Hüsker Dü’s Greg Norton joins Twin Cities rock trio Porcupine, greatness ensues
Since the mid-2000s, Minneapolis-based power alt-rock trio Porcupine—the brainchild of singer, guitarist and ace tunesmith Casey Virock with longtime drummer Ian Prince—have been indie rock’s best kept secret, amassing a stellar catalog chock full of punchy, melodic anthemry.
A disciple of the 1980s and ’90s-era Amerindie underground, Virock is an unsung hero who, over a string of EP’s, singles and two long-players, unapologetically channels those glory years with an ear-candied brand of riff-fueled rock that recalls the harder-edged side of R.E.M., Big Dipper, Soul Asylum and solo Bob Mould.
Now Porcupine’s days of flying under the radar have come to an end—thanks to the addition of handlebar-mustachioed bassist Greg Norton, formerly of independent rock legends, Hüsker Dü.
Virock and Prince have seemingly found their brother-in-arms in Norton and on the newish What You’ve Heard Isn’t Real, the trio lay the super-catchy, grungy and shoegazy rock on thick on one of 2019’s must-hear records. Fittingly, they pay homage to the late great Grant Hart, Norton’s bandmate in Hüsker Dü, with a cover of the drummer/songwriter’s Zen Arcade classic, “Standing By The Sea.”
The Globe caught up with Virock and Norton to talk the band’s beginnings, where the ex- Hüsker bassist has been and how he joined the Porcupine fold, the much-missed Hart and more.
Casey, you’ve had a long musical history and as a teen you had a band that opened for Soul Asylum. I can hear the influence of Soul Asylum in Porcupine and, of course, you’ve been based in Minneapolis for a while so you’re well versed on the Twin Cities scene. Can you talk about the influence of the Minneapolis and South St. Paul music scenes had on your upbringing and your discovery of bands like the Replacements, Hüsker, Soul Asylum, albums on Twin/Tone Records and that vibrant scene?
Casey Virock: Yes, I was in a cover band which had the good fortune to open for Soul Asylum in 1986, maybe? It was my hometown of La Crosse, Wisconsin. It was also my very first professional gig. I was a pretty bad bass-player…haha! I looked the part, though. They (SA) were promoting their Made to Be Broken album at the time. They blew me away. The songs…their energy…Dave Pirner’s voice. If I could pick a Porcupine track that I could say is reminiscent of SA, maybe it would be “Thought You Should Know” from the I See Sound record. I’ve been a fan of the music scene in the cities since that first gig, but have only been a resident and/or local musician here for about a year.
Speaking of Soul Asylum, that must have been a big deal for you and a trip to open for them.
CV: I honestly had no clue who they (SA) were. At that time, I was listening to Echo and the Bunnymen, Love and Rockets, the Cult. British post-punk and new-wave. SA were on A&M/Twin/Tone at the time so [it was] their early years. I was just really happy to be playing an actual gig where tickets were sold and I could sneak a beer or two. I remember smoking a cigarette out back and watching them unload their van. They looked pretty ragged from being on the road but once they got on stage and started playing, it was an explosion of sonic goodness. ‘Whoa” was a number I remember that made the crowd turn into a huge mosh pit. Crazy! The best part was realizing they were from Minneapolis, which was only 2 ½ hours away. Someone then mentioned to me that they had played the year before at the same venue, opening for Hüsker Dü. I then started to search out this band called “Hüsker Dü.”
VIDEO: Soul Asylum – Made to Be Broken – 1986 Minnesota Music Awards
You actually named your band after the album by Echo and the Bunnymen and on What You’ve Heard Isn’t Real, one can hear that English post-punk influence. To name your band after an Echo album, you must have been super-into Echo.
CV: I heard EATB’s record Porcupine at a friend’s house around 1984. Once I heard “The Cutter”…that was it. I’ve loved the band ever since. I, of course, later heard Crocodiles and Heaven Up Here… later the same year (1984) Ocean Rain came out. Those records are all different in their moods and feel but have the same unique EATB songwriting. Ian’s voice just grabbed me and Will Sergeant always plays the perfect guitar parts. They’re a magic combination.
I’ve had the pleasure to meet and chat with both Will and Ian the last couple times they’ve played here in Minneapolis. They are great guys and their live shows are stellar. I think Mac’s voice has aged very well.
VIDEO: Echo & The Bunnymen – Porcupine (full album)
Greg, you’ve been toiling around in a few different bands over the years like The Gang Font and Con Queso The Gang Font fell into more experimental territory, a mathy, proggy, jazz-type thing and Con Queso were improvised music-leaning. You haven’t really been too active in the realm of song-oriented, power trio bands since, well, Hüsker. What was it about Porcupine and Casey that drew you back into a melodic, noisy and poppy thing?
Greg Norton: I first saw Porcupine back in 2009, opening for the Meat Puppets, and really liked what I saw that night. That show was at the Warehouse in La Crosse, Wisconsin, where Porcupine started in 2006. Casey and I stayed in touch, and he contacted me about doing some shows with my rock improv group, Con Queso. We played three shows with them over the next year. I remember thinking that I needed to find a guitar player like Casey; I really loved his singing and he wrote incredible songs.
Con Queso stopped getting together in 2011. Gang Font had recorded our sophomore effort in July of 2010 and the Font continues to play maybe, one or two shows, a year. When Casey called in 2016 to ask if I was interested in playing with them, I jumped at the opportunity. I’m very glad I did. Playing in Porcupine reminds me of the early formative, and collaborative years of Hüsker.
VIDEO: Keg Fort in The Basement – Con Queso
Casey, Greg was in one of the greatest and most influential bands of all time. When did you first discover Hüsker? Ever seen them live or were you too young for that? First Hüsker record bought? Favorite one?
CV: I had them (HD) on my radar and shortly after, joined a band briefly that played “Don’t Want To know if You’re Lonely’” and “New Day Rising” in their live set. I’d, of course, missed the chance of seeing them (HD) live as they’d broken up by the time I became a fan. It’s really hard for me to pick a favorite HD record but I guess it would have to be between Zen Arcade and Flip Your Wig. The first HD record I actually bought was Flip Your Wig.
The last Porcupine record, Carrier Wave, was recorded by Steve Albini and it seems a bit more raw and harder-edged than What You’ve Heard Isn’t Real. How do you see that iteration of Porcupine with Dave Reinders on bass as opposed to the current one with Greg on bass? Is it a totally different dynamic? And do you think that Carrier Wave has a different production value than What You’ve Heard Isn’t Real due to the Albini touch?
CV: Well, with the Carrier Wave record we were allotted a 48-hour window of time to record and mix the whole record. It was a great experience because we were recording with one of our favorite producer/engineers. The reality of accomplishing it, at certain points specifically when we first got started, seemed impossible. We, fortunately, got some momentum going and got all the tracks recorded. Steve was amazing to work with and really involved, more so than we would have expected. I’d like to think because he liked the songs. In the end, we had around four hours to actually ‘mix’ the record. Carrier Wave definitely has got some of the ‘Albini’ trademark sound.
Greg is 60 and still jumping around on stage like he did in his Hüsker days. What has he brought to the Porcupine table, energy-wise, creative-wise, etc.? And do you think you’ve hit the jackpot of sorts because of his legendary status and the name recognition he brings?
CV: Greg definitely brings some energy to the band. He loves the songs and honors them structure-wise while at the same time bringing in his playing style. I don’t know if “jackpot” is the right word as I really didn’t think he’d be interested in playing music let alone with us. I called him out of the blue and here we are. Because of his past with Hüsker Dü there has been some interest in Porcupine but in the end I’d like to believe it’s about the songs.
Greg, how did it actually all go down that you wound up joining Porcupine?
GN: After the last Porcupine / Con Queso show we played, I continued to follow Porcupine on their Facebook page. In the Summer of 2016 they put up a post about Dave’s Reinders leaving the band. About a week later, Casey called me and filled me in on the details of what was going on. Then he asked if I was still playing the bass and if I would want to play with them. I laughed and said I thought you’d never ask.
Listening to What You’ve Heard Isn’t Real and watching the live YouTube videos, it seems like it’s been a seamless transition back into recording and touring for you plus you’re showing the same kind of infectious energy you brought to Hüsker. How has it been for you transitioning back into playing in a regular band situation again being a bit older and wiser, along with having to balance family life and a job? I imagine you have a better perspective on things being in your late 50’s as opposed to in your 20’s.
GN: Right after Hüsker broke up, I had a band called Grey Area with Colin Mansfield on guitar and Jo Jones on drums. We started working on a record but never made it to a final mix. We did a handful of shows with fIREHOSE and did a midwestern tour but broke up in 1990. About that same time, I was making my transition to working in the back of the house in restaurants. I had been waiting tables and moved to (the) kitchen. That started my journey towards becoming a chef and owning my own place. 1990 to 2004, I was so busy working in kitchens, I hadn’t pick up my bass at all. I even got rid of my bass amp in that time. At the end of 2003, I met Dave King for the first time and he threw out the idea for a band and said I’d be the perfect bass player for it (Gang Font). So, I started playing my bass again, even bought a small combo amp to practice with. It took a little over two years for our first get-together. I actually thought it was never going to happen. In within six months, we wrote that first record and recorded it. Dave and Craig were both involved with Thirsty Ear records in NYC, and they released it in 2007. Fast forward to 2013: I got married to my beautiful, talented wife, Tobi, and started working out at my local Y. Quite frankly, I loved working out and started getting back into shape and have been doing so ever since. It’s been that combination of working out, eating well and getting back into music that has totally reinvigorated me. Playing with Porcupine inspired me more to bring the same intensity to playing as I always have.
The balance between family, jobs and music is still a tricky one. Now with the internet and cell phones, it’s easier to take care of things related to your job but being out on the road still makes it difficult to take care of family, the separation and leaving your partner to single parent.
When I was in my twenties, if we weren’t playing, we were hanging out at the club. I’m sure that hasn’t changed for a lot of people who are their twenties now. Today, if we’re not playing, I just want to be home with my wife and kids.
On What You’ve Heard Isn’t Real, you guys do a great cover Grant Hart’s “Standing by the Sea.” How did you arrive at that particular one out of Grant Hart’s incredible canon of songs?
CV: We did a show in July of 2017 just months before Grant passed away, which was a sort of tribute to his discography. I’d met Grant a couple of times and he was always very willing to talk about what he was working on at the time, whether it was music or painting. He was an amazing artist. We did “Standing By the Sea” song and maybe four other Grant-penned songs. Later on, at some point, we decided to keep that in our Porcupine live set. When it came time for us to record the What You’ve Heard Isn’t Real record, that one ended up getting added.
GN: In the Summer of 2017, Lori Barbaro (Babes in Toyland) put together a surprise tribute for Grant. He had a gig booked at The Hook and Ladder Theatre in Minneapolis on July 1st. It was Lori’s idea to get friends of Grants together to surprise him and perform his music.
We put together a five-song set:
“What Do I Want”/”What’s Going On”
“Dead Set On Destruction”
“It’s Not Funny Anymore”
“Standing By The Sea”
Grant was surprised and happy with that night. It was also a night that we connected once again as friends, not just as business partners. When Grant passed in early September, we had already decided to keep “Standing By The Sea” in our set and we knew we had to include it for our recording.
VIDEO: Grant Hart – Standing by the Sea
Greg, let’s get back to the Gang Font for a bit. That band you’re in with Eric Fratzke, Dave King of The Bad Plus and Craig Taborn, they are all pillars of the avant-jazz scene, especially the latter two. You had a great debut record in 2007 and you mentioned a second Gang Font record. Are there plans to release it? I know King and Taborn are super-busy dudes, music-wise. What’s the status of Gang Font these days?
GN: Yes, so in the Fall of 2009, we added Bryan Nichols on keyboards, to replace Craig. Bryan is a local cat and Craig lives in Brooklyn and he has an even crazier schedule than Dave (if that’s possible). We started rehearsing and writing new material and in July of 2010 we went back into Terrarium Studio and recorded ten songs. It’s been mixed, we need to master it, and find someone to put it out. I’ve been joking that we have the musical equivalent of a Gran Reserva wine—we have been cellaring it long enough. It’s a record for the ages! Gang Font has been managing to play one or two gigs a year, schedules permitting. We’re due for a show, and hopefully we will get that record out!
VIDEO: The Gang Font “A Chance to Play Across the Shadows”
Who was in Con Queso? Judging from those two bands and certainly Gang Font, you seem to be deep into improvised music and jazz.
GN: Con Queso was Berndt Evenson on guitar, Seth Mooney on drums and myself. We’ve been inactive since 2011, but occasionally, we talk about trying to get back together to play. I have always been a fan of jazz, avant-garde, and experimental music.
Finally, and speaking of your friend and bandmate Grant, can you offer any recollections or thoughts of him that you would like share? He struck me as such a nice guy, deep thinker, curious and knowledgeable about so many things and his passing is such a tragic loss.
GN: Grant was certainly one of a kind, quick-witted, loved to laugh. He could carry on a conversation on so many topics, particularly art and history. We were all hoping to have him around a lot longer. He was taken too soon.
VIDEO: Porcupine – Lifeline