By Katherine Yeske Taylor
After disbanding Hüsker Dü in 1988, Bob Mould embarked on a solo career that has proven remarkably prolific, so much so that Demon is releasing a 24-CD (!!!) repackage of it on October 2. Distortion: 1989 – 2019 has the entirety of Mould’s post-Hüskers career — solo albums from Workbook through Sunshine Rock, as well as his band Sugar, four live discs and various other projects. The set (also available in other formats and smaller configurations) contains a whopping 295 tracks.
But if that suggests Mould is living in the past, he also has a new studio album, Blue Hearts, out September 25 on Merge Records. Looking back and looking forward, Mould seemed happy to talk about it all from his home in San Francisco.
When you’re working on a new album, how do you approach it? Do you have a specific idea in mind, or is it more of an evolution as you write?
I have developed a pretty firm methodology as far as putting records together. It gets refined a little bit with each successive record. If I go back to Silver Age in 2012, people were calling it a return-to-form record. My autobiography [2011’s See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody] had just come out, [and] my work with the Foo Fighters and the 20th anniversary of Sugar’s Copper Blue. It was an upbeat time. And then I lost my dad during the Silver Age touring, and I lost my mom during the Beauty & Ruin (2014) touring. That informed the album Patch the Sky (2016). So after two records that dealt with loss, I felt it was pretty important to write with [an] intention toward being optimistic. That was the move to Berlin and the album Sunshine Rock (2019).
Now, with Blue Hearts, this one just appeared out of nowhere, really. Last summer, I was still in Europe. I was playing a lot of solo electric shows. I was writing a lot of guitar music. Then I came back to the States in November. Being away for a few years, I knew things were bad, but I didn’t realize how polarized the country had become and how much of a racist liar Trump was. I mean, I knew, but then it was on full display. These are big problems that we all have to acknowledge, and we have to do what we can to solve these problems in earnest. The songs just started to write themselves.
I recognized that it’s a protest, and I’m calling back to a lot of things that I recognized happening in the early 1980s with the Reagan administration and the evangelicals and a president who couldn’t say the words HIV/AIDS for five years. Looking at the parallels, historically, to where we were last fall, and that was before the pandemic. So yeah, all of that stuff goes to the methodology. [On Blue Hearts], these are simply written songs, they’re short, they’re terse, they’re visceral. It’s a really simple record. It’s not, “Oh, I wonder what he means here?” I want to make sure my thoughts are clear this time.
It’s weird to have written the songs late last year, writing up to mid-January, and then finishing the record off in March. I’ve been stuck at home ever since.
How do you keep up your motivation to stay engaged and energized about these things?
I was raised to understand that music can change the world. Artists get older, maybe they move away from that and maybe get more concerned about technique or profit. Maybe because I never had luxury, I think I still understand. The creative fire definitely stays lit. You want to create work that captures the moment and instills something in the listener, provokes a response, and maybe gets them to take another look at who I am or who they are. You’ve got to understand we’re not all exactly alike and there’s room for all of us here. We’ve just got to figure out how to make it work.
I was a kid of the ’80s. Punk rock. We really believed we could change the world. And, somehow, I think we did. Maybe in a small way. When I say “we,” I think of hundreds of bands around America that all helped each other, we all shared information, we all put on independent shows because we didn’t fit into what was going on in the music world at the time.
This anthology you’re putting out is so vast. As you look back, are you amazed at how productive you’ve been?
Yes! Every time I put out a record, people are like, “How many solo records is this?” and I can never remember. I keep hearing fourteen this time, so I’m going to go with that. I thought strategically that I was going to be finished with Sunshine Rock and this would be a good time to put out the box set. I didn’t know that Blue Hearts was going to come out of nowhere. So now I’ve got two different objectives here, the 30-year retrospective and this new album that sounds sort of like music I made before that 30 years that we’re looking back on. It’s sort of crazy. The fabric of time is in disarray right now! But that’s okay. It’s a really cool box set. We reimagined all the artwork. The liner notes (by Keith Cameron) are pretty thorough. It’s a nice travelogue of all the records, all the places that I’ve lived and created those records and the people and situations. It all came back to life when I was putting this together with the label. It’s really cool. It’s very humbling.
Is there anything in this box set that you thought didn’t get a fair listening the first time around, and now maybe it will?
Yeah, I think the electronic period in the middle there: Modulate (2002), Body of Song (2008). That period of my life was so refreshing and so different from the twenty years of guitar rock before it. At that time, being in New York City and Washington DC and being totally enmeshed in the gay community for the first time in my life and really being active and contributing and being asked to help out. That music, club music, was so big then, and was so big to the community. It was the soundtrack. That new life was so important to me. I think those records, they got knocked around a little bit at the time. And I understand that. But when I was revisiting them, it was like, “Wow, there’s some really cool ideas in here.” So that was a nice surprise.
What made you want to be a musician in the first place?
There’s nothing else I was really qualified to do. I went to college to be a mathematical engineer. I’m really good with numbers. But I quickly found out I was in over my head, so I switched to humanities, sociology, urban studies, stuff like that. That made a lot more sense to me. But it was always music. As a small child, I had jukebox singles. I grew up in an abusive household and those singles were what kept me alive. It’s a pretty big touchstone as a kid. You never lose that. Or I didn’t lose it. Music came naturally to me. Melodies were always in my head, day and night. I’d like to think I have a way with how to put words with music. That was my calling. Still is.
How old were you when you wrote your first song?
Probably nine. I was self-taught. I just copied music that I liked on the radio. And then heard punk rock, and that was that. When I finally figured out, “Hey, if the Ramones can do this, anybody can.” Because back in the mid-‘70s, rock and roll was all about excess and private planes and cocaine and groupies and all these things that a kid from a farm town is never going to get, no matter what. So for me, when I saw a band in magazines that was loading their own gear in and out of a van and looked like regular people and made this incredible music, all of the sudden it seemed like, “I can certainly do this.” If you’re lucky, you find like-minded people. And if you’re lucky, you get up and running and you start finding other people around the world that are doing the same things. And then you start building a community through that. The idea of getting up in front of people and doing it never bothered me. I must have been an entertainer by nature. I love my work.