Always one to wear his heart on his sleeve, lyrically speaking, he’s not one to shy away from the big subjects, as his most recent album Blue Hearts proves. A spectacular piece of work, it lashes out at the political right wing, social prejudice and evangelical hypocrisy.
Chatting from his San Francisco home, in the week the US election result was announced, he had a lifetime of wisdom to impart.
America is probably even more divided than it appears
Yesterday I started chasing down a piece of legislation that came into effect after the Second World War, called The Fairness Doctrine. It was put in place to give equal time to opposing views on television and in radio. In 1987 that got turned back by the Reagan [administration].
There’s a school of thought that that was where partisanship really took hold. And it does correspond with the rise of Fox network and a lot of the more divisive, more polarising media views that started in the nineties. That’s really where a lot of division in America was allowed to be amplified. And thirty-something years later we have just suffered through another four years of a telegenic, evangelical-based Republican.
The historians will decide Trump's legacy
I think we all have to have faith that good will triumph over evil in all cases. That’s what keeps us going. I’m happy that it appears as of this moment that the Democrats are about to take control of the pandemic and the economy and all the things that need to be sorted out for the people of the United States, and hopefully with Joe Biden in charge we can start rebuilding a lot of relationships with the UK and Europe and the rest of the world. Building bridges instead of walls and all of that fun stuff.
Celebrity has become more persuasive than science
I guess it’s more exciting if you’re not into science or math. The idea of celebrity, it’s a very powerful thing. And the past two decades with things like MySpace and LiveJournal, morphing into Facebook and Twitter, everyone gets a microphone and everyone can conjure up theories. And if they’re persuasive enough they might get people who are looking for entertainment to believe it, as opposed to the majority of us who still trust most of the mainstream news to be somewhat credible.
It’s up to us to employ critical thinking when we read and hear things. It’s tough. The internet was meant to be liberating information for people to learn and create community, and I don’t think any of us saw it going quite so off the rails as it has in the past five years.
Religion has its place
Growing up, I went to a Catholic church every Sunday with my mother, all the way through confirmation. When I was living in Washington DC in the noughties, I went back for another three years, to see if anything had changed. I gave it another shot, but it didn’t seem like there was a place for me. I have no problem with religion the way I was taught it as a child. I didn’t believe in it completely, but there’s some basic ideas there that I think will apply forever – the whole ‘do unto others’ business, try to be kind to people.
But back in the late seventies, early eighties in America when the moral majority really got a hold of politics and found a willing spokesperson in Ronald Reagan, that started setting everything on a course for where we are now. With a lot of the new evangelical types of religion in America, it’s very profit-driven and I think they’re taking advantage of people.
The hardcore punk scene was welcoming to everybody
It was a little macho to be sure, but there was room for anybody who could contribute. I don’t think there was a lot of overt homosexuality that I can recall – there were a few people who were very out and flamboyant, and I’m grateful that they were. I was not one of them. I was keeping my sexuality mostly to myself, although it was an open secret.
The hardcore scene in the 1980s was about building a community around music, and doing so because there wasn’t a place for people like me who made non-commercial music. That was my focus more than trying to find a place that I fit sexually. Almost all of my energy went to my music as part of this scene that was truly alternative and trying to build our own world from the ground up.
Home is where you make it
I’ve enjoyed any place that I’ve lived. I grew up in a small farm town in northern New York state. I didn’t know anything different from that until high school, when I started going to Montreal to go to rock concerts. I’d been to New York City a couple of times as a kid, so I knew culture and all of those things were there, and I moved to the twin cities to go to university.
Since then I’ve lived in a number of different places around New York City, which is always such an amazing place, Washington DC, Austin, Texas. The four years I spent in Berlin recently was an incredible time. I fell in love with the city, and the pandemic put an end to that.
Anywhere I’ve lived really informs the work. Whether it’s the weather or the customs or the music community, all of it adds so much. It’s what makes each album a three-dimensional scrapbook of times and places. But I guess being a musician is a luxury; we’re not tied to a desk, we can be anywhere we want to be, so I’m really grateful that I’ve taken full advantage of that over time.
Climate change is real
This year in San Francisco was tough. We’ve had those orange days before, but nothing like in this past fire season. The pandemic is one thing, the unemployment is another thing, and when you start adding toxic outdoor air, there goes the one last thing that we have: we could go outside and walk.
Unfortunately I feel like we’re getting used to it, which is a really awful thing to say. We’re really paying for this change now. I hope in January the US will get back on track with the Paris Climate Accord [Agreement] and everything that we were doing for eight years before late 2016 arrived.
We can mitigate any further damage if we try
We can start to turn things around. It’s going to take a massive overhaul of the entire infrastructure. Decoupling big business from government, especially the oil industry, takes decades and it takes convincing people. It’s going to take a lot of global synchronisation.
I’m optimistic, but it’s sort of like it’s easy to say ‘black lives matter’. But to think about what really needs to be done to create equity, that’s the hard part. Thinking about making those sacrifices as individuals, because that’s what it’ll come down to.
Gaining wisdom is the best part of getting older
It’s being able to let go of certain parts of my personality that I would worry about, like worrying about what other people think. Sometimes, through the busy years of my life, I was just obsessing, worrying, trying to control every piece of everything. As I get older I don’t have the time for that any more. It’s a work in progress, and hopefully it’ll lead me to a place where there’s less things that I absolutely have to do.
And hopefully that’ll give me more time to work on the things that I love doing, whether that’s music or spending time with my partner, or focusing on my personal health. And this year with the pandemic, a lot of those things became more into clear view a little more quickly. I’m not at the airport seventy-five days a year. It changes everything!
I think about reconciliation a lot
In the instance with Grant [Hart, Husker Du drummer], we were never fully disconnected but there was always static or interference. When we were working on the Numero box set before Grant passed, I came back from Germany to visit, we had a nice weekend together just getting caught up, talking stuff through, and it was great. I always had nothing but the utmost of respect for Grant and his work. This clearly was a gifted guy and it was a real shame that he left way too soon.
I’m not going to try and put it over as we were the best of friends at the end, we were the friends we were. But there’s other people in my life where there’s time and distance. I think it’s okay to revisit friendships when people are in better places or healthier places. But some things are hard to go back to. All of us have relationships that ended due to entropy, acrimony, because of tragedy. It’s always good to be mindful of them, but sometimes you can’t go back.
Memories come back through art
Writing my book [See A Little Light: The Trail Of Rage And Melody] brought a lot of things I hadn’t thought about in years back to the surface. When I look backwards and I go through my history, I try to make sense of it. When I was working on the box set, revisiting thirty years of work, I was surprised at how vivid the memories became when I started listening to all the music again.
Hearing songs conjures the people back, it conjures the places, it conjures the situations… It gives me a good chance to think about people I am estranged from, people I have grown closer with. I should have known that the music is more powerful than just words, but it never really dawned on me until I was in the middle of it.
Happiness is learning to cherish the smaller things
Nice sunny days, time with people you care about, listening to people’s stories, enjoying art and music, cooking food for people. At this point, being separated from the world for the last nine months, it makes me appreciate the simpler things that I have. It’s been a good time to de-clutter.
I would find happiness if I could just snap my fingers and everything in my life could rearrange into two piles: the pile that I want to take with me at the end, and the pile that can go into a museum or to the town dump. That would be absolute happiness, if I could snap my fingers and ‘junk be gone’. If I could Marie Kondo my life.
Not everyone will want the same things as you
I had low goals. I just wanted to write songs and tell stories, and once I found two other people to make this band and go around the world telling these stories, and meeting other people that were doing the same thing, that’s when it gets difficult because you start to do well, you get different ambitions, and you get pulled in different directions.
That’s the part of the business that happens later, if you’re lucky enough to have some kind of success. Then the expectations are placed on you, and that’s where things start to go awry.
Just make the music that you want
If you’re a kid wanting to start out in music today, don’t worry about whether you’re going to be able to make a living at it. Don’t get hung up on what other people are doing. It’s easy to make music, but to be a creator or a writer, to really share your thoughts with people, that’s a daunting prospect.
Follow your instinct. Listen and learn and take in all the things that you love and it’ll create a story inside of you, and you’ve got to tell that story as accurately as possible. If you tell it good, other people will hear it and go: “I know that story, I’ve been there,” and tell other people. It’s not really about the algorithms.