"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Bob Mould is the Norman Bates of rock. He psychos-out onstage like
nobody else — some apocalyptic combination of sheer adrenaline and psychosis.
Yet in person, he is quite demure. It’s easy to imagine Janet Leigh taking the
motel key from him.
We rendezvous at a Starbucks in New York — him lugging a guitar case. He tells me that he lived in Manhattan from 1989 to ’93, spent a few years in Austin, Texas, and moved back here in ’96. We go and sit on a park bench by FDR Drive and jaw about “The Last Dog and
Pony Show,” his terrific new album of 10 typically bombastic post-H|sker D|
numbers, two of them with Lawrence Welk strings thrown in for good measure, as
well as a single hip-hop track that’s, uh, a harmless throwaway.
I was nervous about bringing up H|sker D|, but he talked about the band freely. He also mentions his own place in history: He’s only 37, yet he already thinks of himself as a middle-aged guy. But at heart, Mould is a real Dagwood Bumstead, content just to fuss around
the house with his cello, his dog and his longtime partner.
So word has it that the tour for “Last Dog and Pony Show” will be your last with
an electric group.
Yeah, it is. I’ve been doing this for 20 years and
touring is very evasive of my life. I no longer want to take these massive
chunks of time out of my life where everything I know gets put on hold. I
start to worry about the dog, I start to worry about bills getting paid. I
worry about all these little things and I feel like I’m in this weird movie.
Also, I’m 37. I don’t want to do this when I’m 50. It’s not becoming to what
kind of historical light I want to be seen in. I don’t know if I want to be
the guy who is 50 years old acting like he is in a punk rock band.
How do you feel about your elders who are still out there rocking? Are any
of them pulling it off?
[Long pause] I thought Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” was a brilliant record. Neil in the acoustic setting is really good. I’m not a big Crazy Horse fan. I know it’s all cathartic and everything, but I don’t know if I want to do that when I’m his age. I’d much rather do
Does this mean you’re going to do more acoustic albums?
No. I think anything is fair game when you’re recording. It’s just touring — each
time out I feel a little less spritely. And I can’t do what the Rolling Stones
do. I can’t do what Aerosmith does. I can’t just want to do it just because it
Do you go through agony recording albums like other artists seem to?
I expect making a record is like the last three months of giving birth.
You really just want to release this thing out in the world. You know you have
to nurture it once it’s out and take care of it and direct it, and eventually
it will find its own way. But then it’s gone. The conception period is when
the energy, the mystery, the creative process leads me somewhere. But when
it’s time to do the documentation, I don’t know. Hitchcock talks about it. As
he got older, he could visualize the entire film in his head. That was the fun
part. Then he had to make the actual movie.
You have the record in your head before you cut it?
As I make more records — this is, like, 15 or something? — I know the process. I know the
bump in the road. I know that I’m going to run my head into a wall and scream
for a couple days. Then it’s time to mix it and it’s done. Everything is
I collect you on bootleg. Do you ever buy bootlegs?
I used to when I was a bigger fan than I am now. I still have great bootlegs. Early PIL
shows. Buzzcocks outtakes. Talking Heads live shows. When I was a real fan-fan before I was making records, I bought bootlegs a lot. I know the value of
them. I know what they mean to the fan’s attachment to the artist. This is
before electronic media, the late ’70s and early ’80s, when you didn’t see
pictures of the artists as much. Artist didn’t have Web sites. Stuff was more
mysterious. You had to create the character more as a fan. So bootlegs were an
integral part to a band you never saw live.
Do you have secret tapes of your outtakes?
Yes. There’s always
secret tapes. That’s my insurance policy. I don’t have life insurance. I have
all that stuff.
Dylan is known for hiding the good stuff.
Yeah. I do that too.
Anyone who is in this for the long haul would be foolish not to hold stuff
back. I know you don’t publish all your good stuff — you gotta be sitting on
No? You will. You can’t give it all. Record companies are
just passing acquaintances. They love you while you’re there, but sooner or
later the deal is over. They’re not like lifelong relationships. It would be
great if they were.
Yeah, I pulled a handful [of takes] off the last record.
There’s always overspill that’s good but doesn’t work on the record as a
whole. Sometimes certain components of the creative cycle don’t add to the
final view. Maybe they’ll distract from it or irritate it. I think in
magical terms that there’s a reason that everything is the way it is. There’s
a reason that I make the work I make. And a reason that people find it beyond
the mechanism. I think there is some higher order to all this, not in a
religious sense, but the sense that people find the things they’re suppose
to find in their life one way or another. We get drawn to the things that we
identify with and we create other things that people identify with. The other
20,000 guys, they don’t know how to tell a compelling story. So that’s the
difference. They’re going to have a fun Web site, but the content is going to
be miserable. People are going to say, “It looks good. They don’t have
anything to say. They don’t have a story.”
You mentioned that you want to try other art forms.
I don’t want to do young people music forever because I’m not going to be a young person –
I’m going to be young at heart forever, but physically and wisdom-wise, I’m
just not that naive anymore. You get burned, you know? I get cynical.
remedy this, I’ve been teaching myself cello. I love the cello as an
instrument. It’s like the weird marriage of what I say and what I do. It’s
strings that are resonating in an attempt to somehow emulate the voice box.
What I do with strings on a guitar is percussive. What cellos do is stressed
like a vocal chord. The body of the cello is like lungs. It’s this weird
marriage of voice and instrument. It’s really beautiful.
Do you want to write?
Do I want to write? Yes. But I’m hesitant to
say that. Culture for the last 10 or 15 years has been so much about people
cross-platforming themselves — like “Baywatch” calendar girl-turned-pop
singer. It scares me. What do I aspire to? I’d like to write a book. I’d also
like to be on the usage panel for American Heritage dictionary. You know, I
don’t know — can I parlay some known talent into some other genre? I think
I’m good with words. Writing a book is a lot of work. I have great short
stories. I have some really great short stories.
Writing is perpetually a solitary act. Can you give up playing with a
I don’t know. I’d like to be in a group if I wasn’t the
instigator. Sugar was a group based around my reputation and my work, as
opposed to Hüsker Dü, which was three completely unknown people that were in a
group naturally. If I could do that — be part of a jazz combo playing an
instrument I don’t normally play, something where I’m not a featured component
– that would be fine. I don’t want to be a centerpiece of a group because
then I might as well be by myself.
Have you ever written songs with someone else?
Many years ago Paul
Westerberg and I sat down and tried to write some stuff together and it was
Why did Sugar end?
Sugar’s last show was in Japan in ’95. It was a real peaceful parting of the ways. About three months before that, in October of ’94, Sugar was on the road. We were touring the final
record. Really trying to make it a big record. In hindsight, it wasn’t about
trying to build something as much as holding this existing success together. Which is
sort of tiring because it’s not like you’re going uphill, it’s more being
underneath the weight of the world, propping it up, trying to keep it a
It was right after a New York show at Roseland that we had an off
night in Connecticut. David, the bass player, and I were going on a long walk
for about three hours. David instigated the walk. I sensed something was up.
Something was up inside of me as well. David was like, “I got three kids. I
have to be at home.” I was like, “I’m glad to hear that. This isn’t working
for me. I’m stressed out. Playing is really fun. Being your friend is really
fun, but everything else is dragging my shit down. I feel like I’m a used car
salesman right now. It’s not about music anymore, it’s about holding this
product up and selling it.”
Has anyone told the Hüsker Dü story?
Some people have tried to write the book, but I’m not cooperating. I think
it might be too soon, really.
You ever perform Hüsker Dü songs live?
I’ve never played them in
an electric band setting with other people before, but I’ve done acoustic show
settings where I’ll play anything I’ve written. By the same token I didn’t
play the “Black Sheets” and “Workbook” [Mould solo albums] stuff with Sugar either. I tried to keep
the electric sections separate as some nod of respect to the people who
created that sound with me at the time. To try to replicate what Hüsker Dü did
sonically with other people — I don’t know if it can be done. I can only
approximate it. I play the old Hüsker acoustic stuff by myself. It’s fun. I
Do you wish you could ever get Hüsker Dü off your neck?
Yeah. But I
can’t, so I don’t worry about it. It’s a blessing and curse. It’s an
albatross. It’s a Super Sized Meal. It’s a lot of things. I don’t mind. I
can’t change it. I can only play with it. Try to shape it, steer it, make it a
Can you ever imagine playing with those guys again?
With Hüsker Dü? No. And it’s nothing personal, except in my own world. It has nothing to do with them, it has to do with me. I’m not an angry 20-year-old kid anymore. I
don’t know if I can conjure up that anger and that kind of frustration again.
As I get older I’m more at peace with a lot of those demons. I don’t know
where they reside now.
I love your contribution to the Richard Thompson tribute album.
What I admire about Thompson is his perseverance to art. I heard tapes of his
first version of “Shoot Out the Lights” and it was really, really good. I don’t
see how he had the courage to scrap it anyway and re-record the album, which, of course, turned out to be even better, a masterpiece. Who are your
Richard is one — someone I really respect as a guitarist and
a storyteller. He’s the master, you know, with the guitar playing. He’s the
master. It’s a little embarrassing. Some people will hear music and get real
inspired to play. Sometimes I hear Richard play acoustic shows and I just want
to quit. It’s just like “OK. Forget it. It’s just pointless.”
is a really innovative player. A real different style than I’ve got. But as a
storyteller a kindred soul. Kevin Shields, the mastermind behind My
Bloody Valentine’s records, he’s someone who’s got the right feel, the right
feel on all of it.
How do you achieve your recorded sound? All your songs have this subliminal
electric rumble — a shimmering. Do you do a lot of overdubs?
Yes. As much as possible when it needs it. I love making layers of sound. I love Phil
Spector. I love Brian Wilson. I like layers of sound.
Is your guitar like a dog?
I would be very, very sad if something happened to this guitar. [Pause.] But life would go on. Something else would take its place eventually, but it would be pretty tragic right away. Though
not as severe as a dog. But I don’t know, I’ve had it longer than my dog. The
dog breathes without me breathing into it, but the guitar is just a piece of
shit without me doing something with it.
David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."More David Bowman.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)