As leader of the post-hardcore trio HÃ¼sker DÃ¼ throughout the ’80s and of the aggressive pop band Sugar in the ’90s, Bob Mould has been one of the principle drivers behind the direction and ideals of the American Underground. 2012 began with Mould readying the extensive reissues of Sugar’s catalog, as well as releasing a solo album, The Silver Age.
Consequence of Sound recently caught up with Mould to discuss The Silver Age and what it means for him to be playing three-minute songs again. We also visited the demise of HÃ¼sker DÃ¼, the formation of Sugar, and what led Mould to begin exploring the electronic realm.
Can you hear me okay?
Yeah, it’s mostly the absence of the top end, which could clearly be my hearing. [Laughs.]
What makes you say that?
I don’t know. Have you heard the new record?
No doubt. It sounds awesome. You said that you had been “batting around the idea of another aggressive pop record” for a while, especially with the anniversary of Copper Blue coming up. Listening to Silver Age, it’s almost a blend of all the styles and sounds of your entire career. I like how you referenced that you know you can’t go back in time, but it’s great to be playing three-minute songs again.
Yeah, it sure is. The genesis of Silver Age is a couple different things. For a few years now, the 20th anniversary of Copper Blue was looming, and there were plans to do a reissue, and then it started to snowball into this thing that got bigger than just reissuing the records. There was talk of doing a Sugar tour, but David [Barbe, bass] and Malcolm [Travis, drums] both work at universities, and they weren’t available. We got together and tried to make it work, and it didn’t, so I started looking at other options. The one that made the most sense was to go out and play the record with my current rhythm section. So, there’s that part.
The second part of it, I guess, started a couple years ago by getting together with Dave Grohl and all the stuff that fell out of that conversation. You know, Dave asking me to come in and work on a song for their record [“Dear Rosemary”], and then asking me to come out and DJ, and sit in with them on the arena shows. Me getting back in that mode and that sort of excitement, that got me pointed even more in that direction of an aggressive pop record. The Disney Hall tribute show last November, having Dave, and Ryan Adams, Hold Steady, and Britt from Spoon, having all that sort of pile on really set the stage for basically rewriting all the aggressive pop songs that I had laying around. Silver Age more or less got written in about a month. It’s weird. In the ’80s, I used to write records like that every eight months.
Weren’t there a couple years where you put two HÃ¼sker DÃ¼ albums out in a year?
Well, yeah, there was Zen Arcade, New Day Rising, and Flip Your Wig within 13 months. So, for Silver Age, it’s a combination of the Copper Blue thing hanging overhead, and it was partly Dave and the experience with Foos, and getting back on that track. And I guess the third piece of it to me was, after spending three years examining my life to date, and writing a book, and being copy edited to ribbons, it was sort of nice to just write very simple rock songs. [Laughs.]
How was writing the book? It seems some people write books for therapy, and some people write books just to get books out. What was behind you writing your biography?
It had been in the works for many years when I finally settled into the idea, and started working with [Michael] Azerrad, and getting the stories out. At first I thought, “Oh great,” it’s gonna be like, “I’m really great. Look at all this great music I made. Look at these couple of silly albums I made.” When we started to really drill down into the deeper, personal stuff, it sort of put a new light on the work for me. I was able to finally make sense of what I’d been doing all this time.
Uh, therapy? I didn’t go in thinking it was, but it becomes that. There’s no doubt it’s therapeutic. It’s cathartic. It’s that examination. It’s recompiling everything you’ve done and putting it in order. Then, all of a sudden, it makes sense and you go, “Oh, now it’s time to move forward knowing all this.” I was really proud of the book. I’m glad I don’t have to do it again next year. [Laughs.] I think I’m better at songs than I am at books. This record was such a relief, just to be able to write. And knowing how I could have edited myself and all these songs, and done this and done that to make it all more correct. I was, “Fuck that. I just did that with the book. I’m just gonna go with what feels right.”
Do you think that Silver Age is a direct result of you working on the book?
It’s gotta be…I don’t think it’s a direct result, but I think what the book did for me is that since I was able to name all of my idiosyncrasies…controlling, always prescient, hyper-vigilant. To be able to name all that stuff, when it came time to make this record, to be able to know, to be able to go, “Look. All your friends are playing your songs. You’re hanging out with the Foo Fighters. Fucking just do it. Just go with what’s happening, and don’t try to steer it too much; just be in the moment and be part of it instead of trying to direct it.” That’s all I know right now about it.
You said that “more than any other record [you’ve] made, this one gives a real glimpse into how much making music means to [you].” How so?
Well, there’s that song “Keep Believing”. It’s a curious tune because I had this sort of fast riff that I had written. I think it was early February of this year and this early demo. I demoed a really brisk song. Jon [Wurster, bass] and Jason [Narducy, drums] and I played it in the studio, and I was, “I’m not really feeling this part of the song. I should just rewrite something here.” I just started playing some riffs for five or six minutes, and then I played this one riff, and Jon was sitting behind the kit, and he looks up and goes, “That one’s really good.”
I was like, “Really?” And he said, “Yeah, that was really good.” And I was like, “Ok, I can make that this part.” And then I had to write a bunch of words at the last minute for it. It showed me how fun the process can be when I open it up. And being sort of stumped for what the song was about, I was just like, “I’m just gonna make this song about my record collection.”
It’s funny you mentioned “Keep Believing” because my next question was, do you know offhand how many albums or songs that you reference?
In that one? I’ve got my big book right here. Let me take a look. Let me open the book, and I can count them all for you really quick. It looks like there’s two a line.
The excerpt I saw there were two per line.
It’s at least two a line on them so (flipping through sketch pad)… I started writing all my lyrics on these big sketch pads because it was much easier to edit. I don’t know how many. You can see what all the records are there. They’re so clear, whether it’s Revolver [Beatles], In Color [Cheap Trick], Younger Than Yesterday [The Byrds]…
The Who and Pedro the Lion?
No, that’s Minutemen.
Oh! “Pedro on a picnic lawn.” I saw Pedro and thought, “Pedro the Lion, what the hell?”
[Laughs.] I like them, but no it was Minutemen. Minutemen, Pixies, Nirvana, HÃ¼sker, MBV is how it wraps up. When I broke the code, I was like, “Oh, that’s easy. Let me just do this.” That was a fun little thing for me. It’s what I do, man. It’s my life. This is my year to have fun. 2012 is a year to go out and play a record that I love, and that’s really fun [Copper Blue], to play a new record that I love that’s real fun [Silver Age], and not get all wrapped up in therapy and self-examination. It’s going to make for some pretty clumsy interviews, but whatever. [Laughs.]
If I can revisit HÃ¼sker DÃ¼…When Grant Hart was fired from the band, was there any consideration given to you and Greg Norton continuing on rather than dissolving the band?
Grant Hart was not fired from the band. Bob Mould gave notice to the band in January 1988. I gave notice. I walked away from the band, and as I was walking away, Greg Norton asked if I would consider just he and I continuing on in some form, and I was, “Hell no.” Grant wasn’t fired. All the stuff that went down, my memory of it is very detailed in the book. After about six weeks of realizing the situation that Grant was in with his own predicament, and the disillusionment that had been building for about 18 months, my perceived lack of interest in the band and my stuff that I was bringing to the band, it was just time to get off the train. Grant was definitely not fired. I just walked away.
When you guys reunited at the Karl Mueller tribute show in 2004, was there a reason that Norton didn’t come back?
Again, in the book, I laid the whole scenario out very clearly. Grant got my phone number from my lawyer, called, and asked if he could come down and play a song with me, which turned into two songs. And because it was Karl Mueller, who was a dear friend, I was in a spot where I really didn’t know what to do, so I said yes, and it was a less than memorable experience. All it did was remind me that sometimes you can’t go back at all.
What was behind the sonic shift then with Workbook?
I was just trying to get out from underneath my own shadow, find a new language. I think it would have been silly for me to try to recreate or continue that exact sound, because that sound, as much as it was my vision and my ideas, it was clearly that HÃ¼sker DÃ¼ was a band that sounded like that, and I didn’t want to try and duplicate that. I didn’t want to try and continue it at that moment. I wanted to have a fresh start. I wanted to break clean and start over. That was sort of the mantra. And how the work evolved over the course of writing that album in 1988, I was chasing down synthetic sounds, I fell into a Celtic folk groove and free verse, and it all started to sort itself out over the course of the year. But if there was a mantra, it was try not to sound like HÃ¼sker DÃ¼.
It has been speculated that “See a Little Light” was your commentary on HÃ¼sker DÃ¼. Is that true?
Not at all.
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