A Coversation With Bob Mould
of Hüsker Dü
Exploring the creative process that connects performing artists with writers and readers alike.
Exploring the creative process that connects performing artists with writers and readers alike.
In December 1983, the Twin Cities Reader spawned a separate publication called Nightbeat – presumably, to give the hipsters over at City Pages a run for their market. [In an interesting historical footnote, both weeklies were actually owned by the same company for a minute in 1997, when Stern Publications bought up both papers, then promptly folded the Reader.]
This is one of the oldest pieces of my professional writing I seem to still have among my belongings – no small thanks owed to John Kass, for supplying me with a reprint from his own archives. Not my first published piece by a long-shot, but the first for which I was actually paid – by a syndicated publication, anyway. In this case, it was actually a spin-off of a defunct Mpls. weekly called The Twin Cities Reader, which was viewed by many as being the mainstream counterpart of the other local weekly, City Pages, which had been originally christened Sweet Potato upon its’ inception in 1979. Some folks may recall they actually had a contest to determine the new name for the paper, and whatever it was I suggested wasn’t picked – same for almost everyone else I talked to – so who came up with Sweet Potato?
This interview appeared in the first issue of Nightbeat, and was my first paid piece of writing. I had been hanging out with the members of Hüsker Dü for a couple of years, at my old place of employment, The Longhorn, and like a lot of folks in Mpls, had seen Macalaster pals Bob Mould, Grant Hart & Greg Norton evolve into a powerhouse band, even though it seemed few could agree just what kind of band they were. Their self-maintained label, Reflex, became a substantial cottage industry—one of the first true “independent” labels—years before they achieved success at the level of a corporate major label. The band had just returned to Mpls from a brief tour in support of their third EP Metal Circus; I called up Bob and asked him to let me conduct an interview, in order to give him a chance to talk about something other than how fast he played guitar, or what town had the coolest music scene.
The interview took place in South Mpls, at the upper-level apartment Bob was renting at the time – over Thanksgiving dinner, actually (no meat, but there was a huge salad served in a black enamel roasting pan). Bob and I ate dinner, listened to countless Hüsker Dü outtakes, and pored through the band’s fan mail together, before actually doing the interview. Twin Cities Reader Editor Martin Keller wanted me to follow up with an addendum, relating to the last days of local music venue Goofy’s Upper Deck, which had closed its’ doors after a rampage of vandalism earlier that year (loosely referred to by some as a “riot”), but when I talked to Bob about it, we both agreed that it seemed pointless to give the situation any more attention than it had already received. Nonetheless, Keller persisted. Subsequently, it would be many years before I considered writing for any syndicated publications again, as I wanted to avoid the sensationalist approach I was convinced they all catered to at the time. Having given it another attempt in the late ’90s, and into the millennium, I realize I still feel pretty much the same way even now.
Interestingly, the article was liberally quoted from in a book which appeared in 2000, called Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991, by Michael Azerrad. I learned of this by purchasing the book when it came out, and discovering my own words throughout the chapter about Hüsker Dü. Although my article had been credited to me in the back pages, it was also referred to as being an unpublished manuscript (I’m not really sure where that information came from). When I attempted to set the record straight with Azerrad’s publishers, Little Brown, a representative indicated that he got the “unpublished” document directly from Bob Mould, who of course could not substantiate that claim. Azerrad himself never returned any of my messages. Then again, some of these industry people can make themselves very difficult to reach when its’ convenient for them. It still leaves open the question as to whether or not someone might owe me royalties for my published work, but when trying to negotiate with corporate types, I’ve learned not to hold my breath.
Light at the End of the Hard-core Tunnel
Hüsker Dü – guitarist Bob Mould, bassist Greg Norton and drummer Grant Hart – has won national recognition as one of the most explosive, talented bands on the hardcore circuit. The group’s two singles (“Statues” and “In a Free Land”) and three albums (Landspeed Record, Everything Falls Apart and the just- released Metal Circus) have won them fans in and out of the h-c cult.
As spokesman for the trio, Bob Mould discusses the changing hardcore scene, the band’s image, its self-started label Reflex, and anarchy and society, He has, as this interview indicates, read the writing on the wall.
Q Do you feel that you are making any transition in the subject matter of your lyrics?
A Yeah, we had gone through a bunch of phases where we were writing satire, political stuff. Now it’s just real personal, messages about the way life is for us and things that I see around me. Hopefully, people can relate to it. I’m sure a lot of people do. One thing we try to make clear in our lyrics is there’s no right and no wrong as to what should be done. We just make statements. People can decide for themselves what they think is best. We don’t pretend to have the answers ’cause nobody really knows what the questions are.
Q Do you feel that humor or satire makes it easier to relate messages to an audience?
A Well, I don’t know. I could make some examples. The Dead Kennedys use a lot of satire to make a political statement; then on the other hand a band like M.D.C. is so dead serious that I find it real …soap-box. It’s like they’re on this plane where they have all this knowledge, and they feel they have to be dead serious and lay all this knowledge on people, where the Kennedys just sort of imply it and people can figure it out for themselves. There’s a place for politics in music, but I don’t think there’s a place for preaching politics in music.
Q Do you think your audience is even aware of what you are saying?
A Live, I don’t really think so. It’s hard to tell what people are thinking when you play live because you can’t ask them, “Are you understanding the words?” People can really think whatever they want about us, that’s not our purpose, to make them think we’re something. We’re whatever we are to them.
I don’t exactly like the idea of being thought of as another hard-core punk band. It’s this frame of reference where someone who’s into rock ‘n’ roll will say we’re punk; somebody who’s into punk will say we’re hard-core; somebody who’s into neither of them will say that we’re noise. It just sort of breaks down to where people actually stand in their own lives.
Q Do you feel that might actually hold you back from a lot of your audience, if they only view you in terms of one fixed genre?
A No, it might limit our audience in some ways. It may tend to shy off some people that would have us play, like more mainstream clubs, going, “Oh, well, they’re hard-core punk, I read that in the St. Paul Dispatch” or something. I think people in the know, critics or whatnot, seem to sense that there’s something more to it than that. A lot of the letters that we get, people say they like us because it’s more than just “stop the war machine.” All that stuff’s fine, but that’s not all there is to life.
Q Considering the way that people have interpreted hard-core as a scene in terms of dress, behavior, and attitudes, then comparing that to the roots of earlier punk movements, do you feel that audiences now might be unable to grasp or appreciate your intentions?
A To start at the top of it, I don’t know how people define hard-core and when it started. To me, what is generally known as hard-core now probably started with the Germs’ first album, and the first Black Flag single. I’m getting the impression that the whole movement is becoming quickly co-opted as a new fad. I see a lot of the bands who are really big in hard-core moving away from it, not so much in terms of idea, but more of the look, and the “it has to be fast, you have to look hard,” that sort of thing, is really going out, because you can’t tell people who are into it from people who are coming in from Edina [upscale Minneapolis suburb] with chains on their boots.
Q Do you feel that there is any significance left in this as a social or cultural movement?
A Sure there is, but maybe a change of the uniform is necessary, or a change in certain attitudes. People have gotta realize that long-hairs and hippies are not the same thing.
Q I once read a letter in the A.M. Fuse [a Denver fanzine] by someone who felt that hippies and punks shared similar politics but spent too much time snubbing each other because of differences in appearance.
A Yeah, see, that’s the uniform bag. There’s certain parts of those movements that I don’t like. I have a hard time understanding protests, in the sense of pickets and things like that. I find that really takes it out of a personal level and just sort of throws it in the air. If something really means a lot to you, if you’re really anti-something, there’s other ways besides going around carrying a sign that someone else painted, walking around this building. If you can convince immediate people that something is wrong, I think that’s a lot more important than trying to change the whole world at once, because nobody’s ever done that.
Q A lot of the talk about anarchy these days doesn’t really deal with tearing down systems; rather, it seems to be more along the lines of, “Let’s replace the old system with this new alternative system.”
A There’s no alternative, though. What are the anarchy punks talking about? They wanna go out and smash everything up, you know, smash the state. That’s a good one. That’s one I’ve been hearing and reading a lot on the walls. I don’t see people practicing anarchy anywhere around this town, or anywhere I’ve ever been in this hard-core thing. Everybody seems to be real protective of their mattress, and their stereo, and their records.
Q How does it make you feel when you’re on a stage singing about things you believe in, and people on the dance floor are slamming into each other, sometimes to the point of violence?
A It’s nice for us to see people diving off the stage and thrashing around, but when I look out and I see somebody intentionally throwing punches at somebody else, there’s the line between a good substitute for organized sports and out-and-out violence. To me, the people slamming around and diving and stuff, that’s no more dangerous than touch football. It’s pretty healthy fun, if people are in their right minds – not drunk out of their brains.
Q Does that sort of thing taking place at your shows prevent you from getting back into clubs?
A Yeah. Incidents like in Seattle. The place got trashed when we played, and by the end of our set it was pretty evident that some people were gonna get in a lot of trouble. I can’t think of any other incidents. Fights, I guess that’s a given at bars. That’s why they have bouncers, ’cause they expect there’s gonna be fights.
Q How do you suppose it came to that from dancing to slamming and fighting?
A There are two reasons. One, I think the music is a lot more aggressive now than it was maybe two years ago, and the second reason is I think a lot of these newer punks are believing everything they read. You know, in Rolling Stone they see Dirt from Fear with a drainage cup taped to his head; it doesn’t scare ’em, it just gets ’em more intrigued by the idea of doing it.
Q You once said that you felt you might be to blame for that sort of thing because your music was to some extent violent. Perhaps there should be more of a distinction between violence and aggression?
A Yeah, it’s a hard line. First off, it is not our fault, because we’re not doing it. But in a philosophical sense, it is our fault to some degree because if we weren’t there then it wouldn’t happen.
Q Having seen you play live, it occurs to me that what you actually do display is along the lines of militant aggression.
A Well, staunch aggression, I would think. We’re definitely as aggressive as possible. The funny thing is, when someone is being aggressive, what has the other party become? Defensive? They can either become aggressive as well or they can become defensive. And when people become defensive, they become scared, and when people become scared they start doing what other people are doing.
It’s real emotional music, I think, and I think people can get the idea by watching us that it’s not some kind of hoax and it’s not a pose. We’re not really concerned with how we look, that we have the right stance or the right image. We do whatever happens. I try to shut off my rational mind when I’m playing. I just try to go into a different state, where whatever emotion it is at any second, I can let it out. Except for bashing somebody. I don’t feel a need for that.
Q Let’s talk about Reflex. What, basically, is the function of Reflex, pertaining to yourselves or other groups that you work with?
A I could just run a quick history on it. When we did the “Statues” single – which was basically an aborted Twin/Tone project – we said, “Let’s get it out.” We did it ourselves. During the next year we wanted to get Reflex active again, because at that point we were on New Alliance, and we said, “Okay, we’re taken care of, now let’s start helping out the bands that we like.” We did the Barefoot and Pregnant tape, which was real cheap to do. We didn’t make anything off it. It was just an effort and it got a lot of national attention in fanzines. There have been a lot of reviews. We still get a lot of letters for it.
Kitten was a money-raiser more or less, just to get a little more money into Reflex. All the bands, had agreed to play for nothing, provided they could pick the songs they wanted on the tape. The money we got from that more or less just kept things flowing. We have a loan for
“Statues.” and we used a little bit of that for it. The balance of it went into the Rifle Sport and Man Sized Action projects. Right at that point was when we started keeping real tight books, got a business account and licensed as a business.
So now, we run it as a co-op where the bands put in money, we put in our money, the bands pay for their recordings, we press the records. Then we try to get their money and our money back; whatever’s left we split 50/50, or they have the option of leaving it in. Some of the bands really need that kind of help, and we do it with people that we really support. It’s not an open-door policy, which is the only thing I don’t like about it.
If we could do every band that we wanted, that would be fine. That’s another point of criticism we’ve come under – that Man Sized are kissing Husker’s ass, and all this stuff I’m sure that’s been floating around. We’ve made this much [holds fingers to form a zero] off Everything Falls Apart. Our net profit on that – around $8,000 – all went back into Reflex. We haven’t taken any of the money. People are accusing us of using other bands to get our name around; that’s not it at all.
Q Do you have any specific criteria used in picking the bands you work with?
A It’s just stuff that we throw around. We sit and listen to tapes that we get; we go out and see bands. If there’s a band that we really, really like, we keep them in mind.
The other sort of criteria that we have is that they will play out of town; they will do footwork, they will get their promo together, they’ll get on the phone and talk to people about their band, they’ll write letters to people and tell them about the band, because we can’t do all of that. It’s not like, “Well, here’s the tape, where’s our $10,000?” It’s not like that.
Q Can you talk about any future projects coming out of Reflex?
A We’ve got a lot of things on the back burner right now. A Minutemen single is supposed to be happening sometime within the next four months. Rights of the Accused, a group from Chicago, is going back in to do some more recording and we may do the record, because it’s a really great band, a real young hard-core band with a great sense of humor, really bright, Then two local things: Otto’s Chemical Lounge, we’re gonna get them into the studio, I hope, and Final Conflict, who just went in. I was real surprised at how good their stuff was. I’m the only one that’s heard it, so when everybody else hears it, and goes to see ’em live, then we can make a decision on that.
I don’t know how much more we’re gonna do on Reflex. We’ve got plans tentatively for a double album after this one for sometime in ’84. We’ve gotten incredibly backlogged with new material, so by the time we go to do recording this winter we’ll probably have about 40 or 50 songs to take in.
Q What about Metal Circus?
A Out of the sessions we did – that was last December or January we recorded 12 songs and were going to put out a 30- odd-minute record: We decided to cut it back to seven songs – it runs about 20 minutes – for a couple of reasons. One was a few of the songs we were really undecided on – they weren’t completely realized. Also, I think the seven that are on there are a lot stronger.
As with all our records, everything was first take. We did do a lot of overdubbing this time; there’s real heavy layers of guitars in the whole thing. We just wanted to make it a louder record than Everything Falls Apart. We thought that LP was good, but it wasn’t loud enough. There wasn’t enough going on, so we spent more time on over-dubbing this time, and worked a little bit harder on the vocals. I’m pretty happy with it.
Q Can you talk about the next album at all? What sort of things you might be getting into?
A People can watch for a little more orchestration as far as other instruments; I would venture to guess that there’ll be keyboards, acoustic guitars, and there might be horns on it. There will probably be mandolin. We’re still gonna play all the stuff ourselves; we’re not gonna have session people come in and do it, we can all play quite a few instruments. I would just say people can watch for something bigger.
We’re also negotiating with some people as far as visual stuff, video, not so much in the MTV sense, but something live, like maybe a 30- to 60-minute tape that will not so much revolve around us as what we see, and how it fits in with the new record that’ll be coming out in ’84. We’re gonna try to sell the whole package to some various people – not major labels – but some people who are interested in other things, possibly public television, possibly access television, something on a bigger scale.
Q Final comments?
A Hmmm …Acid is groovy, kill the pigs – no …people should – again, as always – think for themselves, and maybe even start thinking about themselves.
© J.Free / Nightbeat Magazine; 1983; 2022
Here are some interviews I’ve managed to salvage so far …
American Music Club Daniel Ash Babes In Toyland Amiri Baraka The Beta Band Bikini Kill Frank Black Concrete Blonde Cordelia’s Dad Mike Doughty Edison Shine Fugazi God Bullies Guided By Voices Hole Home Husker Du The Jesus Lizard Killdozer King Missile Mecca Normal Bob Mould The Nation Of Ulysses Nice Strong Arm Pegboy Pseudonymphs Sci-Fi Western Sebadoh Skinny Puppy Skinny’s 21 Technique Niquee The Wedding Present