Thursday, April 04, 2019

Bob Mould Interview 2019: Of Zen Arcade, "The Biggest Lie," and being told he saved people's lives

Bob Mould at the Rickshaw, 2017, by Allan MacInnis

My Straight piece on Bob Mould is out this week, but of necessity, it mostly focuses on Mould's new album, Sunshine Rock, the new rock video for "Lost Faith," and his current band, who are playing the Rickshaw on Sunday. That contemporary angle is to be expected, but in fact, leaves out the stuff I was most excited to talk to Mould about - which is a whole other interview unto itself (appearing below, after I get over my need to preamble).

I'm stoked for the show, actually. I underwent a sea change in listening to Bob Mould's music, the last time he played Vancouver - which is the first time I ever saw him live, in any context; my one chance to see Hüsker Dü in my youth - a Luv-a-Fair show they played that I was old enough to get into, May 15th, 1986, two months after my 18th birthday - was foiled, as so many gigs in my young life were, by my living in the suburbs, with no car, no driving friends who cared about punk, and no public transit to get me home. Even then, the band would have been touring Candy Apple Grey, which I owned and wasn't that excited about. For me, in my youth, Dü was all about Metal Circus, Zen Arcade, New Day Rising and, to a slightly lesser extent, Flip Your Wig. By the time their major label debut came out, I was already losing my enthusiasm. I mean, no single rock and roll album has ever packed the emotional whallop that Zen Arcade did, for me; I played the hell out of that record when it first came out, and still love it - it's up there with Mission of Burma's vs. as one of the greatest albums in American punk history. By comparison to its immensity, I wasn't even ready for New Day Rising, and - great as that record is - remember that when I first heard it, I was disappointed, because it wasn't Zen Arcade, and all I wanted was more Zen Arcade. Flip Your Wig was even LESS Zen Arcade than that, and starting with Candy Apple Grey - while Grant Hart remained more or less consistent - Bob started off on a musical journey that I was in no way prepared to follow him on. I simply didn't get his songs on Candy Apple Grey or Warehouse, didn't understand how to listen to them, and (a confession within a confession) I still haven't done the work to revisit them, honestly. Suffice to say, after Dü disbanded and I heard a bit of Workbook or a bit of Sugar, I was non-plussed. I was - like a Motörhead fan who never progressed much beyond Ace of Spades - frozen in my moment of peak enjoyment. That Luv-A-Fair show was probably great - but the combination of my suburban disadvantage and my already waning enthusiasm made me decide not to bother. I feel pretty stupid about that, now, actually.

I have had a couple of chances to see Sugar or Bob Mould solo shows, since I skipped that Luv-a-Fair show, but shrugged them off. To my own surprise, now that I've finally caught him,  I find, in anticipation of Sunday, that I'm most excited to hear material off Mould's last four albums (Silver Age, Beauty & Ruin, Patch the Sky, and Sunshine Rock), whereas, before last year, the only reason I would have even considered going to see Bob Mould would have been to hear him do some Hüsker Dü songs. The idea that I would ever be excited to see that Sugar's "A Good Idea" pops up in a few of his current setlists - and thus may get a dust-off for Vancouver, too! - would have been foreign to me as recently as a few years ago.

So I guess I've done Bob Mould an injustice, which I get to apologize for now.  After basically three decades (!) of more-or-less ignoring his output, I'm glad I finally got over it. Starting with Patch the Sky, last year, which was the first of Mould's solo albums to sink a hook, I've been voyaging backwards, and I'm pleased to discover that I love everything Mould has done so far this decade, with his current trio - the ones playing the Rickshaw this Sunday. I've also gone back and "rediscovered" that some of the very albums I ignored at the time (Workbook, or the amazing, grungy Black Sheets of Rain) are great, too. I had been missing out - and suddenly this is the stuff I want to hear. I see that in his recent setlists there's nothing from Zen Arcade, and I'm just fine with that. (He does still do "I Apologize" pretty often, though - it's not that I object, it's just that I've known that song for a really long time, and right now, I'd rather hear "The Descent"). He's just not the same young man who needed to write something as savage as "Indecision Time," and guess what? I'm not the same young man who needed that song so much. It's great, but it's past time to move on.

I offer this to anyone who loved Zen Arcade like I did, who hasn't caught up with solo Bob Mould: there are still some tickets left for Sunday's show, I think. I'm pretty excited to be there. And to offer you a bit of conversation with Bob Mould...

Bob Mould (with  Hüsker Dü) at the Smilin' Buddha, June 7, 1982. Photo by bev davies, not to be re-used without permission!)

Allan: It seemed to me at your last Rickshaw show, you were really amping up the Hüsker Dü content for that show, maybe because Grant had just died, that night. Is that something you ever want to leave behind, or do you have fans that demand you go back there?

Bob: Well, I mean - I let go of those songs when I let go of that band in '88. And for many years, all through playing with Anton and Tony, and all through Sugar, we didn't touch those songs. When I'm playing, like, a solo show, I think anything I've written is fair game. Y'know, now, I think - maybe '04 or '05 with Body of Song, where I would put bands together to tour my current records, we started bringing a few of the older songs in, from  Hüsker, Workbook, Black Sheets of Rain, and Sugar. I would bring those forward into the live shows with bands, so they've come back over the last fifteen years. I love a lot of those songs. They're easy to play, they're fun, people have fond memories of that band and those songs and I think more of that period in their lives, so it's like a gimme: just play the song, everybody's happy!

I say this as someone who for years never paid attention to your solo career. I was a Zen Arcade guy.


I wanted nothing else, maybe I'd go as far as Flip Your Wig, but once Warner Brothers got involved, I just stopped paying attention.

Fair enough.

But shortly before your last show here, I was like, I should really listen to some of these Bob Mould solo albums. They're great! I Suddenly, seeing you live, I found myself going, "ah, he's playing 'Chartered Trips,' but I want to hear the new stuff!"

Well, the set that we're playing now is pretty representative. We're really focusing on things that we've done with the four records (Silver Age, Beauty & Ruin, Patch the Sky and Sunshine Rock). There's a couple of Hüsker songs, but not as much - I think last time around in 2016, we were playing a little bit more of the old stuff, because we were in a total punk rock mood. But yeah, I mean - I totally get where you're coming from, that's all good. But this band, this decade's work, has been real solid, and I think a lot of good things are happening, whether it was the autobiography, the Disney Hall show and the stuff with Dave Grohl, who was very kind to share a little bit of his light, yeah, all those kind of things that add fuel to file and get things going... Jason (Narducy) and Jon (Wurster) being constant with me as a band, watching that grow, playing all these shows, seeing what we're really good at, how that effects the writing... it's been a really great decade. I did not forsee this decade happening at all, so I feel grateful for that.

Something a lot of people said to you after the Rickshaw show - I heard at least two people say to you, "thank you for saving my life," or "your music saved my life." That's quite a compliment. I presume they're also talking about Zen Arcade - but - how does that feel, being on the receiving end of that? Do you get that a lot?

Bob Mould with a fan, Rickshaw 2017, by Allan MacInnis

Yeah, I hear that regularly, and I'm always grateful that people share that. If you were eavesdropping, you see how people do that - they come up and sort of mention the album or the show. Some people say Workbook, or some people say "I saw you at the Buddha in '81 with DOA." And they lead with their entry point, when it got to them. It's always amazing. It's almost like [being] a sociologist again, doing a survey at the end of the night: "Where did you come into this, what did it do?" But seriously, I'm always grateful, because it's the stories - the stories I tell, or that people tell me, an abbreviated version of their story and how it fits with mine. I mean, that's the community of what we do, the difference between me and a streaming service. You actually know it's me.

You say in your book - I forget how you preface it exactly, but you say that you feel nervous about saying it, but that Zen Arcade probably means more to other people than it does to you. I wonder if you did get any backlash from saying that - if anyone reacted?

Mm-mm. No, no, I think what I was trying to get at - what I said is what I said, but it's such a cornerstone for people who like my work, and for me it was like, "ohmigod, we're making this double album, I'm writing these words in a hot minute in the back of a van out in the street in Torrance, California, because we have to make the record in two days... it's this visceral rush of hormones and, y'know, angst and homelessness or whatever, and it's all those things, and it just dumps into the work and comes flying out... like, I barely remember making that record, I barely remember writing those songs, but - that it has this effect on other people... For me it was really important to get it done, but the end result for other people, they're living with it, and they're absorbing it, and the words that I wrote and that Grant wrote, telling these stories and what it meant to people... it's, yeah, I think it's way more important to other people. I don't say that to discount anything, it's just, man - I was just sort of running on fumes and food stamps... (Laughs).

It meant a lot to me, Bob. If you don't mind, I'd like to ask you a couple quick questions about Zen Arcade.

I'll try.

So, "The Biggest Lie." I didn't realize at the time that you were alluding to a gay relationship in that - you'd been with a straight guy, that didn't work out, and he's going back to his girlfriend (note: the Pansy Division cover of that makes much of that line]. 

Yep, yep.

So on the other hand, Grant, in "Pink Turns to Blue," is writing about a girlfriend - "she was no whore but for me." So I'm curious if that was ever a discussion you had, when writing the album, whether to write from a queer perspective or a straight one, or if you regret not having made it more overtly gay, because - I don't know what it would have done, but it's kind of an alternate universe fantasy - what if Zen Arcade had been more overt?

That is a good question. I think it would have - I think given where America was in the summer of 1984, with all of the hysteria and all of the Bible thumping, I dunno, it would have been very controversial. Um - that's a really good question... there were very overtly gay records back then, whether it was Bronski Beat of Tom Robinson, people who were really doing the hard work... I dunno, uhmm... I'm trying to rewind the tape here in my head and see what that would have looked like...

Did you and Grant have any discussion about that, about whether or not to be out in song, because - you're moving in different directions, in a way.

Nope. There was never - we wrote songs and we played them, that's the beauty of that relationship as principle songwriters, is there was no... you write what you write, you write it and you sing it, it's yours. Let's do it. There was never - I think Zen Arcade would have been the album where there might have been the most amount of thought put into how to present the record, but not in terms of sexuality, but in terms of, 'this is sort of a concept record.' These are things that we are experiencing that other people experience, two of the three members were from broken homes, me from a unified but violent home, y'know... those themes, and the idea of the kid's search, the guy who is going to be a video game developer and move to California and he's got this game called "Search" [the overriding narrative of the album, discussed at greater length in Mould's autobiography, See a Little Light). That was - we were talking about those kinds of ideas, in terms of sequencing the record and how to present the record, but in terms of like, "are you writing about straight stuff?" "Are you writing about gay stuff? What are you doing over there?" There was never any of that. That was not how we did stuff. More the idea of how to present this as a concept, as a unified, sort of story that could be adapted for other media. It could be a stage play, it could be a movie, it could be other things, it could be fleshed out in a lot of different directions. But not that granular I think.

Husker Du gig poster for the Buddha gig photographed above, from Phil Saintsbury's collection

Something that a lot of people said in interpreting the album is that it's all a dream. I never read it that way. Was it meant to be all a dream?

Not really. There's so much dream stuff in it - side four [dominated by a 14-minute long jam called "Re-occuring Dreams"], and all those little interstitials that were just sort of floating moments, sort of like connective tissue between songs and ideas... I can't remember if we decided it was all a dream or not, I can't recall if we came to consensus on that, so I guess it could be anything. There's a lot of dream stuff in it.

Do you have recurring dreams - do you have a pattern that you dream?

Yeah! I have dreams that start in houses I used to live in, and then they turn into these giant houses filled with complexities and other people from the past. That's a dream thing that I have - ending up in a house I used to be in, but the next room has nothing to do with the house I used to be in, which is sort of crazy. But those are like fun dreams, because they're, like, escapades...

Are you exploring, are you lost, or..

Sometimes I'm revisiting, sometimes I just turn up there, for no specific reason, but sometimes it'll be like I'll be revisiting something, and I'll run into someone that I would revisit if I were at this place, and then it morphs into something, like, I open the door and the next room is completely different, it has nothing to do with that specific room or that specific place. So those are recurring dreams that I actually have. I file those under 'real estate dreams.'

Were you having those back then, when you recorded Zen Arcade

No... I wasn't even sleeping!

Bob Mould (with  Hüsker Dü) takes the drums at the Smilin' Buddha, June 7, 1982. Photo by bev davies, not to be re-used without permission!)

Something I'm curious about - bev davies was at a show of yours in 1982, and one of her photos clearly depicts you taking the drums. Which I've seen people do - I saw Paul Westerberg take the kit at a Replacements show at the Town Pump - and I've seen Grant Hart play guitar - but I wasn't aware that that's something Hüsker Dü ever did, switch up instruments. What's going on there? 

I saw that photo! [In a private correspondence; it has never been published before]. That's crazy!

So that's not something you did?

Maybe at soundchecks we would do stuff - we would just switch around on instruments. I would never say that I'm a drummer. I can keep a beat, but I wouldn't say I could play drums. So that was probably the soundcheck, and I was probably just goofing around, and Bev happened to get an amazing photo. I'm really grateful to have it, it's sort of a crazy photo. It's very uncommon!

(End of interview)

[[BUT NOTE: but the story gets stranger, because this is the second to last photo on Bev's roll of film for that night, located AFTER her other shots of the band performing; the next photo is of Grant on guitar seems to confirm that for the end of that evening, Grant and Bob changed places. (These pics and more will be coming up in a two part feature on Bev in Big Takeover, btw). Plus Bev says she never shot soundchecks at the Buddha. So if anyone was at the show on June 7, 1982 at the Buddha, and remembers seeing Bob and Grant switch instruments, and/ or what songs they played, PLEASE leave a comment below! Very curious about this - and I'm sure Bob Mould is, too!]

Zen Arcade selfie!

(Thanks to Luke Meat of storc for his help with research, bev davies for digging up some unseen photos of Hüsker Dü in Vancouver, and Bob Mould (and Zack, his publicist) for their patient wrangling of a geeky, too eager journalist!) 


Unknown said...

lost interest because Du signed to a major label? Such dedication, MacInnis. Candy Apple Grey and Warehouse are great albums on their own terms. And I mean great.

Allan MacInnis said...

I didn't care for either, though actually I did like Grant's songs on Candy Apple Grey. Nothing to do with the label, tho'.