After a mini-career writing pro-wrestling scripts, Bob Mould returns for the fight of his life—not with the pop/punk he pioneered in Hüsker Dü and sugar, but rather two electronic albums straight out of synth city. By Scott Wilson
Bob Mould likes Daft Punk, but is he one? It was crazy enough for the most tinnitus-inducing guitar player since Pete Townshend to publicly renounce amplified rock in 1998. Then, in an urban myth that turns out to be true, Mould spent a chunk of his self-imposed hiatus as a scriptwriter for professional wrestling. But it was only when word spread about the 41-year-old former Hüsker Dü/Sugar slash-and-burn pioneer’s come-to-Jesus with Pro Tools and the Bobtronica results that it seemed safe to say it: Bob Mould is fucking insane.
The rest of the evidence is equally compelling. Even without the Mouldonna vocodered verses and car-alarm samples that dot Modulate’s lead-off track, even without the follow-up tour that put a solo Mould in front of prerecorded electronic tracks and his filmed images projected on a 15-foot-tall screen—even without the Russian roulette of issuing three albums in 2002 on his own label with his own money—Mould is certifiable because he’s done all this when he knows you won’t like it. And all he has to say for himself is that “it takes three listens” to understand Modulate.
Actually, Mould has considerably more to say. About his music, pro wrestling, masculinity and risk. Because the least sane among us are the most magnetic, Mould makes his points and tells his stories with convincing ardor, gentle humor and self-effacing candor. Because most people, especially musicians, are even nuttier than Bob Mould, what he says makes a lot of sense. And he’s right: Modulate begins to sound downright sane the longer you listen to it.
Is making electronic music a response to you having voiced a loss of interest in guitar-driven rock?
That was part of it. After fall ‘98 with Last Dog And Pony Show, I’d pretty much been telling people I needed to do something different. No loud rock band anymore. I’d done all I could do with it for the time being. That mindset coincided with my being exposed to more electronic music, like Sasha And Digweed. I heard that kind of thing and thought, “That’s not that different from what I try to do with guitars: trancey, layering chords, grooves built around a single note.” So I got a sampler and started sampling things I liked, but I realized that wasn’t what I wanted.
How long did it take you to figure that out?
A couple of months. I was sampling old 45s, stuff in other people’s music. I realized I’d have to pay to do that, which isn’t really smart. I thought I was going about it like a DJ, which isn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to create things from scratch.
Did you sample yourself?
Yes. A lot of the stuff (on Modulate) is me, my sampled 12-string riffs and grooves. I manipulated those.
Were you a fast study with the computer software and technology?
Pretty quick. I’ve done so much with Photoshop, and once you get to that level of computer use, whether it’s HTML or graphics programs, it’s more about keeping your file directory correct. I’m math-inclined, the way a lot of guitar players are.
What process did you settle into?
I started with a guitar but also sat and generated drum patterns and loops. I’d hear places where I’d want to fill the low end, then mid-range with voice. Song-structure-wise, this is all pretty simple, a lot of verse-and-chorus and lyrically narrative structures. In fact, this record is a lot simpler than a lot of my others have been. (1989’s) Workbook was a lot more complicated to write than Modulate. For Workbook, and to some degree for this, I had to sit down and relearn the guitar. Then it was a matter of playing in a way other than making sheets of distortion. With this, I was picking up a different set of tools, trying to supplement my songwriting and storytelling style. Wanting to learn. Wanting to change. Looking potential failure in the face and laughing.
There will be people who are surprised by Modulate, even the second half of the album, which sounds much closer to your previous work than the first six songs—people who don’t want to give it three listens. I had a hard time with it.
As this record rolls out, there will be a mini-revolt against Bob. I knew that going in. If they’re not into it, they’re not into it. There’s not a lot I can do. People hated (1990’s) Black Sheets Of Rain at first, too.
Where have you been for the last three and a half years?
It’s been great not being on the treadmill of the music business. I’ve been able to broaden my social life and friendships. It’s put me in an interesting circle: people who don’t work between noon and four. I take afternoons off, go to the gym, go to the West Village. And some people in my life were shocked to read about me in the New York Times Magazine (in February).
Even people familiar with you might’ve been stunned to read in that piece that you’d been working for the AOL/Time Warner-owned World Championship Wrestling program. How did that happen?
I knew people in Atlanta when Ted Turner made wrestling a big deal on TBS. I’d written for a wrestling fanzine. It was a dream come true. And yet, people don’t understand how hard this job was. Ten or 14 hours of writing at a time, then the pressure of the production behind up to seven hours of live episodic television at a time. I felt like I was stage managing a Broadway show. I was behind the curtain with so many earpieces I didn’t know which one was which. “Hit the Pay-Per-View! Sell the bump! Sell the fucking shoulder!”
You’re used to working alone. Was it hard to get used to writing—even writing wrestling scripts—with other people?
It was a very healthy collaborative process. There were six, including a head writer, agents, talent and me, the creative consultant. I was the guy who could step back and say, “The part where the Mexican guy hits the Japanese guy with a beer bottle might be racist.” And the writer would say, “No, you don’t understand. I’m writing yuk-yuk.”
It isn’t necessarily a sophisticated audience. How does a gay man work in an industry that relies in part on homophobia, however tongue-in-cheek, for that yuk-yuk?
On a personal level, I was very fortunate. Physically the biggest guy and realistically the toughest guy in the company were my best friends. As far as the onscreen stuff, one of their pet projects was the West Hollywood Blondes, who were clearly portrayed as these effeminate bad guys, an extension of the old Gorgeous George thing. People at one event were chanting “faggot, faggot, faggot.” And GLAAD was upset, so the producers knew they didn’t want that kind of heat with AOL. They killed the characters off. They asked if I had been offended. I said, “Not really, but I’m a gay wrestling fan. Not a fan of gay wrestling, but a gay man who watches wrestling. I have a sense of humor.” But I don’t like hearing that word used by people in unison. And that mook mentality has gotten worse the past few years.
But depending on where you are, there’s also more acceptance now, isn’t there?
I find more as I get older that younger kids are better about it. Kids in their late teens and 20s don’t put so many gender definitions on things. I hear from high-school kids in D.C. and Virginia that had same-sex couples at prom. I was a self-hating homophobe until my mid-30s. I had to let go of my preconceptions about myself and the gay community.
Do you think being “self-hating” led you to pursue seemingly masculine things like hardcore punk and wrestling?
But how do you define masculine? If you talk about what men do when women aren’t around, there are a lot more shades of gray than black and white. I mean, what was the hardcore scene? A bunch of young guys with crew cuts drunk and bumping into each other at high speed? No girls around?
People seemed unfazed by you coming out a few years ago.
I think most everybody within the business and most astute music fans knew. And it wasn’t relevant to the music or the criticism of the music. It only became an issue when Sugar sold half a million records and I’d been elevated to celebrity. I’d been handed the receipt, and it was time to pay. And there are a couple of homophobic musicians I’d been friends with who rebuffed me. But it’s not my problem. I can’t educate everybody.
How did your partner feel about your wrestling gig?
He was happy for me, but he didn’t necessarily have time to hear about wrestling-this, wrestling-that. He was very supportive, but very happy when it was over.
How long did it take you to readjust to life without wrestling?
About six months. You’ve seen the TV show Oz? Ratchet it down one notch toward normal life and you get wrestling. I was trying to lift it out of the gutter. I thought there was a way to make that business much more attractive to advertisers and parents—cover up the tits. Look at extreme sports. Think if you could take extreme sports to the Olympics and control the outcomes. I’m a student of the business, really. But it’s a freak show.
We talked before about the collaborative nature of your wrestling work. Did that reinforce your desire to make music alone or soften you to the idea of a band again?
I still enjoy working alone more than working with others as a rule. It’s less scheduling, it’s less … it’s just less. The logistics of putting three, four or five people together, that’s not really what I want to do with my life.
How was the wrestling job similar to or different from the conflicts endemic to being in a band?
The behind-the-scenes agendas are more real in bands. But as far as band dynamics, life is life. Life is about conflict and resolution. I learned a lot in my time in wrestling about subtle manipulation.
Speaking of subtle manipulation, what led you to reject label suitors and home grow your new albums?
A year ago, I almost gave in and took a contract. But I caught myself. I’ve made some ridiculously stupid decisions, but I’ve learned from them. And I’m older, so just because youth sells, that instantly divorces me from the music business. Look at Entertainment Weekly. The music reviews come last, behind books, DVDs, movies, everything. The lowest on the totem pole. The record companies have given it away. They’ve made music an accessory.
Is there too much music?
It’s an incredibly expensive industry to support. Only one in 10 acts will ever break even, let alone turn a profit. And live music is so down. A blank CD only costs me 40 cents at the drugstore, but I don’t think record buyers are being gouged. Kids love to have their revolution prepackaged.
You’re spending your own money to release these three albums.
I’m already six figures in the red, but I’m having a hell of a time. But it is frustrating as a businessman. The record leaked early, and people were burning it (from the Internet) and bragging about burning it. That’s really nice. I know people get tired of hearing artists complain that they’re getting fucked, but I’m all of it. You’re taking food off my table when you do that this time. I mean, fuck.
After the release of the electronic Long Playing Grooves (under the alias LoudBomb), you’ll put out the Workbook-like Body Of Song in September. Having sworn off loud rock, were you at least happy with the results of that last high-volume tour?
Actually, we’ve done a live record from that tour (LiveDog98, credited to the Bob Mould Band). It’s from London. I am selling it on tour or through the Web site (www.bobmould.com). I was frustrated with the finite possibilities of the rock-band format, but that band kicked ass.
What would you tell the people who would most appreciate a kick-ass Bob Mould live album about Modulate and Long Playing Grooves?
I don’t have aspirations to sell a lot of records, and barring some weird fluke I have no control over, I won’t. My goal as time goes on is to be happy with myself and happy with the work I create. I want to find that smaller audience and try to address them directly.