A few years ago, Casey Virock would have been elated to get one of his songs played on The Current, Minnesota Public Radio’s adult album alternative station. Last weekend, he and his two bandmates in Porcupine had a full two hours of prime evening airtime, playing all six songs on their new release as well as songs from the trio’s previous bands and side gigs.
Such is the power of The Düde.
I’m talking about Greg Norton, who was the bassist for Hüsker Dü, the trailblazing and influential Twin Cities hardcore punk rock trio. Norton took on low notes (and high leaps) in Porcupine a couple years ago, when the band was on the verge of disintegration. The Current tapped Norton to fill in on “The Local Show,” so listeners got a big taste of Porcupine, with the whole band in on it.
On Friday, Nov. 9, Porcupine releases its first recording since Norton joined, a six-song set called “What You’ve Heard Isn’t Real” (a line from “Distraction,” the second song on the record). The CD and vinyl releases come with a sticker that trumpets the fact that Norton — for many a rock legend — is now in Porcupine.
It wasn’t Norton’s idea to do the sticker, or Virock’s. The labels releasing the record — Dead Broke Rekerdz for vinyl, DC-Jam Records for CDs — figured having a sticker on it with a famed rocker’s name on it might help move units.
Growing up in La Crescent, Minn., Virock was a huge fan of Hüsker Dü, and there were times when Norton first joined Virock and drummer Ian Prince in the band that Virock was, like, “pinch me.”
I sort of had the same sensation — I was in college at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities when Hüsker Dü was at its peak.
“It’s always cool when people want to talk Hüsker with Greg or get an autograph. That’s his history and he’s proud of that, and he should be,” Virock said. “His band history used to intimidate me, but that’s gone away. It just isn’t an issue. In the end, it’s about the songs.”
Porcupine’s songs got great treatment in their recording, thanks to Kevin Bowe (who has a fantastic new album out with his band, the Okemah Prophets, called “Every Part of the Buffalo”). The band started recording tracks at the school where Bowe teaches, and then decided to finish up at Bowe’s home studio, The Kill Room.
“He knows his stuff, big time. And he has this enthusiasm that’s infectious,” Virock said of Bowe, who served as recording engineer and mixed the album. “His production ideas were great.”
Norton had high praise for Bowe, too. “The production is amazing. I feel it’s the best sounding record that I’ve ever been involved in. Everything is there and balance and powerful,” Norton said. “It’s got the right amount of grit, but it’s clean where it needs to be. Every time I listen to it I get excited and turn it up.”
“What You’ve Heard Isn’t Real” includes four new Porcupine songs and a live version of “Exit 180,” and the new songs fit right in with what the band has done previously, with Virock’s pliable and melodic croon floating atop a bed of inventive guitar snarl and quirky, propulsive rhythms. There might be a hint more pop sheen to the new ones, but you know it’s Porcupine.
The album also includes a cover of “Standing by the Sea,” a song from Hüsker Dü’s landmark album “Zen Arcade” that was originally recorded during the “Metal Circus” sessions. The song was written by drummer Grant Hart, and Porcupine first played the song at a surprise tribute show for Hart. The next time they played the song, Virock said, was a week after Hart died and after that they decided it needed to be on the next Porcupine album.
“I definitely think we made it our own with it staying true to what it is,” Norton said of the Porcupine version. “Ian’s drumming on that track is spectacular. You can feel the pounding of the surf.”
Porcupine’s version of the song got great reviews from Hart’s widow, who posted about how much she liked it on Virock’s Facebook page. “She gave us kudos, which made me very happy,” Virock said. “That made my day.”
Porcupine plays Saturday night in Minneapolis at the Hook and Ladder, and Nov. 21 at First Avenue with the Ike Reilly Assassination, but doesn’t have a show near hear until a January booking at Ed’s No Name Bar in Winona, Minn.
I’ve missed seeing Virock down at Dave’s Guitar Shop since he moved to the Twin Cities, but it’s been fun to watch from a distance as Porcupine starts getting the notice it has always deserved. Virock’s having fun being part of the Twin Cities music scene that he loved growing up.
At his new day job at Twin Town guitars, Virock even got to meet a Twin Cities rock icon. He sold a set of banjo strings to Paul Westerberg of The Replacements, who had no good answer when Virock asked him what he wanted with banjo strings.
“I’m really happy. It’s good when people go, ‘Hey dude, you just look so happy,’” Virock said. “I’m lucky, dude. You make your own luck, but I am lucky.”
Rock on …