EDITOR’S NOTE: This story originally published in 2014 in the pages of MAGNET MAGAZINE. We are reprising it now on the occasion of a string of East Coast solo dates. He play the Queen in Wilmington last night and he plays a sold out show @ The Iridium in NYC tonight. Enjoy.
NEW DAY RISING
Bob Mould has survived the rise and fall of Husker Du in the 80s, Sugar going supernova in the 90s, a premature retirement in the late 90s, a detour into DJ culture during the twilight of the alt-rock gods in the early aughts and a wilderness period in the late aughts. And now, at 53, he is simply making the best music of his career. MAGNET goes to Portlandia to find out how that is even possible.
By Jonathan Valania
One day last month, Bob Mould walked into Portland Music Company, a beloved purveyor of amps, axes and snare drums that serves as armory for the Portlandian indie-rock wars. With his balding dome shaved down to stubble and white Gorton’s fisherman beard, his mouth a crooked scribble, Bob sort of looks like Charlie Brown as a middle-aged man. For reasons not immediately clear, Bob disregards the vast array of musical gear on display and peruses the MUSICIAN WANTED ads tacked to the wall. There’s the usual sad, desperate, Sharpie’d pleas of go-nowhere bands trolling for fresh souls to lure into their drain-circling miasma of FAIL.
ADVERTISING LOOKS AND CHOPS A MUST!
NO BIG HAIR!
CAREER! CAREER! CAREER!
Pathetic. Bob’s eyes begin to glaze over but as he turns to walk away, one ad catches his attention.
BAND SEEKS BASSIST INTO HUSKER DU & PETER, PAUL & MARY
That’s weird, he thinks, those are the exact words of the want ad that Kim Deal responded to when she joined The Pixies 1986. Intrigued, he reaches for one of the tear-away tabs with a phone number and the name CHARLES written on it. Suddenly Jason Narducy, who has been Bob’s touring bassist since 2005, and his biggest fan since the day he heard Workbook, appears out of nowhere and angrily rips down the sign, crumbles it up and storms off, like Lucy pulling away the football from Charlie Brown at the last minute. Startled, Bob’s face lights up with alarm and then dims to that defeated, deflated Charlie Brown look that betrays years of subsisting on on a daily diet of disappointment and quiet desperation. You can see it in his eyes: he feels foolish and unsettled and maybe even a little hurt. If I didn’t know that Narducy was married with children, I’d think it was a lover’s spat. It’s an odd, unflattering moment, uncomfortable to watch, and someone as intensely private as Bob must surely regret that it happened in front of a visiting journalist. Fortunately, it never really happened.
The camera stops filming and everyone on the film crew breaks out in laughter. Nailed it. Next.
The film crew is shooting a video for “I Don’t Know You Anymore”, the uber-catchy earworm of a single from Beauty And Ruin, Bob Mould’s 14th post-Husker Du album and easily his most vital and vibrant work since Copper Blue, maybe since Flip Your Wig. The premise of the video takes some explaining but it’s written by Jon Wurster — who’s been Bob’s drummer for the last six years, in between tours with Mountain Goats and the reactivated Superchunk — so it’s worth the trouble. Because if Wurster is not the the greatest drummers of the indie- rock era, and he could well be, he is certainly the funniest. So let’s break it down: Bob Mould runs into The Decembrists’ Colin Meloy at a Portland rehearsal studio. Meloy plays a slightly more Faustian version of himself and, with thinly-veiled ulterior motives, sets about convincing him that 7-inch singles are a relic of the past. Kids don’t line up to buy records these days, he says, they line up to buy smart phones. If you want to sell music these days, you have to convince people that it will make their lives better. From this exchange Bob gets the bright idea to convince ‘the kids’ that a 7-inch is, despite appearances to the contrary, actually some new, amazing and life-altering form of technology (which, if you think about it, is actually true if you take the word ‘new’ out of that description). Bob assembles the rest of the band for a kooky powerpoint presentation on how to pull off this hoax-cum-marketing-scheme. By the next scene the band has morphed into the marketing equivalent of the A-Team, outfitted with ridiculous matching blue shirts, bricked smartphone pendants hanging around their necks and staple guns, which were, once upon a time, the glue that literally held together the original social media: punk rock flyering. Hilarity ensues.
Now we’re in a gay bar called Crush, and a drag queen with huge Ann Margaret eyelashes and Betty Page bangs is rubbing Bob’s bald head like he’s Buddha. Bob blushes and then he fans himself. It’s getting hot in herre.
The camera stops filming and everyone on the film crew breaks out in laughter. Nailed it. Next.
These are glory days for Bob Mould, valedictorian of the indie rock class of 1984; glowering godfather of alt-rock circa 1992; dark lord of the molten dirge circa 1998; shirtless dancing bear spinning the wheels of steel for the Blow-Off, his hugely successful gay-friendly DJ parties, circa 2002; celebrated warts-n-all memoirist circa 2011; and acknowledged American Master of punk-as-fuck-three-chords-and-the-truth tunesmithery circa now. If it looks like things are finally breaking his way, that was never guaranteed. It could have just as easily gone the other way. In October he turns 54. In rock n’ roll years, that’s 108. At this age you’ve either become a living legend or you’re just old and in the way. You’ve either become a classic or just another neglected wreck rusting in the back yard of the music biz. Perhaps mid-to-late aughts, when Mould released and toured a string of middling albums, a case could have been made that he was trending towards the latter. But in the wake of a high-profile autobiography, See A Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody and a like-titled tribute concert, “See a Little Light: A Celebration of the Music and Legacy of Bob Mould,” curated by Dave Grohl and featuring the likes of Britt Daniel from Spoon, Craig Finn and Tad Kubler from the Hold Steady, and No Age performing his songs at Disney Hall in Los Angeles, not to mention a pair of instant-classic late-career albums for Merge, Bob Mould has raised the curtain on third act that may well trump everything that came before.
Now we’re in Crema, a cavernous dispensary of high-octane caffeinated concoctions, teeming with nattily attired hipsterati sucking back double skinny lattes and pecking away at laptops and smart phones. In between takes of a scene — wherein Team Bob works the room, hyping the mysterious, life-changing invention they plan to unveil the following day at this thing called a record store — a steady stream of 20 and 30somethings approach Bob for autographs or selfies or just to tell him how Flip Your Wig or Copper Blue got them through many a dark night of the soul.
After a rocky two-album tenure at Anti (“You could barely tell that he was even on Anti,” says Wurster. “The last show of the tour for the last record he did for Anti, I don’t remember anyone from Anti even showing up to that one, which was in L.A, their own backyard.”) Mould jumped ship to Merge and released The Silver Age, an album that crackles with an intensity and clarity of purpose not heard since the early days of Sugar. Plus, it marked the moment that Mould, with the assistance of new recording engineer Bo Sorenson, finally nailed his guitar tone. Every song is a master class on how an electric guitar should sound — and it only took him 20 albums to get it right.
“I have two years left on my Faustian bargain,” Mould jokes when asked about it. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
If the tribute concert gave him a shot in the arm, the process of combing through his past with an unforgiving eye to write his memoir forced him to confront himself in a way he hadn’t done since doing talk therapy nearly 20 years ago. “I went for nine months, it was fun,” he says of that time. “It was a great time. Really, really fun. Really fun. I’m not being flip about it. It was actually, like, ‘oh wow, I see why people do this.’ You know, I think a lot of musicians and artists think that they should put all of that psychodrama into your work, you know? It’s always your life is the canvas, you’re life is the melody. And it surely is, but they get scared that if somebody gets in there they’re going to mess with the process. Well, in my case it didn’t.”
Bob Mould is a serious man. If we learn nothing else from his memoir, it’s that Bob Mould takes the business of being Bob Mould very seriously. In the book Mould frequently refers to himself in the third person and admits that he suffers from compensatory narcissism, which not psychologist Theodore Million defines as:
Seeks to counteract or cancel out deep feelings of inferiority and lack of self-esteem; offsets deficits by creating illusions of being superior, exceptional, admirable, noteworthy; self-worth results from self-enhancement.
In person he comes across as a much more humble and deferential person than you might expect from reading the book. He gives the impression that he doesn’t really like talking about himself even though he’s good at it, but he would never stop others from doing so, especially if they are as well-informed as Jason Narducy, his most trusted lieutenant, who, along with Wurster, will serve, for the purposes of this story, as a two-man Greek Chorus regarding the recent life and times of Bob Mould.
“With Body of Song, and District Line, and Life and Times, which were the first three records I had toured with him for, it was a more a scattered vision and I think Bob was maybe distracted by how huge Blowoff had become,” Narducy says. “I think he had one foot in the DJ world and one foot in the rock world whereas by the time Silver Age came around, both feet were squarely back in the rock and I think he credits Dave Grohl for kind of dragging him back into that. He recorded and toured with the Foo Fighters, and was just, you know, like, ‘Wait a minute. Rock is fun. Rock is great.’ You’ll have to ask him, but that’s the vibe that I got was that he came back to Silver Age and was like ‘okay, let’s do this.’
“That tribute show kind of gave me the drive to get a ton of really cool songs written in a heartbeat, and get back in with Jason and John, and start making what would become Silver Age,” says Mould.
Concurrent with the release of The Silver Age was the 20th anniversary of Sugar’s Copper Blue, upon which, many would argue, he painted his masterpiece. Touring on the backs their dual release felt like a victory lap. “You know, Silver Age was just sort of a nice complementary record to Copper Blue,” says Narducy. “And so we would tour playing most of Copper Blue and playing most of Silver Age, and the tour was a huge success. And I think it really helped bring people back. You know, like, Bob did the autobiography which is huge for bringing his fanbase back, to re-engaging them. And then when Silver Age came out and we toured Copper Blue, it was sort of like everybody was ready to come back, you know?”
“The Sugar reissues were released that summer and Silver Age came out in the fall and we went out and played Copper Blue stuff, we played Silver Age stuff, we played Husker stuff,” says Mould. “It was just like a super, super party thing and after all these years of this aggression, this rage, this confrontation and chaos — it was great to just play music that made people happy.”
But the party came to a crashing halt in October of 2012 when his father passed away. Bob took it harder than he thought he would. “As I talk about it in the book, I love my dad, but he was a hard case,” says Mould. “Still, he was the guy who gave me music. In the year between his passing in October 2012 to going in the studio in October 2013, a lot of great things were happening. So I sort of kept it to myself and buckled down, but as time went on I started thinking about it. Something like that definitely brings mortality right to you, makes you think about bits and pieces of conversations that we had towards the end, thinking about loss, life, think about legacy, things that we all have to think about whether we want to or not. And it sort of informs the new album, and I started getting deeper into the writing and into the themes of the record: loss and decline, flashbacks, memories”
At some point in the last two years, Narducy noticed that the black cloud that’s hung over Bob’s head since the dark day he first heard his father beat his mother and psychologically destroy his sister, finally seemed to have blown over. “I think Bob has now found a place where he’s comfortable presenting where he is in life and how that sounds and how that meets what other people expect of him,” says Narducy. “I think maybe for those first three records there was a search going on or he didn’t care as much. And now it’s like ‘well, wait a minute. If I present these songs the way I’m feeling now in this way, it makes sense for everybody.’ And it is, like you said, he’s having more fun. He’s smiling more.”
Smiling Bob is a different Bob than the one Narducy encountered when he joined Bob’s band back in 2005.
“Back then he was maybe not as open, you know, more reclusive,” says Narducy. “People interpreted that as maybe a darker space and maybe it was but for people that were, that he felt comfortable with, he’s always been really funny. People don’t realize that, but he’s got a wicked wit. He’s always been very sweet, thoughtful, and kind, and always a gentlemen, you know, and that’s…you know, sometimes I read these articles about Controlling Bob and, you know, Tyrannical Bob. And it’s like, well, he’s in charge of his career because he makes good decisions. But if you look back 20 years, the same people are still working with him. Same agent, same lawyer. So what does that tell you?”
Now we’re at Millenium Music, which, even if you’ve never been to Portland, you would know from the opening credits to Portlandia as the building with the words KEEP PORTLAND WEIRD written on the side. Millenium Music is the kind of record store that Record Store Day was created to preserve: an independently-owned institution with a massive inventory of rare vinyl and assorted semi-precious audio artifacts, that regularly hosts in-stores performances by visiting indie luminaries, and it’s run by people who are still young enough to be passionate about music yet old enough to know what they are talking about. The rest of the video shoot will take place in and around Millenium Music and it is here, in between shooting scenes, that I will pick the brains of Mould, Narducy and Wurster, both together and alone, for the secret of the resurgent awesomeness of brand Mould.
During a break from shooting a scene where he buys off the record store owner in a shady backroom deal with a stack of cash and an autographed vinyl copy of Husker Du’s Candy Apple Grey, while Wurster and Narducy lock down the perimeter like steroidal Secret Service agents, Mould shrugs when asked to explain the origins of his new hot streak. He points to the accrued wisdom of age and his middle-aged epiphany that the headlong pursuit of perfection is a fool’s errand. “When you finally get everything exactly the way you want it, that’s the moment it changes. You know? It’s never perfect for long,” he says. “You spend all that effort to get your house in order and get everything placed exactly in the place it should be and something will turn the table upside down and you have to start over. You just go with it.”
He turns to Wurster. “I don’t sweat the small stuff as much as I used to, so I mean, what do you think Jon? Do I sweat the small stuff?
Jon: No, it’s very different. I mean, not that you were tyrannical or…
Bob: Not in this decade.
Jon: No, not at all.
Bob: Not in the last decade. Previous decades perhaps.
Jon: But on this record and the last one, it was, you were way less microscopic.
At some point, after years of touring, Wurster and Narducy went from being hired guns to brothers in arms in a musical enterprise that’s increasingly become a solo act in name only. I would submit that the trio of Mould, Wurster and Narducy is no less a band than Sugar. I’d go one further and say it’s the best band Bob Mould’s ever had. “The three of us have played music together for six years, and in that time we’ve become very aware of playing to our strengths as a unit,” says Mould. “I wrote most of the music for Beauty & Ruin with those strengths — melody, simplicity, brevity — in mind. The words are my thoughts alone. The three of us have a lot of common albums in our respective collections. We think a lot about music — construction, execution, and presentation. We’ve built trust and understanding over the past six years, we have respect for each other as people and players, and we know how fortunate we are to have a great thing going at this moment. I guess I traded in the reins for a steering wheel. I still map things out for fellow musicians but in far less detail than before.”
A firm believer that over-familiarity breeds contempt, Bob likes the fact they come together to record and tour and then go their separate ways: Bob to San Francisco where he currently lives, after extended residencies in Minneapolis, Austin, Tribeca, Atlanta and Washington D.C.; Narducy to Chicago where his day job is fronting Split Single (with Spoon’s Britt Daniel on bass and Wurster on drums); and Wurster to Chapel Hill, which, between tours with Superchunk, Mountain Goats and of course Mould, he calls home.
“I can’t speak for the other guys but having been in really intense band situations, you know, Huskers especially, we all lived in the same town and grew up together musically. You know, the intensity of that and the circle of people around it. That’s really great when you’re in your 20s. Later in life — I used to move in and out of things, you know? Have a little distance, really, because it’s like when we get together I really look forward to it. It’s just like, I get really excited when I’m packing.”
Since he brought up Husker Du, I ask him the question he’s been asked 457,876,621 times on the off-chance that the 457,876,622nd time he’s asked if Husker Du will ever regroup the answer will be different. No such luck.
“There’s no need, there’s no need,” he says.”That band did everything it had to do the first time around. To try to put the lightning back in that bottle ain’t going to happen. You know, I’ll be really simple about it. Grant could stuff that lightning back in the bottle and I’d come and rip the cap off it. And vice versa. That tension and that friction made for, you know, that good — when the competition was in good nature and good spirit, it did great things. When it became destructive it destroyed it. And you just don’t go back to stuff like that. Nobody in their right mind should ever go back to something like that. You know, that was a great band, you know, great band. And there’s no way it could be as good in the future as it was even close to the end. So why bother?”
Why bother? I’ll tell you ‘why bother.’ Husker Du, along with REM and the Replacements, formed a troika of indie-rock royalty that produced some of the greatest music of the early to mid-80s. Nineteen eighty-four was their annus mirabilis. REM released Reckoning, The Replacements released Let It Be and Husker Du released Zen Arcade. All three soon signed major label deals with varying results. The Replacements released four albums of increasingly diminished returns before limping across the finish line in 1991, not with a bang but a whimper. A reconstituted version of the surviving ‘Mats has been playing festival dates for the last year. REM would, of course, go on to global stardom before eventually calling it a career in 2011. Husker Du lasted just two albums, the uneven Candy Apple Grey and the overlong and underwhelming Warehouse: Songs And Stories, having peaked creatively with 1986’s Flip Your Wig. Come 1987 the band was history. But I saw them live back in the day and I’m here to tell you that from 1984 to 1986 Husker Du was The Greatest Fucking Band On Earth. Transcendental, supersonic, louder than bombs. Like The Byrds circa “Eight Miles High” being sucked inside the engine of a 747.
That’s ‘why bother.’
With my time dwindling I decide to run out the clock trying to get Husker Du back together. Hey, stranger things have happened. I got Brian Wilson to finally finish Smile, didn’t I? (It’s a long story, but I kinda think I did, actually. Still working on Galaxie 500, by the way.)
When was the last time you guys spoke?
“We were all on a call not too long ago actually trying to do, for the first time in ages, trying to get the estate back in order. So things are actually not bad, as long as there are people passing the messages along — it actually works better. You know?
You guys don’t talk, you guys don’t speak directly?
“No,” he says. “I mean, we communicate, but it’s, you know, that’s not productive. I think it’s best to have other people try and manage [Husker Du’s affairs]. You know, if you go back and you look at the end of the band, you know especially fall of ’87 after [manager] David [Savoy] killed himself and we were out just going through the work that we had to do, and when I gave up, you know, in the late summer of ’87 and said to [Grant Hart and Greg Norton] I’ve had enough, I’ve got to get a manager. I can’t do this anymore. You know? We can’t do it this way. That just didn’t work. I don’t know how the hell we kept that thing together the way we did. You know? It’s complicated like anything is. Complicated. But no, it’s good to find mediators who can decipher all of the nonsense that all of us bring to it.”
Speaking of nonsense, I tell him I read an interview with Grant Hart where he claims that 10 years ago or so you offered to buy him and Greg Norton out of their financial interest and intellectual property rights to Husker Du for something like $500K. Is that accurate?
“In June of 2001, Grant Hart and Greg Norton were talking about suing SST for unpaid and delinquent royalties,” he says. “A lawsuit of this size and scope in the state of California would be very expensive — around $50,000 — just to file and set in motion. I offered to pay for the lawsuit, but in return Grant and Greg would have to stay uninvolved so that I sue SST myself without encumbrances, changes, or mid-stream indecision. I had my attorney Josh Grier draw up an offer for a one-time payment of $15,000 each to Grant and Greg. As ever, they would retain co-ownership of the Hüsker Dü name, but would be silent partners in this lawsuit. I didn’t care about the name Hüsker Dü, nor holding sole ownership of the SST catalog. While conducting research for my book, I found and reviewed the document, and it most certainly appeared as if I was trying to buy them out. It wasn’t the intent or design, but the interpretation lies in the mind of the reader.”
Now we’re at a rehearsal studio on the southeast side of town, filming the last scene of the video shoot, just hours before Mould and co. have to leave for the airport. Somewhat counter-intuitively, it will be the first scene of the video, where Bob runs into Colin Meloy, who plays a slightly more evil version of himself and proceeds to lecture Bob on how he’s wasting his time with 7-inch singles and touring around the country in a van. If you want to sell records these days, he tells him with a devilish glint in his eyes, you’ve got to use smartphone apps and social media — specifically a new form of social media called Blorphing,’ which is a new app The Decemberists are releasing in July. “It’s going to change the way thinking people think about thinking about ordering faux-bacon, kale-infused, vegan donuts at 2 a.m.,” he boasts to a bewildered Bob.
The real Collin Meloy has been a Bob Mould fan since the day he bought Candy Apple Grey when he was all of 13, he tells me during a break in the shoot. “Growing up being unsure of my own identity, I mean, in my school you were either into DRI or country music,” he says. “I felt like Husker Du was so much more dynamic than that, and I remember reading that he wrote all his songs on a twelve-string guitar, which is this folk instrument, and then played them with this loud noisy band and that to me seemed weird and cool and it showed me that there was a place for everything.”
When the cameras start rolling Meloy finishes giving Bob his Faustian sales pitch. “Listen, if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a veteran of the business,” he says, oozing unctuous faux-arrogance, “if you want to sell something you’ve got to make people believe it’ll make their lives better and that they can’t live without it.” Then Meloy exits stage right and the camera zooms in on Bob’s face as his expression evolves from confusion to a moment of clarity while he repeats Meloy’s mantra: Can’t. Live. Without it.
That’s a wrap, people. As the crew starts to break down the gear, Bob and his bandmates jumped into a waiting car and make a mad dash for the airport. Wurster and Narducy jetted off to Coachella for a Superchunk show (Narducy’s replaced Laura Ballance, who suffers from hyperacusis, as the band’s touring bass player, though she still plays bass on the albums), and Bob flew back to San Francisco for a couple days of R&R before jetting off to Paris to do European press for the new album. And that BASSIST WANTED INTO HUSKER DU AND PETER PAUL AND MARY sign that caused so much trouble? It’s hanging on my refrigerator where it can never hurt anyone ever again.