We’ve Got A File On You: Bob Mould
The legendary songwriter on 'The Daily Show,' Deep Cuts, and 'Sunshine Rock'
We’ve Got A File On You is a new reboot of an old-school Stereogum franchise. Once called Annotated Media Guide, these are interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.
When an artist gets 40 years in, chances are they’ve settled into a groove. They have figured out what works for their songwriting, they have figured out their themes and topics. We, as fans, know what to expect from them. So, naturally, it came as some surprise when Bob Mould — famously a purveyor of insanely hooky but morose rock music — announced a new album called Sunshine Rock.
You could’ve taken the announcement and title as sarcasm, after four decades of knowing the guy. But soon after, the headlines wrote themselves. At 58, after weathering ’80s punk and college rock and the ’90s alternative boom and electronic detours and rock’s diminished prominence in the 21st century, Mould had grown into a reliable elder statesman, and now he was finally looking on the bright side. You’ve got to have some perspective after going through all that.
Mould has already had the kind of decade that many legacy artists deserve, but can be difficult to attain. He released a memoir called See A Little Light — a title taken from his classic 1989 single — in 2011. Revisiting and clarifying his past seemed to knock something loose in him. What followed was a rapid-fire succession of invigorating albums, the trilogy that began with 2012’s Silver Age, continued with 2014’s Beauty & Ruin, and concluded with 2016’s Patch The Sky. (Despite the year markers, those albums actually came out within a three-and-a-half-year span.) They were the kinds of albums you always hope for from your aging favorites: tapping into what was always special about an artist’s songwriting, reclaiming their voice with new gravity while establishing a vibrant new chapter well after so many of their peers have fallen away.
After that, there could be a natural question of “What next?” After three albums in that vein, another could easily dull the effect the ’10s had for Mould, the fact that he was now truly getting his due as such an influential figure in so many wings of indie music. So Mould took a step away, a breather, spending large chunks of his time in Berlin and arriving at the implausible destination of Sunshine Rock.
Sonically, it’s not as if Sunshine Rock will disorient fans as much as, say, 2002’s techno-inspired Modulate once did. Still playing with his new power trio — featuring Jon Wurster and Jason Narducy — Sunshine Rock is another document of Mould’s continuing strength as a songwriter. But there are subtle differences you can hear for sure, a lightness in the title track or a composition somewhat shockingly named “Sunny Love Song.” String arrangements crop up in various places, augmenting meditations like “The Final Years.” Experimental flickers reappear in places like “Lost Faith.”
Altogether, it’s another strong installment in a career renaissance. On a recent trip to New York, Mould sat down with us to talk about some of those new songs. But there’s a whole lot of other stuff to be curious about in his 40 years as a musician — not just old favorites, but collaborations, deep cuts, and other appearances in less-than-expected places. You collect a lot of footnotes in four decades. And Mould is always more than happy to go exploring those less-traveled paths with you.
“Sunshine Rock” (2018)
STEREOGUM: Let’s start with the title track of Sunshine Rock. I think you really let everyone know you were coming from a different place right away with that single. Last time we talked, you were wrapping up a trilogy of sorts. How did you find yourself starting this new chapter?
BOB MOULD: Going back to the beginning of 2016 when Patch The Sky was about to be released — it was the third album with Jason and Jon, the third album for Merge — I figured we’ll [promote] it this much and then I’ll have a bunch of free time. The decade has been pretty nonstop for me up to this point in ’16, so I’m looking for a break, a little bit of relief. I have always loved Berlin, always gone there over the decades, have a lot of friends there who play music or who work in the art world, so there was a built-in support system. I found an apartment in Schöneberg and started getting settled in during the fall of ’16, then started writing towards this album.
I had a couple songs. “Irrational Poison” was one of the early songs. There was a lot of music that was in place for a lot of songs. They were good, but they didn’t feel like the nucleus for an album. Then “Sunshine Rock” showed up. It was the song that felt right, having just written two albums that were loss-based. I was like, “Wow, what a brilliant pop song.” It’s a stupidly simple love song about actual experiences that happened across the course of a couple different days. I thought, “This is a good tentpole, I can hang a tent on this.”
STEREOGUM: Maybe this is just the times of my life in which I’ve visited Berlin but … it has never been a particularly uplifting place to me. It has this gray grit to it.
MOULD: [Laughs] Yeah, it’s a hard town.
STEREOGUM: Was it just the breath of new opportunity that opened up your optimism in this place?
MOULD: I think so. Once the weather got good, once the sun showed up, once I got this song, I started to say, “I get what’s happening in this place.” The irony is not lost on me, that I go there to write my happy record. It fits with my generally contrarian view of everything. [Laughs] But I think the city is pretty amazing. The history is always there, always in your face. You always understand what’s happened and you’re never sure what’s going to happen.
There’s been a lot of changes in the country since ’15, Syria and migration. Coming in alongside that and gentrification, you deal with that and be mindful of that stuff. The day-to-day life is just creating new paths from here to there. How do I get from here to there, who do I encounter, what skills or tools or language do I need? All of that reprogramming that happens with that, it just gets me thinking. It’s exciting to me, I feel like I’m learning, pushing myself.
STEREOGUM: You’ve done that a lot over the years, throwing yourself into new cities and new communities.
MOULD: It’s great. It’s really great. At the end of everything, that’s one of the greatest luxuries of my profession and my work.
STEREOGUM: Along the way to Sunshine Rock, you wrote some songs responding to the Trump era. But you discarded those, or put them to the side. I would imagine there’s some aspect of it being suffocating. Sometimes you get something like Low’s Double Negative, and it feels so perfectly born from the current climate. And then other people are going in the opposite, optimistic direction. Maybe offering a salve. Has it been strange to work on this while splitting your time between California, somewhat removed from a lot of the country, and Berlin, watching this from afar?
MOULD: There’s a lot of confusion. On a very simple level, to be in a place where, you know, the only time you really see TVs in public is during the World Cup. In America, we’re inundated with — everything looks like the intro to The Brady Bunch except it’s nine pundits yelling at each other about something that may or may not have really happened. So to take that out of the formula, it opens up a lot of room for creativity. I’m not getting hit with those messages and all of that going on all the time. As far as songs and politics, there’s a time and a place for it. In the ‘80s, I felt compelled to be vocal about the government. The Reagan years were, I thought, the worst thing I would see in my lifetime. Little did I know.
STEREOGUM: History has tested you a couple times over since then.
MOULD: This current situation … we’re hopefully coming to an end here soon, because the world cannot take much more of this. Specifically, in Germany, I think people look at Americans and they’re just like, “We’re so sorry this is happening to you, we understand.” Everywhere has problems now. But as far as music, I’ve written songs in the past that are very political. When I sing those songs on tour, they are maybe not as prescient as they might’ve been at the time, but they still reflect exactly where we’re at.
“In A Free Land” (1982, 2015/2016)
STEREOGUM: Case in point: We’re going way back to “In A Free Land.” I saw you dust that off onstage with Dinosaur Jr. at one of their 30th anniversary shows in late 2015. That was something they requested, right?
MOULD: J [Mascis] had asked, yeah.
STEREOGUM: Was it that night when you realized that the song was still potent? Within a year, you also contributed a new live version to the 30 Days, 30 Songs series ahead of the election.
MOULD: We had touched it a few times over the years, but it wasn’t in regular rotation, wasn’t in the starting lineup. Doing that, just how [Dinosaur Jr.] were like, “That song was the reason for so much for us … ” I took a deeper look at it. To get it back up in rotation now is great. I think “Divide And Conquer” is the other, the more prescient. In 1985, we didn’t really have an internet but I was singing about it.
STEREOGUM: Do you feel angrier to have to sing these songs 35 years later?
MOULD: No. “Divide And Conquer” is just hard remembering all the words. “In A Free Land” is pretty easy. They still ring true, and they still take you back to that place. I hold it up against what we’re up against now and it feels normal.
Hüsker Dü Covering “Eight Miles High” (1984)
STEREOGUM: Another oldie. This is a song that was doing something new with guitar in the ‘60s — in particular, establishing a sound that a lot of the bands who would later become known as ‘80s college rock were drawing upon. You guys did your own thing with it, but it’s a cool parallel to me given your guitar style, how that’s another instance of getting all this noise out of some specific approaches. Do you remember what drew you to reimagining this song with Hüsker?
MOULD: In ’79, punk rock, Hüsker, everything’s “Kill Hippies,” right? Reinvent the wheel. You get up to ’82, ’83, I’m hanging out with people and friends, we get together and play music … Hüsker were always fans of psychedelic music but it didn’t show up until that time. I remember hanging out with Peter Buck and he’d be like, “Do you know this record?” We’d all do that, hang around, drink beer and play records, stay at each other’s houses when we were in respective cities. So I started looking deeper into the Byrds.
The purpose of “Eight Miles High” for the Zen Arcade sessions was: Everything we did in the studio, basic tracks, was first take. We did not want to use one of the songs from the album as a warmup track. We would jam a little. We had to do something, so that was the first song. We did that, and I did vocals right away to warm up. It’s a pretty crazy vocal take. It became this calling card, at the moment, for the band, coming out right before Zen Arcade.
If you look at the new record, there’s an absolutely direct callback to that with the Shocking Blue song “Send Me A Postcard.” We’re in the studio — Jon and Jason and I are in Oakland with seven days to the do the basics. We got our seven days work done in five days, so day six was fun time. We started looking for covers. I played that one for the guys and they thought it was great, and I was like, “Yeah this is in our walk-on music so you’ve heard it.” We spent 10 minutes, got it. I had not sung. This was the first time I sang on this record. It’s sort of a callback. Typically when I demo stuff I do a lot of vocal work at home, and this time I didn’t because in Berlin I have this tiny room next to my neighbor and I can’t sing loud. So this was the first time I got to the vocal mic for real. It was a parallel situation, the results with “Send Me A Postcard” … I thought maybe this is the way to approach all the vocals.
STEREOGUM: There can be a certain emphasis to putting a cover on an album. Do you find yourself going back to the ‘60s pop stuff as a foundation still?
MOULD: Always, always. Every time. Maybe I should consider going elsewhere next time for basic inspiration, but it’s hard. Such an amazing period in music. I’ve tried going off that course and sometimes people get it and sometimes I don’t get it right. That “Eight Miles High,” that inspiration idea, that carried into this record.
“Dog On Fire,” The Theme Song For The Daily Show (1996), And Singing “Little Drummer Boy” With Craig Killborn (1996)
STEREOGUM: How did this happen?
MOULD: “Dog On Fire” was a song that had no title. It was an instrumental track I had recorded for the “Hubcap” solo album. My friend Lizz Winstead was one of the co-creators of The Daily Show and asked if I had anything that might work as a theme song for this soon-to-premiere show. I played her two songs, and she picked “Dog On Fire,” which still didn’t have a title and my engineer in Texas actually named it. I think it’s some Simpsons reference, I don’t know. And now it’s still the theme song.
STEREOGUM: Was it weird to tune in over the years as The Daily Show became a much bigger thing and be like, “Oh, yeah, that riff again.”
MOULD: A little bit, yeah. What was funny for me is, I was living in New York at the time, so I would go up to the Daily Show offices some days and sit in on the writing meetings, just hang out. The first era, and then a little bit of early Jon [Stewart]. He had his earlier show — I’d also go hang out there when friends like Throwing Muses or whatever were on — and I knew Jon super casually from City Gardens, the punk rock club in Trenton, when he was the bartender there. It’s all this weird …
STEREOGUM: Interconnected thing.
MOULD: If only people knew how small it all is.
STEREOGUM: Have you heard the remixed version of the theme they introduced for Trevor Noah’s version?
MOULD: Yup, it’s good. They check with me. When they brought Trevor in and I heard about Timbaland I thought, “Oh, no, they’re going to take it away,” and they were like “No, no, we have to keep it, it’s like The Tonight Show theme! We can’t change it. But we want you to hear the new one before we go.” I was like, “Sounds great to me, thank you for keeping the song.” That’s great to have a song that gets played on television every night for 20 something years and at all the awards things. Whenever there’s an award show or something they have to call and ask if they can use it. I still hold publishing on it. I kept control of the song in lieu of taking any money for it upfront.
STEREOGUM: So, one of these times you were hanging out at The Daily Show, you sang “Little Drummer Boy.”
MOULD: Yeah, that was Lizz and the other co-creator Madeleine Smithberg’s idea. To reprise the Bing Crosby/David Bowie “Little Drummer Boy” thing.
STEREOGUM: Did it take much convincing to get you to do that?
MOULD: Ah, it’s easy to do. It’s friends and it’s funny and it’s the holidays. And I get to be on TV, probably looking dumb, but I’ll do it.
STEREOGUM: Did you ever contemplate a Bob Mould Christmas album?
MOULD: Oh yeah. Christmas. A children’s album. You always think of these peripheral things. It’s funny, I’d think about those things and go, “Eh, I don’t have kids, maybe I’m not the best one to write a children’s album.” But now, in this new day and age of pop musicians being cross-platform — everybody has to be cross-platform everything. I was always the guy where I just wanted to do what I did best, and if there were little opportunities that’s one thing. I don’t want to try and brand myself as musician/actor/Uniqlo model or whatever.
Fucked Up’s Version Of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (2009)
STEREOGUM: Speaking of Christmas.
MOULD: That was a mess. [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: I forgot this existed up until I was doing research for this interview. Kyp Malone is on it, Ezra Koenig, Tegan & Sara … this strange little punk and indie rendition of this thing.
MOULD: It was great. But a mess.
STEREOGUM: Were you in the studio with them? It wasn’t like the ‘80s when they had everyone in the same room, right?
MOULD: No “We Are The World,” no. Damian [Abraham] and I are friends. We mostly talk about wrestling and occasionally talk about music. He asked if I would help out, I said sure. We were on tour in Toronto, my voice was giving way. I said, “Dude, I can try it before, or I can try it after, I think your best results are going to be after. I’ll be blown out but it’ll be better than what I do before singing.” I did the show. He showed up with a DAT machine with the track on one channel playing and I was singing into a phone or a recorder with the other. I had no idea what I was doing. After the show, I’m wet, my voice is gone. But it was a good cause and it was super fun.
Throwing Muses’ “Dio” (1992)
STEREOGUM: Do you remember recording this one?
MOULD: Yeah, it was at Power Station, I think. I was friends with Kristin [Hersh], still am. She asked if I would come in and sing on that. There was a control room, big open recording room, and two isolation booths in the back where you might put an amp or where someone might sing. She had just had a child, months old. They put him in his bassinet in one of the isolation booths with a vintage tube microphone so if he woke up and needed anything we would’ve heard it through the control room. [Laughs] I think Art Garfunkel might’ve drifted through, too, during the day with his kid.
STEREOGUM: When you did this song, you had not done many other collaborations. It was early in the solo days.
MOULD: This was around Black Sheets Of Rain, before Sugar. That period, ’90 or ’91, that circle of friends with Kristin and Vic Chesnutt, people like that. Those were people I was always comfortable doing things with, kindred spirits. That was probably one of the first.
STEREOGUM: Did that start to unlock different things in your head at the time?
MOULD: I don’t know if it changed my view on doing it, I think the only other thing at the time might’ve been the song with the Golden Palominos. It was just fun to do stuff with friends when they were coming through town. Yeah, it sorta opened things up. But then Sugar got going and that closed back down and the records after that were even more insular.
Golden Palominos’ “Dying From The Inside Out” (1991)
STEREOGUM: Well, you just mentioned it. This is one of my favorite deep cuts in the Bob Mould canon. It has a lot of elements that feel of a piece with what was about to happen with Sugar, but very blown out.
MOULD: Golden Palominos was sort of a supergroup project. Anton Fier was one of New York City’s — one of the world’s — finest drummers at the time. He was doing everything from Herbie Hancock to Palominos to playing with me for two records and the tours that went with them. He gave me the direction to read the book The End Of The Affair and come up with words.
STEREOGUM: Was that his approach in general, giving collaborators a random prompt?
MOULD: Don’t know. That’s all he gave to me. He builds the tracks. So I pretty much just came in and he wanted some guitars — loud guitar, 12-string towards the end as it started to dissolve. I think Richard Thompson might be playing on that track as well, maybe the only time he and I are on a track together. So I went in and did the 12-strings first, and Anton’s very demanding about the exactness of timing and everything. This was before Pro Tools and correcting things. You have to do it. Then electric was just making crazy noise.
Then it was time to sing, he said, “What have you got?” I just had a bunch of words and I had never sung it — it’s the “Eight Miles High” approach again. Just visceral, don’t give it a thought, just do it. I remember singing so hard for that one take that about 10 minutes later, we’re in the control room, and I burst all the blood vessels in my eyes, so it looked like I had serious freckles. I had yelled that hard that it busted.
STEREOGUM: Did that ever happen to you otherwise?
STEREOGUM: Just that one time? That’s surprising given some of the screamers in your life.
MOULD: I was just like, “I don’t want to do this twice, so I’m going to do something that you can’t say no to.”
STEREOGUM: Is that a song you ever wound up playing on your own after that?
MOULD: Uh-uh. It’s a Palominos track. And it ended when I looked in the mirror and saw that going on. [Laughs ]
Foo Fighters’ “Dear Rosemary” (2011)
STEREOGUM: Here’s a more recent collaboration. I don’t remember seeing this documentary footage back when this came out, where Dave’s swimming with his daughter, and he’s talking about having written some of it but he wanted the two of you to write together in the room. This was the same year as the Disney Hall tribute to you, which he was also involved in.
MOULD: It was right before my book and up to right before the Sugar reissues and Silver Age. Fall 2010 to fall 2012.
STEREOGUM: Had you known each other before all that?
MOULD: We had been in rooms together before. He was a big Hüsker fan when he was in DC, working at the record store. Kurt was a big fan, coming to early shows in ’85. Probably that HUB Ballroom show. It was a Sunday afternoon. Melvins were support and then there was a new band called “Sound Garden” playing their second show.
STEREOGUM: How do you remember these things?
MOULD: I wrote a book. [Laughs] That’s when they were two words. Sound Garden. And it was their second show. This was February of ’85. [Nirvana] were fans, of course. You can hear it. In summer of ’91, all that The Year Punk Broke stuff, I played a lot of the same festivals as those guys. I would be in a tiny room with a high school divider and they’d be in a room three times that size trashing it. And I was like “Eh, I don’t need to go deal with that.” I played a lot of shows alongside them that summer, and then when I came back in the fall of ’91 I was doing more solo acoustic touring and I remember going through Texas the day after they played the exact same clubs. Without fail, I’d get to Dallas and I’d be like, “What’s wrong? Why isn’t someone running monitors?” “Oh, Nirvana was here last night. Fucking guitarist put his guitar through the monitor board, so we’ve gotta do it from front of house.” “OK. The party continues.”
So, a lot of brushing against, but never sitting down and talking about things. Jump ahead to 2010, it might’ve been the 30th anniversary of the 9:30 Club, and Dave with his DC history … we were both there for the party at 9:30. I played, he played. That was the first time we went into the room and closed the door and talked about stuff. He was like, “I sort of stole all your … ” I looked at him and said, “I know.” We laughed and we were friends.
But “Dear Rosemary” was fun. When he called and asked about that I was like, “OK, what do you want me to do.” He was like, “I’ve got almost all of it, I’ve got a little bit of room, we’ll figure it out in the middle.” This was at his house, they sent a car for me at the airport, got to the estate up on the hill. Pat [Smear] was hanging out, just because Pat’s Pat. And Butch [Vig], who I hadn’t been in a control room with since ’84, with Tar Babies. I had the song, I knew what he wanted. He wanted the harmonies. Then we got to the middle part where he left everything open and he said, “How about a 12-string solo?” I was like, “Are you sure? Let’s finish the story out. This is a bridge, let’s finish the story, let’s do a call-and-answer if you’re cool.” He was like, “Awesome, give me 15 minutes.” And he ran off and wrote some lyrics.
“I Don’t Know You Anymore” (2014)
STEREOGUM: From that early-’10s phase, you entered this resurgence era across the rest of the decade. I picked “I Don’t Know You Anymore,” partially because it’s one of my favorites from the triptych. But it’s also representative of this new power trio sound with Jon and Jason while also being one of those contemporary Bob Mould songs that has a nice through line, feeling like it could’ve existed in a few other chapters of your career. I don’t know if you think about this stuff much, but when you were in the zone with these albums, was that ever conscious? Like, “I’m tapping into this core element of my songwriting”?
MOULD: As soon as I use “don’t” or “won’t,” it immediately goes back to an era. I have so many songs that have that negative in the title. It touches that thing. The song itself, thanks, I’m glad you like it, it’s a bear to play live because I don’t have a lot of breath in the verses. It’s a wide-range melody. Usually my vocal melodies are about five notes wide and this one’s real wide with some big major key jumps that are not in my normal wheelhouse as a singer. That’s some of the nuts and bolts. The big thing, to me, I like the brevity of the guitar solo — it reminds me of “If I Can’t Change Your Mind.” Where you want the solo to be longer but it’s 8 bars instead of 16. Very traditional pop, get in and get out kinda solo. And then to have the drop and the fourth chorus fading out — the entire motif of that is “Windy” by the Association.
STEREOGUM: Another ‘60s pop touchstone.
MOULD: How they keep introducing new melodies all the way. They ascend the melodic information as they do the long fade. It’s straight up.
STEREOGUM: I don’t think this song came from ‘60s pop.
MOULD: Nope, I don’t know where that came from.
STEREOGUM: Obviously, this is a different era of your career. I actually like Modulate.
MOULD: I do too!
STEREOGUM: It reminds me of Brit-rock of the 21st century, where it’s got this electronic aspect but it’s still rock music. But, I guess, traditionalist fans, punk fans … you know, this album isn’t even on Spotify or iTunes.
MOULD: I’m glad to hear that, only because Spotify has other self-releases of mine on there without asking, which is illegal. But, anyhow. [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: It was a very different concept at the time, the “rock artist going electronic.” It seems almost quaint now. Like REM making Up or Adore by the Smashing Pumpkins, and people getting so worked up over synthesizers and drum machines. How do you regard this era now, almost 20 years on?
MOULD: Modulate? I wasn’t sure what I was doing. I was listening to so much electronic music at the time, whether it was the big room club stuff in New York or — I remember having Her Space Holiday open up. I’m sure my fans were like, “Who are these two people with this box and this RadioShack disco ball.” But I really thought that was … the way. I was aware the Europeans were ahead of us in introducing these elements back into music, some of the stuff they used in the ‘70s and ‘80s in krautrock and all that.
Modulate was a naïve record. As I was doing when I was nine years old, you emulate the things you like and you hope that if you do it enough you will find your own voice in it. I think Modulate and even more so the LoudBomb album, which came out around the same time and has even less guitars … I think that might be the better of the two for me because I think by taking away the familiarity completely it became even more abstract. I loved that period.
STEREOGUM: I was going to say: This could be characterized as something of a “lost era” by fans. You know, if you’re writing the biography, you have a Hüsker era, the Sugar era, solo interstitials, this recent era, and this kind of lost weekend from the late ‘90s to the late ‘00s. But this is also a really important turning point in your life, being out and embracing gay culture.
MOULD: Being out, being directly informed by the culture. All that music was the soundtrack of New York City at the time. I really wanted to be a part of that. I was part of it in my day-to-day life. These paths we make for getting from here to there, all those paths, that’s the music. Whether it was stuff like Deep Dish and Jimmy Van M and Sasha and Digweed, whether it was Larry Tee, all that stuff that kind of became electroclash. I was right in there every night, listening and loving that stuff.
STEREOGUM: When you’d encounter backlash to a song like “Quasar,” were there moments in which you were bitter, like, “Hey this is one of the happiest phases of my life and you guys won’t take the ride with me”?
MOULD: A little bit. But I get it. This was before social media and before an artist could have an eight-times-a-day platform to defend themselves. I was kinda like, “Man, this stuff is my whole world and you’re not getting it. I guess I’m not living in your world anymore.” That’s all I could think. I decided to get out of the van and …
STEREOGUM: And into the club.
MOULD: And get into the club. [Laughs]
Blowoff (Early ’00s-2014)
STEREOGUM: Relatedly, Blowoff. Your impetus was basically that certain aspects of gay nightlife had maintained the same vibes since the late ‘70s and you were trying to inject it with the new update of that musically, right?
MOULD: Mhmm. I mentioned Deep Dish — a fellow named Richard Morel sang on some of their stuff. He was a singer-songwriter, electronic musician, and remixer in DC at the time. He and I got to be friends and I eventually wound up in DC in ’02 to live there for what wound up being seven years. Started hanging out with Rich. Didn’t have a lot of friends, he didn’t get out of the house much. I said, “Let’s start a party, let’s DJ.” I didn’t know how to DJ but I was like, “Let’s get people together.” It took a few months of trial and error of what we were going to do with Blowoff. And eventually it stuck and became a weekly party in the basement of the 9:30 Club and eventually it became a monthly party in the main room of the 9:30 Club and eventually it became 1,500 people every month at this thing that was everything in everybody’s life, it was what we all lived for once a month. It was pretty amazing.
The idea behind it was, yes, we love gay club music, but there is more than gay club music. There is really amazing music that you guys should be listening to — and gals, but it was mostly guys. It was a bear party, so. That was sort of our job, to bring them up to speed. It was this really progressive idea within the community. When it took hold, we were up in New York every two months. We were going out to San Francisco. We were doing all the big gay events.
STEREOGUM: This is also around the time you had sworn off full-band tours. So was there a point where this Blowoff stuff was taking off where you thought, “Well, maybe this is just it and I leave behind all these things from the past”?
MOULD: I was scheduling rock tours and album cycles around Blowoff. So that was the priority. It was really important, it was really hot, and we just had to ride it until it wasn’t hot. That whole decade was just incredible. The party went on through the beginning of 2014 and we put it down. I miss it.
STEREOGUM: Do you ever think about revisiting it? I mean, now you live in Berlin and you’re going to clubs again.
MOULD: I go out enough that I’m hearing great music all the time. When I put it down in the beginning of 2014, I stopped listening as a DJ. With electronic music, if you stay away for two months you don’t know where you are. It’s not like rock music, or regular pop music, where things stay fairly constant and there’s a slow evolution.
STEREOGUM: You’d have to spend some time re-educating at this point.
MOULD: Deep, deep time re-educating. So if I said, hey, let’s do Blowoff a year and a half from now, I’d have to start studying tomorrow to get up to speed.
Bear Nation Documentary (2010)
STEREOGUM: You mentioned Blowoff was specifically a bear party. And you also ended the decade by appearing in this documentary called Bear Nation.
MOULD: I vaguely remember it. My friend Malcolm Ingram has done a few different documentaries.
STEREOGUM: Did it feel like a capstone after this stretch of years embracing all of this?
MOULD: It was nice to be asked. Blowoff was featured as the Event, the Studio 54 of that world. [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: There’s your tagline for the reunion tour.
MOULD: Yes! “The Studio 54 Of The Bear World.” The documentary … sometimes, when I’m trying to super-serve ideas to a very niche part of my audience I get a little, “Eh, I don’t know if I’m supposed to be the authority.” But it was fun.
“Lost Faith” (2019)
STEREOGUM: This was striking to me when I first listened to Sunshine Rock, because it’s got a little hint of that dance-oriented past of yours. It’s got that groove again.
MOULD: It’s the right tempo, the elements are put in place.
STEREOGUM: Not that I’d expect a Bob Mould album that’s full techno today, but hearing a song like that and with you living in Berlin … You’re coming out of this trilogy of albums that had this core Bob Mould sound. Do you feel an itch to stray outside the lines a bit?
MOULD: I still do a lot of stuff just for my own enjoyment. As much as a DJ needs to stay informed of the music, I think if you’re going to create electronic music, you have to stay on top of the software advances. A lot of it is just, “OK, it’s the seven-sided screwdriver now. Now I know how to use this.” “Lost Faith,” the song, it’s at that tempo, perfect to remix. The palette … I told Jon, “Just cut a groove, don’t get crazy, sit back and let me tell a story.” Then when it hits the chorus and we sorta do double-time rock, it shows it’s that dark, somber — you know, let’s face it, it’s New Order. The low melody is driving the song, and then when it hits the big double chorus it’s very much my uplift. It’s the two people. It’s the sad guy in a room in February and another person saying, “Hey, get up! Wake up!”
Remixing Low’s “Monkey” (2005)
STEREOGUM: One more electronic-oriented thing, this remix you did for Low back in 2005.
MOULD: When they called and asked I was like, “Yes!” I love the band. It was nice to do a real remix with real parts instead of white label-ing it. That was fun to have, both vocals. I gave it that progressive house treatment that was my jam right at that moment. I had also done, at the same time, a couple other things. I did the Interpol “Length Of Love” remix with Sam [Fogarino]. And also Rammstein, “Mann Gegen Mann.” I think they wanted me to do something thrashy with it and I sent it back as a very German pop thing and they were like “Oh.” I was doing a bunch. It was fun. At that time — when Blowoff was full-on, I was having to build my own white labels for everything. I was always remixing stuff, but with Low, having parts made it real.
Playing In The House Band For Hedwig And The Angry Inch (2001)
STEREOGUM: This also sort of coincided with not touring with a band and the electronic era. How did you get involved in that? This is also a kind of different experience, recording for a musical.
MOULD: My introduction to what became Hedwig was Stephen Trask’s band at the time, called Cheater. So I heard all these songs in an almost-Hedwig state. If we go forward, Stephen gets with John Cameron Mitchell, they start woodshedding at Squeezebox at Don Hill’s, which is two blocks from where I lived. I got to know John and saw how it was going to develop. They put the show together and put it at Jane Street Theatre. I was there every Wednesday, because that was the slow night. They always had seats. I’d just get on my bike and ride up the river, go to Jane Street, come in maybe 20 minutes in and see the backend of the show and then we’d all go to Florent after and get dinner. Very Meatpacking District, before it got bull-dozed. [Laughs] When they were doing the film soundtrack, that’s when Stephen reached out and asked if I’d play guitar on the film soundtrack and I said of course. It was very nice to be asked. I’ve stayed in touch with Stephen and John over the years.
STEREOGUM: Have you seen the big production?
MOULD: I came back and I saw the big production right after John busted his ankle or foot, so he was doing it in a cast. It was so surreal. In the big room, it got a little Rocky Horror because people were dressing up like …
STEREOGUM: It became a huge cult thing right, over the years?
MOULD: And international. I think it got really big in, like, Korea? Stephen was telling me they’d get these clearance requests from big companies in far-flung countries in Asia. It’s awesome.
“Judas Cradle” And “JC Auto” (1993)
STEREOGUM: One of my favorite one-two pairings in any of your bands or projects. What was the headspace that birthed these songs?
MOULD: Well, that was ’90 and ’91, when Copper Blue and Beaster were written together. There were 30 songs, 10 for Copper Blue and then there was this darker suite of songs that became Beaster. We held that as a second release. It was a self-flagellation, kind of. Dark, heavy, ego and alter-ego with the two records. A Judas Cradle was a device — I think I may have seen it in a torture museum in Amsterdam. The pyramid of slow death. And “JC Auto,” of course, it’s just — JC Autobiography, so yeah it’s a biblical thing. It’s an interesting pairing. That record has the heavier religious imagery that wasn’t on Black Sheets Of Rain so much, was on Workbook some, and very little on Copper Blue. It was this other … I was going to say cataclysmic but I meant to say catechism. All those words. Catheter. It’s all sort of painful right? [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: Are they difficult to play?
MOULD: Yeah I don’t play them anymore, fuck no. I don’t have much of a voice left. My voice goes out really easy. It’s the breaking point. I’ve been doing this for 40 years. I’ve gotta be careful. And those songs are not on that list. If Jason wants to sing it — sometimes we do that. If he pushes me, and if somebody in the crowd is pushing me, I’ll look over and go, “Jason Auto?” He’ll be like, [sharp inhale] “OK. I asked for this.” It’s usually on a lark. It’s one of those audibles.
STEREOGUM: That came out in ’93, and it was written several years before. And to me, it has always sounded like what the grunge bands should’ve been trying to do but in 1995 or so. I love Pearl Jam, and I love their weird middle albums, but I hear “JC Auto” and I think, “Man, imagine if they had written songs like this after Vitalogy.” These six-minute scathing ragers.
MOULD: There’s an anecdote I can pull up on that, it’s in the book. In ’91, after I had been dropped/sent a fax to get out of my Virgin deal, I think I was maybe playing Knitting Factory in the summer. The radio guy from Virgin came up and was like “Man, tough about that timing, huh? If Black Sheets had been nine months later, you’d be Pearl Jam.” I knew what he meant. I don’t think he was trying to stick it to me. I was just kinda like “Yeahhh … if shit was like four years later I would’ve been the Pixies.” Like, whatever! Come on! I don’t mind being the nose of the plane.
“See A Little Light” (1989)
STEREOGUM: You have some moments of mainstream penetration though. “See A Little Light” has lived on in all these different places, somewhat amusingly in a TIAA-CREF commercial from the late ‘00s. You named your memoir after it –
MOULD: The song! The book! The movie! The commercial! [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: Obviously that’s a title that lends itself well to a memoir. But what’s the lingering importance of the song to you otherwise?
MOULD: As it was the first track out for Workbook, which was the first album out from Hüsker Dü, it’s sort of the mission statement, right? It’s always going to have that place for me. I mean, ’88 was, much as the late ’90s were so important for me in New York, ’88 being up on the farm and being by myself trying to relearn music and not copy what I’d done before — that being the highlight, the first song out of the gate? It’s a pretty pivotal song. It’s the hinge that allowed the door to open.
STEREOGUM: You still play that one right?
MOULD: Yeah, yeah. That one’s easy. I do the easy ones these days. Going Vegas. [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: I remember reading an interview with Peter Gabriel, semi-recent. He was talking about “Solsbury Hill,” which was a very similar thing actually. It was the big declaration, mission statement for the person branching out solo, and then it crept out into the wider consciousness. And he was talking about people potentially giving him shit for licensing it too much over the years, but he was kinda like, “It’s my song and I’ve got bills to pay.” With “See A Little Light,” through all these ups and downs in the decades since, hearing it in TV shows or commercials — does it change it for you? Seeing it out in the wilderness and bringing it back to you?
MOULD: No, I think it’s great that it has these different lives. I love the song so much. People have been pretty careful with it. I don’t think it’s been misused. As soon as I think about it I think about the word “regret.” Regret is such a strong word. I think back to around ’94 when I would get approached by like, Ford trucks, and it would be $300,000 to use this. You know, I sort of had these morals and this idea that I’m on an independent label and I don’t know if I want to be ponying up with The Man.
There are people who are like “Oh, Bob, he never [made it]” and it’s like, sometimes Bob put his own foot in the trap. How much does one have to pay to be on the Super Bowl now? We’re in such a different world. So to try and explain to people “See A Little Light” and the handful of very appropriate and loving uses, and I had these other conflicts at the time … it would be very profitable but it wouldn’t be a good look for me, to be ponying up with Ford trucks. Which is, ultimately, probably fairly benign next to ponying up with anybody these days.
STEREOGUM: Is that something you wish you had been less precious about?
MOULD: In hindsight, I would probably … I’d maybe have a richer life financially. But, ah, everything goes the way it’s supposed to. I don’t worry about it.
“The Final Years” (2019)
STEREOGUM: So, not to end things ominously with a song with this kind of title, but I want to talk about one more new track. This, to me, feels like one of the standouts on Sunshine Rock but also one of the more important ones.
MOULD: Yeah, I wrote it and didn’t see that coming. It was the second-to-last song written for the record, of the songs that made the album. “Camp Sunshine” was written the last day of mixing. I had a riff and I had to replace a political punk song that would’ve tipped the album into the dark side. “The Final Years” is the beginning of Act 2 of the album for me, when it starts to go introspective, gets a little heavier. It was written in April of ’18 in Berlin, when winter came back out of nowhere. It had been nice and then the snow came back and I was stuck inside and that song just fell out really quickly. Just thinking about stuff, obviously. Thinking about Grant. Thinking about my parents.
STEREOGUM: You had a lot of death in the same couple years.
MOULD: It’s amazing, it doesn’t stop. If not someone else, ourselves. Yeah … I think the more it happens … you’re never prepared for it but you understand it more as it happens. Seeing both my folks go through a lot, with cancer, and seeing Grant go through the same thing … I think I had a greater understanding, more empathy, than I would have at 28 when I was still pissed off. It’s a long reconciliation within myself.
STEREOGUM: You’re 58 now. You’re several years removed from the memoir, and this trilogy of albums that was simultaneously re-contextualizing your history and moving forward. When you’re writing a song like “The Final Years” now, do you feel like you’re getting at any truth you couldn’t access before, or you’re still running into new questions? You know, the fact that at 58 you’re making an album called Sunshine Rock, just now getting around to the optimism.
MOULD: [Laughs] Having a good time. Well, this song was one of the gems. There’s three motifs for songwriting. Music first, words first, and both together. Both together is the lucky — I don’t get them that often. This one, the riff set into place right away. And the words started to come to me as I’m doing the basic 16 bar constructions. It was just the imagery of it. The “rocks and cracks of fissured earth and shattered sky.” “Cache of indignation.” The use of the word “cache” in kind of a cute and funny way is to imply a bad computer. Clutching my stories. It was like, where’s all this stuff coming from in a hot minute when I’m not looking?
STEREOGUM: With songs like that or “Lost Faith,” do you feel like they are setting the stage for what comes next?
MOULD: I only know now that people like those songs because now they’re hearing them. Now that I recognize what my process is, for better or for worse — it’s like when you’re a kid and you get a quilt. It has threads and colors and you can’t keep it forever but you can bring some of the threads with you and weave it with new threads and make a new quilt and on we go. That’s how my life is, in work, especially. So any good, strong, sturdy thread that stands up usually gets carried forward. I don’t know which ones yet. I like them all right now.
STEREOGUM: It’s the new blanket.
MOULD: Yeah, the quilt is very vibrant. I haven’t really chosen which threads are going to come with me next. But you can’t leave it all behind. I tried that in ’02. But you can’t leave it behind. You gotta bring some of it with you.
Sunshine Rock is out now on Merge Records.