Bob Mould Takes Us Through His Past And Toward His New Album Patch The Sky
Bob Mould has noticed the changes. Right there across this street in Williamsburg, that’s where he used to park his Dodge Omni, the one that got its windows broken three times in a much different time, a much different place. Half this building didn’t even exist back then. They just built a few more floors discordantly onto the preexisting structure, so that it looks like two separate buildings stacked together. Like everything else nearby, that process doesn’t seem to be anywhere near the end. Combatting the quiet of this particular weekday afternoon are the grinding sounds of construction, trucks thundering down the road to some probably-soon-to-be-gone warehouse or another. Mould takes it all in, marveling at how radically different the Brooklyn neighborhood is from when he lived here from 1991-1993. Like many of his peers and friends from the Hüsker Dü days, Mould hasn’t aged into some kind of uncomfortable, cartoonish John Varvatos vision of rock ‘n’ roll, because he was never that. Ironically enough for one of the ’80s college-rock godfathers of indie music, he looks like an off-duty professor today: glasses and a fine white beard flecked with fleeting darkness, a knit hat, unobtrusively colored clothing. But then he’ll throw out an anecdote about Jeff Buckley coming over to sing Bad Brains’ “Pay To Cum” a capella in the living room upstairs. This was one of the many chapters in Mould’s life, and one that’s far removed now.
The next chapter, the one we’re meeting to talk about today, is his forthcoming album, Patch The Sky, which will be out in March. It’s the third in what now feels like a series of related projects. Stemming from his 2011 memoir See A Little Light: The Trail Of Rage And Melody, which he co-wrote with Michael Azerrad, Mould has been on a streak that’s prolific — even for him — while also marking something of a career resurgence. Both 2012’s Silver Age and 2014’s Beauty & Ruin garnered some of the strongest attention and positive reception of anything he’s done since his ’90s trio Sugar, and Patch The Sky continues in their vein, feeling like perhaps the capstone to this era of mingled remembrance and renewed vitality that has occurred in the post-memoir phase. Today has that mixture of the past and present, too. Mould and I are talking about his newest music, but he’s in town because he joined his friends in Dinosaur Jr. last night at one of their 30th anniversary shows at Manhattan’s Bowery Ballroom. Somehow, it was the first time they’d all shared a stage. There had been tours together, and that time Mould and Lou Barlow played together on 120 Minutes. The guys asked Mould if they could all do the early Hüsker Dü track “In A Free Land” (for which J Mascis set aside his guitar and played drums instead); Mould asked if they could do the Dinosaur Jr. classic “Freak Scene.” Lee Ranaldo and Fred Armisen were hanging out, too, and everybody did Neil Young’s “Cortez The Killer” for the encore. “Everybody was on the verge of tears,” Mould says, remembering it all a day later, thinking about the milestone of what his friends had achieved. This, like a lot of things today, has Mould discussing the passage of time.
This apartment in Williamsburg, a few blocks from McCarren Park, is a remnant of one period in Mould’s life. He used to occupy a whole floor, paying $1,600 a month for a 4,400 sq. ft. apartment, which is enough to make a current Brooklyn resident laugh in self-hating disbelief and writhe in pain, and that’s before Mould tells you he had a chance to buy the whole building for less than what an apartment in the neighborhood would go for now. (“Do you regret that?” I ask; “Ya think!?” he responds, breaking his revery.) This apartment is where he wrote most of Sugar’s landmark debut album, Copper Blue, and all of its pulverizing follow-up, the Beaster EP. He points to the windows, recalling how the metal floors in his makeshift studio made everything sound insane. “I remember playing [Peter Buck] Beaster in that room like, full-tilt, and he was just like ‘What!?‘” Mould says, mimicking a face of horrified wonder.
Mould wants to stop here and in Tribeca today, to trace both his stints in the city. But, really, it all effectively traces the winding road and many locales of his life. This has been the pattern for Mould through much of his career. Every several years, he relocates and settles into a new place, finds different inspiration and encounters different characters. Between the dual New York stints, there was one in Austin through the mid-’90s. After NYC pt. 2 ended in the early ’00s, he decamped to D.C. and hung around through the rest of the Bush years, witnessing that city begin to gentrify and build itself up much in the way his former New York spots were, too. “That’s the beauty of self-employment,” he muses. “For my job, I don’t need to be anywhere. Sometimes I’ll go to a place to have a fresh start, around new people. That kind of stuff really has an impact on the work. My work is all about my life.” Since leaving D.C. in ’09, he’s been in San Francisco, and it’s that era that’s birthed the series of resurgence albums that lead up to Patch The Sky.
The oldest song on Patch The Sky is “Hold On,” which Mould says began as a downtempo acoustic song in 2013. For a moment back then, he considered the idea of going back into the acoustic-dominated direction he’d favored at times in the past, such as on his solo debut Workbook in 1989. By the time he got back from a hard tour in late 2014, he began writing for another album in earnest. After an invigorating performance on Letterman early last year where he and his band crammed together two of the faster numbers (“Tomorrow Morning” and “Kid With A Crooked Face”) from Beauty & Ruin — leading, apparently, to dust falling from the rafters — he considered instead making an album full of furious, uptempo two minute tracks, really going back to a full-blown punk energy. He tried that for a while, but it didn’t stick. “I wasn’t feeling [that approach] right this minute,” he explains. “My soul is a little bit heavier right now. It wasn’t floating up as bright as it had for a couple of years. So, I dug a little deeper and went with what I was really feeling.” Mould allows that Patch The Sky may feel darker, or might not be as crowd-pleasing as a set of ferocious rockers, but in the end he felt “a fast punk rock record would’ve sort of been a lie.”
Among many other topics, Mould processed the death of his father on Beauty & Ruin; he had passed shortly after the release of Silver Age. And between Beauty & Ruin and Patch The Sky, Mould lost his mother, too. Otherwise, he stays a bit vague about the circumstances that lead to the darker period that birthed the record: “relationships ending,” people getting sick. “I sorta felt like I got kicked in the balls real good,” he explains. “My head was so fucked I was lashing out, acting out, just all that shit that comes up when stuff falls apart on you. I was like, ‘Okay, I just need to go away. Get the fuck out of the light.'” At one point, he’d considered the title Brighter Darker for the album. (“But that’s so Nick Drake…” he trails off.) Instead, he found his way to Patch The Sky after months of writing and working his way out of the state a rough year had left him in. He describes a vision, of when people leave or things end, of something shooting through the “fabric of the sky” and disappearing. “Sometimes you think you want to chase it,” he says, meditating on the people or elements you lose along the way in life. “Sometimes you get right to the edge of it, and sow it back shut and stay on the other side. Does that make sense?” You decide to patch the sky and keep going, instead of shooting through yourself.
“That sounds like there’s hope there, then, despite the album coming from a darker place,” I say.
“Oh, yeah, yeah. I mean, we’re talking,” he laughs. “That’s the good news. It’s all good. Some years are better than others.”
Some of the music on the new album sounds like that hope, sounds like the process of patching up the sky. It is, at least, not the most intense or darkest music of his career, sonically-speaking. Instead, Patch The Sky is another installment in this series of recent solo albums that find Mould at the height of his powers again, churning out heavy power-pop songs with infectious, sometimes even pretty, melodies surrounded by swarms of distorted guitar. While they might not hinge on the vicious, direct punk sound Mould may have originally envisioned for the album, many of the tracks here still thrash their way towards catharsis, earworm vocals leading you through all the desperation and reckoning of the music itself on songs like “You Say You,” “Black Confetti,” or “Daddy’s Favorite.” There are clearly moody moments, too, like the more dialed-back churn of “Hold On,” or the incongruously dreamy tumble of “Losing Sleep,” a strange detour mid-album that is also one of Patch The Sky‘s highlights. (Mould seems surprised and pleased when I mention this is currently my favorite track on the album, and then he credits his bandmates for seeing something in this “weird, strummy” thing he had, and running with it.)
My head was so fucked I was lashing out, acting out, just all that shit that comes up when stuff falls apart on you.
Eventually, our walk around Williamsburg winds down. We pass a chic-looking distillery that leaves Mould taken aback, once more, at how unrecognizable it all is to him. We stand on the corner and talk in broader terms about what this all means to Mould, about his process of sifting through life and funneling it into his art in some fashion. As much as Mould’s music is often about his experiences, or the stories through which to process those experiences, he doesn’t set out to do this explicitly — at least not in the way of choosing a particular topic and then trying to attack it in a song that afternoon. “When I do [that] it feels forced,” he says. “It tells me what to say later.” He keeps notes all the time, but when it actually comes time to sit down and write a song, he has to wait for it to reveal itself to him. All the different people and places and emotions of his life are in the mix, filtered through here and there, finding their way into this riff or that story, influencing him in this way or another. “It’s more like a rainbucket than anything,” he explains. “Just trying to catch the rain as it comes out of the sky, figure it out later.”
To some of his fans, Mould’s second period of New York life would mark the beginning of something of a lost period. The preceding year, he’d released The Last Dog And Pony Show and decided he was done with full-band tours. Instead, he took a break from music and began writing professional wrestling scripts for WCW. It was also during this time that he began exploring a passion for electronic music. When he did go back to recording, it resulted in the 2002 album Modulate, which bore experimentation directly rooted in his newfound interest in electronica and dance. This probably goes without saying, but a lot of his fans did not, and do not, hold this record in high esteem. This seems a little quaint in the music landscape of 2016, but Mould is such a guitar-oriented figure — a guitar hero, really, for generations of alternative bands — that the move is looked at as jarring, even a betrayal. “I had resentment about that at times, like, why can’t I grow?” Mould says. “I don’t sweat that stuff anymore. There’s not enough time. I used to worry about all that stuff so much.”
From there, the D.C. years yielded more familiar Mould albums. But they were also the years where he had his DJ side project Blowoff with Richard Morel. From 2007-2009, Blowoff had a show a month at D.C.’s 9:30 Club, always sold out. “When we’re doing 15,000 people a year, in one venue, for people to come see us play records? That’s fucking huge,” he says. “My rock fans have no idea.” The reason he makes that stipulation is that his engagement with the electronic world through his second phase in New York and D.C. also came out of his increasing comfort with and embrace of his identity as a gay man, and his subsequent immersion in the gay community. When he talks about it now, he’s extremely proud of Blowoff and what that meant to the gay community of which he’d become a part. For most people who weren’t there for it or don’t know the context, it may still seem like a tangent before the currently revitalized version of Mould’s career in the rock world. “That’s like, an adjunct that a lot of people don’t give a lot of credence,” he says — older and more forgiving, seeming to understand why his rock fans might still be stuck in their lane. It’s evident it was important to him personally, though, and without that, you probably don’t get to the version of Mould we see today.
I have these memory boxes called songs that I bring along wherever I go and I tell them to people and people are like, ‘Oh my god, I thought I’d never see that box again.’
Given the context of the day — slingshotting between various points in the past to explain the present Mould of Patch The Sky — it’s easy to look back at Mould’s penchant for cataloguing his life, and to see a larger project beginning with his memoir and following through the subsequent three albums. It feels like a collective meditation on life, experience, mortality — and it feels conscious, even if Mould says he never writes with such specific intent. I ask if, as he ages, there’s some impulse towards that kind of larger endeavor capturing all the stories, all the images. “I can’t outrun it. I know it’s gonna come up,” he allows. “I can either be difficult and say I only want to talk about my new thing, or I can say, ‘I’d really like to talk about my new thing in the context of old things I’ve done, which is, I think, the best way to tell the story.”
It’s all Bob Mould. Maybe not the exact same version of the man from Hüsker Dü or Sugar or Blowoff, but he’s reached a point where he values carrying all of that with him, anywhere he goes. “I have these memory boxes called songs that I bring along wherever I go and I tell them to people and people are like, ‘Oh my god, I thought I’d never see that box again,'” he says. He struggles to find the explicit words for the alternative, but the core idea of it is: well, a lot of people didn’t make it to this point, to have the minor trouble of that much history to parse. Anyone working around artists or in the music world probably loses a few friends along the way. Considering Mould’s past trials with substance and alcohol abuse, it has an even greater gravity when he alludes to it. He could’ve been one of the ones who didn’t make it to the point where you become an elder statesman.
It took some doing, though, that aging gracefully into a latter-day renaissance. Part of the credit goes to See A Little Light. Specifically, Mould refers to working through the fallout of Hüsker Dü. “[The memoir] got a lot of stuff out of the way,” he says. ” I think for 20 plus years I didn’t say anything about it. It wasn’t going to do anybody any good to talk about that stuff.” At the same time, he laughingly recalls how, in the process of writing the book with Azerrad, his co-writer kept asking him “What’s the heat?” The rupture between Mould and his former bandmate Grant Hart was, to any outside observer, always assumed to very tumultuous. For Mould, after telling his side of the story and stepping back, he doesn’t think there was any severe “heat” between the two, putting aside all the shit that got said in the press over the following years. To him, “everybody sort of blew apart” in the last 18 months of the band. “Everybody just grew up in a different way,” he says in hindsight. “In this moment when we were all 25, people made different choices that dictated a lot of where people went with their lives.”
Grant and I have talked. We’re fine. Will we work together? No. I like to run my own ship and I think he likes to run his own ship, and that’s great.
Just because he made peace with the past doesn’t mean he has an interest in revisiting it any more actively than he already has. Upon the launch of new merchandise last fall, some speculated that a Hüsker Dü reunion could actually be a possibility now. Mould knowingly laughs as soon as I bring it up. “You know … Grant and I have talked. We’re fine,” he says. “Will we work together? No. I like to run my own ship and I think he likes to run his own ship, and that’s great.” What the band members interacting with one another really amounts to for now and the foreseeable future is that they’re working towards “reviving the logo and the brand,” for that new merchandise and maybe future projects like reissues. On Mould’s end, he’s too happy with where he is, and he has a specific way he looks back on that time. “I got my life over here, man. I never want to take advantage of the fact that I was in that band,” he says. “Nor do I ever want to get in the way of its legacy.” Otherwise, his answer’s straightforward: “Nah, no reunion.”
The memoir might’ve kicked off something inside Mould, but another factor was the reaction he had to support from younger artists. He talks of a tribute concert that took place in late 2011, at Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, where musicians including Britt Daniel, Ryan Adams, Craig Finn, and Dave Grohl came together to play songs from across Mould’s career. Grohl, in particular, receives a lot of credit from Mould with regards to how the latter wound up operating in the last few years. Grohl had Mould guest on “Dear Rosemary” on Foo Fighters’ 2011 album Wasting Light, and effusively praised the guy’s music on stages in front of far more people than Hüsker Dü would’ve ever been standing in front of. “Dave, fuck, how much has he given me in the last five years,” Mould reflects. “Dave doesn’t even know what he did, by helping put the light on me for a minute. Shine a light on the monster again,” he laughs. Silver Age came out of all this — Mould calls these 2011 experiences life-affirming, stuff he says gave him a lot of fuel going forward.
“You can’t plan that,” Mould says of seeing all the support come together. Mould got into the music business with the goal to tear it down, since he knew the dream of the private jet and mountains of cocaine would never be attainable with the kind of music he played. “I’m gonna write this song and so and so and it’s gonna be on this album, and this guy’s gonna namecheck it 20 years from now in front of 65 million people,” he begins. “Oh, yeah, that’s what I was thinking when I wrote that,” he finishes with a grin. This is the strange thing about seeing Mould and Lee Ranaldo and Dinosaur Jr. onstage together: These are guys that, at this point, have influenced multiple generations of artists from different scenes and with entirely different approaches and sounds. These are the guys who established, more or less, not only what would become the mainstream rock force of the ’90s but also the indie culture that yields the whole framework for what most of the rock world looks like today, period. I ask him how can you perceive a thing like that, how it makes him feel. His answer is simple: “Very grateful.”
Dave [Grohl], fuck, how much has he given me in the last five years. Dave doesn’t even know what he did, by helping put the light on me for a minute. Shine a light on the monster again.
Don’t get me wrong: Mould may be continuing to crank out reliably strong material as he closes in on four decades in the game, but there isn’t any sort of steady complacency there, no sense that the crown makes him too comfortable. He’s one of the most engaged musicians I’ve ever spoken to, especially considering those multiple generations and layers of influence that connect him, but also separate him, from what’s going on in music today. We spend a not-insignificant amount of our time together simply talking about contemporary bands he’s into. “Courtney Barnett, wow. She’s a killer,” he says. He asks me if I’m a fan of Torres. We talk about our mutual love for Titus Andronicus. He’s really into METZ — a band whose ferocity impresses him when, he says, not every band gets it quite right. And the National are spoken highly of, too; Mould mentions how Scott Devendorf contributed some writing for the liner notes of the reissue of Workbook. (In those liner notes, Devendorf tells a story about meeting Mould when he was touring Workbook and the former was in college. He had Mold sign his Birkenstock, but then his dog later chewed it up.) Blowoff, too, was a whole project in obsessively consuming all the music he could at the time. But maybe it took something to reignite a fire, to make him feel contemporaries with these people as much as forefather. To hear him talk of what happened in 2011, or the shout-outs and collaborations with Grohl, it sounds like he got unleashed anew.
At this point, we’ve meandered through Tribeca over to the Hudson River. We talk near the rail, the water behind us and the new World Trade Center dominant in the near-distance to the side, one major signifier of this being a different New York than Mould’s. From our conversation about legacy, we veer towards what this all means for Mould as a person and an artist. After all he’s achieved — the abstract success of influence, the gratification of young musicians turned from acolytes to friends — I ask him what there is left to chase.
If you look at the actual release dates, Silver Age came out in 2012 but Patch The Sky‘s release will make for the third Mould album in just over three years. One other factor in this prolific, reinvigorated phase is the band he’s been working with: him, Jon Wurster on drums, and Jason Narducy on bass. There’s something perennially effective and appealing about the power trio format to Mould. “I think it’s the purest way to present that kind of music,” he says. “It’s very uncluttered. Everybody’s gotta work hard all the time, nobody can lay back at any time.” He also characterizes his particular style of guitar-playing — which employs chord inversions or open strings in a manner more uncommon in the genres he came out of — as working well within this format, since the fullness of his sound can make it sound like there are two guitarists anyway. Live, this band mixes together Mould’s Hüsker Dü material with Sugar and stuff from across his solo career. There’s the “clutch of songs” Mould carries with him, and new material. After the last two records, Mould finds the mixture to be indiscernible, on some level. “If you see the three of us live, it’s just a tornado for 75 minutes,” he says. “There’s a point in the night where you can’t tell if this is a Hüsker song, a Sugar song, or if it is off the new album. It becomes this blur, it’s spinning so fast.” It’s that dynamic that keeps Mould firing while working with Narducy and Wurster. “Right now, it all feels pretty seamless,” he says. “That’s great, that’s a great place to be.” All the different episodes of his life mix together, in some harmony that sounds like squalor. Which, I guess, is how it actually always goes if we’re lucky.
Mould refers to the time since 2011/2012 as a third act in his career, one he didn’t see coming. “I thought it would be a slow dissolve at the end of the second act,” he says. It was actually Wurster who asserted that Patch The Sky felt like a continuation and some kind of conclusion to at least one part of this third act. “A triptych, yeah,” Mould says. “[Wurster] said, [Patch The Sky] really feels like the period on a sentence, in a way, to what we did with these years.” The man I talk to today seems like a matter-of-fact and grateful one: because of how the last few years looked, but also perhaps because even amidst this third act renaissance, he still needs the music himself. “That’s the thing, music can literally save your life,” he argues. “I do this thing, I sort through my life, I show it to people, and it’s resonating. People at shows come up and they say, ‘Your music saved my fucking life,’ over and over, and I’m like, ‘Wait, that’s my line. You don’t know. You stole my line.'” Things have may have been darker for Mould in the recent past, but it was once more the songwriting process, spurred on by these past several years, that kept him going. It isn’t always a matter of staying hungry, though there’s that, too. “You just can always do better,” he says. “The story keeps going.”
After our conversation over by the Hudson, Mould has to start heading back to catch a flight. We walk east, making our way through Chinatown and the Lower East Side. And at this point, we don’t follow any specific plot: we talk of countries we’ve been to or want to go to, our friends there, places we want to live or have lived, again talk of music we’re both listening to. Even as someone who speaks to musicians about their lives and art all the time, there’s something surreal and inspiring about just walking around, chatting with Mould. Maybe it’s the weight of history, the tangibility of how formative this guy was for much of the music that in turn was formative for my generation. Maybe it’s looking at a man in his mid 50s who is still so curious, so willing to uproot himself cyclically; it’s looking at someone in a third act who can still be surprised, still be eager. It’s hard enough to stay that way in your 20s. Of course, Mould’s long lineage of stories and places dwarfs mine. But that’s the weird disjuncture of talking to him. There’s all this past still living there — those memory boxes — that in turn make you consider your own future, consider how you can acquire all those yourself. It can make you realize that life has the capability to unfold in a messy series of unforeseen chapters, with stories driven by characters you can’t recognize, all of which you couldn’t even conceive of a road map to yet. “We’ll cross paths again,” he promises when we part. I walk away thinking, it’s a good thing to remember: There are always more chapters.