Nine Songs: Bob Mould
“My lament is that I’ve made a record that’s so built for the stage. We can’t do that right now, but I can wait. It won’t be a protest record by then, it’ll be a celebration record.”
Bob Mould has never been in the business of sitting on the fence. From fronting the unspeakably influential Hüsker Dü throughout the ‘80s, and Sugar in the early ‘90s, to a solo career that continues to be consistent and compelling in equal measure, he has spent four decades - in three distinct iterations - wielding pure conviction like few others.
Still outpacing nostalgia in favour of residing firmly in the moment, Mould’s new “protest record,” Blue Hearts, is a resounding statement from the 59-year-old. But don’t call it a statement of intent. It’s a categorical affirmation in full favour of doing. Cue up the likes of “Fireball”, “Next Generation” or breakneck lead single “American Crisis” and you’ll hear an artist doing what he’s always done best: putting immediacy and direct action front and center. Having mined optimism from restlessness on 2018’s Sunshine Rock, his fourteenth solo album is a scintillating snapshot of what it feels like to occupy a world that teeters on the brink.
“It’s a very off-the-moment record, to be sure,” Mould explains. “I had “American Crisis” in my back pocket from around Sunshine Rock. I had that as a tentative centre-point but then, last fall, after playing a lot of loud, aggressive shows in Europe, I came back to the States in November and was like, ’Man, this is so fucked. I’ve got to say something. I need to cash in a little bit of goodwill and speak my mind on this horseshit.’ The full record was wrapped by the end of February, so go figure.”
Speaking to me from his San Francisco apartment, Mould’s hopes for Blue Hearts to be a “celebration record” by the time he takes it on the road might seem a touch optimistic. But within the crosshairs of a worldly moment where the alternative - capitulating - isn’t an option, Blue Hearts underscores something he has literally been spitting blood about for 40 years now: even at their worst, things are never insurmountable. Given form via that famous, larynx-tearing roar, these songs - as much personal as they are directly political - are stoked in the same raging fire.
Though his credentials in crafting less fervent material isn’t in question, righteous indignation (to put it lightly) is something Mould has legendary form in. That lineage stems right back to Saint Paul, Minnesota, where three punk misfits - Mould, drummer Grant Hart and Greg Norton on bass - formed Hüsker Dü in 1979.
Swiftly establishing themselves as one of the fastest and more intense hardcore acts of the time, they struck a furious, fully unrepeatable midpoint between face-searing punk and, as the 1980s zoomed past, alternative rock with pop hooks that burrowed for days. To put it another way: if the likes of Zen Arcade, Flip Your Wig and New Day Rising inexplicably ceased to exist tomorrow, Nevermind, Doolittle, Loveless and countless other classics would, too.
Referring to Hüsker Dü and their peers in Black Flag, the Minutemen, the Replacements et al. as “those of us who did that thing that became that other thing,” Mould has every right to deem the hyper-commodification of alt culture in the early ‘90s with a healthy dose of suspicion. Indeed, if there was any niggling doubt as to where he stood on the matter, the 1996 single “I Hate Alternative Rock” put all doubt to rest.
Without context, Mould may have seemed a tad curmudgeonly, but he was, and remains, a rare and steadfast advocate for authenticity in an industry that has long placed inordinate value on assembly-line sincerity. From top to bottom, Blue Hearts is full testament to his inveterate belief in punk’s ability to enact cultural change - rather than sell shitty, extortionate clothes - in 2020.
In 2017, 30 years after they disbanded, any outside prospect of a Hüsker Dü reunion ended with the passing of Grant Hart at the age of 56. An elemental part of what set the trio apart, responsible for some of the band’s most enduring efforts including “Diane” and “Sorry Somehow”, his turbulent relationship with Mould was, with the luxury of hindsight, but a footnote in one of the most watertight, downright unfuckwithable back catalogues in modern music. Best to remember the good times, of which there were many.
“Grant’s death was a great loss and way too soon,” Mould tells me. “I was really grateful for the last three or four years where, unbeknownst to everyone else, we were on really good speaking terms. We always had the utmost professional respect for each other. For all the perceived acrimony, if people only knew, you know? We laughed about it all to the end.”
Back in 2020, Mould sounds like a man who is exactly where he wants to be. Having spent a few years living in Berlin before relocating to San Francisco, it’s clear from the start of our conversation that place - and the desire to live as a world citizen, not merely an American one - is an important part of how he identifies and functions as a person. And yet, he is far from sidestepping the very real crises on his own doorstep. Whether rallying for LGBTI+ rights, confronting systematic racial injustice, or witnessing the steep decline of democracy in real time, pressing concerns aren’t exactly in short supply.
“You can imagine how I felt having to sit on these thoughts since late-February,” he says. “We were going to announce “American Crisis” on June 1st but the publicist said, ‘Oh no, we need to move it to June 3rd, because Record Store Day is going to re-announce everything on June 1st.’ We figured we were going to get buried by that, so we went with June 3rd. Then, of course, look what happened to George Floyd. I was like, ‘This is fucking surreal. I don’t even know what’s going on anymore.’
Bafflement aside, Mould tempers the doom of it all with an air that betrays real faith in what is yet to come.
Threading a through-line across his career to date, his Nine Songs make up a wonderfully mottled selection from a songwriter who, in much the same way he has never idolised past glories or bygone times, doesn’t kowtow to expectation.
“I get going and I get excited because I still love what I do,” he says, as we wind up our conversation. Sure enough, anybody can utter these words offhandedly. But to mean it - really mean it - is another thing entirely. Bob Mould was, is and will forever be that guy.
“This one got me back when it came out. I was the seventeen-year-old kid that took the hour-long bus ride from my university over to the hipster record store, and sat there and read NME, Sounds and Melody Maker cover to cover because I couldn’t afford to buy them. Through that, I would find two or three things of interest that I could spend my five dollars on. One of them was “Suspect Device”.
“I had a friend in college who grew up in Ireland, and we would listen to Stiff Little Fingers and get ourselves all riled up. He would talk about what these songs meant, so I learned a lot about the Troubles. I remember whenever Ted Kennedy came to speak at our very, very progressive, small, liberal arts college, my friend Duncan and I put together this protest flyer that we put up all over the school.
“Ted Kennedy had a lot of dubious things in his past and we were eighteen or nineteen, so we were just contrary to everything at that point. We were addressing his feelings on things like Chappaquiddick, Mary Jo Kopechne and all that. We went to great pains to keep this flyer secret until 5am on the morning that he was supposed to come on campus, so we got up very early, in the dead of night, and put these flyers up all over the school. And lo and behold, the CIA tore them all down before the Kennedy entourage arrived for his speech.
“Suspect Device” resonated with me because my friend grew up in Ireland and was able to explain things, but I think it was mainly because it was three chords and the truth. That’s what it all comes down to in the end. Jake Burns clearly screamed himself into a fury.
“It connected with me on a visceral level. Especially when contemplating a solo record, these are the sort of moments that come back, when I look back and see the parallels between now and 1983, 1984. I sort of remember who I was and the music that spoke to me then. Stiff Little Fingers were one of many artists in that vein that would come back to me in that specific style. That kind of music braced me for making the record I just made.”
“I love the imagery of “Walking on a Wire”. Of course, Richard and Linda’s status as a soon-to-be-separated working and living couple is well documented in the years since the record came out.
"I’m guessing people following them knew that at the time, but I was not terribly up on Richard until a friend of mine in 1988, when I was up on the farm in Minnesota writing Workbook, heard the material and said, ‘You know anything about Richard Thompson? This sounds an awful lot like a lot of the stuff he does.’
“I was sort of backwards influenced by Richard. As for “Walking on a Wire”, I mean, God, it’s embarrassing as a fellow guitarist to even talk about Richard Thompson’s skillset. But lyrically, he is very plain spoken. He turns phrases in a very common way, but it’s the rich detail of his characters oftentimes in his work. I think that’s the appeal to a part of his fanbase, these downtrodden, worn-down characters. He uses such simple language with such rich detail, that’s the hallmark of his compositions.
“I got to hang out with Richard a little bit last year, as he was preparing for his 70th birthday celebration at the Royal Albert Hall. I was very humbled to be asked to be part of that. We didn’t have time, but the joke with Richard and I is ‘When are we actually going to sit down and play that game of scrabble and see who wins?’ I guess we could do Words With Friends, but I’m pretty old school. I’d prefer to sit down face-to-face with Richard Thompson and play a game of Scrabble.
“Maybe we can get The Line of Best Fit to cover it. You could do a two-hour synopsis of the back-and-forth between contemplations!”
“Special” is the one that everyone remembers off Version 2.0, because it’s so much of an homage to Chrissie, but there’s something about all the combination of things in “I Think I’m Paranoid”. All of the real unique modulation between sections - between bridge and chorus, there’s some really deep songwriting skills there.
“I love Shirley and the way she presents herself. She’s been very open about who she is and how she views things and I love her for that. And Butch and I got back to, God, ‘84. Like the early Smart Studios stuff. We worked together on a Tar Babies album - there’s a band name you won’t use anymore.
“Man, the ‘80s… Butch Vig and I have been friends for almost 40 years and I think the world of his production skills. Beau Sorenson, who has been my engineer for the last five records I’ve made, is from Wisconsin and he learned under Butch at Smart Studios. So there’s a lot of family there as well.
“Version 2.0 and the next one were, for me, the gateways for deep electronica. I was living in the West Village, I was getting my gay life on and this was part of the soundtrack to that. It was that hybrid that gave me a way in. There were a lot of guitars, but there were also a lot of loops.
"It was this and Mezzanine by Massive Attack that were gold standards for that feel of music, that took all that Cocteau Twins, MBV stuff and updated it a little bit.”
“I love the simplicity of this riff. The sample is from a fairly obscure ‘70s R&B riff by George Duke, the song is “I Love You More”. And oh my God, the synthetic, Van Halen “Jump” solo, that’s crazy nonsense.
“I heard Homework, “Around the World” and all that, and I remember thinking it was great, but Discovery really was the Sgt. Pepper’s of electronica. It was like, ‘Oh, now it’s fully-realised, it’s mainstream and it’s changing the entire landscape around it.’ That’s where Discovery hit for me.
“That time was right as I was really deep into electronica. I remember around the beginning of 2002, just as I was putting out Modulate, my then partner and I were doing production rehearsals in Atlanta. We were going to this gay gym every day around noon and, without fail, “Harder Better Faster Stronger” would come on at the exact same time every day and it was like living in Groundhog Day. It was so weird.
“Invariably, a song from Discovery becomes one of my alarms every day on my phone. I just switch songs. “Digital Love” is a great one to wake up to, because it has the surface noise and the riff is distant. It’s not quite like waking up to “One More Time”, which would definitely wake you up.
“I love Daft Punk and I loved, just personally, when in an interview a couple of years ago, they finally said what I’d suspected along: that they were fans of that Paul Williams’ movie Phantom of the Paradise. When Swan got locked in the studio and they’re all like, “Sing, Swan, sing!” and he’s got the helmet on that looks like theirs. I was like, ‘Finally, they’re saying they watched that movie as kids.’
“When I used to get ready to produce bands, like Magnapop or whoever, I would make them watch that movie. I was like, ‘Here’s what the music business can be like. I promise you I won’t be like Swan. I’m not going to brick you in with a vocoder.’”
“This song is so heartbreakingly beautiful. I mean, any song with “rain” in it? I’ll give it a chance, but one that is just plain called “Rain” and I’m definitely going to go to it. This is Patty Griffin’s interpretation of whatever that rain is - whether it’s depression, actual rain or whatever meaning the listener wants to put on it.
“Her style, and how it can seem so fragile and be so uplifting at the same time is pretty incredible. I lived in Austin, Texas, where Patty is based, for a number of years and I never encountered her while I was there. I’ve only seen her once before.
“She was doing an in-store at Rough Trade in London. I think it was while she was still involved with Robert Plant and he was there, which was weird. I got to talk to Patty a little bit at the end of the in-store. We were comparing notes about Austin, making music and doing in-stores and she was just so sweet and so nice. She had no reason to be nice to me and I appreciated it. But I’m a sucker for rain songs, as you know, so.
“She gives it the light touch. It’s dark tense, dark tense, and then in the final chorus she gives it light tense. There is hope, which is an amazing trick. I don’t know if I stole that from her, but I am aware of it. I use that trick as well, when you get to the final chorus and you alter the tense to try to give it more darkness or more light.
"It’s just flipping the perspective ever so slightly, where the listener doesn’t really get it until the third or fourth time and then they’re like, ‘Whoa, whoa. Look at that.’”
“This song, oh my God. That hook - “I need a little escape” is just really, really great. The way they manipulate the chord structure and the way they leave it hanging on that last chord when they drop to the minor7. I’m like, ‘I know that chord pass.’
“They’re great folks. They’re real sweethearts. Damian (Abraham) is such a thoughtful guy. He jumped up and sang the Hüsker song “Divide and Conquer” with us in Toronto one night. He knew all ten verses, so I was like, ‘Dude, have it.’
“But Damian and I, as much as we bond on music, it’s really professional wrestling. It’s funny, because he knew I wrote pro wrestling for a while and I knew he was a big wrestling fan. But it wasn’t until the shuttle van ride from the Princess Hotel in Barcelona after Primavera, going out to the airport, where he and I monopolised the entire journey with pro wrestling talk.
"The rest of the band were looking at us like, ‘What the hell is going on here?’ It was hilarious. It started in the lobby and it ended at check-in at the airport."
“This is sort of a more obscure track as Best Coast goes. Crazy For You was the first album, and I had heard “Boyfriend” and all the home recordings before the first album came out. I was a huge fan from the get-go. Then there was the Jon Brion album (The Only Place), which was different. And then in 2013 there was the Fade Away EP, which is where this song came from. I think Bethany Cosentino's Dad might be playing drums on this song, actually.
“I love Bethany. She’s a stupid cool person and Bobb Bruno, who is her collaborative partner in Best Coast, is a great guy. We’ve gotten to be really good friends over the years. I’m a big champion of what she does and over the years she’s become more political and a lot more outspoken about what happens with women in music and in life.
“I think she’s very active and a very strong voice for young females in popular music. She’s a really good spokesperson, she writes super catchy songs, and has a really super neat voice. I don’t know how many Best Coast shows I’ve seen, but I always want them to play “Who Have I Become” every time.
"We’ll do stuff together at some point, either on a stage or maybe in the studio. I was just emailing her yesterday about something, so we’re good pals.”
“This is a ridiculous amount of rage. It’s up there with Discharge or some of the early White Lung stuff. It’s just like, “Wow.” There’s some concert footage of them from San Jose, California. Your brain will never be the same again after watching it. It’s just unbelievable.
“Olympia, Washington has always been a strong protest centre, and a great indie music scene with K Records and everything the city is. I’ve been there many times and it’s a wild vibe. I think the singer from G.L.O.S.S. was originally from Boston and then moved out. Then there was the whole story about Epitaph offering them a ton of money and then they broke up. I love it. I don’t love that they broke up, but the fact that they really said, ‘Fuck the system’ and believed it? I’m always down with that.
“A lot of people in America, especially in trans communities, have been voiceless for so long. I mean, a lot of trans folk. If you got back into the history of the gay revolutionary, back to the Compton’s Cafeteria riot before Stonewall, trans folk of colour did a lot of the heavy lifting through that period and beyond.
"When I think of my time in the West Village in the late ‘90s, walking by the train station on Christopher St., between Greenwich Avenue and Hudson Avenue, and seeing this entire community of disenfranchised, homeless, trans youth of colour, that somehow got out of their dysfunctional homes in Baltimore or Philadelphia, and were living on the Hudson river, G.L.O.S.S gives voice to that cause.
“For the LQBTI+ community in America it’s the main concern right now, because trans folk of colour are suffering the most right now and being heard the least. So a record that is four years old that speaks so strongly to that cause, I have to put it on every list I make.
“These days I’ll go back and listen to some melodic hardcore that I like. In the mid-‘90s when it became a clothing statement as much as a movement for cultural change, I got a little frustrated with it. The Hot Topic component of it and all that, and what that became in the early ‘00s as well. It was like, ‘Uhh, what happened?’
“I’ve played many shows with the likes of Discharge, GBH and Anti-Pasti. I sort of remember what the genesis of it was, playing with the Dead Kennedys or Black Flag or the Necros or Minor Threat. Those of us who did that thing that became that other thing.
"When I heard Iceage for the first time, before I found out that the messages might not be so great, they really embodied the spirit of it. Or when I hear a band like Metz, for instance. When it’s done properly, I think hardcore still lives and it’s very relevant.”
“Titus are on Merge, so we had that connection. Patrick (Stickles, frontman) is really good friends with Michael Azerrad, who rode shotgun on my autobiography and made me learn how to write a book. It only took three years. So, Azerrad was actually the conduit for me ending up producing their album An Obelisk.
“Patrick had read the book, he was friends with Azerrad and he likes my work. He is a very serious student of what we do as musicians. He’s very into rock criticism and journalism, and the theories of it - the subcultures of style and all that. So he floated the idea to Azerrad, who gently floated it to me and I was like, ‘Two weeks? A punk rock record? Sure, let’s do that.’ Patrick then started sending me descriptors. He wouldn’t send demos, just descriptors. They would be roughly 10,000 words.
“We got to the studio and those guys were great. What an awesome band. I think previous to An Obelisk they had made a couple of records that were deeper in style, a little less rough and ready, and they wanted to go back to a more elemental approach to the music. They wanted to have the classic Midwest-American rock meets an early punk rock kind of vibe, so I was mindful of that when we went into the recording.
“Patrick is very strong-willed. I’m not sure what I was supposed to do with all of this, but I think it turned out real good. Titus Andronicus did what they did and all I did was try to be mindful of when things would get difficult.
"On one of the songs, it would’ve sounded OK a little bit slower, and it would’ve sounded OK a little bit faster, but it was in this in-between spot and I noticed the drummer was having trouble with the 16th hat stuff. I could see it in his posture, so I went in and said, ‘Do you want to play this a little slower or a little faster? Because you’re having a time.’ And he said ‘A little faster would be great. It would make it so much clearer.’ So I said ‘Let’s bump it up four beats per minute’, and all of a sudden it was like, 'Done.'
“Patrick was really good for about an hour a day of singing. I know this drill, because that’s me in the studio as well - just leave all the blood on the floor after 20 takes of two songs and you’re done for the day. I was able to help him understand when enough was enough and show him what happens when you go too far for too long. Actually, for me, I start to get a visible purple triangle just below my vocal cords, because I’ve ruptured all the blood vessels around my voice. It starts to swell up and when I touch it, it gets really hot. It’s actually visibly inflamed and getting puffy.
“I was able to get him to recognise that in himself and after eight or nine takes I would say, ‘Go ahead, touch your voice box.’ He would touch it and say, ‘Oh, it’s getting hot’, so I’d be like, ‘Okay, you have to stop now.’ Often he would say ‘But I’ve got more’ and I would say, ‘No, you don’t have more. What’s going to happen is you’re going to do three more and they’re going to deteriorate and then you aren’t going to have anything for tomorrow, so you stop right now.’ That kind of stuff that I learned the hard way. It will give him more years where the rubber meets the road.
“It’s funny, because I learned it the hard way and I’ve done a lot of damage to my voice over the years. I’ve done a lot of damage to my hearing over the years. I would be having these stretches on tour where I was losing my voice a lot and getting really frustrated.
"It wasn’t until Jason Narducy, my bassist, said one thing to me that brought all of it home. ‘You know, Bob, your 80% is well beyond everybody else’s 100%.’ I looked at him and said, ‘Really?’ He was like, ‘You don’t have to bleed to death every single night to get the point across. Just try a little bit less and see what happens.’
“I’m always the guy that has to leave it all there. I can’t not do that. Dave Grohl said that too. I would be up there with him singing and he would be like, ‘Jesus Christ. You have the loudest voice in the world, you know?’ I didn’t know. I got raised with that ‘The show must go on and you must bleed to death every night’ thing. But I now realise 80% is good.”