Bob Mould: “To stand in front of 100 people you don’t know, scream bloody murder and throw stuff around… that’s a weird way of working your sh*t out, right?”
The Church of Guitar, Bass & Drums is a religion to which Bob Mould subscribes. It is a configuration that has defined, and bookended, his musical life: first in Hüsker Dü and Sugar, latterly under the banner of his prolific ‘solo’ output. “A rock three-piece is similar to being in a free-form jazz band,” he told us in 2019. “It’s an art form.”
Bob was speaking those words ahead of the release of his superb Sunshine Rock album. That record – following 2012’s Silver Age, 2014’s Beauty & Ruin and 2016’s Patch the Sky – was his fourth since minting his latest ‘trio’, alongside drummer Jon Wurster and bassist Jason Narducy. It is this period, which found Bob re-embracing the sound that defined him decades before, that forms the spine of the third of three exhaustive boxsets charting his entire musical career.
To mark this week’s release of Distortion: 2008 – 2019, we revisit that 2019 interview to discuss one of rock’s most formidable and fascinating careers…
Bob Mould is a man renowned for not taking a great deal of shit.
In his younger days at the head of Hüsker Dü, such a thing would result in a rage agitated by cheap speed and a drinking habit that had caused Bob, the product of a “rough, often violent home,” to “[have] not gone one day without drinking since the age of 13”. “On a late night,” he wrote in his 2011 autobiography See A Little Light, that would mean “upwards of 20 beers”, or “the better part of a five-litre box” of wine; fuel for both the combustible live shows for which Hüsker Dü were renowned even in punk rock circles, and the self-destructive nihilism rooted in not “hating myself for being gay, but… for not dealing with what I now know to be natural and beautiful”.
While the take-no-shit mentality persists, the Bob Mould of 2019 is a very different man to those younger days. His is a legacy – both in bridging the ’80s hardcore punk and indie rock scenes in Hüsker Dü, and following the band’s implosion from long-running feuds and bitterness, fronting the scandalously underappreciated early-’90s alt.rock band Sugar – the laurels of which many a musician would kick back and rest upon. Rather, next week sees Bob release Sunshine Rock, his 13th solo offering. His mood today matches the cheeriness of its title; apologetic for tardiness to our interview, and generous with his time, attention and openness. He laughs frequently and heartily.
At its heart, Sunshine Rock is reflective of Bob’s desire to focus on the good things in life, rather than be dragged down into the doom and gloom currently engulfing the world. Its sound – songs built around bright-eyed melodies, lyrics torn as if from a personal journal, all injected with a spring-heeled bounce – are unmistakably latter-day Bob. And if there were any doubts as to its author’s identity, his moniker is emblazoned across a full one-third of the album’s sleeve.
“I think it’s important for artists to take ownership of their words and thoughts and ideas, ’cause it shapes other people’s ideas,” Bob says. “You should be able to defend your work. With this record, with the cover, the symbol on the cover is that mid-’60s Capitol Records logo that I stared at as a kid, and that kept me alive. It’s a pretty bodacious album cover; who puts their name that big?! Well, we just came out of 15 years of middle-of-the-road indie music where every band was afraid of signing their homework. Know what I’m saying? ‘I’m gonna scribble my name in the corner in a little tiny font and hope no-one notices.’
“No, I’m Bob Mould, and this is my homework, this is my thesis, and I’m standing behind it. Fuck it, sue me!”
Growing up in a small rural town, how did a young Bob Mould get his musical education?
“I was born in 1960, in upstate New York, pretty close to Lake Placid in a small farm town called Malone. My parents ran a mom-and-pop grocery store, and one of the benefits of that was that my dad was able to buy all of the used jukebox singles from the local vendor. I was mesmerised by this incredible world; The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Hollies, The Who. My favourite toys were those 7‑inch singles (laughs). I grew up memorising those songs, the label copy, catalogue numbers, track lengths…”
Hearing the likes of the Ramones, New York Dolls, Sex Pistols for the first time, what about punk rock spoke to you?
“In the early to mid-’70s, I’d try to fit in with my friends and listen to the music they liked. Lots of floppy ‘70s pop, and stuff like Fleetwood Mac, but also hard rock: Aerosmith, Thin Lizzy or Ted Nugent – and what a fool he turned out to be. I used to read publications like Circus, Creem and Rock Scene. There’d be articles about Aerosmith at these fabulous parties, but then there were articles on these local punk bands in New York City, too. That world was so in contrast to the other people’s lives of glamour and private jets and endless cocaine. I was smart enough to know that I could never do that. So to be introduced to a band like the Ramones and shortly after finding the Buzzcocks, it was like, ‘Oh, I can do this. This makes perfect sense.’ I could play guitar and learn these songs pretty quickly.”
In your 2011 autobiography See A Little Light, you say that you “come across only a handful of records in a lifetime that have an immediate impact, where you never forget that sound”. What are they for you?
“As a kid, I was able to purchase a couple of albums a year, ’cause my grandma would take me to the drug store where they sold albums, and being able to actually get The Beatles’ Revolver and Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band… That was crazy. I mean, the covers alone, you could spend forever looking at them. To have that much graphic information to take in while you’re listening to 16 minutes of music, and then you snap out and realise you need to flip the record over ‘cause there might be more… Those are really strong rituals, and as a kid, these things leave indelible marks. Music was that for me, and still is. Those Beatles records became part of my DNA. The first Ramones record. Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures. The Buzzcocks.”
For lots of fans of your music, Hüsker Dü’s second album, 1984’s Zen Arcade, had such an effect. You’ve said previously that you feel it’s a record that means a lot more to other people than it does to you. Which of your works means the most to you?
“With Hüsker, I always go to [1985’s] Flip Your Wig. Zen Arcade was great, and a really important, great record; fierce, amphetamine, alcohol and caffeine-informed. A lot of the importance of that record was breaking tradition; it was very un-punk-rock and un-hardcore to have a concept album that spanned two records. That was the moment when me and Grant [Hart, Hüsker Dü drummer] were left to make an album the way we heard it, and to put emphasis on melody and catchiness. [As a band] we’d already stepped away from hardcore politics and moved more towards personal and social observation, but the brightness of that record, and the fact that it was the two of us really drilling into this idea, it was just a little more pure. And that really was the happiest time for me with that band. Shortly thereafter, the fractures started. That was the end of the purity of the thing that was Hüsker Dü. But it was good when it was great, right?”
You’ve spent the past few years living in Berlin, which was a big influence on your 2019 record, Sunshine Rock. What do you like most about the place?
“I appreciate the stature of the city, in historical terms. Berlin has always bounced back; a lot of the city to me is rebuilding and building forward, and when I started going over in 2016, I needed to do a little rebuilding myself. The culture is similar to San Francisco, but uniquely German. It’s super progressive, has a great LGBT history and great music history, so I jumped in. My life there is quiet; I’m not an out-every-night kinda guy. For me, my work environment is hugely important.”
Even by most musicians’ standards, you’ve had something of a nomadic life. Where do you most closely associate with ‘home’?
“Oh, man. Minnesota always feels a little like home, because they were my formative years in a professional sense. That’s a really great place. I spent an equivalent amount of time in New York City, which I’ll always love, but the thing about it is, New York is always best when you live there. I don’t know anyone that lived there in the ’90s that goes back now and says, ‘Oh my God, it’s so much better now!’ We have these romantic, historical ideas, and they’re so valid and true, yet life goes on. But where is home to me? I dunno. I don’t think it’s where my stuff is. Home is wherever I’m at. It could be a lousy motel in Columbus, Ohio. As long as I’ve got the few things I need to make my day work, I’m good.”
Thematically, Sunshine Rock finds you trying to focus on the good things in life. When are you at your happiest?
“When my health is good, I’m functioning at 100 per cent, my voice isn’t blown and my hands don’t hurt. When I’m walking with purpose – it’s uninterrupted time for me, where I get to move through a part of the city at my own speed, by myself. I get to think, and I like thinking on my feet. I’m happy when a melody pops into my head and I can spend a whole day without distraction trying to figure out if there’s something there. I go into a trance and I forget to eat or use the bathroom for 12 hours. I’m always happy to have quality time with friends, listening to music, goofing off or cooking a nice meal; that’s really important to me.”
In the middle of Sunshine Rock sits the track The Final Years, where you speak of a ‘misplaced rage’ of your past. Do you look back on your younger years as being weighed down and spoiled by such a rage?
“No. Not at all. That is the person I used to be. And I can still be that way when I have to. But, in my late teens and 20s, I had a lot of questions that went unanswered, and I was fortunate to have a vehicle that allowed me to work with those things, and also get validation for doing so. Which is a little weird, right? To stand in front of 100 people you don’t know, scream bloody murder, throw stuff around, and make people go deaf 10 years later – that’s a weird way of working your shit out, right?”
If you could go back and speak to that young man, what would you advise him?
“Wear earplugs. And don’t smoke. Everybody’s got their journey, man, there’s no one Band-Aid for every wound.”
In 2017 you released the Hüsker Dü collection Savage Young Dü. Did you enjoy that process of looking back?
“Well, the destination was great – I couldn’t have been happier with the way the final product went. The five years that got us there? Um, there were times of joy, moments of frustration, there was a lot of agreeing, occasional disagreeing… Ultimately, it was a great experience. I was able to work with those guys pretty well. Both Grant and I are detail-orientated, control-orientated folks. Up to the end of the project, and sadly up until the end of Grant’s time with us [Grant passed away in September 2017 following complications from liver cancer and Hepatitis C], it was pretty much the same. It all felt real familiar…”
Were you happy that you were able to do that before Grant passed away?
“Of course, of course…”
You’re most closely associated with Hüsker Dü, but your achievements with Sugar, which followed the end of that band, were almost as numerous. Do you feel Sugar is often overlooked or not given its fair respects?
“Nope, not at all. I get it, but it doesn’t lessen it for me. I never think of it in those terms.”
You said in your book that there is no easy way of ending a band. Which was harder to walk away from: Hüsker Dü or Sugar?
“Hüsker Dü, because I had no precedent for it. When Sugar dissolved – no pun intended – it was a gradual thing for practical reasons. David [Barbe, Sugar bassist]’s situation as a father of two young children, I totally got it. Had Sugar been professionally managed and manicured by some entertainment concern, I think there’d have been tons of cajoling David into staying, ’cause that’s what the business does. But I was like, ‘I totally get it, can you at least hang on through all the stuff we have booked?’ and he was like, ‘Of course.’ So that made it easy, and we were able to have fun shows at the end. With Hüsker Dü, it was a year and a half of sand in the engine: the transmission blows out, the wheels go flat, all the windows get smashed, and then people are dismantling the car for parts.”
You’re once again working as part of a three-piece, as you did in Hüsker Dü and Sugar. What is it about the purity of guitar, drums and bass that you love?
“That’s the thing I like about it: the purity. That’s where I started, and I had to learn to cover a lot of ground with my guitar style. I like the flexibility it allows live. When you start getting people involved on keyboards, strings or lighting cues, you’re basically a Broadway actor. A rock three-piece is similar to being in a free-form jazz band: it’s all about reaction, feeling and influencing what others are doing, responding to the audience and having the flexibility to take it in a different direction. It’s an art form that’s not popular right now, that’s lost on a younger generation.”
In all your creative endeavours, from writing scripts for WCW wrestling through experiments in electronic music, you always seem to return to rock music. Why?
“It’s where I started, it’s what I know best, and it’s comfortable. In 2012, I came back with [solo album] Silver Age and revisited Sugar [for a series of shows playing debut album Copper Blue in full], and it was a lot of fun. We did a limited run of shows, and everyone on the business side was like, ‘Don’t stop!’, and I was like, ‘Look, I don’t live in the past. It’s cool, but I don’t want to make a lifetime of the past.’ But I guess that after decades of doing exactly what I wanted – whether it was [folk-influenced 1989 solo record] Workbook, [2002 electronica album] Modulate, the wrestling stuff, 11 years of DJing at [DC club night] Blowoff – it was a moment where I was like, ‘You know what? I’ve done what I’ve wanted for a long time: would it kill me for at least part of the day to give the people what they want?’”
Most people would associate you with the scene, yet it’s been a long time since your music came from the punk world, at least sonically. What is your relationship with punk rock these days?
“Maybe after ’85 or ’86, the art itself wasn’t necessarily punk in the traditional sense. But punk rock to me is way more about sounding like the Sex Pistols or Sham 69 or Minor Threat or whatever. Those are voices of punk, but that is not punk. For me, after punk, there was rave culture, and that’s where punk went. As far as specific politics… (makes groaning noise). Yeah, whatever, you gotta believe in what you believe in. Punk is a state of mind; it’s not a sound or a look. It’s doing whatever the fuck you want to do, being supportive of other people who are doing that, and then you try to take that energy to make a better world. It goes back to those gun-toting, coke-sniffing, limousine-riding, jet-flying rock bands of the ’70s: I could not be that. So you make your own world.”
Finally, you said that as a young man music allowed you space to work your shit out. At 58, is that still what keeps you going?
“(Pauses) Mostly… (laughs).”
Bob Mould’s 7LP Distortion: 2008 – 2019 boxset and Distortion: The Best of 1989 – 2019 boxsets are out April 16 on Demon.
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