Bob Mould Looks Back at Husker Du's Breakthrough Indie Album 'Zen Arcade'
In 1983, Hüsker Dü's singer-guitarist Bob Mould told Matter fanzine writer Steve Albini, "We're going to try to do something bigger than anything like rock & roll... I don't know what it's going to be, we have to work that out, but it's going to go beyond the whole idea of 'punk rock' or whatever."
"We had to come up with an idea after saying stuff like that," says Mould, and the epochal Zen Arcade was the result. Hüsker Dü originally embodied the hardcore ethos "loud fast rules," but now the trio -- Mould, singer-drummer Grant Hart and bassist Greg Norton -- was introducing melody, introspection and a host of outside influences into punk rock, which was groundbreaking and catapulted Hüsker Dü to the forefront of the indie underground. The ripples from Zen Arcade extend from the Pixies and Dinosaur Jr to Nirvana and way beyond.
In the autumn of 1983, Hüsker Dü toured out to California and in October they recorded (with SST house producer Spot) 25 tracks in 45 hours, then mixed it in 40 hours. Apropos of zen, all but two of the tracks were recorded in one take.
Zen Arcade had begun with epic, acid-and-speed-fueled jams in a deconsecrated St. Paul church where Hart was squatting. The band's two gifted songwriters were vying to outdo one another, and "we started to weave this framework that we built around all the songs we'd been writing," says Mould. The storyline: A young man runs away from a troubled home, seeking refuge in the big city, only to find a corrupt, industrialized wasteland. He flirts with joining a cult and meets a girl, but she fatally overdoses. He comes home, retreats into himself and then begins to find strength. But it turns out the whole thing was a dream, and now he must face real life. Cue "Reoccurring Dreams," a 14-minute instrumental full of the tumult and serenity of any life; it ends with a minute of flatlining feedback.
And why was it punk rock to make a double album with a 14-minute improvisation? "Because," Mould explains, "it was against punk rock."
Dispensing with the usual hardcore hectoring, the lyrics had an almost confessional singer-songwriter tone, while the music is variegated and full of invention: pop melodies, backwards recording, folky vocal harmonies, tape collage, acoustic songs, piano interludes, psychedelia, and jazzy extended improvisation. "It's geodesic-shaped," Hart quipped at the time. "Everyone will have to get a new stereo."
But while the album's departures from hardcore orthdoxy were huge, the hardcore parts are blood-and-guts intense, incendiary tirades that, to this day, would send entire rooms full of people into a frenzy of rabid moshing.
This was Hüsker Dü's artistic, commercial and even cultural breakthrough. It also marked a coming of age for the American indie underground: after that, the audiences changed, the music changed and eventually mainstream music followed suit.
Zen Arcade gives "a sense of what it was like in 1984 in America, you're in the Reagan era, and you feel a little oppressed, marginalized," says Mould. "As I figured out years later, that was me -- the disenfranchised, marginalized gay kid who was watching the beginning of the AIDS crisis and the Young Republicans taking over; I was watching all that stuff and feeling a little powerless, confused as to why things were going that way. "
And yet for all those feelings of powerlessness and confusion, it's still very raging music. "Yeah, it's raging," Mould agrees. "But you can't give up, right?"
An edited version of this article first appeared in the Nov. 1 issue of Billboard.