The Minneapolis punk legend rages and reflects on life in 2020
This past year has been a slog for even the level-headed among us – 2020 finds our country grappling with the effects of a global pandemic, an economic downturn that threatens to send us into a recession, a descent into near-fascism at the highest levels of our government, and a period of civil unrest not seen since the late 1960s.
None of this is lost on Bob Mould, who returns with possibly his fiercest and angriest record ever. Harkening back to the sound and fury of his Hüsker Dü years, Blue Hearts is a thrilling and cathartic ride–14 short blasts of sonic fury that give voice to those who can no longer sit idly by and abide the devolution of American political and social life. Bob was kind enough to chat about the new record, his process, and the mammoth solo-career retrospective out later this month.
VIDEO: Bob Mould “American Crisis”
Let’s talk about the new record. Many of Blue Hearts’ songs are really short and sharp – there’s only one song over three minutes – and they are furiously political in a way that you haven’t been for a while. The record is also coming off the back of Sunshine Rock, which was more orchestrated and kind of almost willfully positive. What flipped the switch for you to kind of unleash the fury of these songs?
Well I think the world around me sort of said, “Hey, it’s time to speak up.” With Sunshine Rock, you know, that was a reaction to the two albums prior. Beauty and Ruin was informed by my dad’s passing and Patch The Sky was informed by my mom’s passing and in the construction period for Sunshine Rock, I set out to make a very optimistic record. And I think I succeeded. It was a brighter pop record for me, but one of the “new” songs, “American Crisis”, was originally slated for that album – it was written in April of 2018. So, as Sunshine Rock was released and the band did our touring through the summer and fall of 2019, I was still living in Berlin and was doing a lot of solo electric festivals in Europe. I was playing a lot of guitar and writing a lot of aggressive music. And the record really started to take shape just about a year ago while I was still in Berlin. I started having this sort of sense of deja vu that, you know, the third year of Trump was starting to feel an awful lot like the third year of Reagan. And thinking about that got me thinking about who I was back in 1983 and what I was doing and some of the frightening parallels between the two for me as a gay man. I see a lot of the same hallmarks – evangelical, moral majority types showing support for a television personality who becomes president and then follows the religious right up to and including marginalizing gay people in the eighties and marginalizing just about everybody besides rich old white men. It’s sort of shocking.
I think that’s what put the bee in my bonnet. I got back to San Francisco in late November for the holidays and for some solo touring and to make what became Blue Hearts. And when I got back to America, everything really crystallized. It was seeing the great division that I had heard about, the cultural divide that had been put in place, and being back in the world of 24-hour entertainment news. All of that really helped spur on these shorter protest songs that you mentioned..
I wanted to talk about a couple of them in particular. The opener, “Heart On My Sleeve” is probably one of the most naked and on-the-nose songs you’ve ever written. There is not a lot of artifice or wordplay. Was it difficult to be that plainspoken and make it about those issues?
Nope. That was an intentional effort to set people up for the rest of the record. It was the soliloquy for everything to come. The intent of the record is very clear within those two minutes that this was going to be very plain-spoken, it’s going to be somewhat harsh. It’s going to be a rough ride and I’m just gonna tell you exactly what I know and what I feel and what I’m thinking about. So it was quite easy to write. I’m fairly comfortable in that setting, you know, just me with an acoustic guitar and a single voice – it’s sort of the baseline for most things that I do. But it definitely was put there for a reason, to get people prepared for what was to come.
VIDEO: Bob Mould performs “Heart On My Sleeve” in January 2020 at The Narrows in Massachusetts
It sets that up pretty perfectly. The other one I wanted to ask about, and it’s kind of on the opposite end of the spectrum, is “Baby Needs A Cookie”. It grooves in a way that you’re probably not typically known for and the chorus is very kind of arch and funny. Do you think people overlook your sense of humor as a writer? You surround yourself with Jon (Wurster, drummer and noted funnyman) and Jason (Narducy, bassist and also a witty fella), and they’re very funny people. You also work pretty consistently with Margaret Cho, but you don’t seem to get very recognized for that.
(Laughs) No. I think I have a pretty dry sense of humor at times. At this point in my life, as I’m getting ready to turn 60 here by the end of the year, I feel sometimes like maybe I’m a little bit out of touch with the vernacular of the youth of America. I think people tend to look at me as this super-serious, somewhat intense and dour guy, which, in a lot of my work that is definitely the case! But ask John and Jason what I’m like, or people who know me off the stage and away from “the workplace” and I think they would say I have a pretty good sense of humor. But even, what’s appropriate to joke about, especially right now with COVID and everything? What is comedy? The formula for comedy is time plus tragedy. So you’ve gotta be a little careful with things these days.
VIDEO: Bob Mould “Siberian Butterfly”
Absolutely. Now seems like a precarious time to try to crack wise. Going back to “Heart On My Sleeve” setting up the record. On all of your records, you really seem to take a lot of time crafting the sequencing of the records. What goes into your decision making when you’re trying to set up the narrative flow of the album?
My methodology, generally speaking, is I start writing music. I start keeping track of words and ideas. At some point in that process – it can be a couple of weeks, it can be six months, I never really know, – but there’s usually a unique song or a moment that crystallizes and makes itself known. And it becomes, for lack of a better term, sort of like a tent pole – like, “this feels like something that I could probably build an album around,” whether it’s just a musical motif or a set of words or how the words get married together. So then I end up with this tent pole, and then at that point, I’m like, “Oh, I’m building a tent here.” So I try to grab the fabric and pack down the corners so that you can start to secure the tent. So, trying to translate that as how I start a record, how I end a record, how I end the first side of a record, you know, it’s just sort of where I put the demarcations. If it’s a three act play, where does act want to end? With this record, it was a little trickier because everything was just coming fast and furious. And I don’t know if this tent that I built specifically this time can withstand a terrible flood or horrific wind, but I think it’s pretty well constructed.
I think the job of a musician or any artist is understanding the distinction between the inspiration part of the work and the construction part of the work and the editing. I know people who get hung up on that, and it’s two really distinctive processes. If you’re a writer, you understand that you don’t stop to edit as you’re writing – it doesn’t make for good writing. One of the secrets of songwriting is that you don’t stop in the middle of the creative process to worry about editing. You have plenty of time to do that later. So I try to be mindful of that. And in that sense another metaphor that I like to use is when I hear the rain coming, I grab my rain buckets and I go outside and catch rainwater. I don’t necessarily know what I’m going to do with the water once I catch it, but I know I need to catch it. So when it starts to rain and it pours, you should really gather up as much as you need, or as much as you can. And then you’ll figure it out later on whether it’s for doing dishes, or washing clothes or making soup, You know you’ll do something with the water, but don’t get hung up on it while it’s raining. I don’t think any of the writing I’ve done has benefited from taking a step back while being inside of it. When your head starts to burn and the things are just falling out, it’s almost this battle to get out of your own way.
In addition to Blue Hearts, you’ve decided to collect all of your solo work into a boxset (the 24-disc Distortion: 1989-2019). Have you become more comfortable with looking backwards and assessing the past 30 years of your life, post-Hüsker Dü?
I’m never really fond of looking back, but with a box set of this size it needed a lot of attention. To me, the big thing was revisiting the audio, making sure that the albums now sound…not uniform, but a little more sympathetic to the albums around them, because you go with different approaches over time. One of the big challenges with this was the decision to reimagine all of the album covers, which then sort of prompted finding a visual artist whose work I liked, who I thought could help me tell sort of a travelogue story. From Workbook to Sunshine Rock, there’s a lot of geographical locations that I wrote music and lived in, whether it was farm in Minnesota to Hoboken, to Manhattan, to Brooklyn, to Austin, and back to Manhattan; to different places down in DC, to San Francisco then to Berlin and now back to San Francisco. I always emphasize how important environment is when composing music or making art – wherever you are is really has a profound effect on you – whether it’s Workbook and that sort of lonely, small town farm existence that I had to spending four years in a foreign country where I barely picked up pieces of language yet managed to have a really full life there. And, and so with reimagining the artwork, it’s trying to use landmarks and things that are important to me, and that sort of refer to each album in each time period. And that was a fun challenge for the artist Simon Marchner, and for me to work with him and to make suggestions as to what make for good representations of the covers. And he did a great job. So that was a big challenge. And I should have known better from writing my autobiography that when you dig back into history, you wake things up that were asleep for a long time.
A lot of the songs that I wrote 30 years ago have taken on different meanings over time. I think the older a song gets the less that may hold that pure original conception meaning. Just looking back at all this work over the last five months, I knew that I was going to wake up some old ideas or people and places and situations. There were moments where a lot of rich details came back of songs and situations. And that’s a lot to consider – that stuck me sort of in neutral for a while. So, I’ll be really happy when the box comes out so I can get moving forward on whatever the next album is going to be.
Have you been able to use any of the time during the pandemic to focus on what’s coming up next?
No, not really. I think that the manic, frantic writing that went into Blue Hearts and make that such a vibrant record, you know, there was that period. And then from March until last month was all construction of the box set. So, you know, again, being in neutral for months was a little tough. And, with the pandemic, of course, all of our lives got upset and priorities that we didn’t think were very important shifted and became very important, or vice versa. So I haven’t been creating a lot of new work. I’ve been keeping notes and have a lot of ideas, but I’ve not thought about a tent pole in the least yet. I need to get all of this stuff out of the way and sort of clear the decks so I can get back to it.