Many years ago, music basically saved Casey Virock’s life, and it’s still a refuge, providing therapy, solace and focus. He’s had a lot of highlights in a musical career that started when he was a teen – his first gig was opening a Soul Asylum show at La Crosse’s Concordia Ballroom – but the ace guitarist, singer and songwriter is having a banner year.
He’s been writing songs for his main band, Porcupine, and is writing and recording for his Dolly Rocker solo project, all of this while playing guitar for Shen Teh and bass guitar for Brahman Shaman, two local bands doing original music. He also did a tour of England, playing a solo show and half a dozen shows with a crack rhythm section recruited to fill in for the other members of Porcupine. And since Virock returned from England, Porcupine has been gearing up for a fresh round of live shows, boasting a new bassist that is creating unprecedented buzz for the band.
For a while, though, 2016 wasn’t looking so good.
In late January, Virock and his bandmates in Porcupine had a stellar show in Madison, opening for Babes in Toyland. The next day, Virock and bassist Davey Reinders were cleaning out their rehearsal space and Reinders told Virock he was quitting the band.
“I could feel it coming,” Virock said.
Reinders was not only Virock’s longtime collaborator in Porcupine and Spacebike before that, he was his best friend. Virock had noticed Reinders’ enthusiasm waning, and that day Reinders finally told him he couldn’t balance the band and family anymore. He’d play Porcupine’s Mid West Music Fest show at the Cavalier Theater, and that would be it.
Over the years, Porcupine has shown some resiliency. It had been through a couple drummers since forming in 2006, and Reinders urged Virock to find another bassist to keep the trio going. The band had just released its third album a few months before and seemed like it had some momentum.
Virock turned to a good friend to join the band, a guitarist who eagerly agreed to take up the bass for Porcupine. After a few rehearsals, though, Virock and drummer Ian Prince both concluded that the new bass player, as good as he was, wasn’t working out. “Was it comparing him to Dave? Of course,” Virock said.
In June, it was looking like Porcupine had run its course when a co-worker at Dave’s Guitar Shop suggested Virock call Greg Norton, former bassist for Hüsker Dü, and ask him to join the band. Now, a lot of people might not understand what a seemingly farfetched suggestion that was. Hüsker Dü was a pioneering hardcore punk band with a melodic twist and an artistic lyrical bent, one of three 1980s acts that helped put the Twin Cities on the musical map (Prince and The Replacements being the other two).
Calling Mr. Norton
Virock, a longtime fan of Hüsker Dü, had his first encounter with Norton when Porcupine played an opening slot for the Meat Puppets at The Warehouse. Virock remembers looking up and seeing Curt and Cris Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets standing with Norton near the soundboard. Norton had driven to see the Meat Puppets from his home in Red Wing, Minn., where he owned a restaurant.
The sight of these eminent figures in alternative rock, heroes really, watching his band made Virock a little nervous, but it didn’t keep him from delivering a performance that made a big impression on Norton. “I really liked the band, really liked the songs,” Norton recalled. “I think Casey writes some pretty cool stuff, and I became a pretty big fan almost immediately.”
Norton talked to Virock after the show, expressing his appreciation for Porcupine, and the two struck up a friendship. The day after the Meat Puppets show, Virock showed Norton around Dave’s Guitar Shop. Over the next couple years, Porcupine and Norton’s band, Con Queso, played some shows together, but Con Queso hasn’t played in five years and Virock and Norton hadn’t been in touch recently.
Virock viewed calling Norton out of the blue and asking him to join Porcupine as a Hail Mary play, a last-ditch effort to save his band. “Honestly, I didn’t expect him to say ‘yeah.’”
What Virock didn’t know is that just a couple days before he called, Norton and his wife, Tobi, saw something on Facebook about Porcupine being in need of a bass player, and his wife quipped, “‘Why didn’t they call you?’” recalled Norton, who plays in a band called Gang Font but had the urge to play more than the one show per year Gang Font can squeeze in.
When Virock called, he got right to the point. “I was just wondering if you still played your bass and if you still played rock and roll,” Norton remembers Virock asking. Norton responded quickly: “I would love to jump in and play with you guys.”
Not really thinking Norton would say “yes,” Virock hadn’t thought to check with Prince about recruiting Norton as the new bass player. Virock felt a bit sheepish about that, but he need not have worried. Prince, who formerly played drums for Story of the Sea and Cloud Cult, was all in.
“It was so out of the blue and so obvious at the same time,” Prince said. “I mean, who wouldn’t want to play in a band with Greg Norton.”
Prince had become a Hüsker Dü fan in his 20s, and he was glad it hadn’t happened in his more formative years. “Lucky for me I don’t have this childhood adoration of them,” he said. “There’s no hero worship.”
That’s not to say that Prince isn’t a Greg Norton fan, especially now that they’ve had a few months of rehearsals working together. “He’s the coolest,” Prince said of Norton. “He has a youthful energy about him that’s completely contagious. … It (Norton’s joining Porcupine) was just the perfect shot in the arm.”
In Hüsker Dü, Norton was well-known for bouncing around the stage, and at 57 he still has that same approach to performing. “It’s a lot of fun playing live and jumping around and getting into it. I’ve never really been a shoegazer,” he said. “I just want to get up and get into the music and get other people fired up.”
Norton still sports the trademark mustache he became known for in Hüsker Dü, and he’s in great shape. He said his “fountain of youth” is his family, which includes daughters Coco, 2, and Stella, 8 months, and 10-year-old stepdaughter Ava.
“I still feel like I have a lot of rock and roll left in me. I certainly feel like I still have things to say and things to do,” Norton said. “I still love it and still want to get up and make great music and have fun. Porcupine is definitely fulfilling both of those things.”
As a Hüsker Dü fan, Virock said it sometimes feels weird to give Norton direction about playing his songs, but Norton is a pro and not driven by a big ego. “He just wants to be in a really good band, and I’m flattered that he’s playing with me,” Virock said.
As impressed as Prince is with Norton, he’s just as blown away by Virock. “He’s crazy talented. He’s a really good guitar player. He’s self taught, which kind of lends itself to some weirdly interesting ideas. I really like that about him. Some of the stuff just comes from outer space,” Prince said. “On top of that, he’s a great singer and super easygoing. He’s not at all a control freak. He’s the primary songwriter, but he’s also dependent on the guys he’s working with to round everything out.”
Virock, Prince and Norton have spent the summer working up enough material for live shows, the first of which will be Oct. 1 at Ed’s No-Name Bar in Winona followed the next weekend with a show in Minneapolis as part of Indeed Brewing’s Hullabaloo music festival.
The trio has quickly gelled. They’ve been talking about recording songs over the winter, including some of Norton’s songs.
“Now that we’ve been playing together, it feels like we’ve been playing together a long time. It’s great. I’m really excited to be part of this group and collaborating,” Norton said. “I have many ideas for things and just needed the right people to collaborate on stuff.”
Porcupine released its third full-length album, “Carrier Wave,” in November 2015, recording it earlier in the year at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio studio in Chicago. The band’s previous two albums – “I See Sound” released in July 2014 and “The Sensation of Being Somebody” released in April 2013 – both were homegrown recordings.
They’ve talked about recording the new album in Chicago again with Albini, but nothing has been settled for sure.
Meanwhile, Virock has been doing some home recording sessions for his solo side project, Dolly Rocker, with Jason Knox, who has been helping Virock with recording his songs since his Dream 13 days in the early 1990s.
“Jason will push you as a songwriter, and that’s good. I really like that,” Virock said. “He lets me have a real pop thing that I’ve always admired. Pretty and quirky, that British thing I’ve always been a fan of.”
Virock spent almost three weeks in England this summer, getting a chance to perform at the Cavern Club, the Liverpool Club made famous by the Beatles, and he visited the home of the late Syd Barrett, a founding member of Pink Floyd who has been a huge influence since Virock discovered his work as a troubled goth teen growing up in La Crescent, Minn.
The trip to England was memorable, educational and exciting, and it could pave the way for a future full-band tour with Porcupine. “My only complaint is I was really tired from running, running, running,” Virock said. “I didn’t want to miss anything, so I didn’t sleep so well.”
On top of launching a new lineup for Porcupine, touring England, playing with Shen Teh and Brahman Shaman and working on the Dolly Rocker project, early this summer Virock also wrapped up work on a soundtrack for a documentary about the civil rights movement in Alabama being put out by his record label, Riot House Records, called “Answering the Call.”
Virock wrote and recorded a dozen instrumental tracks featuring dark, atmospheric guitar and primitive drums for the documentary, which is due out this fall.
Looking ahead to 2017, it’s likely that Norton’s involvement in Porcupine will raise the band’s profile, maybe getting the band some shows for which it wouldn’t have been considered in the past. The prospects have got Virock optimistic.
“The next year seems like it might bring some adventures, from the way it sounds,” Virock said. “I don’t know what that will all entail, but Greg’s got some ideas. Everybody’s in for the ride, and I’m on board.”
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