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Bob Mould's been reading his press again. He's seen Tower Records' Pulse! magazine chronicle his history of hassles with record companies. He's read Musician detail the nasty breakup of his old band, Hsker D. And Rolling Stone did a nice job of exploring Mould's nontraditional sexual identity (he's gay) and the attendant responsibilities therein.
The private life of Bob Mould is getting to be an old story. Especially to Bob Mould.
"Yeah, because it's nobody's business," says an otherwise chipper Mould from his home in Austin, Texas. "Private lives seem to be open to the media for some kind of voyeuristic thrill for the audience. It seems to sell a lot of papers."
Mould then pauses and lets out a little laugh.
"I think if people who are writing these articles would be willing to be as open about their lives, it might be an interesting trade-off. But the media is very much a one-way thing."
It's not easy being Bob Mould. It's tough having to live up to demigod status in the alternative kingdom. Mould's earned his rep by cranking out loud, hard pop songs. He's done it for 15 years, first and most notably with Hsker D, then during a brief solo period.
Mould's current band, Sugar, is keeping the headlines coming. Sugar's been together for two years, good enough for three albums, the latest being the hook-heavy File Under: Easy Listening, which stands as Sugar's most accessible effort to date. Things are going well for Mould. Sales for the new recording are expected to be strong, and Mould's profile is higher than ever.
But the ghosts of Bob Mould's past still live. Hsker D was an immensely influential presence among the underground/indie element of the 1980s. The Minnesota-based trio went from speedy hard-core send-ups through expressionistic psychobabble (check out the 1984 double album Zen Arcade) to an ill-fated fling with major-label success. The band's breakup in early '88 caused much gnashing of teeth. Especially fans and followers learned that D had in fact imploded amid personal animosities between Mould and drummer/co-songwriter Grant Hart (now of Nova Mob). Stories about drug use by band members and the suicide of one of the band's close friends only enhanced the story. Inquiring minds demanded details.
"I can understand people wanting to know about the breakup of the band," Mould says. "But when any kind of relationship dissolves, whether it's a personal or artistic relationship, it's not usually the kind of thing that you can say, 'Here, this is the only reason.' With Hsker D, there were clear-cut things, yeah. There were artistic differences, people who had drug problems, people who didn't have drug problems, and that was a problem. There's so many sublayers, it takes a long time to figure it out. Yet people always seem to want a quick response."
Mould seems like anything but a quick-response kind of guy. He comes off over the phone as a careful conversationalist. He answers questions thoughtfully and he doesn't hesitate to expound on topics that interest him. Like, for example, alternative music. Mould helped shape the genre, first with Hsker D and now with Sugar. When you hear big, buzzy guitars shifting quickly from one distorted chord to the next, that's Mould music. When you see tee shirt bands blasting away on MTV, that's Mould from the pregrunge early Eighties.
"I'm not sure I'd want to say I'm proud of what this music has become," Mould says, assuming the role of a concerned parent with his latest child, Sugar, still at risk. "It's becoming an industry, very much like the Seventies were. People my age, in their early-to-mid-30s, who are controlling the industry, they're finding they have a lot of clout and power. They absorb these bands, build them up and then expect the world out of them--you know, tons of free concerts, tons of this, tons of that. It's like, 'You have to do everything back for us or we'll destroy your career.' It's starting to look like AOR again, isn't it?"
Mould goes on to say he was only slightly surprised to see a Tom Petty song recently listed on a magazine's "alternative" charts. Mould says what he sees as truly alternative today--bands like Slint, Sebadoh, Shellac and My Bloody Valentine--pretty much get ignored in the current 120 Minutes time frame for fame.
"I guess I should be happy to be a part of an alleged genre of music that reaches people," Mould sighs. "But, man, it's really mall music now."
If so, File Under: Easy Listening (or FU:EL) is the audio equivalent of an anchor department store. FU:EL's songs are poppy and radio-friendly. They're also toughened up with Mould's trademark wall-of-guitars sound and midrange heavy mix. The resulting rumble adds accent to Mould's lyrics, which often focus on life's bigger blurs. The best example is FU:EL's best cut, "Favorite Thing," a love song gone sideways, soaring in place: "Dream about you every night," Mould sings. "Something tells me that's not right/I wouldn't mind."
FU:EL follows Sugar's debut LP, 1992's phenomenal Copper Blue, and last year's less cohesive Beaster. The bridge between Sugar and Hsker D consists of two Mould solo albums--Workbook (1989) and Black Sheets of Rain (1990). Both of the solo discs were well-done and well-received, but the venture crumbled around incessant clashes with Virgin Records, an experience as bitter for Mould as Hsker D's failed mating dance with Warner Bros. Upon leaving Virgin, Mould decided to purge himself of "industry" baggage. He dropped, in quick succession, his accountants, managers and lawyers. Mould then grabbed his guitar and hit the road for a ten-month acoustic tour. Along the way. Mould decided he needed to get back into the band format. He hooked up with bassist David Barbe and drummer Malcolm Travis to form Sugar. It was an easy partnership for Sugar's first two albums, both of which were recorded at the same time in breezy fashion. Recording FU:EL was different. It almost broke up the band.
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