Catching Up With… Bob Mould

Music Features Bob Mould

If patience is a virtue, Bob Mould should be awarded the Silver Star in the battle versus technology. As I begin speaking with the rock veteran over the phone one afternoon, I notice the recorder isn’t picking up a thing we’re saying. We hang up and try a second time. Still nothing. Finally, we decide to switch out the recorder and see what happens. Third time’s a charm, and thankfully, the soft-spoken Mould is as pleasant and forthcoming as he was just 10 minutes earlier, like the whole thing wasn’t putting a dent in an unusually mild, February afternoon in his current residence of Washington, D.C.

At 48, Mould has a lifetime of experience in the creative realm. He’s been a major part of two excellent rock bands, Hüsker Dü and Sugar, has had a very successful and prolific solo career and also has a part-time gig as a DJ. His new album, Life and Times, hits stores today (April 7) and follows up 2008’s critically successful District Line. But while he may be best known for the music, Mould, a fan of wrestling, also had a short stint writing scripts for WCW, and through everything, he’s had to deal with years of pressure revolving around his personal life. Oh, and he’s currently working on his autobiography.

: Sorry about [the recording issues].
Mould: Oh, no worries.

Paste: Do you mind if I ask you about the music from the new album again?
Mould: Um, no. The new record’s called Life and Times. Comes out on April 7. Started writing the record in July of ’07 before District Line was released in February of ’08. The tone of the record is more of a singer/songwriter record—10 songs, all guitars, no electronica. The tone of it is more confessional in nature. It’s a hybrid of autobiographical and observational. It’s the try-if-you-like-Workbook record, I guess. This year is the 20th anniversary of the release of Workbook, and I think there’s the tie-in for people to grab onto.

Paste: What are some of the challenges lyrically on this one? Just more confessional?
Mould: Yeah, it’s not so much sitting down and writing rhyming lyrics to fit into a pop structure. A lot of this is just thoughts and ideas that, you know, get accumulated over time. Sometimes they appear as short stories, sometimes they just appear as notes I’m taking that eventually get consolidated into creating a song. The title track, “Life and Times,” is a consolidation of a number of different times and places. It’s not a song where I got up in the morning, I went down to the lake, Sally was there, we went swimming, I walked away and then got drunk at the bar. It’s not that kind of… It’s more this is something that happened three weeks ago, this is something that happened six years ago, this is something that happened 15 years ago. You know, just sort of gathering up thoughts and finding a commonality in them and then putting them together as a story. So I mean, that’s one approach.

Challenge is an odd word for me…it’s always a challenge. [laughs] But I think “The Breach,” the second song on the record, is really unique because it’s a song about the aftermath of a relationship. Relationships never end in a day. Two people can agree to begin to end a relationship, but they take time to end. And, there’s a lot of different things that people feel as the relationship winds down. That song, when you hear it—it’s a very sparse, almost whispered kind of voice, almost an apologetic sort of voice, like a voice of resignation. As the song goes on, a second voice starts to enter, and then that second voice dominates and gets very angry and very expressive about the failure of things. And then, the song resets and retempers itself to almost like a lullaby at the end. And you know, that was a nice trick. I didn’t know it was happening until after it was done. I wish I could say I sat down and thought that all out. I didn’t. [laughs]

Paste: [laughs]
Mould: But when I look back, I’m like “Wow, that’s a really curious device that I don’t know that I’ve used before.

Paste: Awesome.
Mould: But you know, those are the fun parts of the writing. I guess those are the things that come with many years of havin’ the same job. [laughs]

Paste: Definitely. Now your solo stuff some people would say is more calculated than maybe Hüsker Dü. Does your solo stuff go against what people think about your roots, or is it just an extension?
Mould: I think it’s pretty different. I mean, Hüsker Dü, I was in my late teens and 20s. That’s really sort of a bowl-in-the-China-shop kind of band. When you listen to it, it’s the sound of taking things apart and putting them back together at a really fast pace. With Workbook back in ’89, it sort of reset my style and established me as a songwriter as opposed to the lead songwriter of a band where there was two songwriters. There was always the dynamics between the two writers. Stepping away and being a singular voice—yeah, it was very different than Hüsker Dü. Going onward with Sugar, which was a band in look and feel, but it was pretty much me the main writer, it was a continuation of that singular voice, but maybe writing more towards a band perspective. And then, when Sugar ended, I went back to strictly solo endeavors. Then, the changes in the writing I think were precipitated by age, not necessarily maturity—I’m not sure about that—but just getting older and having a different view and being open to different kinds of music. When I started to appreciate electronic music and dance music and house music, for a period of years that really changed my view of music and how I made music. As this decade has gone on, I’ve moved back towards the guitar as a compositional tool, and I’ve got this second career as a DJ, which I think is now where a lot of that enthusiasm for electronic music goes. So it’s not showing up in my work as much now, but I have this other gig that’s as full-time as my regular writing and performing gig.

Paste: Yeah. I was reading a Paste feature on you, actually, and it said you kind of take what you know from electronic and still use it in your music. Do you still do that?
Mould: Well, I mean on Life and Times, there’s a fair amount of keyboards woven in with the guitars. There’s nothing like set at a strict 128 BPM with a four-on-the-floor house beat. It’s not that kind of use of electronica. It’s more in the textural sense, you know, like keyboards and creating string pads and little sonic touches that signal a change is about to happen—we’re about to go from the bridge to the solo, and here’s the dinner bell that goes off right before we get to the solo kind of stuff. There’s textures in there, but it’s not dance-oriented textures. It’s more like maybe what Brian Eno would bring to a record, or what any producer would bring to a group, I think.

Paste: On the new record, is there anything technique-wise that you do differently from the other ones?
Mould: Hmm, lemme see. [pause] Not in a grand sense. It’s a continuation of the way that I’ve been working lately—with Body of Song and then District Line and now Life and Times where these are all home recordings. I’m doing everything at home, and I put drums on last. I use like cursory drumbeats and drum machines to compose on top of, and then I replace those with a real drummer. So, sort of the MO is the same. It’s the continuation of that style of work. And because of that, there’s a lot of accidents and a lot of first takes. There’s a lot of things that aren’t exactly the way they should be if I was making it like a real record. [laughs] The guitars are a little sloppy here and there and stuff, but a lot of it is just trying to capture the essence of the idea as opposed to doing a demo and then going into a studio and trying to make it perfect. I’m just trying to get the essence of the idea as it’s being composed and work with that.

Paste: So is it more personal making an album at home than in the studio?
Mould: I’d like to think so. It yields a different feel. If I go back to the Sugar records, which were very disciplined, regimented records that were made in a studio with an iron fist, they sound—I don’t know if it’s much more polished—but there’s a different feel to it. It has a different kind of power and a different kind of impact. I think with working at home and recording as I compose—I think it’s a lot more personal. It’s a lot less filtered; it’s a lot less polished.

Paste: You’ve had a quick turnaround with Life and Times from District Line. Are you just in a writing mode right now?
Mould: A couple things. First, District Line got pushed a couple different times. That record really should’ve been out in the summer of ’07, but because of some family stuff and then label stuff, it got pushed. So I sort of got off track with my writing loop, and I got ahead of myself. I think I’d mentioned that I started writing probably in the summer of ’07 for this new record. It was more a function of District Line being later than this one being rushed. And I guess the other answer is people seem to be responding well to what I’m doing right now, so that’s a good motivator to keep writing.

Paste: Yeah. Kind of like The Beatles. Just keep pumping ‘em out.
Mould: You know it, you know it. That sounds good.

Paste: The All Music Guide said that Hüsker Dü was one of the most influential bands of the ’80s. You kind of see something else there in the early punk that a lot of people didn’t see. Ian McKaye also became very influential. What in that early punk was there that people weren’t catching onto at the time?
Mould: What, that the general public wasn’t getting?

Paste: Yeah, it seemed like it was more “simple kids playing guitars” and stuff, but a lot of you guys went on to be really prolific.
Mould: Well, I think the one thing that a lot of people missed—that a lot of the general public missed—as it was happening is that it was an attempt to create a completely true alternative to what was going on at the time. And because late ’70s, early ’80s—it was disco, it was big stadium rock, it was AOR radio, it was a lot of things that were sort of unapproachable for most musicians. I think all of us really wanted to affect some kind of change. And couple that with the beginning of the Reagan years. I think the frustration that a lot of us felt towards the direction of the country and just feeling disenfranchised…when you take those thoughts and you mix them in with youthful energy and wanting to destroy and change and having a target like disco or stadium rock, I think a lot of us really had a goal to create sort of an alternate universe that we could all operate in. It happened in a lot of cities with a lot of people unbeknownst to each of us. And then when we all figured out we were doing some more things, then it became a movement. It took another eight years before the mainstream really caught up with it, and that was Nevermind. So, yeah. I think we were all really trying to change things.

Paste: You’ve said in the past that you have an inadequate voice. Do you think that’s a challenge for you to make a record with another vocalist so you can do something different musically?
Mould: I’ve done a couple things outside of my own work, you know, singing on other peoples’ records. I did a thing with the Golden Palominos, and I did a thing for Stephin Merritt. The Stephin Merritt song—it was for one of The 6ths albums—it was completely different than anything I’d ever done. It was really beautiful, and it didn’t sound like me. That sort of opened my eyes to the fact that maybe I’m not as bad a singer as I thought. I think I’m a really emotional singer. Technically, I don’t think I have a great voice. I don’t know many singers that like their own voice, truth be told. [laughs] It’s just one of those things. I don’t know anybody that sits there and goes, “Wow, I love the way my voice sounds.” [laughs]

: No, I don’t think so.
Mould: Maybe Celion Dion. I’m not sure.

Paste: Maybe, yeah.
Mould: No, I think I do well with what I have. I don’t know if it’s my strongest suit. I think I’m better with words than I am with singing. But ask me tomorrow; I might feel differently. It moves around.

Paste: You’re working on a biography right now?
Mould: Autobiography.

Paste: Comes out 2010?
Mould: Yeah, should be fall of 2010. It looks like everything is moving on track. I’m pretty deep in it right now, so it’s on schedule.

Paste: Why are you deciding to do it now instead of later?
Mould: Because I’m starting to forget everything!

Paste: [laughs]
Mould: Yeah, it feels like a good time to reconcile things. I’d been approached about this by the folks at Little Brown—I think about maybe seven years ago was the first time they approached me—and I wasn’t at all ready at that point. You know, now, right at this point, it just felt right. I feel like I’m in a place and time in my life where for once I can maybe stop for a bit and take a look back and see what’s happened so far, with hopes that it’ll make the rest of my time on earth a little more productive, a little more interesting.

Paste: You’ve had an interesting personal life, musical, professional life. Is there one aspect that’s the most difficult to write about?
Mould: For many years, I was pretty guarded about my personal life. If my comfort level allows me to sort of get deep into these things, I think it’ll make for a great handbook to go along with all the stuff people know about me publicly. I’ve been very guarded with my personal life. I think our culture has changed in the last 10 years to where there’s different expectations, and I think there’s different norms, maybe, for what’s public and what’s private. The Internet has changed a lot of that. Before we talk, I can go on and read stuff that you’ve done, so I sort of know your tone before we do the interview. It’s a different world. So yeah, I guess it would be more personal stuff, things that were not germane to the work, or to my public persona. That’s the kind of stuff that hopefully will make for a good read.

Paste: Definitely. Can we expect a Hüsker Dü reunion?
Mould: Mmm, no. I wouldn’t expect that. [laughs]

Paste: [laughs] No want there, huh?
Mould: It was an amazing band, an amazing experience. At this point in my life, I don’t think I could recreate those circumstances and do it justice. I think the legend and the memory for those who actually saw it is probably best left intact.

Thanks for putting up with our technical difficulties.
Mould: Oh, no worries. I know it happens.

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