Bob Mould: "Father Time’s trying to get in the band and I’m trying to keep him out of the band"

Salon Q&A: Bob Mould on a pep talk from Dave Grohl, moving on from old bands, and making a great rock CD at 53

Published September 6, 2014 9:00PM (EDT)

Bob Mould   (Jay Blakesberg)
Bob Mould (Jay Blakesberg)

My first encounter with the music of Bob Mould was "Land Speed Record" by Hüsker Dü, 1983, in the apartment of friend, just after I got out of college.

This record was not like other records of that vintage. It was not like "Thriller." It was not like "Dare" by the Human League. It was not like "Pornography" by the Cure. It was not like "Built For Speed" by the Stray Cats. Its menace and beauty brought about a cascade of life-changing musical events for me that included the Minutemen, Black Flag, and, later, the Replacements and Sonic Youth.

The pivotal Bob Mould recording for me, as for many people from that era, was "New Day Rising" by Hüsker Dü, in particular the song “Celebrated Summer,” a manic, unforgettable and sometimes melancholy recollection of youth and its preoccupations. From "New Day Rising" onward, I was a Bob Mould fan, through the later period of Hüsker Dü, through the Sugar albums, and into the solo albums that followed.

Like many Bob Mould fans, and without wanting to hem in an artist who should be encouraged to grow and develop in any way that inspires him, I was particularly delighted by "Silver Age," Mould’s 2012 return to the trio format that has often spawned his best work. This summer’s "Beauty and Ruin" further develops this sudden late-life manifestation of confidence in abundance and guitar prowess, while pressing the songs in a few new directions, without ever sacrificing the roar and momentum that has made Mould one of the truly memorable American songwriters and guitar players of the post-punk period.

As of now, Mould and his current band (bassist Jason Narducy and drummer Jon Wurster) are back on the road, in support of "Beauty and Ruin" and here in the Northeast until the middle of September. We talked by Skype in August, about touring in mid-life, the new album and how he came back to hear the virtues of a form he helped revolutionize, the indie-rock trio.

I think you are about to perform at the state fair in Minnesota. Are you excited about that?

I am excited. It’s funny, you know. When the management office came to me and said, there’s an offer for you to play the Minnesota State Fair, I’m guessing that’s a pass, I’m like, what are you talking about? I mean, that’s the state fair. You don’t understand; it’s everything on a stick. I moved to the Twin Cities when I was 17 so it’s where I started my professional music career. I’d hesitate to say I’m a true Minnesotan. But it’s just one of those things. I said, of course we have to do the state fair. It’s going to be insane.

You can probably get 700 varieties of pie.

Butter sculpture, dairy princess. I’m sure they’ve got some kind of artisanal fried cotton candy or something. So I think the last time we talked you were up in Vermont. Were you doing some teaching up there?

Yeah, you guys have to do the festival circuit in the summer and the writers have to do the summer workshop thing, so I was in northernmost Vermont, right near the border. It was really so beautiful up there.

Do you like doing that? How does that work? Do you just go in and hit ’em with a ruler and say, fix that!

I really feel like I should be asking you the questions, Bob. Do you really want to know about this writing nonsense?

Yeah, I’ve got one coming up in October in Des Moines so I am actually curious.

As a teacher, I try to get them to be better at what they are already doing. Rather than asking them to quit writing the science fiction with kinky sex, I say, feel free but don’t use split infinitives. I just try to get them to be better at whatever they’re doing. So you’re teaching a workshop?

I’m going up to Drake University in Des Moines the first weekend in October and I found out, again it was one of those things that was brought to me. I was like, sure, I’ll go up and do it -- and let’s see if I can add a show so it would make it feel like I’m doing more. I’m going to be lecturing or talking or doing a workshop about songwriting. Other than Jimmy Webb’s book, I have no idea how songwriting really works. I mean, you know that I know, but you know what I mean also -- everybody comes at it a different way. I’ll go in and be very encouraging to kids who are writing songs about vampire porn or something.

Wait, since we’re on that subject, can I subject you to a preview of the lecture by asking you about a song from the new album and maybe you can tell me how you came to write it and all that kind of stuff?


“I Don’t Know You Anymore.” It’s a masterpiece of pop concision and it has the most perfect guitar solo I’ve heard in years. So how did that one come about? And did you know you had a gem when you were working on it?

It showed up out of nowhere. The one, minor two, four, five chord cycle, it’s sort of an easy one. Can’t go wrong with it. So the top of the song made itself known. I was, like, that sounds like an intro and a chorus, okay . . . And then it’s just sort of elongating those chord sequences to make verses. I did know, as it was going by, oh boy, this one’s strong. And those make me nervous because they’re really easy but it’s all that small detail work, like being really, really careful about how I edit or how I tell the story. And the story, here, of the dissolving relationship and using all the analog-era metaphors, especially those old answering machines that sometimes you would accidentally hit “record” and there goes the message that could have changed your life. That was the idea of the song going by. As far as specific pop structure, I mean, choruses, intro, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, fucking monstrous bridge with a four-chord exchange I’d never used before and never heard anybody else use. You know, quick verses, solo, pre-chorus, the Clearmountain drop and then four choruses out. Structurally it’s so tight. Aesthetically, it’s really cool; I think the metaphors are cool. It does have a great guitar solo: so simple.

It’s a perfectly recorded solo and everything; it gives me chills.

The guitar that enters on the bridge sets it up for me. It’s that really sizzly — sizzsizzsizzsizzzsizzeah. For a while I was calling that section Icarus. I flew that in from the home demo because I just stumbled into that riff and I played it and was like, Oh, that should be the vocal line. And then I flew the home demo guitar placeholder sound into the real recording and we time-lined it up right and it’s just so janky sounding, like the sun is burning it out. So I was like we gotta keep that, that trashy sound is just so good. And the real guitar solo is more normal sounding.

The video for the song plays music biz metaphor for all it’s worth. And when I first heard the song I felt like it was impossible not to feel that interpretation alongside the love song story. Did you know and feel that metaphorical layer even in the first blush of the song?

No. It was song first and I wasn’t sure if it was going to be the first single. I suspected it might be. When it came time to think about video it was sort of like, hmm, how can I look at this in a comparable way without looking at it exactly the same way? Also with the limited resources that we get for making music videos these days, what would actually be practical? I got with Alicia Rose up in Portland who did the video for “The Descent” from the prior album and said I want to do this video for this song, and I’m sort of thinking about the music business. How weird it is that people my age used to line up for concert tickets, or outside record stores the night before an album came out -- and really the only place you see that kind of devotion anymore is at the Apple store. And the Apple store sells this device that oddly enough carries all those important events and memories that we used to carry in an analog way. So I thought, oh, that sort of fits the song and it’s perfect. And then we just looked at the budget and the resources and tried to come up with a good story. Then enter Jon Wurster, my drummer, who is such a smart, creative guy; I just bounced the premise off the guy and he came back with a couple cool ideas. Between all of us, we boiled it down to this thing we could make in two days with a little bit of money and a lot of favors.

It’s incredibly joyful, the video, and I felt this about the last album, too -- that the videos were sort of, I mean, it’s almost paradoxical to say it to you, but there’s a life-affirming quality, a joyful enthusiastic quality to these videos and for those of us who remember the really dark Bob Mould music --"Black Sheets of Rain" or "Beaster," for example -- it’s fascinating to see this joyful aspect coming out in the videos. The video, in this case, “I Don’t Know You Anymore,” is even more joyful than the song in some ways. Do you feel like the video is expressing something in the project that you aren’t getting to in the song or is it just we need a video, this is the idea for the video, we’ll just go for it.

I think the video reinterpreted the song. Again, I didn’t have a framework in mind. But I think the video and the song line up really nicely together. I’m trying to think of a way to speak to the life- affirming comment . . . I appreciate hearing that. It’s funny because for 30-odd years I wasn’t one to crack a smile so much in my work. So maybe it’s this newfound secret weapon that I didn’t know I had. I feel better about sharing my sense of humor with people these days. I was pretty miserable. I was pretty dour. Pretty serious all the time. And it’s funny because with Alicia Rose who, when she did the video for “The Descent” on the "Silver Age" album she was trying to get me to smile more sooner in the video. Like in the very end of the video for “The Descent” I sort of almost have this smile where I seem very satisfied in leaving the world behind building this hut on the side of a mountain to live in. She’s like, you gotta smile more. I said, I don’t smile. You will be lucky if you get a half smile at the end. That’s who I am. So now to the video that we did for “Star Machine” and especially with the video for the new record for “I Don’t Know You Anymore” soon it will be, Bob, stop laughing. That’s what I’m going to hear from people: stop having such a good time. We look to you for misery. You’re our misery mayor. Don’t do this to us. If we want funny we’ll call Morrissey.

Is it possible that your memoir has been an influence in a way, because I gotta say I love the memoir so much. I remember hearing about it maybe 10 years ago when you were first thinking about it.

I think it was precipitated by Michael Azerrad’s" Our Band Could Be Your Life," which came out in ’01. Late ’01 early ’02 would have been the first meeting with Michael Pietsch at Little, Brown. I do think the memoir has helped clear up a lot of things for me and I guess the added benefit is that people get to read it. It was a hell of a process. I’m not a prose writer by nature so Michael Azerrad was a huge help. I appreciate you saying you enjoyed the book. It was a lot of work. I don’t know how you guys do that. This was not two weeks of stories, show me the galleys. It was two and a half years of me and Azerrad writing this thing back and forth.

So you actually wrote it? You actually sat down and wrote?

We did a week of talking and recording and took everything back and dug out the key stories. That’s when Azerrad got involved. He started looking from the outside and going, hmm, do you think there’s a connection between this and this? A connection between your dad’s behavior and the way you act on stage or all these things I didn’t really want to know and I saw that this process was going to show me all these things. He wouldn’t say, “This means that,” he would say “Have you considered the relationship between these things.” I would say yeah, I don’t think it has anything to do with it or oh shit, that probably is a lot of it. He was a good observer of me trying to make sense of my story. For the actual mechanics of the writing, we used Skype quite a bit. We would put days aside where we would talk. You know it has that text window? We would talk and he would say, I’m going to go into the other room for a half hour and I need you to write that and then send it to me. So then I would sit and write and write and write and write and shoot him a ton of stuff and then he would sort of dial in the proper language. There was the week or so of just talking to get a feel for the whole story then I spent time with all those stories and put them in chronological order, then we dove in. So yeah, I did a lot of writing.

That’s probably partly why it reads so well. Because when these music books feel dictated there’s a kind of thinness to the prose. But that you actually wrote it down and you guys worked over the prose is probably part of why it has more heft.

It’s definitely my voice and I know that comes across because Azerrad was really leaning on me like, more adjectives, more adjectives. I’m not an adjective guy. I’m a pretty flat, plain speaker-writer. I said if we start dolling it up too much, it’s not going to look like me.

The narrative arc of the book I would say is toward self-acceptance. I think that’s pretty obvious. And part of what’s so moving about the last third of the book is this journey involves transcending and accepting a music subculture that could occasionally be homophobic. Is the self-acceptance part of what makes it possible for you to go back and write in the power trio format again, after years of doing otherwise? Maybe this came out of the experience of memoir writing?

The power trio always works for me. Musically I’ve never had a problem from Hüsker Dü to playing with Anton Fier and Tony Maimone to Sugar, which was a trio. It’s a pretty comfortable spot for me. It’s odd to say ‘comfortable’ because it’s really a lot of work for me but musically it’s the best way, when I have two other people that I need to connect with. There’s a real clarity and a purpose to it because everybody knows how much they have to lift at all times. I like that interaction. It feels like jazz.

As far as a power trio, I think learning not to micro-manage it, it feels maybe now a lot more natural. The self-acceptance is really about my sexuality, and who I am, and what I do, how the stories resonate with people. I tried in the book to make it really clear where all of the self-hating came from. I was pretty uneducated as a young gay man, you know, in the ways of the homosexuals, so to speak. I didn’t find a place to identify. I would have been better off when everyone was completely closeted. I didn’t have role models. I had this single-minded musical purpose so I wrote these songs that were not asexual but they were… it wasn’t like me singing about a girlfriend I lost; I was thinking about a lover I lost. There was a universal sexuality to it, which I sort of learned from the Buzzcocks. If you write it wide, then everybody can fit in.

So there was that reluctance to pin myself down as a gay singer-songwriter. You know, Jimmy Somerville did that so well and that was his cause and that was amazing. I didn’t feel like that was my cause. I felt like I was a musician, not a gay musician. Then ’94, coming out, and ’99, really diving into the gay life, learning all the beauty and all the hard lessons and all the occasional bullshit that goes with any kind of group that we identify with, once I went through all that stuff at 39 that most people go through at 20, then the weight was off of my shoulders. I could find a better way to incorporate my particular experiences as a gay man, how relationships affect me, and failures in relationships and stuff like that. I had a better perspective on how to bring that into the work. It opened up a bigger canvas, maybe. I had a better understanding of how to put the colors in. That was a big revelation for me out of the book.

I think the dynamics within my first band, Hüsker Dü, I think once I had to dig in and take ownership for the success and the failure of that band and how I failed inside that band. That was a big eye-opener for me because I had this other narrative in my head: eight and a half years and it ended and I don’t want to talk about it. And all those years of not talking about it, other people created this narrative of acrimony and competition and suggested lovers and all this stuff where parts of it were nonsense and parts of it were true. And when I went back and looked at that, I was like, Oh, I had a pretty big hand in all of this. That was a pretty big eye-opener. And Azerrad was like, there’s gotta be more. You’re not telling me everything. And I’m like, Michael, I told you everything and he’s like, well where’s all this acrimony and stuff. And I’m like, I think you all made it up. Because I didn’t say anything for so long. It was really amazing. I was like, holy shit, I let people create this story that isn’t how I remember it at all. So that was a shocker.

What accounts for the sudden eruption of the "Silver Age"? The big, loud, confident, confrontational Bob Mould sound? "Life and Times" is a pretty quiet record, and you were deejaying and doing the EDM stuff on the side. And then there’s this massive eruption. What changed?

The book came out in June 2011, that’s true, and then around that time I was getting all the love from Dave Grohl. Dave and I had never really sat down and had a conversation until I think it was early ’09, early ’10. Dave gave me a call to come down and sing and play on a song that he had written for Foo Fighters, for the album called "Dear Rosemary." You know, I love Nirvana and I’m a huge Foo Fighters fan, and the musical similarities are pretty obvious, right? For Dave to sort of acknowledge that and reach out and be a friend and shine a little bit of light on what I do, that was really, really great.

I went out on tour with those guys in October 2011. I was actually deejaying at arenas, like as entrance music. And I would deejay between the three bands then I would get up and play a song or two with them at the encore. That was really reassuring to me. Not that I had abandoned what I do, but I did definitely put it on the back burner and was making softer records. But to deejay with them and play with them and get up on stage and stand side by side with those guys for 10 minutes a night and do a real good job at it, I was like, wow, this is easy. This is actually easier than some of the stuff I’ve been doing. And I seem to be pretty good at it still. That was a really nice lift. Then November 2011 was the Disney Hall Tribute Show in L.A. where Dave and Ryan Adams and the No Age guys and Britt from Spoon, the Hold Steady guys, Margaret Cho got together to do my songbook and that was really great as well.  So that was November 2011. I knew the 20th anniversary of "Copper Blue" was coming; we were making plans for that and I had been writing a handful of songs. But after that tribute show I came home and spent December 2011 writing what essentially became "Silver Age," so a lot of it can be traced to Dave and reaching out and him having me come help them. His light shines pretty wide. He was very generous with that. That second half of 2011, doing stuff with them, the tribute show, and of course the book and letting everyone see what it’s all really about. That’s where it all added up and put more fuel back in the old tank.

Are you still feeling as energized by the power trio now as two years ago? Is it still as fun as it was with "Silver Age"?

Yeah. 2012 was interesting. Me and Jason and Jon had been playing for three, four years but playing "Copper Blue" every night, it was a really important record for a lot of people, me included; it’s one of my three best albums — period. It was fun to play that start to finish every night but it was also great to have a new album — and I thought "Silver Age" held up really well — alongside "Copper Blue," and also having a good group of songs in my big book that we could pull out, whether it was Hüsker stuff that fit the motif, you know, it got so easy for us.

Now with "Beauty and Ruin" and recording it very old-fashioned, the three of us in a room cutting the basic tracks together, tightening up arrangements as we were recording. More like a real band instead of me micromanaging. It’s actually getting easier. Now I’ve got that thing where Father Time’s trying to get in the band and I’m trying to keep him out of the band. I’m putting calls into Mother Nature saying, could you please keep Father Time at bay for a while?

Right, the whole aging thing really is a theme on this album and a little on "Silver Age." “Hey Mr. Grey” seems to have this aging theme hovering in the background. I’m pretty much your same age and basically when you’re our age, you’re supposed to be slowing down rock-n-roll wise. People slow down when they’re in their 50s. Do you feel that? Is aging an oppression in the process?

I feel that every morning. And I try not to let it get into my head and I try not to let it get in the way of the work. I would be stupid to not acknowledge it and I think with an album with a title like "Silver Age" it’s clearly, like, yes, I know. And with a song like “Hey Mr. Grey,” it’s like, yeah I fucking know. It’s hilarious, right. I know everybody knows and it’s cool. It’s really odd. I’m only going to have these moments once. The moments when I can still run a 100-yard dash pretty well. Like with a lot of athletes, it’s a moment where you know exactly how to get the farthest most efficiently and then one of the wheels flies off the car. And I’m just trying so hard to keep all the wheels on right now. You go to the gym, there’s dietary stuff, you know, you try to work smart instead of beating yourself to death with work. It’s all these little things. It’s akin to being an athlete. I think Jon and Jason see it that way as well. We all train, we run, we do stuff. There’s this staircase here in San Francisco not far from where I live and I go out on that thing every day. It’s like 15 flights of stairs. I have to keep myself so in shape for this.

Is there dread about the touring part? Do you look forward to it and dread it in equal measure?

I dread the windshields because I’ve seen all those Tommy Bartlett Robot World signs in Wisconsin or Pennsylvania Dutch Exit Here. You know what I’m saying. I’ve seen that road, and other than free WiFi at Starbucks it’s pretty much the same. So that part I dread a little bit. But going out to play for people, that’s amazing. You gotta take the rest of it in stride to get to those 90 minutes. And again, it’s about traveling smarter. Trying to find shortcuts to cheat your day a little bit so you have more power when you’re on stage. It’s just dialing that kind of stuff in. And I find a little better shortcut for food or for sleep or something and when it makes a difference and the shows get better, then I’m like, Oh, I gotta keep doing that.

What portion of your time now do you give to the deejaying versus the band stuff? How do those things integrate with one another?

I started deejaying in earnest in January 2003 when I moved to D.C. Met a fellow named Rich Morel. We had been friends for about a year and when I moved to D.C. He was my first sort of music friend and we would get together and write music. As I said in the book, I wanted to meet new people, so it’s like, let’s do a gay music night so I can make friends. Rich wasn’t leaving the house much in those days, so it was a good way to get him out of the house. That became an event called Blowoff and we did that solid up until January of this year.

Right now it’s on hiatus; Rich has got his own band called Deathfix and he’s been doing a lot of production work lately, which has been keeping him busy. The last two years it was really hard for us to synchronize all of our schedules to do as many Blowoff events as we once did. Having said that, I just deejayed in New York a week and a half ago. I’m still doing a handful of DJ things but nowhere near as much as with Blowoff. When "Silver Age" came out it was really clear that the guitar stuff was going to take all my time again. Instead of splitting it up like I had been doing, I really needed to take a break from the DJ thing so I could be completely available for the guitar stuff.

So are you feeling that as a loss?

I’m happy where I am but it also feels like a loss. I miss the bear community a little bit. I miss hanging out with Rich. When I moved away from D.C. five years ago, I sensed that things were going to shift. But if the stars line up where we get back together and work on it, great; if not everything’s good too. I do miss the big gay parties that we deejayed. It’s very different standing on a stage with a guitar looking out at a thousand Bob Mould fans versus staring out looking at a thousand hot guys with their shirts off. It’s a very different kind of story to tell. They have a lot of similarities, but it’s a different kind of preparation, right before the lights go down. Instead of Are my shoes double tied, it’s more like, Do I look hot in this T-shirt?

What might you do next? Do you have an idea about what might happen after this tour?

No idea. I have no idea. I’ve been in San Francisco for five years and I’ve always loved this city. I moved here in the summer of ’09, and in the summer of ’14 it’s a very different place than the city I moved to. In ’09 it was sort of bottomed out a little bit, and five years later this tech thing is back. I’m just here for the ride now. Places change. New York is not what it was. I lived through a couple different versions of New York and now I’m living in a different version of San Francisco.

For me, where I live, how I spend my days and nights, and who I surround myself with, has a lot to do with the work. Right now I feel like Oh my god, the video has to be done in four days. I just finished designing shirts and backdrops. We’re doing this and I have to go make another video; I have to do TV on short notice next week. I’m in sort of survival panic. Do I have to pay estimated taxes before I leave?

Right now playing with Jason and Jon is so amazing. Jason has his own band. Jon is working on some outside projects that are important to him that are taking up time. So I’m just grateful that the three of us have time to do this tour. I really want to be right in every minute of it.

By Rick Moody

Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, two memoirs, and a volume of essays on music.

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