These Important Years: Bob Mould on Patch the Sky
Having triumphantly ridden the comeback trail in recent years, Bob Mould's personal life suddenly cracked open in 2014. He tells us how a traumatic year informed new album Patch the Sky, and why those pesky Hüsker Dü reunion rumours won't go away.
It’s safe to say Bob Mould has had better days. The punk veteran has just arrived at his hotel when we call via a flaky Skype connection, following several days of press commitments in Berlin and London, and he’s been struggling to sleep. It’s a relief, then, to discover that he’s feeling somewhat chipper in the face of such trying circumstances. “I haven’t had anything to eat in ten hours so I’m heading to the restaurant as soon as we say goodbye,” he laughs, easing into the interview with the comforting air of a natural conversationalist.
In any case, hunger seems an apposite place to start: recent years have shown Mould to be an artist with a renewed appetite. Following several coolly received albums between 2005 and 2009, he re-emerged in 2012 with Silver Age, a solid collection recalling the potent noise and melodic magic of his short-lived former outfit Sugar and their mighty Copper Blue opus.
Upon its release in 1992, that record signalled something of a second act to an already impressive career, following the dissolution of his seminal college rock outfit Hüsker Dü four years previously. Several years on, a time-out period saw him find refuge in pro-wrestling scriptwriting, the gay club scene and a healthy interest in electronic music – as explored spectacularly with the success of Blowoff, the Washington DC dance night he DJ’d at with Richard Morel. Further solo records in the rock idiom followed, but by this point it’s fair to say no one expected a third act.
“Silver Age was just a quick blur of an album that sort of fell out of me,” he says, reflecting on his ongoing purple patch with a reinvigorated Bob Mould Band. “It made for a really nice transition into this stretch of new work. The crowds have been great, the momentum was there… it just kept building on itself, all the way through until November 2014, when I had a pretty lousy personal year and took the first half of 2015 to get away. Now I think we’re back on track and I personally feel really great about where things are at this moment in my life.”
"Better to fix the hole and stay on this side than to travel through" - Bob Mould
The year in question certainly was tough: having lost his father during the lead-up to 2014’s Beauty & Ruin, his mother then passed away too. As if that wasn’t enough, the relative stability of his love life crumbled, and a newly single Mould fell into a darkly pensive period. The specifics of this experience are off the agenda today, as we're advised in advance; instead, he's keen to talk about the record they inspired – his 12th solo effort, Patch the Sky.
“I think it’s a little bit deeper than the last two records,” he explains. “The stories get rather dark and the melodies get rather bright, and the contrast between the two is turned up pretty high this time. I think there’s maybe an emotional simplicity to this record; I really resisted the urge to get super-wordy. It seems really primal… hopefully people will identify with it at some point.”
That darkness becomes apparent on tracks like Voices in My Head (“…that multiply and amplify the fear”) and Pray for Rain, both of which are rather more forthright about this period of depression.
“Yeah, that’s the simplicity I was talking about,” he says. “I’m not trying to put lipstick on it, it’s pretty much what it is.”
At times it sounds like the songs are in dialogue with themselves, we suggest, rather than simply following ideas to linear conclusions.
“Middle of the second verse is usually the good spot to do that,” he says, deftly sidestepping our attempts to open up the subject matter a little. “Then you clear it out with a big-ass guitar solo, and then come back, and you’ve got your resolve, right? That’s how the story goes.”
In that case, how would Mould summarise the story behind Patch the Sky?
“The basic idea to me is: when people leave earth, they tear through the sky, and sometimes they rip a hole in it. People get left to try to fix that – you’re gonna have to try to approach that hole, you can’t do it from the ground. Better to fix the hole and stay on this side than to travel through,” he says. “If that makes any sense.” Just about.
The compulsion to write an autobiography
It’s the third record in what Bob Mould Band drummer Jon Wurster refers to as a “triptych” of recent offerings; a return to form that followed the release of Mould’s autobiography in 2011. See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody was an extraordinarily frank piece from an artist who’s always seemed somewhat reluctant to discuss the past. Was the book an attempt to close the door on certain aspects of his career, we ask, in order to focus on looking forward?
“Well you know, in reference to my memories of Hüsker Dü, I never really talked about it until the book,” he replies. “So I don’t know if ‘closing the door’ is what I would say. I guess if I think about it, I wrote the book to tell my story and, through doing that, to get a little bit of clarity – not only for myself, but for the people who read it.
“The book was a very long, measured look at everything: my childhood, my teen years, Hüsker Dü, Sugar, solo records, relationships, Blowoff… After doing that, I think it unknowingly created this opportunity for me. Believe me, in the three years I was putting those stories together, I wasn’t thinking about where I was gonna go next. I’ll take it as a very large accidental victory.”
The book was written with the editorial guidance of Michael Azerrad, the American music scribe whose tome Our Band Could Be Your Life documented the evolution of indie rock from its hardcore punk origins through to the rise of Nirvana. There’s also a strong argument that it provided a springboard for the indie rock revivalism that’s made heroes of guitar-toting noiseniks from METZ to Parquet Courts to Joanna Gruesome in recent years, as well as paving the way for Mould’s contemporaries such as Kristin Hersh (Throwing Muses), Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth) and Jon Fine (Bitch Magnet) to put pen to paper and compose their own memoirs. As the last significant development in guitar-based music before the proliferation of the internet, indie rock may well be the last truly mythologised movement in the story of rock music as a whole.
“Absolutely,” agrees Mould. “How many memoirs do you think we’re gonna have from here on out? I fear that so many people are burning up their currency on a daily basis through social media. That’s the part that I worry about; when your life is public, there’s not a lot of private stuff to dig into. I guess it’s a new frontier and I’m just guessing as to what might happen.
“Our Band... was a great book. And bear in mind that Michael was the first person that I spoke with at any length about my career in the 80s – he went to great lengths to illuminate the 80s American music scene, and he did a really great job, I think his band choices were good, and he’s a very good storyteller. I’m grateful for my relationship with Michael.”
The undying Hüsker Dü reunion fantasy
With appreciation for the Hüskers output reaching new heights, fans were caught off guard when an official website for the band was launched last year. Rumours picked up pace: had long-running tensions between Mould and drummer/fellow songwriter Grant Hart finally eased off? Would a reunion be on the cards? The answer remains an emphatic no, but that never stops the same old questions from being asked. Luckily he doesn’t seem to mind.
“People keep holding out on hope,” he says, managing to sound both humble and considered. “That band was very important to a lot of people, and posthumously maybe even more so; the legacy of the band just seems to keep growing. I’m not one to step on that, but nor am I one to encourage any false hope. I guess I have to be the bearer of bad news to say, ‘It’s not happening.’ I’m not the only one in the band that feels that way, so don’t pin it all on me, people!”
He laughs, before affirming how happy he is to be playing with Wurster and long-time bass lieutenant Jason Narducy in what amounts to a blistering power trio: “Jason and Jon are very fluent in all of the different languages that I speak, whether it’s hardcore punk, or singer-songwriter, or power pop, or whatever. It stuns me that it’s so easy.”
In that respect it certainly seems that Bob Mould’s sky has been patched for the time being. He’s a survivor, as grateful for a new lease on life and his career as he’s happy to continue ploughing his own furrow. So how does he feel about where he’s at right now?
“I’m just happy to be here. Trust me.”