Music Interview: Bob Mould discusses his Body of Song

By Garth Paulson

Bob Mould is one of those musicians everyone has felt the impact of but few actually know. Mould, along with drummer/vocalist Glenn Hart and bassist Greg Norton, formed Hüsker Dü in the late ’70s. The band would go on to become one of the most important and influential bands of the ’80s. Major artists like Green Day, The Foo Fighters and the Pixies are all indebted to Mould and company’s mixture of punk rock ferocity and pop accessibility. The band has been credited, along with the likes of REM, as creating what we now call alternative rock.

Mould hasn’t been idle since the Hüskers broke up. He also fronted Sugar in the early ’90s, has released several solo albums and has recently delved into electronica. Mould recently spoke with the Gauntlet about his place in rock lore, the internet and ageing.

Gauntlet: Your music has been changing a lot in the last few years. Would you attribute this to a musical restlessness or just that you’re free to follow your muse?

Bob Mould: I’d say it’s following the muse. The big change in direction at the end of ’98, when I put the electric rock band away, was an attempt to make some life changes as well. I’d spent 20 years touring with rock bands and that’s not a completely realistic view of the world. It was nice to take a couple years away from that and do some different things both musically and personally. Now with the most recent record, [Body of Song] it’s a nice amalgamation of the guitar stuff and some of the electronic stuff I’ve been working on. I did a handful of shows with a band again, which I never thought I’d do. It was nice to keep it to 25 shows. I think that’s a more manageable approach, especially as I get older I don’t like the idea of being in a band full-time; I’m a little old for that. It’s following the muse, I wake up in the morning and I never really know which direction I’m going to go with the work at the start, that’s the beauty of it at this point.

G: I read an interview you did right after you announced you were giving up playing with the rock band. One of the things you said was something along the lines of that you didn’t want to be up on the stage when you were 50 trying to rock out with a bad back. What do you think of bands like The Rolling Stones, Kiss and The Who, who are doing just that?

BM: They’re medical marvels. Hey, anybody can do whatever they want. Sometimes when I’ve gone to see people who have overstayed their welcome and look like a shell of their former self it tarnishes the history a little bit. I’m 45 years old and I see people my age dressing like they’re 20. I think there’s an age appropriate way to dress and I think there’s age appropriate ways to age. I guess I’m aware of that, when I see things that aren’t quite right it’s usually people trying to be something that they’re not anymore.

This past year when I went out with the band everyone seemed to love it and said “you’ve got more energy than most kids” and I said “well, I didn’t feel that way at every show.” A bad back was in the equation, but I’m happy that people liked it.

G: In jazz and blues it’s almost expected that people get better as they age. What is it about rock music that makes it so rare for something like this to happen?

BM: Rock music has not been an art form, per se, for quite awhile now. It hasn’t been viewed as an art form for at least 10 years; it’s more of an accoutrement for pop culture. In jazz and blues there’s a heritage, it’s not that it’s a stoic art form but jazz and blues have always preserved their legacy and their heritage. There’s lineage, connection and story whereas rock and pop music is very much of-the-moment and disposable these days. There are people like [Bob] Dylan, [Bruce] Springsteen, [Pete] Townshend and Neil Young who have been able to protect their legacy. I think pop music is all about destroying legacy. For the most part it’s “let’s get as much blood as we can out of this stone as quickly as possible.” It’s sort of sad.

G: Does it ever become normal to hear yourself spoken of as one of the most important musicians in the last, say, 30 years?

BM: I guess my perspective is it’s other people saying it. If I walked around and went up to people and said “hey, my name is Bob, I’m one of the most important…” That would be a little off-putting.

I don’t have any control over how I’m perceived other than how I present myself. I’m flattered and touched, it means a lot to me every time someone says that or writes a letter saying how much the work means to them. That’s big stuff. I know how powerful the experience can be to people when any of us connect to music on that visceral and spiritual level. It’s a powerful tool and I don’t take that for granted or my position in my field either. I try to respect the position that other people put me in.

G: Do you remember the first time you ever heard someone talk about you in that way?

BM: I remember when the whirlwind started. It was probably early ’85 when the New York critics started to rave [Hüsker Dü] up. I knew at the time, between Zen Arcade and New Day Rising, to put out that much work in five months of that quality that people were going to have to take notice. I put five years of my life to get to that. A lot of sacrifice and energy went into making that. I guess that would be the first time I sensed I was doing a good job.

G: But it didn’t entirely take you by surprise…

BM: Well, there’s that moment where you start to realize what’s happening. There are pivotal moments in our life where you can say “I can take this in a number of ways. I can be mindful of the art form and the craft and try to stay true to it. Or I can be a complete fucking asshole and try to get laid every night.” There are a lot of different steps in between but I always put the craft over the reward, if that makes sense.

G: You’ve had some name checks from some pretty major bands. Have you ever heard someone say that you inspired them that made you feel embarrassed?

BM: No. It doesn’t matter if I like it or not. If they found something in an experience that changed the direction of their life and made them do something that they loved, then great. I don’t have to enjoy it. It’s not like if Britney Spears said “if it wasn’t for Bob I never would have written ‘Oops, I did it again.’” If any of us can do anything to make someone feel like their life is better that’s a good thing.

G: One of the bands you mentioned you were listening to back in ’98 was Modest Mouse, who are now huge. Do you think eccentric bands like them can have lasting mainstream success?

BM: Anybody can hit the lottery. [Modest Mouse] worked really hard. I think it’s funny, you look at Death Cab for Cutie, another band from the Midwest that worked really hard and put out a lot of records, Ben [Gibbard] has stayed closer to his vision. The lineage is more appropriate from record to record; it’s more of the tradition of someone growing into their legacy. With Modest Mouse, when I heard the song that was the hit I thought “who’s that?” More power to them, it’s not a knock, but I think with Ben you look at him and he’s pretty much cemented a career. He’s got as much time as he wants at this thing. Modest Mouse is really big right now, the infrastructure is probably really big behind it and if it doesn’t sustain itself it will crash a lot harder. Death Cab is more like a natural ascension.

G: You’ve been blogging for awhile and have always been a big supporter of the internet’s role in music. You’ve said the music industry has 10 or 15 years left as it is before the internet will take over. Do you still believe this is true? What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of an internet-driven industry?

BM: It could be less at the rate it’s going. The major labels have just totally lost the plot. The secret of the music industry has always been distribution from day one. There’s tons of people with talent but it’s always who controls the utilities, who controls the railroad and how do you get things from one place to another. When the labels lost that to the ISPs, which is how I view it, they lost control to the telecoms. Now they’re scrambling, they don’t know what to do. The bottom is falling out of the business and you really can’t imagine the rate that it’s falling out unless you’re in the business and you’re watching it day to day you’re like “Oh my god, chunks of the earth are falling away.” It’s bad, when ringtones are the future it’s a scary thought. There’s not a whole lot of career development in ringtones. I don’t see much of a future for this business.

Having said that, the internet is the great leveller, now we don’t see the vertical axis anymore, now everything is horizontal. When I say vertical axis I mean like U2, you don’t see it anymore, now everything is sort of levelled. My concern, and it seems to be happening naturally, is who is going to filter all this free music? It seems like MP3 blogs and online music sites are the new filters for what we listen to. We look to those like we used to look to Rolling Stone or SST. We’re still looking for the affinity, for the places where we trust the opinion. I think that’s starting to shake itself out on the internet.

I think Myspace is a great thing. Myspace will be big for two more years and then something else will come along. That’s the crazy part of it. The model for how people are getting their music heard is changing faster than we can keep up with.

G: You mentioned U2. Though you are considered a very influential musician you never achieved a huge level of mainstream success. Was that ever something you wanted?

BM: I’ve always just wanted to make music on my terms. When Copper Blue, the Sugar album in ’92, exploded at the beginning of ’93 that was a bigger payoff than I ever thought I’d see. When people say to me that I never got my due I’m like, “well, Sugar was a pretty big band, big enough for me.” I still make a decent living at this so I’ve got no complaints. I enjoy the fact that I’ve maintained my grip on how I want my stuff to be perceived and the freedom of working slightly outside the system. The fact that I’m still doing it is a success for me.

G: What do you have coming up in the future?

BM: Another LoudBomb album hopefully in the fall; for the Blowoff record Rich [Morel] and I were talking about getting that done in the next week or two and trying to get that out by May. In order, it will hopefully be the Blowoff album in May, the live DVD from the band tour around July and then around September the LoudBomb record. Maybe early next year the next Bob album, so there’s a lot of stuff coming.

G: Yeah, you’re sure keeping yourself busy.

BM: I’m too busy. I need help.

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