Several members of Minnesota’s punk royalty came out on Thursday night to celebrate the opening of Chris Larson’s installation Land Speed Record — including Frances Gumm’s Paul D. Dickinson, who I encountered standing on the Walker Art Center’s rooftop terrace, drinking a beer.
“I’ve always liked the Entry,” he said, looking out at the downtown Minneapolis skyline. “It’s a soothing spot of black in a sea of pastel.”
The first musician to ask to play the room that became the 7th Street Entry, we learned last night, was Grant Hart. His band Hüsker Dü played many shows there, including a gig on Aug. 15, 1981 that was recorded for a live album released as Land Speed Record.
That album inspired Larson’s new work of the same name — and therein lies a tale.
“Chris, my house burned down. Can we talk?” That was a voicemail Larson received in 2011, after Hart’s house — the family home where he’d grown up — was ravaged by fire. Larson and Hart were acquainted through a prior collaboration, when Hart appeared in Larson’s 2006 film Crush Collision.
After the fire, Larson helped his friend by gathering what possessions could be salvaged and trucking them to Larson’s warehouse-size St. Paul studio. There the belongings — everything from a lawnmower to a drum kit to a washing machine to a Replacements album — sat as Hart settled into an apartment and Larson got back to work.
What Larson was working on was Celebration/Love/Loss, a project that entailed building a scale replica of a Breuer house that was subsequently burned to ashes at St. Paul’s Union Depot as part of Northern Spark 2013. One day, Larson was standing in the Breuer replica, looking out a window at Hart’s burned belongings, and he had an idea.
Larson built a pulley rig that enabled a camera to film an overhead tracking shot along the entire 85-foot length of Hart’s pile of belongings. Larson then also took a series of closeup shots of the possessions, editing the results into a film that runs exactly 26 minutes and 35 seconds — the length of Land Speed Record, the album. In the installation, Larson’s two films, both the same length, run simultaneously on opposite walls, in a gallery divided by an exact replica of the drink rail that stands in the middle of the 7th Street Entry.
Got that so far? Here’s another twist: the soundtrack to the films is a drum track performed by the musician Yousif Del Valle, who listened to Land Speed Record 200 times (he estimates) so as to learn how to play Hart’s drum parts exactly as they are heard on the album. Del Valle then recorded his version of the Land Speed Record drumming on the stage of the Entry — as Hart himself looked on, impressed.
“You were a pumping engine behind those drums, brother,” said Hart during a panel discussion Thursday night in the Walker Cinema. Hart said he intentionally refrained from coaching Del Valle, and was fascinated to see how the young drummer worked out his own methods for performing Hart’s famously furious pounding.
“We were able to get this raga thing happening,” recalled Hart about Hüsker Dü. “That’s part of what people say was our unique sound.” Stripped of bass, guitar, and Bob Mould’s howling vocals, the drum part transfixes in a new way.
“I listen to black metal, death metal all day, but this was pushing my limit,” said Del Valle.
Del Valle’s drum performance will be released on Aug. 15 — the 35th anniversary of the recording of the original Land Speed Record — on clear vinyl, as the first album ever officially released by the Walker Art Center. With accompanying essays in the form of liner notes, the album will serve as the installation’s catalog.
On Aug. 1, Hart will perform in Loring Park — as part of the Walker’s summer Music and Movies in the Park series, which that night will include a screening of A Hard Day’s Night — and he and Larson are building a special set for the performance.
“I hear it’s an airplane,” said curator Doug Benidt in the panel discussion.
Hart looked back with a surprised expression. “Here!” he said, pantomiming. “I’ll shake all the cats out of the bag!”
The early ’80s were legendary years for the Twin Cities music scene, but they were also lean years for a young touring band. “We were undergoing real privations then,” remembered Hart. “We were staying with people that we got rent receipts from so we could get food stamps.”
“That’s true DIY, then,” said Larson.
Hart shrugged. “Well…fraud.” Whatever. “We were living on seven dollars a day, each. Usually two of that was for beer, three for smokes, and then you ate oatmeal.”
On Thursday, Hart reflected on the experience of playing with Hüsker Dü in those early years. “When you get behind that much dispersal of energy,” he said, reaching for a poetic metaphor, “and you get behind a roomful of people that are pushing it back, there’s a glory that is felt that you are surging through and the light is going from blue to white.”
“These were your formative years,” said Larson.
“They were all formative years,” corrected Hart. “It’s just what you’re turning into at the time.”