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Like Bringing a Surgeon to a Knife Fight: A Metal Drummer Learns Hüsker Dü

“Heavy metal demands precision, while punk rock can be suspicious of it,” writes Jeff Severns Guntzel of the challenge Yousif Del Valle faced in learning the entirety of Grant Hart’s drum track for Hüsker Dü’s debut 1981 album. “Metal is cerebral; punk is all heart. Metal is Formula One racing; punk is a demolition derby.” In anticipation of […]

At an April 14, 2016 recording session at the 7th Street Entry, Yousif Del Valle plays the drum track for Hüsker Dü's Land Speed Record. Photo: Gene Pittman

At an April 14, 2016 recording session at the 7th Street Entry, Yousif Del Valle plays the drum track for Hüsker Dü’s Land Speed Record. Photo: Gene Pittman

“Heavy metal demands precision, while punk rock can be suspicious of it,” writes Jeff Severns Guntzel of the challenge Yousif Del Valle faced in learning the entirety of Grant Hart’s drum track for Hüsker Dü’s debut 1981 album. “Metal is cerebral; punk is all heart. Metal is Formula One racing; punk is a demolition derby.” In anticipation of Del Valle’s September 29 in-gallery performance and the release of the limited-edition Chris Larson: Land Speed Record LP that features his drumming, Severns Guntzel looked at the Hate Beast drummer’s process—from computer-visualized sound waves to practice, practice, practice. 

Sometimes an artist is as much a subcontractor as anything else—when the work requires some other person to do a thing. That thing might be a part of the art that nobody sees, or it might be the art itself.

For sculpture and video artist Chris Larson, that person-to-do-a-thing is occasionally Yousif Del Valle, a former grad student of his at the University of Minnesota.

Mostly, Del Valle has been called on for his welding skills—infrastructure work for an artist who creates pieces that fill large spaces; sedan-sized, even house-sized creations.

Chris Larson: Land Speed Record, the artist’s latest video installation, is something altogether different—and he called on Del Valle for a far more specialized skill set. He needed him to play drums. Very fast drums.

Specifically, he needed Del Valle to learn an album: the 26 minutes and 36 seconds—he had to play it precisely to time—of the first album by Twin Cities punk rock trio Hüsker Dü. That album, from which Larson’s project takes its name, is the recording of a 1981 live show at Minneapolis’ 7th Street Entry (a dungeon of a room barnacled on to the better known, and better ventilated First Avenue).

After learning the part, Larson needed Del Valle to perform it on stage at the 7th Street Entry, where he would be alone in the room except for a recording engineer, Larson himself, a few Walker staff, and Hüsker Dü drummer Grant Hart.

The recording, now complete and just released on clear vinyl along with the exhibition catalogue, is the gallery soundtrack for Larson’s video piece: a slow pan over and around an assemblage of Hart’s belongings salvaged from a house fire.

Hart is one of those early punk rock characters chased by words like “legend” and “pioneer.” Hüsker Dü is one of America’s punk rock pantheon bands. In the Twin Cities and beyond, there are disciples of this man and that band.

Yousif Del Valle, 30-years-old and reared on heavy metal, is not one of them. And that’s what makes this subsucontractor story so enchanting.

ex2016cl_7thStreetEntry Visula Arts, Exhibitions, Performing Arts. Recording session at 7th Street Entry—with Chris Larson, Grant Hart, and drums played by Yousef Davilia. April 14, 2016. Part of the exhibition, Chris Larson - Land Speed Record, June 9, 2016 - January 8, 2017, Medtronic Gallery. Curated by Siri Engberg and Doug Benidt.

Del Valle with Chris Larson, his former art professor, at the 7th Street Entry. Photo: Gene Pittman

The El Paso–born sculpture artist was not even El Paso–born when Land Speed Record was recorded. In his entire life as a music fanatic, he has never voluntarily listened to a punk rock album. In a nearly two-hour interview at the practice space of his heavy metal band, Hate Beast, there was no reference to punk rock beyond Hüsker Dü (unless you count the band down the hall rehearsing a cover of Bad Brains’ “Re-Ignition”).

I am going to speak to you now as a retired heavy metal-turned-punk rock drummer—as somebody who has worshiped in both warring temples: You have to understand that asking a heavy metal drummer to learn Land Speed Record is musician comedy. Del Valle is the kind of metal drummer who can tell you how fast he can play his two bass drums (“My max is 280 beats per minute, and that’s maybe for 15 seconds.”). With songs as raw and chaotic as Hüsker Dü’s, it’s like bringing a surgeon to a knife fight.

At least it would be comedy, except that Larson conceived of and managed the project with a reverence that soaks every part of the project, and Del Valle took to the challenge earnestly and with military-like discipline. The end result is not funny at all, it’s perfection.

Playing the punk

Heavy metal demands precision, while punk rock can be suspicious of it. Metal is cerebral; punk is all heart. Metal is Formula One racing; punk is a demolition derby.

The laws of physics, at least the ones that apply to punk rock, should have rendered Del Valle inert in the face of the Land Speed Record challenge.

Instead, he learned every smack and thwack of that record—close-listening and playing it through hundreds of times. And in his performance of the piece he managed to telegraph the angst and abandon of the original—and precisely to time.

One of the wonders of art is how it can make rigorous processes invisible. Del Valle has done that here. And oh, the rigor.

It started slow, and probably with furrowed brow. In fact, the first step was just hearing the drums. Land Speed Record is less a collection of songs than it is a soundscape. That’s the word Hart himself used in an interview with the Walker. “The individual songs and the individual rhythms,” he said, “are just simply that, just different ripples from a different wind.”

In practical terms, that means that sometimes you can’t really hear the snare drum. Other times, you can’t really hear the bass drum. At all times, there is a wash of cymbals, as if Hart had subcontractors of his own with sticks constantly striking the cymbals creating a sort of wave that carries and simultaneously washes over everything else, from the first note to the last.

Image courtesy teh artist

The audio file of Hüsker Dü’s Land Speed Record. Image courtesy Yousif Del Valle

“Like my first contract kill”

So how do you teach yourself a soundscape?

First, you come to terms with it.

“It’s a really abrasive record. It’s like angry, aggressive kids. It’s not something that you want to listen to constantly,” Del Valle said. “Listening really became a discipline. I’m getting in my car, and I have to listen to this. I want to listen to something else. I want to listen to the news; I want to listen to anything else but this. But I have to listen to this. I’m going to the grocery store, I’m going to listen to this. I’m going to work, I’m going to listen to this. It just didn’t emotionally capture me. It was sort of like my first contract kill or something. I agreed to this project willingly, but it was hard because I didn’t have that emotional connection, whereas now I do—I absolutely do.”

The next step for learning an “angry, aggressive” soundscape? Computers.

Del Valle opened the album in audio editing software on his computer. That allowed him to see the sound. He’d get cues from the rise and fall of the sound waves now visualized before him, and he’d annotate the waves. “I had written notes on the peaks of the waves,” he explained. “So I had sort of a cheat sheet for spots I was having trouble with.”

Having grasped the contours of the piece, he had to get the details. That meant deciphering the drum fills—rather, it meant excavating the drum fills from wall of sound. “It was trying to listen through that noise. That’s what became exhausting.”

In at least one case, listening wasn’t enough.

“There’s a particular spot,” Del Valle explained. “Grant starts doing this one-two-three-four with his bass drum, and then you just hear a couple of tom hits, then a roll, and then the song starts again. In my head, I was like, ‘He dropped one of his sticks,’ because that’s a really weird fill to do.” Ultimately it was a YouTube clip of Husker Du in 1981 that cleared it up: it was a fill, not a flub.

Chris Larson, still from Land Speed Record, 2016. Installation with color digital video, black-and-white Super 16mm film (each 26:35), sound, and sculpture. Photo courtesy the artist.

A multimedia installation, the video at the center of Chris Larson: Land Speed Record (2016) slowly pans over Grant Hart’s possessions retrieved from a house fire, set to a soundtrack of Del Valle’s drumming. Photo courtesy the artist

Hubris, shattered

Del Valle’s affect is kind and earnest, but he admits that he signed on for this project with a bit of hubris. There may be punk rock drummers who would balk at keeping up with Hart’s velocity, but velocity was a non-issue for Del Valle. And, in theory at least, the length of the piece he had to memorize was a non-issue, too.

“I’ve learned 40-minute death metal epic songs that I love,” Del Valle said, “and I know them. It doesn’t take me that long.”

But this was different. “It took me longer to learn this, just because there’s so much information crammed into those 26-and-a-half minutes. I came into it arrogantly, not because I think I’m great, but because it’s punk. I was just like, ‘There’s nothing challenging about punk. It’s just like, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2.’ But there are not a lot of repeating patterns, and that’s what makes it hard. You get into a groove and you’re like, ‘Okay, I get the pattern that he’s doing,’ and the song’s over. A minute-and-a-half. Next song. And now it’s a whole new pattern. I started really appreciating that Grant had something unique, even that young. So yeah, it certainly shut me up.”

The thing that gets lost in all this technical stuff is the same thing that has this project walking a line between tribute and trifle: The music Hüsker Dü was making in 1981 was not meant to be picked apart like this. It certainly wasn’t meant for the kind of close-listening Del Valle had to do. Land Speed Record is pure life force, performed by kids whose mindset, as Hart described it, was that “the outcome of the rest of our life is dependent upon this set that we’re going to play now.”

That mindset was not immediately obvious to Del Valle, but through this work of intensive audio exegesis, it eventually came through. “To kids back then, I can’t imagine what that must have sounded like. It’s just them going for it. They don’t give a shit about anything. They’re just there to do their thing, and I really respect that.”

Yousif Del Valle performs the Land Speed Record soundtrack at 7 pm on Thursday, September 29, 2016. A set by his thrash metal band Hate Beast follows.

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