In 1998, after 20 years of pioneering punk and alternative guitar rock, Bob Mould decided he'd had enough. The former leader of Hüsker Dü and Sugar decided to abandon the sound associated with him, even titling his 1998 album The Last Dog And Pony Show to emphasize the point. At the time, Mould planned to release an acoustic album (similar to his critically acclaimed first solo album, Workbook) and experiment with other sounds and styles. The result came in two forms: a heavily electronic rock album called Modulate, and a completely electronic album called Long Playing Grooves, released under the name LoudBomb. Modulate confused Mould's longtime fans—who avoided Long Playing Grooves altogether—and the album received lukewarm reviews.
Mould kept working on his "Workbook revisited" idea, but as time passed, he returned to the guitar-rock sound he'd ostensibly abandoned. Earlier this year, word spread quickly that his next album would be a "return to form," a notion he reinforced when he announced that he'd play Hüsker Dü songs on tour with a full band (featuring Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty) for the first time since the group broke up in 1987. He discussed all of it on his blog (modulate.blogspot.com), whose very existence indicated another seismic shift in perspective for the once intensely private musician. But when Yep Roc Records released Body Of Song in late July, it didn't quite match all the return-to-form rumors. Instead, it was a progression from Modulate, with Mould subtly incorporating some of the electronic elements that dominated that album. But they only serve as accompaniment to his signature guitars, vocals, and hooky songwriting. Before leaving on tour, Mould spoke with The A.V. Club about finding peace with his legacy, the impossibility of a Hüsker Dü reunion, and why he's no longer the most depressed man in rock.
The A.V. Club: When The Last Dog And Pony Show came out, you said you were done with the guitar-rock sound associated with you. How did you change your mind?
Bob Mould: I don't know. In '98, it had been literally 20 years of the same thing. Everything was really good up until '95, '96, and then it was just like all those shitty bands ruined a good thing, and that's like, "Uh, I really don't want to have anything to do with this stuff much longer." I just think looking at 20 years of doing the same thing, looking at other people sort of wrecking the party… And the travel is really tough. It takes a toll on my body and on my head and just on my life, you know? So it was sort of a grand gesture. After that, I just sort of settled into my groove in New York. It was the first time where I really, really had the time to be out and fully integrated, acquiring a lifestyle to go along with my music lifestyle and my work lifestyle. It led me to an appreciation of electronic music that I never had before, which led me to try to make these three records in '02, and two of them got finished and released and then had this record. Fast-forward up to the end of '04, when the president of Yep Roc was like, "Will you put a band together and tour with this record?" I'm like, "Oh yeah, sure."
AVC: Had that not been part of your plan?
BM: I sort of suspected that it would. When I saw what the record was going to be, when I knew that Brendan [Canty] was on board for the record, and it sort of had that edge. I think that combined with reconciling the history that I have, I guess, the guitar stuff, and sort of coming to terms with that. It seems like a good fit, at 44, probably a good thing. And I guess sort of the "ha-ha" part of me is like, "This is what everybody gets for putting up with Modulate. You humored me for that, and here you go."
AVC: The "return to form" buzz was a misnomer, especially considering the dancey sound of "(Shine Your) Light Love Hope."
BM: I told people to be careful of the "return to form" thing.
AVC: In one interview, you said you were relieved that Body Of Song received praise, because when you get bad reviews, "It's like getting a report card full of Ds, and you have to look in the mirror and examine yourself." Is that how you felt after Modulate?
BM: I just felt really exhausted after Modulate, and I blogged about this today, actually. I felt like I was on the defensive all the time, and I don't know if I was put there or I started fighting for Modulate because it was so different. I felt like I was having to explain too much instead of just saying, "This record rocks. You're gonna love it." And maybe if I had done that, people would have been more receptive. Yeah, so there was that in play. This one, because everybody is getting it—give or take a caveat or two—it makes it a lot easier.
AVC: What are the caveats?
BM: The two caveats are, "It's great, but he sort of copped out and went back to the guitar thing," or "It's great, but I wish he'd just leave the damn vocoder out of it." Those are sort of the two things, and again I was talking about this today when I was writing a long-winded spiel on the train. I love the nitpicking. I understand it, appreciate it—thank God it's there, because the only reason it's there is the enormous body of work that I can't get away from anymore. Of course people are going to nitpick. It's never going to be center. I'm not 23. I'm not fucked out of my head on alcohol. I'm in a different place in my life, and my music is a reflection of who I am right now. I think I've gotten good with all of that stuff, and I can have a good laugh with all of that now.
AVC: It seems like you've gotten significantly healthier, mentally and physically. Was that part of your mission in '98?
BM: Yeah, in '98, I was filling a notebook on how to change my life. A lot of the ideas would really not have been so good, and those were sort of shelved. But a couple of those that really stuck was to get myself physically in shape. I'd always been a big guy, I'd always been a generally athletic guy, but I'd never really tuned into my diet. I'd never really tuned into a workout routine. In '99, I got a trainer, started going to the gym every day, and dropped 55 pounds in four months, doing tons of cardio. I was working out two hours a day. I think the beauty of that—I didn't know at the time, but I see it now—is just that discipline and that routine and that exertion and getting whatever was into my body. It's also having an amazing effect on combating whatever depression problems I've had, because I don't take medication for anything. It's made a real big help.
AVC: Some people write more when something's bothering them, which seems to be the case for you as well. Could a side effect of being a healthier person mean you have less to write about?
BM: It might change the overall tone of the work at hand, but there's enough drama in my life whether I want it or not. [Laughs.] There's enough going on right now to keep my head spinning all the time.
AVC: How are you making the travel part work?
BM: I haven't started yet, so I don't know what we're going to do. First, it's a limited amount of touring. There are shows in Europe; there's 17 shows here. It all fits into five and a half weeks, so it's not going to be that bad. Brendan has kids, Jason [Narducy, touring bassist] has kids, so it's all broken up so they're not away for more than two weeks. I think it'll be okay. I think it's just the time between point to point that really can be frustrating. Sitting in the car, the windshield is the hourglass; you're looking at it, and time is slipping away. The older I get, the less I have, and sitting in the car is sort of crazy. But we'll make it work. Diet goes out the window. I lose my workouts, my hearing gets fucked up, my throat gets screwed—that stuff I can work with. The dieting stuff is hard.
AVC: How did you decide it'd be okay to play Hüsker Dü songs with a full band?
BM: As I get older and I have limited time, and there'll be limited interest as the years go by, I can say with absolute certainty there will not be a Hüsker Dü reunion. Given the amount of bullshit that I've had to tolerate from the other guys as far as what a taskmaster, what a world leader I was—everybody's able to buy a house and have a comfortable life, so I can't wait to hear about the shitty parts. [Laughs.] Yeah, so they're my songs, and I'm going to take ownership of performing them however I damn well please this tour. I'm really excited about the Sugar stuff more than anything else, you know, Copper Blue and so on. It's such a cool record, they're such fun songs to play live, I think that's gonna really be a blast… There are a lot of great songs in that stretch of my songbook, so that's the focal point. The new record is the focal point. I think Hüsker hits are a focal point. You know, a lot of the Workbook stuff is so great in the acoustic setting; I might just leave it where it works best. It's rock time.
AVC: Do you think you'll ever reach a place where you're completely at peace with everything that happened with Hüsker Dü?
BM: Well, with the Hüsker Dü stuff, I really left it where it was. As soon as I walked away from that thing, I said, "You know, I've just gotta get on with my life, and I don't want to talk about it." I tried really hard to avoid… you know, that was a lot of why I didn't talk about that stuff, because Grant [Hart, Hüsker Dü drummer] in particular, his big mouth, his list of gripes. It's just like, "Look, man, what was keeping you there? Was it fear? Was it jealousy? What is the motivation there? Why, with all the shit that you talked for the last 18 months of that band—which has never really been talked about, at least for me—you revised all this shit, and you tried to make everybody else look like shit to try and give yourself a little more glory? Fuck you. Do something with your life. You dropped the ball in the ninth inning. Sorry, man. High school's not forever. Let go and do something." So will I ever be at peace completely? I don't know, probably when I write a book about it, and I tell my side of the story, then maybe I'll be at peace with it, because that'll sort of amend the tune. It's a sad thing, and it always happens when I put a record out, too—it always resurfaces. I'm surprised there's not another Hüsker Dü live record next week. They stacked so many releases on that band, and I'm cool with it, 'cause I get a little money too. That was a great band. The last 18 months sucked ass—not in a good way.
AVC: Have you given up on trying to re-issue the albums?
BM: In 1991, Grant's attorney took over all that stuff, and I capitulated because I had to deal with my other stuff from Sugar. I let this guy—and he's like a court attorney, and he knew a couple of people in the music business. When Sugar took off, it was an easy sell to do a live album and the re-releases from Rhino and so on. But all that sort of fizzled out in the late '90s, and I had my attorney sort of step in and remove my approval off any future projects. I've been hoping after 14 years that the guys in that band would sort of see that I have a career, and I've been really successful, and I have a really good lawyer, and people will still do business with me, but they don't want to see any kind of influence [from me].
AVC: Have your feelings on the records—from Hüsker Dü to Sugar to your solo stuff—changed much over time?
BM: Zen Arcade caught everybody off guard. Flip Your Wig, when Grant and I took over from Spot [SST's house producer], I thought that was probably a great moment. The two after that? Eh. Workbook, great album—such a huge sea change, all shifting, the whole shift in everything. You know, '91 was sort of a… I had to go out and play like 120 shows just to keep myself fed. Out of that rose a couple great records. That was an amazing—'91 and '92 were just brilliant. Since then, it's really been trying; the hubcap record [a.k.a. 1996's solo album Bob Mould, which has a hubcap on the cover] tried some different things. I think now honestly, this one's probably the best one since Copper Blue. It beats Dog And Pony, it beats hubcap. Hubcap is a completely meticulous record; every note is perfectly exploited. This record has a lot of wake-up-in-the-morning vocals, a lot of sloppy-ass guitars that sound cool. This record has a lot of machines. Everything's cool; I'm not trying to make a perfect record any more.
AVC: Some people had a pretty negative reaction to Last Dog And Pony Show.
BM: I remember the rap was that I was sleepwalking. That's what I remember, walking away from it. People were like, "He's sleepwalking." I'm like, "All right. Let's see if [Modulate] wakes you up."
AVC: You've mentioned your blog a couple of times. Reading it, it's hard not to think of the intensely private man who was outed against his will in that infamous Spin article a decade ago. How do you think he would react to your blog?
BM: That person would be really pissed off. That person would just be like, "Who the hell cares, and how the hell dare he think anyone's interested in that?" Again, it's a comfort level, and I think it's indicative of where we are all positioned in our culture. You know, the idea of the reclusive artist who just sits like Ted Kaczynski in a box and writes stuff, I really don't know if that's a valid thing. That's not where I'm at. I guess I feel like I'm living now, and I'm not hung up on mortality or immortality either way; it is what it is, right at this moment. And I think being more in the moment, I'm more willing to share the moment instead of clutching it as if it's some treasure that needs to be unearthed 100 years later.
AVC: It's not as if every single detail of your life is up there for the entire world to see.
BM: Yeah, you know, I'm pretty careful with it. I have a couple rules: "Am I making a fool of myself?" and "Am I hurting any of my friends?" If I'm not okay with those, I need to edit it. But generally I think it's pretty fun stuff.
AVC: When you look at your career, do you still feel like you have a lot left to do?
BM: I'd like to, ideally. I don't know. I'm 44; it's like I've been listening to music since I was 4 years old, I've been writing songs since I was 9 years old, I've been making records since I was 19 or 20 years old. I'm 44 now; I feel better than I did when I was 34. I've got more clarity now. I wake up in the morning, and I write my blog, and then I go upstairs, and I work on music. And I do that every day. That's what I do. I don't check in once a week and think, "Oh, I've gotta come up with something now." I'm always writing. I was just in a coffee shop in Chelsea last night, just killing time, waiting for a friend, and I sat and wrote enough for three good songs. I love it. This is my life. It's all I do.
AVC: Were they lyrical or musical ideas?
BM: Everything. Somebody asked me how I'd done these different things and what's left, and I was like, "Man, I've got all kinds of drinking stuff. Maybe I'll get a really bad drinking problem and fall into my blues groove." I mean, I've got tons of stuff left I can do, and that's the beauty of life. You can do anything you want—and I'm half-joking, and I'm half-serious. I literally have held off the blues; I kept the blues out of my life knowing that it's for later.
AVC: It's really interesting to hear you sound so optimistic. One interviewer circa Workbook called you "the most depressed man in rock." That's quite a title.
BM: He's never met Stephin Merritt, obviously. [Laughs.] I'm not the most depressed man in rock, not anymore. I'm grateful to still be in the race.