To celebrate the recent release of our 33 1/3 on Bob Mould’s Workbook, we’re pleased to bring you the fifth and final installment of Bob Mould Week by authors Walter Biggins and Daniel Couch!
An interview with Dusty Hanna of Silence and Skull Fest
Though Workbook is Bob Mould’s debut as a solo artist, it’s by no means his first record. He was the guitarist, a lead singer, and primary songwriter for Hüsker Dü, the legendary 1980s post-punk band that was one of the first underground acts to sign with a major label. So, when Workbook came along in 1989, it came with a lot of context—okay, let’s call it baggage—for audiences to sift through.
Our book concentrates on that context, on gauging Workbook‘s cultural significance within rock culture then and now. Throughout the book, we mention critics who have theorized about the importance of Hüsker Dü on bands of today. Here, we decided to talk more explicitly and in more depth with someone who participates in punk scenes now and knows the lore of the hardcore and punk scenes that were active around the time Workbook was released.
Enter Dusty Hanna. He’s been playing music for 25 years. Currently, he’s the lead singer of Silence, a peace punk band based in Pittsburgh, PA. He’s also the founder and one of the central organizers of Skull Fest, a four day festival in Pittsburgh, PA celebrating the hardcore and punk communities. The festival just wrapped its ninth year, and he generously took time to talk to us about the legacy of Bob Mould and Hüsker Dü on the music scene today and on his own work.
— Walter Biggins and Daniel Couch
Walter Biggins: We talk in the book about the musical influence of punk and post-punk, but we don’t talk in depth about the touring circuits, festivals or collective experiences involved in punk, relying on other critics instead. For this week at Bloomsbury, we wanted to talk to someone with more perspective on this issue. Can you tell us a little bit about the legacy of Hüsker Dü on those circuits from your experience as a touring musician?
Dusty Hanna: Hüsker Dü along with their contemporaries in the early American hardcore punk movement—Black Flag, MDC, DOA, etc.—laid the foundations for the touring circuit we’re still using today, the same touring circuit that has had me end up on Daniel’s couch a couple times.
These bands were not only breaking open these scenes but also expanding the minds of the people involved in them. But at the time, in some of these backwater places where Black Flag and Hüsker Dü were going, they were creating that scene.
WB: What exactly do you mean by that? How many of these clubs they played in still exist? Or the people that ran those places?
DH: The shelf life of a club unfortunately isn’t usually very long, especially the type of club that would deal with this type of music. Across the country, there are really very few that were doing punk shows in the ‘80s that are doing them 30-something years later. But it really isn’t the physical places that have lasted but the people, and more so than even the people are the ideas and ethics of getting it going and doing it yourself. Buildings and people come and go. Neighborhoods change. But there’s this original idea of getting out there are letting your freak flag fly that Hüsker Dü pioneered along with their contemporaries that still exists more so than the brick and mortar places.
WB: It’s interesting to me to talk about how these ideas transmit over time. I want to ask you about musical ideas because I listened to some of Silence and really liked the stuff. What is interesting is that some of your stuff is strictly political but a lot isn’t.
WB: I was curious how that era’s sound and ideas transmitted to you? How do you see that legacy in today’s punk and post-punk?
DH: For me personally, there was something about Hüsker Dü. They were always something else too, mixing some of that ‘60s freakbeat sound. There’s elements of the Beach Boys and the Byrds in there. As far as the lyrical content, Hüsker Dü wasn’t your average hardcore group. Everything wasn’t about Ronald Reagan and nuclear war and the secret wars in Central America. You have songs like “Masochism World,” which digs more into the roots of the problem. Other songs are about the human experience in general. You have “Broken Home, Broken Heart,” which is a great song. Those issues weren’t really talked about in punk rock music. There were definitely songs about hating your parents or being unsatisfied with your home life, but this wasn’t really that. Hüsker Dü addressed the issues with a depth that most other bands weren’t—and not even that punk bands weren’t but just that bands weren’t.
Daniel Couch: Which is not to say that Hüsker Dü was the only band doing this sort of thing.
DH: No. There was a lot of that going on at that time. You had that D.C. scene which started out with Minor Threat and bands like that who were doing similar things to what Hüsker Dü was doing in Minneapolis. A lot of them started to gravitate toward these emotional lyrics and expanding strong structures. Bands like Rites of Spring and Marginal Man were famously part of what became known as Revolution Summer, which was a movement away from traditional hardcore and into an exploration of these more emotional and personal themes.
WB: And this is something you draw from in your own band?
DH: Yeah, I take a similar approach with Silence. A lot of reviewers say “political this, political that,” which we are, that’s true, but at the same time I feel like we are writing songs about life and existing in the world. The politics are things that are going on, so we address that, but we address the other aspects of life, too.
DC: So that shift Hüsker Dü made blending the political and personal was an important one and one I see creating space for your band. As you know, after Hüsker Dü, Bob goes off to a Minnesota farmhouse to retreat from the world and writes Workbook. In the book we argue that Workbook is an album that provides a map of sorts for people in the scene we’ve been talking about today to mature. Now, I wouldn’t presume you to speak for all punks, but do you see a musical movement similar to the one that Bob Mould took with Workbook as you and your contemporaries age?
DH: I’ve seen waves of that throughout my time in punk. I’ve seen a lot of people run their course where they start off where they are really angry with things going on in the world and then often times take a more personal route with what they are doing musically and what they are saying lyrically. That is kind of a cycle that people who are involved in punk music go through. It just so happens that Hüsker Dü was one of the first bands to go through that cycle. It makes sense if you think about it. You start to look at life different as you get older and your music reflects that.
DC: If you didn’t change and grown that would be weird.
DH: There’s definitely styles of music where it’s almost a niche thing not to change and grow.
Which is fun. I like that stuff, too.
WB: You’ve been doing this 25 years, so as long as Aaron Cometbus has been doing his thing, since you were 13 or 14 years old. What changes have you seen in yourself?
DH: Personally, starting out I was probably like a lot of other people who heard hardcore punk. I was a really angry person. Looking back now, it seems like my overall goal has changed. To create peace and happiness is more my motive now than to be lashing out constantly. Not that I wouldn’t say that, lyrically, Silence isn’t prone to lashing out against what we see as being wrong with the world, because we definitely are. But, at the same time, I do it with a little more complexity now. I’ve kind of evolved to almost this spiritual approach to music and the world where I’m taking a step back to ask what we can do to make the world a better place through this music.
DC: It seems like Skull Fest is an extension of that. It’s a way to bring people together to have that experience.
DH: That’s totally what we are trying to do: create an experience for people. At the risk of sounding boastful, I do think it shapes people’s overall life experience in some way. Because for the weekend here it is really something to see. For someone who wasn’t aware of that scene, it is an eye-opening experience, this way of life. We have people in the parks giving away free food. I think there’s some people who come away from it with a different view of life.
DC: I hope to make it out to Pittsburgh to see it for myself one day. In the meantime, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us today.
DH: Thank you.