Local writer/comedian (and frequent Flyer contributor) Andrew Earles unveiled his first book this month, a biography of the legendary Minneapolis post-punk/hardcore trio Husker Du (a band known as much for dynamic inner-workings as their innovative approach to punk rock) titled Husker Du: The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock.
Earles spoke to the Flyer this week about the book and the band's place in rock history.
Flyer: How did you get approached to write a Husker Du biography?
Earles: At the end of 2006, Continuum Books announced an open call for pitches for their 33 1/3 series. Each pitch was to fall under 1,000 words. I'd always thought that Zen Arcade or Flip Your Wig would make a good title in that series, especially after the Minutemen one was published (about Double Nickles on the Dime). But it wasn't one of those "no-brainer" assumptions because they tend to keep that series pretty accessible if not painfully predictable, with few surprises, and this resulted in the dedication of a great deal of time to this pitch. I figured I really had to sell these people on the idea of paying me $4000 to write a 20,000-word pocket book about Husker Du's Flip Your Wig, which was true, but only due to the fact that three other writers pitched Husker Du albums as well. At the time, I was extremely hungry for any type of book deal I could grab, even one in which the deal is not exactly overburdened with pro-author line items (they own the content/book forever, no royalties, etc). Long story not quite as long as it could be, my pitch was rejected (a blessing in disguise). Having dumped what I considered a lot of work and worry into a 1,000-word pitch, I couldn't just let it sit on my hard-drive, so I posted it on my blog, where my current editor found it some ten months later in November of 2007.
What was your process for writing it?
The process I adopted will never be revisited and was one of the consummate examples of a first-book mistake that I've since learned from, of which there were several. From the start, it was understood between both parties (publisher & myself) that there would be perpetual and sometimes daunting source obstacles to hurdle while writing about this particular band. Meaning, I wasn't writing about, say, Mission of Burma - a still-active band peopled with very friendly gentlemen that actually speak to one another on a regular basis. Once Bob Mould declined (respectfully, I should add) to participate, I could count on a certain number of important sources doing the same, and that's exactly what happened.
At the onset, I was required to turn in one full chapter per month. This was according to the original version of my contract, which would remain unchanged for approximately three to four months before I asked for my first extension. Cold-calling contacts in the attempt to secure, conduct, transcribe, process, and use interview content can take so long with certain sources that completing a draft of a chapter within a month's time becomes a rather unrealistic proposition. What I'm slowly getting at is that this problem was almost immediately noticeable, so for the first "chapter" or chunk of content I tackled, a stand-alone chapter about the trio's first three years of existence relative to American hardcore punk. Many fans don't realize that Husker Du broke a lot of ground in hardcore; totally removed from the hooks-meets-noise accomplishments that they are widely known for. They were one of the classic "deregulated" hardcore bands, if you will, like the Meat Puppets, Minutemen, Void, Sorry, The Proletariat, JFA, Bad Brains, and so on. Choosing this compare-and-contrast chapter to start with seemed like a good way to garner some contacts without confusing the chronological aspect of the book, but as it turned out, I ended up getting so much interview content centering around the '81 - '83 period of the band, that I went directly into writing about the album Metal Circus, then I more-or-less wrote chronologically backwards for a few months, turning in chunks of writing until I reached what I considered a stopping point. Then I righted myself and dove into covering Zen Arcade, which is basically a halfway point for the band. I followed it until the band's demise four years later, then I revisited the pre-album days (formation, teen hood, etc) with a much better pool of contacts in tow (than I'd had two years earlier).
Whenever I became overwhelmed, and this would happen for a variety of reasons, I "took a break." That's what I called the writing of the final section of the book. The massive "fun facts," legacy, discography, trivia, peripheral cultural history, and the et cetera-part that ends the book (it's about the same size as three chapters combined). My erratic writing process was in this unstoppable push-pull relationship with my ability to land contacts and the subsequent interviews, if that makes any sense at all (something tells me it doesn't). Now, the primary point I want to make is probably a painfully obvious one: Don't write a book in this manner. That said, it wasn't nearly as disorganized as this may make it seem, and I had a method to it. HAD a method. . .
Who did you get to interview for the book?
I secured just over 50 people, including drummer/founding-member Grant Hart and bassist/founding-member Greg Norton. Each one of these contacts was interviewed in the capacity applicable to their respective relationship to the band. For instance, Mike Watt, the bassist for Minutemen and Firehose, logged many hours on the phone with me, but nowhere near the amount of time I spent interviewing Grant. Greg Norton's interview content was vast and plentiful as well, but it was done in a small handful of massive marathon interviews, specifically the time in which he came to Memphis and during my research time in the Twin Cities, plus a couple of epic phone interviews.
What was the hardest part of the band's story to tell?
The Husker Du part. No, really. . . this was the most difficult undertaking of my life so far. It would be unwise of me, at this early juncture, to elaborate on the finer points of the aforementioned claim.
Now that this project is over, can you still listen to Husker Du and enjoy it?
Absolutely. I can watch the right YouTube footage of their "Eight Miles High" cover and still marvel at how special this band was, and marvel at WHEN it was special. My book should have just featured the URL's of the best examples of Husker Du doing "Eight Miles High", "Something I Learned Today", and "Everything Falls Apart" in 1984 instead of any text written by me. If people paid the proper amount of attention to these clips, they would be rewarded with an incendiary "I get it now" feeling. Unless the accepted idea of a good live show consists of members standing in one place, playing a slightly-louder version of the most recent album. In that case, a different language is spoken altogether.
What are you working on next? Any new comedy stuff in the works?
I'm just now starting to circulate two book proposals but I'm also focusing on the promotion of the Husker Du book. Luckily, books are totally different from an album or film in that the honeymoon period is more ill-defined and, if done correctly, can be extended to the writer's/publisher's liking. With a newly-released album, it's almost as if labels give up on promotion before title has even been released. I found that it was practically impossible for my regular book sources to process the fact that I'm responsible for roughly 50% of 150 minutes of prank phone calls that was represented by 2 CD's and a 65-page booklet released by Matador Records in May of 2008. With some, it was the equivalent of revealing that I'd lied about having a book deal and I am just writing about Husker Du in a spiral notebook in my spare time with no idea of what I'm going to do with the finished story. Two worlds that tried to keep separate from one another, for sure. But to answer your question, yes, I have a personal comedy project in the works that has nothing to do with telephone usage, plus Jeffrey Jensen and myself plan to reconvene soon to record a single album of prank phone calls that will be one of the only, if not THE only, example of a concept album within the realm of our chosen form.