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Q&A: Bob Mould On See A Little Light, Blowoff, Hüsker Dü And Being "Pretty Fuckin' Out" At 51

Q&A: Bob Mould On See A Little Light, Blowoff, Hüsker Dü And Being "Pretty Fuckin' Out" At 51
Brendan McWeeney

When Bob Mould—ex-"miserablist" and noise-pop architect behind Amerindie rock gods Hüsker Dü and alt-pop gurus Sugar, as well as under his own name—writes in his brutally honest autobiography tour de force See A Little Light of a revelatory moment in 1998 when he retired his notorious downer persona of "the Rock Guitar Guy, the Angry Man, the Pessimist and the Self-Hating Homosexual" and finally embracing his sexuality, he's not joking around.

As he tells it, the proverbial weight was lifted and that watershed moment proved vital to the still continuing evolution of Bob Mould—the Blowoff DJ, perpetually prolific musician, acclaimed author and proud gay man who's at peace with Hüsker Dü and, more importantly, himself—at least for the time being.

Speaking with Sound of the City from San Francisco, Mould is quite the jovial, loose fellow, having just jammed with Foo Fighters the night before and prepping for his reading/performance tour and Blowoff gigs. He even offered up some kind words for his former bandmate Grant Hart.

First off, I actually saw you live way back in 1989 when you played at The Bottom Line for Workbook.

Woo-hoo!

When you look back at Workbook and those shows compared to present day, what stands out for you?

Well, I think those New York shows were the prototypes for, I guess, "Bob: Version Two" [laughs], post- Hüsker. In the book, I talk about that I remember it was maybe just a few days before those Bottom Line shows where I did a test run with the new stuff and the new band and the new everything at Maxwell's and how freaked out I was. Hüsker is a big shadow to try to get out of, and at the time I sensed I'd done it with [Workbook] but I didn't really know how to present myself. I had this different body and this different music and everything was different. I was like, "Fuck me."

But as far as [going from] the 28-year-old man that put out Workbook and coming fresh out of this punk rock thing to the guy who just got forced into fucking jamming with the Foo Fighters last night in front of 11,000 people and playing Tom Petty and not knowing the song [laughs]... a lot of things are happening there [laughing].

That was a scary time and an exciting time for me. '89 was a hell of a turning point for me and the beginning of a very long learning process—learning a lot from playing with Anton [Fier], Tony [Maimone] and Chris Stamey—who was great to work with—to a year of solo stuff to Sugar. That was a really good point for me just to learn to be a band leader after Hüsker Dü, which I guess was a democracy. Grant and I sorta had control of the songs but everybody had to sign off on everything, or it didn't happen.

I was 28 [then], still not closeted but not out. I just turned 51 last week and I'm pretty fuckin' out now [laughing].

Throughout much of Hüsker Dü's lifeline, your bandmates [singer/drummer] Grant Hart and [bassist] Greg Norton took a back seat while you handled the bulk of the managerial side of things, basically acting as tour manager and you talk about that at length in the book. Had you not taken an active role of booking tours and such, would Hüsker Dü had endured?

It could have gone in a number of different ways. I never really thought about it, but the first thing that comes to mind is that SST [Records] probably would have run us into the ground. The second scenario is a big-time management company comes on and the band would have imploded instantly because I like to control things and Grant was pretty uncontrollable. That actually worked to our benefit that I could control it from within. Those were the first two outcomes I could see if I did a "what if?" I'm sure there are other iterations but those are the two that come to mind right away. SST would have killed us—or we would have killed ourselves quicker with a big manager trying to direct traffic.

Do you think because you had your shit together as far as business savvy is concerned and Hart didn't, is one of the reasons why you are successful and he's struggled, post-Hüsker?

You know, Grant's a really good guy but we are very, very different. And anybody who knows, any and anyone who's dealt with the two of us, will tell you that right away; people that met us then, or even recently, will quickly say "it all make sense now." Grant had an incredible gift. You'd probably have to ask him about the choices he's made. I think I outline in the book pretty clearly what I saw the last 18 months of the band to be. And I gotta be honest: After I walked away from the band, I really had no time to keep tabs on it. It was really one of those things where I could tell I just gotta walk away and I really can't even compete with that. I just really want to keep moving forward.

For Grant, God bless him. He's been through a lot, especially recently—a couple of personal hardships that are really fucked. The beauty of him being in the Twin Cities, I guess, is the music community that is still there has been really supportive of him and I think that's important. He'll be fine.

 

Hüsker Dü, "Real World"

The book clearly shows your willingness to walk away from pretty much any situation without batting an eye, and you did that with Hüsker Dü. Meanwhile, Hart has harped on Hüsker for the last two decades or so. I don't want to make this whole thing about Grant Hart.

No, no no... It's part of the empire to talk about it. I'm not sure what [Hart's badmouthing] was about and I never really bothered to ask [laughing]. I just have been like "Oh, well. Here it comes again. So whatever. Fuck." [laughing]

An integral moment in the book that you say was the beginning of your strained relationship with Grant was when he brought the song "2541" to the New Day Rising sessions. The end result was you rejected the song and he didn't take that very well.

I just pointed out that it sounded an awful lot like a Dream Syndicate song that was sorta popular at the time. That's a real regret; that's gotta be a sore spot with him. I feel shitty about it now but, hey, it gave him a great first song when he came out of the gate with his solo stuff.

"2541" was the first post- Hüsker Dü salvo in 1988; back then, the lyrics were interpreted as equating with the Hüsker Dü breakup. What did you think of that?

I knew because there was a Spin piece that I remember that came out. [Grant] had a sort of "pulpit." He was pushing the song, pushing the agenda. I was like, "More power to ya, man. Yup."

When you heard the finished product of "2541," did you think to yourself "this is a great song and I shouldn't have rejected it for New Day Rising?"

No, I actually never have heard the recorded version; I only know the version we rehearsed.

When you got word that Michael Azerrad was writing Our Band Could Be Your Life and it would include a chapter on Hüsker Dü, were you skeptical about it? Did you know Azerrad?

I did not know Michael. I talked to him and I asked around about him. Most people said he's legit, he's a very good writer and he'd do you right. After Hüsker Dü, I didn't like sharing interview space with people because it becomes a very "he said, he said" kind of thing. People historically have always enjoyed [playing] "I'll trick them into doing this then I'm going to get a scoop." There's always been that game, which is funny to me because I know it's there and I know when people are doing it—sorta like what we're doing now. It's actually sort of meaningless. But with Azerrad, I got his reputation and got good words from everybody I trust on the guy and we talked. With any kind of history that an outsider puts together, there's so many different versions of the truth. Michael had a daunting job to go through it and get a perspective on it. When I read his book, I thought, "That's pretty good; it's a pretty centered view of the whole thing." I didn't feel like it was praising or damning anyone in particular.

Were you that impressed with Azerrad that you enlisted him to help you out with your book?

Right as Our Band came out, there was talk of the book we're talking about right now—my book. [Azerrad] brought me to a meeting with Michael Pietsch, who was at Little, Brown at the time and who is now the head of Little, Brown. We met in late '01 and talked about the prospect of an autobiography back then. So, this has been in discussion for 10 years. At the time, I just said, "No, I'm not interested at all." For whatever reason, I didn't think my story was particularly interesting at that time. When we revisited the idea in late 2007 into early '08, it was Azerrad and Michael Pietsch and I was the subject. So, nothing really changed and we actually tabled this idea for almost seven years.

 

Sugar, "If I Can't Change Your Mind"

Did it concern you that there's been a multitude of memoirs, oral histories and authorized bios over the last several years including, Dean Wareham, Patti Smith, Sonic Youth, Guided by Voices, the Replacements, etc. Did it cross your mind that joining that list would be overkill?

Yeah... well, the oral histories are always a little tough. What I found, I started going back and talking to people about my story and try going in and get some information and get perspective. I could have an instance when there was four people in a room and I talk to the other three and nobody's story lined up and I'm just like, "What the fuck is the truth here?" So, I'm like, "OK, I'm going to go with what I remember but what he/she said makes me think it might have been something else." OK, I'll find out what I think is the truth and I'll go with that. So with oral histories, I'm a little dubious at times.

As far as Dean's, or anybody else's book, we're at that age where the record-buying audience is now a book-buying audience. So [other memoirs] didn't even cross my mind. It's funny—I think this idea of the music memoir as a genre has happened during the last year and a half and I was keeping the mind-set that I couldn't really assess whether I was at the "front of the bus or the back of the bus" because I couldn't really stop.

What was your impression of the Hüsker Dü book Andrew Earles wrote?

I haven't read it. I'm not interested. From what I know, he's a big fan and people tell me he's a really good writer. He reached out to me. I had my own book so it would behoove me to delete what I was doing. You know, Hüsker Dü is a good chunk of my book but it's only a small part of my life. From what I've been told, Andrew did some great research. I know he reached out to everybody because everybody called me and said he reached out and said "who is this guy?" I said "you do what you want to do." People came to me and said "should I talk to this guy?" and I said "do whatever you want."

I think if there are people that are interested in strictly Hüsker Dü, it's probably a good handbook. I would like to think the story I was telling was a lot deeper than just Hüsker Dü. I got family, I got sexuality, I got music and my own personal battles. And I think that's the stuff that informs not only the work I did then but all the work from the show you saw at the Bottom Line to the fuckin' jam I did last night with [the Foos]. That journey is infinitely more interesting to me than the story of "Why Hüsker Dü broke up."

You've done readings of your book and you'll be reading and performing in Brooklyn. How do you choose the sections you'll read?

I've been doing a fair amount of [readings] since the book came out in June and the last one I did was in Atlanta. I play a song or two and then read a passage from the book. Typically, what I've been reading about is passages that show where I'm at in my life as I create work; sort of showing people the process without saying things like "Oh, and this line specifically means..." What I try to do is show people where I'm at emotionally as I'm creating work and I play some of the songs. Then it's really weird to me because I do get really all emotional, because after reading about something really personal then playing a song I'm like, "Ugh."

Is it difficult for you to revisit particular passages of the book and read them publicly?

There's some heavy parts I haven't tried reading yet and maybe I should just for the challenge of it. But I think the parts I've been reading have been really fun to read. I do go off the page and spread a little humor and that's fun. What I feel is when I'm reading and then playing the songs I made in that spot, it's a little bit melancholy for me. When I am just sitting there with a guitar and I just got done telling people where I was at when I wrote it, that part gets a little heavy for me—but it's in a good way. It makes for a pretty fuckin' cool show. I feel pretty cleansed after it. It's good.

 

Bob Mould, "Slay/Sway"

In 1994 when the Spin article came out where you were outed and not in a positive way, do you think your audience changed, as far as you having a larger gay audience?

I think they were always there; maybe they started making themselves a little more known. Well, there's a couple of spots where [the gay audience rising] really kicked in: more so at Modulate in '02, because the meanings were a little more gay-centric and specifically about sort of an abusive same-sex relationship. Where it really kicked in was with the DJ gigs—with Blowoff.

I'll be going from the Bell House in Brooklyn [tonight], in front of 200-300 people there seeing me read a book, to the next night at the Highlin,e where there will be 800 guys with their shirts off while I play fuckin' crazy house music. I think Blowoff is really—as you saw at the end of the book—that's payoff for me. Ya know... it's so... I couldn't have dreamed this shit up [laughs].

What's more of a rush for you—doing a Blowoff gig or a rock thing?

Totally different things. When I'm reading and playing my guitar, I know my audience is generally a heterosexual audience; they're in their 40s, they're married, they've been with me forever and they lived through the work with me. So when I go do Blowoff, it's like, "Shit, it's fuckin' great having 30-year-old guys hitting on you!" [laughing].

Do you feel more at home doing a Blowoff gig?

It's all part of who I am now. They are very fulfilling for different reasons: when I play the guitar and I read and do my rock thing—it's like those are longtime friends. With Blowoff, some of those guys have been there forever, but there's also this whole new crop of people that are into that part of my work and then maybe they'll get into my regular music. It's a whole different side that I never had for so many years. I talk about in the book when, in '98, I put my shit down and I don't want to do it anymore. I told people I don't want to "rock" again and whatever. That was the beginning of me building a gay identity, which is very different than the act of homosexual sex—that's not very complicated. But the other part of actually building an identity. Now, twelve years later, being a fuckin' kick ass DJ for this huge gay disco is like, "Yay!" It's cool [laughing].

Considering so many people within your circle of musicians, friends and fans already knew you were gay but not completely out, was it overthinking on your part that you being gay was really not that big of a deal to the outside world? Is it somehow interconnected with the Maximum RocknRoll piece you wrote in 1986 vehemently defending and explaining Hüsker Dü's signing with a major label that you cared so much what people said and thought about you?

If we boil it down, that's what it is but it's more complex than that. It's not always been comfortable with who I am. I wish I could say I am 100% certain with everything I'm doing; none of us are. I like to control things, I micromanage things. I am very,very concerned with all of the details. I am not, like, a Jackson Pollock—I'm not a fuckin' crazy free spirit. So of course, that's part of my personality. It's been nice to sorta admit that and let people see it so they can go "it makes sense." So now I can relax a little bit [laughs].

I remember when fellow Hüsker Dü enthusiasts told me you were gay but we just thought it was the music that mattered, not sexual orientation.

I appreciate hearing that now and I wish I had known that then. But we were all stupid then and I was stupid the most. It works out in the end. What you said and how I feel, I wish I had stepped up a little sooner, that's my regret. I don't like to have big regrets but that's one of those where it's like "ugh, I could have had all this fun then." There's something nice about having saved it 'til now, too [laughs].

 

Hüsker Dü, "Makes No Sense At All"

You mentioned how controlling you are and the Bob vs. Grant song competition has been well documented over the years as a main issue of discontent within Hüsker Dü. In the book, you write Flip Your Wig is Hüsker Dü's best record. Is it a coincidence that Flip Your Wig is essentially dominated by your songs?

[Flip Your Wig] was the brightest spot in the band for me because we were clearly on fire. We had just come off Zen Arcade and New Day Rising and we had been working with Spot, sort of [SST's] overseer and engineer for many years. New Day Rising was a tough record; you can hear it in the mix that the sound of the record is less than stellar because [Spot] was butting heads with our engineer, Steve Fjelstad. When we passed beyond Spot and when Grant and I worked on the record ourselves with Steve as our engineer, it was just so fucking amazing. That was like the high spot for the creativity between me and Grant and the cooperation. We went on tour and had Soul Asylum opening and they were kicking our ass every night. Everything was so good. Maybe technically it's not the "best record," but it was the best of times. To me, my sentimentality is what it is because it was before we started having all these problems—such a good time. That's why maybe I'm so fond of that record. Until you mentioned I had the lion's share [of songs on Flip Your Wig], I didn't even remember it. I just remember, man, what a fun time.

Then you and Grant co-produced both Candy Apple Grey and Warehouse.

Well, with Candy Apple Grey we each had our little "solo" songs and it was like we were fighting for attention. That was when [Grant] was coming down on me about him wanting more and more. But I was like, "Why is it always my stuff, my songs that gets cut?" With Warehouse, that was then in really full effect. We wrote more and more and then had a double album. It sorta then turned into horseshit. I'm not knocking [Warehouse]; there's good stuff on there. But I make it all very clear in the book what happened.

You've said you're at peace with Hüsker Dü. Are you at peace with yourself?

For the most part. Ask me in a week—life is really funny. I'm living in San Francisco, I have an amazing group of friends, the sun didn't come out 'til 1 p.m. this afternoon, which pleases me to no end; I prefer it didn't come out at all. Now it's 64 degrees and I gotta go to this meeting in a few minutes. I had a good workout then I'll get a little dinner. I had a great time with the Foos last night. Shit's great right now, and I'm grateful to be here.

Bob Mould performs songs and reads from See A Little Light at The Bell House tonight; Blowoff happens at the Highline Ballroom tomorrow. See A Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody (Little, Brown) is out now.

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