Bob Mould - An Old Punk Learning New Tricks
Like some sort of seasonal return – think the swallows and
Capistrano – BOB MOULD’s reinvented the art of reinventing with his
newest Body of Song and a trip of the light fantastic down a lane that includes stops at Husker Du, Sugar, and pro wrestling. EQ’s Nick Blakey presses play.
“People don’t care about anything anymore. Let’s be real.”
Bob Mould is speaking via telephone from his home in Washington, D.C., early one morning. Mould is referring to two websites that had illegally posted the entirety of his new album, Body of Song, for download two months before it was due to be released.
“They don’t understand. I’m talking about people who don’t use their brain and put a whole record up on the Internet. That’s not trading with a friend at that point, you’re distributing a finished product in its entirety, basically doing the same thing that Amazon.com or iTunes without the advertising. I don’t know why anybody would do that because it’s a real insult to the artist. And I know people think, ‘I’m doing you a favor by exposing people to your music.’ It’s like, well, why don’t you take the two or three songs that you think are good and start with that? Why are you giving them the whole thing? I guess I am an old man. It makes me scratch my head. I’m like, ‘what’s that about?’”
Bob Mould is not a man who could ever be accused of living in the past, old or not. For the 25 years that he’s been producing and releasing records, Mould has constantly defied expectation. He followed his iconic pop-punk trio Hüsker Dü’s seven studio and two live albums of explosive fury with the quiet, restrained, and mostly acoustic Workbook (Virgin/1988). And after turning the volume back up for Black Sheets Of Rain (Virgin/1990), Mould then formed the intense wall-of-melodic-sound trio Sugar in 1992, putting out three albums on Rykodisc. Following Sugar’s disbandment in 1995, Mould released two similarly structured solo albums (Bob Mould [Rykodisc/1996] and The Last Dog And Pony Show [Rykodisc/1998]), plus a live album (LiveDog98) with the Bob Mould Band. After this, deciding that he needed a break, Mould pulled a 180 and took up a position writing for television on World Championship Wrestling (WCW), a job which lasted seven months:
“I was exhausted from touring for years and years and years with bands with the slow sort of the monolithic tour where the tour is only as fast as the slowest person. I guess I didn’t want to carry the responsibility of several or dozens of people, and it was just that I wanted to have a little bit of freedom. I sort of resumed my normal life, when I put all of that stuff on hold, except for the time at WCW, which was completely surreal and another story in itself. I went home after the craziest seven months I can remember, just sort of let my head cool off, and you know, got back in the gym, got myself back balanced out to be able to get my work done, and just sat down to writing those three records.”
After four years of musical silence, Mould then unleashed the bold electro/techno/industrial/dance noisefest Modulate (Granary Music/2002) and, later on, the even more extreme LoudBomb: Long Playing Grooves (Granary Music/2002). [Body of Song (Yep Roc Records/2005), conceived as the third entry in this trilogy, wouldn’t get completed and released until 2005.] Modulate was released to generally confused and mixed reviews, being that it was such a radical departure from anything else Mould had attempted before and, like Workbook before it, it also thoroughly confused his fans.
In context, though, while not as extreme a reactionary statement as, say, Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, Modulate was an intrepid statement of purpose. Though superseded by the debut release from the Postal Service, which seemed to receive much of the praise that was due Modulate, Mould’s take on electronica was a radical departure, plus, you could dance to it.
“Modulate was a pretty far gone record and was really a direct result of spending a lot more time in the gay life in NYC, and for people who haven’t been in Manhattan lately, most of it’s gay, just lettin’ you know. In the late ‘90’s, that big club sound was really in full effect. Sasha & Digweed, Paul Van Dyk, Deep Dish, all those guys were totally on fire at that time, and that stuff really sort of ruled the town. It was before The Strokes and Interpol and all that stuff started to come back around. So, that was what I was hearing all the time and there would be things that would catch my ear and sort of lead me to explore that. I sat in a room for the better part of two years and tried to learn how to make a style of music from scratch. At the end of it I was sort of going ‘well, this is about the best I could do at the time’ and then six months later the Postal Service record comes out. And granted, Dntel (Jimmy Tamborello) is a lot more tech savvy then I’ll ever be, and Ben (Gibbard)’s a really great songwriter. But Modulate is out there. . . .”
Mould’s latest effort, Body of Song, is certainly a more “traditional” Bob Mould record (featuring Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty, former Bob Mould Band drummer Matt Hammon, and former Sugar bassist David Barbe), if there could be such a thing, that not only condenses and expands upon much of Mould’s past work, but also shows the strong influence of Blowoff, his current club DJ and remixing project with Rich Morel. With this new album, though, Mould has returned to mostly guitar-based compositions, with a continued and more integrated use of electronics and effects. It also continues his ongoing love affair with AutoTune (begun on Modulate), used more for its capabilities to turn voice into synthesizer.
“Well, it was a funny device. Working with Rich (Morel) on the Blowoff stuff, he would pull that up from time to time, and he used it on one of his songs on Queen Of The Highway, this song called ‘Meantime’, which was sort of a down ballad. And it was just really haunting because he did something to like one spot in the song where he like hit a vocal note that fractured into three or four notes and it was very, very dissonant, it was just really haunting and I thought, ‘this thing is not so bad.’ I like the effect of it, and I think what Daft Punk was doing with it was really fun as well. It’s being able to take your voice and play it like an instrument. I mean, Peter Frampton did a very, very similar thing and sold zillions of records with it, so I’m not trying to justify it. I’m just saying it’s been around for awhile . . . and people need to realize that that thing is on 95% of what you hear on the radio.” By not looking back nor relying on his past to count for his present and his future, where does Mould see himself as a musician in the modern context of music?
“I’m a pop musician first and foremost. I write pop music. I made that distinction probably around (Husker Du’s 1982 album) Metal Circus. I don’t think I’m a rock guy, necessarily, I don’t think I’m a dance guy. I started music in an era where those things were very separate, you know the whole ‘disco sucks’ thing and all that. Now, having time and distance and a different perspective, you know, I’ve changed my tune on that. After 20-odd years, there’s still live drummers, so drum machines didn’t kill live drummers. I never listened to disco back then, I mean the very flamboyant, glamorous disco music, which is amazing, beautiful stuff, but at the time I wasn’t having any of it. It didn’t speak to my lifestyle, it didn’t speak to my sensibility. It wasn’t part of my vocabulary. Now it’s a bigger part of it. A lot of it is just that guitar music, rock music, whatever, the people who like it are such purists, and having been one I know what that’s like. Everybody has certain things that they like in music, but I started to like those things because they weren’t guitars and people were coming up with clever ways to use them. The first two Daft Punk records are, you know, production-wise and idea wise, pretty incredible, and the second record in particular is a great pop record. And if you listen to what those two guys did with that stuff, and then you put that up against a Bush album? I mean, you know, I’m really not going to listen to the Bush album, because I’ve sort of heard it for 35, 40 years.”
With that it mind, though, what does this mean for the future of music in general?
“I don’t think there’s much of a future in music, to be honest. As long as there’s sort of been pop music, you know, since the sacred songs of the church were adapted to Western pop music, music has come and gone as the main form of media. Now that it’s beginning to recede or it’s becoming integrated into other new media — i.e. soundtracks for video games, soundtracks for beer commercial — music has become a soundtrack for other visual representations of life as opposed to a standalone art form that creates a movie, or accompanies a movie, if you like. I’ve seen it happen, you know, when Entertainment Weekly pushes music behind every other art form in order of importance at their magazine, that tells you something.”
And for an old punk who’s still learning and using new tricks, where does Mould see his place in this kind of future?
“I sort of know my place is as a legacy artist, I don’t think I’m going to be an emerging new artist for the rest of my life. That time has come and gone. These days the things that are more intriguing to me are, like, to hand off a track to a remixer and see what they can come up with. There’s people who I’d love to see what they could do with some of the stuff that I’ve been working on lately. I don’t think a collaboration with Kevin Shields is out of the question. I would just like to sit with him for a week and work just to see what he thinks and what he does. I think Sasha’s been doing great stuff, Junkie XL’s been doing great stuff, Full Intention has been doing great stuff. I love their pop sensibility, it’s so off the hook. That song ‘The Weekend’, which is Michael Gray, one of the two guys, I’m like: “How good a pop song is this?” Even somebody like Jason Nevins, who everybody detests, I’ve got Eminem remixes he did that are like so slamming, I’m like, I would love to hear him take ‘I Am Vision, I Am Sound’ and just pound that thing into the ground and turn it into like a huge club hit.”
“I mean, I think that is still where my sort of aesthetic is at, I’m more intrigued with the idea of getting with Junkie XL and seeing what could happen because he’s pushing sound so much further I’m gonna learn something.”