Originally published in Spinner, July 6, 2011
In his 30-plus-year career, Bob Mould has always been known for his driving emotional music, whether its the highly-charged punk rock of Hüsker Dü or his solo career. The angst that was present in his music is similar to aspects of his personal life, as documented in his latest memoir, ‘See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody.’ With author Michael Azerrad, Mould writes about the uneasy experiences of his life: Living in a dysfunctional home in Malone, N.Y.; a drinking habit that began at age 13 and lasted until he was 25 and coming to grips with his homosexuality.
Mould, 50, would later describe the actual writing of ‘See a Little Light,’ which took two and a half years, as grueling in terms of the mechanical and emotional aspects of the project. “In looking back at the first 50 years of my life,” he writes in the book’s preface, “I was sometimes appalled by my faults. Be it my uncanny ability to cut off friendships and relationships without explanation, my inability to properly process criticism or my love/hate relationship with blind rage — in writing this book, my flaws became all to clear.”
He also tells the stories behind the music he made with Hüsker Dü and Sugar, as well as his solo works from ‘Workbook’ (1989) to ‘Life and Times’ (2009). “As a child,” he writes, “music was my escape. It was my fantasy world. Once I understood the value of and meaning of music, I began composing … The infinite loops of history and harmony blend seamlessly into each other and wash my pain away.”
In this interview with Spinner, Mould discusses his personal journey, his feelings about Hüsker Dü’s legacy and his attitude towards life today.
What did you wanted to tell people through this book?
I had the stories that I thought were interesting. I wanted to sort of clear up any gaps in my private life: My sexuality, my relationships, how I felt personally about my own work — a lot of things I hadn’t shared before. I wanted to get those stories out there. Truth be told, when we got into this, when Azerrad and I started seeing the importance of family of origin and how much that affected my work and how much that affected my person, that became the focal point. From that, we were able to construct a number of threads that weaved throughout the book, whether it’s my personal intimate relationships, my professional work, my sexuality, how religion affected the work at times. There’s a lot of key threads that reappear through the book. That became the story, that became clearly what needed to be dealt with and that was when the hard work started.
Was there a particular difficult moment in your life that was equally difficult for you to write for ‘See a Little Light’?
The things that are hard to talk about are the stories that I share that may or may not incriminate other people, simply because they were key to telling the story, whether it’s my family of origin, either of my long-term partners and former bandmates. Going back and reliving and telling my version of the final 18 months of Hüsker Dü — not real fun. I wasn’t one to talk about it at all. But in having to tell my story, I had to go back and look at it. It’s not pleasant stuff. I tried to keep an even hand when going back on those stories and looking at it. There’s no bitterness or animosity. A lot of times it’s having to revisit the resignation. That’s a curious idea.
The episode in which you talk about the final time the members of Hüsker Dü were in a room together was a pretty painful affair.
It was no fun at the time. It was the period at the end of an 18-month long sentence that kept saying in different ways: “Time to leave,” “Time to close this up,” “We’re all growing apart,” “We have nothing in common,” “We don’t even like each other’s music.” “Maybe we should put a period on this.” It’s a tough story. I don’t think anybody looks particularly good or bad. It’s just a very flat retelling of an incident that’s yes, it’s sort of a weird end, right?
You mention your first experience listening to the Ramones’ debut album from 1976. Is that what influenced you to become a musician?
I had such a passionate love and devotion to music as a small child. I was writing songs when I was 9 but at that time I couldn’t really process the idea of being a musician. I didn’t know what jobs were other than working at my parents’ store. I think the idea that I could actually be a musician definitely came from the first Ramones album. I was a fan of heavy metal music, Kiss and Aerosmith, and all of those things seemed unattainable. It seems like you can be a fan but you could never be in the band. And the Ramones changed that whole paradigm for me. It was like “Oh, their music is very easy, and look they’re in magazines, and they made a record. Surely I could do this.”
And in turn, music was a vehicle for you to express the angst that you were feeling.
Most definitely. Clearly, I know it’s always been there. I never looked back to try to figure that out until it was time to deal with it in the book. I’m sure it was obvious to everyone else. I think in talking with Michael Azerrad later, he’d say things like, “Bob clearly wasn’t putting on an act, and I wanted to find out where this was all coming from.” For me, I’m just living and doing — why would I really stop to consider it? I thought it was in the work already. But the very clear assignment of where it came from, that’s what this book accomplishes.
You knew during your youth that you were gay. You also write about an incident when the body of a young male was later found in the woods after he made a pass at another guy. How was it to be in that environment and not having anyone to talk to about what you were feeling, as indicated in the book?
It was really confusing. The story that you mention, I didn’t really go into a lot of detail in the book because I couldn’t find a lot of verification. People didn’t really want to talk about it. They didn’t want to talk about it back then when it happened. I think it was while I was away [in] my first year at college. It was a friend of mine who was a year older than me. When I heard about it, I was just horrified. I was 17 [or] 18 and I’m like, “I’m glad I’m gone and I’m not sure if I ever want to come back.” It’s not an indictment on the town I grew up in, but I don’t think it’s unusual in small towns in the ’70s for there to be an anti-gay bias. So I was in Minneapolis, but even then exploring my sexuality wasn’t on the menu yet as far as out and being gay. I was very closeted and self-hating at the time.
When you were dating your first partner in the ’80s, your homosexuality was sort of an open secret to your close friends and musician pals.
Yes. By the time Hüsker Dü went to [Warner Bros.], which would have been late ’85 or early ’86, people knew. It was a very open secret. It wasn’t a topic for conversation publicly with the press or with selling records.
But it was in the ’90s when you came out, you were embracing your homosexuality when you were living in New York.
I would say understanding it for sure, and embracing it and beginning a journey of getting comfortable with my own skin, which has been the battle for so many decades. There was a period in 1998, where I made a rock record ‘The Last Dog and Pony Show,’ and my proclamation was, “This is the end of this, this is the end of what I’ve been doing for 20 years.” The real reason for it — beyond being tired of the genre itself — was also take the time to claim my sexuality and learn my history as a gay man, the history I never experienced or understood or denied. All of it.
You make it quite clear in the book that you are not interested in revisiting your Husker Dü past. Putting aside the painful moments associated with the breakup, could you appreciate how much that music still means to people?
Absolutely. That was never in question. It was a great first band. In the eight years that the band was together, we made a lot of amazing music, got a lot of people’s attention and the work still resonates today. That’s undeniable. Personally, when it was over, I was ready to move on and be my own person. It just really wasn’t a topic that I felt like I had to remind people of or to explain in any great detail. I was busy making new work instead of revisiting the past.
After Husker Dü broke up in 1988, you rebounded with first your solo career and then with Sugar in the early to mid ’90s. Was there any trepidation about having to follow up a successful band such Hüsker Dü this time a solo artist?
I was up on a farm in rural Minnesota writing music by myself for a year. It yielded some really great results but the first time I rolled out onto a stage, I was petrified. It was a new band, I was 60 pounds lighter, my music sounded different, I had no idea how people would react. And it went very well. But yeah, I was a wreck. But as far as trepidation, I only have one thing that I really do well, I can a lot of things pretty good, but there’s only one that I do really well and that’s music, so there wasn’t any doubt that I had to get back to it. That part was never an issue.
You wrote frankly in the book about the mixed reaction towards your 1998 album ‘Modulate,’ for which you explored electronic music. Why do you think it got that type response at the time?
It didn’t play to my strong suits. People for 20 years had looked to me for these cathartic, dark, angry, heavy guitar songs. More or less that’s the palette that I worked with. When I traded that in for a new set of tools, I just don’t think people understood. I just felt like, “Wow, I don’t know if you’re listening to the songs. You’re getting caught on production flourishes that aren’t familiar to you. You’re getting hung up on those.” Now I chuckle about it, but at the time, it was hard to process. And that was also in the middle of a two-and-a-half-year stretch where everything around me was sort of crumbling and in shambles. I go back and listen to it, I think it’s a cool record. At the time, it was a shocker. It was blasphemy in a way.
We had no idea that you had a behind-the-scenes stint in professional wrestling, which you were a fan of going back to your youth.
It was an intimate involvement with professional wrestling. For seven months from late ’99 to early 2000, my title was creative consultant at World Championship Wrestling. I sat on the writing teams, I was in the production team, I would helping with character development, I was traveling with the wrestlers, living that lifestyle 24-7.
With the book finished, where are you now in your life?
Just pretty happy to be happy. I really think about smaller things these days. The book is a grand platform for me to enjoy all of this attention, and when that is over, I will go back to the things that I was doing before the book came out, which is trying to keep a roof over my head, try to take care of my partner, make sure my friends are taken cared of, go to the gym, eat well, get my mail once a day, ride my bike — the simple stuff. I’m sure I will get restless very quick and conjure three projects at the same time like I always do. Right now I’m enjoying the fact that I was able to share this story with people and that folks are appreciative.
Are you working on any new music?
I have not written any music in almost three years. When I started the hard work on the book, I put the writing on hold. I didn’t want to be writing a record about looking back at my life. That’s what the book is for. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, once I finish up some other archival work that I want to just get everything in place, then I’ll have a clear stretch of time. I’ll probably write a record sooner than I think. I have no idea which direction it will go. I guess it depends on what kind of music I’m listening to when I start writing.