All About Bob

Alt-rock legend Bob Mould talks about his music, his writing and the uncertainty of life

Bob Mould is busy. On April 7, his new album, Life And Times, will be released. That means it’s time for some touring. That’s on top of the success of Blowoff, the pop-rock-electronica parties he’s DJ-ed at regularly with Rich Morel. What began locally at Nightclub 9:30 is now entrenched in New York and San Francisco. And in the coming months, the Blowoff empire will make forays into Chicago, Atlanta and Provincetown.

And then there’s that autobiography, the current focus of his creative attention, with help from Michael Azerrad, author of Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana. Look for it in fall 2010. Is there a working title yet? ”Not even close,” says Mould.

Bob Mould
Bob Mould

But Mould’s not the only one busy these days. Tom Goss, about two decades Mould’s junior, releases his third album, Back To Love, the same day, April 7. (See our reviews of both albums)

Despite the years between them and Mould’s punk-rock, Hüsker Dü roots that could drown out Goss’ acoustic-guitar sets, these gay music men hit a surprising number of similar chords. Both are Midwesterners who have landed in D.C. Mould explored his Catholic roots in his art, while Goss had plans of becoming a priest. And Goss’ years of amateur wrestling make him more than curious about Mould’s stint writing scripts for World Championship Wrestling.

Though busy they may be, Mould and Goss recently got a chance to meet each other, up close and personal, with Goss accepting his first Metro Weekly assignment: interviewing Bob Mould.

TOM GOSS: Tell me about Life And Times and what you’re trying to convey.

BOB MOULD: The writing cycle for this record started in July of ’07. Over the course of a weekend, I wrote the first three songs. I noticed a trend or a sort of a style really quickly. It’s a style I came up with in 1988 when Hüsker Dü broke up. I spent most of 1988 working on a solo record called Workbook. That record was a big departure from what I’d ever done before. Compositionally, it was a lot more poetry and free verse, non-rhyming structure, the sort of narratives, sort of found images that would collide when I put them together. Sort of a real unconscious way of writing as opposed to ”I need to find a word that rhymes with this.”

Back up to the summer of ’07, in these first three songs I noticed that I was writing in that style again. And I thought, ”Okay, so I’m reprising. This is a reprise of Workbook,” which I have always wanted to do, but it was sort of happening organically. That set the tone for the record.

This record is somber. There’s a lot of resignation. There’s hope in it, but a lot of resignation that things never work out the way you think they’re going to, and that’s neither good nor bad. Rarely can we predict how life is going to go. There are parts of it that are autobiographical, certain lines or stanzas are things that literally happened to me. And then there are things that are completely observational, things that I’ve overheard at a bar or things that friends have confided. Inside of that, the needle goes back and forth between the two. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that in art or in storytelling, there’s really not that much difference between fiction and non-fiction. The job is to stand back and let the story unfold. It has to have an emotional connection so that you can tell that story.

That’s the core of where I’m at as a writer now. That’s how life goes. You hope it’s going to end better this time, whatever it is. Whether it’s something as simple as a conversation, or something as complicated as the passing of a parent or a loved one, you hope the next time you’re better equipped for the ending.

GOSS: Doing this for 30 years — Hüsker Dü, Sugar, solo albums, folk, rock, punk, electronica — it seems you do whatever you want to do.

MOULD: Pretty much.

GOSS: That’s pretty awesome. It seems like it panned out exactly as you wanted.

MOULD: Life is way too random. When I’m sitting in a room making a record, I’m pretty much the master of my own universe. Then I step out the door: Forget it.

If you sat like the Unabomber and just wrote a manifesto, it would be this completely self-contained psychotic document. But if you go to the store or a bar or to a friend’s house, things are going to happen that are going to shift your life and take it off the line you thought you were on. That’s the beauty of the ride. That’s what we’re here for — to learn to roll with that ride.

GOSS: With Workbook, you went off to a farm and just hid in a room. Would you say that that was your manifesto?

MOULD: That was my liberation statement. After eight years of being in a band that made some amazing music and had sort of an ironic, bitter end, I spent [that] time to heal. I spent months and months trying to come up with a new language. To get to the end of that and realize that I had something of value — and then people acknowledged it and said that it was a great record — I was like, ”Whoa. Okay.”

GOSS: What was your message with the really edgy stuff, especially Hüsker Dü?

MOULD: Trying to change the world. I hated all the music that was going on around me. The late ’70s and early ’80s, there was a lot of what I considered god-awful music. I was into punk rock. I was young and angry and wanted to change the world. That’s when you do it, when you’re young. It’s hard to do when you get set in your ways.

GOSS: Did you feel trapped by that anger?

MOULD: No, it was a good job. [Laughs.] It paid good dividends. With art, it’s really funny: If an artist goes into a dark period and the value of their art goes up, odds are that they’re going to stay dark.

GOSS: What’s the price you pay for that?

MOULD: It has a cumulative effect, where you pay for it in friendships, in stability of your life. With Hüsker Dü, there was so much travel, everything was upheaval. The music portrays that upheaval. There were a lot of great times, too, but more often than not [you're] broke in a van, somewhere you’ve never been. Your stuff is in the trunk, you show up and you hope somebody is going to say, ”Hey, I’ve got a couch that the cat didn’t piss on this week.”

GOSS: This is a strange question, but where’s the oddest place you’ve slept?

MOULD: Probably in a huge, abandoned, beer vat. It was like a punk squat. There were dozens of vats and dozens of punks who lived there. It was the ’80s in San Francisco, pretty famous. It wasn’t bad until the next morning. [Laughs.] There was, like, some crazy guy who owned it and he had these wild dogs that he would let in to try to attack people.

GOSS: No shit?

MOULD: You had to get out. Attack dogs coming at you. Punk rock!

GOSS: At this point, you were not out…

MOULD: No. An open secret. People knew. I was out to my friends. Everybody in Minneapolis knew I was gay. People in the music business knew. It was an open secret, but I wasn’t openly out.

GOSS: And then you came out. There was an infamous Spin article in 1994. Did you feel like you had a newfound responsibility to your listeners — especially to your gay and lesbian listeners?

MOULD: No, not on a musical level. My work should stand on its own. I’d made sure that there was gender neutrality because I wanted everybody to be included in the songs. It was never songs written from a man’s perspective about a man. It was songs written from a human perspective toward another human. Inside those songs, there were many that were same-sex-relationship-based songs, but they weren’t defined as such.

What I did realize at that point is that I was going to, whether I liked it or not, be approached to speak from a position of influence on behalf of the community. That made me really nervous because I wasn’t the ”best gay.” I was still self-hating, still didn’t understand the politics of it. And I don’t always say the right things.

I had to do a lot of listening and learning before speaking on the subject. If it was coming from an uneducated point view, it wouldn’t be very helpful.

If somebody asks you what’s your stand on gay marriage — and there are at least three different stands I can think of, and they’re all valid — the community is broad enough and diverse enough for everybody to have an opinion on it. The second you bring the word ”marriage” into it, you’re bringing religion into it. When you use the word ”union,” you’re coming from a human-rights and equal-rights perspective. Some people feel it’s really important to redefine the word ”marriage” and some people are more interested in making sure that everybody is equal under the law. My take on it is when the community comes together, whether it’s consensus or majority, it will become clear what the stand is. If seven out of 10 gays say, ”We want marriage and nothing else,” then that’s going to be the cause. And I’ve learned that that’s really how the whole world works.

I don’t feel the need to redefine religion to gain equal rights. It’s almost like if religion wants to have control of a word and it makes them feel better, that’s fine. If I have fully equal rights under the law in every way, shape and form in a relationship that a married couple does, I don’t care if they call it ”hullabaloo.” It really doesn’t matter.

GOSS: Hullabaloo is more fun to say.

MOULD: Well, the gays are pretty inventive. Why don’t we come up with our own word?

There are people that feel that that system has to be either challenged or destroyed in order to make their relationship valid. That’s a lot of energy. If people have it, go for it. Personally, I don’t know at 48 if I have that much energy left to fight for that specific cause. But if somebody wants to do it, more power to ‘em.

I feel strongly about gay marriage in the broad sense — not the definitive, ”We have to change this word” — but the idea of what Proposition 8 has done. That kind of stuff is just not acceptable. For that, I feel pretty strongly. Countries in Europe have stepped away from religion, and they’ve done well with it. We’ve got to follow suit.

GOSS: Speaking of religion, you use a lot of religious imagery in your CD artwork and such. How has religious ideology played into music? Is it part of ”the machine” or the Reagan era that you were fighting against, or is it part of something in your upbringing that you embrace?

MOULD: It’s a combination. Catholicism has gone in and out of my life. There are waves of acceptance, waves of denial. It’s been around a long time and it’s done a lot of good. And it’s done a lot of harm.

If you go back to the beginning of HIV, the Catholic Church was one of the first outreach groups that was actually doing a lot, sort of on a grassroots level, to try to help people. Then you have this mirror image over here of the sin. It’s a really complex thing. My relationship with it goes back and forth. I believe. I don’t believe. I go all over the place with it.

GOSS: When I pick up a guitar and start penning something, that struggle comes out whether I’m consciously thinking of it or not.

MOULD: You’re just a vessel.

GOSS: If you were starting your career now, would you be out?

MOULD: When people ask me what I am, I’m a musician. I’m a musician who happens to be gay. Clearly, it informs my work. I don’t know that I have to say I’m a gay musician. Some people feel compelled to say they’re gay musicians. There are people who see their music as an activist cause, like they need to forward a gay agenda. That’s great. Everybody does this for different reasons…. [But] if you talk about your music in terms of your sexuality, that’s how people are going to think about it.

GOSS: Your writing transcends that, touching gay relationships and straight relationships.

MOULD: That’s the gist of it. Good music transcends all. Good music wins every time. If it’s a song or a melody or a story or a feeling that conveys to people and it makes them feel, that’s the job. Whether you call yourself a queer artist or a free-jazz musician, the goal is to create a piece of work that connects with people, that resonates and stays with them. That’s the hard work.

GOSS: I pulled this quote from your blog: ”I hope people can relearn the art of respectful disagreement… I hope the new leaders of our country are able to include the voices of opposition in a constructive manner.” Tell me a little bit about why you wrote that. Did you write that right after the inauguration?

MOULD: It might have been right after the election, which was pretty astonishing. We’ve been pretty oppressed, for like the better part of this decade. Somehow, a leader got into power in a corrupt manner, or voted in by the people. Months later, a really tragic incident happened and it gave the government carte blanche to do whatever they wanted with our rights, with our Constitution, with our emotions. There was no dissent allowed for a least a couple of years after 9/11. That’s a frightening way to live.

Now we fast-forward up to a place where there’s some hope, where it seems like we’ve got a few key people in the government now who are willing to listen and are tolerant and thoughtful. I lived in Austin when [Karl] Rove got [George W.] Bush up and beat Ann Richards. I saw the dirty pool early.

GOSS: Was the election not like one of the most amazing experiences ever?

MOULD: It was so crazy. I live just up from U Street. I started hearing people out on the street, so I went out and just got swept up in the huge celebration. It was one of the most amazing experiences ever. Everybody — all ages, races, genders — just going, ”Thank God, that’s over.”

I think people are now aware of humanity again, of civility and holding a door for someone. That stuff has changed in the last four months. It’s the little tiny things that add up. It’s really great to see the change here.

I came here in the summer of ’02 and it was a dark time. I’d been living in New York, living downtown, and it was tough. It can wear you down. I had gotten to that point and D.C. seemed like a decent alternative. It was still close to New York, but less expensive. It was a little bit smaller scale, a little bit more manageable. I remember coming here in March [of 2002] and it seemed really gay and really fun. When I moved here in June, it was really empty because it was summer and I was like, ”What? This is awful.” Then in September everybody came back from the beach.

I didn’t know anybody here. Rich Morel and I became acquaintances and then friends. I suggested Blowoff to him because I didn’t know anybody. [Laughs.] I thought if we throw a party maybe I’d make some friends. It was really out of a need to meet people.

GOSS: It’s amazing to think of you handing out fliers to go to the Velvet Lounge. That’s what I do. I think of someone like you as being beyond that.

MOULD: It was very punk-rock, though. That’s the way all good things start. There was no master plan. D.C. has changed me in really simplistic ways that ultimately affect the work I do a lot. It’s a 9-to-5 town. If I want to have friends, I have to do my work from 9 to 5. In New York, everybody’s on different shifts, so I could do my work from 7 at night till midnight, then still go out and see people. Here, I work the same schedule as everybody else so that I can have a social life.

Now I’m a morning worker. It’s different writing in the day than it is at night. It’s different because I haven’t really left the house, so I’m probably writing more inside my head. It’s not cause-and-effect writing, where I go out and something bad happens and I go home and write about it. I just get up, have my bowl of oats and my coffee, and start writing. Wake-up writing is great. It’s like more of the unconscious stuff is at the top.

GOSS: Apparently that’s what Einstein used to do. He’d lay on a billiards table with billiard balls in his hands, and fall asleep. The balls would fall out of his hands, waking him up, and he’d start writing.

MOULD: Wow. I’m going to try that! I like that. That totally makes sense.

GOSS: How is writing an autobiography different from writing a song?

MOULD: A song is a Polaroid. A bunch of Polaroids from a vacation is an album. [The autobiography] isn’t like a vacation. The timeline is ridiculous. Everything is so intertwined, and now that I’m in the middle of it, I’m seeing all of it.

GOSS: Do you like the perspective?

MOULD: Sometimes. Sometimes there are things I’m not thrilled to find out. There are things that are revealing themselves that I didn’t see before. Because I’ve always been a forward-looking person, I don’t look back on things that have happened in my own life. To have to sit and look at everything at once has been pretty confusing.

GOSS: There must be chapters that are just grueling to write.

MOULD: The beginning is the hardest. Once you establish the patterns, you go forward. I’m doing it chronologically because that’s how the story has to be told. When I’m reviewing notes and the manuscript in progress, it’s like, ”Oh, yeah, I’m coming up on that year, good.” Then it’s like, ”Oh, no, I’m coming up on that year.” So it’s a never-ending ride.

Music is set aside until this is done. I can’t multitask that deep. This thing is all-consuming. It’s 100 percent of my creative focus.

GOSS: You did some scriptwriting for the [World Championship Wrestling].

MOULD: Yeah, pro-wrestling in Atlanta. And you wrestled amateur?

GOSS: Yes. And scripted wrestling is ”pro-wrestling.” That must’ve been a trip.

MOULD: It was. There was a lot of testosterone flying around. And it’s showbiz, so people have egos, too.

GOSS: Is it completely scripted and choreographed?

MOULD: There are general stories in the match. The last few minutes, that’s pretty tightly laid out. That’s a series of moves that the two guys will talk about all day. We tell them how to slip on the banana peel, but all that other stuff they can just go out there and just feel their way through it.

GOSS: I don’t have any other questions. Is there anything to add?

MOULD: I’ve been doing my life’s work professionally for 30 years. I never thought that 2009 would bring me a new record, a tour, a book. I never thought I’d see a year where I’d be DJing 35 times.

I’m the guy who plans everything out. I’m the guy who methodically thinks years ahead in his life, and I didn’t see this year coming. I’m pretty grateful for it. It’s an amazing year. In a business that chews people up pretty quickly, I’m astonished that I’m still standing and that I’m getting this much work offered and this much work done at this point in my life. I don’t know how it happened.

Bob Mould performs Tuesday, April 7, at the Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria. Tickets are $25. Visit www.ticketmaster.com. Visit Bob Mould online at www.bobmould.com. For more about Blowoff, visit www.blowoff.us.

Tom Goss offers CD-release parties at Nellie’s Sports Bar, 900 U St. NW, on Thursday, April 2, at 8:30 p.m., and Friday, April 3, at 8 p.m. Visit www.tomgossmusic.com.

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