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Bob Mould

The DJ Plays Guitar

Music Features Bob Mould
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Bob Mould

It was the beginning of 2004, and Bob Mould hadn’t played much electric guitar in five years. The man who pretty much defined the thickened, melodic guitar attack later marketed as grunge and taken to the top of the charts by Nirvana, had grown so weary of the instrument that he hardly ever picked it up. The frontman who had led two legendary rock power trios, Hüsker Dü and Sugar, had plunged himself into the world of dance music, taking a regular gig as a club DJ, recording a dance album with collaborator Rich Morel and crafting dance remixes of favorite indie-rock songs.

But he found himself growing tired of sitting for hours in front of a computer monitor and clicking and dragging sound samples. He looked around his apartment in Washington’s U Street Corridor and spotted a long-lost partner. The reunion led to Body of Song, the best solo album Mould has ever made.

“I saw the guitar sitting in the corner of the room and I picked it up again,” he remembers. “It was like reconnecting with an old friend; you find you have a lot more in common than you thought you did. A guitar is like a bike; you don’t forget how to play. It took a little time to get the muscles back in shape, but after that it was like I’d never left. After all, I’d spent most of my life with it.”

Nonetheless, something was different. The years Mould had spent in the dance-music world had forever altered his approach to writing and arranging. Where once he’d thought of making music as a linear process—you begin the song and you keep playing till you reach the end—he now thought of it as a series of building blocks that could be swapped or shifted around at will. It was the difference between recording to tape and recording digital.

And where he’d once thought of tempo as something that ebbed and flowed at the whim of the musicians, he now thought of it as the unchanging architecture that everything else in the song reacted to. The steadiness of the groove gave his songs an unprecedented sexiness and provided the geometric structure that allowed him to add textures to four bars here and four bars there, and to shift those bars around if he liked. Now, however, he found that many of his favorite textures came from his old guitar, the wild card that lent an emotional unpredictability to the proceedings.

“I rediscovered the directness of the guitar,” he explains, “how easily it translates feeling into sound. I love melody, but my sense of melody is different from most people’s, because I don’t consider myself a good singer. So I tend to put less melody in the vocal and more in the guitar. I’ll find a couple notes I can sing very well, and then I’ll surround those notes with all those interweaving guitars and modal changes to compensate for my inadequate voice. The sound gets so overdriven that you’re hearing a wash of harmonies—big pieces of glass flying at you—with the melody buried inside.”

Mould sits at the polished table of an upscale café/bar near his home, nursing a coffee. With his yellow polo shirt, blue jeans and neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard, he’s friendly in a polite, reserved way, willing to answer any question but reticent to volunteer too much. He seems years removed from the enfant terrible who barnstormed through the nation’s punk clubs in the ’80s, but the moon-like face betrays brief flashes of the exasperation and vulnerability that have always informed his songwriting.

“I have the best of both worlds now,” he continues, “because I can draw from both rock and dance music. On a song like ‘Always Tomorrow,’ for example, I started with a stock rhythm loop and laid new beats over it. Once I had the new beats, I got rid of the original loop and added keyboard bass. Then I just sat in my apartment jamming on the guitar to the rhythm track. I recorded track after track of guitar until I had four or five that I really liked and I threw out the rest. Because I was recording to a click track, I could move those guitar textures around on the computer grid so the sounds appear, disappear and reappear. Then I replaced all the mechanical parts with a drummer who has a personal feel.”

That may sound clinical, but the results on the new album are anything but. On “Always Tomorrow,” Mould cries out, “Doesn’t matter how hard I try.” His romantic overtures have been rebuffed. His exasperation is captured in a dirty, descending guitar figure, but his stoic acceptance is reflected in the swirling synths and sustaining guitar motifs. The vocal is caught between these two impulses; you can hear not only the undiminished desire but also the melancholy realization that the hoped-for relationship won’t happen any time soon.

Whatever the technical limitations of Mould’s voice, it’s always been a terrific emotional conduit. Even in the early days of Hüsker Dü, when Mould was howling in a maelstrom of fast-loud-hard punk rock, there was a yearning quality to his vocals, an ache of never quite getting what he wanted. This ache seemed incongruous in the aggro world of punk, and it seems incongruous today in the glazed coolness of dance music. But that melodic ache—and the way it collides with bristling guitars or thumping beats—makes Mould one of the most interesting pop musicians of his generation. And the ache is more obvious than ever on Body of Song.

Many of the tracks are about relationships that have just ended, are in danger of ending or can’t get started. Sometimes the frustration is released in a galloping rock ’n’ roll guitar riff, such as on the catchy “Paralyzed.” “You wouldn’t let me near you,” Mould sings; his disappointment tangled in the fuzzy power chords, and his lingering affection released in the clean, piping lead-guitar lines. Just as catchy, just as ambivalent, are rockers like “Best Thing,” “Underneath Days,” “Missing You” and “Beating Heart the Prize.”

But the album also contains two songs best described as hymns. On “(Shine Your) Light Love Hope,” Mould warbles four prayer-like lines over and over through a watery electric vocal filter and above a psychedelic-rock track. On “I Am Vision, I Am Sound,” he uses both treated and untreated vocals to chant “I melted when I met you” over a vaguely Indian melody and noisy rock ’n’ roll. These songs suggest what acid-house remixes of The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” or Hüsker Dü’s “New Day Rising” might sound like.

“Those songs are mantras,” Mould declares. “Those are the hardest to write, but they’re so great when they come along once or twice a year. Sometimes I feel like a messenger, sitting around waiting for those songs to arrive. Of course, there’s a lot of preparation—all the rehearsing, all the bad songs you have to write—and then all of a sudden there’s the song in 15 minutes, and you go, ‘Oh, that’s what those 10 bad ones were about.’”

From his first solo album, 1989’s Workbook, to his semi-regular solo concerts with an acoustic 12-string guitar, Mould has long tried to create quieter songs in the country-folk vein, that get over on words and melody rather than power. But it’s only with the three Americana tracks on Body of Song that he’s finally mastered the form. “Days of Rain” is built around a twangy, mid-tempo guitar figure, a keening melody, a cello interlude and a frank confession that the jilted singer feels fragile now, even as he hopes for reconciliation. “High Fidelity” uses a pretty, roots-rock guitar arpeggio to ask the broken-hearted question, “Who could live with me in high fidelity?”

“That’s my wedding song,” chuckles Mould, newly single again after a long-term relationship. “It even has bells and organ at the end. I think it’s a primal instinct to want to settle down with one person. A good marriage is like a good band: it’s greater than the sum of its parts. I don’t see how people can use religion as a weapon against other people, to try to deny them the basic right to marry.”

“Gauze of Friendship” begins with just Mould’s voice and acoustic guitar; even when the bass and drums join in, the song still resembles a singer/songwriter number. “I had all these images of people falling in love—tattoos, birds, anchors and spider webs,” Mould explains. “I put them together and there was my Jimmy Webb song for this record. I don’t mean that flippantly at all. He’s been a big influence on me, especially around the Workbook period; I think ‘Wichita Lineman’ is one of the greatest songs ever written. How can people deny his genius? I’ve always tended to go for songs that rock but also for songs that you can whistle when you walk down the street.”

If Webb seems an unlikely source for the Hüsker Dü founder, it’s helpful to remember Mould spent his childhood in New York State’s Adirondack Mountains, near the Canadian border, listening to the Top 40 singles of the mid- and late-’60s; he was especially fond of tune-whistling numbers by The Beatles, Byrds, Kinks, Dave Clark Five and Motown. Musically precocious, Mould was playing along to those 45s on the organ by the time he was six and was writing his own songs by age eight. By the time he turned 15 in 1976, he was a good student but a confused gay teenager and social outcast.

“I was suffering through Foghat and Genesis like everyone else when I first heard The Ramones,” he recalls. “I said, ‘This is it,’ and I dove headfirst into punk rock. But the bands I gravitated towards were those that could write pop songs—The Ramones, Buzzcocks, Dickies and so on. Everyone forgets how melodic The Ramones were. They got me writing, and my first 100 songs sounded like that.”

Mould got a scholarship to Macalester College in St. Paul and spent much of his free time at Cheapo’s, a used-record store near campus. He’d listen to the latest punk records and hang out with Grant Hart, a clerk there. Mould claimed to play guitar; Hart claimed to play drums. Each told the other, “Yeah, right.” Finally, one day, they got together with Greg Norton, a bass-playing clerk at another record store, to see what might happen.

What happened was a new rock ’n’ roll guitar sound. Refining the example of bands like Wire, Crazy Horse, Mission of Burma and The Byrds, Mould found a way to bury melodic figures inside droning modal harmonies. Hart and Norton forced the guitarist to play a lead/rhythm mix at tempos far faster than any of his role models ever had. The result was a sonic signature that dominated American alt-rock for nearly 20 years and was eventually marketed as grunge.

In the early days of punk, The Sex Pistols, The Ramones, The Clash and X used the genre’s staccato chording as an echo of the vocals, an amplification of the anger and swagger in the lyrics. Mould’s genius was to turn this formula inside out. By curdling the guitar sound until it was more oppressive than buoyant, he made the guitars represent the stifling reality he was complaining about in his lyrics.

In other words, the guitars became the antagonist rather than the ally of the voice and thus allowed a richer drama to be acted out within the song. And because Mould had a knack for pop hooks, the conflict between his tuneful voice and those grinding guitars was dramatic indeed. And that led to his other innovation, breaking down rock lyrics into sentence fragments as short and choppy as the musical phrases. These shards of language not only reflected how his peers talked but also allowed Mould to imply far more than he actually said.

The trio called itself Hüsker Dü and soon hit the DIY punk-rock circuit, where they befriended like-minded West Coast bands The Minutemen and Black Flag. Hüsker Dü formed its own label, Reflex Records, and released a single in 1981, soon followed by an album on The Minutemen’s New Alliance label. Land Speed Record lived up to its title by roaring through 17 original songs in 26 minutes. Hüsker Dü released 1982’s Everything Falls Apart on Reflex and 1983’s Metal Circus on SST, the label started by Black Flag’s Greg Ginn.

Meanwhile, Minneapolis was turning into one of the most fertile music scenes in the history of American pop. Working there at the peak of their powers during the mid ’80s were Hüsker Dü, The Replacements, Soul Asylum, Prince, The Time, and Alexander O’Neal. They all played the two rooms in the First Avenue nightclub complex, and Flight Tyme, Twin Tone Records and Hüsker Dü all had studios in a converted vaudeville theater.

“The parallel I always bring up,” Mould suggests, “is Detroit in the ’60s when Motown was there at the same time as the MC5 and The Stooges. Like Detroit, Minneapolis had the luxury of both a white scene and a black scene. Hüsker Dü would be playing the small room at First Avenue, and Prince would be filming Purple Rain in the main room. You were hanging out at the water cooler; you were sharing the same receptionist; you took it for granted. It was only later, when I became a fan of dance music in ’99, that I realized how great that music by Prince and The Time had been.

“There was healthy competition within each community, a healthy competition between communities and also a respect for one another. The Replacements would write a song about Hüsker Dü like ‘Somethin’ To Du,’ and I would write one back at them, like ‘First of the Last Calls.’ When The Minutemen heard we were doing a double album, they went to Ginn and said, ‘We’re doing a double album, too.’ We were always pushing each other to see who could put on a better show, who could make a better record.

“Those were good times; there was a real sense of community, because we had a common enemy: the government and shit commercial radio. When Hüsker Dü went to Chicago, we took along The Replacements for their first gig there. When Hüsker Dü flew to California, D. Boon [of the Minutemen] would be our roadie. I’m a big fan of the rising-tide theory, that one band’s success helps everyone in the scene. If you hit the lottery, the first people you’ll invite to the party will be your friends.”

In 1985, Hüsker Dü released the two best albums of its career, Flip Your Wig and New Day Rising, two SST releases that captured both Mould and Hart at the peak of their songwriting powers. Mould’s guitar signature was still obvious, and Hart and Norton still supplied dizzying momentum, but the songs were full of humor, heartbreak and pleasure, indications that the three musicians were listening to a lot of music that wasn’t punk.

“A lot of hardcore bands were influenced only by other hardcore bands,” Mould points out, “and didn’t have the curiosity or ability to draw from other areas. But all three people in Hüsker Dü were big music fans with wide tastes. If you slow down Land Speed Record, for example, you’ll hear a lot of surf music, because Grant was a big surf fan. As early as ‘Real World’ on Metal Circus, we declared that we were not subscribing to society’s rules or to the rules of punk rock either. We were criticized for some things, but I thought the whole idea was there were no rules.”

Between its two 1985 releases for SST, Hüsker Dü signed a contract with Warner Bros. Records, signaling its ambition to reach a larger audience and outraging part of its punk constituency. The trio released two respectable albums for Warners—1986’s Candy Apple Grey and 1987’s Warehouse: Songs and Stories—but the group was already unraveling. Part of the problem was drugs (Mould had weaned himself off speed and had cut down on his drinking, while Hart added heroin to the mix); part of the problem was the music (Mould wanted to open up the arrangements, while Hart wanted to stick with the power-trio format); part of the problem was tragedy (the band’s manager David Savoy committed suicide in 1987); and part of the problem was time.

“Eight years is a long time,” Mould points out. “Eight albums is a lot of music, and I think it was really good music for the most part. Grant’s a great songwriter, and he and Greg are great musicians. It was a good run, but I had to move on. Everyone in that group had to move on. It’s a lot of work keeping a band like that together, and you can only do it when you’re young.”

Mould retreated to a farm an hour north of Minneapolis and wrote an album that was quieter, more introspective and more pastoral. He recorded it at a rural studio in Woodstock, N.Y., with the kind of varied instrumentation—mandolin, piano, cello—that he’d longed to use in Hüsker Dü. The result was 1989’s Workbook, released by Virgin. Mould followed that up with a noisier, less-successful rock record, Black Sheets of Rain, in 1990, an experience that convinced him he didn’t want to be on a major label anymore.

Mould wrote a new batch of songs and assembled a new trio for a third solo album to be called Sugar. But the more the guitarist played with bassist David Barbe (of Mercyland) and drummer Malcolm Travis (of the Mould-produced Zulus), the more it felt like a real band. It was a different kind of band than Hüsker Dü, because it wasn’t a democracy; Mould was clearly the leader. But it was also different from the trio that toured behind the two Virgin albums—drummer Anton Fier and bassist Tony Maimone were hired session guys, whereas Barbe and Travis were committed collaborators.

So Mould called the band Sugar and the album Copper Blue, released in 1992 by Rykodisc. The 10 songs, mostly laments for departed lovers, boasted Mould’s finest melodies, in both the vocals and guitars, and the new rhythm section backed Mould with an unprecedented, propulsive cohesion. Six more songs from the same session—with darker lyrics, less obvious hooks and more overwhelming guitars—were released the following year as Beaster.

“Unlike Hüsker Dü, which was a struggle for many years and then the dividends came,” Mould notes, “Sugar exploded all at once. In early ’92 I had all those songs written. Before the album came out we did a tour of 200-300 seat clubs, and 12 months later we were playing for 60,000 people in Belgium and MTV was all over the album. Sugar was a much bigger band than Hüsker Dü ever was. Hüsker Dü’s legend is bigger, but Sugar was much bigger in the moment, three times as big. The songs were better, too; I was a better songwriter.”

“Helpless,” a song from Copper Blue, made the Top Five on Billboard’s Modern Rock Charts; the album flirted with gold-record status, and Sugar seemed primed to become the next Nirvana or Smashing Pumpkins. The prospect filled Mould with ambivalence; he wanted recognition and rewards, of course, but he didn’t want to end up like so many artists who fell off their horses reaching for the brass ring, and he certainly didn’t want to end up like Kurt Cobain, who committed suicide in April 1994, as Sugar was trying to record its follow-up album in Atlanta.

The pressure of expectations drained the life out of those Atlanta sessions, so Mould erased all the tracks, transplanted the trio to Austin and quickly recorded the album released as File Under: Easy Listening in 1994. It was an anomaly—both for Mould and the punk scene—an album of positive, long songs buoyed by irrepressible optimism. It was a romantic masterpiece, but even as the CD was breaking into the pop charts, Sugar was running out of time.

“David [Barbe] had had two kids since Sugar began,” Mould explains, “and he was feeling the stress at home. We were out on the [Easy Listening] tour, playing 5,000-seat clubs in Chicago and New York. When we had an off-day in Connecticut, David and I went for a walk, and he said, ‘This is really hard at home.’ I said, ‘I hear you. We’ll do this tour and the week in Japan and call it a day. We’ll keep it to ourselves.’

“Malcolm was pissed off because he was out of the loop, but it was a personal thing between David and me. I felt I had to do it that way, because there was a big spotlight on us, and I didn’t want all the problems that arise when people know something is going to end, when they start stealing the office supplies.”

Sugar disbanded, and Mould’s chance at the big time slipped through his fingers. He made another solo album, Bob Mould, in 1996, playing all the instruments himself. It featured a song called “I Hate Alternative Rock” with the memorable couplet, “I knew you when / You had something to say.” By 1998, he was so tired of the rock ’n’ roll merry-go-round that he titled his next album The Last Dog and Pony Show and announced that the subsequent tour would be his last with a loud rock ’n’ roll band.

“After that tour,” he says, “I got home and said, ‘I never want to do that again.’ I was disgusted by the corporatization of everything I had done, by all the clones of grunge. I felt like I didn’t have adequate peers anymore, whereas in the ’80s, I felt I had people to look up to and to challenge me. There was nothing distinctive about that music anymore, that there wasn’t room for another person to do it, even if he did it better. You get tired of something, even something you love, and you run away from it.

“In the meantime, I was living in New York, and dance music was everywhere—in the gym, in the bars, in the clubs; I was besieged by it. So I started listening to it seriously for the first time. My entry point was Sasha and his 1999 record, Xpander. It was dense and pounding, and I said, ‘Oh, this is like Beaster, but without guitars.’ There were so many layers of things going on, and I couldn’t figure out how he did it. So I set out to do it on my own.”

Mould, who had taken a job writing scripts for Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling TV series, began to frequent dance clubs and meet the DJ teams. He hit it off with Rich Morel, part of the Deep Dish team, because Morel was a former session musician who could speak the language of actual instruments. Morel, who has remixed songs for everyone from New Order and Depeche Mode to t.A.T.u. and Mariah Carey, was already living in Washington, D.C. When Mould moved there from New York in 2002, the two formed a duo called Blowoff and began recording an album.

“Rich and I were working in the studio one day,” Mould recalls, “and I saw this box in the corner. I said, ‘Dude, what’s that?’ He said, ‘That’s a DJ rig; the guys in Deep Dish want me to DJ.’ I said, ‘I’ve never seen one; take it out.’ It had all these lights and knobs like a spaceship, and I said, ‘We should DJ.’ I printed up business cards announcing our night at the Velvet Lounge, and I passed them out to guys in the neighborhood who looked like they might be into music. Or were cute.”

The duo has been doing a Blowoff DJ night at least once a month ever since. The evenings are notable for their eclectic mix—everything from indie rock by the Pixies and Fugazi to club music by Alpinestars and Junkie XL to pop tracks by Pink and Queen. The two DJs will often bring in their own remixes or will improvise mixes in the club. Mould has grown so adept that he’s been hired to craft remixes of songs by Interpol and Low.

“DJing is like the high-school basement party you never got to throw,” Mould enthuses. “You’re watching the floor, and as soon as you see people not dancing, you go to Stardust’s ‘Music Sounds Better with You.’ One night at the 9:30 Club, Rich and I strapped on our guitars and started playing along with the tracks. These guys on the floor were staring at us like, ‘What’s that?’ like they’d never seen real instruments before.”

In 2002, Mould announced he would be releasing four albums. Long Playing Grooves, a collection of his expansive electronica compositions, would be released under the name LoudBomb. Modulate, an album of more conventional songs performed in an electronica format, would be released under the name Bob Mould. So would Body of Song, an album dominated by acoustic guitar. The songs he was co-writing with Morel would be released under the name Blowoff.

The first two CDs were released as planned, but the latter two were held back for “quality-control” reasons, Mould says. In their place he released LiveDog98: The Forum, London UK, a live album from the Last Dog and Pony Show tour. The sprawling, atmospheric Long Playing Grooves was a sharp departure from Mould’s usual sound, but Modulate wasn’t much of a departure at all. Even though synthesizers, drum machines and samples were making much of the noise instead of guitars, the combination of droning, thickened chords, plaintive vocals and propulsive percussion instantly recalled Sugar and Hüsker Dü.

So when he picked up the electric guitar again last year, it fit naturally into what he was already doing. And it provided a useful antidote to the persistent danger of electronica: the temptation of perfection. Because microchip instruments can be programmed to be flawless, it’s easy to squeeze the blemished humanity from the music. It’s possible to keep mistakes in all-synth music, but it’s a lot easier if you employ an inherently imperfectible instrument like a guitar, bass or saxophone.

To support these new songs, Mould has assembled a new rock ’n’ roll band to go out on another tour, another Dog and Pony Show, as it were. Backing him up will be Morel on keys, Brendan Canty of Fugazi on drums and Jason Narducy of Verbow on bass. It will be Mould’s first chance to holler and play loud guitar in public since 1998. It’s a side of his personality you’d never expect from this calm, thoughtful man drinking coffee on a sunny Thursday afternoon.

“On stage, I’m fairly aggressive,” he admits, “but if someone sees me at the gym or at a restaurant, I’m a reserved, focused person. If you see me in a social situation where a lot of people are competing for attention, I’ll tend to stand in the back and observe. It’s always funny when my friends who know me from another setting see me on stage. They say, ‘Oh, my god.’ And I say, ‘That’s the way I make a living.’

“That combination of tough and tender has always worked pretty well for me. I don’t think I was the tenderest person in my 20s; tenderness came with age, in ’85, ’86. Even though I grew up in public, I grew up like anyone else. As you get older, you become a little less self-centered, and when anyone gets away from the center of themselves, they can see how we all co-exist and how we all relate.”

“Circles,” the first track on Body of Song, is one Mould could never have written when he was younger. It begins with the sad, lovely interplay of electric piano and guitar, but it’s soon interrupted by an agitated, buzzing lead guitar as Mould cries, “My god, what have I done to you? I’ve lost my one in a million.” As he describes the stars in the sky spinning around him, the vocal and the layered guitars evoke the vertigo that follows a broken romance. That dizziness increases as the guitar and vocal parts multiply, spinning around the lead melody and primary groove.

As the scope of the music expands, so does the scope of the lyrics. “You make me understand life is too short now,” Mould sings with extra desperation. “We don’t have the time we had when we were younger.” Suddenly the song is no longer about one particular relationship; it’s about all the failed relationships, all the missed opportunities of our lives. “No one deserves to be lonely,” Mould shouts over the surging rock riffs. “No one should be left alone, because time doesn’t wait; it will only accelerate as the days and the months and the years go by-y-y-y-y.”

“We take things for granted while they’re happening,” he says over his coffee, “and then they’re gone. Life is really short, and if we don’t say what we feel to the people we work with, the people we love, something important is lost. That song is about trying to live in the present rather than living in the future, which is a bad habit of mine. All these years go by, and one day you go, ‘Oh, shit, all I have is what’s happening right now.’ All the rest of it is just stuff you put in a U-Haul trailer.”

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