His Life and Times
Apr 10, 2009
This year marks two important anniversaries for Bob Mould. Thirty years ago, in 1979, his seminal trio, Hüsker Dü, played its first live gig. Ten years later, after Hüsker's brutal demise, Mould made his solo debut with Workbook, an indie-rock masterwork and certified classic that found Mould baring his soul. It is an album that remains as poignant today as it was then. Mould's latest and ninth solo album, Life and Times, revisits the writing style and personal tone of Workbook, and, while Mould has dabbled to various degrees in electronic atmospheres and textures in the past decade, Life and Times also finds him more at ease with the guitar than he has seemed in years. Just a couple years shy of his fiftieth birthday, Mould spoke with Under the Radar about his new album, his seminal debut, and the autobiography he is currently penning to be published in time for that next big anniversary
Listening to these songs, Life and Times seems to be one of the most personal sets of songs you've released in years, yet the record company bio indicates right from the outset that the songs are not autobiographical. Do you fear that people will interpret them as such if that wasn't your intent?
Um, yeah. [Laughs] They're a combination. They're a nice meld of autobiographical and observational. I don't know anybody who writes anything and they don't put part of themselves into it. If they don't, they're not telling the truth. I'll sort of try to lay out where I've been seeing my songwriting going. With District Line, I started to find a nice balance between things that have happened to me and things that I see happening to others that I can empathize with or that I can tie back to my own relationships with people. So there's that melding of ideas that is a good part of this record. The other songwriting style on this record is a technique that I came up with specifically right after Hüsker Dü broke up in 1988, when I was writing the material for Workbook. I started writing a lot of collections of ideas and thoughts and free verse, and not so much sitting down to try to write songs but just sitting down and writing words and ideas, putting them on sheets of paper and not really assigning any specific meaning to them. And then certain days I would have these sheets of paper and I would pick up a guitar and just starting improvising music to whatever words were catching my eye, and they would take on this life of their own. It was a really strange way of working. It was something that I hadn't really done a lot of before. Prior to that, I would sit down with sort of a story in mind, something that would specifically inspire a song. So this sort of ramshackle way of putting things together was like a godsend to me and I guess now, coming up with that in '88 and then fast-forwarding to the middle of '07 when I started writing this record-and started writing it with the song "Life and Times"-I noticed that I was back there again. That was the similarity.
Does it make sense to you then that some of these songs could be judged as some of your most personal work since Workbook, given that Workbook was coming off the break of Hüsker Dü? Does that make sense for you as well that the content might be judged as somewhat similar?
Yeah, definitely. And that's fair. Because when the first three [songs for Life and Times] came out of me, and then when the successive songs started filling in, "Sorry Baby" [full title: "I'm Sorry, Baby, But You Can't Stand In My Light Any More"] and things like that, I could see the weight and the gravity of the songs, and I knew that I was sort of in that space again. So then I have to figure out how deep into the space am I gonna go.
It sounds like you'd also caution against interpreting this as Bob Mould's contemplating and revisiting..
Bob Mould's recent breakup record. It's not that. No, I haven't had any recent breakups. No [laughing]
I wanted to ask specifically about the song "Argos" and whether there was any trepidation for you in recording a song that was so frank and explicit in its content. [The song deals with sex and anonymity, set in clandestine basement darkrooms.
No [laughs]. I don't know if they explained the background on that song. In D.C., I have a handful of friends and we were threatening to put a band together, and in our minds we had this band, this gay, punk rock band or gay, Kraftwerk band or whatever, and one of the objectives of the band was to have songs only two minutes long. So I write this song. But we don't have a real band. Nobody wants to practice. Nobody wants to write songs, so I just stuck it on my record. Once I realized that it was actually on the record, once it truly sank in, I was like, 'Oh this is gonna be good. This oughta be interesting to see how people react to this.' People will think what they think. It's a catchy little punk rock song [laughing]....It'll be fine. I'm sure some people will go, 'Why's he writing that stuff?' and I'm guessing Joe and Jennys in Oklahoma are not going to use it as their wedding song. It's gonna go how it's gonna go.
Workbook is an album that's universally heralded as one of the truly classic albums. Being so close to the material, are you able to also see it as such, or do you not have the necessary distance from it to do so?
No, that album means the world to me. It saved my life. I came out of 8 years of a band that, by the end, the trumpets were blaring on the importance of that band. The last 18 months of that band were difficult and the last year was particularly difficult and to sort of be left sitting alone, spending a year gathering my thoughts and trying to sort of reinvent the wheel by myself in an isolated setting [was difficult]. And to come out on the other side with a piece of work that still to this day I treasure deeply... No, it's great. It's a great record. And it carries a lot of emotional weight for a lot of people I know. People I know being people that like my music that I know. That record holds a special spot for a lot of us, creator included. It's a great piece. We wouldn't be having this conversation if I hadn't made that record
I had the pleasure of speaking with you about seven years ago, right as Modulate was being released, and there seemed to be a sense of anger in your tone regarding the change in style and what it meant to Mould purists. You've come back to the guitar a bit since then, but did you ever feel a sense of defiance against those who may have pigeonholed you or set expectations that you did not feel like fulfilling any longer?
I was at a different point in my life when Modulate came out. Much like Workbook, I was trying to make some wholesale changes, and the end result was a record that confounded a lot of people and, at times, confused me. I was sort of making a bold statement in public on my own without any support.  was tough, because I felt like I was on the defensive as opposed to just saying what I felt. I wasn't sure what I had done, but I could tell that people were a little upset or weren't processing and I wasn't sure how to get it across to them. I think history is going to prove that to be an interesting record. The further I get away from it, the better it looks. If not for that, there wouldn't be Blowoff [Mould's DJ/electronic music collaboration with progressive house/remix artist Richard Morel]. There wouldn't really be Life and Times, because now, with Blowoff, I have a place to channel all of my love and passion for not necessarily guitar music, and because Blowoff is so fulfilling to me now, it's freed me up to come back and look at what I've been doing my whole life and really enjoy that again. Now I have these dual lives, and I'm pretty happy having two great full time gigs now. So it's worked out really well. So people should be happy that it went the way it did, because it got everything back to where it is now, in some weird way
How is the autobiography coming?
Ah, my god. I think it's gonna be great. I'll be glad when my part of it is done, because it's hard. My whole life, I don't really look back on things much and now I've gotta do it all at once. And I'm starting to learn a lot of things about myself that I didn't really take time to consider before, because I was moving forward. Now that I'm standing still and letting things catch up to me, as the song goes, it is curious. It is pretty exhausting
I know that certain artists have chosen to approach their autobiographies differently. Have you chosen to be a bit more exhaustive or do the thing like Dylan did a few years back where you kind of just pick and choose?
I'm trying to just lay it all out there, on all different levels. It's a pretty exhaustive professional review. And there's an audience for that. And I guess the second story would be sexuality, and where that comes from and how I've portrayed it, how it affects my life. That's a story that doesn't get told a lot. My family of origin-never really talked about that. There's my personal relationships outside of music-never talked about that. There's sort of the battle with intake, whether it's fluctuating weight all across my life and what causes that, whether it's years of alcohol, drug use, stuff like that. That whole topic is a big one. And taking all that kind of stuff and weaving it together, that's a lot. It's hopefully going to touch on enough things that it will reach a lot of people outside of my music life. I'm being pushed toward making a really big scope work, and it's pretty exhausting
What provides the impetus to someone who's not particularly reflective or backward-looking to undertake such a mammoth project?
I'm getting old and I forget things. I want to try to get all the things for certain. I want to get them down and get them right before I forget, because, seriously, as I get older, my memory is not what it used to be. I used to remember everything perfectly. And then there's years of alcohol in there that I'm having to reconstruct. Yeah, it's time. I'm starting to forget stuff. I want to get these stories down before I forget them
Was the process of revisiting a necessary one, from a resolution kind of standpoint?
I hope to come out a whole person in the end. That, selfishly, is my goal, that in the end of it, I will finally have figured out who I am and what I do and what it means. And that sounds really simple, but it's [pauses] a big undertaking
Two more questions for you: First, have people finally stopped asking you about a Hüsker Dü reunion?
No. No, because there are new journalists who have never maybe talked to me before and they've just figured everything out and they know the history for the first time and they're getting to talk to me. They can't resist. I know. They have to ask. It's less. It's a lot less. But every now and then, some new writer will toss it out there like they don't really know what they're asking. And it's like, 'No, not really. Not ever going to happen really.
After they read the book..
Yeah, refer to page 213. It's gonna be great [laughing]
Last question: We've talked about anniversaries and milestones. You've obviously changed and grown a lot artistically, in terms of the breadth and the scope of your writing, since Workbook. How do you feel you've changed as a person since then?
I'm a lot more at peace with some of the pieces of my life. My sexuality. I was a self-hating gay for a while, and that's not a fun place to be. I've gotten well past that. I think, people who knew me then who know me now are pretty shocked at the difference. I'm just a lot more peaceful of a person. And I don't know if that's me consciously growing up. I think that's part of it. I think some of it is just age and testosterone. It's just natural. I think I'm a little more aware of what life has given to me and what it has to offer to all of us if we just open up to it