Grant Hart obituary

Grant Hart was working on a concept album about Ted Kaczynski, the so-called Unabomber, at the time of his death.
Grant Hart, seen here in 2000, was working on a concept album about Ted Kaczynski, the so-called Unabomber, at the time of his death. Photograph: Jeff Wheeler/AP

American rock music of the past 30 years might have looked very different without the influence of the Minneapolis trio Hüsker Dü. Grant Hart, who has died from cancer aged 56, was the band’s drummer and also one of their chief songwriters, often locked in a creative tussle with the singer and guitarist, Bob Mould.

The group set a relentless pace between 1982 and 1987, undertaking gruelling months-long tours in which they played shows almost every night, and releasing six studio albums and the live collection Land Speed Record (1982). Though their discs didn’t score highly on the mainstream charts, they were a hugely influential part of a new wave of independent American bands that was springing up across the US. These included fellow Minneapolitans Soul Asylum and the Replacements, and Georgia-based REM, while Boston’s Pixies and the grunge scene centring on Seattle would draw inspiration from Hüsker Dü’s music and independent ethic.

Hüsker Dü released Land Speed Record on the New Alliance label, and their first studio album, Everything Falls Apart (1983), on their own Reflex Records, but went up several gears when they signed to the prestigious California-based SST Records, formed by Black Flag’s guitarist, Greg Ginn. The group moved far beyond their limiting hardcore-rock origins with the double-concept album Zen Arcade (1984), writing material that incorporated psychedelia, folk and rock’n’roll (the album had been preceded by the single release of Hüsker Dü’s scintillating cover of the Byrds’ acid-rock classic Eight Miles High). Hart wrote or co-wrote 11 of Zen Arcade’s 23 songs, including the peerless Pink Turns to Blue and Turn on the News. Rolling Stone magazine placed Zen Arcade at 33 in its greatest albums of the 1980s, and at 13 on its list of 40 greatest punk albums of all time.

The following year, Hart was again in fine creative form with New Day Rising, contributing such highlights as The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill and Books About UFOs. The album reached No 10 on the independent chart in the UK (one place higher than Zen Arcade), where journalists had been quicker to appreciate Hüsker Dü’s qualities than those in the US. Flip Your Wig (1985) did better still by reaching No 1 on the British indie chart, and such was the band’s march towards more widespread appeal that in 1986 they signed to Warner Bros. Candy Apple Grey (1986) was their first album for their new corporate partner, and the singles from it, Sorry Somehow and Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely, were written and sung by Hart. The latter was subsequently covered by Green Day.

Warehouse: Songs And Stories (1987) proved to be Hüsker Dü’s last, with the Mould-Hart rivalry reaching a peak. Hart recalled that Mould had declared that an equal songwriting split “is never going to happen in this band”, and, so, of the album’s 20 songs, Mould wrote 11 to Hart’s nine. The group split up acrimoniously following a tour in support of the album, with Hart’s heroin addiction being blamed, though the suicide of the group’s manager, David Savoy, just before the tour opened was a crippling blow.

Hart was born in South St Paul, Minnesota, the youngest of three children. His mother worked at a credit union and his father was a teacher (it was a “typical American dysfunctional family”, as he put it). When Grant was 10, his oldest brother, Tom, was killed in a car accident. Grant inherited his drum kit and record collection and began learning to play drums and also guitar. He cut his performing teeth by playing in bands in high school.

He first met the future Hüsker Dü bass player Greg Norton after he took a job at the Melody Lane record store. He met Mould in 1978 while working at Cheapo Records in St Paul, where Mould was a student at the nearby Macalester College. “One block from my dormitory was a tiny store called Cheapo Records,” Mould wrote on Facebook after Hart’s death. “There was a PA system set up near the front door blaring punk rock. I went inside and ended up hanging out with the only person in the shop. His name was Grant Hart.”

After an experimental gig at the local Randolph Inn with Mould and some of Hart’s record store pals (they called themselves Buddy and the Returnables), the Hüsker Dü trio of Hart, Mould and Norton was born. As they worked up their material at local clubs in Minneapolis, the band were initially heavily influenced by punk and the hardcore rock coming out of California, but this was not particularly to Hart’s taste. “I didn’t enjoy playing hardcore,” he said later. “It was just such a damn boring job for a drummer.” With his hippy hairstyle and fondness for playing in his bare feet, Hart did not look the part of a hardcore rocker. The fact that both he and Mould were gay helped to further undermine existing rock’n’roll stereotypes.

After Hüsker Dü split, Hart released the solo EP 2541 (1988), followed by the album Intolerance (1989) and another EP, All Of My Senses (1990). In late 1989 he formed his own trio, the Nova Mob, who would release the albums The Last Days of Pompeii (1991) and Nova Mob (1994). Hart reverted to solo work, and released the live album Ecce Homo (1995) and Good News for Modern Man (1999). Hot Wax followed in 2009, and his last completed album was The Argument (2013), a musical interpretation of a treatment of John Milton’s Paradise Lost by the Beat poet William Burroughs.

In October 2013, the film-maker Gorman Bechard released a film biography of Hart called Every Everything: The Music, Life and Times of Grant Hart. At the time of his death, Hart was working on a concept album about Ted Kaczynski, the so-called Unabomber. A collection of early tracks, sessions and live recordings from the early days of Hüsker Dü, called Savage Young Dü, is due for release in November.

• Grantzberg Vernon Hart, musician, singer and songwriter, born 18 March 1961; died 14 September 2017