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A decade ago, it would’ve been easy to argue that Bob Mould’s best work was behind him. With Hüsker Dü and Sugar, as well as in his early solo work, Mould helped define the Amerindie music landscape for years. A handful of unspectacular (if solid) releases seemed to find the venerable punk godfather settling into placid middle age. But then Mould started making a series of albums that rank with the best work he’s ever done. Mould’s third-act winning streak continues with the new Patch The Sky (Merge). MAGNET asked comedian, actor and longtime massive fan David Cross to talk with Mould about his life and loud times.
I’m a grown up, have been for quite a while. And what I’ve become and who I am now can, in no small part, be directly linked to my introduction to punk/new-wave music from the late ’70s, early ’80s. It was this music and its attendant ethos that changed my then-shitty life. Suddenly, I heard the anger and confusion and frustration with everything my life had to offer me. And it was articulated with the speed and noise and fury that I was feeling. Husker Du (sorry, can’t umlaut on this word program) generally, and Bob Mould specifically, were as big a part of that as anybody. Zen Arcade was a small revelation. And then later, when the theme to The Mary Tyler Moore Show was the b-side to “Makes No Sense At All”?! Who does that? That appealed to me on so many levels. I was lucky enough to meet Bob in North Carolina when we were both on the bill of a benefit to raise money to defeat Prop 1, the gay-marriage ban (sadly it passed; we lost). I was a little intimidated and clearly nervous, but he was so sweet, nice, honest and kind that we immediately became friends. Bob has continued writing brilliant, introspective, angry songs throughout his varied and inarguably storied career that, God willing*, will continue for decades to come. When MAGNET asked if I wanted to interview him as he was making the press rounds for Patch The Sky, I jumped at the chance. In fact, I had just hung out with him mere days earlier in San Francisco, so we would have lots to talk about. Here is a transcript of my interview with the legend known as Bob Mould. *Full disclosure, I don’t believe in God. —David Cross
David Cross: So you’re out doing shows and promoting Patch The Sky. Were all the songs written by you? Or were they written with other people? Because I know you’re with (drummer) Jon Wurster, and I know that must be a treat. So fucking funny, and a very unsettling amount of encyclopedic music knowledge.
Bob Mould: Oh, my god, yes. When he starts on stuff, I think, “Where is this secret music Wikipedia thing that you found?”
Cross: Listen, for real. Before the internet, and before cell phones, I’d be at some bar and getting in an argument with someone about, like, who sang “Drift Away”? And then I would have to go find a payphone and call Jon and go, “Hey, Jon, it’s David, Sorry to bother you. Who sang ‘Drift Away’?” [Laughs]
Mould: Yeah, it’s pretty wild. And if a name comes up then, it’s like this appendix information comes out of him. It will just be, like, fourth album, second b-side. Like, “What?” But no, it’s really great. And about the writing for the record, it was an insulated experience. Quite different than the two records before it. I guess people are looking at this as the third record of a connected sequence with working with (bassist) Jason (Narducy) and Jon and recording as a three-piece. I do all the writing, and with Silver Age, there was just this crazy rush of youthful energy, I don’t know where it came from, maybe from putting the book out and doing the Disney Hall (tribute) stuff, I had got one of those heads of steam, and I got the love and appeal that tells you your work is good again. You get back into a natural groove again, and that’s where Silver Age came from. With Beauty And Ruin, there was more democratic decision moments in the studio. With Patch The Sky, I was coming off some rough personal stuff, and that sort of put me in an isolated place to write from, and this was my way to get out of whatever I had been in and get clarity for myself. So this record was more of my voice, to be blunt about it.
Cross: And going back to the Disney Hall show, I wasn’t there, but it sounds like it must have been amazing and humbling and satisfying for you.
Mould: Yeah, it was really great. We all do our work, we all do our things, and sometimes we are out of our minds and sometimes people love what we do, and there’s quiet times, or for me there was. And to have a celebration like that, it legitimized a lot of the work.
Cross: Yeah, usually that stuff happens after you’re dead.
Mould: I kept checking my gold watch to see if I was still ticking, but totally. With Dave (Grohl) and Ryan (Adams) and everybody, the weirdest thing is being there and hanging out with everybody but hearing them singing my words back, that was the craziest part of it for me. Like, “Wow, these people know these songs.”
Cross: And they love them. In the same way that people have inspired you. And here’s something, Bob. I think you should pay that forward and arrange an evening with like-minded artists for someone that you’ve been inspired by. And it could be an annual event. And then when you are honored, you have to come back and honor somebody a year after that. It’s a good idea.
Mould: That’s a great idea. And that kind of goes with my idea of the hot potato.
Cross: I really don’t know your hot potato idea.
Mould: It’s just the idea of hearing and retelling the story that you heard. When I was a little kid, I would listen to jukebox 45s and the Beatles and the Monkees. And then I heard punk rock, and I made punk rock. And then I heard other people’s versions of punk rock, and it all gets filtered into this core idea. And you hold on to it for a little while, and then you toss it into the air. You just grab it. People say, “Don’t you feel like people have stolen what you do?” And I say, “No. It’s like the hot potato.” Somebody comes up with a notion and people hear it and they want to retell that story. That’s always what music should be.
Cross: It’s like appropriation. All music, and other art forms as well, everybody’s borrowing.
Mould: It’s funny you mention that because one of the funniest things that happened recently was the estate of Marvin Gaye versus Robin Thicke. I was really saddened by what happened there because I don’t really think that would qualify as plagiarism. I felt like in this day and age, the court of public opinion via comment sections on the internet was like, “Yeah, get him! Because we don’t like the guy. But no, this is not what we think it is.” And it scared me because I was like, “Oh my god, what if I unknowingly lift a line from a song that I heard 15 years ago in a supermarket?” Because that actually happens.
Cross: I think there’s a distinction to be made, and there’s a line. And it’s a thin line that wants to be crossed, like the Vanilla Ice/Bowie/Queen song or the Tom Petty/Sam Smith thing. And Sam Smith said, “Oh, you’re right.” And kudos to him; he said, “You’re absolutely right, that’s the same thing. And I apologize.” But I think there’s a fine line, and distinctions are being made with every court case. And you’re right: Fuck the court of public opinion.
Mould: I agree with you, but I just felt vexed for a moment. I thought, “Wow, this is what could happen. This is a weird kind of public lynching with no credibility to what’s happening here.”
Cross: I think you’re right that it was based on, “Fuck that guy. I don’t like that guy. I don’t like the way he looks. That’s not fair, so fuck him.”
Mould: Speaking of not fair, did you see the Kesha ruling?
Cross: I did. I know very little about it, but it’s pretty crazy. And the immediate backlash that she’s getting is like, “Fuck that bitch; she signed a contract! Don’t like it, don’t sign contracts!” But that’s hardly the issue there.
Mould: For me, being a musician and signing lots of contracts in my lifetime, I’m gonna try to break it down really quick when I saw that happen, and I’m not gonna even get into the emotional context right now. Sony says we have to keep her because $60 million. Ten years ago, some of the biggest pop stars in the world may have had a chance across six albums to gain $60 million. That was before people stopped buying music. So they’re gonna keep this person under an antique contract in a day and age where— who’s the biggest selling artist in the world, Adele? Eight million? The last time I checked on the math, that probably ends up clearing her 20 million out of 60 million because it’s probably two and a half bucks per record. She’s got a great deal. How in the fuck is keeping this person beholden to this contract ever gonna get a cent back? And that’s just the business part of this. It’s so sad.
Cross: What’s so sickening about that is that it’s a person against a multinational corporation. And a person has sensitivity, feelings and emotions, and it affects a human being, and with a corporation it only affects shareholders’ stock values. That’s what they’re arguing. That’s where we are now and what we’ve become in the past 150 years or so, and it’s unfair. It’s just unfair.
Mould: It’s really unfair. And when you crack into the emotional context of the story, like, oh my god. If there’s even a shred of reality to what’s being said? I can’t know for sure what people really do. It’s so sad. Shame on the court, shame on Sony, shame on the whole fuckin’ thing. It’s just so sad.
Cross: I just thought of an analogy for what you said. You know, Bill Cosby—his company owned part of NBC. Now what if he had been abusing people who were on the show, and they had signed a contract saying, “Hey, if we decide to do a sequel or we do other episodes, you’ll be required to do six more episodes as that character,” and then that person got raped. And then we found out about the allegations. Back then, if we found out about those allegations, of course he would deny it as he’s been denying it, and then the court would say, “Well, you signed a contract even though you said this guy raped you. You have to do six more episodes with him. You signed a contract.”
Mould: There you have it.
Cross: Maybe the silver lining has changed for some people, but maybe not. We don’t have to get into it.
Cross: Anyways, where are you now?
Mould: I’m back home now in San Francisco. I just got back. I’ve been resting up, doing some press. I’ve got to get up to go to New York at 6 a.m. tomorrow morning, and I have a week of press out in NYC, which should be fun. I’m just filibustering now for the campaign. And then getting back to make more music in mid-April when we tour the U.S. But between now and then, it’s a little bit of playing, a lot of talking and trying to explain what I’m barely now learning about this record. [Laughs]
Cross: Do you enjoy the press process?
Mould: Yeah. I mean I like talking to people about music. On this go around, I’ve been encouraging people to come at me and talk about stuff, like we’re doing, instead of coming loaded with crazy questions that they already know the answer to. It’s like, “No, you already know the answer to that question. Why are you asking it? Oh, because you have to ask me that question. OK, so ask me that question and I’ll give you one of the four or five answers where I will always say politely no and then we’ll move on.” But otherwise, it’s way more fun to just engage with people and hear what the interviewers have to say.
Cross: Have a conversation.
Mould: Exactly. So I’m real happy we’re doing this. But as far as straight-up interviews, they’re fine. It’s part of the job. Cross: Here’s a question. You’ve lived in a lot of different places. And most people, they don’t. Your profession has allowed you to do that. What was your favorite place to live? And considering the time you were in that place. Mould: I think for me, unrelated to work, as a human being, I think the late ’90s in New York was just a life changer. I had spent most of my life not talking about my homosexuality because I wasn’t really, as a homosexual, I didn’t feel really integrated with the gay community. I wasn’t out until I was 31, 32, 34, I mean. But to get that out in the open and then to go back to NYC with that openness and really being able to embrace that life … And at that time Chelsea was a great place to hang out. And I think that was a real growth moment.
Cross: You were, certainly by then, an icon and a hero to many people. Were you recognized in New York? I don’t know the community you hung out with, but would people say, “Oh, that’s Bob Mould!” Or were you able to anonymously skate through every day?
Mould: A little bit of both. When I would do a music deal, like going over to the Bowery to see a show, then people would treat me like the rock guy. But I was spending so much of my time in Chelsea and in the West Village, and nobody really knew my body of work or what I would actually do. I would make friends at the gym, and I would make friends at the gay bar or at the coffee shop.
Cross: You had a secret identity.
Mould: Yeah, sort of. It just felt like it was really great to meet people and sort of establish an identity not just with what I do but who I was.
Cross: And you were new to it, so it was probably exciting and liberating.
Mould: You know the drill in New York. You know when you’re on the street or on the train when people see you and recognize you.
Mould: Yeah, and for me, I seem to have the best fans in the world, like they’re all really polite and really educated and they have a good sense of when the right time to come up and say hi is.
Cross: Well, that’s good. That’s a treat.
Mould: Like when they see me lift my soup bowl off the table and pour it down my throat, it’s not the moment that they choose.
Cross: Like when you’re on the phone crying, they come up and say, “Hey, man, let’s get a picture.”
Mould: Yeah, exactly. So I’m always grateful for that. People are really nice. And it was more recognition in the rock territory rather than, in lack of a better term, gay territory.