Bob Mould has made vital, trenchant music for over four decades; whether it’s been with Hüsker Dü, his triumphant solo work, Sugar, or his forays into more electronic music, he’s continued to explore, observe the world, and funnel it into his own creative vision. Mould took some time to chat about his upcoming solo electric return to Cincinnati. It’s always a joy to get to see him play guitar live; don’t miss out on this one. I had just completed a Facetime virtual guitar lesson learning Bob Mould’s solo song “See a Little Light” and we started with some small talk about how to play the song (he recommended a convoluted dulcimer-type tuning in the vein of Joni Mitchell vs. standard tuning to make it sound lusher) before we jumped into the interview.
Speaking of guitars and acoustics and tuning, I was listening to your Ocean EP recently and just bought it off of Bandcamp today. I was really happy to hear you playing acoustic again. I absolutely love your acoustic playing and wish we could see more of it in person.
Yeah, thanks. I think in the future, you know, not this go around, but I would think, you know, maybe like ‘24, ‘25. I've been thinking more about acoustic.
That’s fantastic. I would absolutely love that. One of songs you covered (on The Ocean) … [laughs] you covered your own music, sorry, was [Hüsker Dü’s] “Divide and Conquer”. I guess [I should say] reconfigured acoustically and I really loved the version. My first reaction was, “Oh, Bob updated the lyrics to reflect what's going on in the world today”. And then I went back and looked at the original lyrics and I'm like, “No, those were always the lyrics”. It may have been the first time I heard some of them because I'm used to the noise of the original. And it all kind of blurs and, you know, no offense, sometimes it's hard to make out the lyrics. But your lines about, “It's not about my politics/Something happened way too quick/A bunch of men who played it sick/They divide and conquer.” I'm like, wow, that sounds like that's ripped out of the headlines.
I'm guessing that was an intentional kind of resurrection of that song to reflect what's going on today…or not? Am I reading too much into that and it's just a great song?
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. It resonated in, you know, it resonated a few years ago, pretty much the same way it resonated back when I wrote it on a banjo in an alleyway in… Covington, Kentucky, maybe?
No way. Really?
Yeah. Yeah, I think I wrote that on a banjo that I had just bought at a pawn shop before a show at the Jockey Club.
That's incredible. I've never heard that.
Now if you listen to the riff that way, think about a banjo.
Oh my gosh. Yes. That's, that is wild. I had never heard that story. That's incredible.
I don't know if I mastered all ten verses or whatever the hell it is all because I can never remember it enough to play live. But yeah, I mean, you know, the essence of the song was definitely written that day.
It's both, I think exciting and unnerving that lyrically it's still so topical. I don't know. Maybe that's no surprise though.
No, no, no and I think calling that one up for the EP, you know it's a nice addition to sort of the vibe of [his last full album in 2020] Blue Hearts. The essence and the feel and the content of that record is so similar to the way that I was feeling in, you know, October of ‘83 when we [Husker Du] were making Zen Arcade. And, you know, I mean, we were three years into a Republican administration that leaned heavy into religion and LGBTQ folks had no rights, or very few rights, and were being told that they should die because of AIDS. Yeah, and, you know…same as it ever was, right?
Yes. And, I'm hoping, no. I mean, one of the things…so my wife and I were on vacation this summer and we were going to Napa Valley, but we were in San Francisco for a couple days and we were actually there when Pride was on.
Yeah, just being in the middle of that made me profoundly happy. To see like, wow, just, so much support and so much being able to celebrate publicly. We watched the parade for maybe an hour or two went to go get some food, watched some bands in the park, came back and it was still going strong. And I’m like, “all right”, you know? Sometimes it doesn't feel like we've moved the needle, but this is happening.
So, you're saying this year's [Pride] in June, just a few months ago?
Yeah, yeah, yeah, no, I was there with, my now husband and I were there. Yeah, it was great, it was pretty great. I mean San Francisco is so open and so tolerant and so progressive and… you probably, I mean, I'm sure you saw some of the difficulties that the city is having, and I mean, we're… you know, as San Francisco goes, so goes the rest of the country, is how I see it.
A lot of the social innovation, you know, both good and bad, happens in San Francisco, and it's a challenge post-COVID, you know, the city is having a time, but it feels like it's coming back. For me, I saw the tech boom, and I saw what it did to the city, and I saw the tech, I saw COVID, and then the tech bust, and now we've got the AI boom, and I'm like, geez, if we thought social media turned out crazy, I have no idea how AI is going to turn out.
You know, it's tough. I'm sort of rooting for the city to come back, but do we want AI and autonomous vehicles to be the way? You know what I'm saying. It's an amazing place. And I think people who beat up on San Francisco are people who don't understand progressive life. I'm sure they would be shocked to come on Pride weekend.
Right. Yeah. Well, surprisingly, I've been in Cincinnati for over 35 years now. When I moved, everybody was like, “Oh, it's super conservative.” But Pride has grown every year and it's very strong and things have really progressed even in what started as a very conservative Midwest city. So, I think there's hope.
You know, last time I was in town [Cincinnati] and I played at Memorial Hall, I stayed downtown by the Arts District, and I had a really good time walking. I had a night off, I was just out walking, and it seemed like there was a lot of nightlife and culture, and good food, and those are all good signs, you know?
Yeah, definitely. I was rereading your book [Beauty and Ruin], which is terrific.
And you had a lovely description about creating. You wrote about how when you're creating a new piece of music -you compared it to standing under a beautiful waterfall and just having this water pouring over you and I thought that was a really lovely image for someone who's made frankly, loud, aggressive, sometimes abrasive music, but also [has made] the really lovely stuff on Workbook. Do you still feel like that? Do you get those kinds of torrents of creativity? You've kept very active and prolific over the years.
Yeah, I mean, yeah, waterfall or, you know, the rain bucket idea where if it starts to rain, get the water because you're going to need it. So, yeah, I just feel like I sort of move through my days and weeks and months and an idea grabs me or a thought comes into my head, you know, it's just sort of-document it, put it in a folder, put it where you can find it. A lot of my writing is observational, some of it is autobiographical. And, you know, it's just, to me, it's a matter of capturing the ideas. And when I get the, when I get the moment or the chunk of time to sit with and go through all those ideas that's usually the beginning of a writing cycle. And that writing cycle leads to recording, which then leads to making videos and doing press, which leads to the album, to the tour.
And, the last few years, it's been really, you know… I got knocked so far off of my cycle of life that, you know, I've got a lot of ideas, but it's been really hard to make the time to put every, put all the new ideas together, which is actually what I've been doing this summer, and I'll have some new stuff for these shows, and then, you know, recording next year. But, yeah, I mean, that's sort of my way of life, I guess. The pandemic really knocked all of us off course, you know, I think a lot of musicians, a lot of people were happy to do, Zoom concerts or stuff like that. And I stayed away from all of that and waited until I could come back and tour in person. But, yeah, the whole, the last three or four years, everything has been upside down. It just now feels like, oh, I'm almost ready to make a record, which means I'll be back on cycle. So, yeah, it's… this decade has been a challenge, a huge challenge that’s for sure.
[Laughs] It’s like, “It’s been a rough decade and it’s only 2023.”
Oh my god, yeah. Yeah…joking, not joking. It almost reminds me of when I was a small child and I would ask, you know, grandparents, “So what was the depression like?”
They just sort of get this glazed- over look and they just stared off at the distance and never really answer it. Yeah. Yeah. I feel like that's going on right now [laughs].
Yeah, it's interesting times for sure. You mentioned you're upcoming tour. You were here, I guess about two-ish years ago at Memorial Hall? You mentioned new material, what are we going to do different this time?
It's gonna be pretty, it'll be pretty similar to the Memorial Hall show which I think was, October ’22 [actually October 2021]. Jason Narducy, my bassist, is on for these shows as well.
Oh, awesome. Great.
He'll do a set of his stuff, and then I'll come out and do an electric set of my stuff. I've got a lot of new stuff I'm working on. I'm, you know, this week I'm literally on the home stretch of trying to get, you know, sort of cement a handful of new songs that I can take out of the workroom and put 'em on stage and see how they go. So, we got that. But it'll have the same look and feel as the Memorial Hall show.
Cool. That sounds terrific. I mean, that was a fantastic show. I loved it and always good hearing. Hüsker stuff mixed in with your solo stuff, so I'm happy you're still revisiting that.
It is amazing, not to keep going back to Hüsker, but I’m struck by how relevant, how, fresh and exciting, it still sounds forty years later. It's remarkable. I mean, some of that stuff [from the early/mid ‘80s] can sound very dated. But, if some new band dropped that today, I'd be like, “Oh, this band's amazing. They're right on and writing about all this topical stuff”. And, it's just, it's just amazing.
Oh, no, no, no thank you. I mean, I think the Disney Hall Tribute Show in late 2011, you know, with a lot of friends and colleagues, I guess Dave Grohl being the headliner, you know, coming together around the songbook, it put a spotlight on the songbook and it was really inspiring for me [the concert is available on the documentary See a Little Light: A Celebration of the Music and Legacy of Bob Mould]. And I've been working with Jason [Narducy] and with Jon Wurster and with Beau Sorenson, our engineer since the beginning of 2012, when we recorded Silver Age.
And, you know, that run of five albums is, I mean, I'm shocked. I didn't see that level of excitement and inspiration coming, and I think the Disney Hall show had a lot to do with that. And, again, you know, ‘20 and ‘21, everybody was down for a while, but [we’ve been] crawling out from the wreckage and trying to get back in that good light. You know, get in the right headspace for the next album. Yeah, I mean, it's all full speed ahead again. Good stuff.
Hopefully we stay healthy, stuff stays open, and we keep it going.
I'm all vaccinated, and I got my Paxlovid in my gig bag. If anything goes sideways on the road, I’ll do the best I can.
Yeah, I gotta get my new vaccination and get my flu shot soon, so I'm prepped for fall.
I got both of mine, I got both of mine on the same day, same arm last week. I was down, I was down for two days.
That always happens to me. I've got a really healthy immune system and I think those shots wake it up right away. [Laughs]
Again, reading your book, I was struck by a passage where you talk about, as a kid, getting 45s and just studying them, studying the labels, and playing them over and over. And then that thrill of buying the first Ramones album where you have it in the car and you're looking at it and you can't wait to get home and drop the needle on it. And when you do, it changes your life.
So, two things.
One is, like I said, I was excited to get The Ocean, but it's only [available in] digital. So, while it's really nice, I kind of missed that tangible connection with it.
So, I don't know, [I’d like] more of kind of [your] general observations on physical media.
And then the other [question] is on new up-and-coming bands. Are there new bands that you’re like, “Wow, I can't wait to literally or figuratively drop the needle on that [record]?”
Well, I think what you're, you know…the idea of vinyl-tactile, large art, just that that storage medium, it holds so much more value to me. And I think with the resurgence in vinyl, there's a lot that feel that way, you know?
You know, as opposed to the era of buying digital files online [like] we did with, you know, the iTunes store or Bandcamp or whatever, where people would buy. I think that when music is just represented as an icon on a desktop or as a choice inside of someone else's ecosystem, it… I mean, it is what it is. That's what we've turned into. You know, we like our portability, I think. And, unfortunately, I think because people are not paying money to artists as much as they are paying money to a platform that distributes music at a rate that is not favorable financially to the artist is a huge, you know, it's a huge downgrade for the artist. But it is what it is. And I guess I'm just learning to accept that fact. You know, having said that, I still like to do vinyl on all top line releases, albums, and stuff like that.
The second question, I mean, if I had one band that I recommend everybody listen to, it's a band from Detroit called The Armed, A- R- M- E- D. It's some of the most thoughtful, stunning, audio, video representation of music that I've seen in a long time. They make wonderful videos that go with this really distorted, aggressive guitar-based music, and the new album is more commercial than things they've done in the past, but I mean, they're my favorite band in the last five years, no question.
That would be my number one recommendation.
Thanks so much, any last words as we close?
No, this was a really fun interview, thanks for the time. I'm curious to see 20th Century Theatre. I heard that it was a venue that was down for a while and it's back up again. And it sounds very different than Memorial Hall. You know, hoping people will come and we'll have a good evening of music.
Bob Mould plays 20th Century Theatre on Sunday, October 22. Jason Narducy opens.