Interview with Bob Mould
The New Puritan ReView;
In the summer of 1980, the Mpls. group Hüsker Dü had just released their first single, "Statues". That 7" remains one of the most powerful anti-"scene" statements ever to be recorded by an indie band whose very survival hinged upon the same mentality they so vehemently attacked. Whether or not the band followed the arbitrary instructions relayed from one of Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies cards would be a matter of varied opinion over the next eight years, as Hüsker Dü would go on to forge their own path to independent success, from their self managed Reflex label, and finally as a major label "alternative/college" crossover shortly before the band's awkward breakup in 1988.
It was during the "Statues" sessions that one of the band members randomly selected the Strategies card instructing them to "minimalize" - the extended outcome of which would not be realized until eleven years later, when founding member Bob Mould would embark on a solo acoustic tour, following two modestly acclaimed solo LPs and a year-long hiatus from the very scene his energy once helped to spark. Drawing mainly from those two albums, Workbook and Black Sheets of Rain, as well as a number of old Hüsker Dü favorites, Bob played two capacity-filled rooms at Mpls.' 7th St. Entry in March 1990, where it was quite clear that his local following is as strong and dedicated as ever.
You've certainly run the musical gamut over the last decade. Are you searching for your roots at this point or sifting through your own creative process?
I did the electric tour this past fall, and that all went real good, but to be honest, when you take out a band and a crew and all that, it gets pretty stressful. There's a lot of people involved, and if certain people aren't in the right mood it gets contagious. After a while that trip ceased to be much fun for me. I just wasn't really enjoying playing that way. I didn't think I was going to be doing this trip, I just sort of woke up one morning and said, "why am I not out playing for people?". I don't feel satisfied that I've played enough to start writing again. I just called up a booking agent and said, "why don't you see if there's any interest out there for acoustic dates?". I think I sort of underestimated it, because I've been on the road for five weeks now, and I have another four or five weeks yet coming up. Just 'cause I wanted to play, no other real reason than just wanting to play a little bit.
Where do you think the appeal lies in acoustic performance? You've had the opportunity to play that way even before going solo.
Very, very briefly, though. I think I did one in-store thing here in Minneapolis; with Hüsker Dü I think we did four songs [acoustically], twice, ever. When I started touring with the Bob Mould band I would do a few at the end of every show. at most shows. It's just a very economical way to tour. I think you're gonna start seeing a lot of people doing it in the future. Ideally - to me - it would be switching back and forth whenever it's appropriate. If it seems appropriate to put a band together and tour when an album comes out or something, do that. If not, just keep touring acoustic. Honestly, people I've talked to on this trip seem to like this better, because I think they get to hear the songs.
Do you feel that your audience has accepted the change of direction, or is there still a tendency to wax nostalgic?
I think people like to hear the old things, but they'd much rather hear the new stuff. Industry-wise or perception-wise, that's something I'm always gonna be... not plagued with but, you know - it's always there. Lou Reed was still in The Velvet Underground—whether he wanted to be or not—fifteen years later. I'm not trying to live off of it, let's put it that way.
When the band tours, I think I made a real strong point from the get-go not to be doing those songs with any other band. Doing them acoustic is fine—it's my song, ultimately—but I think asking other musicians to play them is sort of pointless. I think people have been pretty good about it. There's always a small fraction of the audience that wants to stay in the past. For them, that's good but that's not where I'm at. A couple of those songs stand the test of time real well.
In your dealings with the record companies, has it been difficult to leave the past behind?
From the get-go, it was a conscious effort - by myself in telling the record company, "look, whatever you do, don't try to sell this as... "
"...former member of..."
Yeah, because record companies love to do that kind of thing. It made it harder for everybody, but in the long run it was a lot better. How do you personally feel the new material holds up to any standards you may have established with your previous band?
Both of these records are done better than Hüsker Dü records. Sales, production... they've been more fun for me to make. Commercially, they've done better. All the way around, I think they've been better. It's not just like the old stuff, it's a step forward. I look at the audience now, and about half of it's people that were there before, but at least half is new people. I can tell, because when I play old stuff on the acoustic tours only a certain amount of people recognize it. It's sort of weird, it's really nice.
There seems to be a revolving door policy with the backing musicians you've employed. Is there an actual Bob Mould band, or is it just a matter of working with the right people for each project?
People get ideas, you know. People want me to be a tyrant, so they paint me as one. I'll be whatever you want me to be. If I come to Minneapolis and people want me to be a tyrant, I will be. If I go to Des Moines, and people think that I'm something else, I can be that too. Why try to argue, because then it just looks like an effort to cover something up. I didn't do it in 1988 when I left Hüsker Dü, and I don't do it now. Whatever you want to think - ultimately, if you don't like the music, then none of it matters. If you like the music, then maybe it's interesting. If you really like the music, then it doesn't matter either. People who are marginally interested might find that intriguing, what my agenda is as far as people I work with.
Between the demise of Hüsker Dü and the release of Workbook, you remained for the most part out of sight. What was that like, being removed from the public eye for the first time in nine years, and learning how to re-approach the whole music scene?
The main thing to me that influenced the whole record was just staying out of the way, staying out of sight. Because at that point, I didn't have people asking me, "what are you gonna do?", and having people call and wanting to play and get together and jam with people. I didn't want to do that. I wanted to work by myself for myself; very selfishly, just working on ideas that I had in the back of my head for years. Arranging sounds, whether it was for the cello, or maybe working with different instruments; just sort of not trying to establish an identity before there was some substance - before there was elements involved. Sort of working in a real naive way, sort of like, "okay, I'm gonna write songs and I'm gonna pretend that I'm writing them for other people; pretend that I'm writing them for myself"... do these things, you know, and just see what came out. That's the beauty of the record - I'll be hard pressed to ever recreate a situation like that. Just because that was the end of nine years of working with the same people. You get rid of all those rules, and you just have to start fresh. There's no boundaries, and you want no conception of what it should be. If people expected a Bob Mould record to sound like Hüsker Dü, that would be a far presumption. The difference between being a third of something and all of it is a lot.
Workbook really dealt with a lot of things from the past; not neccesarily about the break-up, but things before that, my childhood, and whatever. That record was real therapeutic for me just to find out who I was and try to figure out what my priorities were. There was themes on that record, sort of a divorce theme. Not so much divorce in a technical sense, but divorcing from anything - familar surroundings, divorcing yourself from time and space. Those kind of themes I stick with because I find them interesting. I think it's something everybody feels, and something I certainly feel a lot of the time. Ideally, in my world, each record is a continuation of the last one; adding new characters, adding new elements. Just sort of absorbing different surroundings and trying to bring that into what you're doing. The move to the farm was great, and when that had run its' course I moved out to New York; I've lived in three different places out there. I can't seem to get settled, no matter what I do.
Is it difficult for you to constantly adapt in so many different situations?
Just the physical act of moving - you have to throw away so many things that might have meant something to you once, but you have to make room to accumulate other things. It's sort of a weird recycling process.
Your material has suggested that you would like to move beyond the realm of standard rock instrumentation. What influences the decisions you make concerning what is played, or by whom?
Really, just the mood I'm in. Workbook was generally somber, and cello was an instrument that always was attractive to me, just because it creates a little dark mood usually, at least that's how I hear it. I just set the framework of the song up, and as I'm fleshing it out with all of the different instruments that I play or have around, it sort of takes its' own shape. When I'm doing demos or something at home I'll pick up a feel and try to complement the words, and I guess when it comes to the band thing I just look at, "well, what am I trying to get across?" With Chris, it was like, "well, it seems like it would be good to run through this with a cello". Then I realized after that tour, "well, that's not really doing it for me". I wanted another guitar player, because I wanted it to be real physical. So then I got Jim, and then it got really noisy and real electric, and he was doing some of the cello stuff but on really heavy guitar. So I took it in that direction, just a lot more forceful and a little less refined. I think for that being as long a tour as it was - about four months - it made sense to hang with that feeling.
This year I went right in the studio and made Black Sheets... on the heels of all that, and that record was really aggressive and reflected that. Tony and Anton and I went out last summer and did about a month's worth of dates in July as a three-piece, just to see if that would fly. I thought, "well, we made the record but I want to see what happens". It's not as lush, it doesn't need as much detail. Black Sheets... was a lot more immediate of a record, a lot more up front - not quite as introspective or whatever. It was real bitter, but it was real outgoing. Not very forgiving. Workbook was a very forgiving.record. Black Sheets... was a real low tolerance for everything.
Now that you're touring without a band, have you given any thought to recording a purely acoustic album?
It could be fun if the song called for it. I just think that when you're making a record you have so many opportunities to enhance what you're doing. What I think would be great is a live acoustic record. I think that would be the best way to deal with that; just to record a really good show - or series of shows - and put together a record from that. That would be the purest sense of it. When you get in the studio and do it, it doesn't have the energy that you're working off the audience.
It depends - every day I have a different idea of what I'm gonna do next. Every single day when I'm driving on this trip, I'm just sitting in the car listening to talk radio, thinking about what I'm gonna do next, and every day it's something different. It's like, "now I'm gonna make a record at home by myself... now I'm gonna go into the studio with different people... now I'm gonna not make a record... now I'm gonna do this and that". Hopefully one idea will stick with me for a certain amount of time.
What will finally force you into making a decision?
The day I wake up the most restless, whichever idea it was that's the last one is usually what it is. I really don't have any kind of plan, ever.
Are you curently working on a new project?
I did a lot of writing this winter - got about seven or eight things I like. I want to spend a lot of time making this new tour; spend a lot of time writing and trying to come up with some new things, some different approaches...and that takes time. This tour had been really good because I'm learning a lot about dynamics. When you're up there by yourself and you have to carry a show like that, it's hard, and you have to learn a lot from that.
Are there any ways in which you would like to approach your writing that you haven't done yet?
I'd love to do stuff with a full orchestra. I'd love to be able to do rap stuff - I just can't sympathize with some of the stuff. There are so many things that I'd love to try, and I've tried a lot of 'em at home - scoring stuff out that big, or working with guys that do a lot of sampling and stuff like that. You know, I've been able to do all those things; either in the past or now in New York, just working with different people.
Could you actually see yourself working with a synthesizer? Most musicians who are primarily guitarists tend to be so critical of that technology.
I don't have a problem with it - I have a problem with people who can't play their instruments. I just have that fundamental problem with people calling themselves "musicians" when in fact they're entertainers. The fact that Milli Vanilli lip-synchs doesn't bother me as much as them saying they're musicians. It's like, "No, you're not a musician, you're a stage performer - there's a difference. What you're doing is like a Broadway musical - not like what I do, which is playing music." I don't have a problem with any of it existing, what people call themselves is what bothers me. I consider myself a musician. I'm also a performer, but I'm a musician first. Those people are performers - only. Everybody has a right to do whatever they want - just don't try to call it something it's not, that's all I ask from people.
Looking back over your past accomplishments, how do you perceive the direction you've moved in, and the response from your fans and critics?
It's been a fun road - it's real interesting. Since the break of the band, it's very weird - all the people that have been really involved in it. I've never been cut any slack for any reason - which I like. People don't feel bad about this or that. It's sort of like, "Bob, you better be really fuckin' good", and that's sort of good. I don't want people to feel anything for me except that it should be all that it should be, that it should be better than the time before. No matter what it is, whether it's records or tours or anything. I never wanted any slack and I don't ever want any. I should never have to apologize for anything I've ever done
Sometimes I have to straighten people out when they think certain things. It's sort of like, "well, that's your thoughts. I certainly wouldn't agree, but you're entitled to that opinion." Misinformation, when I read articles sometimes - that's always a little confusing. That's the beauty of music - it's open to interpretation. Sometimes that's why I don't talk much about what the songs mean. I get frustrated talking about what they mean, because what it means to me has nothing to do with what it means to the listener. Hopefully it conveys an emotional state of mind. It just reflects things. Music, like art, reflects life; and hopefully shapes it in some way, and that's all it should be. I just found as I get older, the work becomes more pure. I have very little time for explanation. Let the music do the talking. Whatever you think is what it is.
© J. Free / New Puritan ReView; 1990; 2007
Photographs of Bob Mould from the 7th St. Entry in Minneapolis, MN; March 1990 © J. Free 1990; 2014