Interview with Bob Mould

Over the past six or so years I must have notched-up nigh on a hundred interviews with bands for various publications and through various lines of communication. And I’d like to think I’ve become immune to the thin veil of fame. I’ve come to observe that so many artists can be as fallible and as regular living as us music-lovers. But then sometimes even the most cynical and faux-highbrow amongst us can still get star-struck by the very presence of someone whose music has touched our hearts, minds, and bank balances. It happened to me interviewing Kristin Hersh on the phone for my old student paper, I felt it the first time I met Madder Rose, and it sure as hell hit me on the day I talked to Bob Mould.

Heck, this was Bob Mould! A living legend who had injected monster melodies into the clogged arteries of American hardcore-punk throughout the 1980’s, during his tenure in the brilliant Hüsker Dü. The same man who gave Nirvana a run for their royalties during the American rock boom of the early-1990’s with his inspired heavy-pop trio Sugar. A distinguished songwriter who has also consistently challenged his audience and redefined himself as a solo artist – flipping through brooding acoustic introspection, surging guitar-pop, and experimental electronica.

Not everything marked by the Mould stamp is an essential purchase admittedly, especially with the debate still raging over the merits of his current electronic-orientated album Modulate. But there is little doubt that Bob Mould is one of the most expressive, intelligent, and influential American songwriters of the last 20 years. A gifted melody-maker responsible for some of the most important songs and sounds of the last two decades, that’s even before we mention his ability to extrapolate more that just raucous riffs from his arsenal of guitars. And with Modulate still hot off the presses, Mould has released a live album as well as a much more electronic album under the moniker LoudBomb.

With all this looming heavily in my mind, it was with some considerable trepidation that I found myself being led through the backstage maze of the London Astoria to meet Bob Mould. Would he shatter my love for his musical accomplishments if he turned-out to be a grumpy old rocker? Would he spit-out or swallow my questions about his past glories? Could he really be bothered talking to someone like me, this far down his heavily interviewed life?

After the warm introductions and handshakes, I sat down and fumbled with my Dictaphone. Then in walks Wayne Coyne, the frontman of the evening’s headline act, The Flaming Lips. Watching agog as two towering figures of America’s rich living musical history conversed in such a gentlemanly fashion, I knew then that somehow it was all going to work out just fine. From start to finish, Bob Mould was polite, patient, self-depreciating, yet passionate as he answered my reams of questions with the enthusiasm of a younger man blessed with the knowledge and experience of a 40-something professional. Talking to Bob was more rewarding, enlightening, and entertaining than I could ever have predicted. But as a fan, it was still more than a little weird…

Delusions of Adequacy: How has touring for the new album been so far? Is this is the first time you’ve ever really toured as a one-man-band?

Bob Mould: Well in 1991 after Black Sheets of Rain and before Copper Blue, there was a whole year where I did nothing but acoustic solo shows. I probably did 150 of them, almost all summer here in Europe, a lot of time in the UK. And I’ve done those sporadically throughout the last ten years, but this particular presentation is new. The album [Modulate] was finished probably last fall, almost a year ago. And in the interim of deciding how to release it, I started thinking about having some kind of visual presentation as well. I started getting hold of different filmmakers to put together all this visual stuff, knowing that I was going out solo, trying to give people more value. I had gone to a digital film festival in New York and seeing this enormous video presentation, I thought it would be great just playing in front of something like that. I put the album out in the States March 12th and on March 26th I began what was a 30-date US tour, where I played a lot of small theatres doing this kinda show where it’s me standing up playing to track for a 90 minute show with big screen behind me. It was a fairly elaborate put-together. It was interesting; I enjoyed it quite a bit. People who came with an open-mind, liked it a lot; some people just didn’t want to hear about it.

DOA: Did you get some hecklers, shouting out for old Sugar songs?

BM: No hecklers, there was a lot of old songs. The drum ‘n’ bass versions of Hüsker Dü songs were big! No, people like it. The record is one thing; the stuff on Modulate is a lot more aggressive live with me playing big guitar over it. The response has been really good to the films. And at these four shows, doing the abbreviated version with The Flaming Lips, people have been good with it. It’s a bit of a leap that I’m asking for people to come with me on, a little trip that’s a different thing.

DOA: By doing the video screen element, is it a way of avoiding being just another bloke playing acoustic solo?

BM: Yep…

DOA: And a way of compensating for the fact that you haven’t got two or three other people standing besides you on stage?

BM: Yes, exactly, and you know if it were just me standing with the guitar or on a chair with a guitar it would be the greatest thing in the world for 10 percent of the crowd. The other 90 percent, after half an hour would go, “is he going to stand up?!” It just adds value. We’re in a day and age where it’s not that cost prohibitive anymore, the technology is that much cheaper, so that it’s easier to put these things together.

DOA: How does it feel treading the boards after four years away from the music business? Did you ever think of not coming back?

BM: No. I just needed some time to get away from it. I was just tired of it. Tired of being the rock guitar guy. After 20 years of it, I just sort of hit the wall. Yeah, I know that’s my bread and butter so to speak, that’s my ace card. In my position I was watching a lot of – with the risk of sounding egotistical – lesser quality people doing a lot better with my sound. I thought, oh well, if that’s how it’s gone, I may as well pack it in for a little bit, sit it out, and see what happens. I just got tired of being that guy and wanted to find different ways to make music. I sort of told people that four years ago, and I guess everybody thought he’s just winding us up with some stunt. I really took a lot of time to think about it. I spent a lot of time with the samplers, with the synthesisers and different tools, but still wanting to make pop music. I always wanted to present it to people.

DOA: Is music quite an impulsive thing for you?

BM: It’s just what I do when I wake up in the morning. I would still do it whether I had a career or not.

DOA: When you stepped out of the music business, did you try to normalise and put some routine in your life?

BM: Absolutely, and I miss it! The touring makes me miss it. Yeah, I had full routine. Get up and have breakfast, work for a couple of hours, go to the gym for a couple of hours, socialise for a couple hours more, go home and sleep for a couple of hours, and get back to work for the rest of the evening.

DOA: Now, in-between all this, you did some work for the World Wrestling Championships on TV. Was that another way of just getting away from ‘being Bob Mould’?

BM: Well, I was a life-long fan and a student of the wrestling business. When I got the call to come over as a consultant for that, to help with the production of a regular TV show, I was floored. It was a dream come true, like managing a football team would be for some people or whatever. I threw myself into that for seven months. That took seven months of my life where I didn’t do a stitch of music, because I had to take all of that creative energy and put it into a different thing. Very difficult work, very hard work. Helping to put together five hours of live TV every week is not easy!

DOA: Did you make a lot of money from it, did it help you over your lull?

BM: No, I didn’t get compensated nearly enough for what I should have, for that amount of work, but it was a labour of love.

DOA: So, without wanting to pry, did you have a lot of money saved over from Sugar?

BM: Yes, and I’ve done well in other ways too. It’s been a prosperous decade…

DOA: If you could pigeonhole your new approach, what would you say? MAGNET magazine called it “Bobtronica”…

BM: “Bobtronica”?! That’s awesome! The presentation itself came from when I was watching this Madonna HBO special – and I thought why can’t I do that?! Or the Cher tour career retrospective – I was like why can’t I do that, tongue-firmly-in-cheek?! Would people get this? With my history, would people appreciate this? Well, the sound, it’s like zero percent guitar to a 100 percent guitar, zero percent electronics to a 100 percent electronics. I flip it around and move it around. At the end of the day, the decision-making process, the aesthetic and the sensibility, that’s where I put my imprint on it. When you listen to it, after a couple of listens you get past the shock, you hear all the same elements I’ve always used, albeit with different instruments.

DOA: Well that’s what I was just thinking. I didn’t like Modulate a huge amount when I first heard it. Then I kind of forced myself to listen to it – not in a sadistic way – just so that I could do you justice in interviewing you. And I do get it after a while. Basically, I think your greatest strength has always been that capacity for melody. I have friends who can take or leave most of your stuff, but they say when you write a great melody, it’s more than just a great melody…

BM: For most fans that’s pretty much where it sits. Yeah, it’s a difficult record, and for people who know the history it’s a shocker and it wasn’t what people wanted, I knew that going in. That’s why I’ve been trying to sell people on the idea “give it three or four listens and you’ll find your way in and it won’t seem so strange.” You know, the whole stack of it; it’s a work in progress. I have to go here to get to the next place. This isn’t the end, this isn’t the best, I need to refine this and move it in a different direction to get to the next place.

DOA: Did you ever stop and think – this is too weird, this isn’t me?

BM: Yeah, I got the kind of feeling “wow, people may hate this.” Once I got used to living with that fear, it freed me up even more for the first time ever! You know it’s not easy being me from my perspective! When I’m in the chair, I know what people like. When I’m winning, winning, winning with a certain way why would I mess with that? When I realised there was lot to be gained from failing in some people’s eyes, it made it all the more interesting!

DOA: You’ve recently acknowledged a new enthusiasm for a lot of dance music, like Sasha & Digweed and Daft Punk. Who or what turned you on to this kind of music?

BM: Just living in New York for the last decade, save a couple of years I was in Austin, Texas. You’re surrounded by electronic music in New York. I mean New York is one of the few places in North America where electronic music is the prevalent form. A lot of my friends who are in guitar bands moved to electronic music and were doing great things in New York. It just opened-up a whole new world and made me a fan again. Specific pieces of music, like Sasha’s The Expander EP, it was just like “wow, it’s the same layers as Beaster [by Sugar] but different!” Paul Van Dyk, recently the Daft Punk stuff. Also recently things by Röskopp, The Boards of Canada, Múm, stuff that’s further out. It made me a fan again. It made me go out and buy five records a week, which I hadn’t done in years.

DOA: Did you get involved with club culture much or was your new passion purely from buying records?

BM: Mostly from buying records. Yeah, some club culture but not like the Roxy scene, I’m a little old for that! Chill-out scenes, where people were spinning stuff that wasn’t so much about sticking a glow stick in your mouth and dehydrating to the point of near death!

DOA: You’ve said that a lot of your older songs have traditionally been written from the perspective of very real personal depression. Does Modulate maybe see you break away from that?

BM: Yeah, I think so. There’s still “Lost Zoloft” and “Sunset Safety Glass,” those aren’t the happiest songs in the world. “Comeonstrong” is pretty uplifting, “Soundonsound” is pretty uplifting….

DOA: “Trade” and “Quasar” seem quite ‘up’ too…

BM: “Quasar” is just a funny little pop song. “Trade” is a very old song. That dates back to the end of Hüsker Dü basically. It’s a song that band could never manage. I was working on one piece and it reminded me of that song, so I just re-approached that song with the new style. Yeah, I think it’s a little more ‘up’ record than usual. So that’s a nice break for me.

DOA: By tackling your depression, did the creative part of you ever worry that you might lose a lot instant fuel for your songwriting?

BM: Yeah, a little bit, but that’s hardly enough of a reason as I get older to stay depressed! I think when I was younger I had fuel to burn, it’s easier, but as you get older you’ve got to conserve your fuel…

DOA: Otherwise you might burn yourself out…

BM: Yeah, I think also there was a lot of coming to terms with where I am in life, where I fit in as a gay man in America, and getting more comfortable with who I am. You know, when you don’t hate yourself for what you are…

DOA: Did you go through a period of not liking yourself?

BM: You mean self-hating? Yeah – for 35 years!

DOA: Do you think that you’re underrated as a lyricist?

BM: I think people have missed a lot with not spending time with the words on this record. I think there’s really interesting wordplay that people didn’t take to. I don’t know if the words stand up separately from the music…

DOA: I think some of them do, I think it comes down to a practical level that most people can’t hear many of them because of the way you’ve recorded your vocals over the years…

BM: Yeah, the voice doesn’t sit out front, it’s another instrument in the mix.

DOA: It means you’ve almost got to sit with the lyric book and listen…

BM: Yeah, I always make sure to put them in for that specific reason.

DOA: Besides Modulate, you’re also putting out two other records this year….

BM: Yeah, The Loudbomb album Long Playing Grooves, which is great. It’s been available on the website for three months though, and we’ve been selling it on the road. That’s yet more electronic than Modulate, and then there’s the third record Body of Song, which is two-thirds done. I’ve got to finish writing four more songs and go back down to Georgia and finish recording it. But that stuff I also wrote over the last three or four years, it’s a lot more in the vein of Workbook and Black Sheets of Rain in the tradition of the folkier stuff and the confessional narrative linear songs.

DOA: I was listening to a few tracks off Workbook and Black Sheets of Rain last night, and although some of it’s acoustic, a lot of its played as if it were rock. Does Body of Song take a gentler approach?

BM: Some of it is gentler, and some of it’s pretty close to Sugar. So it’s sort of in that arc. There’s some of it where the other guys are playing, where we might add some loops and percussive things to it, just to liven it up. The three of us are still sort of looking at it and working on it.

DOA: Is Long Playing Grooves all instrumental or is it song-based?

BM: It was supposed to be all-instrumental, but I ended up writing words for nine of the 12 pieces! Some of them are very pop, but some of them are very electronic. It has a lot more, longer unfolding pieces.

DOA: Did these three albums come from a bulk of songs you’ve been writing and then you just filtered them out…

BM: I was writing everything in bulk. I thought it was going to be two records, but I made it one and then it just wasn’t working, so I split it up into three. It’s all been through different convolutions to get where it is. Leading with Modulate was the brave move! The brave and perhaps stupid!

DOA: Once you’ve got these three albums out of the way, are you going to continue alternating between the three forms?

BM: Yeah, at least two. The Loudbomb project gives me the studio electronic repository I really need. Things bearing my name will probably be more story-orientated. A logical split between things I can play live with a guitar and things that can be mixed into a DJ set.

DOA: How are you enjoying being your own label boss with Granary Music in America?

BM: It’s costly; it’s an expensive business to be in. It’s good. It’s very stressful seeing how corrupt the business is. I’ve always known, but you know when confronted with writing the cheques for the radio play and the good review in the retail house publication, it’s a little bit of a shock to the system. Low and behold after all these years thinking people maybe really liked the work, in fact the record company was paying them to like it! It’s very costly. What I would like to do over the next five years is migrate the fanbase from looking at my music in magazines and retail shops to looking to me directly for releases, so they come to the website direct. I really want, over the next five years, to try to filter it that way. I know I’m going to lose a lot of people because of that but frankly there’s so much product in the music shops now and there’s so many companies that are spending so much money on 17 year olds… I can’t compete with that. I’m not that guy anymore, they can’t dress me up and roll me out there and make me look good. I am what I am!

DOA: Do you think that the Internet has helped you resurface?

BM: I think it’s a good supplement to the publications that care and the non-commercial radio stations that like the music.

DOA: I think some people have got too obsessed with the whole MP3 thing. Personally I still want the record, and I still want to have the physical thing. I think an artist’s website should act as a conduit or information station. I can’t think of anything more boring than spending three hours downloading computer files. I can see the positive things from it, like Guy from Fugazi said he considers it a “very democratic form of radio” in the sense people can get to hear the things that they want to buy…

BM: I think that’s true. I think that before last month – when the music business in America shut-down all the Internet radio stations with the whole thing about them trying to play royalties comparable to commercial radio stations – I was the kind of guy who’d go on the Internet for an hour a day and have an Internet radio station playing in the background. They would show me the tracks, and the ones I liked I would write down the artist’s name and go to the record store and buy it or order it from their website. So I think there’s two distinct types of people as far as Internet music goes. There’s you and I who might get exposed to something and we go and buy the tactile product. There’s people who think it’s just kind of shareware that they can download and they have no concept that they’re taking money out of my pocket. They have no concept of being a patron of the arts. The best scenario is where people support the artist directly. We’re a ways from that yet – if people can get it for free, why would they pay?

DOA: But are those people into it anyway?

BM: No, exactly. You know you and I are old-fashioned music-fans who understand that you’ve got to support it to get it.

DOA: Stepping back a bit in time. There was a quote from an on-line paper that I found via your website recently, where you said in regards to Hüsker Dü “I’m surprised people even still say that band’s name.” Now that seems like an off-the-cuff, self-depreciating thing, but at the same does it reveal a bigger kind of resentment that the band seems to have been forgotten about even though the influence is still felt?

BM: Oh no, I don’t spend anytime thinking about how that band should be positioned. History will take its course. Hüsker Dü was a pretty influential band, and I knew that as it was happening. I had a feeling that Hüsker Dü was good compared to everything else that was going on at the time. There was only a handful of bands I thought were that good like Sonic Youth, The Meat Puppets, or ourselves. I don’t know what that band’s place in history is be going to be. I hope to God we don’t end up in the “Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame” or something. That would really defeat the purpose of the whole thing.

DOA: Hasn’t one of Hüsker Dü’s songs been inducted already?!

BM: Not one of mine!!! [Hüsker Dü’s song “Turn On The News” written by estranged former band member Grant Hart was inducted into the “Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame” a few years ago]

DOA: The band’s posthumous fanbase doesn’t seem to have endured as much as the bands’ you overlapped with. I’m thinking of your peers like REM, The Pixies, and The Smiths who still command an influence as well as a current listening fanbase. I came up with three possible reasons why the band’s following doesn’t seem to have endured. Firstly, do you think that it has to do with the fact you never really compromised? Secondly, when you were at your most pivotal crossover point you seemed at your most fragmented. And do you think that even just the sound of some of the latter-day Warner Brothers records hasn’t endured as well as the earlier ones?

BM: What was the first one? The compromise? I didn’t see any purpose in compromising. It’s whatever gets you to the dance. If being a difficult bastard and being really single-minded about the way you’re represented is what got everybody paying attention at that point in time, that was the course to stay. It would have been very easy to mix the vocals up a little louder and turn the guitars down a touch and then maybe we would have been The BoDeanes or some other forgotten band of that era! The second one, the fragmenting thing? In my mind the band peaked at Flip Your Wig. The following two records where basically solo records…

DOA: I agree…

BM: I think both of the Warners’ records were solo records that just got divided up. There was very little in common between the three members at that point. If we’d have been smart, we would have packed it in about half-way through 1986. And what was your last possible scenario? The sound of those records not ageing so well?

DOA: Kind of. I think Zen Arcade still sounds fantastic, it’s got such a raw sound, but I think with the Warners-era stuff there’s a certain sound to them that hasn’t aged so well. I think your acoustic songs on Candy Apple Grey and Grant’s piano song sound quite contemporary but some of the other ones haven’t endured as well…

BM: Ah, I don’t think it was that different. I think Candy Apple Grey was the best-sounding record myself, because that was the one that had no interference. That was the purest sounding record that those three people made. Candy Apple Grey, from where I was sitting, sounded like we tightened up a little bit of the rawness. I don’t necessarily think it had a Flock of Seagulls thing going on though! But I know what you’re saying. They are just snapshots in time. I don’t know if I agree with that thought as much as your first two. But you’re asking the wrong person, I know every stitch and every flaw on all of those records.

DOA: If you could pick a favourite album from each of your three career phases what would you choose?

BM: For Hüsker Dü, I think Zen Arcade is “the one” in that band’s history, only because of the scope of the work, nobody else would have dared do that at that time. A double-length concept record?! How un-punk! It really set the stage for everyone to let their hair down. Solo? Workbook, because it was such a shock to people, in such a good way ultimately. And Sugar’s Copper Blue because that had everything I learned to date that was distilled into 40 minutes. A record with only one questionable song – you only get to do that once or twice in a lifetime.

DOA: Do you think that you’re good at starting bands but not finishing them?

BM: No, Sugar ended great, that had a great ending. Hüsker Dü had a miserable ending! I mean it had at least three endings I can think of, depending on who you talk to! I don’t know, I mean there’s no good way to end anything.

DOA: Do you think the wounds will heal in time?

BM: Between me and Grant, specifically?

DOA: Well, yes…

BM: No, I have no intent of ever going back to revisit that. I tried for many years to not shed negative light on anybody that I’ve worked with. I think that was the best way for me to go about it, and I think I’ll continue to go that way. I don’t like having shots taken at me, but I have other things to do. It’s bothersome, I don’t respond to it. Most of it’s not true…. So I don’t go back to revisit all that. I’ve tried through Grant and Greg’s attorney, who handles the Hüsker Dü estate, and through my attorney who represents my interests to try to figure things out. Most notably, over the past year. As everything’s got to logger-heads, I offered to buy those two guys out, so I could try to sue SST [Hüsker Dü’s record label for the best part of their catalogue].

DOA: Is it true that in the early days your record sales kept SST afloat and you made your money from touring?

BM: Everything back then was pretty much, money in, money out. In the early-90’s when the Hüsker Dü reissue craze started it was not a coincidence that it landed right when Copper Blue came out. The live album, the reissues were pretty much on Sugar’s back.

DOA: So would it ultimately be your aim to try and tidy it all up by gaining control of the back catalogue?

BM: Yes, allowing everyone to retain their rights and their honour and all that. The three of us will never be on the same page to deal with it, and in lieu of that last year I offered a cash settlement to both of those guys to allow me to try to proceed single-mindedly to get control of the catalogue and then all of us could look what to do with it. And they said “no,” and that’s fair.

DOA: It would be a tragedy if all those records slipped out of print…

BM: Yeah, the legacy of the band individually, I try to keep that intact as much as possible. My personal relationships with the people involved with it? Fuck it, anything goes! But in the spirit of what the band is and what it means to people, no, I don’t desecrate that.

DOA: At the end of the day if someone couldn’t go into a record shop and buy Zen Arcade…

BM: That would be a stupid thing. That would be a stupid thing if people couldn’t buy that record. And I made an attempt to try to sort it out… and they said no…

DOA: So do you think that every 10 years you’ll get around to try sort things out?

BM: Oh, I could send the same letter next week and just upset the flames of anger and resentment a little bit more! Life is short… and I’ve been really fortunate since the end of that band.

DOA: So do you think you’re the most comfortable now than you’ve ever been with yourself and your music?

BM: Yeah. It’s funny when you said the thing about ending bands, that’s the hard thing as time goes on, working with people when you know sooner or later it’s going to end. There’s never a good way out of it. So this singular approach that I’m taking, it’s rewarding, it’s fun. And with the sessions for Body of Song, getting David Barbe [ex-Sugar bassist] and Matt Hammond [drummer on Bob Mould’s The Last Dog and Pony Show solo album] together, for the three us to go into a room to see what comes up on these acoustic songs has been a blast too. There’s no intention of it being a “band.” The three of us are just playing in a room together without me arranging and producing everything.

DOA: You’d be happy to say that you’ve lightened-up?

BM: Yeah! I hope! It’s hard. I can be difficult. I’ll be the first to admit to that. I try! I try to lighten to up. I’m pretty self-aware!

DOA: Where do you see yourself in five years time?

BM: Probably sitting in a dressing room in a much smaller venue, doing the same thing! Ha ha ha!

Thanks to Joolz Bosson at Cooking Vinyl for making all this happen. Thanks to Mr. Mould for being such a gentleman.

Mould Gold
Fifteen essentials extracted from every Bob Mould era

1. Something I Learned Today (Hüsker Dü Zen Arcade 1984)
2. Broken Home, Broken Heart (Hüsker Dü Zen Arcade 1984)
3. Celebrated Summer (Hüsker Dü New Day Rising 1985)
4. Divide and Conquer (Hüsker Dü Flip Your Wig 1985)
5. Hardly Getting Over It (Hüsker Dü Candy Apple Grey 1986)
6. Ice Cold Ice (Hüsker Dü Warehouse: Songs And Stories 1987)
7. See a Little Light (solo Workbook 1989)
8. It’s Too Late (solo Black Sheets of Rain 1990)
9. If I Can’t Change Your Mind (Sugar Copper Blue 1992)
10. A Good Idea (Sugar Copper Blue 1992)
11. Tilted (Sugar Beaster 1993)
12. JC Auto [live version] (Sugar Besides 1995)
13. Egoverride (solo Bob Mould 1996)
14. New #1 (solo The Last Dog and Pony Show 1998)
15. Slay/Sway (solo Modulate 2002)