Fred Armisen on Husker Du and Minneapolis music

Fred Armisen and Grant Hart of Husker Du
Fred Armisen and Grant Hart of Husker Du (Courtesy of Fred Armisen)
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Around the launch of "Do You Remember?", our podcast about Hüsker Dü, we asked several artists to contribute their stories, memories or feelings about the band. Here's a conversation Brian Oake had with actor/comedian/musician Fred Armisen about discovering punk music, the Minneapolis scene and one of his favorite bands.

Brian Oake: I've never had a chance to talk with our next guest, who is apparently a lifelong fan of Hüsker Dü, Mr. Fred Armisen. How are you today?

Fred Armisen: How are you? Thanks for having me on.

BO: My pleasure. As you and I discussed right before we got going here, I think both of us could talk about Hüsker Dü all the time, so let's start at the beginning. I know that you started out as a musician before becoming a mega-famous guy with Saturday Night Live and with Portlandia and all the other things you've done. When do you first remember hearing Hüsker Dü?

FA:I was in college at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and this must have been '85, maybe '84. There was someone who lived at the dorms who was really into Hüsker Dü. I got into the music a little bit after that and I never had a chance to see them, but for me, I was in the hardcore scene. I was in a hardcore band for a little while and I really liked all kinds of punk, all the British stuff. But American hardcore I remember as being a little scary to me because I was in New York City and the bands were like a little unmelodic for me. I liked being around it, but I was intimidated by it. I just remember that Hüsker Dü was the first time it sounded a lot more positive to me; just these open guitar chords that were almost like folky or something, and I loved how they sang. I just loved their voices.

BO: There's a lot to get into, because as this new box set points out, early on they did Land Speed Record, which is one of the most savage hardcore records in the history of American hardcore, but Grant Hart, the drummer, one of the primary songwriters, he was - you nailed it - a groovy, folky hippie. He wanted to cover Donovan. They covered Sunshine Superman, so they could get dark and emo, but there was always this strong sense of melody. Did you ever feel like you were a little bit of a loner, like for some reason Hüsker Dü should've been a lot bigger than they were? Were you ever like why don't more people worship this band?

Fred Armisen and Bob Mould of Husker Du
Fred Armisen and Bob Mould of Husker Du (Courtesy Fred Armisen)


FA: It depends on how you look at it. I was in New York and Long Island, and to me they were huge, like every time I got to see them or when they played in town, they played big venues. I got into them after all their hardcore stuff - Land Speed Record and all that. So to me and my friend they were tremendous, and also because they were from Minneapolis that made them ever more exotic, like whoa, who is this band from Minneapolis and they're going to be on tour soon. I also remember reading interviews with them. There was one interview with Bob where he mentioned that he liked The Mamas And The Papas, and that to me as a teenager was like wow, it's so great to be honest and to open up what your influences are. I was a Beatle fan still. I was like all about Paul McCartney and I still loved punk. I liked both Beatles and punk, so to me Hüsker Dü was like a mix of that, which is what I think punk should be - welcoming to all different kinds of music. So to me they were tremendous. They were like a huge famous band. Just the fact that they had records out was mind boggling to me. I was always star struck by any band that had records out.

BO: And the fact that they were on a major label as well. We're talking to Fred Armisen right now - actor, musician, comedian and unrepentant fan of Hüsker Dü. I think one of the things that made Hüsker Dü feel so real in addition to the quality of their music was that to look at them they didn't look like a rock band. Not even like a punk rock band. Punk rock bands - a lot of them were playing dress up where they had a certain code or a certain style, and these guys, they'd play mismatched instruments and they wore kind of everyday street clothes that didn't say we're a punk rock band at all. Did that lack of style or lack of being iconoclast - did that have any appeal for you?

FA: Yes, because that, to me, I think many punks see as the real punk. If you can look like that, I think that is the whole idea behind it, is that you're supposed to look like your own version of what a person is. So they accomplished it and it's aged really well. You look back at the old pictures and it still looks great. I think the Minutemen did it - lots of SST bands - Meat Puppets to a certain extent - and then even later Dinosaur Junior, who didn't exactly look like a punk band, to me is an absolute punk band. Because they wore what they did, I was like that is exactly what a true punk band is.

BO: I love that you bring up SST because I had a chance, as part of this podcast, to do an interview with Henry Rollins, and obviously Black Flag was ground zero for SST, but then SST, much like Hüsker Dü - so iconoclastic - like Minutemen were not necessarily a punk band. Meat Puppets were absolutely not a punk band, but they all carried that same ethos and they were all weird and unusual. Did you find yourself gravitating toward labels like that, like exploring the whole SST thing?

FA: Oh my god, I loved SST. I still do. That logo, it still gives me a feeling. And it's probably like the most proud that I am of being a punk that I am is the connection to SST because what a perfect label of aesthetics and music. Also I loved where they were from - California. To me that seemed really like a million miles away.

BO: All those Pettibon covers too, like the artwork that was synonymous with SST - not for everybody who was on it, but like the Black Flag covers and the compilation covers - it had just the right amount of menace. I grew up in suburban Minneapolis, so for me it was like this is dangerous; I just be buying this. It smells funny in this record shop and I'm absolutely spending $8 on this Black Flag 12-inch.

FA: Yeah, and there's also a sense of humor in it, like because there was some sense of comedy it just lightens up the whole thing. A lot of stuff can be so serious, and SST had just the right amount of "this should be fun".

BO: We're talking to Fred Armisen here about Hüsker Dü. Savage Young Du is the name of the new release from Numero Group, and "Do You Remember" is the name of the podcast made here from the Current from MPR, which you can find at thecurrent.org. You look back on Hüsker Dü - obviously on people like you, people like myself, a huge impact, an indelible impact, but they also would go on to affect more than just about any '80s heavy band or hardcore band, although they're much more than that. Their legacy would be more lasting, and I think can still be felt today. What do you think the legacy of a band like Hüsker Dü is?

FA: Billy Jo Armstrong is very open about how if it wasn't for Hüsker Dü they wouldn't have put a band together. That was I think the first bridge of trio - bass, drums and guitar - "pop melodies" that are simplified - short songs. Hüsker Dü had a real depth to them. They had a real dark side to their music too. I think that's the first link. That's already a couple decades ago, but I think Green Day was sort of the beginning of that - sort of opening that up. Nirvana is the same, and there are just so many bands from that time that I think were affected. I just got to say - I want to say very openly that I really do love Hüsker Dü so much. It's easy to say that, like oh, I love Hüsker Dü, but I'm telling you that I think about them all the time. I love them so much. I was so into them. I still listen to them. I feel lucky that I got to meet Bob, and way back in the day I met those guys backstage at the Ritz I remember. I got to meet Grant and Greg. And you, coming from Minneapolis - I can't believe that city. What happened to you guys? I don't understand how like - to me it's like a version of Liverpool, like how on planet Earth did you guys make all those bands?

BO:I always say Athens was going through a similar thing in the '80s and I always say that what we were doing in Minneapolis in the '80s - we were sort of Seattle before Seattle became Seattle - late '80s into the early '90s - sort of passed the baton over there, where suddenly there's this critical mass, and so I wish I knew the answer to your question, but that crucible of the music of the '80s of here in Minneapolis - I also still like it because even to this day you obviously are an enlightened individual, but a lot of people who spend a lot of time on the coasts, even if they're aware of Minneapolis - some of the legacy of Minneapolis - I think that culturally there's still a lot of conception that it's a little bit of fly-over country. Maybe Chicago is okay, but Minneapolis, unless you've been here, unless you've delved into what's happened here and what continues to happen here, I think a lot of people underestimate the cultural impact of what's happening here.

FA: I spent some time in Chicago, and I remember that there was always a respect for Minneapolis. Maybe it's just because it's north. I think something about cities that are north of whatever place you are in always seem sort of enlightened, or something about it seems like there's something going on. But fly-over - I can't tell. I just have so much respect for it that I never had a chance to think of it that way. Also because of the way it looks. It looks somewhat like Legoland of futuristic or something - the highways and stuff. I love that it's a cold place. That makes it even more special. Iceland - Reykjavik has a lot of those qualities too, where you're like what is going on up there.

BO: It has been great to talk to you, and I got to be honest, just as a personal aside, when I bought Zen Arcade in 1984 I had no context. Nothing had prepped me for anything that was like that ever before, and so it literally - I can only say it about maybe one other album - it literally changed my life, so to talk to someone who is so effusive and so enthusiastic about a band that is central to my core and my head and the very person I've become today, it's really great to talk with you, Fred, about Hüsker Dü.

FA: You too, and I'm so happy you guys did this and are doing this. It's such a cool thing. I don't even need to explain to you why it's great, but I'm just telling you as a listener I really appreciate it.

BO: Thank you.


Transcription by Rick Carlson.

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"Do You Remember?" is a podcast that explores Husker Du's formative years and legacy through rare exclusive interviews with the band, as well as those who were around in the beginning. We also dive into recordings from Numero Group's new remastered box set of the band's early releases, demos and live recordings.



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