If first impressions count for anything, then sizing up Bob Mould can be challenging. A veteran musician whose career spans some 30 years, his solo catalog alone includes some 16 albums, not counting those that he did with his bands Huker Du and Sugar. More to the point, the pronounced petulance and sheer veracity that lingers at the core of his creativity might suggest he’s something of a gruff curmudgeon and, at very least, a very irascible kind of guy.
“I’m well aware of that image,” Mould says witha chuckle. “But I’m a gentle giant. I don’t think I’ve ever snapped at anyone. That may well be one aspect of my personality. There was a lot to be angry about back in the ‘80s and a lot to be worried about now. That’s the point of this record, to shake people up a little bit. We actually have to pay attention.”
The record he’s referring to is his new album, Blue Hearts, an album that returns him to the dizzying dynamic that’s been so essential to his efforts since he first came to fame at the helm of hardcore heroes Husker Du. Consequently, while the new album finds a fit with the style he’s mostly known for, it also marks a dramatic change in tone from his most recent release Sunshine Rock, which, as the title implies, was decidedly lighter in tone and temperament than the music Mould ever made before. It’s a set of songs that speaks to America’s current crisis of conscience and the trouble and turmoil that’s followed in its wake. Songs such as “Next Generation,” “Forecast of Rain,” “Racing to the End,” and “American Crisis” in particular find Mould railing about the deepening despair that’s engulfed the country over the past four years in particular.
To understand the change in tack, Mould willingly shares the backstory of his more recent releases. It’s 8:00 am in San Francisco, the city where he resides, and as such, it seems a remarkably early hour for a response from any real rocker. Even so, he sounds nothing like the angry upstart that comes across on record. “I’ve been up since 5 am,” he insists. Consequently, it’s apparent that he finds no problem coping with the early hour.
“In 2012, with Silver Age, I was coming off the publishing of my autobiography and coming out as a gay man, and so I sort of had that love and spotlight on me at that moment,” he reflects. “Beauty & Ruin in 2014 was definitely informed by my father’s passing. In 2016, Patch the Sky was informed by my mother’s passing. With Sunshine Rock, I wanted to take a break from two records in a row that dealt with heavy personal loss, and I was trying to write from a more optimistic point of view. Last year, after touring solo and then coming back to America and seeing what a mess this country was in, it seemed pretty important for me to speak up.”
He says his personal turning point and the urgent imperative for the new album began last September. “I just had this feeling that I had been in this position before,” Mould reflects. “The fall of 2019 felt an awful lot like the fall of 1983, at least for me personally. Three years of a televangelist presidency and factoring in a corollary of Ronald Reagan not saying anything about AIDS for five years. And then there’s where we are now. So for me, it was not a matter of trying to reveal who I was now, but rather really trying to take a look back and ask who was I then. I was a 22 year-old closeted gay kid fronting a punk rock band that was starting to do some really important work which the world was quickly beginning to recognize. I was looking at the moral majority and having people telling me I didn’t fit in. I did some things for the LGBT community, but probably not enough. So I took all that into consideration and thought, damn if I’m going to keep my mouth shut this time because I don’t have a lot to lose. And I certainly have a lot more to lose by not speaking out. That’s what set it all in motion.”
question is, however, will people listen? Protest songs haven’t been the
prominent cultural magnet they once were back in the ‘50s and ‘60s when people
like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Peter, Paul and Mary held such
sway within the popular mindset. Blue Hearts may be a solid statement
about society, but whether that type of pontificating can still make an incisive
impression isn’t at all clear.
“I guess time will tell with my specific lot that I cast here,” Mould laughs. ‘American Crisis’ was a song written about two and a half years ago, ostensively for my previous album, which came out last spring. But it seemed a bit heavy for the record as I was getting ready to pitch it to people at the time. So I put in my back pocket and it became the central theme of this record when I started writing in earnest while I was living in Berlin, and then later, when I was wrapping up the writing after I got back to America in November. Then I took these songs out on the road in January when I was doing a lot of solo electric touring. I played four or five of these songs and set them up — telling my story about who I am, where I’m from, what I believe in, and why I think it’s important to get out and vote and protest and make voices heard.”
The reaction he got from his audiences seemed to indicate that the ideas were going down well. “I would play these songs every night, and when I went out to the merch table after the show, and people would say, ‘What you are doing now, keep doing it. Go with it. You’re saying things that we can’t say clearly because we don’t have the soapbox that you do.’,” he says. “So seeing that reaction while trying out these songs and trying out this little more political approach had me going right to Chicago to record this record right after those three weeks of touring. We made this record in February, and it was done and packed up by the end of the month. Now we’re in a situation where these songs really have some meaning. I’m not a crystal ball guy, but yes, I do believe that music can change the world. I do believe protest is warranted, and that we need a lot of it right now….Having the song ‘American Crisis’ in my back pocket made it pretty easy to move forward with the idea of making this a call to arms and feeling like, hey, I’ve been through this before and it doesn’t always end well. It was just that kind of mentality and then sitting down and writing in that direction.”
Nevertheless, completing the album ultimately became a frantic race against time. Mould claims that he spent three days in a row working without sleep to get it all sewn up. “My partner went on a family vacation and I had the house to myself,” he recalls. “That Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday were the three days I had remaining before I left for my solo tour in January, and that led right into the first day of recording in February. So I was sort of under the gun to wrap up the record. So I stayed up those three days, and then got on a plane, changing planes in Denver, getting off at LaGuardia, and then driving four hours and finally getting some sleep before the first show on Friday. And then I went nuclear on the people in the crowd.”
Mould’s ability to mix melody and mayhem has always been a key component of his music, a trait he traces back to life he experienced during an earlier era. “It goes back to my early childhood,” he insists. “Being that I was born in 1960, I grew up with radio and the AM radio hits. I always loved harmonies, stuff like the Beatles and the Byrds and the Hollies, the Mamas and the Papas, the Motown stuff — that magic combination that made pop music so special. I’d memorized label copy off jukebox singles. That was the way I taught myself music as a kid, listening to those singles and learning music theory, and then starting to write songs when I was only nine years old. I think of that that as my foundation. I know the importance of creating a great hook, because that’s how you get in someone’s head, when they find themself unconsciously whistling an incredible political song. At least I hope that’s the case with this new album. I try to apply that in all the work I do.”
Nevertheless, Mould says he now has extra incentive to win people over.
“At this particular moment in American history, I think we’d all be remiss we didn’t try to have our voices heard as loudly and as clearly as possible, no matter which side of the pendulum we swing on,” he says. “Growing up as a kid in the late ‘60s in particular, and remembering the impact of television and Vietnam and protests, and remembering, but not fully understanding, Watergate, and how government sometimes works against your best interest, I also remember how music was so integral to that. I lived the last four years in Berlin, and absorbing that culture and that history taught me about speaking up. At least twice a week, people came out of nowhere and gathered to protest for women’s rights, or trans rights, or whatever the causes were. In Berlin, it was totally acceptable behavior for people to turn out to protest in the street. That was what democracy really was like. So I felt like it maybe was my duty to remind people that it’s okay to do that. Little did I know that by June things would be so bad here that the streets would be completely flooded with young people protesting about the direction of the country.”
The experience helped spur his muse. “Little things like that helped me with the work, specifically with the writing,” he reflects. “I’m really mindful of staying away from social media. I tend to stay away from general pop culture. I like to make a safe area for me to work. I’m really driven by music. It goes through my head 24/7. I’m always thinking about words. I’m always thinking about melodies. One of the really good things about portable technology is that it’s really easy to document my ideas on the run these days. I can just turn on my i-phone, flip on selfie mode and sing two lines into it. As long as I can catalog everything really well at home, I have a wealth of words and melodies to pull from. I also have a pretty specific methodology that I’ve fallen into, and it’s worked really well for me. It’s like I’m the guy with the rain bucket, and when it rains, I go out and capture as much water as I can, and at some point, I’ll figure out what I should do with it. I’m really mindful of the inspiration point and not letting the editor get involved when I’m inspired. I try to tell that to other writers — look, when the rain comes, don’t worry whether it all hits the gutter and goes down the drain properly. Don’t try to manage it. You can worry about it after the fact. Worry about it at the end. That’s when you can sort out the mechanics of it. Don’t let the editing get in the way of the creativity.”
The new album is significant for another reason as well. It finds Mould baring his soul as far as his personal preferences are concerned. Certain songs — “Heart On My Sleeve,” “Leather Dreams” and “Password to My Soul” find him opening up about sex and his psyche. Indeed, he holds little back while opining in very specific terms. It’s as brave as it is brazen.
“I start the record with a song called ‘Heart on My Sleeve,’ so I’m setting people up with that,” he allows. “I’m showing they’ll be some unvarnished things in here, so bear with me. Sometimes it’s very blunt, but it’s not always precise. It’s like a big mallet as opposed to a fine surgical tool. My only concern about being candid with people is that as I get older, I may not be up on the ever-changing language of the youth of America. Some of my terms are a little out of date, so I ask for forgiveness up front. My heart’s in the right place, but still, that’s probably the biggest fear that I have at this point in my life. Am I going to say something that’s a little out of date and suffer for that? I think I live my life on the correct side of the fence, but that worries me more than sharing personal experiences, like in a song like ‘Leather Dreams.’ Hopefully I won’t get chastised for that. Then again that’s what happens when you’re up three nights in a row.
Mould has another project to work on as well, a massive multi-CD box set called Distortion that compiles a huge chuck of the work he’s made since the start of his solo career. Scheduled this for release the fall via a British label, it will include all his individual albums as well as several live CDs and a bonus disc of rarities.
Mould says that that though the project is proceeding well, working with it hasn’t helped ease his sleeping patterns. “I‘ve been on U.K. time for the past two weeks,” he notes. “All I really need to survive is sleep and water.”
Check out the discography from the Bob Mould website.