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INTERVIEW: Bob Mould

Bob Mould has been creating music since 1979 and his sonic blueprint still looms large today. His first band, the legendary Hüsker Dü, recorded during 1981 – 1987 and released eight albums/eps while touring nonstop. The classics Zen Arcade (a double album), New Day Rising and Flip Your Wig were all released in a nine-month span; it’s a sprint of productivity and quality that is still unmatched.

Hüsker built a musical blueprint that influenced many of bands that would lay the groundwork for the explosion of “Alternative Rock” in the early ‘90s, including Nirvana (Dave Grohl is a huge fan and has played with Bob occasionally). As The Posies once paid tribute: “Nervous children making millions/you owe it all to them.”

When Hüsker broke up, Mould paused, regrouped in solitude and made the brilliant, understated solo 1989 album Workbook. Thirty years later, the massive (24 CD, 295 tracks) 2019 box set Distortion:1989-2019) collected the shifting sounds and brilliance of his career. Mercurial, he is capable of crafting blistering rage, profound beauty and wounding heartache and is constantly creating, reinventing, and shaping music that reflects and reacts to the times.

Mould is currently on tour to support his latest album, Blue Hearts, and just ended a stint with a backing band. His upcoming 10/22 show at Memorial Hall will be a chance to see him play solo acoustic and electric versions of his huge catalogue.

He generously took time out of prepping for the second leg of his tour to talk about transitioning to solo shows, the state of the world and how it feels to look back on his long career.

This interview was recorded and has been edited for length and clarity.

CincyMusic:
 I saw that you're off the road for a bit coming off the full band tour and taking a little pause before you launch into the solo stuff.

Bob Mould:
Yeah, it's a… boy. I'll tell you the band tour was, uh, it was great. I mean, it was just so great to be back on stage, you know? I mean that one year delay between the album and, between Blue Hearts, and this tour to play the songs was, that was a new one on me [laughs].

Yeah. Did you feel like you kind of had this pent up… I want to get this out in the world and vent?

Yeah, there was a lot of that, because I think it was… I think as history has shown us, it was a pretty timely record with some timely thoughts. I mean, my whole, my entire adult life has been this, this repeating cycle, you know, of writing, then recording and waiting for months, then release, then the tour. And then, you know, you start the cycle again. To have that thrown so far off course… that's the first time in my lifetime that's happened. So, um, yeah, it was sort of making it up as we go, kind of.

I was thinking back to the Hüsker days where you were at such a pace where - I thought I had read that you were playing, recording, and playing new stuff [on the tour] because you're already burning through that [current album] and you're on the road constantly. And it seemed like you never had a chance to stop. And that output and that pace is just staggering. Nobody does that. Nobody.

Uh, yeah. I, I keep looking around to see who's still, still standing in that [contemporary group] …[chuckles]

I did think about that and, really, if you look, not a lot of guys… I mean, [Paul] Westerberg, he'll put something out every once in a while. The guys from Soul Asylum are still kicking around. Um, Mike Watt [legendary bassist for the Minutemen and firehose] is still tooling around a little bit…

Oh man, Mike Watt is the hardest working live musician in the history of the business if you ask me.

He’s unbelievable.

Never seen anybody that works that hard. But yeah, I mean, it's just always been forward, forward for me, you know? I mean with Hüskers, we would get at least an album ahead of ourselves, sometimes two albums ahead. Uh, and then, and then when that band was done, I couldn't move far enough, you know, in my own direction as fast as I could. And yeah, it’s just never, never let up. So, this, you know… we're just undoing the pause button now [laughs].

Yeah. So, I wanted to ask you little bit about shifting from the whole band to solo. Actually, I'll get it out of the way, you know, I've been a fan of yours for 30- plus years. The first time I saw you was actually 30 years ago; it was at a small club in Columbus called Stache’s. And, it was a solo acoustic/electric show and Vic Chesnutt opened for you.

Yes.

Still one of my absolute favorite concerts ever. But, you know, that was you solo. And then of course I got to catch you with Sugar later and all the kind of various permutations of bands over the years. So, I'm curious, when you come off such a dynamic tour with Jon [Wurster] and Jason [Narducy] who are just amazing. They bring that fire, I think, like Sugar and Hüsker did, to now you're by yourself trying to pick through your huge catalog and present that material…how do you think about either selection of material or the staging of that when you're not having those amazing drums and bass behind you?

Well, with this band tour, I spent a lot of time working on what I thought would be a really comprehensive set. And the fact that we weren't able to be together much before the tour started, we sort of married ourselves to the set that we just got done playing. And it, I mean, it turned out to be an incredible set. I will probably move away from that set this weekend and go a little bit wider into the song book because, you know, if I can play it by myself, it doesn't involve rehearsal, right? [laughs].

So, I have a few more [songs] at my disposal. It's a different approach to be sure. In a way it's, you know… the volume might be less and the physicality might be less, but I actually have more, I have more work to carry each day on these solo dates. It just, you know, the physical moving from place to place and setting up and accounting and merch and all that stuff that I don't normally do on those tours. But also, in terms of, you know, I really need to… this week, I'm switching back into rhythm guitarist.

Yeah, right.

Because now I'm having to fill in the spaces that Jon and Jason occupied for the last three weeks, you know, that sort of the percussion and the rhythm and, you know, Jason would, you know, sort of melodic foundation, you know, chord structures and things like that. So, I have to sort of reinterpret some of these songs, which I just played with all that help. So now I'm going to be, “Oh, I wonder how “American Crisis” is going to sound?” just by myself.

Yeah. Wow. Yeah.

Yeah. So, it's, you know, I'm, you know, as soon as I finish up for today and get my booster shot, then I will come home and start considering all of that as I get ready to get on the plane Thursday [laughs].

Fantastic. Speaking of that, I will say personally, I'm very glad- I've seen you're very vocal about advocating masking for concerts and I think that's great. I know there's resistance to that still, but, I'm like, “Guys, we just shut this big machine off. It's like, let's keep it going. It's a small thing.”

Yeah. It's such a small thing and it really does a number of things. It really keeps, it helps to keep me healthy. It's keeping the audience healthy. It's keeping the venues open without incident. It's keeping the government from stepping in and regulating how we do our business, which none of us want. Um, ‘cause I think we can do this the right way. And it's such an easy, tiny thing to do. It's …you know, across the fifteen shows, we had one or two people each night in crowds that varied from maybe 300 to 1500, and that's pretty good numbers. You know, keeping the air as clean as possible. And also, the venues requiring proof of vaccination or negative PCR. It's a numbers game to try to keep everybody healthy and to keep it going. And, you know, I've been real clear with people. It's like, if you can't wear a mask for whatever reason, don’t come. If you don’t want to wear them, if you won't wear a mask, don't come. I can't make it any simpler.

Yeah. And I appreciate you taking the stand.

Ah, thanks, I wish more artists would do the same to keep things up and running. We'd be in a better position as an entertainment industry type thing if everybody was a little more accepting of that. You might lose a few people that don't want to help out and that's okay. They can go…don't need ‘em.

Yeah. Jason Isbell is another guy who's been very vocal. He's coming for two nights here at a fairly large arena and it’s the same thing. He's like, “Yup. Mask up.”

I got a lot of respect for Jason and he's in a tougher spot than I. Because his music addresses a wider swath of America. My work, which is a little…my audience maybe is inherently progressive-leaning already. He's got a broad-based coalition and he's going to lose some people and that takes a lot of… you know, he's doing the right thing. So, I have a lot of respect for how he's approaching it as well.

I want to talk a bit about the Distortion box set. I'm going to say something and it'll sound bad, but trust me, it will be good after. So, two things: one, I don't know whether I should be sad or happy. You made me buy some of these albums for about the third time between vinyl, CD and a box set…

[Bob chuckles]

But I bought it and I got the signed boxset because I just want them all in one place. When I got it, I went through it and I was in the habit of, “I'm going to listen to one of these a day” and kind of step my way through your history. So, you know, starting with Workbook, which, you know, I lived and breathed that album in real time so much, and then Black Sheets of Rain and then the Sugar stuff.

As I progressed through the ‘90s, I got to the point where both [the electronica-tinged] Modulate and the Loud Bomb stuff were coming up and I'm looking at that going, “All right, I guess I gotta get through it to get to the next stuff”. And I put that on and I was driving around with it and I was just blown away, like how good that was. And I think it was a matter of context, you know, the time I was in, whatever else I was listening to, my mindset, my expectation of you, where I couldn't appreciate it. And looking at it today, I was like, wow, I love it. And I think there are a lot of advocates that say those works are under appreciated.

So that was kind of my long way of saying…having some distance and taking a wider look at those as a fan, I had a very different take on those. So, I’m curious as to your own take as you're putting that [retrospective] together and looking over, you know, 30- plus years… is there stuff where your perspective has changed? Either what you were doing at the time, your mindset, experiments you were taking, that you go, “Wow, maybe I didn't personally even appreciate it at the time” and now you look at it and go, “Wow, that was really bold and experimental or amazing that, you know, younger me did something so cool”.

Yeah. Everything, everything… thank you for the kind words. Everything you said, especially about the early Aughts where the electronic work is exactly what I was hoping would be the, you know, the response that with time and distance people would see. You know, people who know my story, know why I went in that direction away from guitars and into electronica. That was, that was my life in lower Manhattan at the time. I was a gay man and that was the soundtrack and I wanted to chase that down. I think that work is really solid. At the time it was so out of step with what people expected of me. And I took, you know, took a little bit of a beating at the time and I, you know, I was good with it. It's like, well, this is what I do. And, you know, they're not going to, people, aren't going to understand everything at the moment. Now 20 years later, I'm like, oh yeah, that's right, that was all right around the time that music was starting to shift in that direction. And if you jump ahead a year or two, and you start seeing Postal Service and all the stuff like the Morr Music music label out of Benelux, things that were cooking, a lot of the music that was being made over there in the early Aughts that was sort of indie rock, but very electronica. Um, yeah. It all makes sense now [laughs].

Yeah, I agree. Yeah. And you mentioned Postal Service, that's exactly what it brought to mind [listening to it today]. But, you know, I now have that perspective of looking back twenty years. I think sometimes, yeah, this stuff just not ready for us as either fans or [casual] people listening to the music, where the artist is kind of trusting your own intuition and kind of craft and is like, “Yeah. You know, that feels right to me, people will come around to it”. [There are] tons of examples of that over the years. Albums that are written off as disasters that now people say they're masterpieces like [Weezer’s] Pinkerton.

Yeah, you know… Neil Young’s [radical 1982 electronic departure] Trans is a big one where you hold it up and go, what was he doing? And then when he explains to us that he was trying to communicate with his son [who had cerebral palsy and was unable to speak], this sort of robotic approach, and then you're like, “Oh, uh, yeah.” Um, yeah, I'll, I'll tell you what- the electronic stuff, which I loved that, that era of my life and still do, the biggest thing was, you know, deejaying with Rich [Morel] and Blowoff [a party event where he deejays club music]. And eleven years of being the DJ and learning how to tell a story as a DJ using other people's music and how to sequence sets and how to be reactive to crowds. I mean, I learned another level of, you know, how to sequence my own records in my own work and set lists through that experience. A lot of it is- sometimes just chasing stuff down has unintended benefits, you know, later on. It was just a bigger tool kit, bigger skillset. So, I mean, I love that period.

I'm fascinated by your peripatetic history where you're in a city, you live there a while kind of absorb it, create art, pull up and relocate. So, you've done that several times. One of the cities I'm most fascinated by, and I got a chance to go a few years ago, actually we probably overlapped a little bit, is Berlin. I'm just super fascinated that as an American artist, you pick up and relocate and how that informed you. That was one of the cities where that whole mystique around, you know, east, west, and just the culture that came up in The Cold War was all hanging over me as you walk around the city and I just loved it. So, I would love to know…

Well, I'm curious about your experiences. How long were you there? How long did you visit?

It was only vacation for a few weeks. But it was…it would have been 2018, which I believe you were still there at the time.

Yep. Yep. 2018 was… yeah, that was pretty deep into the writing of Sunshine Rock. Actually, I probably would have, I think I recorded that in May of 2018. So, it would have been, I would have had the decks clear by then. I mean, you, you talk about that east/ west thing, you talk about just the looming history of everything... I mean, did you, go and do like, like history museums or any of that kind of stuff?

Yeah, and it was frankly chilling just to read some of that stuff [about repression of the press, terrorization of immigrants]. There was an outside museum, I think it was near the Wall [the Topography of Terror], with a bunch of plaques that are talking about history and how that [Nazism] emerged. And, of course this is two years into our last president and it was just chilling to read. And, it's kind of like you say in “American Crisis”, like, I didn't think we'd have to live through this again, and here we are.

[Sadly]. I know, I know. For me that “living through it again” was the eighties with Reagan and HIV and that, you know, that silence. I think, well then -you, you get it, right? Because you went to Berlin and you saw the history and the acknowledgement of history and how things can unravel so quickly. So, yeah, you got to see how it can happen. And a lot of us always think, “How could that, how could things like that happen in history?” And then when you actually look at the history and then you see it happening in real time, in your own life, you're like,” Uh, wait a minute…’ lying press’, that was the same thing somebody else said.” Ok, right. Yeah, you know.

I am very fortunate that I get to have these incredible experiences, whether it's living in DC in the 2000s or living down in Austin in the ‘90s as South By [SXSW] was taking off, or living in Berlin, you know, during those years where [Angela] Merkel was still in charge, but the AfD [Alternative for Germany party, a German nationalist and right-wing populist political party, known for its opposition to the European Union and immigration] was rising and you know, that east-west conflict that, you know, again, I was just a visitor for three and a half years, but I knew people who grew up in the east and I would hear their stories. And, you know, the reunification, some people say it's not complete, I don't know. When you go to a country and you live in an environment that has seen so many huge events, wars and things, it really puts it all… it puts our current situation in a much clearer light, I think.

All right, I have two quick ones, I'm gonna wrap up because I know somebody is going to be chomping at the bit here [to interview you next].

I was really impressed by the speed and compactness of Blue Hearts. It's like, wow, really tight, short songs, fast, angry, great energy. Also, I want to acknowledge, you're probably the only songwriter I’ve heard use the word chitin in a song (in “Siberian Butterfly”, which is a dynamite track)…

[Bob laughs hard].

…Um, maybe Trent Reznor. I don't know, it seems like a Trent Reznor word. In a time where a lot of people are taking up the whole real estate of a CD and putting 74 or 80 minutes [on there], I thought that was kind of a bold choice to be very compact, very to the point songs. So, was that your mindset going into it?

Absolutely. Yep. I was looking back at, you know, I was looking back at the ‘80s. I was looking back at the work I did in the ‘80s, I guess specifically, you know, an album like Zen Arcade where it was just a series of, generally speaking, a series of very brief missives, you know? There's like three quick statements that all tied together in a concept. Um, yeah, I mean… the economy of songwriting… I go through phases where it's, “This doesn't need an intro. This doesn't need three choruses at the end, this doesn't need a solo, this doesn't need all of these other devices. Just go in, say what you say and get out”. And Blue Hearts was, uh, you know, that was the motif, you know, with this record, you know, beyond, beyond the politics and beyond, you know, sort of the callbacks to, you know, Reagan and the psychic network that seemed to be running the White House at the time, the evangelical psychic network [laughs].

Having said that, it would make, and I hope it's not the case, an appropriate kind of bookend to your career. At this stage you've done groups, you've done solo, you've done hardcore /punk, fast, slow, electronic, strings, you even did a stint in wrestling. At this stage in your career, is there something you feel you have to prove or something that you haven't said yet that your kind of itching to do in the next, five, ten years, as you’re looking at maybe the latter days of your career? [laughs, realizing it makes it sound like Bob is ready to be put out to pasture]

Yep. No, no, I'm definitely in the fourth quarter, you know? [laughs]. There's bigger scale, you know, a stage presentation- putting something, taking ideas and putting them together in a bigger forum. That could be, that could be cool. Writing another book, yeahh, maybe, you know, I guess in time, but not right now. Generally speaking, I'm just sort of in the, I'm trying to stay in the moment and, you know, just getting ready for these shows coming up, whether it's Cincinnati or St. Louis or Iowa city or wherever this next run is headed and just sort of enjoying being alive today and being able to get back to work and see people. That's what I wake up with. When this round of touring has finished, you know, whenever in ‘22 it wraps up, that's when I'll sit down and take a look at, you know, unfinished work or new media to possibly reach into. Maybe I'll go completely backwards and just record everything direct to cassette. I don’t know.

[Laughs]

[Amused] I'm sure something will strike my fancy at the exact right moment and I'll chase it down as best I can [laughs], but right now I have no idea.

Well, I know I'm not alone in saying I can't wait for that. Thank you so much for the time, can't wait to see you in Cincinnati. I don't know if you've ever played Memorial Hall. It is a beautiful old theater, gorgeous-please don't blow the roof off it.

[laughs] All Right.

Bob Mould plays Memorial Hall on Friday October 22. Jason Narducy opens.

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