Sugar high: Bob Mould confronts his past in the present

By Mark Guarino

Bob Mould has led many lives since the demise of Husker Du, the highly influential Minnesota punk trio that called it quits in 1988. He became a solo artist, frontman for Sugar, techno auteur, live club DJ, remixer for artists like Liz Phair and Franz Ferdinand and — believe it or not — a writer for pro wrestling.

In recent years, following a move from New York City to Wash., DC, Mould has stopped trying to shift so sharply and has moved to integrate his past with his present. After declaring he wanted nothing more to do with rock, he just released “Body of Song” (Yep Roc), a rock album combining his signature wall of guitars, highly personal lyrics plus heavy dance beats. He is also on the road with his first rock band in years, which include Evanston resident Jason Narducy of Verbow on bass, Brendan Canty of Fugazi on drums and keyboardist Richard Morel, Mould’s partner in Blowoff, his DJ side project.

Mould recently talked about the new phase in life and his past. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Q: The last time we talked was when you just released “The Last Dog and Pony Show” record. At that time, you declared it would be your farewell to rock. What got you recharged?

A: Oh, I don’t know. (laughs) I guess I’ll zip back to ‘98 when we last talked. I was doing the same thing, more or less, for 20 years. And I really needed a change for myself as much as anything. The weird thing is, in your paper or wherever, it gets reflected in career stuff. But for me, I thought, “I need to stop this. I need to take care of my health, I need to self identify a little bit more as a gay man.” All that stuff got me to where I am now — by a couple electronic records and solo dates and a move to DC. So to bring it up to now … people enjoy when I play loud music and I still like doing it once in awhile and when I put (a band) together, it gets louder and bigger than anything I could do by myself. And 25 shows are very manageable, so I’ll be okay.

Q: You mentioned you were afraid of future hearing problems.

A: I know by October 15, at the end (of the tour), my head will be ringing for days. It’s really weird because I’m one of those people who have to sleep with sound because silence is too loud. But having said that, my hearing is really good. When I’m in the studio working on stuff and I can hear a ground loop buzz on an individual track and when they isolate it, they’re like, “how did you hear that?” But yeah, it’s going to be really loud and my head will be hurting and my back will hurt and that’ll all start up again. And my left shoulder will be (expletive) up for the rest of my life but that’s just part of the deal.

Q: These are issues you don’t think about in your twenties. To play the music you have to make a lot of negotiations with your body.

A: Yeah, and the thing that drives that home in a scary way to me is: how many of the Ramones are alive? It takes a toll on people. You’re opening yourself up to a lot of compromises. But again, what else to do? I’m not going to sit at a desk.

Q: On this tour you’ll be playing music from your youth. How has your relationship to it changed over time?

A: It’s a good question. With this tour addressing older stuff in an electronic setting for the first time, I doubt it’s going to be a faithful reproduction. I hope the Husker stuff sounds good when the four of us are playing together. That’s the criteria. It’s not whether I should do it because people are expecting it. Hopefully we’ll do it because the songs will sound good. Ditto the Sugar stuff. The show will be made up of songs we sound best playing together.

Q: You wouldn’t play Husker Du songs before. Why now?

A: I’m sort of comfortable with it now. I think for awhile, I protected that stuff because I thought “oh, Husker Du, that tone and setting is so sacred.” And then years go by and I read tons of negative stuff the other guys say about me and I’m like “well forget that then. So much for that sacred notion.” They’re my songs and I’ll play them any time. It’ll be really great to play that Sugar stuff. “Copper Blue,” I have really fond memories of that.

Q: It’s funny because it was with Sugar, not Husker Du, that you found your commercial success. You reached many more people with that band.

A: Sugar was a much more successful band in measurable terms than Husker Du. The legacy of Husker Du, it was one of those bands not many people saw but now two million people saw them, because Nirvana said so or something. Whereas Sugar was more of a proven thing, you could say, “yeah I was at the back of the Aragon in ‘94.”

Q: How do you feel that the band that’s not as revered sold more records?

A: Two different bands. Of the two, Sugar was the better band, far and away. Why I say it like that is, my songwriting was so strong. I had really hit a groove. It was a more personable setting. I was the clear leader as opposed to the suggested leader. It was pretty much all my stuff.

Q: You can feel the influence of your recent DJ work on this record. There are piles of guitars but with a song like “(Shine Your) Light Love Hope,” there’s a dance beat underneath them. Was this record a way to marry both lives?

A: It’s all coming together. I think in ’02, when (the strictly electronic album) “Modulate” came out, I got hung up on separating everything out. In hindsight, that’s my regret. Not that I did any of that, but that I separated everything. I think had I just been peeling stuff off as it was written, it would have more representational, people wouldn’t have been as shocked. Now, of course, in hindsight I see it.

Q: At the time you wanted to definitively change gears.

A: Yeah, there was a mission statement going into it. I left in ‘98 with a mission statement towards the next project. I need to do something completely different and present it in a completely different way. Sure enough I did that! (laughs).

Q: When it wasn’t received as warmly as you might have hoped, did it make you aware that indeed there was an audience out there expecting the old Bob Mould?

A: I was pretty aware going into it that this could go one of a couple ways. It went the way I thought it would. A lot of the longtime fans having the patience going into the next place. Losing some people and picking up a few people. Ultimately maybe it was a bit of a net loss, but I sort of guessed it was coming. The critics were a little impatient and a little hard on it. Look, it got me to this record, which has a lot of those earmarks. But they’re just in a different perspective. And I think, as more time goes by, people will go back to it it’ll make more sense. I’m patient with that. But at the time I was like “ew, it’s not that bad.”

Q: Your recent DJ experience as Blowoff sounds pretty DIY — passing around fliers and showing up at clubs to DJ. Sounds like a return to the early days of punk.

A: We started that to have a party. It was very DIY — make little flyers and business cards and hand them off to people who might like it. It took eight months to get it kicking. I used to DJ at college radio, too, when I went to school in the late ‘70s. It has that vibe too: “I am a DJ and I’ll play whatever I want.”

Q: It’s a chance to be anonymous and not Bob Mould.

A: It’s weird because people will show up and ask, “can I get your autograph?” It’s like, “what? What are you doing here?” I mean, it’s sweet and I know what they’re doing there, but its like, “you’re straight and you’re married and you don’t like dance music at all, well that’s cool, okay sure!” (laughs) Ultimately it’s really nice but it’s sort of like “huh?”

Q: With so many underground ‘80s bands like Mission To Burma, the Pixies and Dinosaur Jr. reuniting, what makes you resist cashing in for a Husker Du reunion?

A: Because all the stuff that’s been said about me since. I’m an evil bastard. Why would anyone play with me? (laughs) I don’t want anything to do with those guys. I’m having fun right now. There’s not enough money in the world that would make that worthwhile.

Q: Have there been offers?

A: There’ve been a few people interested. They know I’m not serious about it.

Q: Today, the term “punk rock” is used to define pop bands like Fallout Boy or Sum 41. How does that feel when you hear music that has nothing to do with what you helped create yet is called “punk?”

A: If the music is good in that it fills that need for kids, I think it’s great. Historically, I would say the thing that is the closest to punk rock was the early ‘90s rave scene. That, in spirit, was a lot closer than the music that’s called punk now. Because with those raves, you didn’t know where to go. It was that kind of vibe. That’s the way punk was. We were truly way to create an alternative community. Maybe it is like that now, maybe I’m off base because I haven’t been following the new punk stuff. Some of it is an homage, some of it is a throwback.

Q: Kids are way more media savvy now. They start bands to be on TV and follow a strict formula, from fashion to chord changes.

A: It’s been codified. It’s a different thing. When I started, it was because I hated the world and I wanted to change it and make one that I liked better. Now maybe, it’s not having to work at Kinko’s. I don’t know. I was very idealistic at the beginning. Time has chipped away at that. (laughs)

Q: You also spend time as a writer for World Championship Wrestling (WCW). People who don’t know you must have taken this as a complete left turn.

A: People who don’t know me, it’s a left turn. People who know me must have been, “oh my god, he must have been like pig in (expletive).” I’ve been a lifelong fan of pro wrestling. I knew people in the business. I got a call in late ’99 when a creative consultant position came open at WCW. I sat in on the writing team and busted my ass like I never have before. It was really fun. It was a dream come true

Q: You helped write stories.

A: Yes, helping with stories helping with characters, helping with production, helping keep show running smoothly, all kinds of stuff.

Q: The aggression of the music you started out playing was dense, loud and fast. As an adult, do you miss that top level of energy you used to kick out?

A: No. That’s for when we’re really young. I’m 44. If I go back to playing anything from the ‘80s, it’ll probably sound a little slower, probably a little graceful. That’s part of aging. If I tried to replicate that, I’d probably hurt myself, there’d be no point. Yeah it’s amazing what you can do if you hate the world and want to change it and you don’t feel a thing because of the mixture of testosterone and alcohol. You’re completely numb to what you’re doing to yourself—sure! Anything is possible!

Q: Being out as a gay man never entered your music. I’m sure there are people who are lifelong fans but would never know you were gay.

A: That would be beauty of it. Short of the first half of “Modulate,” everything I’ve written has been gender neutral. Not for closeting purposes, but stories are stories. At the end of ’98, I took inventory. I stopped what I was doing and started having a personal life that was outside music. Be it more of a gay life or whatever. That has gotten me to here today where I’m a lot more comfortable with all of it. Times have changed a lot. We’re a lot more understanding. We’re all just people, we all have dysfunctions and idiosyncrasies and that’s the beauty of human nature. (laughs)

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