Bob Mould on His Surprisingly Upbeat New LP, Remembering Grant Hart
“I’ve always been a write-what-you-know kind of guy,” Bob Mould says on what he describes as a rainy San Francisco morning. “So this time, I was trying to consciously create a little bit of a different world to work in.”
He ended up changing his world in two ways. On one hand, he radically overhauled his life and relocated himself to Berlin for big parts of the past few years. He doesn’t speak German, but he’s immersed himself in the culture, going clubbing again and enjoying a change of pace. On the other, he has challenged himself to write songs that were more positive. Where the 58-year-old variously wrote about broken friendships in Hüsker Dü, Sugar and his solo recordings, he’s now singing love songs that are more sweet than bitter.
He started writing his latest album, Sunshine Rock, toward the end of 2016 while he was in Berlin and had a revelation. “All of a sudden, summer came, and ‘Sunshine Rock,’ the song, showed up,” he says. “Then it became, ‘Aha, this is the key. This is what I need to follow. This is the music, the song that’s really making me happy.'” He flew back to Oakland to meet up with his longtime backing band, bassist Jason Narducy and drummer Jon Wurster, and cut the 37-minute album, adorning it with string arrangements recorded by the Prague TV Orchestra and reaching deep within himself for positivity. The LP contains 11 new songs that range from well-adjusted to super happy and a cover of Shocking Blue’s “Send Me a Postcard.” He wrote the occasional song reacting to the current presidential administration, but in the end he decided to hold those back.
Despite the shift in direction, Sunshine Rock sounds like a Bob Mould record with all the intense vocals and punishing swirls of guitars that defined his more rock-oriented albums. As he preps to hit the road again, he tells Rolling Stone he’s not at all worried about his new rays of sunlight marring his set lists. “The new work pairs up so nicely with the historical stuff with Sugar and Hüsker Dü,” he says. “It just becomes this one big song in a way.
“Somebody once tweeted something like, ‘Oh, my God. I’m at a Bob Mould show, and it seems like it’s been an hour and a half of the same song. It’s incredible,'” he continues. “At first, I sort of took offense to it, and then I realized, no, that’s actually like, ‘Oh, cool.’ Yeah, so it’s all just one big thing.”
How did living in Berlin lead you to a more positive album?
I went back to clubbing, and it was really fun to revisit that idea of being anonymous in a space with people who are there simply to worship music. And then going to Berghain on Easter Sunday to hear Todd Edwards spin. It’s like, “God, how much of his work shaped what Daft Punk did?” And then [painter and sculptor] Robert Longo came during art week and he had an exhibit in an old car dealership called Everything Falls Apart. I’m like “Oh, my God. I haven’t seen Longo in 30 years, and here he is with his new show named after my song.” Those kinds of things can happen anywhere, but they were happening with frequency over there. It’s been a real fun experience so far.
How did you focus on positivity?
I lost my dad around the time I made [2014’s] Beauty & Ruin and I lost my mom and made [2016’s] Patch the Sky. So I said I need to make a conscious effort to turn my view differently. I think my work traditionally has been pretty bright-sounding, but emotionally it can be darker. So I tried to get off of that. It was a way to keep myself getting up in the morning. It was a very conscious effort to write to the sunshine, write to the bright parts of life and don’t let those experiences fall through the cracks.
There are so many little things as I get older where I’m really trying to simplify how I think and live and how that affects the work. This was one of them. I just tried to think bright. It’s not going to come out 100-percent bright, but I’d try to think bright.
What was it about the song “Sunshine Rock” that made you feel you’d stumbled on a new direction?
I was writing optimistically about good times in the moment, which is not something I normally do. So it seemed like the keys that fit in the door.
On “Sunny Love Song,” you sing about pen, paper, guitar, some weed and imagination. Is that your general process?
Yeah, that’ll work. Some days, weed. Some days, not. Depends on what time of day and where my head’s at, but it should be legal everywhere. If we can just get Big Pharma and alcohol out of the mix, maybe we can forward the ball a little bit. They really don’t want those competing products, do they?
Did you have to rewrite any songs to make them more positive?
No, everything is pretty much as it was written. Tracks one through nine, through “Lost Faith,” were pretty well-established and pretty non-negotiable in terms of sequence. And then I had “Western Sunset” as the closer. I originally had two other songs for tracks 10 and 11. One was pretty upbeat, but the story was a little dour, and the other one was really angry and political. I thought if I put two heavy songs before “Western Sunset,” people will think it’s a joke. So I wrote “Camp Sunshine” on the last day of mixing, and [the Shocking Blue cover song] “Send Me a Postcard” was one that we had in the pocket from the early days of tracking.
On “Western Sunset” you sing that your “wakeup song” is “One More Time.” We’re still talking Daft Punk, right?
Yeah. It was actually “Music Sounds Better With You” by Stardust, but the title did not fit. But any Daft Punk song will work.
Will you be putting out your angry, political songs soon?
If I have to. I’m hoping that by the time it comes to put any odds ‘n’ sods out, some of the protagonists in this current ugly story will be gone.
Did you want to just give people a break from Trump?
I’ve been through a lot of bad times in my life, and this is the worst political solution I’ve ever seen. But damned if I’m going to pay service to it by naming it and letting it take up my space. It already takes up too much space.
There are different ways of reacting to it. Your drummer Jon Wurster’s other band, Superchunk, blasted Trump with their last album.
Yeah. The beauty of it is I got a clutch of songs I wrote when things were pretty bad the first time around [with Reagan], and all of those words still apply. “In a Free Land” and “Divide and Conquer,” they still mean the exact same thing they meant when I wrote them. It’s just a new version. This is a new iteration of it. This is the problem with evangelicals. It never ends.
You’ve always written love songs, but the ones on this album seem a bit more sincere than your others. Is that something that’s more present in your life now?
Yeah. I’m a little more in tune with myself, with the people I love, with the people in my life that bring a lot of joy. “With “Sunshine Rock, ” to come right out of the gate with a love song. Woo! What happened?
What were you listening to around the time you were writing the album?
For most of it, I was away from my Sixties pop singles collection, which I’m actually looking at right now. That’s usually the typical inspiration. I listened to streaming radio to find new stuff, and I was also going out and seeing more bands in Berlin than I was in the States. I don’t think there was any one specific, “Oh, my gosh. That one Courtney Barnett song set me off.” But she’s one of 50 things that I think is really cool that’s going on in music right now.
You did get a Shocking Blue cover on the album, though, so there’s at least one Sixties song.
That’s because we got ahead of ourselves in tracking and had an extra day and a half, so we started doing covers. When I played that one for the guys, they’re like, “That sounds really familiar.” I’m like, “Yeah, it’s been in our intro music for five years now every show that we play. You hear it right about the time we’re finishing the set list, roughly 15 minutes before we walk onstage.”
What prompted you to use orchestral strings on the album?
When I’m writing songs, I typically do pretty elaborate demos with guitars, basses and rhythm tracks. A lot of times, I put placeholder keyboards down for melodic ideas. A couple of weeks before we started tracking, I woke up and was like, “This record needs more melody.” On the demos, I’d written a lot of things with organs or cellos in mind, and I thought, “I’m going to go for it. I’m going to find an orchestra and build these parts out and see what happens.”
My friend, Alison Chesley, helped me turn my simple scores into proper scores and I got a hold of an orchestra in Prague. We recorded our basic tracks, shipped it over to Prague, and they got the strings done in a day. It was so much fun to do.
Did you play anything in your high-school orchestra?
No. They tried to get me on the tuba in the fifth grade. I took one look at it and one look at the snow outside — the snow’s dropped two feet high — and I said, “I’m not dragging that thing back and forth on Main Street every day.” So I sang in the choir for a couple of years.
In contrast to your brighter songs, there are still some pretty bleak ones here. On “Thirty Dozen Roses,” you sing about hopelessness.
Yeah, it’s such a crazy blur, but “Lost Faith” is a big one. That one was one of the last ones I wrote, along with “Final Years.” I wrote those in Berlin right before I came back to start on the record. On “Lost Faith,” I was trying to write a guitar riff that emulates the church bells I hear constantly around my apartment in Berlin. It seems like every time I walk by that Catholic church, the bells go off. Now granted, they go off every 15 minutes, but without fail, the second I step foot on the general property line, the bells start up.
But as I was saying, the winter over there is pretty dark, so I’m not surprised that those were a little more contemplative or reflective. “Lost Faith” is about this person who’s stuck in this really helpless spot, but the choruses are so uplifting but then it falls back even darker and then it collapses and leaves you like, “What was that?”
You keep referring to characters — do you not identify with your songs personally?
It all comes from me, so I will sign my name to all of it. A lot of times, the characters are me plus other people. Once in a while, it’s pure fiction.
What’s a song that’s fictional?
“What Do You Want Me to Do” is more of a crazy idea. It’s one of those things I battle with now because I’m getting … I’m fairly old. I’ve been doing this a long time, and the world I started in was so different from the world we live in now. The juxtaposition of what was acceptable and admirable in terms of musicians’ behavior in the Seventies compared to now is sort of mind-boggling. It’s sort of frightening to me, because I grew up with an entirely different value set than the one that’s present now in the world, at least in my field. It’s sort of like I’m living in fear of that terrible quote to come back to me, something that I thought would be similar to something I read in a Fleetwood Mac book. So that song is a fictitious homage to the crazy Seventies rock lifestyle. It’s about that mad nonsense we used to read about.
Well, if you want to confess anything or get ahead of any stories, here’s your opportunity.
[Laughs] No. I’ll take it one lump at a time.
You don’t have any Fleetwood Mac stories haunting you?
Not in my rock career, no. Those DJ nights, don’t get me started … but anyways.
What inspired the song “The Final Years”? It’s such a serious song.
Just loss and time and people who leave too soon under unforeseen circumstances. It’s the idea that you should really try to make the most of it no matter what the situation is. See my previous comments about age; the clock ticks a little louder every tick. I just want to really try to be present and grateful. The clock does stop at some point.
Were you thinking of Grant Hart, who died last year, when you were writing any of these songs?
Of course. The three of us were definitely thinking about Grant when we were making the record. Jon was a huge fan. Jason and Grant were friends, as well. So you acknowledge the loss. You try to pay tribute to all the things that you’ve done, whether it’s me specifically with Hüsker Dü or those guys as fans. Of course you think about those things.
Were you able to make amends with him toward the end?
Yeah. [Pauses] How to answer that? We sort of worked together on that Numero Group box for the better part of four years. We weren’t working next to each other in the same room, but everybody in the band and the attorney in Minnesota that was handling everything was working together towards a common goal.
The word “amends” suggests more acrimony than I think there ever really was. It’s a funny thing. Going back to that Seventies thing — music and mythology — who am I to say, “That’s not the story? Here’s the story. I got my story.” I think people made more hullabaloo about perceived acrimony than there was actual acrimony. So, yeah. It’s the mythology.
Well, obviously the band never reunited.
Yeah, and to the best of my knowledge, there was no desire to reunite the band ever. Although … you know. [Pauses] That would have been a difficult feat. I think my stance all along was that everything has its place in time, and everything is of a moment. And what the band did in the Eighties, to try to replicate or duplicate all the circumstances or the emotions or the environment that made it what it was would be pretty tough.
And I didn’t want to go back. I can’t speak for Grant, but I never saw him wanting to go back. We never talked about going back. But that last stretch was pretty good, pretty productive and quite civil.
Will you be paying tribute to Grant on your upcoming tour?
We were playing “Never Talking to You Again” on the first shows immediately after his passing. We haven’t really talked about it specifically, but it’s definitely not out of the question. We’ll talk about it when we start rehearsing.
It sounds like you’ve had closure.
What struck you when you listened to the Savage Young Dü box set?
I heard three kids trying to figure out how to get a sound and get some attention and hopefully avoid getting real jobs. It’s a really great look at those early years before anyone was noticing. That’s the beauty of any band’s career: those years of woodshedding and living on the edge, living in the band, living in somebody’s basement when you’re not on tour and just writing songs constantly. Hüsker Dü was a band where it seemed like we were always an album ahead of ourselves. No matter how much we recorded, we were always writing and playing stuff well before we would get in the studio.
I think you lose that urgency and that naiveté once The Village Voice gives you two of the 10 best albums in the same year. You sort of lose that stuff because then everybody’s watching and all of a sudden, it’s like, “Oops.” There’s the first grain of sand that got into the gas tank.
Is there anything left in the vaults you’d like to release?
No. That cleaned everything of value out. I think there might be live shows but, truth be told, you got pretty much every song right there. All of the later stuff — any of the B sides and stuff like that — that got mined for other reissues in the intervening years. I think Rhino did an expanded version of Everything Falls Apart that included a number of things. I don’t recall anything that we did that would be unheard of at this point except for live takes.
What’s your favorite era of Hüsker Dü?
Flip Your Wig. That was the first time Grant and I had the full range of our production, and we were on a tear. Everybody was absolutely on the same page. After that record was the attention, then signing to Warner Bros., then the friction and then the end. So that was the best of times. With Zen Arcade and New Day Rising, we were just in the middle of it. It was just so furious and constant that we didn’t really get to take much of it in. We were just putting so much out. So really having the studio to ourselves to craft a record the way we want it, I think that was the creative peak of the band — or the collaborative peak, maybe.
You’ve been playing with your current band about as long as Hüsker Dü were together What has clicked with you three?
I think we all grew up on a lot of the same things. Those guys know my body of work pretty well. When I bring in songs, they’re all natural. It’s like, “Oh, I got this one.” And the fact that we make records and tour together and then go about the remainder of our separate lives is really special. It’s not loaded up with all the emotional content that a band would normally have. We’re older. It’s different. It’s really fun.
Has life gotten easier for you in recent years? It sounds like you’ve found a groove.
No, but the change to Berlin has really done me a lot of good. I’ve just been able to have an interesting life there because I just sort of float through. I don’t speak the language, so I don’t necessarily understand everything that’s happening around me, so I can just sort of enjoy it wide-eyed. I guess I left the nice weather behind for certain parts of the year, but all of these new experiences are just shaping my outlook on life. The irony is, like, who moves to Berlin to write their happy record?