Bob Mould: "I wanted Husker Du to be the best band in the world"
Pete Townshendand Dave Grohl are among his fans. He was one of the most influential songwriters of the 80s and 90s with Hüsker dü and Sugar. It’s time Bob Mould received his dues
Green Day broke big with their storytelling magnum opus American Idiot in 2004, but punk rock concept albums aren't a new species. Exactly two decades prior, a pioneering punk trio named Hüsker Dü released the groundbreaking double album Zen Arcade, which exploded on to the US hardcore punk scene like an alien meteor. Acting as a revitalising catalyst on a milieu already stale and generic, the album demonstrated how hardcore punk shouldn’t be restricted by its own confines. But the most surprising aspect of Zen Arcade was its position in rock history: where classic rock and punk rock met.
Like many of his peers, Hüsker Dü frontman Bob Mould grew up on classic rock. Zen Arcade’s influences include Pink Floyd and The Byrds, the latter a band the precocious nine-year-old songwriting Mould first engaged with on their fourth album, 1967’s Younger Than Yesterday.
“They were a big influence on my work,” says Mould. “Definitely a lot of the imagery – and the sonics they were experimenting with on that record. That made its way onto Zen Arcade and remains an influence to this day.”
Hüsker Dü – completed by drummer and co-songwriter Grant Hart, plus bassist Greg Norton – covered The Byrds’ Eight Miles High, releasing their cranked-up, jagged and blustering version of the song as a single prior to the release of Zen Arcade, their second full-length. The track was originally recorded as a studio livener; Hüsker Dü didn’t like warming up with their own songs because they would always use the first take of all their recordings as the track’s final version – which goes to some way to explain the urgency of their early work.
A steady foundation of classic rock percolated throughout Mould’s career up to the present day. Hüsker Dü’s debut studio album Everything Falls Apart included a reworking of Donovan’s Sunshine Superman. Mould cites Cheap Trick’s In Color as an influence on Copper Blue, the biggest commercial success of his career which he released with his post-Hüsker Dü band Sugar in 1992. Even later he would record and play with the artists he inspired and those who influenced him.
Born in 1960, Mould grew up in a Minnesota farm town “with very little to do”. Passionate about music from an early age, his creative streak was first established by building a float for his town’s winter carnival parade; a full size replica of Kiss’s Destroyer stage set. “There was a lot of silver and black spray paint,” he says, laughing at the memory. “Anything shiny we could find – and dry ice. A lot of dry ice!”
Mould loved Kiss, Ted Nugent and Aerosmith, but he worshipped the New York Dolls. At an early career gig in 1980, Hüsker Dü supported Johnny Thunders’ post-Dolls band, Gang War, and Mould ended up looking after the notoriously errant guitarist to ensure he made the show. He recalled the experience in his impressive and honest 2011 autobiography See A Little Light.
“So I’m in the room with John, and he’s tying off, burning more coke down, the works, the water, flick-flick-flick, getting it ready,” wrote Mould. “I’d been around other people in Minneapolis who were shooting coke at the time, so I’d seen all this before. But this is Johnny Thunders, one of my guitar heroes. Flick-flick-flick, gets the air out, slap-slap-slap, on the bottom of the bicep, and shoot. Pulls the works out of his arm, looks at me, says, ‘much better,’ and throws the syringe 10 feet across the room. It lands point-down perfect in a stubby drinking glass.”
Although not a user of hard narcotics himself, Mould was no stranger to alcohol and amphetamines – which all of the band would take to keep themselves going during their frantic touring days. Their first release, in 1982, was a live EP, appropriately titled Land Speed Record – inspired by their colossal, mile-eating US tour regimen and the amphetamine consumption that stopped them giving in to exhaustion. Greg Norton and Grant Hart would later experiment with hallucinogens, and with Mould sticking to amphetamines, the resulting collision of punk and psychedelia saw Zen Arcade veer between breakneck hardcore (The Biggest Lie) and Floydian ambience (Dreams Reoccuring). Hart would eventually progress to heroin, his addiction just one contributing factor of many to the band’s demise in 1988. Hart himself would blame Mould’s autocratic running of the band. As both Mould and Hart were songwriters of equal stature within Hüsker Dü, they would clash over use of songs and so forth. “I looked at it like it was the punk Lennon and McCartney,” said Greg Norton in Michael Azerrad’s book Our Band Could Be Your Life. “Grant was the McCartney, the pop love songs, and Bob was the dark side, Lennon.”
Likeable, softly-spoken, sometimes a little grouchy, self-confessed one-time control freak, Bob Mould today looks back on his early years as a musician without any regrets. “In the 80s with Hüsker Dü I had a very singular vision,” he says. “I wanted us to be the best band in the world at all times. I wasn’t the best person to be around. But if Johnny Ramone was a 10, I was a seven or eight. He was much more of a taskmaster than I was!”
More used to collaborating now, Mould redefined himself as a gay man while working outside the rock world from the late 90s to 2005. He returned to music more at ease with himself, his work and his sexuality: “Everything else opened up – but it’s still a work in progress,” admits Mould. “It’s nice to let go of the reins and not be in control of everything.”
But it’s not always the way. Throughout the interview Mould seems guarded, hesitant. It could be that he’s developed a healthy distrust of magazine journalists ever since he was outed against his wishes in the 90s by a US rock magazine. Although Mould’s sexual preference was, as he describes it, “an open secret” in the punk scene, he preferred to be known as ‘Bob Mould the musician’ rather than ‘Bob Mould the gay musician’. But others decided they knew what was best for him.
Mould originally discovered his sexuality in the whirlwind pace of the macho US hardcore punk scene of the early 80s where – like any other music scene – pockets of homophobia were still present, despite its apparent liberal and progressive nature. On its own, the teenage advent of sexuality may be terrifying enough to deal with. Multiply that with the early 80s hysteria surrounding the spectre of AIDS. And throw in someone not only away from home and touring for the first time but also discovering his own homosexuality. Even now, Mould seems uncomfortable recalling that baptism of fire.
“To be on tour in San Francisco when either TV or The Bay Area Observer broke the news about the ‘gay cancer’ we’re gonna call AIDS, holy shit... I was confused and closeted... I didn’t identify with gay culture at the time. I had my first boyfriend in the spring of 1983 and we stayed together for six years. I convinced myself that was a safe framework.
“I was already sexually active but I wasn’t at risk. But during the intervening years before there was an actual medical explanation of what AIDS could do, the hysteria around AIDS and the backlash against the gay community and the lack of understanding, support or knowledge from the Reagan administration – that was a convoluted time. For me personally it was easier not to do anything – which is no way to be when you’re 21 or 22. But so it goes...”
Hüsker Dü were the first punk ‘scene’ band to make the jump from an independent punk label (SST, also home to Black Flag) to a major label (Warners) for 1986’s patchy Candy Apple Grey and the following year’s anthem-heavy double album Warehouse Songs And Stories. But there were problems behind closed doors. Growing tensions between Mould and Hart were compounded by the drummer’s heroin addiction. Then, in February 1987, their longtime tour manager David Savoy committed suicide.
Mould later described Savoy taking his own life as “the beginning of the end” of Hüsker Dü. In his autobiography he cites a combination of factors for the suicide: Savoy’s history of emotional issues and stopping taking his medication; the toxic environment of the band; something maybe personal to Savoy of which the band were unaware. By the end of the year, the band had fallen apart, the acrimony between Mould and Hart too deep to resolve.
“It was a combination of relief and shock,” says Mould of the end of the band he’d been a part of between the ages of 18 and 27. “That shock took a while to wear off.”
After years of constant roadburn and full-throttle creativity, Mould opted for a lifestyle at the other end of the scale. He retreated to a farmhouse in rural Minnesota, where he effectively became a recluse.
“I stayed out of everyone’s way – the band, the press – for a good year and a half,” he says. “I had no interest in talking about the break-up of the band. I had no interest in trying to make a case for what I was going through. None of that entered my mind. I just wanted to talk about who I was becoming – rather than who I was. Everybody had it tough as it was. There was no point in getting into an argument about it.”
He’d already left behind the drink and drugs that fuelled his life in Hüsker Dü, but his self-imposed isolation – both mentally and physically – saw the creation of some of his most introspective but brilliant and lauded work. His first solo album, 1989’s Workbook, was a complete contrast to the uncompromising white noise of Hüsker Dü. An album of immense catharsis, it was informed not only by the messy divorce of his former band, but also the fact that the relationship with his then partner was beginning to disintegrate. “I felt isolated, like all I really had was my work,” says Mould of the era. “That’s where all my energies went.”
Following the wreckage and fallout of Hüsker Dü, Workbook was a triumph. Three years later, Sugar’s Copper Blue followed a similarly turbulent period when Mould lost the publishing rights for some of his solo albums. So is it a truism that his best songwriting follows emotional upheaval?
“I think that’s a fair generality,” he laughs, loosening up at the cod psychology. “But I prefer not to subscribe to it for my own personal wellbeing. Although it’s a fair observation. It’s generally the case with art, music or literature: it’s those moments when you’re seemingly left with nothing and you have to create something so you can get back everything.”
Thanks to his constantly evolving excellence in songwriting, Mould did get it all back – in spades. He’s become one of the most all-round respected artists throughout a number of genres – from classic to punk to indie rock.
His early 80s peers like REM and U2, plus those influenced by Hüsker Dü – Pixies, Nirvana, Green Day – went on to huge, planet-straddling success. Even hometown Twin Cities rivals The Replacements were signed first, although Hüsker Dü had a stronger following. Conversely, as a cult figure, Mould always missed out on international mainstream household name success – even despite the commercial achievement of Sugar’s Copper Blue. But it’s not something he’s bitter about.
“In the beginning I always wanted Hüsker Dü to be the best band in the world. When I would say that, I didn’t know how to qualify it. If you put us on a stage next to U2 maybe we could smoke them and make people forget about them. As far as selling millions of records? It was never a goal. The objective was more to appeal to someone to be the best band – walking off the stage and feeling you’ve left it all out there. Everything was physical and everybody saw what you did. That changes people. In my younger days, that was the hope.”
With the revisionist nature of 21st Century music appreciation and the luxury of hindsight, Hüsker Dü are now mentioned in the same breath as those bands who overtook them commercially. If you came from another planet and read the Hüsker Dü hyperbole now, you’d assume they were one of the biggest bands of the 80s. But the record sales never matched the plaudits. Does that annoy Mould?
“Not at all. With Sugar, in 1992, I got close to that level, and financially that was a really good time in my life. But the work and emotional stress that goes with maintaining something of that level – maybe I’m not cut out for it.
“After playing on the Foo Fighters record [Mould appeared on 2011’s Wasting Light], Dave Grohl wanted me to go on the road with them. I did a few arena shows and that was amazing. I got to be part of the big rock world – to look at the machine and see how it worked. Dave is the nicest guy I’ve ever been around, period, and I saw all that and what it is and it’s nice... but do I feel like I should have gotten more? I’m perfectly content with everything that’s happened. But if someone wanted to pop a couple of million bucks in my bank account I wouldn’t say no!”
He may not be keen on becoming a heritage act (despite taking Copper Blue out on the road in 2012) but those who overtook him are giving credit where it’s due.
“I’m a huge Hüsker Dü fan, as is anybody from my musical generation,” Dave Grohl tells Classic Rock. “I met him and I said, ‘I just have to thank you. I know you realise I’ve been ripping you off for 15 years, but I just have to say that you’ve influenced me so much and I consider you a hero.’ And he was really cool. He has such a signature sense of melody and composition. He is a legend, an American hero.”
But recognition of Mould’s talent spreads further than mere protégés. After Pete Townshend attended one of Mould’s gigs in the 90s and introduced himself backstage, the legendary Who guitarist later invited Bob to play support for two of his solo shows at New York’s salubrious Supper Club. During his own set, Townshend told the audience that seeing a stark Mould solo gig encouraged him to do something similar.
“Obviously I’m a huge Who fan, so I was knocked out that he even knew about my work,” says Mould. “It was very surreal. [At the gigs] it was great to see how he operated. To see the people who came to those shows and worshipped him and to see the grace with how he handles himself, it was another learning lesson. You kind of stand back and observe.
“He talked about how much he enjoyed Hüsker Dü’s Celebrated Summer. That he even knew the work existed was pretty great. Those things happen from time to time. I met Peter Gabriel and he echoed those kind of things – it’s always a shock.”
With no intention of fading away himself, Mould’s latest solo work is reminiscent of his best work with both Hüsker Dü and Sugar. Whether he’ll become a household name off the back off it remains to be seen – but seems unlikely.
But which is more enduring – the stadium-filling rock bands who only last so long or Mould’s continuing influence on rock, constantly being rediscovered by every new generation? From the late-80s indie rock era of Pixies, My Bloody Valentine and Dinosaur Jr through to Nirvana and grunge, to the modern-day rock of Green Day and Foo Fighters, and now the fashionable post-hardcore ‘classic’ rock/punk of Gaslight Anthem and Hot Water Music, Hüsker Dü’s legacy still runs deep.
“And to me that’s way more fun!” says Mould, now animated. “If I thought I was cut out for the fame I would have gone for it more. But I know myself well enough and I like where I’m at.”
You’re very modest, Bob.
“My work is loud enough,” he replies. “I don’t need to be that way.”
This article first appeared in Classic Rock issue 181.