He speaks to singer-songwriter Bob Mould, who is one of the original members of seminal 1980s punk band Hüsker Dü. After leaving the band, he continued his music career with alternative rock band Sugar and his own solo projects.
His new memoir, See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody, goes deep into his past, exploring his personal history, his sexuality, band politics and more.
DAVE HOLMES: It's The Sound of Young America, I'm Dave Holmes, and my guest this week is Bob Mould. You might know him best as the founder of the 1980s Minneapolis punk band Hüsker Dü . The band only had modest record sales at the time, but they’ve been a huge influence on alternative rock. After the band broke up, Mould went on to release several solo recordings, and in the mid-90s he formed a new group called Sugar. Here's another fun fact: Mould wrote the theme song to The Daily Show, it's called “Dog On Fire.”
He's now written a memoir along with Michael Azerrad, it's called See A Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody. It follows his fascinating career as a gay guy both in and out of the closet in the alternative rock world of the 80s, 90s, and today.
Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Bob Mould!
BOB MOULD: How ya doing?
DAVE HOLMES: Excellent, Bob Mould.
BOB MOULD: Thank you for the wonderful introduction.
DAVE HOLMES: Thank you for being here.
BOB MOULD: Yay!
DAVE HOLMES: Welcome to The Sound of Young America.
BOB MOULD: Cool cool.
DAVE HOLMES: Reading the early parts of the book when you and Hüsker Dü are out basically evangelizing for American punk music, it is a scene that still exists to this day but is not - - you were kind of the first to really Xerox your fliers and get into a VFW Hall and do your thing.
BOB MOULD: There was a great scene at the time. In the late 70s we had the first wave of punk rock, bands from England like The Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned. It was heavily informed by a certain look; the safety pins, the pseudo goth look. The next iteration in America was more of a west coast based mentality; I think Southern California, Northern California, towns like Vancouver, and then places like Minneapolis where Hüsker Dü started and The Replacements started and Soul Asylum started. More of the flannel shirts, chains, military boots, skinheadish looking hardcore punks. There was a lot of bands doing it at the time but as far as Minneapolis, specifically, Hüsker Dü was the first band to truly get out and see what was happening and gather information, bring it back, and start sharing it with other bands.
DAVE HOLMES: Right. The fact that there was no internet. It's easy to forget that not that long ago you really had to do the work. If you wanted to find your scene, if you wanted to create a buzz, you really had an enormous amount of work to do.
BOB MOULD: There was a lot of work to do. Within each city there would be certain outposts, whether it was a punk rock club or a punk rock night at a disco or an independent record store or a fan-zine that bands that were touring might take copies of their fan-zines of their local town and leave them wherever they went. It was a very organic way of sharing information with people and you had the right to be selective. You didn't necessarily give that information to the cover band at your bowling alley in your town. When you knew that you found like minded people, kindred spirits, you would share that information and help those bands out as well.
DAVE HOLMES: Hüsker Dü in the early 80s were something that was very brand new. You created independent rock, I would say. You were on the forefront of alternative rock, meaning that you didn't have a massive label powering you, but you created a scene that was nationwide. They transcended the place where you came from. Within that community you were, to some degree, an out, gay man. Was it easier in that community, would you say?
BOB MOULD: The 80s music scene, the post-hardcore pre-alternative rock, that field of music what brought us together was the rebelling against corporate rock. Going out and renting VFW Halls, that was something that we could do for $100. You could bring a PA in and you could put a band up and it really meant something to all of us. It was in the face of this corporate Foghat, Rush, KISS, Aerosmith kind of stuff that was on unattainable.
As far as gay punk rock, or gays in punk rock, it was sort of like gays in the military really. It was like the era of don't ask don't tell. Don't advertise, don't worry. That was the - - and bear in mind, we were already - - as punk rock, we were the outsiders. The more outsiders we could gather the better. If you were gay and you didn't make a huge point of it, of course you were welcome, because you were an outsider.
There was inclusion there mostly because the enemy was so much bigger. In the Reagan years and Anita Bryant, it all overlapped. If you wanted to be the token gay, put “X”s over Anita Bryant's face on your punk rock poster, that fit. I think there was a place for everybody in it as long as they hated Reagan.
DAVE HOLMES: That was “Hardly Getting Over It,” by Hüsker Dü. My guest is Bob Mould.
I have to say that reading this book I was blown away at how - - the story of the end of Hüsker Dü was sort of famously acrimonious, and so much of it has not been told. You were very even-handed in the book.
BOB MOULD: Thank you, thanks. I did my best. In my private moments I have different thoughts, but that's the beauty of this book and spending time really considering the whole - - considering it from everybody's perspective. And then telling what I think is my truth, and then moving on from it.
DAVE HOLMES: There's not only an incredible music scene in Minneapolis, but it seems like the worst break ups seem to come from Minneapolis.
BOB MOULD: What other ones?
DAVE HOLMES: I go to The Replacements, Prince and Appollonia.
BOB MOULD: Prince and Appollonia was a shocker. Yeah. The shock waves of that are still resonating.
DAVE HOLMES: Still being felt to this day.
What is it about Minneapolis that created the scene that it did?
BOB MOULD: The cold weather. People have to find things to do inside for eight months of the year. In the book I attribute it to a handful of other things that transpired. There's a gentleman named Tim Curr who lived in Minneapolis. He worked at the Walker Art Center, and he was able to use that platform to curate some amazing musical shows. Putting together festivals, bringing all kinds of great, cutting edge bands from Europe and America to come and play at the Walker Art Center. When you have something like that that gives credibility then the local media gets on and they take it seriously. I think Tim had a lot to do with informing the scene there.
DAVE HOLMES: You then move on to the album Workbook, which was a hugely important album in my life, obviously in yours as well. It really set the stage for the rest of your career. It allowed you to sort of use a different voice literally and figuratively.
BOB MOULD: In the wake of Hüsker Dü, it was early 1988, and I was very isolated. I was living up in a farm in Pine City, Minnesota, and left to my own devices to come up with a new sound. When I walked away from that band, instinct told me don't try to do it again. Do something different, find your own voice. I spent a good nine months experimenting with words and guitars and different sounds and ideas, and eventually it all came together and in 89 I put out the record, and really tried not to draw attention to my past. The record companies natural instinct is to put “ex-Hüsker Dü!” stickers all over the cover, and I just told them, don't do that, it's not going to help any of us.
DAVE HOLMES: It's interesting to me that your work with Hüsker Dü and Workbook and so much of Tommy Keene's stuff in the late-80s was all I listened to for about four years. Now I'm 40 and you guys are both out of the closet, and it's like, what did I know about you guys subliminally? Your sexuality doesn't come up in the music, but it's, I don't know. There's a question in that pile of hay somewhere.
BOB MOULD: The same thing happens with me as a fan. When I gravitated to The Germs, it's like, why that? Why Darby? You feel it, it's instinct. It's in there, there's a code in there that we all know. We can't really put a finger on it, but you sense it when you see it and you hear it you feel it. It's....yeah.
DAVE HOLMES: I know a lot of what I do is for the fourteen year old version of myself. I grew up in the Midwest and gay and without any role models at all because they didn't exist. There was Billy Crystal on Soap, and that was it. And kind of Jim J. Bullock, but that was really it.
Now there's a gay character in every show, it's kind of the same gay character.
BOB MOULD: It is kind of the same character. It's funny, during the music in the 80s there was only a handful of people that were making gay-specific music. Johnny and Jimmy, I guess later we stopped being coy, Boy George. Androgyny was always part of rock, but these guys that kind of self-identified as gay musicians, that wasn't the road for me because I felt like it would put my music in a place that would limit the audience that I could reach. Whether that's good or bad, it's too late to change it, but that's where I was coming from.
As far as role models, with my coming out in '94, I just had such a weird view of the community because so much of it was coming out of the 80s where we were told that we were bad and that we caused this disease that was killing people. Going from that to the 90s where there was less being chic, which I couldn't identify with. The media was still holding up the flamboyant characters at the pride parade. They never show the teachers, they never show the elderly, it was always people who were very very colorful. No problem with that, but I couldn't identify there either. It was funny, I had a weird time finding my place.
DAVE HOLMES: You not only created alternative rock within the United States with Hüsker Dü, you sort of reaped the benefits of it with Sugar. You, for the first time, found acceptance on the radio. There was alternative radio.
BOB MOULD: After two solo records, after Workbook and Black Sheets of Rain, I was sort of left to my own devices in 1991. I went out and did a lot of solo acoustic touring and played a lot of shows with Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. and Nirvana, people who I knew who were part of the scene that I came from or were influenced by that scene. When Nevermind came out, I think we all knew that the battle had been won and that our music was going to be the music for the next three or four years. I had a group called Sugar that put out records in 92, 93, and 94, so we were definitely there to catch some of the spoils.
DAVE HOLMES: You talk about your interview with Spin Magazine in which you come out, and you're very hard on yourself for that article, or for the way you feel you were perceived in that article.
BOB MOULD: It was a series of missteps.
DAVE HOLMES: How so?
BOB MOULD: For so long I had compartmentalized my sexuality separate from my work. I didn't want to be singing gay specific music, I wanted a universal audience. So the work remains gender neutral. I strive for that and I strive for that, my sexuality is an open secret out in the field. Since I'm not writing homophobic music, I'm not getting called on the carpet. I get a pass.
1994, Sugar was very successful. Sugar's looking to be a huge band. Negotiations happen, Spin Magazine offers up as much space as I want, but it's the “Bob is Gay” story. And I know that going in, easy way hard way, do easy way. So I think, Dennis Cooper, novelist, big fan of the band Hüsker Dü, big fan of the band Sugar, he gets the assignment, comes to Texas for two days, we have a great time. We do one hour of on-the-record time. Within that one hour I make a statement which is part of a larger statement about the media and their representation of gay culture; crazy gym bunnies on a float wearing codpieces, I can't identify. So I'm talking about the media being unable to connect and saying I'm not a freak. I don't like being represented as one. The by-line, the pull quote for the article becomes, “I'm not a freak.” When it stands alone, it really looks terrible. It looks horrifying to me. I'm like, “Oh, great. This is what I get.” I don't always say the right thing because I'm not sure what the right thing is.
DAVE HOLMES: You took some time off to work with wrestling. The WCW, I believe?
BOB MOULD: WCW, yeah.
DAVE HOLMES: Why? How did it happen?
BOB MOULD: Why? I love why. Because who doesn't want to hang out with Bill Goldberg?
Wrestling was a passion of mine. I was a fan of it as a kid, I became a student of it during the punk days in the 80s. I got to meet people who were in the business who smartened me up, as we call it, to how it all works. By the late 90s I had befriended a lot of people, mostly WCW, who used to try a couple of different ideas that I would give them. A spot opened up in September of 1999. They wanted me to come in and be the creative consultant, which meant I wore a number of different hats. I would sit in with the writing meetings, trying to come up with characters, trying to develop vignettes to introduce these characters. I was also the go to person during the live shows; I was sitting behind the curtain, literally, giving people their cues and telling the referees on wireless ear pieces when and how much and do this again. Tell them to do more of that. Trying to hit all of our commercial spots. It was a crazy live Broadway soap opera, a new one two times a week. They're the toughest guys in the world, yet so fragile, because they're like actors. “Am I doing good? Was that okay? I think I can do better.” A lot of that.
DAVE HOLMES: You also got very into electronic music.
BOB MOULD: Yeah, that was around the same time. Right before I went off to the wrestling job, that was 1999 was the year that I was trying to build claim and own my gay identity. In New York City at that time, the soundtrack was electronic music. It was Madonna, it was Cher, it was all the global underground DJs, Sasha & Digweed, Jimmy Van M, Paul Van Dyk , that kind of music was everywhere. My frustration with indie rock combined with trying to claim my gay identity and in doing so the soundtrack was this electronic music.
DAVE HOLMES: There's still elements of that in your work?
BOB MOULD: Yeah, over the years I've steered myself back towards my more confessional singer/songwriter mode. I have this interesting balance now, which is real nice. To have this duality, there are moments when it overlaps, but I enjoy them both for their own reasons.
DAVE HOLMES: You've sampled so many things in your careers, and now there's a well balanced meal. Everything is on the plate.
BOB MOULD: Yeah, the ukelele stuff is hard. It's a hard instrument to master.
DAVE HOLMES: Obviously very difficult.
A common theme in See a Little Light is, “Write it and it shall be so.” You say that a lot, and there are things that you write about in your songs which immediately come to pass.
BOB MOULD: Yeah, it's a funny thing. I think we all have the power to do that. That's how the world moves is, you have an idea, you have something in your head, you think to yourself, you know, I really wish that I could make that tree go away. And then if you put it out there in the universe, if you open your mouth and the words come out, you may come back and that tree may be ready to die. It's funny how that works. As with everything, it has two sides. It's a blessing to have that, but it's also a curse when you use it.
DAVE HOLMES: You mention that many times in the book, and these things that you have been writing about do come to pass.
BOB MOULD: I guess the most glaring example would be the year 1995. I'm living in Austin, Texas and I'm with my second longtime partner. We're about six years into our relationship, and for whatever reason I sequestered myself away from him, mostly to get space but also to write what would be my first solo record post Sugar, and the contents of the record were the chronicling of a painful break up. Sure enough, I didn't get that record finished, but within two months we were pretty much done as a couple.
There's a glaring example of write it and it shall be so.
DAVE HOLMES: There are many more in the book.
BOB MOULD: Yeah, it's fun. It's a fun side thread.
DAVE HOLMES: Bob Mould's book, See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody is out now. Bob Mould, thank you for being here.
BOB MOULD: Thanks, it was a pleasure.