Bob Mould: Past as Prologue

Music Features Bob Mould
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Bob Mould has lived all over the U.S., starting in upstate New York, where he grew up; to Minneapolis where he helped found the pioneering punk band Hüsker Dü; to his years writing and DJing in New York and D.C.; to his current stomping grounds in San Francisco.

Through every move, there’s at least one possession that has remained with him: boxes of 45s from the mid-’60s to the early ‘70s given to him by his father, hit singles by British Invasion groups and Stateside purveyors of soul and R&B among them.

“When we moved from an apartment into a house, the house had a grocery store attached to it,” Mould remembers. “The company that sold beer to my dad’s grocery store also took care of the jukeboxes in this small farm town that I grew up in. And my dad would buy boxes of used jukebox singles for a penny a piece. Those were my toys as a kid.”

Almost everything the 53-year-old musician has recorded to date can be traced back to those boxes: The closing vocal melodies on “Something I Learned Today,” which feel cribbed from The Chamber Brothers’ 1967 hit “Time Has Come Today,” the bubblegummy swing of “Hate Paper Doll,” the pure pop overload of his work with Sugar. Other influences have crept into his work over the years—Richard Thompson and Neil Young’s emotional folk-rock, deep house and electro—but those early singles still provide him with inspiration.

“Whenever I have a question in my own mind about a song I’m working on, if I get stuck,” he says, “like ‘How do I get out of this song?’ I just walk over there and grab a stack of singles and put them on the spindle and let them drop and let them play. Within a half hour, I’m going to have the answer.”

The echoes of those boxes of records reverberate as loudly as ever on his 10th solo album, Beauty & Ruin, and not just musically. There are easy-to-acknowledge reference points throughout, from the little doo wop-inspired intro to “Nemeses Are Laughing” to the Byrds-y jangle of “Forgiveness,” but the deepest resonances come from something much more personal. Right around the time of the release of his last solo venture, Silver Age, his father passed away. A hard thing for most people to have to deal with, for Mould the emotions involved were increasingly complicated.

As outlined in his 2011 memoir See A Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody, Mould’s father was a vicious and paranoid man, prone to excessive drinking and meting out abuse on his wife and kids.

My father would come home around seven in the evening, and that’s when the game would begin. Inevitably, something, just about anything, would set him off: it could be a pot boiling over, a chore left undone, something of little significance that happened days before. The whole family would walk on eggshells before the coming shit-storm. I’d wait in dread for the first venomous line, the first accusation, the first degrading comment. Where would it start tonight?

Amazingly, Mould, the youngest kid in the house, escaped the physical attacks, and was treated with unusual generosity from his father: the jukebox 45s, jars full of silver dollars on Christmas when his sister and brother were given nothing.

Even with those gestures of kindness, the poison leeched into the household air still left some deep psychological scars. You can get that sense most clearly in his memoir and in many of his songs over the years, such as Hüsker Dü’s sprawling 1984 masterpiece Zen Arcade, which tells the story of a young man escaping from a terrible home life (“Your parents fight/you don’t know who’s wrong or right/have to cry yourself to sleep at night,” Mould wails on “Broken Home, Broken Heart”).

His father’s death, though, came in the midst of another career peak, and one in which he was already learning to accept and appreciate his past. He was celebrated with a huge concert in late 2011 at Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles where Ryan Adams, Craig Finn of The Hold Steady, Dave Grohl, No Age and others played renditions of material from throughout Mould’s career. The next year saw both reissues of his albums with Sugar, the power pop band he formed in 1992, and the release of Sliver Age, an LP that found him circling back to that more driving rock sound.

“[Silver] came out in September of ’12,” Mould remembers, “and everything’s great. It’s a party. We’re having fun. And then October of ’12, not unexpectedly, but still unfortunately, my dad passes away. I guess, for me, that’s the beginning, that’s where this thing begins. The ideas and the music that’s in [Beauty and Ruin] is the 12 months from that happening to us going into the studio, pretty much to a day.”

If the songs on Beauty are any indication, the year in between involved a lot of soul searching and trying to reconcile the dissonance of being in constant fear of a man who also helped lead Mould down his current creative path. Or as he put it to the attendees of the ’11 tribute show, “The cruel joke is…if I didn’t have such a strange childhood, and all this anger that I was carrying around and channeling into my music, I don’t know if we would be in this spot tonight.”

Or as he sings on the slashing, triumphal new track “The War”:

Everything we made, reduced to dust
You were the one who taught me most
I carry your remains
Your emblem and your name
Nothing left will ever be the same

“Really looking back, what happened is that I recognized four themes to a lot of the writing that I was doing,” Mould says of writing the songs that would end up filling up Beauty. “The idea of loss, the idea of reflection, the idea of acceptance and the idea of future. In keeping them in that order, I basically came up with these four frames, like picture frames. Then the subsequent months, up to and including the recording of the record, was picking the photographs and putting them in the proper format. That’s how the story is told on the record. It’s very cold, it’s very gray, it’s very dark, and it’s slow at the beginning. But then by the end, it’s very warm and it’s very sunny and it’s very hopeful and it’s very bright. If you go back and listen to it now, you’ll go, ‘Oh! There it is!’”

The arc of so many musicians’ careers can be marked by how they reacted to evolutions in recording and instrument technology or to the dual influences of what they were listening to and what was going on in their lives. There are plenty of great examples of this, but I would argue that no one represents this journey better than Bob Mould.

His earliest efforts with Hüsker Dü were the product of absorbing both the punk sounds from the East Coast and England and the cheap amphetamines that he and bandmates Grant Hart and Greg Norton had access to. Their first releases (particularly 1983’s Metal Circus) were frenzied affairs, the trio barely keeping it together as they tore through track after track. As they continued on, the poppier influences of their childhood years started to get folded into the mix, with college radio hits like “Makes No Sense At All” and “Don’t Want To Know If You Are Lonely” arriving as a result.

When that band broke up in 1988, Mould shied away from playing loud rock, using an acoustic guitar and the sound of a cello to drive his first batch of post-Hüsker material. He then found an impassioned and absorbing kind of middle ground between the delicate atmospherics of his first solo album (1989’s Workbook) and his second (Black Sheets of Rain, released in 1990), where the distorted electric guitars brought about more ache and anguish than aggression.

By time of his next musical venture, the indie world had started to improve upon the late Hüsker template of marrying the pop formula with loud rock thanks to bands like My Bloody Valentine and Pixies (a group who famously put an ad in a Boston weekly seeking a bassist influenced by both Peter Paul & Mary and Hüsker Dü). Inspired by what he was hearing, Mould formed Sugar, a new power trio whose woefully short run (1992-1995) left behind a pair of amazing albums and some still-crowed-about live performances.

The next few years found Mould in a personal and creative state of wandering. He vented his frustration with the music world of the late ‘90s and put his foot down as a solo artist on his 1996 self-titled album, on which he played every instrument himself and included a song simply called “I Hate Alternative Rock.” Too, his interest in electronic music grew during that time, fueled by falling into the club scene in New York.

“I put out a record in late ’98 called The Last Dog & Pony Show and part of the premise is that it was my time to leave rock behind,” Mould says. “I’d been doing it for 20 years and I just wanted to spend more time at home. And once I started to really dig into the West Village and Chelsea, there was this completely different soundtrack, and it was dance music.”

Some of that sound did leach into his solo work (the critically derided 2002 album Modulate) but when he moved to Washington D.C., he concentrated on DJing, hosting a monthly party Blowoff that eventually toured the U.S. and resulted in a CD of tracks recorded by Mould and his then-creative partner Richard Morel.

Though he planned on leaving rock behind, the pull of that sound proved too alluring. And the fire was further fueled as he dug into his past with writer Michael Azerrad as the two collaborated on See A Little Light. That, along with a tour he undertook in support of the Sugar reissues where he played that band’s 1992 album Copper Blue in its entirety, only fanned the flames that would eventually yield his two most recent solo works.

Two other key elements to his current sound are the gents backing him up: drummer Jon Wurster and bassist Jason Narducy. Each one complements the other two so perfectly in sound and personality, leading to crackerjack live shows that boast youthful energy and witty banter. The best example of how connected the trio are as musicians, though, lay in the fact that they never practice together, preferring to just get on stage and get into the studio and go.

“I think we have a lot of common records in our respective collections,” Mould says. “The sensibility that all of us housed, the prism that we saw music through…you know, that next wave after the first wave of punk rock. I love bands that are influenced by that aesthetic, but we created that aesthetic. Jason was playing in a punk rock band when he was nine years old. Jon’s played in a lot of basements and a lot of house parties back in ’83 and ’84. So it’s not like the three of us sit at a table and say, ‘So what are we going to do with this?’ We all know exactly what we’re going to do with it.”

In at least one very significant way, Beauty & Ruin feels like Mould acknowledging that his long period of self-reflection and wrestling with the demons of the past could finally be coming to a close. Unlike every record he’s released under his own name, Mould has put his own face on the cover art with a recent picture overlaid atop a shot of him in his 20s.

The juxtaposition of the two shots is striking. The younger Mould, still working off some baby fat, smoking a cigarette, and eyes cast down at the ground; the current version is leaner, grayer, and stares straight ahead with confidence and peace in his eyes.

If the ghosts of his childhood and his years putting his body through the wringer are behind him, what might that mean for Mould’s future work as a musician? More of the same strain of heartfelt rock or, as he has hinted at in previous interviews, a period where he puts his electric guitar on the shelf for a while?

“I don’t know,” he says. “I’m very, very fortunate to be working with Jason and Jon right now. I dread the day that we can’t do what we’re doing. Especially because right now, it’s got so much white-hot steam coming off of it. Just the thought of it not being there is sad, but it’s a reality. I’d rather not think about it until it happens. We try to make the most of it while we’re capable of it. Maybe that’s the urgency of it, I guess.”

There’s a confidence in Mould’s voice these days. Maybe that’s always been there—this was the first I’d interviewed him—but it was evident from the first part of our conversation as he discussed the DJ gig he had that evening in Cambridge, Mass. He’s as comfortable in his own skin in a way that all of us can really aspire to.

And it could be attributed to so many things: his deeper acceptance of himself as an out and proud gay man, the rave reviews Beauty and Silver Age have received, the work that he put into examining the good and bad of his life for the purposes of his memoir, or simply his age finally tempering the rage of his younger years.

It could also be that, at age 53, he’s finally willing to stake his claim as someone who has been a huge influence on at least three generations of young musicians.

“It’s one thing for me know what I’ve done and to have other musicians from time to time say, ‘Oh, the stuff that Bob does really means a lot me. It has a lot to do with what I do,’” Mould says. “But that Disney Hall thing when everybody’s getting together and singing those songs back at me, the depth of that didn’t hit me. I thought it hit me when it was happening, but I don’t think it hit me as much as it did later when I felt, like, ‘Now, wait a minute. If everyone else can do that, why can’t I do it? Why have I not allowed myself to do it, to go back and to acknowledge that this is what I actually do.’ I don’t want to disown it anymore.”