Music

Melody, Aggression, Intelligence: An Interview with Bob Mould

Jedd Beaudoin
Photo: Alicia J. Rose / Courtesy of Merge Records

Bob Mould discusses his latest album, Sunshine Rock, impending tour, and a new life in Berlin. "It's a city that's constantly rebuilding and changing. It was exciting and still is after three years."

Sunshine Rock
Bob Mould

Merge

8 February 2019

Bob Mould's latest album, Sunshine Rock, is the culmination of a several experiences: Albums that came in the wake of the loss of both his parents, a relocation to Berlin, Germany, and the recognition that happy songs, across his recent recorded output, had a rarer commodity. Whether the result is Mould's best album in a decade or a continuation of the always-solid and emotionally-charged sets he's issued across a solo career that is now 30 years old will remain a matter of debate among fans and critics.

What isn't up for debate is that Mould has never given less than his best, as evidenced across pieces on the new set such as "Camp Sunshine", "What Do You Want Me to Do", the titular track or "Sunny Love Song". Throughout, Mould remains himself and the songs carry the listener across a variety of emotional settings, each of them as cathartic as the last.

Speaking via phone during a long press day, Mould was happy to discuss his writing process, life in Berlin, preparing for his upcoming tour (dates listed below), and the emotional aftermath of his powerful 2011 book, See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody.

Tell me about your decision to move to Berlin.

At the beginning of 2016, I knew what my schedule for the next few years was going to look like, with the exception of having a Number One hit and having to ask Ed Sheeran to open for me! [Laughs.]

I knew I was going to have an unencumbered chunk of free time once the campaign for Patch the Sky was done. I have a lot of friends in Berlin. I started going over to visit. In the summer of 2016 I said, "What the hell? Let me see if I can find a small place to keep my stuff." I decided I'd see how I liked it.

I went back in September of that year and started setting up shop. I started getting my visas and permits, all that stuff, in order. In 2017 and 2018 I was spending a lot more time there and a lot less time in San Francisco, which is still where all my stuff is. It's been great. Great music scene, great art scene, a lot of culture, a great gay life. It's a city that's constantly rebuilding and changing. It was exciting and still is after three years.

You've made big moves before. Is there ever one thing that dictates that or is more of a general feeling?

It's usually just a feeling. I think it's restlessness. I think it's always looking for new experiences. Nothing gets me going more than having to come up with a new routine. I get set in patterns and they're great but then I feel the need to change things up.

I'm very blessed to be a musician. My work and the fact that I don't have kids allows me to have experiences, to pick up and go and embrace new culture. Fun times. Hard times. Whatever a place brings.

I see a city through the eyes of a tourist and think, "I wonder what it would be like to live here." With any place that I've moved, I settle in and start my routines and say, "Oh! This is not what I thought it was going to be!" I spend more time walking or more time on the train or more time socializing. I never know. That's part of the fun of it.

Did you speak German when you got to Berlin?

No German. I can speak a bit and can read a bit more. I understand about that much and that's not much! [Laughs.] It's transactional. I know the structure of the language, basically, and some of the important words. But to converse in it? No.

Do you like to travel when you're not touring or do you say, "I'm home. This is where I'm going to stay"?

I'm off the road. I'm home. I'm not moving. I travel for work. I do not travel for pleasure. Having said that, I might take a vacation or two, here and there. This year, I went to the Canary Islands for a week. That was crazy. It turned out to be the nuttiest week ever.

When did this record start presenting itself?

I started writing as soon as I got settled in Berlin in late 2016. I had a few things that made the record. It was in the late spring of 2017 when the song "Sunshine Rock" appeared. That's when I thought, "This is the idea. This is what I should be doing."

When I say that I mean the optimism. There were a couple of records that were pretty heavy, pretty emotional, informed by big life events, losing my parents, writing a song like "Sunshine Rock" with a pure thought, pure melody, pure words, I knew that was where I had to go. I started looking at what I had written and what I needed to write.

I kept writing until we started basic tracks in May of 2018. But one of the songs, "Camp Sunshine", was written on the last day of mixing.

Wow.

It was the last minute, "I think I need to put this in here." It's the most fragile and the most recent.

Do you think about songs as a guitar player or a songwriter?

Sometimes the density of chord structures dictates the mood and the direction of things. Sometimes I have the hook or the top line, where I have the … [sings] "If I can't change your mind then no one will." When I get that, I'm, like, "Oh! I'm going to write backwards from that." The good thing is when I start to create that layer of low-lying chords and clouds and density and a melody emerges immediately and the thought comes along right beside it. That's the best of both worlds.

You have some great leads too.

Thanks for the kind words. I don't sit around the house playing leads. I rarely do. I try to find different ways to voice chords. I try to build up as many invisible harmonies inside the harmonics of a rhythm guitar. With leads, it's the part of the record where I say, "I have to do this now? OK."

[Laughs.]

I'm not being dismissive of myself. I have friends who are just amazing lead players and I say, "Yeah, uh, this is clearly a lead guitarist!" [Laughs.]

You also have a pedal that came out with this record, which is now sold out.

It's the third time with same company. It's TYM Guitars. They're out of Brisbane, Australia. The main guy, Tim [Brennan] has been hand-building guitars for decades. They're incredible. Really beautiful stainless steel enclosures. All top-of-the-line parts.

He sent me a pedal a number of years ago. It was his version of the MXR Distortion Plus, which was the pedal I started with in Hüsker Dü. I used that until Tim showed up. It was his version of what that should sound like in the modern era while being true to form. When I heard it, I said, "Yeah, you did it!" He beat the original.

We started chatting and I asked him if he would ever consider making a production run of them. He made a run of pedals in 2014 for Beauty and Ruin and he made a run in 2016 for Patch the Sky. This is version three of the prototype he made several years ago. I'm always thrilled to work with him and he comes up with a better mousetrap each time.

With Sunshine Rock it seems like you wanted something like a '60s singles album. The songs are succinct.

Thank you for noticing! That's exactly the point. With "Sin King" I had a much longer workout with that and I said, "No, it doesn't sit with what we're doing here." It's tailored after a '60s album or a series of '60s pop singles. That's exactly what I was going for, even down to the string arrangements on the record.

I was trying to bring in all those great string parts that I grew up with on all those great records. Whether it was what the Left Banke were doing or what Phil Spector was doing or what George Martin was doing. This record is very much a tribute to the singles I was growing up with when I was five and six years old.

I'm sitting here with "Good Vibrations" in my hand right now. It looks just like my album cover.

Some of your contemporaries listened to bubblegum or ephemeral records but it sounds like you had pretty serious tastes from early on.

I guess I was lucky in that sense. These were used jukebox singles. I had to go through the stacks. I've got them in my hands right now. The ones that sit in the A stack are way better than the ones that sit in the other stack. I guess it was the curating of a six-year-old. The ones with the good melodies: Beatles, Beach Boys, Who, Hollies, Mamas & the Papas, Motown. You can't really go wrong with any of those.

On this record, you worked, once again, with Jon Wurster and Jason Narducy. Were you expecting the relationship to last this long?

It was the four of us: Me, Jon, Jason and our engineer, Beau Sorenson. We go in and we do this thing that's really great fun and great work. Jason and I have known each other for 25 years, maybe 30 years now. We've worked together in different configurations, whether it was me producing his work or him supporting me on acoustic tours or starting up with me as a bassist about 15 years ago. When Jon came into the fold in '08 he jumped on the middle of a tour. I lost a drummer and his playing was magnificent. The three of us said, "We gotta keep this going!" In 2011 we got back together for the Disney Hall tribute show and we got together in 2012 to make Silver Age.

The musical chemistry is obviously spot-on. We've all been at this for life, we all have a love of pop music and melody and punk rock. We have a common language. Those guys know my body of work, so when I bring new work in they can recognize the threads from the past and where we're going in the future. It makes it really easy to get to work.

Personally? The three of us get on great. We've been on the road our whole lives so we're very aware of giving everyone space and giving everyone quiet. We travel well together. We enjoy each other's company. And, since it's only a band when we're either making a record or we're on tour, it's always something to look forward to. We don't have the day-in-day-out of, "Did you take my stuff out of the communal refrigerator?" It's almost like vacation in a way. We get together, do the work and the move back to whatever we do with the rest of our lives.

I'm really happy that we made a fourth record together. After we made Patch the Sky everybody was saying, "Trilogy! Trilogy" almost like, "It's over! It's over!" I wasn't saying that. None of us had any particular plan. I started writing the new album and thought, "We should do this."

You're going to tour behind this album and I'm curious about how you work new material into the set.

Three weeks out from the first show we have 52 songs that we're looking at right now. Out of that, an average evening is made up of 24 songs, tops. I tend to look at a set like it's a three-act play: You come out strong, do your thing; second act, you take it down; third act you go home happy. It's a simple storytelling formula but it works really well for what we do as a three-piece. Inside of that, I tend to group songs together in packs of either three or four. Those packs can rotate through the course of a tour.

Dynamically we tend to structure the show the same. The first three or four shows is world of wonder. "Is this all working? Is this all fitting together right?" I'm really cognizant of how the crowd is reacting and how I feel at the end of the night. "Is this something we want to do tomorrow?" We get into a spot where it really feels right and then we stay there for a while and then we might, 11 shows in, get a crowd that is 100 percent with us, do my magic hand signals, and yell a word into the air and then, all of a sudden, we're playing a completely different show! [Laughs.]

If they're not digging what we came with we gotta find something else. It's like jazz a little bit. Not as technical but you gotta hope the crowd is feeling it and if they're not you give 'em something different.

As far as giving the people what they want? Oh my God. I didn't think I'd have a career long enough to get there.

There are artists who seem to have difficulty weathering the storm as tastes change or times change. You seem to have stayed a pretty steady course.

Yeah.

Do you think that's your audience being willing to grow with you?

For three of the four decades it was generally the same motif: Guitar, bass, drums, melody, aggression, intelligence. That's the '80s, '90s and this decade. The aughts was when I was off DJ'ing and digging electronic music. I'd grown tired of what I was doing for 20 years before. I think the trick now is to stay current with my own thoughts. I don't really worry about trends a whole lot. I do what I do and I think that's what I should be doing. I'm aware of age-appropriate things.

To maybe go back one or two questions, you asked me about new stuff in a set and how to do that. I've found good ways to do something from the past and do something current right next to each other. At this point, I don't think people can even tell the difference. I don't know if that's good or bad, I think I have such a … at the risk of sounding like I'm bragging, I have real unique sound. I have a real unique style that I've spent my whole life working with. And, in a live show, it all feels like one big thing. There's always a good balance. I'm real aware of that as I put shows together.

I think the longtime crowd knows what I'm doing. They can see it.

As a lyricist are you obsessive about revising or do you like to let things come out almost untouched?

All different ways. Some things remain pure. Some things go through structural edits. Ever since writing the book I'm much more aware of repetitive edits. To repeat a title, "I fought for you/I fought for you," that's very deliberate mantra but I don't want to have unnecessary ones. Manual of style stuff. I can't help but think about it as I'm finishing words. I try to keep the creative and inspirational part away from the editorial part as much as possible. I don't edit as I'm writing.

My premise is: It's about to rain, I have this bucket, I need to catch as much water as I can, then I'll figure out what to do with it.

Then there's the additional editing that happens when I'm in the middle of take five and say, "Why do I keep fucking up those two syllables?" I find another word, change it, and, all of a sudden, Ta-da! I can breathe and sing. And everybody can make sense of every word.

I would imagine that writing the book, See a Little Light, took a lot of you. Have you thought about doing another one? Something where you explore a particular theme?

The book took a lot out of me, I learned a lot, it was exhausting and when I finished it, I thought I would never do it again. Having said that, I've had some pretty amazing experiences since I left off in the book, in the middle of '08. I don't know.

The autobiography or the memoir is tenuous proposition right now because everybody's doing it online in real time. It's a shame. I think we all know too much about everybody too soon. I'm very reluctant to get too deep into social media for that exact reason. I don't think all of everything I'm thinking about every day is supposed to be clarified on somebody else's platform for their ability to monetize it. I'd rather keep some of my stories for myself, in case I do want to write a second book.

And if I did, I wouldn't be doing it at the end of this tour! [Laughs.]

TOUR DATES

Thu Feb 14 – Washington, DC – 9:30 Club *

Fri Feb 15 – Philadelphia, PA – Union Transfer *

Sat Feb 16 – Boston, MA – Paradise Rock Club +

Mon Feb 18 – Toronto, ON – Phoenix Concert Theatre

Tue Feb 19 – Pittsburgh, PA – Mr. Smalls

Thu Feb 21 – New York, NY – Brooklyn Steel *

Fri Feb 22 – Chicago, IL – Metro

Sat Feb 23 – Chicago, IL – Metro

Mon Feb 25 – Ft. Collins, CO – Washington's

Tue Feb 26 – Denver, CO – Gothic Theatre

Fri Mar 1 – Los Angeles, CA – Teragram Ballroom >

Sat Mar 2 – San Francisco, CA – The Fillmore

Fri Mar 8 – Hamburg, Germany – Gruenspan

Sat Mar 9 – Berlin, Germany – Columbia Theater

Mon Mar 11 – Düsseldorf, Germany – Zakk

Tue Mar 12 – Leuven, Belgium – Het Depot

Thu Mar 14 – London, UK – Electric Ballroom

Fri Mar 15 – Leeds, UK – Brudenell Social Club

Sat Mar 16 – Edinburg, UK – The Liquid Rooms

Sun Mar 17 – Manchester, UK – Academy 2 Manchester

Sat Mar 30 – Minneapolis, MN – The Palace

Sun Mar 31 – St. Paul, MN – Turf Club

Tue Apr 2 – Dallas, TX – Granada <

Wed Apr 3 – Austin, TX – Mohawk <

Fri Apr 5 – Portland, OR – Wonder Ballroom

Sat Apr 6 – Seattle, WA – Neumos

Sun Apr 7 – Vancouver, BC – Rickshaw

* w/ Titus Andronicus

+ w/ Screaming Females

> w/ Criminal Hygiene

< w/ Will Johnson of Centro-matic

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