Clear Eyes, Blue Hearts, Can’t Lose

Old days, new days and all points between: A Q&A with the legendary Bob Mould

Punk rock legend, pioneer and founder of Minnesota’s seminal Hüsker Dü, Bob Mould, heads to Santa Fe next week courtesy of AMP Concerts for solo selections culled from his long career. We caught up with Mould ahead of his show to learn about his thoughts, ethos and storied career.

SFR: For decades now you’ve been extremely prolific. You always seem to have something you’re pushing towards, so what is the core of your passion for creating? what really drives you to keep producing?

Bob Mould: It’s the first and foremost thing that I am good at. Music got to me as a small child, it got me through my childhood, both in the ’60s when I was a small child, and later in the ’70s through high school—and then finding punk rock. Music is my life. It saved my life. It keeps me alive. It’s the way that I think I best communicate my ideas and my stories to people. It’s just sort of baked into my life. When I wake up in the morning it’s music, I’m thinking about music. On the good days, when I’m thinking about music in the morning and in a positive way, I get right to work and I try to write something, but not every morning is a Hoover Dam morning, you know? A lot of mornings are a ‘What the hell did I just write? Hide that forever!’ kind of morning.

I’m also a musician so I get the sentiment: We make music, it’s what we do, whether we’re in a band or just writing on our own, we don’t know how to stop.

I guess I’m prolific in terms of output, I’m fairly prolific in terms of writing. In my good times, I’m very disciplined about it. In my bad times when the output isn’t high, I know enough to just take notes and be mindful of it. Keep ideas for the good days, you know? When the good things happen. The past couple of years have honestly not been the most productive years in terms of creating. I’ve been writing a lot and keeping a lot of notes, but ever since the beginning of 2020, when everything changed, my routines got broken, my momentum got broken. So now that I’ve been back out—last year with the band and this year solo—things are starting to get back toward normal. I guess part of it is validation, but part of it is also just seeing firsthand how Blue Hearts resonates with people. Now that I see that and I talk to people after the shows, now I feel like I’m getting back in the rhythm that I’m used to. I need to have that in order to move forward.

For lack of a better term, you have been a “solo artist” for a while now. After Hüsker Dü with Sugar, and with your current band, it’s always been, “All songs written by Bob Mould.” Are there aspects of collaborative songwriting you miss? You said you have some good days and bad days—do you miss having somebody to bounce ideas off of?

From the beginning with Hüsker Dü, everybody was writing, and over time it became myself and Grant Hart being the principal songwriters. Grant and I used to write separately and then bring ideas to the band as we were getting ready to make records. There’s a few collaborations in the body of work that might be, ‘How about I write this verse and you write that verse?’ The song ‘Flip Your Wig’ being a perfect example of that. But typically, we wrote independent of each other and then worked things out as we’re making a record. After that, it’s been pretty singular. The big exception to that would be the Blowoff artist album that came out in ‘06; that was myself and Rich Morel. Blowoff was a DJ party that Rich and I hosted for 11 years from ‘03 through 2014, and that album is a completely 50-50 collaboration. And that’s really the only time I’ve done full collaboration for an album. We wrote that record over a three-year period and it was a blast. We were just goofing around with sound, and then we’d have fairly personal, serious lyrics on top of that.

I’ve been working with with [bassist] Jason Narducy and [drummer] John Wurster since 2008, so this is the longest I’ve collaborated with other musicians ever. I’m a singular songwriter, but over the course of those 14 years Jason and John have had a lot of influence over the direction of the records merely by being part of the band. I’m writing more toward the strength of the band as a performance unit, but still keeping singular editorial over the lyrics. Do I miss the idea of collaborating 50-50 with somebody? Yeah, there have been times where I’ve thought, ‘Find some people to write songs with. Just get together with people in a room and write some songs,’ and there’s something really attractive about that. I will say, recently in pop music, it looks like it takes a number of people to write a song, and when I hear those songs I don’t hear a singular storytelling voice. I hear a lot of people trying to tell a story at once. But people seem to like that kind of storytelling or that kind of songwriting right now, or that seems to be what the music industry is favoring at the moment. As a singular storyteller I never really hear a story in those, like I’m not sure who’s telling the story and the artist is the vessel. I don’t know if that really works for me.

That’s interesting, because one of the records you picked out on your What’s in My Bag? YouTube series by Amoeba Records was Ultrapop by The Armed.

Fuckin’ A—what a record.

It was probably my favorite record of last year. But in regards to who-knows-how-many-people contributing to the songwriting process, The Armed seems to be anywhere from six to a dozen people at any given time creating that beautiful chaos. When you come across records like that, do you find them influential? Do they push you in different directions while you’re writing?

To an extent, yeah. I mean, with Ultrapop in particular, it just struck me immediately that it was like a pop art collective, and that it was a fully realized vision of something. The visual representation through the artwork, particularly through the music videos and the performance videos, it’s just so realized. It’s like Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer—a fully realized vision. The second you see and hear it you go, ‘Oh my god, this is fully realized, there’s really nothing left.’ There’s no loose threads to question; everything has been stitched together in such a full way. That’s the thing that got me about that [Armed] record. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh my God, this is like more distortion than ‘Loveless’ or ‘Beaster,’” although it is or it might be or, ‘Oh my God, these hyper-destructive live performances—this reminds me of Neubauten in the ’80s.’ There are all those touchstones that are evident, but the fact that it’s such a fully realized project, that’s what gets me. And I get jealous, you know?

There is a certain romance to piling in a half-broken van and not knowing if you’re going to have a place to sleep or if you’re going to make gas money, but still just doing it anyway. Is there anything you miss about those early days of touring and punk rock? The reckless abandon of it?

All the things you mentioned, I don’t miss that uncertainty at my age. When I was in my late teens through my late 20s, I was pretty convinced what I was doing was right. I/Hüsker Dü were pretty damn resourceful. We had a lot of help and support from people who were in the same situation, and we gave back as much as we were given. So in that climate, it was very easy to get in a van that you hoped was roadworthy with a map that was pretty current, with some landline numbers that were connected to a person you knew was on the other end; but you had to use a payphone. It was a whole different world. The seat of the pants thing, I think, was what made all of it so exciting. Every day was an adventure, every day was, ‘I wonder where the vegan restaurant is, because it’s probably next to the indie record store or the skate shop,’ and that was the GPS of the ’80s.

Yeah, it’s very romantic, and it’s definitely for when one is young and durable and righteous and indestructible. Now that I’m in my 60s? Nooo, I sort of want to know where I’m going. It’s just a reality. I can’t pretend that more years of wild adventure would be would be good for my health [laughs].

I saw you play in Colorado a few years ago and I’ve always told people that show was nothing short of inspirational for me. You were outperforming people a third your age. It reminded me of the saying: “Whether there are five people or 500 we’re going to rip it as hard as we can.” Did you have anyone early on in your career that helped instill that work ethic in you and helped shape how you approach music and performing? Because you’re not really slowing down.

Yeah, I would go back to the first time I saw the Ramones opening for Iggy Pop in Montreal. That would’ve been early ‘78. I had those albums and I couldn’t wait to see the band because all I knew about them was what I saw on the covers of the album and in the photographs and stories that were in Rock Scene or Circus Magazine. There was no Wikipedia. I didn’t know what they looked like on stage, I’d never seen a moving image of them. And they just came out and said, ‘We’re the Ramones, 1-2-3-4;’ white lights, packs of three or four songs with very little crowd interaction— and then 45 minutes later, it was done. And I was like, ‘Yep, that’s pretty much it. That’s the template.’ I still keep that in my head all the time. It was the moment where I was like, ‘This is what we should do with music,’ at least if you’re gonna get up there and play loud music.

The economy and the power of it, that was a big inspiration. Hüsker Dü used that template, Sugar used that works. At my age, the physicality is harder. I always tell people it’s not the show that breaks you as you get older, it’s the amount of recovery time that you need. The doing it is still very possible, but the next morning is a lot harder than it used to be.

Waking up with sore shoulders

Blown voice, tinnitus raging. So for me, what I have to do is be mindful as I get ready to tour, do the things I can do to keep myself as physically young as I can because it really gets hard. So I’m doing the best I can—and I appreciate the kind words about the Boulder show. It’s work.

I grew up going to hardcore shows in the ’90s, when there was a lot of tough-guy posturing and machismo and slurs. You have stories in your book, See a Little Light about similar things from the ’80s. As a society we are obviously still struggling with acceptance and meaningful representation—how do you feel the music scene has changed in that regard? Do you still come up against that type of ignorance at times, or do you feel like you’ve really surrounded yourself with good people?

I think I’ve surrounded myself with the good people. I think there are different avenues out there, and fortunately there are progressive avenues for more progressive, accepting audiences and artists. That’s the work of the music business: booking agents, venues, promoters, publications, record labels. Everybody being mindful that we’re not all the same, but we all love music.

There’s a tolerance and an understanding and a willingness to learn about things we may not know. I think about trans youth issues. Ten years ago, maybe not so much on people’s radar, but right now it’s very important for all of us to learn why people should be encouraged to identify themselves in the way they want to be identified, for instance. Those are the kinds of things that I think younger people have asked of us. I’m guessing somewhere in the world there’s an alternate universe that is the complete opposite of everything I just said, and I bet those shows are going really well, too, but I don’t know where those shows are [laughs].

I think we all gravitate to the places that we’re supposed to be, and I think that’s one of the good things the internet has afforded us. Forty years ago, with that hopefully trustworthy van and vegan restaurant next to the indie record store, that was about the best we could do, we didn’t have the instantaneous, worldwide free communication and media. We are lucky to be living in this age, but the flip side of it is really frightening, too. Everything has just been made available and amplified, that’s just the world that we’re living in now. It’s a societal thing more than a music thing, and I’m just grateful that the playing field is more level than it used to be, especially with female artists and singer-songwriters.

I think when the dark forces took hold in 2016, for all of the taking the lid off of the ugly side of America, I think it also brought the good forces together. Unfortunately, it took some senseless killings that led to Black Lives Matter to lead to people really digging in against the darker forces in the country. I think at that point, even those of us who felt progressive really had to learn more lessons. There’s always more to learn.

On the song “American Crisis,” you wrote, “You’re one of us/ or you’re one of them/ and if you’re one of them/ don’t come near me again,” which really puts a very fine point on this social breaking point we’ve reached. I think your point about the willingness or unwillingness to learn and change and grow is a really important facet of that. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard it articulated like that.

With “American Crisis,” the song and putting a fine point on it, that was sort of dropping the bomb on the whole thing. I remember the ’80s, I remember being a confused, closeted, young, gay man faced with a life or death crisis, and having a government that could not name the crisis simultaneously taking advice from televangelists who were telling me this was my punishment for my lifestyle and that I should die. So I’ve seen this kind of marginalization before. I lived it. I wanted to make sure I did not sit out the fight that I thought was coming, and it is now the fight we are exactly in the middle of.

Well, I think that’s a really strong sentiment to end on.


Bob Mould Solo Electric: 7:30 pm Tuesday, Sept. 20. $35. Tumbleroot Brewery & Distillery, 2797 Agua Fría St., (505) 393-5135

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