(This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)
Q: When we started this show, we were listening to your song “American Crisis” on your new album, “Blue Hearts.” It feels like you wrote it last week, but I know you didn’t.
A: “American Crisis”was written in 2013 when I was living in Berlin. It was one of those songs where I just started writing and five minutes later, I had all these words and was like, “Oh, that’s good enough.” You know, it was written to be on the previous album, “Sunshine Rock,” a happy record. But “American Crisis” didn’t really fit. So I put it in my back pocket and it’s out there, smoldering, smoldering. And around a year ago, I started to get this feeling of deja vu that we can dig in a little bit deeper about how the third year of Trump was feeling a lot like the third year of Reagan. And “American Crisis” speaks about what the 1980s were like to me as a young gay man.
Then the song was supposed to drop on June 1 this year, but my publicist said, “Oh, my gosh, they’re going to announce record store day on June 1. Why don’t we move it to June 3?” I thought, “Yeah, whatever. Two days. No problem.” And of course, June 1 was Donald Trump’s Bible walk. And this is after Breonna Taylor and after George Floyd.
Q: That’s amazing that you can write a song about any moment and suddenly it’s applicable to the moment that just occurred.
A: The tea leaves. It’s the Magic Eight Ball. As journalists, as writers, as artists, you just write what you know, you take in the world around you. A lot of topics are timeless. How did that song happen? I guess the short answer is it’s about the 1980s. It’s about me, as a 17-year-old kid growing up in a farm town in northern New York state where there were no people of color. Everybody was the same. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity. I was very lucky to get an underprivileged scholarship to go to Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Immediately, it was a whole new world of many races and creeds and cultures and identities. And I had to get up to speed real fast. I got in a band. I was gay.
Q: Does it bother you when a record comes out and someone writes, “It’s his most Husker Du-like album since 1986.” Do you shy away from sounding like your former band?
A: I think the biggest break was 1988 when I left Husker Du. And for the year and a half following that, between leaving Husker Du and releasing “Workbook,” my first solo album, I made a real conscious effort not to be that guy. Like, why would I leave a band as well-known and revered as Husker Du just to have another record that sounds just like it?
Q: You went to a farmhouse in Minnesota to reinvent yourself. And then we got “Workbook.” What was going on there?
A: It was just not denying my own natural language as a musician. I started working a lot with keyboards. There were hours and hours of orchestral music that I was trying to write. Then I started listening to a lot of world music. I had a friend who worked at Nonesuch and they sent me boxes of all this Celtic music and Appalachian bluegrass, and that started to shape the way I was looking at my writing. I was writing a lot of short stories and poetry, and the way I was folding words and music together was completely different than anything I had done before.
Q: Were you ever offered huge chunks of money to put Husker Du together again?
A: There were one or two occasions where people made nice gestures to try to get the band back together. But why would anybody in their right mind take a chance in changing that band’s legacy by doing something that looks less than what people remember?