FOREWORD: Celebrated post-punk indie rocker, Bob Mould, co-led Minneapolis’ stupendously frenetic hardcore trio, Husker Du. Internal bickering and drug abuse forced Husker Du to close up shop by 1987, but not until they set rock clubs ablaze. ‘84s excellent Zen Arcade, ‘85s quite-possibly-better New Day Rising, and ‘86s not-far-off Candy Apple Grey were the best items in their catalogue.
Mould went on to lead the more accessible, but no less energetic, Sugar, before going solo. I got to speak to the provocative underground icon in ’98 to promote his fourth solo LP, Last Dog And Pony Show. In private, Mould discussed writing scripts for wrestling, something I found interesting when it actually happened.
Since then, Mould has released more solo stuff: ‘02s electronic rock exploration, “Modulate,” its tidier successor, ‘05s Body Of Song, and ‘08s worthy District Line. In ’09, he dropped aggro-rock revisal, Life And Times. Now a glad-to-be-gay same-sex-advocating bald-headed fifty-year-old, Mould remains an honest-to-goodness rock luminary. This article originally appeared in Aquarian Weekly.
After piloting pioneering noise rockers, Husker Du, in the ‘80s, Bob Mould went solo and then formed explosive indie pop trio, Sugar. Able to kick it loud by pushing the distortion pedal to the floor, this iconoclastic singer-songwriter may not be a household name, but those who grew up with college radio truly admire his entire body of work.
Continually analyzing inhibitions and frustrations, his stylistically diversified fourth solo album, The Last Dog And Pony Show, offers honest hindsight and at least some emotional reconciliation. Still willing to share insecurities and inner turmoil, Mould admits he “never learned to trust another person” on the acoustic reflection, “Vaporub,” and daringly confesses there’s “nothing left to conceal on the blustery “Skin Trade.”
Rollicking rockers like the amp-revved “Moving Trucks,” the streamlined “Taking Everything,” and the slashing “Classifieds” offer a serious Husker Du Sugar rush.
Now residing in New York City, Mould spoke frankly via phone about past, present, and future endeavors.
You covered some cool ‘60s songs in the past. Were you a big record collector as a kid?
BOB: My actual cognizant memory of knowing music and artists started when I was five or six with the Beatles, Beach Boys, and the British Invasion. I had all these jukebox singles as a kid. That made me want to start writing songs by age nine. In terms of the Bob Mould people think of, hearing the Ramones at age sixteen was great. I thought, this is simple and it all makes sense again. It was like the Beatles – only easier. That and boredom coupled as motivating factors for me to pick up a guitar. Before that, I played keyboards while my friends in high school were into unapproachable arena rock like Aerosmith and Ted Nugent – which seemed very distant. But the Ramones seemed so natural and less about image. There were the Steven Tyler and Stevie Nicks fans. Then there were the Patti Smith and Tom Verlaine fans at that age. So for me it was an easy choice. The punk music scene was very inclusive, as most good scenes are.
Husker Du’s early songs were chaotic and messy fun. Each succeeding release got better. How did you learn to write better pop hooks with more precise arrangements?
BOB: There are a lot of different steps. The first is the inspirational point, just creating sounds through voice and instruments. Sounds and ideas, if you’re not thinking about them, lead you to a place where you get a bit of clarity on a topic or subject. That process is pretty special but indescribable. The physical construct of a song, putting words and music together, is craftsmanship. It’s a learned process. How long do you dwell on a certain subject in a story and come to a resolution? What technique do you use? It’s hard to write words and music at the same time. Usually I have to graft the words for music, or write music for words that already exist. Words are like poetry. There’s a meter and form to it. But music is more flexible.
Do you feel more comfortable working with only a few musicians at a time?
BOB: When my life was less settled, it was more fun to have more people around. As I got older, I came to terms with my different roles and knew what I could do by myself. When I need someone to help get where I want to go with my vision, I find them and work with them. Lately, since I’ve been recording for twenty years, it seems like it’s more of a mentor situation – which is a little unnerving. Maybe someone doesn’t have enough experience, but I recognize the skills they have. Given devotion and discipline, I feel those people could learn a lot. It will also help me. Those are the arrangements I work in now as opposed to putting a band together. Bands require a lot of spiritual energy. I’m pretty clear as to how I want my songs to come across.
Were you as disciplined when you started Husker Du?
BOB: At the time, I was only twenty years old and had an endless supply of ideas and energy. You hate everything and you want it yesterday. It’s easy just to write on that. Husker Du, for a while, was very unfocused. I thought, until Zen Arcade, we were just looking for something. But when we did Zen Arcade, we thought we had the shit and no one else did. That was our moment.
Your lyrics are less ambivalent and more reflective now. You’re nearly loquacious on The Last Dog And Pony Show.
BOB: There’s some good stories in there. It runs a pretty wide gamut. It starts with an unconditional love song and ends with a similar sentiment. In between there’s bizarre fiction and autobiographical glimpses. It’s cool.
What’s with the electro-Industrial trip-hop collage, “Megamaniac”? Are you mocking an over-saturated music scene?
BOB: No. That was done in earnest. A couple weeks into making the record, everything was going as planned, which was kind of boring. So I just wanted to mess around with machines at home. I went off and did it for fun. It’s not a send-up. It actually got me refocused on the other songs.
“Vaporub” makes reference to the fact you’re misunderstood. Why?
BOB: A lot of people feel that way. I just lay out the premise that in this world where everything moves quickly and people have motives and don’t trust each other, one of the problems is, since they’re in a hurry, they don’t communicate much. There’s not much understanding. Words are a strange thing. Language and communication are fragile and often misunderstood. At the end of the day, it’s a bunch of songs. It’s the message, not the messenger.
What’s with the abstract artwork on Black Sheets Of Rain, the self-titled album, and the new one?
BOB: Black Sheets Of Rain features a photograph of a side of an abandoned car that was sitting on the shores of the East River for the longest time. Twenty minutes after the photographer took the pictures, they finally towed the car. On the self-titled album, I found a hubcap laying on the street. It looked good. One the new album, the photo is sort of a diseased cross between a horse and a dog, It’s modern art, dude.
Is the new album called the Last Dog And Pony Show because it’s your last electric album before settling into acoustic music?
BOB: It’s the last time around for a full band in a punk rock setting. I could give you ten reasons why it’s the last electric album. The title was a suggestion that came out of my mouth when a British publicist asked what I was going to do after this album. I said, ‘this is probably the last dog and pony show I do with a band. He suggested it would make a good title and it stuck.
What new artists do you find compelling?
BOB: The latest Neutral Milk Hotel is real neat. I’m always a big Rachels fan.
Why’d you leave Minneapolis for New York City?
BOB: Minneapolis is where I cut my teeth and spent eleven years. I was there at age seventeen to go to school. It was a great city that, at least through my eyes, was going to hell by the time I left. It ran out of energy. I came to New York in’89, then did a three-year sabbatical in Austin, Texas, before coming back to New York.
Do you hit the New York clubs with regularity?
BOB: I’m 37 now. I don’t like standing up for more than two hours at a time. My back starts to hurt. (laughter)