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UltraBomb: Greg Norton's Leap of Faith for Punk

18 June 2024

With unwavering conviction, bassist Greg Norton affirms that punk has saved his life and he happily views the origins of UltraBomb as a leap of faith. Fronted by longtime Mahones singer and guitarist Finny McConnell, the group had never met each other until rehearsals in preparation for their debut record, Time to Burn. Their newest offering, Dying To Smile was written with the same urgency and remains an accurate document of a group still in love with punk’s youth-driven ethos, despite their collective years and extensive travels.

“The band began on such a big leap of faith! Finny and I had become online friends when he sent me a cover he did from my first band, Hüsker Dü. He knew it had been a bit since I was playing and suggested we start something with drummer Jamie Oliver, formerly of UK Subs. It was supposed to be a total no-pressure thing, do some covers and a festival appearance or two,” recalled Norton.

Norton continued his online friendship with McConnell but things quickly progressed once Norton was invited to finally meet in person but with one requirement; he had to fly to Berlin. Oliver was already in Germany filling in with another group and was still active within music, despite his 16-year tenure as UK Subs drummer coming to an abrupt end in 2021, due to a controversial tweet. Both he and McConnell were anxious to meet Norton and begin writing.

“Of course it was wild to just pack up and go but I strongly believed in Finny’s approach to songwriting and I was excited to create again. I was told Oliver was also there because he was filling in with another group and Finny just so happened to have studio time booked. I packed my bags and took that leap of faith because I believe in the power of music and how it impacted my life,” stated Norton.

UltraBomb was built on Norton’s conviction that punk rock’s meaning can change through the evolving lens of an individual, but its power and impact remain undeniable. Norton found it fitting to begin a new group with the man who once penned the song Punk Rock Saved My Life. As co-founder of the raucuous yet melodic trio, Hüsker Dü , Norton served as the anchor to the prolific songwriting of his former band mates, Grant Hart and Bob Mould. UltraBomb retains a similar foundation of melody but deviates from the innovation Hüsker Dü unleashed upon their hardcore peers, UltraBomb choosing to proudly embrace punk rock while Hüsker Dü creatively outgrew their initial hardcore punk moniker.

“When I first wrote with UltraBomb it took me right back to the time Hüsker Dü first practiced in the basement of Northern Lights Records, it felt so natural! We started as hardcore but we really wanted to craft melodies and write hardcore songs you could whistle. There was sadly a contingent of people who did not like the melodic material Hüsker Dü began creating but we are who we are. We wanted to create music we loved and that we were proud of. If some people didn’t get that, we were ok because we wanted to continue down that path of creating what we were proud of,” reflected Norton.

UltraBomb’s intentions remain parallel to Hüsker Dü but the initial DIY hardcore community remained divided when beloved bands deviated from the aggressive sounds that built the subculture’s foundation. Norton expanded on Hüsker Dü’s transition from hardcore to crafting more melodic output and their ultimate rise to Warner Brothers back in 1986.

“Of course people were taken aback with the different sound, but we weren’t the only band moving in new directions. To me, the true spirit of punk was to accept people for who they were, who they wanted to be, love, and what they worked to create. As we grew, I was beyond happy to see some people grow with us but of course, when you’re a part of such a strong DIY community, there will be people that don’t understand a big change. For instance, when we signed with Warners after being on SST Records. I’m happy to say Warners allowed us to be ourselves and not meddle and I’m still really proud of what we wrote,” reflected Norton.

Norton continues reflecting on Hüsker Dü with gratitude while he approaches UltraBomb with a youthful excitement reminiscent of someone just beginning their music career.

“Obviously, so much has changed! There are so many good new bands and people to meet. I have great memories of my first tours and how even out in the midwest we would somehow meet all these kids. That was our tribe, the punk tribe. UltraBomb doesn’t have the same challenges, like tracking down pay phones on the road looking for places to stay and confirming venues and that’s ok, because even though things contrast it doesn’t take away the authenticity of writing and traveling together. The community still attracts me to this music,” stated Norton.

UltraBomb’s release of Dying To Smile does not serve as a platform for seasoned music veterans to comment on today’s times within the DIY community but as a testament from three contrasting individuals reaffirming their respective dedication to what drove them to punk, and what inspired Norton to fly thousands of miles to finally meet his new band mates.

“The songwriting took place very quickly with Time to Burn and the same with Dying To Smile. I think the excitement surrounding the band was simply the driving force for the fast output of music. I always loved punk and never thought it was dead or going to die out. The energy of the music is what keeps me young and there are so many great young bands playing right now,” affirmed Norton.

For Norton, his return to music following Hüsker Dü’s 1988 disbandment took a widely deviating path compared to his new bandmates. He first redirected his passion and studied cooking, ultimately carving his niche as a restaurateur within the competitive world of the restaurant industry. Norton proudly stated the supposed contrasting worlds of kitchen and stage share more similarities beyond a cursory glance.

“When you look deeper they have things in common. Prep in the kitchen is like soundcheck. Dinner was your set. The menu is your set list. You just don’t know how many times you’re going to have to play the hits. After service is done, going out to the dining room and getting feedback, good or bad. Everyone in the kitchen is your band mates. The dark side exists, too. It can be hard on your mental health, and unfortunately, also lead to substance abuse. Just like the music industry,” stated Norton.

Hüsker Dü had their moments of excess, most notably drummer and singer Grant Hart. The prolific songwriting and driving melodies of Bob Mould gradually made the group staples on the burgeoning, national college rock station circuit and their popularity led to appearances on MTV, but Hart’s addiction eventually contributed to the group’s break-up. Straying from the cautionary tales of their peers, they weren’t remembered for destructive cliché behavior, but for ushering in a melodic yet powerful sound that continues being emulated long-after the group’s disbandment and Hart’s passing in 2017. Mould continued building a successful, enduring songwriting career, while Norton’s return to music took an extended amount of time as he transitioned from his restaurant career. He reflected on the loss of Hart.

“Losing Grant was really hard. He and I had been friends forever, but that friendship had its ups and downs. We were actually getting back to a good place. He had been sick for sometime, but we all thought he had a lot of time left. The suddenness was a kick in the head. As for the band, we were just making music we wanted to play and the lasting impact that we have, all of the great music that was directly influenced by what we did, and impact we had on so many people, is something I will always be grateful for.”

Despite Norton ending his extensive hiatus from music and his return beginning with Gang Font in 2005, he feels no pressure or any notion of unfinished business compelling him to move quickly with UltraBomb. His approach remains refreshingly free of complication.

“When Hüsker Dü first toured there was kind of a wild west feeling because there were so many unknowns. You had to put a lot of faith that venues would book you and they would help people show up, it was a very exciting time in my life. Now? I still feel I am growing, I still look forward to meeting new people and getting feedback; good or bad. That’s exciting for me and even though the excitement is different, I still feel energized,” exclaimed Norton.

He concluded, “The support of people allows us to grow and move forward. Bob Mould once wrote in his book that he was fortunate to catch lightning in a bottle twice with his bands. I feel the same way and right now, I am beyond thrilled to be doing this.”

Photo: @amsaddler, courtesy of Greg Norton