As leader of the post-hardcore trio Hüsker Dü 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 Hüsker Dü, 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 Hüsker Dü 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, Hüsker, 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 Hüsker Dü…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 Hüsker Dü 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 Hüsker Dü.
It has been speculated that “See a Little Light” was your commentary on Hüsker Dü. Is that true?
Not at all.
Continued on page two…
Why did you form a band like Sugar rather than just simply continue a solo career?
There wasn’t a plan to have a band called Sugar. The plan was to make another record with a new rhythm section, that was David and Malcolm, and after three or four weeks of playing together, eating meals together, and hanging out all day together, it started to feel like a band. I felt like I was working with two people that were very much in sync with my aesthetic, whether it’s touring, or doing business, or writing and playing music. So, we gave it a band name. We called it Sugar. We got a call right before we went to make the album. Right before we went to record the album in early ‘92, we got a call from Barrie Buck [owner of 40 Watt Club] who was booking the 40 Watt Club in Athens [Georgia]. She knew we were rehearsing down there and she said, “I got a band that cancelled. You guys want to play a show on short notice?” That was the day we gave it a band name.
During the recording of Sugar’s second album, why did the initial sessions come to a halt?
For the FU:EL session [File Under: Easy Listening]? Lost focus. We’re not happy with the sounds. It didn’t sound good.
Did you just need to take some time away before revisiting it?
What did I do? I closed down the sessions, paid the studio, went back to Texas, erased the master tapes, and started over using click tracks and building it up in reverse, where I did all my stuff. Then I brought David back in, and we brought Malcolm in. We did drums last, and it turned out great.
How hands on were you with the Sugar reissues?
Very. Well, Jim Wilson is the fellow who did all the remastering, and Jim was my engineer starting with the second version of FU:EL down in Texas in ’94. Jim and I had worked together for about 17, 18 years now. Jim was my engineer, then he was my bass player, and now he does all my mastering. Jim was very not hands on, but every stitch of it we went back and forth on the mastering. Day in, day out, I was on it. As far as the packaging, a lot of the contents were compiled over in Europe for the Demon reissues over there. Again, everyday the product manager was sending PDFs and me saying, “Yes, no, change this, change that.” I’m pretty hands on with everything.
That’s good. At least you know if it’s going to be done, it’s going to be done the way you want it.
I think the reissues sound a lot better. The mastering… the mixes are a lot closer to what I was hearing in the studio. And no knock on the mastering at the time, but we’ve come a long way in 20 years understanding how to approach analog source material for the digital medium. A lot better tools now.
It’s been written that your interest in electronic music happened after moving to New York City. Was that coincidence, or was there something about your musical surroundings?
It was early ’99, and I had been back in New York for two or three years. It started in ’98 right as The Last Dog and Pony Show was about to come out. I was listening to some hip-hop at the time, but the short version is, when I made the decision to get out of the band, stop playing guitar rock, and spend my time in New York City building my gay identity, a lot of that was going out to clubs and going to places where the music was not rock. The music was house music, dance music, club music. And that was part of creating my own new identity. The soundtrack was very different.
With its inclusion of electronic instruments and more contemporary technologies, Allmusic said that Modulate “illustrates just how determined [you were] to find a new way to make music.”
Uh-hmm…It’s funny. I played Modulate for the first time in years. I played it for a friend of mine who had never heard it. We were listening to it, and he was speechless. He was, “My God, this is amazing. I had no idea you did this kind of stuff.” It’s a pretty cool record, and I beat myself up about it at the time because people didn’t know how to react to it. It was a naïve approach to electronic music. I didn’t know how to flush out all the ideas, so it sounds a little less impressive than a Sasha & Digweed thing, or BT, or people who were doing stuff like that at the time. I think the songs are real cool. It’s a great little record. That was three years of writing a lot of music in that vein, because that was the music I was hearing every day.
Is it fair to say Body of Song was your attempt to give your rock fans what they wanted while exploring niches that interested you?
Yeah, it was a good hybrid. It was easing myself back towards the guitar. I thought it was a nice return to maybe a little bit more familiar ground for the longtime fans, but still using keyboards and synthetics. You know, truth be told, if you hold up Copper Blue and Body of Song, Copper Blue has way more synthetics. I think a lot of it is the perception of presentation. By 2004, we had Postal Service, we had all the More Music stuff, we had The Notwist , we had Lali Puna. Everybody was pretty deep in synthetics, so people were more attuned to it at that point. Again, it’s perception of presentation, and it’s also familiarity. People were getting used to hearing those sounds in indie rock. It’s funny, it makes me laugh in hindsight.
One thing that made me laugh when I was reading your bio… you are the second musician I have spoken with who has a connection with the wrestling world.
Who’s the other?
Oh, that’s right. He’s running a company. He’s got a little thing going.
What is it about wrestling, and how did you get involved with being a scriptwriter?
I was a lifelong wrestling fan. I knew people in the business. I got smartened up to the business in the mid-’80s. All through the ’90s, I was feeding ideas to World Championship Wrestling, and then they had a change in management and creative team. September ’99, a spot opened up, they gave me a call, and I dropped everything I was doing and jumped in for seven months. It was the craziest seven months of my life. There’s been a lot of crossover between wrestling and rock over the years.
Cyndi Lauper alone.
Well, she started it, right, more or less, on a national stage. It was the catalyst for Wrestlemania 1.
I remember when they did “Land of 1000 Dances” in the ’80s – all the wrestlers.
Oh, God. There ya go.
One last question for you. You’ve contributed to a Richard Thompson tribute album, and you have covered his music. How would you describe Thompson’s influence on you?
Once the similarities were pointed out to me, it was sort of embarrassing. [Laughs.] In ’88, when I was sort of re-inventing myself and writing what would become Workbook, I talked about getting into this Celtic folk thing with alternate tunings and drones, sort of accenting things that were already in my head. When it was pointed out to me towards the end of ’88 that it was very similar to this guy Richard Thompson, when I heard his work, I was, “Uh-oh.” But I had already gotten into that mindset, so I was like, “Whatever,” and just figured, why not just cover a Richard Thompson song? (laughing) That’ll make it easy for everybody. I’ll make it clear that I’m aware there’s a similarity now, although it was an accidental one.
And then when I started to dig into Richard’s catalog, I was just impressed all the way around. He is the best player there is. We’ll just start with that. If you’ve never seen him play… go to the show with a great guitarist. Go see Richard Thompson, and ask the great guitarist [with you] after three songs, “What’s going on?” Invariably, they’re going to say, “I just want to fucking get out of here, because I’m so embarrassed because the guy is so amazing.” He’s a great wordsmith. I’ve gotten to meet him a couple times. He’s quite the gentleman’s gentleman. He’s a great force in music.