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Feature Thu Mar 15 2012
By John Greenfield
It must be pretty strange to see someone else portray you in a cover band, but Greg Norton, bass player from the influential Minneapolis punk trio Hüsker Dü, was a good sport about it.
Best known for his iconic handlebar moustache, Norton has kept a relatively low musical profile since Hüsker's demise in 1988. Instead, he pursued his interests in the culinary arts and, after many years in the restaurant business, currently works as a sales rep for a wine broker. However, in recent years he's been playing bass in The Gang Font feat. Interloper, an oddly named supergroup with members of The Bad Plus and Happy Apple.
Last Saturday Norton and his girlfriend Tobi Severson traveled from their home in Red Wing, MN, to Chicago's Quenchers Tavern to celebrate his 53rd birthday at a gig by Hüsker Düdes. Possibly the world's only Hüsker Dü tribute act, the band, featuring bassist Geoff Greenberg (Mr. Rudy Day), guitarist Dan Fanelli (Land of the El Caminos) and drummer Eric Mahle (Sunken Ships, Sybris) formed in early 2010. That fall the rhythm section played a few tunes with notoriously erratic Hüsker Dü drummer Grant Hart on guitar during his solo appearance at Quenchers.
"Greg Norton has known about us for a long time," Greenberg emailed me. "He's a fan of our band on our Facebook page, and has commented here and there. Tobi reached out to me last month to say they wanted to drive down to the show and asked me if that would be too weird and nerve-wracking. We said PLEASE come to the show."
Norton appeared to have a blast at the packed concert, kibitzing with fans and posing for photos with Greenberg, who'd grown a mustache for the occasion. Fanelli and Mahle wore wigs to emulate Hüsker Dü guitarist Bob Mould's youthful hairstyle and Grant Hart's flowing locks. The Düdes tore through a set of classic Hüsker material, including "It's Not Funny Anymore," "New Day Rising" and "Don't Wanna Know If You Are Lonely."
Greg Norton sits in on bass with the Hüsker Düdes. (Photo by Jacob Jeremiah)
Norton sat in on bass on "Target" and "From the Gut," and sang lead on "Blah Blah Blah." His four-string playing hasn't slowed down much since Hüsker Dü's amphetamine-fueled heyday. At the end of the show, Mahle's girlfriend presented Norton with a cake decorated with his trademark handlebar 'stache and the crowd sang "Happy Birthday." Norton grabbed the mic and said, "Fuck, I haven't seen a Hüsker Dü show in so long. Y'know what? These fuckers aren't bad." Afterwards I buttonholed him for a quick interview.
Tell me about what's going on with your new project Gang Font.
That's a really great question. Gang Font is an incredible band. Dave King on drums, Eric Fratzke on guitar, Brian Nichols on keyboards, myself on bass. We actually have a record that's been in the can for a year. We need to get that sucker out. We have had some discussions with a few different labels. But hopefully the other members of the band will be able to free up some time so we can get out on the road. We actually may be playing here sometime soon this summer, we'll see.
How would you describe the music?
Gang Font is all instrumental. The band's been together for almost five years now. We released a record in 2007 with Craig Taborn on keyboards. At that point we described it as post-punk / free-funk / math metal.
Any other musical projects going on?
Another little side project is an instrumental improv band called Con Queso. That one is a rock thing.
So you went to chef school in London, right?
Well, there's a lot of rumors or myths, so to clear that up, in 1993 I did spend a summer in London. I did an internship at a restaurant in Mayfair. Gary Rhodes was the chef, one of the more prestigious chefs in London. I came back from that and went on to open up my own restaurant.
The Norton's Restaurant, in Redwing?
Which is now closed, by the way. It's defunct.
You doing any cooking nowadays?
I am not.
OK. Can I ask you an obnoxious question?
Feel free to not answer it. But I read Bob Mould's autobiography [See a Little Light: the Trail of Rage and Melody (Little Brown, 2011)] and it's not very flattering towards you.
Have you read it and, if so, what do you think? Are you fairly depicted in it or do you think he got it wrong?
Actually you're the first person to ask me this. Here's the deal. Bob's book is a work of historical fiction. He gets a lot of the facts kind of right but he gets a lot of the shit wrong. This is actually kind of funny because I haven't seen Bob since London in 1993.
OK, he talks about that in the book.
Right. Actually, let me back up just one second. I saw Bob last summer. He played in Minneapolis last summer and I had not seen him since London. I showed up when he played a jazz club called the Dakota [in Minneapolis]. I was like, "Oh hey Bob, it's been a long time." And he goes, "Yeah, like London 1993. Read about it in the book."
And I'm thinking, "Dude, well that was kind of rude." 'Cause when he said that he kind of turned around and walked away. Then all of the sudden he got all nice and he was like, "Seriously, how've you been?" acting like he was all concerned. That was right when the book was being released and when I read the book I had to laugh.
That summer in London was the same summer that The Living End [Hüsker Dü's posthumous live album] was coming out. Bob's people and Bob knew that I was there. We had to get the record contract signed for Warner Brothers. His lawyer was like, "OK, Bob's playing with [his early-Nineties band] Sugar at the Brixton Academy." Warner Brothers shipped me the documents, so I went to the show with my wife at the time. We got down there and they were like, "Oh no, you're not on the guest list." We didn't actually get in right away and when we got in we were delegated to what in Britain is the back lounge area. Never even saw Bob until after the show.
But he talks about you going to see him before the show and then watching him play and getting your mind blown.
[In the book Mould describes Norton confronting him with a stack of papers to sign during sound check. According to Mould, he ordered Norton to leave the sound check and send the papers to his lawyer, and later saw the bassist in the audience as he performed the cathartic, earsplitting Beaster album. "I lock eyes with Norton, who is standing in the sea of humanity," Mould writes. "Everything in the world is coming unglued except for him, standing there with his mouth open. I was like, Yep, that's what it feels like. Send that contract to my lawyer and leave me alone."]
Right, so Bob's account was that I walked in and was like, "You have to sign this!" and he's like, "Fuck you, I'm not signing that." Then he told [Sugar bassist David] Barbe, "Did you see Greg Norton in the crowd? He looked like he pissed his pants."
That is a total fabrication because I spent the entire show basically backstage watching it. Brixton Academy has kind of got an upstairs bar area that's kind of the V.I.P. area and I was up there. And I was like, "I've got these contracts for Bob to sign." That is true. I had to catch the Tube from Brixton back to London. I was told, "Well Bob will come out later, blah blah blah."
So finally, one of his roadies was somebody I knew from Hüsker tours and I'm like, "Dude, Bob has to sign these contracts." So he finally goes and gets somebody, they take me backstage, and that's when it's like, "Oh hey Bob, I'm really sorry but you have to sign these. I have to get on a train to go back to London." And the funny thing is that in the British tabloids that week they were like, "Grant Hart showed up backstage and confronted Bob Mould over something."
Oh, that's weird.
Right. I don't know why, but they got it all wrong. So Bob's account is all fucked up, y'know.
Yeah, it doesn't jibe with yours at all.
There are a lot of things in Bob's book that are like, kind of close to what really happened but they're not what really happened, they're skewed.
Well, moving on to a more positive subject, what's it like seeing someone portray you in a tribute band? What did you think of this evening?
That was a trip. It was a surreal moment. But it did kind of remind me of how good of a band Hüsker was live, y'know. Hüsker Dü was a fucking great live band. Obviously these guys aren't Hüsker Dü. They had their moments, though, tonight when they were fucking spot-on. The drummer with the wig is like uncanny. It was like, holy shit.
John Greenfield is a freelance writer and co-founder of Grid Chicago, a sustainable transportation blog.