Published Dec 07, 2011From his earliest days in the influential American punk band Hüsker Dü to his current work as a solo rock artist and a DJ who loves electronic music, Bob Mould has tapped into a deep emotional well, opening himself up to his fans. At the same time, he's been an artist about it, writing songs about feelings of longing, inner turmoil and frustration in crafty metaphors where few beyond his inner circle might truly grasp his intent. In his new memoir See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody, Mould presents his life in the most direct fashion possible, starkly tracing back to his childhood years in an abusive home, as a mystified, closeted homosexual, and chronicling the many difficult relationships – both professional and personal – that have brought him to a centred, and yes, happy middle-age. Mould recently divulged even more about his mindset around writing See a Little Light.
In your book, you suggest that some of your most formative periods of self-awareness occurred in the '90s, when the music you helped foster in Hüsker Dü really exploded in the form of "alternative" culture. At some point, that aesthetic was co-opted and fizzled out. What did you make of that?
Well, there's a comment I make in the book about the mid-'90s being a rather strange era for music. My first group Hüsker Dü, and I guess the stuff I was doing with my second group Sugar in the early '90s, you know, was sort of alternative rock or indie rock, aggressive guitar rock. But I think popular music has always been a copy-est art form. And when I say that, I always think of the early discovery of the Beatles, where, within two years, there were hundreds of bands that looked and sounded exactly like them.
So, that's nothing new in pop music and, if you jump to 1995 or 1996, there were dozens, hundreds, millions of bands in flannel shirts playing grunge. That's the normal cycle in the entertainment industry in general, specifically for pop music; it's always been that way. There's sort of that idea of having to go through a lull to get to good stuff. I don't know if I subscribe to that entirely. It seems to be the case, y'know? I think that people fall in and out of love with music for different reasons, but the era that we love the most is always the best. As far as the current generation, distribution is king in this business. [Whoever controls] how the music gets to people are the ones that profit, and we're in a phase now where it's very vague. The internet and revenues from streaming, all these different ways that people are getting music – it's going to be interesting to see how it shakes out. I think people now have far greater access to much more music than they ever did before, but it's hard for people to spend the time maybe, to go through it and find the things that they like. I think that's the work in progress right now that is music on the internet. So, I think as far as what people do in sort of a community sense with that, I think there's virtual community, but nothing will ever truly replace the idea of a group of people getting together in a room with the sound, and the smell, and the touch of music. I mean, the internet will never give us that.
Yeah, I agree.
It may expose us to different kinds of music that we then can choose to go see, but the actual community of music – it's a tactile one, it's not a virtual one and I think that will always be there. That's the experience that brings people together, that people can actually talk face-to-face and then make music together. So, that's my long-winded answer.
It deserved a long-winded answer, thank you. I was thinking about the fact that you've been going on book tours, you've been talking to people, I assume quite a bit about this book. Are you also surprised by the intensity of any of the questions you've been getting about this particular book?
No, and it's really encouraging. I mean, my life's work has been trying to tell these stories that are important to me but sometimes I don't fully understand what the stories are. But y'know, when I go out and present them to people, and I see how they resonate, that's the good news; that's what I'm hoping for. Having said that, as far as 30 years of music, I wasn't really prepared for the depth or the attachment, or the connection that people are having with the book, because it's a whole new set of stories. The book is a personal diary or a notebook of a personal journey, and it goes much deeper than the music. I mean, I'm talking about my family, my interesting childhood, and how that set me up to be a musician that made this noisy, aggressive music, that eventually became a little more sophisticated, and then a little more reflective, and that whole rag – how my sexuality fits into it. People are connecting at different levels, now; they're talking about their childhood. And when people come at me with these stories, like, "I was the kid that didn't get beat by my parents," y'know, that's a little bit deeper than, "Great guitar solo."
Yeah, absolutely. We were talking earlier about the fact that there's this distinction between your work as a songwriter and now as an author. You have been dealing and delving into your emotions and your perspective in public for more than 30 years now. And as an artist who's always crafting something kind of poetic and multi-layered – I mean, that's the way you work as a musician – what was that transition like for you to convey these same sorts of feelings, these same sorts of things, I think in a much more direct and to the point way in writing this book See a Little Light?
It was tough. At the beginning of the process in the fall of '08, I started working with editor and writing coach Michael Azerrad, and he sort of warned me that it would get heavy, and I thought "Oh, this is going to be fun, a trip down memory lane, write about all the good stuff, maybe mention one or two bad things." And, y'know, once I really got into the process, and I started to understand how my life affected my work, and then vice versa, then it got a little crazy. I can't speak for all songwriters, but we sort of have a veil that we can hide behind. Y'know, we can always add the disclaimer, "Oh, that song's not really about me," when of course it is in some way.
Right, of course.
And some are incredibly personal, and you can't hide the fact. There's a lot of grey area in songwriting and I think that's the mystery in pop music and the beauty of it is, with most art, that you don't…it's not the best idea to tell everybody specifically what it's about. So, when I get to this process of writing the book, and I get in really deep, I realize "Oh, there's nowhere to hide now."
Yeah, I mean, that's what struck me. It's such a candid book, and you have written very powerful songs, and they are open to interpretation – on some level you can gather the meaning you want – but this is so to the point. Not to suggest that there's not some metaphor – it's beautifully written, don't get me wrong–
But it's just not as veiled. And that's interesting to me.
No, it's not. And, y'know, I mean, that's the way I've always tried to look at my work. My work has not been the most complicated work, y'know? It's pretty straightforward and to the point – musical ideas and words. When all was said and done with the book, I thought it was a very, very plain, very flat sort of showing of my story, as opposed to telling a lot of crazy stories. I mean, there's – don't get me wrong, there's some funny, stories; the preface is pretty wild, and there's some funny stuff towards the back end of the book that nobody saw coming. Some pretty colourful stuff that I don't think people would have expected from me. But all in all, I think that the book is an amplified version of the way I've always looked at my work. I think that's what people expect from me and that's sort of what I expect from myself. So, yeah. It's a bigger version of what I've done, I guess.
We spoke earlier about the internet and its affect on music. Do you think music scenes were better served in any way in the days before being online became the new "grassroots?"
Well, I think it felt more special. I remember in the summer of 1981 with Hüsker Dü, we started touring and going up through Canada, spending six nights at the Calgarian Hotel, and then down to Vancouver, and on to Seattle and Portland, and San Francisco. And I had never seen these places. I knew D.O.A., the Subhumans, we knew the Dead Kennedys, we knew Poison Idea, but we had no idea what the towns were like that they lived in, and why that affected their music. I mean, the world was a lot different 30 years ago. It wasn't as homogenized, it wasn't quite as Starbucks or Tim Horton's as it is now. So, you know, when you got to a town – what's the place in Vancouver? The Silver Dollar Diner, or something?
Hmmm, I'm not sure…
The idea is, you go to a town and all these people are like "Oh my god, this is the greasy spoon where all the bands eat, everybody hangs out there." It would be this sense of sort of wonder and exploration, and it made the music of the towns make more sense. And I think that was really important. I was aware of that at the time, and I remember when MTV started doing those road trip shows in the mid-'80s, where they would go to a town to discover the local scene. And they would show it, and it sort of started to lessen the specialness of each town because then you could see it on TV. Fast forward now to where everything is on Tumblr as quickly as it happens, and on Facebook and Twitter as quickly as it happens. I'm not sure there's as much specialness. Sometimes I feel like social media is just one big advertisement for tourism, as opposed to really having a reason or purpose to go and explore and show up somewhere, and having to learn the lay of the land.
Yeah, it does, kind of. It does diminish the experiential aspect of life, doesn't it?
A little bit. It works both ways. It gives you an idea of places you might want to go, but there's less mystery now. Everything's transparent and open, which is maybe good for politics, but maybe not good for the spirit all the time.
I don't know. It's a work in progress.
Right. Are you yourself a regular sort of journal keeper? Do you write daily about what's going on in your life?
I keep fairly decent notes, but I've really gotta give a shout out to a gentleman who lives in Massachusetts whose name is Paul Hillcoff. Paul, beyond being a really great guy, is an archivist of all things related to Hüsker Dü and the three members of that band post- Hüsker Dü. And one of the things that Paul did was he created a very, very comprehensive log of live performances, and I referred to that constantly when putting the book together.
As far as myself, yeah I've got a lot of notebooks full of stuff that I went back and looked through, but, you know, I also have these records that I made. It's very funny because they're all stamped with a time and a place, and they all had tours that were attached, and they all had emotional content that was easy to call back. So, I'm sort of lucky. I think that's a thing with artists, that we keep track of our lives in public, in a sense. We've got these, you know, scrapbooks, or notebooks, or albums, or whatever it is that help us to keep track of time. We keep track of time that way.
Right, absolutely. Finally, Bob, what's coming up next for you? Do you have some plans to tell us about? Any particular news?
Oh my gosh! November's going to be really busy. I'm back out on the road doing a handful more of these shows where I play and read from the book simultaneously within one night. Those have been really fun. In the book, I talk about this DJ event that I created eight years ago with a friend of mine named Richard Morel, an event called Blow Off, and we've got a number of those in November. Also, the other two things that are really fun: a group called the Foo Fighters are doing some arena shows in the northeast in November, and I'm going to be joining them. I'm actually going to be DJing at their shows. And sometimes when I'm at a Foo Fighters show I end up onstage, so…
Yeah, didn't you just end up paying tribute to Tom Petty recently with the Foo Fighters?
Yeah, we did a show a little bit ago in Oakland. I'd gotten up to play with the band on a song called "Dear Rosemary" which is on their new record. I played and sang on the record. And so we did that, and the song just kept going and sort of transitioned into "Breakdown" by Tom Petty and I didn't know that was coming. And I didn't know the song, so…
I really enjoy that song. That's a good Tom Petty song.
Yeah, yeah. So I was just sort of winging it, and I think it went pretty well. People liked it. That was fun. And then the biggest thing I'm really looking forward to is on Monday, November 21, there's a show. It's a celebration of my songbook, and it's happening in Los Angeles at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, which is the concert hall that was designed by Frank Ghery for the L.A. Philharmonic.
It's a show where a number of artists are getting together to play my songbook, which'll be really, really great for me. It's a couple new bands: Best Coast, and No Age. Margaret Cho and Grant Lee Phillips are going to play a song, Ryan Adams is coming in, Ben Gibbard is coming in, Dave Grohl's going to do a bunch of stuff, so it's going to be really great. I'm touched, really touched, and moved by that, and that pretty much wraps up my year. And then onward to 2012, and I got a lot of plans. They're all coming together as we speak, so…
Plans to make records, and things like that?
Things like that, yeah.
Well, congratulations on all that, and congratulations on the night honouring you. That's great. It feels like everything is coming up Bob Mould these days. Don't you feel that, Bob?
I think so. I think so. And this has been really fun too.
Do you have a particular soft spot for Canada?
Well, y'know, I grew up in a small town called Malone in very northern-most New York State. I was 50 miles from Montreal the first 17 years of my life. So, I mean, I watched Hockey Night In Canada at least twice a week. I went to the Montreal Forum to see shows, I learned French pretty early. So, yeah, I'm pretty close to the situation.
Well, good. It's nice to chat with an almost fellow Canadian.
Almost fellow Canadian, there you go.