“It’s clearly a record that sonically is built for the stage so we can’t wait to try these out live. There’s also this deep songbook we need to address”
Not everyone can say that they’ve been in a couple of important bands in the alternative rock realm while also having a solo discography with albums in the double digits, but Bob Mould can. He started his career during the height of punk’s formation in 1979 with the legendary Saint Paul act Hüsker Dü, and during the early-to-mid- ’90s was fronting the Austin-based band Sugar on vocals and guitar.
Mould has also had an extensive solo career that he started after the end of his first band during the late ‘80s. This career has resulted in a prolific output of 14 albums that have recently been documented in a series of box sets.
With Jon Wurster from Superchunk and the Mountain Goats on drums and Jason Narducy from Verbow on bass, Mould will run through a ton of his extensive catalog at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston on Sept. 16 with Halifax power pop trio Kestrels opening up.
Mould and I recently spoke about his latest album, Blue Hearts, going from happiness to politics, comparing the Reagan era to the Trump era, and looking forward to finally getting out of California.
It’s almost been an exact year since you put out your most recent album Blue Hearts on September 25 of 2020. Did COVID-19 shutting everything down kind of kickstart the making the record since you were off the road?
The foundational song on the album, “American Crisis,” was originally meant to be on the previous record Sunshine Rock back in 2019. That was an intentionally happy album and “American Crisis” is a rather dire song so I kept it off of it. Throughout that year I was splitting my time between San Francisco and Berlin, when I got back to the states that November I quickly realized how polarized the country was becoming. I obviously read the news when I’m in Berlin but being back in America and feeling all of the strain fueled more writing in that direction. It was a little bit more of a protest, political and social justice kind of record and in January of 2020 I was on the road for three weeks test driving a lot of the songs that became Blue Hearts.
I was getting great feedback from crowds and during the first two weeks of the following month myself, my drummer Jon Wurster and Jason Narducy my bass player were locked away at Electrical Audio in Chicago and that’s where we recorded Blue Hearts. I started seeing things in the news about China and people getting welded into their apartments because there was some kind of virus and some illness loose. I came back to San Francisco and then I went over to Oakland to have the album mixed and finished and photo shoots done by the end of February. Then it was mid-March when we had to start locking down so the record was written more as a reaction to the politics of America from 2016 through the beginning of 2020. With all the other stuff since, it’s weird how things happen I guess.
You mentioned how Sunshine Rock is a happy album and you’ve mentioned in the past that there’s a bit of personal nostalgia with it because it echoes the ’60s music you were raised on. Blue Hearts, as you said, is very political while confronting the current political climate, especially during the four years of the Trump administration. There’s a certain darkness to it that Sunshine Rock doesn’t have, they’re almost polar opposites of each other, so how did you mentally transition from this theme of nostalgia to a very real and political record?
I guess one way to try to answer that is to go back to 2012 when I put out Silver Age which was sort of a celebratory record and certain things in my life happened after that record came out. I lost my dad and I wrote the album Beauty & Ruin, I then lost my mom so I wrote Patch the Sky. After two records with those experiences being at the core of what I was at as a person and then moving over to Berlin and trying to refresh myself to start over, that was the intention with Sunshine Rock. With Blue Hearts, there were a couple of different things that were going on. One is the things you said, the Trump years, this menace and a large portion of the country seeming hell bent on destroying democracy at possibly the behest of another country or possibly because people like reality TV and they think it’s real.
For me personally, a lot of what drove me to make Blue Hearts and the way that it ended up was me looking back at the early ’80s. I was born in 1960, so when I was in San Francisco during the summer of ’81 and I started hearing whisperings about this cancer that was killing gay men in the city, which was what we eventually discovered to be HIV AIDS. There also was the Reagan administration and their nonchalant view with the moral majority’s hectoring, lecturing, and wanting of the gay community to disappear, rounded up or whatever they were talking about. Those things hit me pretty hard as a young gay man and I was not living an out life. My sexuality was an open secret in the ’80s and I did what I could do to support the community and make my thoughts known but one of the things I feel like I neglected to do was that I could have been more active in protesting.
I disliked the government at that time for what they were doing while marginalizing me and my community. To fast forward back to Blue Hearts, I didn’t want to feel that way about myself again so in very plain English the words on this album hopefully get my point across. That’s the history of that.
You must have been a bit afraid to speak out because of possible backlash from someone trying to harm you just for being who you are.
For me, I’m a big guy and I can defend myself, but quite honestly I was very single-minded about my music, about the band I was in, and wanting to be perceived as a musician first who happened to be gay. A lot of the fear-based stuff, maybe not as much for me, but I know other people who were very afraid to be out and they were probably living in rural situations where it was really tough. When I was living in the Twin Cities it was a pretty progressive place so I wasn’t really feeling that kind of harm-based fear. In the ’80s, I really wanted to define myself as a musician who happened to be gay and I think that’s where I was coming from. To fast forward those kinds of ideas now to where we are, the trans community really has it tough right now.
They’re experiencing a lot of that ridiculous inhumane bias that certain people harbor. Why people are so worried about these things I really don’t know. There’s much bigger things to be worried about at the moment.
I totally agree. Were you living in Berlin during the pandemic lockdown last year or were you living in San Francisco?
I was in San Francisco and I haven’t left the state of California since mid-March when we all went into full lockdown. I’ve driven up and down the state but I haven’t been on an airplane and I haven’t left California so I’m a little nervous about the upcoming tour and some of the travels that I will be taking. I feel like I’m in a very protective bubble out here in California.
Have you been able to reach out to friends in Berlin and see how Germany has been handling COVID-19 versus the United States? From what I’ve heard, read and seen, Europeans are more open to taking the vaccine, masking up and following the guidelines so what’s your take on it?
Germany is a social democracy and people there are afforded great freedom because they take great responsibility. Those two things are intrinsically linked in human beings. As far as the pandemic, I think they responded pretty quickly and competently and I think overall they’re in a little better position at the moment. They were slow to get the vaccine only because of the supply but now their compliance rate is higher than ours, I don’t think it’s a lot higher though. It sounds like a parallel experience, people are saying that the kids on the train don’t seem to care as much but from my experiences in Germany the idea of family and taking care of vulnerable people and the elderly is sort of baked into the society there more so than where America is currently at.
They might be doing a touch better, but we’re all having a time with this, right? When I was over there, there’s a far-right political element there that is present and they make their thoughts known. It’s odd because Germany is a very educated country and really into science but there’s a group of people there who don’t always have the greater good in mind, but I think that’s everywhere.
You’ve been producing your music along with other people’s music since your days with Hüsker Dü, so when it comes to doing the behind the scenes work for one of your records versus a record from a band or a musician, do you have a different way of handling other people’s projects versus your own or do you go about it the same way regardless of what it is?
Every record is different. When it comes to producing my own work, I have spent a lot of time before getting to the studio thinking about production, thinking about song structure and thinking about the sequencing. I sort of write records with an eventual sequence in mind, once I get a start and I get a closer, once I get to the end of side one, once I get to the end of side two, then I get to song three and I get five musical tent poles which I use to build a record. I always try to write things with a narrative or a sequence in mind.
With other people’s records … Titus Andronicus’ An Obelisk is the last record I’ve produced for another artist. Great band, great songs, an incredible live band and they came to me wanting to make a back to basics record. They had a few albums prior to this one that were pretty expansive, they tried a lot of new ideas and I think they came to me wanting to make a down and dirty sort of American punk rock record. With that directive, I went back and refreshed myself with various early American punk records and production or lack of production techniques.
Working with the band, my job is to try to give guidance, to be a referee sometimes between people in a band where they each have song ideas and they’ll try a couple different ones and hopefully the good idea makes itself clear and known. There’s stuff like booking studios, booking travel, and making sure all that stuff is in order but I just try to bring my experiences in the studio, I try to be really mindful of their comfort level, I try to get the work done efficiently and I try to capture the moment, whatever that moment is because you can’t really predict it.
You sort of know the song but you never know how people are going to approach it. I have to learn the band dynamic and I have to do it really quickly so those are the differences. For me, Jason and Jon I present a fairly formed idea and those guys always make it sound better just because they’re both great musicians. It’s all pretty different processes.
You recently put out a series of box sets under the name Distortion, so how did you go about putting all of this together and how do you plan on incorporating it into this current run of shows you’re on? Can we expect you and your band to perform a bunch of rare material along with songs from Blue Hearts?
Demon Music Group, who are out of London, did a Sugar box set reissue in 2012 and it was really beautiful, it really turned out nice and people loved it. Maybe five years ago, Demon came to me with the idea of doing a career retrospective. At the time, I was deep in the last decade where there was lots of touring and lots of new records being made and I didn’t think it was the right time. A few years afterwards, I recognized that the idea of vinyl records may not be with us forever and if I was going to do something like this then I better get to it sooner rather than later. We started talking about it, we went out and got all the rights and stuff for that and spent the better part of a year cleaning up the mastering, reimagining the artwork and here’s what we ended up with, I’m really proud of it.
In terms of how the shows will read, it’s interesting because the tour is called “Distortion & Blue Hearts” and Blue Hearts is this political record with me trying to reconcile my negligent past with my active present. It’s clearly a record that sonically is built for the stage so we can’t wait to try these out live. There’s also this deep songbook we need to address so it’s sort of looking like a lot of Blue Hearts and a lot of favorites from all the eras. It’s going to be a pretty comprehensive set list and man, I really can’t wait. Starting a tour at the Paradise ought to be great.