A Conversation With Bob Mould

The last time I saw Bob Mould, he was as fit as he’s ever been—almost unrecognizably so. It was 2002, and he was set to release Modulate, a curious stab at attaching electronica and various technological gimmicks to his blustery fusion of post-punk and power pop. To celebrate his return to recording after a four-year hiatus, Mould hosted a warehouse party in Atlanta for friends and press folks, where a talkative Mould did a short set highlighting the new material.

I wanted to like Modulate—as did most critics. Looking back, though, it may turn out to be to the lone misstep in a 30-year post-Hüsker Dü career marked by its consistent excellence. Suffice to say, the new Sunshine Rock (Merge) is no Modulate. In fact, it may be the crown jewel atop a trio of late-career triumphs that began with 2012’s Silver Age. Mould has not slunk quietly and insignificantly into his elder years—and Sunshine Rock may be his most emphatic statement since Sugar’s debut. It’s a near-perfect balance of Hüsker-esque rawness and driving pop hooks, with the occasional string arrangement lending unexpected emotional resonance.

We caught up with Mould in San Francisco, where he was prepping for his latest tour with bandmates Jason Narducy and Jon Wurster.

Sunshine Rock marks 30 years of solo work for you.
I should’ve noticed that. [Laughs] Workbook was released in the spring of ’89, so … yeah. 

Hard to believe, but the last time we talked was 17 years ago, when you were about the release Modulate. How are you feeling about this one?
I think this album is pretty great, though it was odd for me to take so much time to write. I’d been going at such a fast clip. The time between Silver Age, (2014’s) Beauty & Ruin and (2016’s) Patch The Sky was a few years. But a key thing that makes this thing exciting is the vocal approach. If you go back to the Sugar records, the vocals are meticulously stacked, for the most part. With Sunshine Rock, I didn’t work out a lot of the vocal arrangements ahead of recording. I knew the basic melodies and phrasing, but I didn’t belabor the vocal approach whatsoever. So it’s a lot more immediate sounding. I don’t think I sang any of these songs more than dozen times on the floor. I just said, “It’s in there somewhere—we’ll find it.”

Wasn’t the Shocking Blue cover “Send Me Postcard” a single-take vocal?
Yeah, that was the first thing I actually sang for the record, and it was one take top to bottom. So when you talk about energy, I think that adds a lot, because there’s a lack of measure to the voice. It’s rougher—more the way I sing live. It’s new to my records since, gosh, probably (1990’s) Black Sheets Of Rain.

There’s also the 18-piece string orchestra.

They were completely mapped out on sheet music and sent over to Prague. It’s an interesting point/counterpoint. My vocals are loose, and the string arrangements are concise. On “Sunshine Rock” and “The Final Years,” you can hear the Al De Lory influence from all those Glen Campbell records. It’s my tribute to strings in ’60s pop music, I guess.

Interesting how your late-career resurgence came right after your 2011 autobiography, See A Little Light.
Everything started moving forward in a big way after those three years of looking back. I wanted to be able to put this marker in place to say, “This is where I’ve arrived after all these things.” I’ve never been one to look back a lot, so the book was a bit of a trying experience. But it sent up a bit of a flare to people that, aside from the music, there was a good story there—my family history, Hüsker Dü, my sexuality and accepting that, getting into electronic music and explaining to people why that was important to me. I don’t think people really understood that (last one) until I clarified it. 

I had a chance to talk to Grant Hart about his 2013 solo album, The Argument. It was the longest phone interview I’ve ever had. He just talked and talked and talked. How has his passing affected you?
As we get older, we encounter loss with more frequency. I’ve lost my parents—both to cancer. Getting word of what Grant was up against was tough to hear. And, of course, we had a long history. So much of that time with Hüsker Dü was a great time, even if the end was a little sideways. When everybody walked away from it—and I feel I can safely speak for Grant on this—we knew it was time to move forward with our own things. We’d had a lot of communication leading up to the 2017 box set. Everybody was communicating; everybody was working toward a common goal. And I think if you look at the box set, it turned out pretty great. It’s a nice document of that innocent phase when absolutely no one was looking—as opposed to when the whole world is looking and you get really self-aware and self-conscious about your work.

And then there’s your latest power trio. On the last tour, there was a guy in front of the stage who’d brought along his young daughter to the show. She had earplugs, of course … I wish I’d remembered mine.

[Laughs] Jason and I have worked together on-and-off in various capacities since I produced his band, Verbow, back in the ’90s. When the stars aligned and we started working together in late ’08—when Jon jumped on board to save a tour—it was like somebody opened a window and let the sunshine and fresh air in. We’re all roughly within 10 years of each other in age, and we have a lot of similar records in our collections—and I’m sure some of those are my records, too. It doesn’t take a lot of explaining when I bring in a song and I say, “Hey, it goes like this.” They’re like, “Yeah, it turns like that other one you wrote 20 years ago.” They know the language, and we share an aesthetic about pop music. I think you hear it in these last four records.

—Hobart Rowland