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Bob Mould: My Life in 15 Songs

Indie-rock vet surveys Hüsker Dü hardcore ragers, electronica-informed solo experiments and more

Bob Mould; My Life in 15 Songs

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One of the elder statesmen of indie rock, Bob Mould is now 55, and in rehearsals with his current trio, he's learning the fine art of thrashing with dignity. "It's always pretty physical," Mould says from his current home, San Francisco, where he's lived since 2009. "But with age comes that ability to play smarter instead of harder. I can get the same effect without completely wrecking myself. And I have to. I can't conjure up the same physically when I was 20, and I'm just that not crazy mad at the world anymore."

Perhaps not, but as Mould's plugged-in new album, Patch the Sky, demonstrates, the former Hüsker Dü frontman has hardly calmed down. The album is very much of a piece with Mould's work over the last 35 or so years, a window-rattling reminder of the time when indie rock — a term that now can mean just about anything — was fierce and uncompromising.

Raised in upstate New York, Mould moved to St. Paul in the late Seventies to major in urban studies at Macalester College, a liberal arts school. There, he met drummer Grant Hart and bass player Greg Norton, and the trio (initially augmented by a keyboardist, Charlie Pine) rehearsed in Norton's basement. Eventually, they dubbed their band Hüsker Dü (Swedish for "do you remember?") after a vintage board game. Balancing raving, raging hardcore with melodic songcraft, like a hurricane with pop hooks, Hüsker Dü made some of the most indelible music of the Eighties before self-destructing in 1988 (a tale laid out in candid form in Mould's 2011 memoir, See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody).

In the decades since that band's breakup, Mould has embarked on a journey has taken him in and out of power trios (including the short-lived Sugar) and into electronic music, and he's approached it all with the same intensity and forward motion. He insists that the launch of a Hüsker Dü online merch store last fall does not augur any sort of reunion, and one of his few concessions to nostalgia was his 2012 tour commemorating the 20th anniversary of Sugar's Copper Blue. "I could have toured Copper Blue for four years, but oh, God," he says. "I don't intend on slowing down or stopping." We slowed him down just enough to extract his thoughts on 15 highlights from his music and career.

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Hüsker Dü, “Makes No Sense at All” (1985)

Flip Your Wig was my favorite record from that band. It was the best times, the best camaraderie. The songwriting was at an all-time high. No outside producer. It was named after a Beatles board game! [Laughs] People speculate it would have been much bigger if it had been on Warner Brothers [instead of SST, the band's earlier label], since it was more pop than Candy Apple Grey.

"Makes No Sense at All" sums up all the aspirations I had as a songwriter at that point in my life: "How do I continue mining this somewhat pessimistic outlook on life? How bright is the color of the ribbon that wraps this fabulous wrapping paper around this beautifully dark package? How far can I take this thing?"

It's a super simple song, and I play it every night still. It's one of those handful of songs in my catalog that has so far stood the test of time, and I never get tired of paying it. People in the crowd never get tired of singing it back to me. What a cool song. It's fucking weird to say that about my own stuff, but there are a few where I say, "Wow, I like that one!"

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Hüsker Dü, “Hardly Getting Over It” (1986)

The lyrics are very literal. It's a very clear picture of a family and mortality in its different forms — family who pass away and how one handles it when it happens. My parents didn't even mention my grandfather's passing to me for months, for whatever reason. Presumably it would upset me.

I play this song almost every night, and it's completely different now that all the characters have passed. Not too often do people have to change the tense of a song. So every night I play that song, I have to pause as the third verse goes by, because there's no longer a question of what will I do when my parents die. It's such a volatile little piece of information to me each night. It takes on all these different shapes when we play it live. Sometimes I play it dead quiet, sometimes it's insane fireworks, some nights it's a dirge.

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Hüsker Dü, “Bed of Nails” (1987)

I was clearly feeling some kind of pain somewhere to come up with an idea like an entire bed of nails as opposed to a few nails and pieces of wood — I was obviously amplifying some kind of suffering. I had quit drinking, but it would be fair to say the song was a reflection on the end times for the band. It's also definitely a harbinger of end times with my primary personal relationship at the time. I doubt I wrote it with any hopes of reconciliation! Isn't it funny how we can laugh about that now? "Oh, my God, how bleak was that?" [Musically] there's a bit of Neil Young in that song — no hiding that.

The split [in Hüsker Dü] had already happened in its own way. The only time everyone was in the room together for that album was to approve mixes for songs. Grant [Hart] and I would come and go, and [engineer] Steve [Fjelstad] was trying to paste it all together. So, no particularly bright memories. The most memorable, positive one is staging the landscape for the cover and how Grant was enjoying painting all the pillars with a flashlight and floodlights. It made for a great album cover. That's the happiest memory of that record I can recall.

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“See a Little Light” (1989)

This just fell out of the sky. Coming out of the breakup of Hüsker Dü and a year on the farm [in Pine City, north of Minneapolis], writing nonstop mostly by myself, that was one of the brighter moments of that writing process. I don't know if it was inspired by a sunny day or one of the chickens on the farm. But what an optimistic song given how isolated I was and how shocking life after Hüsker Dü was for me. I was living a singular, solitary existence. I wouldn't say my relationship at the time was hopeless, but it was pretty far out of reach that anything positive would come. So I'm seeing a little light. Not a ton! [Laughs] Just a glimpse of hope.

A positive chord structure, and the chorus is so up, so jangly and bright. I was messing around with alternate tunings. A bright moment on an otherwise fairly overcast record.

I remember making that video. Such a beautiful song and such a cheesy and expensive video. No offense to the filmmakers, but my God. It was like, "Wardrobe, what's that?" "Hair stylist? What?" "That'll be $5,000!"

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“Stop Your Crying” (1990)

Black Sheets of Rain is a very dark record, one of the darkest I've ever made. I was right on the edge of the end of my first long-term relationship. Life is not always a party, and all parties come to an end at some point. I guess the sentiment "Stop your crying" was not that I shed literal tears over the end of that relationship. I didn't sit around crying for weeks on end. It was all over, and I jumped in a car and moved to Hoboken. I didn't miss out on a whole lot of life when the relationship was over. It was about moving on. This is a strong and personal song, and a really fun song to play. I like the cadence. It's like a hilarious funeral march party, where everything is over and you're sort of laughing in a way.

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Sugar, “JC Auto” (1993)

With Sugar, I went from a three-piece to a three-piece to another three-piece. But it didn't feel like Hüsker Dü, and it didn't feel like Anton [Fier] and Tony [Maimone, his rhythm section on Workbook]. Anton and Tony were world-class players, and I felt like that's what they wanted. It cost me a lot. Sugar was back to a more economical approach to things, to get back to working with a bass player and drummer who were good with sleeping bags on the floor and touring around. Sugar showed me it was OK to call it a band, even though I was the principal writer.

I brought Dave [Barbe] and Malcolm [Travis] this stack of 30 songs, and at those sessions we did Copper Blue, and then we came up with this suite of songs that was much heavier and much more self-flagellating. A very self-destructive motif as opposed to Copper Blue, which was pessimistic with shards of brightness. Beaster was definitely darker, like in "JC Auto" — Jesus Christ autobiography. File under: "Listen to this if you like 'Bed of Nails'!" It's definitely autobiographical. It touches back on a lot of the less restrained, more self-destructive part of my life. But it's a killer riff. It kills and never lets up.

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“I Hate Alternative Rock” (1996)

This was the beginning of me feeling, "Shit, man, this thing is getting tired." In the wake of "Teen Spirit," what happened? It was pretty much subpar variations on the same theme. I will spare anybody the names, but all you have to do is take a look at modern rock in 1995 and you can guess. It was like, "Fuck!" One band got it so right that the whole world changed, and in four years, everyone flogged it to death. In '95, when I wrote this song, there were a lot of bands where I thought, "I fucking hate this band and wish they would go away." The original title was, "I Hate Fucking Alternative Rock and Wish It Would Go Away." It was a little long, so I shortened it.

The "hubcap" album was such a fun record for me because I was enjoying people like Sebadoh who were following their muse without any regard to commercial success, making records at home and incorporating any kind of loose idea on tape and sticking it into a song. Having a little bit of fun was the consolation for that record for me. I don't think the record sounds like Sebadoh or Folk Implosion or Guided By Voices, but that's what was keeping me excited about music in the otherwise bland, flat, colorless landscape of modern rock. I hate to be so damning, but I was sick and tired of it. To name my next album The Last Dog and Pony Show was telling everyone I'm walking away from this thing. So this song sets the theme for what's to come.

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“Paralyzed” (2005)

I'd had a great time in Austin [where Mould moved in the mid Nineties], but it was time to go back to New York. I went back in the late Nineties and embraced my gay life. Electronic music was the soundtrack to that new life. The first time out with [2002's] Modulate, I was a little naive, a little underwhelming. I didn't know what I was doing. But that didn't discourage me. I was just learning how to make electronic music. In 2003, when I moved to D.C., I went deeper into electronic music. I got to be a good DJ and met thousands of great folks. It was a completely different universe, and it was at times more important than my guitar gig. I understand it's not guitar, so people have a problem with it. I get it. But no instruments and DJs, 1,200 people dancing their ass off all night — that's an amazing sight, and to be the conductor of that party is pretty damn cool.

"Paralyzed" touches on the end of my second relationship, my 14-year relationship with a fellow. Body of Song was meant to be the third album in the trilogy with Modulate and the LoudBomb project. What I like about Body of Song is that not only was it back to the guitar, but I carried on my fascination with electronica and tinkering with extra colors in songs. Putting a lot of bells and whistles underneath to express my interest in progressive house.

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“Shelter Me” (2008)

One of my favorite songs I've put together. I started it on keyboard and moved to the guitar to finish it up with a lot of synthesizer. Lyrically, it's not the most personal song. It doesn't hold a lot of super meaning inside the words. But every time I hear it or think about it, it resonates a whole lot deeper than some of the other songs we've touched upon.

I was living in D.C. at the time, and I had a routine every week. Every Thursday, I would meet up with my friends and we would go out. Before I went out, that was the song I would put on — the song where you go get ready to be fabulous. It's like that scene in Hedwig, with the wig in a box. I'd put on "Shelter Me" and listen to it and say, "I want to go out and have fun with my friends. I'm trimming the beard and getting ready to go out and have a good time." It's about one of those moments in my personal life. Not enough distorted guitar? I don't know. I don't care. It gave me a "get out and have fun" thing.

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“Silver Age” (2012)

I had started my book in the fall 2008 and it came out in 2011. It was a crazy time for me. I was doing readings, and there was a crazy amount of love coming at me from all directions. A period of reflection had begun with [2009's] Life and Times. A lot of looking back. It was in the same mindset as on Workbook. There was a lot of reflection in 1988, and now it was 20 years later. I forced it a little bit in hindsight, but it wasn't a coincidence that it was 20 years.

Silver Age came together very quickly with a lot of love and energy. But it didn't stop me from being defiant in "Silver Age" or "Star Machine." Being grateful to make another record, but still being a smart-ass. "Silver Age" [in which Mould sings, "Stupid little kid wanna hate my game/I don't need a spot in your hall of fame"] is about any hall of fame, any kind of legendary-status thing. There are plenty of people in front of me in line for that. It was making fun of myself and poking a bit of fun at a process of, "Who are we to decide these things?" It's a real fuck-you song, a sort of, "Fuck all of it, whatever!" You think, life is short and I can't worry about things I can't affect, whether it's a hall of fame or any stuff like that.

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“The End of Things” (2016)

Living in San Francisco right now is like living on some indistinct precipice. It's fucking insane. California's always been a gold rush, but now it's data mining instead of gold mining. It could fall apart at any time. In the past, there have been earthquakes, and things can change very quickly when something like that happens. Relationships can start and end at any given point. There are days when my mind wanders into places where, "What happens if it does fall apart, so to speak? What if everything collapses?" And I also like the idea that people walk around and say, "Oh, it's the Internet of things." This whole new protocol — smartphones and stuff like that. And I thought, "How about the end of things?"

It's a really cool song, and it's got the space between verses so I can get off the microphone for two and a half seconds when we play live and stretch my legs a bit and jump around. And much like "Makes No Sense at All" or "Everything Falls Apart," when I'm singing, "It's the end of things, the end of everything," you can't beat that for darkness. But I can't make it much catchier than the way I sing it. It's the current epitome of the contrast I use in my work. It's the brightest chorus with the darkest title. Of course!

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