SWEET AND HIGH BOB MOULD'S SUGAR PROVES THE BEST LISTENING IS NOT ALWAYS EASY
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.
"We went into a nice studio in suburban Atlanta," Mould says. "We spent three weeks there and got absolutely nothing we wanted out of it. There were a lot of technical problems, a lot of spiritual problems. I think as a producer I was being a little too particular about what I perceived the end result of the music should be."
Mould and Barbe wound up at serious odds over the way the sessions were sounding. The recording effort was further affected when word came of Kurt Cobain's suicide. Mould says he wasn't especially close to Cobain. But he says Cobain's death brought back memories of the 1987 suicide of Hsker D's office manager, an incident that greatly accelerated the demise of D. Of Cobain's death, Mould says, "It was a bummer that that shit happened when we were struggling in the studio. But I don't think we can attribute this record to just that. I just think it was one of several bad things that happened in Atlanta."
Mould decided to erase the Atlanta tapes. He and the band started all over again at a studio closer to Mould's new home in Texas. The change in atmosphere, along with what Mould calls an "attitude shift," saved the life of the CD and the band.
"As opposed to making a dry, clean, correct and clinical studio record, we took more of a live approach," Mould says. "And we got better performances. Maybe technically they're not better. But I think the end result is more fluid."
Mould says life itself has been more fluid since he moved to Austin last year. Mould had bolted from Minneapolis after Hsker D died. He spent the next four years in New York City, which he says helped revitalize him. But he says the Big Apple never felt like home. He remembers returning from long touring schedules and still feeling like he was on the road.
"New York has a way of pressuring you all the time," Mould says. "You're always waiting in lines. A lot of time's just eaten up waiting for the train, waiting on the freeway, waiting at the post office, whatever. I don't really have that here. I have a lot more time to get work done."
Work for Mould revolves around writing songs, something he says he does by "exploring a notion as unconsciously as possible." Mould also keeps busy producing CDs for other bands, like Magnapop, the opening act on Sugar's current tour.
"I've got to really, really believe in what the band is trying to say musically if I'm going to work with them," Mould says. "There's got to be some kind of spiritual connection. The process is like directing traffic. It's like being a therapist, too. It's like a lot of things."
Mould keeps an equally analytical eye on Sugar's development. He says the past two and a half years have seen a steady rise in pressure for the band to hit big. That pressure's compounded, Mould says, because Sugar was initially intended to simply be a vehicle for "three people to get together and enjoy playing music."
That's all changed now.
"If you have a successful record," Mould says, "the temptation is always there to try and emulate that success. As a band, we're feeling that now. We're wondering how much of a life all this has. Because it's all emulation. We've set a standard and we just continue to run it.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.