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I Am Vision, I Am Sound: A Talk with Bob Mould

Jordan Kessler

The legendary rocker explains the roots of his DJing, his attitude about blogging, and his dislike of pirates.

Comfortable isn't exactly the first word most people think of when you mention Bob Mould, but that's exactly what he is nowadays. The former Hüsker Dü and Sugar vocalist claims to be in a good place. Looking at him, listening to him speak, and hearing his new record, that's easy to believe. Though he hasn't released an album since Modulate, his 2002 foray into electronic dance music, Mould has been keeping busy. For the last two years, he has joined his friend Richard Morel to DJ and promote one of the hottest parties in his adopted hometown, Washington, DC. Mould has a new album coming on July 26 (Body of Song on Yep Roc) and a tour to follow, which will arrive at mid-sized venues in the U.S. this fall. He spent some time with PopMatters in New York, discussing the album, the tour, the Internet, DJing, the music industry, the chances of a Hüsker Dü reunion, and ... Kashi cereal.

PopMatters: I'm curious how your relationship with Rich Morel came together. People would naturally look at you, and think about your past, and wouldn't necessarily expect you to work with someone who has had four #1 Billboard remixes.

Bob Mould: That's sort of weird, right? The history of that is when I was still living in New York, the guys at Rebel Rebel I used to go there almost every day just to hang out, listen to music and shop for records. They gave me an advance of Rich's record, Queen of the Highway, which came out in '02, and I listened to it and was just like "Whoa, this is a great record." I thought it was a brilliant record. And they said, "He's coming down, and there's going to be a record release party. You should come and meet him. He'd really love to meet you. He's a big fan of yours." So, we got together. I met him at his party, and we just started talking about gear. It was just like, "Oh, what do you use?" "I use Digital Performer too!" Rich is a rock guy. He played keyboards for bands in the '80s, so it wasn't that big a stretch. I told him what I was working on, and one thing led to another. I ended up moving to DC. I only knew three or four people down there, and he was one of them, so we just started hanging out, and going to the studio and writing together. One day, I was looking around the studio, and we were just talking, and I said, "What's in the box over there?" He said, "Those guys at Deep Dish bought me a DJ rig. They want me to DJ, and I don't want to do that." I said, "Why not? What's wrong with that?" I said, "Let's think about it." That was January of '03. We decided to put together this thing, and we called it Blowoff. We just created business cards at Kinko's and went around the neighborhood and said, "You're cute, here, come to this party, it's free! You like music? Here, here's a card. Want to come to this party?" And it just sort of happened, as most parties do, if they're really cool and the music's good. So it's been two and a half years now, and we've morphed it into recording this album and also we just did a show at the 9:30 Club a month ago, and it was the second time we introduced a live set into the DJ thing. We went upstairs for that. We had about 600 people. It was cool. So, it's a big success.

PM: You're going to do one in Minneapolis?

BM: Yeah, we're doing it Pride weekend. We're not going to play. We're just going to DJ. It's in the basement of the Eagle, which is a big dance club. That's going to be fun, so I'm looking forward to that. We spun at Webster Hall last year, for CMJ, and we were going over to Charlottesville for awhile, and that went pretty good for awhile, but they don't like the kind of music we play over there so much.

PM: It's an amazing mix, just reading your set lists.

BM: It's good stuff.

PM: Really, really good. It's also just fascinating to see that you're playing your own music, and your own remixes of your own music, and his remixes of other people's music, just the variety of it.

BM: He's working on some stuff, he's been crazy with the New Order thing, the Killers thing, the Fischerspooner remixes. He's really busy right now. People sort of figured out that he's got the bomb sound right now.

PM: You said he played keyboards in bands in the '80s, and I noticed you're bringing him on tour.

BM: He's going to give it a shot. He's nervous.

PM: Are there going to be any DJ elements?

BM: He can do whatever he wants. Figure out what key it's in, and do something. Make the sound bigger. When I've toured with second guitarists, people don't like that. So I want this tour to have a big sound, but I don't want another second guitarist to have to suffer through that. People only want Bob playing guitar.

PM: Understandably.

BM: It'll be fun. It'll be good. That was a lot of '03, all that stuff. And '04, it was sort of on autoglide, alongside me writing and recording this record, Body of Song.

PM: Something I'm curious about is, now that you've been DJing and remixing, how do you see that process as being the same or different as writing a song or playing a show?

BM: One of my biggest distinctions is linear versus non-linear. I learned to do things in a linear fashion. The drummer goes like this, and you start here, and you go to there, and you hopefully get it the first time, and everybody plays together, and the tempo moves around a little bit, and it tells a story. It's performance- and story-driven. With computers, you have the ability to go in and cut things up in such small pieces. It's more like arranging several orchestral pieces at once. A lot of the way I work, I just work on grooves, to get a groove that's sort of happening, that sounds fun, and I'll let it sit there, and I'll come back to it the next day, move it from one software suite to another, put it in a tempo, and just play along with it several times on guitar. Maybe play along with it on keyboards or bass. And I can steal parts from anywhere and put them together. That's the big difference in the way I look at things now. That's a direct result of the computer, which DJing and remixing fall under. Now, I've sort of taken that theory and I work inside the guitar thing with it too.

PM: How so?

BM: A lot of Body of Song was just improv-ing over stuff. "Always Tomorrow", in that dub groove, I had no idea. I was looking and going, "O.K. What am I going to do with this?" I just started layering some noisy guitars, and doing different things. And all of a sudden it was like, "Oh! There it is. Now it sounds like a song."

PM: There's such a great atmosphere on that song.

BM: It is cool. It's a very cool vibe. And you need it after the first five. It keeps getting tenser and tense and tense, and that sort of resets the vibe for a while. The vocal with that one, as with a lot of this record, is just me waking up in the morning and just singing shit. I don't know what I'm singing. I didn't have words on a sheet of paper I was looking at. Thank God for Autotune. I can fix it and keep it.

PM: There's a lot of neat vocal processing as well.

BM: "(Shine Your) Light Love Hope" was the most extreme. That vocal was very early in the morning, horrible falsetto. My voice is cracking. I went back and tried to sing it like 8 or 10 times, and it never had the feel of the first time it just fell out of my mouth. I swap words and make mistakes, but I just wanted to fix the pitch enough so I could use it. Then I started going, "Oh, if I get more extreme with it, it would be really fun. 95 percent of what we hear has that effect on it to varying degrees."

PM: You've got three remixes on the deluxe version of the album. How did you distinguish between the official album version and the remix?

BM: The remixes came later. I did one and Rich did two. I gave him the record, and he's heard it all along the process. His was one of the few sets of ears that got in on it. The first time he heard "(Shine Your) Light" he's like, "Shit, this is just screaming to be a club track." So he just sort of took a shot at it. He totally nailed it.

PM: It's such a great drum sound. It just demands that you get up and dance.

BM: It's like a total classic Saturday night thing. We'll have to give it to Peter Rauhoffer and see if he'll play it!

PM: It seems like rock is coming back around to dancing. Obviously, all these '80s revivalists out there have a danceable sound.

BM: A lot of the UK bands have got it. It's a brisker pace, a lot of this stuff.

PM: It's interesting you mention that, because some of the new record, I was listening to it, and I was thinking that it's danceable in the way that some of the UK stuff is.

BM: "I Am Vision, I Am Sound" is the one.

PM: I even thought of Hacienda stuff a little bit.

BM: It's nice that it's all sort of going to merge again and come back, because I certainly into it the first time it merged. I was like a purist, and I didn't give a shit. Music is music. It's so funny now because so many bands break in non-traditional ways. There'll be a rock band, and somebody will do a dance remix, and it will take off in that direction. The guys at the gym are not necessarily like, "I can't believe the Killers did a dance remix!" They're just listening to the song. It's just a different way to frame the song. My record labelgets so nervous, like, "What will people think if there are dance elements?" And I'm like, "Why?" If they like the song, they like the song. The album is here, these remixes are here, and don't sweat it so much.

PM: You just mentioned two things I was going to ask about. One is the idea of how records break, and the other about the label. You're obviously well-known for having various experiences with labels over the years. Now you're on Yep Roc. I'm just wondering how you feel about labels nowadays. Why Yep Roc? I also read that you put up all the cash to produce the record.

BM: They've since given me a nominal fee to cover some expenses, but I was putting a record together without any kind of support. I did the deal after the record. So far, so good. The honeymoon's still on. It's business, and I know how that goes. Sooner or later, something will happen. It always does, because it's business. They're a big indie label. It seems there's a like-minded roster over there with John Doe and people like that. We're all writing, and we're still making records, regardless. They have their own distribution, which is helpful. They have some new bands. The Comas I think have done really well for them. They've been really good. They've been looking to me. They're very inclusive. When it comes to marketing ideas, we all talk about it. They tell me what their concerns are and I say, "Well, traditionally, my experience has been this, this, and this, and I started doing this, and it doesn't work." I have my parameters of how I do business. And they've been good with all of it so far. The problem is that business is not adapting to the new technologies, the new ideas. There's no reason why, when I approved the masters at Sterling six weeks ago, there's no reason that record couldn't have been out in two weeks. There really isn't. Places that it's getting hung up is trying to get traditional retail excited about the pre-order. To do that you have to get radio reporting the track, because retail looks to the radio reports and says, "Oh, they're playing this record, so I can order this." I think if a lot of that was done away with, and you finished a record, you could put it out two weeks later. If you just pushed it out the door and saw what happened with it, I think we'd be in a more organic situation. People would hear a record and go, "This is great, I want to talk about this, and I'm going to drive people to the site to buy the record." Fluxblog is a good example of how this can work. Any of the sites where people are really talking about music and offering a track and a link to where to buy it and everybody cooperates, then you really get somewhere. When people just scam music off the Internet, that hurts us. That hurts all of us.

PM: I read on your blog how a copy of the album leaked out.

BM: I'm not surprised that happened so far ahead. There's no way for me to capitalize on it right now. I'm just sitting here. There record comes out in July and the tour starts in September. When July comes, most of the people who downloaded it will not care about it. Because I'm still working inside the old model, the strategies are set up, and the timing is laid out, and that's got to change too, because it's just not working for anybody. You saw what my stopgap was. I suggested that if people absolutely just had to download it, as you're doing it, would you please just go pre-order one? Then, everybody's happy.

PM: They've got their record, and you've got your money.

BM: They get a real copy of it later, and they can give that to somebody. I used to do a thing years ago, before file sharing was crazy. People would burn these CDs of things, like this group the Avalanches. They would give me a burned copy of it, and if I liked it, I would go to the record store and I would buy a copy, and I would take the burned copy, and I would give it to somebody and say, if you really like this, you should just buy it and pass this on.

PM: Kind of like what people would do with tapes.

BM: Exactly. Now, because of this thing, because of the ease of copying, it's ... I don't know. The government missed the boat on this stuff with the ISPs. The ISPs are getting rich off everybody. They're the distributors. I don't see anything from them for copyrighted work getting passed around.

PM: It's certainly a huge, huge problem.

BM: It's a problem on a lot of different levels, because I've always maintained that when something costs nothing, that's the value of it. If something is free, it has no value. At the end of the day, if somebody pays money for something, they have a vested interest. If something brings value to somebody's life, you would think they'd be willing to pay for it. Now, people are like, "All this is free, so it doesn't matter. If I don't like it, I'll delete it."

PM: What do you think of the "pay for unlimited listening" services, like the new, legit Napster, Rhapsody, or any of those?

BM: Napster is the reason we're in this problem. They told a generation of kids that music didn't cost anything. They're to blame, and now, they've conned people into paying money for that? Getting behind him again. This is the guy that killed it, right? Now the companies are working with him? They deserve whatever they get at this point. It's like "Oh, yeah, wow! You mean we can paint our logo on the side of the Trojan horse? Beautiful!" They might as well just push it out there during halftime of the Super Bowl! Those services are just a different version of delivery like XM or Sirius. It's like you control your radio station. Podcasting is going to sort of bump that. If it hasn't. This thing's changing so quickly. There's no telling where it's going to go. When Apple makes the phones, and the country gets on broadband wireless, then we're set. The phone becomes your iPod, your phone, everything you need. You're at a club, and it's like, "What's this song? (holds up phone)! Oh! It's the Killers remix of 'Mr. Brightside.' I'll go out to the store and buy it and put it on here because it reminds me of this cool lunch date I had." Then we'll be OK.

PM: I was wanting to ask, about the Internet, aside from the whole question of distributing music, to come back to your blog, which is really great. It seems to me you've really taken to it and there are some very punk-like elements of the Internet generally, and blogging in particular. The words that came to mind for me are DIY, intimate, accessible, and immediate.

BM: Yep.

PM: It's like a way of seeing your life up close, what you'd like to share of it, on a daily, or almost daily, basis.

BM: There are a few things I keep to myself. It's funny because I was on this morning and I just went out to Rehoboth last weekend, and it was like and people don't have to be smart to figure this out if they link on my buddies, they're gonna go, "Oh, there's the not-so-flattering picture of Bob!" You know, the crazy bear party. Nothing that ... because my friends all have common sense. But it is what it is. That's the kind of world we're living in. My blog, DIY, certainly, intimate, but I always look at my posts before I put them up in the morning, and I always read through one time, and I go, "OK, am I going to offend any of my friends? Have I said too much?" I just go, "Oh, I'm not going to put that in." Or, "This guy, I could color this in a little more." And it's fine. People respond well. People respond more to when I talk about cereal than when I talk about

PM: The whole Kashi thread!

BM: The Kashi thread was hot! The Cher morphing got a lot of hits. But I know, it's like people are funny. And it's really reassuring that sometimes it comes down to cereal. At the end of the day, it's not so much about, "Why would you never do a Hüsker Dü reunion." It's more about, "It's cool that you like that cereal."

PM: It's damn good cereal.

BM: It's a wonder food. A modern miracle.

PM: This tour that's coming up, you've said that you're going to play some of your older material. I'm curious how you're going to go about deciding which songs you're going to play.

BM: I got an email from Jason Narducy, who's going to play bass. He had a list of suggestions, all of which were really good. So I was like, OK, well that's a good start. Because I hadn't really thought about it. So I think everybody's ... I got a feeling Brendan [Canty, of Fugazi] is going to have some ones he wants to play. I think it's just going to come together like that. Also, I'm aware ...I've got spies that are watching bulletin boards telling me what people are wanting to hear. It gets back to me. I'm going to look at it all and ultimately, I want to play the songs that the four of us play together best, because that will make the best show. And until we all play together, I really don't know what that's going to be. So, I think it'll be, "What do you guys like?" I know them all, so you tell me which ones you want, and we'll amalgamate and see what kind of style of band we're gonna be. I only know that I think the dynamics will be good. Between the four [of us], I've looked at it from all sides, and I think that will be fine. I know everybody's dynamics, and I think that part's set. But the playing, I don't know what it's going to sound like.

PM: Do you have rehearsals between now and September?

BM: We'll probably work for a week. I hate rehearsing. We're all good players. Just learn the songs. We'll figure it out. Brendan will go like that, we'll all start together, we'll all hopefully end together, everybody will watch my right foot, and that'll be the time to end.

PM: I wanted to ask you about Brendan as well, what it's been like to work with him and become, perhaps, part of this DC scene. You've commented that it's such a great scene, and obviously it is, but you came from a different place, and now to be part of that...

BM: It's wild. Playing with Brendan is amazing. The first time we got together to play it was just a good fit. We were just sort of improvising and jamming around on stuff and it was very, very natural, very easy. Working with him has been great. He's been a really big help on this record, just getting me hooked up with Don at Inner Ear and working down there. That was a great experience. And bringing Amy [Domingues, of Garland of Hours] in for a couple songs, that was great. Brendan, I don't know how he does it, with kids, he's non-stop. He's got so much energy. I'm very envious of his energy level. It's gonna be really fun. It's gonna be really good. The DC scene, I'm in it and I'm not in it. I tried playing the Dischord softball for a little bit. I played that a couple of times. Everybody's good folks. I see everybody, I see people around town. It's a big city but it's a small town, it's a very small town feeling. It's a blessing and a curse at the same time. People have been very welcoming, especially with Blowoff. That means a lot to the folks who come to that every couple of weeks.

PM: Obviously, there's been so much acclaim for post-punk and alternative bands over the years, and of course your bands. It seems like there's even a growing nostalgia for that era, whether it's the late '70s, early '80s, mid-'80s. Reading a book like Our Band Could Be Your Life, which I really enjoyed, and some of the other things that are happening, like the Ramones going into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. Of course, there's going to be a lot more written about Hüsker Dü, about Sugar, about your work. I'm just wondering, when you read things, do you generally agree with them or disagree? How do you see those bands, looking back on that time?

BM: With Hüskers, we were working in a vacuum. There were like-minded bands around us, and there was a definite scene, but that scene was put together to be an alternative to everything that was corporate and mainstream and all that. So, I can remember the first time I became self-conscious, was when Zen Arcade and New Day Rising were both in the top ten of the Village Voice albums of the year. Stuff like that, everybody starts this praise, and this whole thing gets going, and all of a sudden you're like, I get very self aware. That's a hard thing when you're 24 and you're not supposed to be doing that. You're just supposed to be doing what you do. That's a lot of pressure on that band. But the late '70s, early '80s stuff, the revival stuff is crazy. Everything sounds like Gang of Four right now, especially the stuff coming out of the UK. It was very strange to see the Futureheads play right before Gang of Four at Coachella. As far as how people view it, I don't know. It's nice to be noticed. I try not to capitulate to my past too much. I know what I'm good at doing, I know what I enjoy doing, and I think right now I'm sort of at an interesting merge of those two things. I don't want to be an oldies act. The temptation is there, because if a Hüsker reunion happened it'd be tons of money. But it's not where my life is at, and I don't want to go back to that. You mentioned Our Band Could Be Your Life. I think anybody who's read that book would be shocked if I went back to that. After being painted in not the most flattering light, it's like, "Why would I work with these people?" I like the friends I have now. I like the guys I play music with now, I like my life the way it is. I think to go back to that would be really profitable and really destructive.

PM: Certainly, a path a lot of bands have taken, a lot of bands now, just looking at Dinosaur Jr. and the Pixies...

BM: How did Dino Jr. get back together? That was like intense, public hatred. There was no couching of emotions.

PM: And violence.

BM: So ... maybe that will make for a good tour. Pixies pulled it off, but that was a different kind of thing. That was just two people having a little bit of a problem. Wow. I think beyond all of that psychological stuff, I don't think I could pull off Hüsker Dü every night for three months. I can't play that fast anymore, and I don't want to scream like that. I want to keep what I have left, and that's not getting up there doing some Vegas version of that stuff. It shouldn't happen. It should not happen.

PM: While we're on the topic, how was it playing that benefit last fall?

BM: With Grant [Hart]? Two songs. Fine.

PM: Not a big deal?

BM: Nope. The cause was much bigger than anything we had. There's not really any heat because there's nothing between me and Grant. There's pretty much nothing, which is maybe worse than heat. He called the day of the show. He got my cell phone number and called me when I got into Minneapolis and said, "What do you think about playing a song?" I said, "Sure, why not?" I didn't think about any of this. Come on down, play at set. I'm gonna end my set with this, come on out, and play this. He's like, "Let's play one of each." Sure, we'll play one of each. Walked off the stage, talked for 20 minutes, and then I said, "I'm going to go eat, I'm going to the bar. See ya!"

PM: End of story.

BM: End of story. Amicable, fun, if it adds a little oomph to the whole night, which raised a lot of money for Karl [Mueller], the reason we were all there, it's great. It was nice, but I don't think I'd do it again.

PM: Is there anything else you'd like to talk about in terms of the new record, the tour, or anything you're working on?

BM: This is a really fun time for me. I'm aware of what people enjoy in my work. I still like to explore things, and as I alluded to earlier, it's a nice kind of intersection. This record's got the best of both worlds. I think it speaks on the peace I've come to with my work to date, my life in general, how I feel. I feel better than I ever have. I feel comfortable in my own skin finally. It has all come together in a really nice way right now. I'm going to enjoy it because I know it doesn't last forever. Right now, I feel like I'm just right at the top, after climbing up to this spot for the last six years, and it's nice, personally to be there. I'm just digging the whole thing. It's fun. I'm having a blast. So, it's good.

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