Interview – Greg Norton Takes the Call


Rebecca Marx Photo Credit Dan Corrigan

You know what they say: “A missed call is a missed opportunity”? Well, let’s just say that I’m really glad that Greg Norton is the kind of a guy who answers his phone. Had he not, I wouldn’t be writing about the iconically mustachioed musician. Most of you will be quite familiar with Norton who was the bassist for the influential punk rock trio out of Minneapolis–Hüsker Dü, but maybe less familiar with the band that he has just joined. Said band is Porcupine, a trio formed in La Crosse, WI in 2006 by Casey Virock. And hey, Greg Norton has NOT retired from music! I hit up Norton with a few questions about his new gig.

RIFT: So your journey with Porcupine really seems to have begun in a weirdly cosmic twist of fate kind of a thing. A comment made by your wife Tobi about Casey Virock–questioning why he didn’t call you about the bassist opening in Porcupine, Virock’s co-worker suggesting you as a bassist for the band, and eventually Virock himself making the call. Seriously that is urban legend worthy–how could you refuse?

GN: It definitely was very serendipitous, when I saw Casey’s name on the caller ID, I had a feeling I knew what he was calling about.

RIFT: You probably get those calls everyday, what made you say “Yes” to Porcupine?

GN: Well, it’s not a call I get everyday, I’ve been wanting to play more, and I’ve been a fan of Porcupine since I saw them open for the Meat Puppets in 2009. So, saying yes was easy, joining a band that plays original music, really good, original music, was something I’ve wanted to be a part of for quite some time. And I also believe in Casey, he writes great songs, having a chance to collaborate with him was something I couldn’t say no to.

RIFT: Any bands that you have refused?

GN: Well, not really, maybe people had just assumed I had retired from music.

In fact, to the general public it may have well appeared that Norton had indeed retired from the world of music after Hüsker Dü broke up in 1991. Norton actually opened, was chef for, and ran a restaurant called The Norton’s Restaurant for several years until the mid 2000’s. Norton actively returned to music in 2006 with the band Gang Font feat Interloper. The band includes: Norton, Dave King (Happy Apple, Halloween, Alaska & 12 Rods) and Erik Fratzke (Happy Apple & Craig Taborn). The band still plays annually.

RIFT: I’ve been a fan of Porcupine, and before that Space Bike (Virock’s previous project with former Porcupine bassist Davey Reinders) for many years, and can appreciate their level of talent. In fact, I probably first saw Virock perform at the Warehouse in La Crosse, WI just as you did. What about him stood out for you?

GN: The songwriting, Casey’s vocals. I remember thinking “why can’t I find a guy who can sing like that”.

The Warehouse is an institution. It is an all ages venue in downtown La Crosse, WI that first opened in 1991. Since then, it has hosted several thousand bands, and is committed to being a no alcohol venue–IN Wisconsin! The venue has seen the likes of Babes in Toyland, Arcwelder, Frank Black, Everclear, Brand New, Veruca Salt, and the Descendants climb its storied stairs. For music lovers of the Twin Cities, it is just a quick drive to climb those same stairs, and peruse the hundreds of gig fliers that cover its walls to hear great music.

RIFT: I don’t think that a lot of people recognize just how bonded Minneapolis and La Crosse are in regards to geography and music. These are the cities that helped to create your music and that of Porcupines. You and Virock are somewhat the darlings of those two towns, that alone could create a lot of buzz. What are your thoughts on it?

GN: I’m not sure I qualify for “darling” status, but I think a lot of people will be curious to see the new line up.

RIFT: Was the first practice with Virock and Porcupine drummer Ian Prince (formerly of Cloud Cult & Story of the Sea) somewhat like a first date? Butterflies?

GN: A little bit, I always think that’s a good thing.

RIFT: I believe that I saw that you’ll be writing Porcupine songs as well, is that something that has evolved for you since the days of Hüsker Dü, where perhaps Bob Mould and Grant Hart were better known for being the primary songwriters?

GN: Yes, Husker started out being pretty equal, we all wrote and shared song writer credits, but as things progressed, Bob was turning out a lot of songs, Grant was trying to keep up, it turned into the arms race of song writing. I felt it was difficult towards the end to bring in material, that those guys weren’t giving it their all on my material, and then saying there wasn’t room for my stuff on the record. That was frustrating, to say the least.

RIFT: Those guys (Mould & Hart) will most likely never see this interview, is there anything that you’d like to share with them about the new music that you’re making?

GN: It rocks!

Hüsker Dü is well known as being a legendary music trio, comprised of Bob Mould, Greg Norton and Grant Hart. Originally however, there was a fourth member: a keyboardist named Charlie Pine. Pine may not be well known for his early and brief role in Hüsker Dü, but diehard fans of the Jayhawks may recall that he was the band’s manager for a time, and produced their self titled debut album in 1986 on Bunkhouse Records.

RIFT: I have to imagine that anytime you start a new project that there is a fair amount of pressure, and that comparisons to Hüsker Dü are inevitable. How do you deal with that?

GN: I don’t think there is that much pressure, Porcupine is it’s own thing, apples and oranges, and now for something completely different.

Candy Apple Grey was the fifth album by Hüsker Dü and their major label debut with Warner Bros. This move was very polarizing amongst fans who preferred the heavier punk/faster style that characterized their earlier work with SST. This is where accusations of selling out happened. The album got into the Billboard Top 200.

RIFT: You have been in several bands over the years, what keeps it fresh?

GN: My attitude, you learn something new everyday.

RIFT: Your other recent bands: Con Queso and Gang Font feat. Interloper–are you still playing with them at all?

GN: Con Queso has not been active since 2010, and Gang Font seems to get a gig in about once a year.

RIFT: You also owned a restaurant in Red Wing (the now defunct The Norton’s Restaurant) for a while, are there any similarities in being a chef/owner and in being a musician/running a band/business?

GN: Oddly enough, I think there are many similarities, the hours, and there can be that instant feedback on your performance every night. Your menu is your set list, that type of thing.

RIFT: Your music has influenced so many, I’m curious to know who has been an influence to you?

GN: Mission of Burma, Wire, The Jam, the Beatles.

Hüsker Dü was an incredibly influential band. The Pixies, Nirvana, Black Francis, The Foo Fighters and Green Day all pay due to the revered Minneapolis threesome. It is said that The Pixies even put an ad in the paper for a bassist that was into Hüsker Dü and Peter, Paul & Mary. Hmmm…

RIFT: Are there plans in the works for Porcupine to record?

GN: Yes, absolutely, once we get these shows under our belt, we will be shifting our focus on writing new material, hopefully we will be in the studio at some point over the winter.

In September of 2015, Porcupine released their album Carrier Wave to critical success. The band recorded the album with the renowned producer Steve Albini at his Electrical Audio Studio in Chicago. Albini is known for his work with seminal artists of the 1990’s such as: Nirvana, The Pixies and Cheap Trick.

RIFT: I think back to my teenage self when I watched bands like Babes in Toyland and Arcwelder, and I know that I have experienced a few changes–ahem–since then. How does this band and touring look different to you, a married family man?

GN: I love being a family man, my wife, and kids are awesome. Having that at home is a great comfort, and allows me to really focus on the music without all the distractions of youth.

RIFT: I am so looking forward to seeing you play with Porcupine, are you excited to be playing First Avenue once more?

GN: Sure, I’m looking forward to it.

Porcupine has cornered the market on a sound that takes the alternative noise of the late ’90’s grunge rock and puts it in a blender with the best of 1960’s Brit psychedelic. Great songwriting and an alluring stage presence will make this band one that you’ll want to see. Myself, I’ll be there to check out the new line up as its premieres locally this Saturday the 8th of October at the Indeed Brewing Hullabaloo in NE Minneapolis. DON’T miss their First Ave Seventh Street Entry show on October 28th, for the book release show of “Heyday: 35 Years of Music in Minneapolis – The Photography of Daniel Corrigan.”


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