘Don’t worry, he’s gainfully employed now.’"
"There are definitely artists out there — that’s all they do. They’re full-time musicians. I mean I would love to be a full-time musician and for the band to be able to get together and work on new music all the time," he explained. "But the reality is that we all have our day jobs to pay the mortgages and keep the kids in school. And it often ends up being a huge sacrifice to their families. For a lot of us, we have three full-time jobs. Our families, our day gig, and the dream. Keeping them all is a daily challenge.
“So it’s tough being a musician.”
Overall, Norton is comfortable with the trade-off, as being able to allow his music to evolve is worth the hardships of being a musician. “Music is a passion of love and hate for most musicians — self-love and self-hate. I was talking with someone not that long ago — he wasn’t a musician — for him, music saved his life. And I’ll hear that — growing up listening to you guys really got me through a lot of stuff,” Norton said. “And that’s great. And I started thinking about it from the artist’s point of view. And a lot of times it’s good therapy and you can work through a lot of stuff. But it’s also a double-edged deal there. Because it can also throw you into a pit of despair as well if you feel like you’re not getting that support. It’s definitely a labor of love. And it’s a labor of hate as well.”
Accordingly, Norton hopes that fans will recognize and support the artists they love. “I think the best thing that could happen would be for more people to get out and support live music. Go out and see those touring bands. Buy some merch — buy a T-shirt, buy a CD,” Norton said. “Because that money’s going straight back to them. And they’re on the road and they’re trying to make ends meet. And if you like them, go out and tell everybody — ‘Man I saw this band and they were awesome.’ And get people excited about going out and seeing live music. Another reason to get out there and support those guys and show them your love.”
Let’s hope there’s enough hardcore in all of us to get out there and support the evolution.