Hsker D and R.E.M. were the two American post-punk bands of the '80s that changed the direction of rock & roll. R.E.M. became superstars; Hsker D never was more than a cult favorite. Nevertheless, their albums between 1981 and 1987 have proven remarkably influential; they provided the sonic blueprint for the roaring punk-pop hybrid that crossed over into the mainstream in the early '90s. Not only did they shape the sound of the music, they shaped the way independent bands made the transition to the major labels; they showed other bands that it was possible to record uncompromising music on a major label without losing any integrity or creative control. From the Replacements to Nirvana, the Pixies to Superchunk, nearly every major and minor band that appeared in the alternative underground in the late '80s and '90s owed a major debt to Hsker D, whether they were aware of it or not.
The band's two songwriters, guitarist Bob Mould and drummer Grant Hart, both had a knack for writing songs that essentially followed conventional pop structures, complete with memorable melodies, but were still punk songs. Hsker D took the Buzzcocks' pioneering punk-pop and made it harder, both musically and lyrically. Throughout their career, Hsker D never lost their edge, never turned down their amplifiers, never compromised their music. While Hart and bassist Greg Norton were an unfailingly strong rhythm section, Mould would prove to be one of the most influential guitarists of the decade. With his slashing rhythms, distorted strumming, and blazing leads, he set the stage for the alternative guitar heroes of the late '80s and the '90s.
Hsker D formed in Minneapolis, MN, in 1979. Guitarist/vocalist Bob Mould was studying at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, and working at a record store, which is where he met drummer/vocalist Grant Hart and bassist Greg Norton. The three musicians had diverse tastes, but all shared a love for hardcore punk rock. Naming themselves Hsker D after a '50s Danish board game (the name means "do you remember?"), the trio began rehearsing in Norton's basement.
In the early '80s, Hsker D developed a strong local following; nearly every local band, from the Replacements to Soul Asylum, sounded like the Hskers. Both Mould and Hart wrote songs and sang lead. In 1981, they released their first single, "Statues," on the local label Reflex, which was quickly followed by their debut album, Land Speed Record, which was released on New Alliance Records. Recorded live, Land Speed Record boasted 17 songs that lasted a full 26 minutes. Later that year, they released an equally fast and hard EP, In a Free Land.
In 1982, they moved backed to Reflex, where they released Everything Falls Apart, their first album recorded in a studio. By this time, Hsker D had begun touring the United States relentlessly, traveling across the country in a van and playing small clubs throughout the country. Along with the Minutemen, R.E.M., Black Flag, the Meat Puppets, and the Replacements, Hsker D formed the core of a group of independent rock & roll bands that carved out a reputation by touring ceaselessly and getting their records played through college radio stations; they formed the core of the American rock underground in the mid-'80s. Hsker D concerts were a nonstop barrage; the band rarely spoke to the audience and each song segued directly into the next, without interruption. In addition to touring constantly, Hsker D was recording quickly, turning out the Metal Circus EP in 1983.
After Metal Circus, Hsker D developed musically at a rapid pace, with Mould and Hart coming into their own as songwriters on 1984's Zen Arcade, their first album for SST Records and their critical breakthrough. Zen Arcade was a double album -- something that was completely unheard of in the underground -- that showed the band stretching out musically, writing sharper pop songs, as well as lengthy abrasive instrumentals. Critics embraced the record, as did independent rock fans. At the end of 1984, they released "Eight Miles High," a cover of the Byrds' song that was only available as a single.
Hsker D continued to record and tour at a blindingly fast speed throughout 1984 and 1985. Mould and Hart were beginning to develop an unspoken rivalry, as well as a dependency on alcohol and speed. Nevertheless, the group was at their peak in 1985, turning out two albums. The first, New Day Rising, was released in the spring and showed the band moving closer to concise pop songwriting while accentuating their fierce sonic barrage. Flip Your Wig, released late in 1985, featured their cleanest, most accessible production, without making any concessions to mainstream rock. Both albums received excellent reviews, both in fanzines and some mainstream rock publications.
Following the release of Flip Your Wig, Hsker D became the first of the mid-'80s independent post-punk bands to sign a contract with a major label, as they closed a deal with Warner Bros. Candy Apple Grey, the band's first major-label album, appeared in 1986. During that year, tensions between Bob Mould and Grant Hart escalated. Mould began to clean up and Hart continued to sink further into drug and alcohol addiction. Nevertheless, they managed to write and record another double album, Warehouse: Songs and Stories. Although Warner didn't want the band to release another double record, Warehouse was released in the spring of 1987, to uniformly positive reviews.
Hsker D was preparing to launch a series of concerts to support Warehouse when their manager, David Savoy, committed suicide the night before the start of the tour. Hsker played the tour anyway -- they ran through the new album in order every night, without interruption -- but Savoy's suicide helped the inter-band turmoil reach a peak. Hart showed no signs of sobering -- he was developing a heroin addiction -- while Mould was clean. Following the Warehouse tour, the band played no more concerts for the rest of the year, which caused speculation that the group was breaking up. Those rumors were confirmed in January of 1988, when Hart was fired and the band broke up.
Hart would released a solo EP, 2541, on SST later that year, followed by a full-length album called Intolerance a year later. After its release, Hart shook loose his addictions and formed a new band, Nova Mob. Nova Mob released their debut album, The Last Days of Pompeii, in 1991; a self-titled second album appeared in 1994. Greg Norton became a chef in Red Wing.
Immediately after the breakup of Hsker D, Bob Mould embarked on a solo career. After releasing two solo albums -- Workbook (1989) and Black Sheets of Rain (1990) -- he formed a trio called Sugar in 1992. Between 1992 and 1994, Sugar released two albums -- Copper Blue (1992) and File Under: Easy Listening (1994). Mould broke up the band in 1995 and returned to a solo career the following year. Stephen Thomas Erlewine