“I can just keep gathering things”: Bob Mould’s artistic renaissance

Punk’s beloved alt-rock pioneer plays the Stoughton Opera House on October 16.

Punk’s beloved alt-rock pioneer plays the Stoughton Opera House on October 16.

Photo: Bob Mould, wearing glasses and a knit cap, looks into the camera with an even expression. In the background, racks of guitars and other music gear are cast in blue light. Photo by James Richards IV/courtesy of the artist.

To many people even moderately familiar with the worlds of punk, post-hardcore, and modern rock, Bob Mould needs little introduction. His roaring vocals, explosive guitar, and anthemic, tuneful, often frothingly intense songwriting defined the deeply influential Minneapolis post-hardcore trio Hüsker Dü’s roiling sound. Alongside Hüsker Dü’s late drummer/singer/wonderfully natural songwriting foil and eventual rival Grant Hart, Mould pioneered a combination of carefully crafted, classically-minded and significantly melodic pop-rock songwriting with ablating distortion, rhythms that followed on from the assault of hardcore but significantly expanded them, and a tangible emotionality so unmistakably genuine that it could devour anyone’s sense of irony whole. Classic albums like 1984’s Zen Arcade and the brilliant follow-ups New Day Rising and Flip Your Wig (somehow both released in 1985 months apart) contained and refined this potent, immediately prophetic approach that presaged and heavily influenced the next decade’s developments of grunge and what became known as alternative rock.

After Hüsker Dü’s breakup in January 1988, Mould made a few solo albums before forming the nearly as well-loved and more overtly power pop-influenced group Sugar in 1991. The band promptly sold 300,000 copies of its deservedly popular 1992 debut Copper Blue, due at least in part to the stylistic innovations Mould had helped usher in some years before. He experimented with many different styles musically in the ensuing decades, even touching on electronic music in the early 2000’s with 2002’s Modulate and the often frankly homoerotic 2006 collaboration Blowoff with dance producer Richard Morel. (Mould has been out as gay since the early 1990s.) 

But in recent years, starting with 2012’s Silver Age, Mould has refocused on his tried-and-true power-trio format (usually featuring the indispensable drummer Jon Wurster and bassist Jason Narducy) with consistently well-received results. 2019’s determinedly optimistic Sunshine Rock and 2020’s pained, passionately and unusually political Blue Hearts (with its furiously protesting lead single “American Crisis”) both received some of the best reviews of Mould’s career, and it’s not off the mark to say Mould has been experiencing a late-period artistic renaissance. Tone Madison caught up with Mould by phone this week about Blue Hearts, touring in the age of COVID-19, the varying ways he writes songs, and more just ahead of his Saturday, October 16 solo-electric show at the Stoughton Opera House, which also happens to be his 61st birthday.

Tone Madison: I expect being on tour these days is pretty interesting.

Bob Mould:  [It’s definitely] a new way of touring. It’s been really—it’s been a real challenge, but, you know, everything’s so far so good, knock wood. The crowds have been great, the crowds have been complying with the venue’s requests to show proof of vax or negative PCR 72 hours, and people have been really wonderful about helping out and keeping the mask up and on inside the venues, which is a big, a big—a gigantic help. We finished up three weeks of band touring, and we had near 100 percent compliance every show, which I think is the main reason that the tour went as well as it did. So thank you to everybody who was helping with that.

Tone Madison: I’m kind of surprised that there wasn’t even 100 percent compliance. That’s pretty amazing, but it sounds great that it’s been that good.

Bob Mould: Yeah, when I say—usually in a crowd, let’s say if there’s 500 people, I would see 1 person. [Laughs] You know, so it’s actually like 99.8 percent? But in the interest of fairness, I’ll say near 100 percent. [Laugh]

Tone Madison: Okay, well that’s great. Blue Hearts and the previous album, Sunshine Rock, felt kind of like companion albums to me—

Bob Mould: Thank you. Yes.

Tone Madison: Or at least two different sides of the same coin. It’s a bit reductive to say this, but Sunshine Rock felt a bit like the happier side and Blue Hearts felt like the frustrated side. Was that deliberate or an accident or some of both?

Bob Mould: I think it’s just the way things evolved, but thank you for noticing. I noticed what you’re saying now about two months after Blue Hearts was finished. In the moment, I did not see it as a counterpoint to Sunshine Rock. But when I look back at the timeline, and I look back at the fact that “American Crisis” was a carryover [from Sunshine Rock] and “Forecast Of Rain” was a carryover—yeah. To me, with Sunshine Rock, it was a very deliberate attempt to write a happy record about my new life at the time in Berlin, Germany. And that record was written after two pretty heavy albums [2014’s Beauty & Ruin and 2016’s Patch The Sky] that both dealt with the personal loss of each of my parents. So, jumping up to Blue Hearts, which was clearly a politically charged, politically informed record, about being back in America and seeing how divisive things were, and unfortunately still are—I guess it is sort of the other, the flipside of it, in a way. It was not intentional, but a couple months after finishing it I recognized what you just posed, and that’s probably true.

Tone Madison: I had noticed that “American Crisis” seems to have been the genesis of Blue Hearts, and that it seemed like everything sort of flowed from that—”Next Generation,” “Forecast of Rain,” “Leather Dreams,” all sort of became—the genesis of it was sort of like, “Here’s the state of the world,” and asserting your identity. 

Bob Mould: Mm hmm. Mm hmm. Exactly.

Tone Madison: A big theme of Sunshine Rock felt like maintaining optimism, or at least being determined to enjoy things and love other people in the face of crises, and then Blue Hearts seems like it’s like, “Okay, these are the crises.” 

Bob Mould: Yes. Indeed they are. I think at that time, the clear and present dangers that were in front of us at the end of ’19, and going through all of—what ended up going through all of ’20, and continuing on through this year with politics in general, yeah. I mean, my time in Berlin was pretty free and easy for me—I was building a new life, building a new circle of friends in a foreign country, and just really enjoying all of that. And when I got back here in late 2019, it was real clear what the problems were in America, and maybe I wasn’t seeing them on a day-to-day basis, because I was over in Berlin. But, yeah. I think you were touching about identity, and you know, for me—looking at where politics were in 2019, and looking at my life as a young gay man in the early ’80s, when things were terribly difficult as well, and it just—I mean, it was so obvious… maybe the whole thing was a little too on the nose, but that’s the material I had to work with! [Laughs]

Tone Madison: Is it really possible for it to be too on the nose? The whole world has been on the nose since 2016, at least.

Bob Mould: Right. Right. Yeah, it’s been wild, you know, between Brexit, which I think was the first iteration of what we endured here for a number of years—yeah, a lot of things sort of stacked up and lined up, and who would have imagined that it could be so comparable, if not even similar? It’s pretty mind-blowing.

Tone Madison: Did living in Berlin impact the writing of Blue Hearts, in that you were able to be somewhat removed from what was happening, in just being away from it, and then just sort of observing it from afar with a bit of detachment?

Bob Mould: Yeah. Well, Berlin is a city that is very rich in history. There’s a lot to be learned from observing how other countries deal with their politics, how they deal with their history, how they deal with the future. In Berlin, it was very, very progressive, and very cognizant of things that had happened prior, and things that needed to happen for the future. And, they just had—Germany just had its national elections a couple weeks ago. You know, they have six major parties! And they have to create coalition government.

Tone Madison: They have to.

Bob Mould: They have to. Whoever wins the majority of the popular vote, and I think this time it was the SPD, which is the left-of-center party, and I think they won 28 percent? So they have to go out and find another 22.1 percent amongst the other five parties to create a government. That’s a lot different than a binary choice, which is what we have in America, the sort of winner-take-all mentality. So I mean, you know, having been there in 2017 to observe their political cycle, that seemed like a better system to me, because it forces coalition and compromise. I don’t know, I guess that was one thing I picked up from it, from my time over there? And then looking back here, where it’s just sort of a death match. [Laughs]

Tone Madison: How do you generally craft songs? Do you have certain methods you like to use, or do you take inspiration however it comes, or is it just sort of whatever works at the time?

Bob Mould: Always grateful when a new melody or a new set of words appear. I document those melodies or phrases as quickly as possible. Sometimes, for instance right now, in the middle of a tour cycle, I just gather back-of-the-napkin ideas. And one of the beauties, I guess, with the solo touring like I’ve got coming up starting on Friday is I have a lot of time by myself in the rental car each day, and I can be thinking about these melodies and these words, and sort of keeping track on everything that’s on my mind. And I can work on new ideas at soundcheck, I can work on new ideas in the car. I can just keep gathering things. Typically, it’s a matter of—for me, it’s gathering all those stray ideas. Once I’m done with a cycle, with a new album and with all the touring, I’ll come back home, wherever home is at the time, and just look through all the ideas and see what’s been on my mind and see if there’s any themes, either musically or lyrically that—they’ll show me the way to the next album. When I start writing albums, I typically write them with sort of openers, and closers, and side closers and side openers, as the anchor points for telling a continuous story, like I tried to do with Blue Hearts. Sometimes it’s really successful, sometimes I end up with a lot of hodgepodge ideas that make an album, but I always try to write to the 40-minute format of popular music, a 2-sided, 12-inch album. That’s my parameters, I guess, that I try to write inside of.

Tone Madison: It is a great formal consideration. I guess another thing is: which stylistic aspects of your guitar playing most inform your songwriting?

Bob Mould: Rhythm guitar part. I’m a terrible lead guitarist! [Laughs] And getting worse as time goes on!

Tone Madison: “I’ll Never Forget You” off of Zen Arcade has a great guitar solo!

Bob Mould: [Laughs] Oh, that was a long time ago. I appreciate the kind words, but I don’t think I could play like that if my life depended on it right now! [Laughs] I like looking at the guitar as a sort of all-in-one band, and rhythm guitar really is more suited for that—I can keep the foundations with the lower strings, and I can be really percussive with my playing on the top strings. And with the solo electric shows that’s the function of my playing, it’s more like playing an acoustic guitar, playing just sort of a rhythmic part—creating rhythm and melody and foundation all at once. I think I’m a really good rhythm guitar player and not so good a lead player, but I’ll take your praise from the ’84 album for sure.

Tone Madison: It was a big deal for me. I guess another question here is how does the experience of playing Blue Hearts live now, since it was recorded in February 2020—what is it like playing the record now after the experience of writing and recording it? Have the songs taken on different meanings, have they’ve grown in performance, do they have different elements of catharsis? 

Bob Mould: Well, with the band tour that just wrapped up, we had 15 shows, and each show, we started with 5 of the songs from Blue Hearts. And people were pretty stunned by it? Sort of like, “Wow, this is really hot, and loud, and angry.” And I can’t tell if it’s partially because those shows were the first time a lot of people went back to live music? And whether it’s just the sheer volume and aggression sort of knocked people over? [Laughs]

Tone Madison: There’s that feeling of, like, “Oh my god! I’m in a room and there’s sound hitting me!”

Bob Mould: I know! So I mean, this tour was unique—I mean, a lot of people had been away for a year and a half, myself included, so I didn’t know at what level we’d be projecting those songs. They definitely hit people pretty squarely, and I think it was great. But also, everything is different at the moment, so things like—”Why does it sound like I’m only getting half the response?” “Oh, it’s because people aren’t yelling because they have a mask on.” “Oh, maybe I don’t need to kill myself twice as hard every day.” [Laughs] But it’s all these little things that are new, which kept it really exciting and sort of amazing, like, “Oh! Okay, so that’s happening. Okay, so I can ease up a tiny bit.”

Tone Madison: Right, it’s not slaughtering yourself every time for every song.

Bob Mould: Yeah, it’s like I have to remember, “No, they’re reacting exactly as they always do. Just play normal.” [Laughs] But I think in terms of content and relevance, I see no signs of it becoming less relevant as this year continues forward. And next year will probably be, I think public health-wise, maybe more of the same, unfortunately. I don’t know. And politically, as we move toward the midterm elections in America, I don’t see any easing of the fences and the walls that have been built, and people on each side throwing stuff at each other. I don’t see that getting any less as next year goes on, either. 

Tone Madison: Right. I don’t see it easing in some ways, which is, uh, difficult. Really difficult.

Bob Mould: Yeah, considering we’re all supposed to be together and fighting this invisible enemy that has so wreaked havoc on our civilization—yeah, I’m not sure why we’re not coming together for this. But I can only do what I can do, and I can only ask other people to help out in ways that they feel are appropriate. And after that, I have sort of given up that other fight.

Tone Madison: I mean, it’s hard to reach people who don’t want to be reached.

Bob Mould: Yep. Yep.

Tone Madison: Since Blue Hearts was recorded in February 2020, how did it feel to be sitting on such an explicitly political record throughout much of 2020 as the world did what it did in 2020?

Bob Mould: I thought the record would be timely when people heard it. Little did I know on June 3, when we put out the first track, “American Crisis,” I had no idea that everything that happened around that time—whether it was the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis, to tear-gassing innocent people in DC, to just all of the tumult that was happening in the real world—and how my little tiny make-believe reflection of the world that is Blue Hearts, how it was all lining up was a little jarring, personally? I was like, “Uhhh… [Laughs] This stuff is really strange?!” [Laughs] I guess I did not think that the world would be so crazy? But there you have it. Yeah, it was a bit much. And campaigning on that, and talking about it alongside this career-retrospective box set [Mould’s Distortion box set] that was coming up, I mean, it was a lot to consider while being quarantined. Even things like how much should I be enjoying this, when the world is in such tough shape—you know, just all kinds of little things that, at the age of 60, I did not think I would ever have to consider. So yeah, it’s been an interesting time.

Tone Madison: “It’s been an interesting time for everybody,” I think, is the understatement of the year. [Laughs]

Bob Mould: [Laughs] Yeah, it is.

Tone Madison: I guess to wrap up, because I know that you probably need to get going, do you have an idea of what the next record will be like?

Bob Mould: Absolutely not. I have no idea. My normal writing and touring cycle was broken for a year, so I just now feel like, I feel in a way like Blue Hearts just came out and I’m just explaining my thesis. So, I think as I continue to explain and play these songs, and connect with audiences and get that feedback, that has a lot to do with the writing process that we talked about at the beginning as well. Just seeing if the last message was well-received, and if it made sense, and what is the logical extension of what I’m doing right now. So, nope, I got no idea. Ask me in a year and I’ll have a much better idea, but right now I’m in the middle of the battle.

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