Bob Mould talks ‘Sunshine Rock’
The former Hüsker Dü and Sugar songwriter looks for the wonder in music
Bob Mould, the former Hüsker Dü and Sugar songwriter is on the road playing solo electric guitar sets, touching on songs from throughout his career. Before playing City Winery on Sat., Sept. 21, Mould checked in to talk about his latest album, Sunshine Rock, his recent move to Berlin, and trying to rediscover the childlike wonder of music.
Chad Radford: You moved to Berlin a few years ago.
Bob Mould: Yeah, I've still got my place in San Francisco, but I've spent much of the last three years in Berlin, which has been great. It’s a city that I’ve always enjoyed visiting when I was on tours, and I have a few friends living there at the moment. An opportunity came up to get a small apartment there, and it's been really fun. It's very different from living in America in a lot of ways.
Berlin seems to have a lot of creative energy going on in 2019 — it transcends the rest of the world.
It’s a really progressive city. It's gone through a lot of changes over the last few years; gentrification is picking up there because it's a lot less expensive to live there than in London, Paris, or Barcelona. And there are no guns! It's funny what that does to your stress levels.
Are you someone who is strongly affected by place?
Yeah, in terms of living that turns into writing, which turns into creating records and going on tours. Where I live and where I spend my time is everything — its culture and environment are key things for me.
Living in Berlin for the last three years has been interesting. All of the cultural differences, leaving my life in San Francisco on hold, and jumping into a new thing has me looking at the world a little differently. Sonically, the new album, Sunshine Rock, is somewhat different. It has a lot of the strings, and it’s more of an optimistic record with a different perspective. At the end of the day, it still sounds like me — hopefully, a little happier me.
I picked up on that. Also, your autobiography is called See a Little Light. The new album is called Sunshine Rock. Is there a theme developing here?
Generally speaking, the goal is to be happier. “See A Little Light” is taken from a song on my first solo album, Workbook, from 1989. It's a title that I've used in a couple of different ways since then. One with the autobiography. Later that year there was a tribute show at Disney in Los Angeles that became a documentary film in late 2012. That’s a title that has seen a lot of use with the song, the book, and the documentary.
With Sunshine Rock, I don’t know. That showed up from out of nowhere. The second the words fell out of my head, I thought, yeah that sounds like a good place to start a record.
In 2019, within the United States and the rest of the world, there seems to be an encroaching right-wing presence hanging over everyone’s lives. Technology — the phones in our pockets and social media — seems to have put people in a state of hyper-agitation, and darkness surrounds much of everyday life. Then here comes this record, Sunshine Rock, which is a full-throttle, major chord, bright-sounding record. I can’t help but think of it as a form of protest in and of itself.
That's an interesting take. In the ‘80s with Hüsker Dü, a lot of our songs were very political. We had Reagan and the AIDS crisis, and how that all hit me as a young man — I felt less than in the eyes of my government. Fast-forward to where we are now: We have a government that’s creating a lot of darkness and a lot of unfounded fear in people.
That agitation and darkness can be overwhelming. The ideas with this record came from an innocent place. The cover is a pretty bold lift of the mid-’60s Capitol Records 7-inch logo. That’s where my mind goes when I want to be a five-year-old kid again, who still finds wonder in music.
That's more what I wanted to convey than a protest. Not wasting a lot of artistic time on the obvious problems in the country may be a bit of a protest in its own way. It was unintended, but I see where you're coming from with that.
I think that’s an element of good songwriting, writing that can apply to whatever circumstances are happening when people hear it.
Some of the political songs that I wrote in the ’80s, like “In A Free Land” or “Divide And Conquer” couldn't ring more true this morning.
It's funny how it goes. I could write a political song, and it might hold up, or it might be timely at different points in time in the future. But at the end of the day good, personal, first-person songs tend to hold up over a lifetime. That's where I was coming from when writing this record. There are politics on the record, but it's up to people to define them and parse them as they choose. I didn't want to break out the cudgel.
Even a song like “New Day Rising,” is just three words ...
Three words and three chords.
But it says so much, like an empowering mantra.
Yes, and that was the idea with that one.
You’re playing solo on this current tour?
Yeah, I'm in my glamorous rental car with my luggage, albums, and posters. It’s fun. It’s a lot of work, and I'm responsible for everything, but it's good. I get to spend time with folks after the shows and being in the car by myself is a mixed blessing. One good thing about technology is that it can tell me where to go, and I don't get all twisted around. But the solitude is nice in the daytime. I think about what the show is going to be like, and I think about ideas, and take notes. Hopefully, the next few weeks will be a fertile time for coming up with new ideas and to think about what’s happening next with new work.
And no drums!
Yes! It's not quite as loud on stage. I feel for the people who grab those tables in the center lane of the venue because they're gonna get hit with some guitar.
It's just stand and deliver: Playing songs straight up with a guitar and voice and nothing else. I carry all the melodies and rhythms. But they're really fun shows. Last night there were a couple of things that I flubbed in songs that I hadn't played in a while, and we all get a chuckle out of that. When I do get it right, it's a big victory for all of us.
I have found that audiences react when there's a tension, and it feels like the show could fall apart at any second, but the artist keeps it together.
Yeah, when I'm in a room with the core audience, who knows all the songs, it’s a party. It's a lot less formal than playing a set with a full band in a theater where the lights go down, and the intro song comes up, and everybody cheers, and we do our stage show and leave. Those are great shows, but to be as exposed as I am with these solo shows is a lot more personal for people. I like playing them both, but they serve completely different masters.
You can also get to a more mysterious version yourself and your songs like this as well.
With these shows, when I fall into the zone, the songs tend to take on different shapes because structurally they don't need to be as sound as they are when I’m playing with other people. By myself, I can take a song anywhere I want to go with it. It’s just trying to get into that spot where it's really unconscious, and the whole thing happens, and I don't even really know how it's happening.
Are you playing a comprehensive set of songs from throughout your career?
Yeah, there's Hüsker, there's early Sugar, there's later solo stuff. No electronica, just guitar and voice. But it's pretty wide-ranging. I have a framework that stays pretty constant just for pacing the show. But inside the framework, there are a lot of things that can rotate in and out. There’s a frame, but the pictures are different every night.
There could be that quiet moment when somebody yells out a song that I haven't thought about in 20 years, and I have to think about it in two seconds in my head. Do I know all the words? Do I know how to play the solo without a bass holding it down? “Nope. I can't do that one.” Or “Yeah! I still know that one!”
Minimalism isn’t the right word, but when you think about what artists such as Philip Glass or Steve Reich, your ear tunes into the textures and microtones — what exists beyond rhythm and melody. When I watched your NPR Tiny Desk Concert I couldn't help but listen to the guitar in a similar way. I can see how that crunchy tone can be very evocative.
My playing is pretty dense. I'm trying to cover a lot of ground with the guitar. I try to create a lot of drones in my work, and a lot of things happen between the notes, just little scrapings and different things that happen. A lot of times it’s the stuff between the notes that makes it unique. I'm aware of what those spaces are and the ghosts that live inside the spaces.
In the ’80s, Hüsker Dü was signed to SST Records. If you look at SST’s larger body of work, it was more than a punk label. Having Henry Kaiser, Glenn Phillips, Fred Frith, Saccharine Trust, and even Hüsker Dü on the roster was kind of a gateway to the avant-garde.
With Hüsker Dü, we were all listening to free jazz as much as we were listening to surf music or punk rock. SST presented itself visually as a punk label. But a lot of those artists worked beyond the basic one-two fuck you kind of stuff. After Hüsker Dü left SST, I didn't keep track of what they were doing. The label became increasingly esoteric as time went on. But yeah, bands like Saccharine Trust, the Minutemen, and even Black Flag had a lot of free moments in the music. I think we were all aware of the kind of work Henry Kaiser and Fred Frith were doing.
People just keep finding ways to retell stories in slightly different ways. We work in this form, ideas overlap, and people put their own spin on it. That's really what keeps music alive, how it mutates and evolves and borrows from itself and borrows from others. That's the idea with storytelling and with music, and that’s how it survives.
Bob Mould plays a solo electric show at City Winery on Sat., Sept. 21. With Will Johnson. $28-$35. 6 p.m. (doors). 8 p.m. music. 650 North Ave., Ponce City Market. 404-946-3791.www.citywinery.com/atlanta.