Published Aug 01, 2005It's a sweltering Saturday night in the back room of Washington DC's landmark 9:30 Club and the weekly Blowoff dance party is in full swing. Through the dry-ice haze and blinding, almost seizure-inducing flicker of the dance floor lights, two guys spin records for the hundreds of sweaty, mostly shirtless men. The mix causing the club's speakers to throb and pulse and the dancers to gyrate is an odd hybrid of classic disco, deep house grooves, indie rock and even a little punk. Nearing the DJ booth, the two shadowy figures responsible for disparate set come into focus and the unorthodox amalgam of musical genres makes a little more sense. On the left is Richard Morel, a noted club DJ and remix artist. But it's the guy on the right who prompts a double-take. Looking trim and a little greyer around the temples is Bob Mould, a formerly pudgy, one-time hardcore punk rocker best remembered for fronting Hüsker Dü, arguably the greatest and most influential underground American band of the '80s. Spinning records at a weekly "homo-hop" is not where most people would have seen Mould's career going. But it has and he's happy here. As a singer-songwriter and a gay man who still likes to pick up his guitar and rock out while dabbling in electronica and dance music, Mould has bridged the vast expanse across the musical interests and influences that have inspired him over 27 years as an artist. How he got to this point is where the story gets interesting.
Bob Mould is born on October 16 to the owners of a mom and pop grocery store in the tiny upstate New York town of Malone, and is raised on a steady diet of early guitar rock and British invasion records.
Mould moves to Minnesota to study urban sciences at Macalester College on a scholarship awarded to underprivileged students. "I grew up right on the poverty line and I think universities at that time, in an attempt to create some kind of parity, would apportion scholarships to people of colour or people of poverty to try to round out the student body," recalls Mould. "Macalester College was one of those prestigious small liberal arts schools in the upper Midwest and they prided themselves on having a very diverse student body."
Mould, along with drummer Grant Hart (whom Mould met working in a local record store), Grant's bass player pal Greg Norton and a keyboardist named Charlie Pine, form Hüsker Dü and debut as a quartet in March. But something is not right. Pine is booted from the band a short time later and the streamlined but still rough trio re-emerges in May and Hüsker Dü plays its first real show in May opening for Curtiss A at the Longhorn in Minneapolis. They quickly became known as one of the loudest and fastest bands in the city, and possibly one of the sloppiest. "It just started around a common love of certain bands and a certain style of music; that being the first wave of edgy pop punk and industrial music of the day like the Buzzcocks and the Ramones and Throbbing Gristle," says Mould. "There was always a real strong pop sensibility there but in the beginning it was obscured by the speed and noise of it all. There was a lot of arty punk stuff going on in the Twin Cities at the time and none of it was really working for me, so if there was a way to destroy that and replace it with what I wanted to do, that would work for me."
1980 to 1982
Hüsker Dü record and release a handful of singles and the live Land Speed Record album which is, quite rightly, dismissed as an unlistenable racket. While faithfully capturing the band's hectic live shows, it's not exactly something that bears repeat spins. During this period the band plays shows with and impresses members of Dead Kennedys and Black Flag. The latter would prove to be significant as Hüsker Dü would go on to team with Flag guitarist Greg Ginn's upstart SST Records, the first band out of the Midwest to sign to the California-based label. They also release Everything Falls Apart, their first full-length studio album.
1983 to 1985
With Mould and Hart both writing furiously, Hüsker Dü releases the Metal Circus EP and three studio albums (four albums worth of material if you count the fact the groundbreaking concept record Zen Arcade was a double disc and New Day Rising and Flip Your Wig were single discs) in the space of less than two years. It's an output that rivals the Beatles in their heyday. And all the while there was touring to support the records. "That's the way we thought it was supposed to be," says Mould. "It was just being young and ambitious and constantly writing and touring and rehearsing. If you have the tools in your hand you're going to get the work done. It's like being an athlete; if you're not in game shape you're not going to get called on. If you're prepared and you've got your stuff ready to go on a moment's notice you can react then you get more shows and all the other things fall in line. At this point in my life I've finally figured that out." In addition to being a prolific period for the band, Mould's songwriting in particular was becoming more defined. While he had been the chief songwriter, responsible for the bands noisiest works, his embracing of acoustic guitar and gorgeous melodies had the band moving in a different direction. In late 1985, the band does the unthinkable and signs to Warner Bros., becoming the first indie band of the day to make what was considered an unthinkable leap to a major label. It was a move that would open the doors for bands like Sonic Youth, Nirvana, Soundgarden and dozens of other indie and punk acts. "Don't ask me why, it just seemed to be the right thing to do at the time," Mould says with a laugh. "What Warner Bros. was able to do for the band was to create a larger potential audience. Because SST was an independent label there were limits whether it was at radio or in distribution. There were no limits with the press, the band was available for interviews but getting on to commercial radio, getting proper rack space at retail was tougher. From that sense it was a positive experience. In the negative sense, I don't think the business was really ready for Hüsker Dü; a self-managed entity and strong, independent thinkers. We didn't have the big manager. The booking agent that we worked with at the time - and who I still work with - was an upstart and I remember the record company saying we had to go with a big agency. It gave a bigger potential audience but the downside was I think we were a little too contrary."
With the release of their first major label record, Candy Apple Grey, comes the inevitable descent. Mould stops partying and Hart gets more addicted to heroin. "I think that effectively extricated me from the cool pool and some people went further in the other direction," says Mould. "These things happen. That's life. It was the beginning of the shits. We were hitting the wall creatively and personality-wise everybody was starting to go their own separate ways."
With inner band tensions reaching the boiling point, the band records and releases yet another double album, Warehouse: Songs and Stories, and plans yet another tour in support. Uncomfortable with Mould and the band self-managing, Warner Bros. demands the band hire someone to take care of their business affairs. Mould's friend David Savoy gets the job but on the eve of the Warehouse tour, Savoy kills himself. After an appearance on The Joan Rivers Show - an experience Mould recalls as being "very professional and respectful" - and a tense tour that ran through the end of 1987, the band, like the title of their first album prophecies, falls apart. "The songwriting got better and evolved and then it got stuck and everybody wanted out," Mould says. "The whole experience except for the last two years was pretty good. It was a natural decay exacerbated by the outside pressure of the major label and other personal things like David Savoy's suicide. It's usually a good time to stop when that stuff happens," Mould says still amazed the last tour actually happened. "It's a little bit of the show must go on kind of mentality. It's not always the healthiest but when you're in it you do what you and afterwards you can look back and go, 'what an asshole.'"
Mould leaves Hüsker Dü in January and the band officially breaks up a short time later. (Hart insists he left first.) Looking back on the Hüsker Dü experience, Mould says that while it wasn't apparent at the time, they were trailblazers. "Sometimes when you're in a situation you realise it's bigger than you know and you're just sort of holding on; like holding the tail of a comet," he says. "I knew it was big but I didn't know what it meant or where it was going. It just was. Now I can say, 'ya, that band was pretty important.' Whether it was just how prolific or how explosive the band was live. There really weren't a lot of people who could keep up with what was happening on the stage."
1989 to 1990
Mould wastes little time getting back to work. He spends the balance of 1988 getting his bearings and figuring out what to do next. He goes in a radically different direction, trading in the trademark screaming and wall of fuzz for singing and cello. Working with Pere Ubu's rhythm section, drummer Anton Fier and bassist Tony Maimone, he issues Workbook, an oft-contemplative record that had only ever been slightly hinted at in Hüsker Dü. "I did not want to attempt to duplicate Hüsker Dü with other people," he says. "I was smart enough to know that was not the right way to go. I just followed my instinct on wanting to go with a little bit lusher sound. It was cleaning out the distortion and learning to articulate the instrument a little more carefully. There was a delicacy, a grace and a lot of different voices trying to get out and it worked." But it didn't come easily. "At the time it seemed like an eternity writing that record," says Mould. "Being 27 years old and spending a year re-learning the guitar and learning how to write songs in a different style. That seemed like ten years at the time." The trio follow Workbook a year later with the bigger, rougher sounding Black Sheets of Rain, which Mould says is the product of both touring with Fier and Maimone and moving to New York City.
After that venture runs its course, Mould is once again flying solo. The experience of his first two albums and another major label relationship leaves him financially drained. "Nineteen ninety one was a big works-in-progress year, where I did tons of acoustic dates and was writing a lot on the road and then going home and recording demos," he says. "It was a really prolific period. I had to dig myself out of a hole basically at that point. Business was bad and I was left to my own devices. I'd gotten screwed by the business once again and had to dig myself out financially. I just went out and did what you do when you're in the hole - you go to work and you don't look back. It was bad management. In hindsight it was the epitome of everything that can go wrong when somebody who's very independent and strong willed lets go of the reins. I got run into the ground and I'm still paying for that. It happens and you move on."
1992 to 1993
With about 30 songs ready to go, Mould teams with bassist Dave Barbe and drummer Malcolm Travis to record another batch of solo songs, this time on his own label, Granary Music. The fact they ended up as a band with the name Sugar is accidental. "Sugar only became a name when the three of us were going to play," says Mould. "That was going to be the album title. We played an unannounced show in Athens just before we started the record and we just sort of named the band on the spot." Sugar releases the tunefully loud Copper Blue and the darker companion EP Beaster to critical acclaim. The band also become notorious for being one of the loudest around at the time.
In the midst of recording a second full-length, Mould halts production and scraps the entire project, erasing seven weeks worth of recordings in the process. "We worked for two months on it and it sounded like shit," he admits. "I sat there and watched the record head go by on all the tapes. It was no accident. It sucked; the sounds were bad, we weren't playing well together. It was the same songs that ended up being on File Under Easy Listening, it was just that I wasn't happy with the studio, the sounds, the performance. It was seven weeks of nothing. Sometimes you have to make a grand gesture, like burning the thing down and starting over. It got done very quickly after that. We went back to Texas and reconceptualised the album and it got done in three weeks."
In the midst of Sugar's success, and perhaps because of it, Spin magazine sends fiction writer Dennis Cooper to spend time with Mould, in the process revealing his homosexuality. While his sexuality is not a well-kept secret, Spin makes it into tabloid sleaze when Mould gets cautious about how it would be perceived in his hometown. He goes on a rant about the flamboyant fringes of the gay lifestyle getting all the attention, claiming it's a poor representation of the broader community. Gay groups react, predictably, with concern and Mould is branded a self-hating queer.
"I think it was the 'I'm not a freak, I'm a human being' comment that sent the gay groups right up the wall," he says now. "I was like, 'Wait a minute, I don't do drag and I get really freaked out when the only thing you see about gay pride on television is people in drag. I know they're part of the community but what happens to the guys who wear flannel shirts and play loud guitars?' I thought it was a poor representation of the couple of days that [Cooper and I] spent together when the only attributable quote was a ten minute rant that I went off on, which I don't think was representational of all the things I said. He said it wasn't his fault and I was like, 'fuck all ya'll. You're all full of shit and you know it.' I couldn't care less about it now but at the time it was upsetting. It sucked: not the being out part but some people can do it with grace and some people stumble. I stumbled. The reason I never got into [a gay scene] in a big way was to protect my family more than anything. I was a public figure and my family lives in a small town and it's not always the easiest thing for people to understand."
1995 to 1997
With Dave Barbe wanting to spend more time with his new family, Mould decides to end the Sugar project and take things truly solo. "It was the first time I started to question the shelf life of [being in a band]," he says. "I had worked with three different groups of people at that point and the ending is never really fun, so I started to wonder what else I could do." He enters the studio on his own and records a self-titled Bob Mould disc, which features programmed drums and songs inspired by his time in bands and in the business. The song "I Hate Alternative Rock" is particularly poignant. But the period that follows sees Mould becoming more reclusive. His touring now consists almost exclusively of solo acoustic shows. When he finally re-enters the studio to record the again prophetically-named The Last Dog and Pony Show, he takes a few other musicians with him to deliver a slightly less mechanical-sounding record.
As TLDAPS is released, Mould makes a bold statement by announcing the ensuing tour would be his last with a band. "After the eponymous record and The Last Dog and Pony Show, I had sort of envisioned getting off the road at that point," he says. "I was 37 and had been doing the same thing for 20 years and felt like I could do it for another 20 if I didn't stop, so I made the proclamation: 'I don't want to play any more with loud rock bands; this is it, you'd better come and see it because it isn't going to happen again.' It was a good tour but by the end of it I had a notebook of reasons why I should never do it again. Every day I could add something to the list and I ended up with enough evidence to back me up on that decision." He goes home to New York and "soaked his head" and thinks about what he wants to do next. It is around this time his fascination with gay culture and club music begins to take root. "I was bored to death with guitar music," he says.
Mould begins experimenting with electronic music and learning the tools of the trade until one of the more unusual offers of his career comes along. Through friends in Atlanta with connections to Ted Turner's media empire, Mould gets a job as a creative consultant for World Championship Wrestling. The upstart league is giving Vince McMahon's WWF a run for its money and Mould, as a lifelong fan of wrestling, immediately jumps at the opportunity. "I got dragged away from my oh-so-gay life to go do a gig where you tell guys in underwear what to do, which is not gay at all," he says with a laugh. "That was a trip, that was a book in itself right there. I knew how the business worked generally and I knew people in the business so I got offered a job as a creative consultant, which is basically sitting in and helping to evaluate and write shows for television. They saw I was a smart guy and they assigned me a lot of hefty duties." After seven months, professional differences and displeasure with the direction of the company result in Mould's departure.
2000 to 2002
Mould returns to New York to pick up his dabbling in electronica. "It was everywhere at the time, you couldn't get away from it," he says of the hard house dance music he develops an affection for. "You had to learn the tools. I learned to sample and sequence and record digitally. I did it all myself and maybe that was detrimental. I probably could have done better with a bit of help." In 2002, he releases two albums of three he has planned. One is a strictly electronic dance record released under the name Loudbomb. The other is released under Mould's name, called Modulate. It's more like Mould's older stuff, but with odd tinges of dance around the edges. The record is not warmly received by fans or critics. The third is a guitar rock record that won't see the light of day until three years later. When Mould finally heads out on the road for the first time in four years to support Modulate, it's a solo trek sort of. Rather than another acoustic outing, he decides to try something different - he plays acoustic and electric guitar to backing tapes and videos. Six filmmakers create 27 different pieces to be projected onto three screens behind Mould as he performs. The format also allows him to play old Hüsker Dü material he hadn't done electrically since the band broke up. "It was sort of at the last minute," he says of the tour concept. "I woke up one morning and thought 'I've got it, this is the idea.' Part of it was tongue-in-cheek retrospective, like the never-ending Cher farewell tour. I thought I didn't have the financial wherewithal to create that spectacle, but what could I do that would be funny, sort of artistic, sort of irreverent at times, something that would keep the people's attention while I'm doing this show? I knew a lot of filmmakers in town and it got put together in six weeks." After the tour, Mould ups and leaves the Big Apple for the capital confines of Washington, DC.
"I just needed a change again," he says. "New York is the constant in my life no matter what happens and it wouldn't shock me to end up there again, but it was just time to go. I was just feeling worn down by the city. I needed to reshuffle everything again. It's actually worked out really well. I didn't like it when I first got here; the first three months were horrible. It was summer and nobody's here because everybody leaves in the summer. I thought, 'What the fuck am I doing? I had all these great friends in New York and now I'm just sitting here twiddling my thumbs.'"
Things look up for the DC move when he befriends a club and remix DJ named Rich Morel. The two met in New York just before Mould left and they decide to start a gay dance party night called Blowoff, which Mould describes as "a homo dance, indie rock house music kind of party thing." The night begins as a monthly event and quickly becomes weekly. "It's a big deal now. It's a real fun thing. Sometimes we do some live performance with two guitars and a backing track. We are bridging a lot of scenes that don't normally interact. One of the things I'm stunned at is the amount of guys who have come out of the woodwork who used to be at Hüsker Dü shows."
Mould picks up the guitar again to start tinkering with the discarded material from the 2002 sessions and begins to breathe new life into them. In October, nearly 17 years after they last shared a stage together, Mould and former Hüsker Dü partner Grant Hart reunite for a benefit show in Minneapolis. Money raised goes to Soul Asylum bassist Karl Mueller who is battling cancer. (Mueller died in June, 2005.) The two play a Hart song, "Never Talking to You Again," and Mould's "Hardly Getting Over It." "Grant found out I was playing the benefit, got a hold of my cell phone number and asked if I wanted to play a song together. I said sure. I played my set and he walked out and we did two songs and that was it. It was like ten minutes playing with someone else on stage and then it was over." The songs chosen couldn't have been more fitting; after the show the two former band-mates and friends have a brief conversation and go their separate ways. "A lot of jaws hit the floor, but at the end of it we hung out for 20 minutes and talked and then I left," he says. "It was that simple." Naturally it sparks talk of a full-fledged reunion, one that Mould says will never happen. "It's so far from my mind you wouldn't believe," says Mould. "We're in completely different places in our lives. The cause was bigger than anything else. It was a nice gesture but do I want to do it again? No. When you put your hand in the fire you don't usually do it a second time."
Mould continues making solo appearances, DJing parties and finishes the long lost Body of Song record with help from former Sugar bassist Dave Barbe and Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty. The record marks a return to the organic rock not heard since 1998, although there are still electronic elements present. The first band tour since 1998 is to follow in the fall, with Mould promising to dust off some old Hüsker Dü songs not played in a band setting since 1987 (he'd love to give Flip Your Wig's "Divide and Conquer" a try) and some of the Sugar material not played in a decade. "I'm really excited about looking at the Sugar stuff again," he admits. "The Hüsker stuff is whatever." Even if the selection of songs is not to everyone's liking, Mould pledges the shows will be loud. As loud as Sugar? "I don't know if it needs to be that loud, but it's going to be loud, believe me. That's not a problem."
The Essential Bob Mould
with Hüsker Dü:
New Day Rising (1985)
Many people, Mould included, will tell you the 1984 double-disc Zen Arcade is the band's best work. While its epic, Quadrophenia-inspired story was definitely noteworthy and revolutionary, the music is inconsistent. As an album, 1985's New Day Rising makes a better case for the genius of Hüsker Dü. It's simply brilliant, with nary a clunker on the record. The fusion of fury and emotion and melody remains unparalleled in punk rock to this day.
This EP was a product of remnants of the Copper Blue sessions. If Copper Blue is the yin, this is it's yang. Where CB was an up-tempo pop-rock record, Beaster explores the darker side of the band with convincing results. Mould's voice is lower in the mix, letting the instruments deliver the sonic wallop that hadn't been heard from any Mould product since 1985.
His 1989 solo debut record remains his best. Having completely re-worked his approach to his instrument and his writing, Mould's deeply personal reflections on his life and the acoustic guitar-based music are perfect complements to each other. While his other solo albums are mostly "hit" with only a few "misses," Workbook is front to back terrific listening.