The Act We Act: 30 Years of Sugar’s Copper Blue
Looking back on a high watermark in the career of Bob Mould
I have to take you back to sometime in 1992.
At this point, I was years away from moving to New York, but my now partner was here. At this point, she was a seasoned concertgoing pro for a woman in her 20s. She’d been allowed to see club shows at an age that kids weren’t supposed to be allowed in clubs — catching influential bands like Devo before they were known nationally, being up front a few years later for the Clash’s legendary show at the Agora.
Volume was not an issue. She’d survived seeing Swans in the ’80s, still the loudest show she’s been to. The second loudest? That’s the band who’s the subject of this piece — Sugar.
The band — Bob Mould on guitar and vocals, David Barbe on bass and Malcolm Travis on drums — was booked for one of the music seminars in town. There was anticipation, with Mould’s work in the legendary Hüsker Dü, followed by two solo albums — Workbook and Black Sheets of Rain.
And so my partner arrived at the venue which wasn’t a club or bar, but quite literally an actual garage. The band’s publicist offered up some fresh earplugs.
Ms. Seasoned Concertgoer, having survived the likes of Swans without them, turned her down. Sugar takes what passes for a stage inside the garage and the heavy chugging riff of “The Act We Act” starts.
VIDEO: Bob Mould performs “The Act We Act” live on KEXP
One song in, my partner turns to the publicist who, seeing the look on her face, hands her the fresh earplugs.
Sugar was that kind of band. But it wasn’t just extreme volume. They were also very tuneful. Their debut, Copper Blue, which turns 30 this week, showed off those qualities in abundance.
That wasn’t quite the original plan. Hüsker Dü broke up in 1987 when Grant Hart, the other songwriter besides Mould, had quit the band over artistic differences exacerbated by his heroin addiction.
When Mould released Workbook in 1989, it might have surprised some folks with how introspective and unlike the old band it was in terms of volume.
The loud guitars came back on the lacerating Black Sheets of Rain, in which songs like the terrific “It’s Too Late” feel like a test run for Sugar.
Without a label and unable to keep a touring band, Mould was limited to doing acoustic shows as he was working on new material. As he was working on getting a new record deal, he approached Barbe, who he knew through mutual friends in Atlanta, and played him some demos. Barbe, whose band Mercyland had recently broken up, was on board. Travis, whose band the Zulus had been produced by Mould a few years earlier, was available as his band had also broken up.
The sessions in the early winter months of 1992 were initially for a third solo album, but the trio clicked, especially on the songs they had were able to work up first thanks to Mould’s most-ready demos — “The Act We Act,” “A Good Idea” and “Changes”.
My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless album, released late in 1991, had been both an inspiration and challenge for Mould to get the most out of what he had in what would become Copper Blue.
The trio was booked to play a show towards the end of February. They were in a Waffle House, wondering what to call it. Someone looked at the sugar packets, and, voilà, a better choice of name than Scattered, Smothered & Covered.
Sugar was poised to come out to a wider audience than Mould had before. Hüsker Dü had certainly primed the pump. The Pixies, who’d recently broken up, and the Replacements, who were about to, also had as well. R.E.M and Sonic Youth, both intact, had moved over to majors.
Then came the explosion of Nirvana’s Nevermind, an album Mould had been considered as a producer for. The label had expected second single “Come As You Are” to be the most-likely crossover hit, with the most optimistic projections being that it would be gold a year later. Instead, thanks to “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” it went platinum within two months.
And thus the alternative rock boom was creating opportunities not just for new artists, but for people like Mould who’d laid the groundwork.
“The stage was set for Copper Blue to be a successful record,” Mould told the Quietus in 2012. “It’s a really great record. I sort of got lucky with the song writing and the timing because there are so many great records that don’t get noticed for years.”
Copper Blue was an album Mould had been moving towards. Although it could be argued that Hart had come up with a lot of Hüsker Dü’s catchier songs, the band as a whole had been moving in that direction. Mould had expanded his craft with the solo records, introspective on Workbook and full of exposed nerves on Black Sheets of Rain. Sugar enabled him to put it all together in a way he hadn’t before, as melodic as it was heavy — a lot of the spirit of Hüsker Dü in a more grounded, polished way.
“The Act We Act” set the tone right away, the guitar alone for about 15 seconds before the rest of the band kicks in. Its heavy verse riffage mingled with a melodic chorus, all married to lyrics about a breakup that, to put it kindly, is not going well.
“Hoover Dam” is pure psychedelic pop with keyboards and organ embellishment, a swirling reminder that for all his unimpeachable punk, alternative bonafides, Mould had an abiding love for a hook.
At the time of Cooper Blue, Mould was a gay man in a relationship, but not publicly out, partly because of not yet resolved bits of inner homophobia and partly because of not unjustified fears over being pigeonholed as a gay artist rather than being seen as an artist who happened to be gay.. He subtly outed himself in the video for the lovely, British Invasion-influenced “If I Can’t Change Your Mind”, in which he shows a series of Polaroids at the camera. The last of them was him and his partner together, before he turned the Polaroid around to reveal the words, “This is not your parents’ world.”
Mould told Yahoo Music in 2019, ““I think people that were connecting with my ’90s band Sugar, maybe those are the folks in the community that come to me and say, ‘That work really meant a lot, and that video really told us without telling us that you were gay. It was all about same-sex relationships, without you having to pronounce. It really left a good impression on us,’ People loved it. I’m guessing that the LGBT community picked up on it immediately. I’m guessing some of my fans just thought it was some political statement, some unaffiliated political statement, because there was nothing super-gay about it. It was a subtle message; it was probably speaking in code maybe a little bit to people still.”
The album isn’t all loveliness. The anguished losses of the AIDS crisis over the previous decade is reflected in the “The Slim”, which picks up musically where Black Sheets of Rain left off (“I with your breath on my pillow/And I with the memory/I get to wait it out never put it away/When you left with your death/I felt empty when I looked back/On my pillow what you used to say”).
The woozy “Slick” recasts the teenage death song in a Twilight Zone its protagonist can’t escape from.
No one can say Mould was incapable of tipping his hat to his contemporaries. On Sugar’s second album, he’d recast My Bloody Valentine’s “Blown a Wish” as “Your Favorite Thing.” On Copper Blue, he showed a sense of humor with “A Good Idea.”
Years before, Kim Deal joined the Pixies after being the only bassist to answer an ad placed by Frank Black, which read, “Band seeks bassist into Hüsker Dü and Peter, Paul and Mary. Please – no chops.”
Mould gestures back to Black, turning the Pixies “Debaser” into a blackly comic tale of someone more interested than committing murder than in Luis Buñuel’s filmography. Mould delivers a tongue-in-cheek approximation of the Pixies’ frontman’s more deadpan side with the increasingly unhinged guitar roar substituting for Black’s yelping.
Mould did all the writing on the album, but it played as the work of a band. Check out the rhythm section’s contributions to “Helpless” — Barbe’s bassline propelling the whole thing with Travis’ aggressive drumming keeping pace. The song, full of serrated shimmer and a catchy verse hook that the band rides all the way through, should have been all over alternative radio.
VIDEO: Sugar “Changes”
The pre-breakup tale of doubt, “Changes”, wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a latter-day Hüsker Dü album as a song. It would have sounded a lot less muscular in the prior trio’s hands, though.
Sugar switches tone throughout the album’s final stretch, following-up the unabashed pop of “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” with the tumultuous rip through “Fortune Teller”. The tragic paralysis of “Slick” leads into the complete lack of darkness in “Man on the Moon”, which throws one last melodic hook.
Mould and co-producer Lou Giordano gave the whole thing an immersive polish, resulting in an album that married great tunes with terrific sound. Mould could be as full of darkness and intensity as ever, but his love of melody both counters those more furious instincts and helps them land harder.
As great as Copper Blue was, Sugar wasn’t destined to last. The following year, they released the Beaster EP, six more intense songs Mould held back from the Copper Blue sessions. A second album, File Under: Easy Listening, arrived in 1994. Despite some great songs like “Gift”, “Can’t Help You Anymore” and the aforementioned “Your Favorite Thing”, it was less consistent than the debut.
For multiple reasons, four years after forming, Sugar was no more.
Mould would resume his solo career, eventually taking time away from recording at the turn of the century. He worked as a wrestling scriptwriter and spent time as a DJ while exploring who he was away from the spotlight. He returned with an electronic album Modulate, which answered a question nobody was asking — “What would Bob Mould sound like with a vocoder?”
He started to go back to more familiar turf, although the vocoder didn’t get put away for a while.
A little over 10 years ago, he went back the power trio format with drummer Jon Wurster and bassist Jason Narducy. The return, with that lineup, has paid artistic dividends ever since, with 2012’s stellar Silver Age and 2020’s blistering Blue Hearts leading the way.
Even taking Hüsker Dü’s often great and influential discography and the best of his solo work into account, Copper Blue still stands as Mould’s crowning achievement to date. It’s a consolidation of his strengths and an enduring testament to his growth as a writer.
And, yes, three decades on, it’s still made to be played loud.
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