In ashes of Husker Du drummer's youth, sculptor finds a gold mine

Chris Larson and Grant Hart at 7th Street Entry.
Chris Larson and Grant Hart at 7th Street Entry at First Avenue. The room is where Hart and his fellow members of Husker Du enjoyed early success, and is also partially replicated for a Walker Art Center show, "Land Speed Record," which is based on a pile of Hart's belongings rescued from a fire five years ago.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

When we talk about something new growing out of the ashes of the old, it's rare that actual ashes are involved. But "Land Speed Record," a show opening this week at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, grew out of a house fire — and some punk rock history.

"It's a long, complicated story," sculptor Chris Larson began. "In 2011, one night I came home and there was a message on my machine. And it said 'Hey Chris, it's Grant. My house burned down.'"

Grant is musician Grant Hart, best known to many as the drummer in the seminal Twin Cities punk band Husker Du. He needed a place to move his stuff, and Larson had a lot of floor space in his studio.

"And so what finally end up, it was a pile that was 25 by 85 feet long," said Larson. "Drum kits, and two Studebaker car parts and engines. His mom's clothes. Books and Bibles, typewriters, cassette recorders. The master tapes of a lot of Grant's work and Husker Du.

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"So I sat with that. I called it The Pile for a long time."

To anyone with even a passing knowledge of Twin Cities music history, this was a potent pile, reaching back three decades and a half.

In August 1981, Husker Du recorded its first album, "Land Speed Record," live in the 7th Street Entry at the famed First Avenue. The entire performance — 17 songs in all — took 26 minutes and 35 seconds. This becomes an important length to remember.

Chris Larson and Jordan Rosenow measure a step.
Chris Larson and Jordan Rosenow, his studio assistant, measure a step in the 7th Street Entry so they can replicate it as part of "Land Speed Record" at the Walker Art Center.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Chris Larson was a regular at the Entry. It felt strange to have relics from that era lying on his studio floor.

"The objects became very charged for me," he said. "And they had a thick smell of smoke for about a year."

Walker Curator Siri Engberg remembers that smell, and way The Pile made her feel.

"I actually found it extremely moving, as I looked at it," she said. "There was so much history there, and there was so much history that is important to this community."

Engberg also sensed that Larson saw some artistic potential.

"A lot of these objects, specifically the drum kit, became a fascination for me, because at one time these things moved at such ferocious speed," he said. "And now they sat in static."

Larson's work often deals with change and destruction. In 2013, he made and then burned a full-sized cardboard replica of a house designed by celebrated Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer. After looking at The Pile for some years, he built a frame to allow a camera to track very slowly over the objects.

"I was able to manipulate the motor to be able to hit exactly 26 and a half minutes," he said.

Drumming out the Husker Du album.
Former Husker Du drummer Grant Hart watches as Yousif Del Valle replicates, beat for beat, the drumming track for Husker Du's 1981 live album, "Land Speed Record," on April 14.
Gene Pittman | Courtesy the Walker Art Center

He made a film. And then a second film focusing on small groups of objects from The Pile — also 26 minutes and 35 seconds long.

"So you'll see a drum pedal, next to a disco ball, next to a speaker," he said.

For the soundtrack, Larson arranged for speed metal drummer Yousif Del Valle to exactly replicate Grant Hart's performance on the "Land Speed Record" album. "So it's basically a 26 and a half minute drum solo," Larson said. "Punk rock."

At the Walker, the films will run continuously, alternately played in silence and with the drum solo.

Grant Hart has been watching Larson's work with interest.

"Has it been good for me?" he asked. "I think so."

Hart doesn't dwell in the past. He said the project has been like looking at his life out the window of a passing train.

"It's trippy," he said. "It's a great work."

Hart will play a Music and Movies concert at the Walker on Aug. 1. The Walker will then release a limited-edition vinyl pressing of that drum track on Aug. 15, the 35th anniversary of the "Land Speed Record" recording.

For Hart, The Pile provides a metaphor for looking back at his life.

"It's kind of like the film is the State Fair exhibition of the magnet that has been through the cow's system, and look at all the nails the cow eats," he said. "You know what I am talking about, yeah?"

It's somehow both very Minnesotan and very punk.