Interview: Bob Mould
Bob Mould is an alternative music icon, as a member of the mighty Husker Du he and the band roared through the world and broke the back of US alternative rock which paved the way for many of our favourite bands, all well documented before.
As a member of Sugar he seized back the reins from his imitators and blasted into Pop tinged Punk Rock. Since the demise of Sugar he has amassed a catalogue of solo records that stand as high, if not higher than the venerated work from the past. His latest album was released last week and his recent tour blew the cobwebs away for many of us.
Louder Than War’s Adrian Bloxham caught up with Bob just before the tour to chat about music, life and stories.
The Welcome Collection in London is a big, old building, the foyer is huge and the voices from the people drinking coffee, chatting and milling around make the space feel full of life. I am waiting to talk to Bob Mould, founder member of seminal US punk band Husker Du, founder member of pop punk pioneers Sugar and a rich varied solo catalogue. They say to never meet your heroes, they will let you down, but I found the opposite with Bob Mould, he is charming, witty and open. He thinks hard about his answers and contemplates as he talks to make this a conversation to remember.
We sit in the restaurant, closed off for our chat, all white walls and backlit pictures of artefacts, as Bob puts it, ‘this place is perfect.’ We talk for half an hour or so, when I exhaust my questions Bob asks me some and we carry on talking. A true gentleman and a pleasure to speak to.
Bob had just arrived in the UK from Berlin and it had taken him ‘longer to get from Heathrow to the hotel than it did to get from Berlin to London, at least two hours today, it was so bad there’s so much road works’ He orders coffee and water and fixes those blue eyes on me and barely breaks eye contact for as long as we talk.
I ask him what drives him and keeps him going.
“It’s what I do, oh my god, it’s like ever since I was that high and learned how to play music you know. What else is there?” he Laughs. “It keeps me alive. It does everything, its magic, its medicine, it’s a drug, it’s everything you know, and it can be anything you want it to be at any point in time. That’s the beauty of this thing.”
He talks as if this is obvious and of course it is, I ask if he makes the music for him or for us.
“I make it because I have to. Knowing that it’s for other people at some point ideally, I mean if the audience went away… you know I would still make it… but I don’t think about it like as in the moment, I’m just trying to catch rain’ that’s all I’m doing.
“Later on editing and recording it for real then I’m thinking about… hmm should probably make this good you know as opposed to that primal craziness that happens when you start with an idea and try and get it into some kind of shape.
“So it’s yeah, there’s so many different steps in it so like I guess initially it’s just this primal instinct. You know in my life and then as it gets closer to you I’m aware that it’s moving away from wherever it came from and it goes out into the field.”
I asked where he finds the balance between the words and the music and how his music just takes you away.
“That’s the idea, well the words make you remember and the music makes you forget because the melodies and the drones just creates that wash that you can get lost in then when you hear words that are sometimes the stories, yeah they’re stories.
“Then when you hear the stories you know and that’s where you know it goes from this sort of sound blanket and it becomes personal and then you identify with it, I’m just speaking with being a fan of music and what happens to me.”
I assure him that is what happens
“Well thanks, I’m glad to hear its working.”
I talk about how, when I listen to music, there are certain people that sound like no one else. For example Johnny Thunders and Black Francis. I tell him that he is another musician that when I hear a vocal I know straight away that it is him. Bob nods and agrees and then echoes what I have said.
“It’s funny you mention Thunders you know, because that’s one of my touchstones, a big influence on me. Yeah, he was always brilliant to me even when it was a mess just because he was such a character and so I mean I loved him, I spent some time with him. I had a couple a day’s keeping an eye on him. I was like 19 so that was a bit of a chore. It was the Gang War tour when he had Wayne Kramer and they weren’t getting along those few days so I was spending a lot of time with John trying to keep him happy.”
I ask if he still goes to see live bands.
“Not as much as I used to but I do go, you know when friends are in, people whose work I really like. I don’t take a lot of chances on new bands, I’m sort of getting bad about that. Like I don’t just roll down to the punk rock club on Tuesday to see what’s happening as much as I used to but when people come whose work I like I make an definitely get out and see them, make arrangements ahead to say hi before or after the show and stuff oh yeah.”
Do you still look for new music?
“Well I’m still a big fan, I have routines like everybody does. When I’m at home and I’m not on the road or in a press cycle or whatever. If I’m just living normally it’s like I’ll get up and read the music press usually first thing in the morning online and just sort of aggregate the news and see what’s happening.
“I’m on a lot of PR mailing lists and I see what’s happening every day, so and so are about to release a video or are about to do this or that. Then I’ll usually listen and I’m sort of an in between active listener, I don’t use any streaming, I hate streaming services, I hate the idea of it. I go to radio, I mean I’ll listen to 6Music and independent stations around the US like KEXP things like that the WNYC all of John Schaefer’s shows which are just incredible learning experiences because he’s got such a deep knowledge of all kinds of world music and rock music and friends tell me stuff.”
I ask where he is headed next as this album is being called the third in a trilogy.
“Jon mentioned that. I was just like this is the next album, Jon said he felt like it, when we finished this one, the basic tracks, and he said he felt we did this thing with the three records. I think he mentioned it, and now people are saying it and so now everyone is saying it. So I can say it feels like that but that wasn’t my thoughts.”
Bob has stated that this was a hard record to make and it came off the back of a very bad year.
“Oh yeah. I mean this one was a lot of work to get to. 14 was sort of yuck, more death, more loss more, you know it just piles up and its oh okay, I need to go away for a while, I really don’t want to be out doing stuff I just go home and wanna write music every day and see what happens. It’s the best medicine for that I think.”
We talk about how he feels about kids finding his music, I use my son as an example and how he texted me to tell me he was drowning out his housemates boy bands with Husker Du and the Specials.
“Any new younger fans are welcome, this game so to speak is as the artist gets older the audience gets older as well and people start to fall away and getting to a younger audience is difficult because they’re really wrapped up in social media, have different attention spans and the value of music, it sounds like your son loves music, but most teens and people up to twenty five, I don’t think they revere music like we do.. Says the old guy.”
He laughs at himself. I talk about kids buying records again and getting record players and again having something physical to play.
“Over the holidays I was seeing friends, one of them was a fellow musician and we were talking about music and the state of the business etc. and I said this thing to him that really resonated. It’s not how you get music it’s how you get rid of music; what I mean by that is when it’s something you go to the store and buy it’s a big thing and you hold on to it and you carry it with you through your life.
“When you just find something on file share or somebody sends you a zip file of an album to check out and it just sits there, if you don’t like it you just swipe it away and you’ve never seen it and you never see it again.
“It’s that idea of the tactile nature of things, it can come to you in any different ways but if you can get rid of it that easily. Because how many times do you get a book and go uh this book is crap and you throw it away? Not really.
“So I think that’s a distinction that I came upon last year and when I mention it to people they’re like ‘whoa. It’s different.’ A different way to look at it.”
I ask about heroes
“Musical heroes? So to speak, I mean I’ve been very fortunate to get little tiny slivers of time with Pete Townsend and it’s always great to see Pete, he always is very kind with his time, always asks nice questions, has nice things to say, most of the time, sometimes he’s having a bad day.
“Every time I go to see Richard Thompson I’m amazed. His mastery of the instrument and telling stories and it seems as time goes on and his audience gets more devoted and the banter between Richard and the audience between songs. It’s almost as they’re heckling him just to get him going and he heckles back and it’s just great to see that level of engagement with the audience.
“I mean those two guys I always think of, I always have time for whatever Neil Young is up to, I’ll always check it out even as fanciful as some of it is it’s still Neil. And contemporaries, of course Dave Grohl always and Ryan Adams another good friend that I think a lot of his work and stuff, that’s the kind of people that I sort of go to for stuff.”
I ask if he still deejays
“Ah some but not like I was. When Blow Off was really kicking it that was crazy how big that got. I mean because I was living in DC when we got that started up and the 9.30 club was the concert hall there, 1200 capacity or 1300 capacity and we were djing that once a month and selling it out like every month, I mean it was sort of a big thing through the odds and I really loved that event, I loved discovering all that music, it got me listening to so much music that I had never heard and just that activity of having everyday having to look for new music was great so I miss it for that.
“I backed off of it a couple of years ago, I just felt like it was a combination of not finding the thrill of finding good music, house music got really formulaic especially after all the Swedish House Mafia explosion and just all the stuff that came in the wake of that, it’s just like I remember when Calvin Harris, when I liked Calvin Harris like at the beginning, even like Skrillex at the beginning just the early stuff that people don’t know, they only know the stuff with Rhianna or whatever or David Guetta, he used to, you know 02, 03, the stuff he was doing, it was great.
“So just it was like everybody was djing, let everybody else dj for a little bit. I still do it occasionally but it’s hard to find really good house music you know I’ve just been gravitating towards the slower silkier stuff.”
I hesitated with my next question but I really wanted to ask about Husker Du, so I asked ‘Have you sold many tee-shirts?’
“I hope so. Yeah yeah yeah, I hope we sell, I hope the estate of Husker Du sells every tee-shirt made. I keep an arm’s length from that stuff.
“Grant traditionally did all the concepts through actual artwork and yeah or nay is all I can add, laughs, my horse has been out of that race for a long time. yeah I mean that was crazy, put out shirts and break the internet, funny, for six hours until as everything is that breaks the internet, it’s quickly broken by something else.
“It’s nice, it’s nice that people still care.”
I talk about how I love the way he takes his past and moves forward with it.
“Well and working with Jason and Jon I mean they know all the different languages that I speak. They know them all well and when we play I can figure out what our strong suits are and I mean that’s the path of least resistance, it’s easy for us, it’s easy for the crowd everybody’s having a good time and that’s sort of what we do.”
I say how tight the band are, and he stuns me.
“We don’t rehearse.” He laughs long and loud. “No, why bother, we know what we are doing. We might run a new song a couple of times, but no, we just sort of play. It’s really weird, it feels more like what I imagine Jazz musicians used to be like where they all spoke this language and they just knew. Like okay so today we’re speaking this type of Jazz that everyone could just fall into it. We’re pretty good.”
Bob got onstage with Dinosaur Jr for their run of thirtieth anniversary shows recently
“That was fun. Lou was really digging in, he was like giving it back and J’s just over there y’know (mimics J Mascis guitar sound) on the pedals hey…. And then he really wanted to play ‘In a Free Land’ I mean that was the whole thing. He wanted to play drums on it because he used to play drums on that in Deep Wound.
“They’re sweethearts, I’ve known those guys forever so it was really great to be asked. That was a fun week for them and I had a great time, on the night that I showed up, and Lee Ranaldo, it was fun.”
I wondered if as the music moves him forward away from the darkness is it painful to play the songs live, does it get to him.
“There have been times, the first couple times I’ll run songs they really get me and then once I get my footing emotionally where I can sort of be a little more in charge of it then I can start adding to it. There have been records that have been more challenging than others for different reasons.
“Beaster, emotionally and physically doing that every night for months was… it took years off my life just really physically, everything, y’know I can’t do that anymore. It’s a crazy person’s record. That was a great time, but that record was pretty hard to wrap around in all directions.
“The twenty fifth anniversary of Workbook when I went out and played those shows in the US I realised that my range is getting smaller just in terms of what I do with my hands, sometimes with my hands a lot with my voice, I got back to some of that stuff I was like whoa, that was a long time ago. Emotionally they, I mean the heavy songs they change over time.
“Hardly Getting Over It changes, lately now it’s definitely very different than when I wrote it, when you write a song about an idea of something that will happen in the future and then all of a sudden it’s happened twice and then you sort of revisit it it’s like oh, this is different. That’s a good problem though because it beats the alternative of not having that song get played because nobody wants to hear it, I mean I’m lucky for that.”
We chat about the state of music today.
“I think the state of things is okay, I think that vinyl is back and kids are finding out the value of it and that’s good. I don’t know if music resonates the spirit the way that I remember but it could be because I’m getting older you know and the biggest thing to me is the amount of musicians who really are doing it for the pure art of it, and then there’s this other group of entertainers who use music as a vehicle to reach people if you know what I’m saying.
“I think they’re both valid but I don’t really understand the entertainment part of it because I think in the pure form it’s the most entertaining thing you could possibly see, just the interaction between the musicians and how mistakes change what’s happening, and you go and you see these things where it’s a person out front you know pretending or maybe not pretending to sing and with this group of machines and dancers, and that’s entertainment via music so I worry about that part, that there’s a lot of people that look to that and that’s there notion I think these TV shows, these game show TV shows contest shows that stick that in people’s heads that it should be this thing. And people who flub or change the vocal line of a song that that’s somehow wrong.”
I say that we look for things like that
“Yeah, to retell the story.”
So there you have it, an insight into what drives and makes one of the finest alternative musicians of our time. Of stories and sound and bands and noise.
We chatted a little after the interview and he graciously signed my Makes No Sense at All 7” single. What I didn’t mention in the piece is that Bob very generously, without being asked, put my son on his guest list for the gig as it had sold out before I could get him a ticket. As I have said before, a true gentleman.
Bob Mould’s brilliant new album Patch The Sky is out now on CD, LP and Download on Merge Records.
All words by Adrian Bloxham, you can read more by Adrian at his Author Archive.
All pictures by Martin Ward.