In the run-up to the release of his new Blue Hearts and massive box set complete collection Distortion: 1989-2019, punk icon Bob Mould talked with QRO. In the conversation, Mould discussed Hearts, making it in time for this fall (and just before everything shut down), wishing to play it live, pulling together everything for Distortion, revisiting old places & friends in the box set, the country being on fire (metaphorically & physically), how 2019 is like 1983, his electronica, playing rarities, Monty Python, Jem & The Holograms, and much more…
QRO: How are you holding up, with everything that is going on?
Bob Mould: My head is on fire a little bit, generally speaking.
I’m healthy, I’m in good shape, staying very busy. Staying at home. Living in San Francisco again, and that means for the past week, staying indoors, which has been pretty awful.
QRO: As if the world wasn’t on fire already, now it actually went on fire…
BM: These fires, this is way too early. I don’t know what to make of it.
The only thing I can surmise from being here for years is that we are losing our fog a little bit. We’re losing more fog days every year.
These fires in western Oregon, it’s really, really unusual, because that’s such a saturated with rain layer and with rain. The only thing I can think is, ‘Is that part of the climate change that’s precipitating earlier & more severe fires?’ That’s all I can ask myself.
I think it’s a better answer than, “Oh, it’s going to cool off…”
QRO: [laughs] One thinks of Oregon as raining all the time…
BM: Yeah! That’s what so baffling to me.
Northern California, I sort of get it, because we’ve been watching our weather change. It’s different weather than it was ten years ago. But I guess the Northwest is going to be affected in the same way.
And that’s pretty bad, because a lot of that area up there is sort of our equivalent to rainforests.
But anyways, onward & upward, I suppose…
Bob Mould Band playing “Paralyzed” live at Fillmore New York at Irving Plaza in New York, NY on March 13th, 2008:
See also them playing Sugar’s “I Can’t Help You Anymore”.
QRO: How was making Blue Hearts?
BM: The physical making of the record, the recording of it all, happened in the month of February.
QRO: Oh wow!
BM: The record was done & delivered by March 1st. It was well before any of this really kicked in.
I guess the story of the record starts back two-and-a-half years ago, when I wrote “American Crisis” for the previous album, Sunshine Rock (QRO review). I was trying to have Sunshine Rock be an optimistic record, and a song like “American Crisis” didn’t really fit, so we replaced it with the Shocking Blue cover of “Send Me a Postcard”.
So, I had “American Crisis” in my back pocket. I had the sketches for “Forecast of Rain”.
Last summer, I was playing a lot of solo electric shows in Europe, and about this time last year I was in Berlin, and this incredible, awful sense of déjà vu came over me. I felt like the fall of 2019 was almost identical to the fall of 1983. Television president with evangelical support. At that time, the ‘Moral Majority’ telling me that I was less-than, and this was God’s punishment. Glad the fundamentalists could tell me all about AIDS, but my own government couldn’t tell me for five years!
So, that was that awful déjà vu that I was feeling. Then chose to make record, and then, a few weeks later, lo & behold, here’s another epidemic, pandemic! How will we respond this time?
You can’t write this stuff, Ted…
QRO: How were you able to do another record so quickly after last year’s Sunshine Rock?
BM: It was a lot of touring, a lot of performing with the band. And then touring. Doing a lot of festivals in Europe last summer, just by myself, stand and deliver with electric guitar & voice.
When I’m in that mode, I tend to write a lot of guitar music. And it was just starting to pile up on me. And then that before-mentioned déjà vu.
The clincher, for me, was coming back to San Francisco in November of last year. I spent most of the four years prior in Berlin; you know, it’s just a different way of life.
I think the first time I left my house at one in the afternoon, to go get something at the hardware store, and I would walk into a large, organized protest in the middle of the afternoon in my neighborhood. Protesting women’s reproductive rights, or the rights of the Syrian migrants, or whatever it was, I would just be like, ‘Wow! Democracy is alive. People are in the streets protesting…’ [laughs]
So, having three-to-four years of that kind of weekly exposure to organized public protest. And also, being in a country where the news is the news; it’s not ‘entertainment.’
And then coming back to America in November of ’19, and being overwhelmed with the infotainment/entertainment component of mainstream news, and seeing how terribly divided the country had become in those three years – it was hard for me to ignore. I felt compelled to write about it.
I felt like the fall of 2019 was almost identical to the fall of 1983. Television president with evangelical support.
QRO: So, you managed to miss the first three years of the current administration. Why did you move back to America during all of this?…
BM: Well, I was coming back in November, ostensibly for the holidays and to come home and get some work done, hopefully make another record. But the record wasn’t completely written when I got back here. That was the fuel for a lot of this anger with the government, anger with the people for being duped into believing this nonsense.
It was pretty clear to me, coming back to San Francisco, and now being back full-time, because of coronavirus, and not being able to go back to Germany, and having to let go of my life over there – which, thanks a lot, Trump…
It was just so outrageous. I knew that the slow decay of democracy was on. I didn’t realize how far it had gotten. The real details about the judicial system, how stacked that was becoming. How deep the evangelical support was running, and how much policy was being set because of those folks.
I’ve been through it before. When I started to see it in detail, again, I was sort of moved to address it. Use up some of my currency, I suppose.
QRO: You finished Blue pretty much just before the lockdown. Were there no last-minute masterings, or album art stuff that you had to get done before the lockdown?
BM: Last day of mixing was Feb. 23. Mastering was finished, I think the next week. Then I did photoshoots on the 27th & 28th. March 9th was my drop-dead delivery date. Lockdown started here, I think, on the 16th of March.
Looking down my calendar, nothing changed.
QRO: You were almost lucky – if you’d waited a month, it would have been gone…
BM: I have no idea how all this happened.
Because I went from two-and-a-half weeks of solo electric touring in the second half of January, right to Chicago to make the record. I had no time to think. I had a batch of songs I had just written. I was trying them out on the road, people were responding 100% favorably to the messages and to the energy.
I took that to the studio, and we just got really lucky. I have no idea why I was so possessed to get an album out in late September, other than, you know, I need to protest…
I knew that the slow decay of democracy was on. I didn’t realize how far it had gotten.
QRO: Did you feel a push to have it out before the election?
BM: Yes, absolutely. That was part of the deal with Merge [Records]. When I went to them at the end of 2019, I said, ‘You have to guarantee that this record can come out in late September.’ And they said, ‘Of course.’ So, I’m grateful for that.
And we didn’t budge on that, even after COVID and lockdown started. It was a matter of staying the course that we had mapped out.
I think the only thing that changed just on the calendar was, the announcement of the release of American Crisis was supposed to be June 1st. The beginning of May, we found out that Record Store Day was going to re-announce on June 1st. So, my publicist said, ‘Why don’t we move to June 3rd, so we don’t get ignored?’ And I said, ‘Sure – what could happen in two days?…’
BM: June 1st was the teargas & the Bible walk, right? And that’s five days after George Floyd was killed.
Just like, ‘What the fuck? How did this happen?’
We stayed the course, and it was really tough. I guess, you can look at the content of the songs, and I knew that something was happening in the world – I didn’t know exactly what. And then, when it made itself known, between Black Lives Matter, and COVID, and just absolutely sheer corruption, up-and-down the government.
And then I’m sort of in this position. ‘Well, I’ve written this song two-and-a-half years ago, that speaks exactly to what’s happening, and I have to go out and talk about it? And this is like the worst time possible to be selfishly promoting a record – how do I thread this needle, without seeming indifferent?’
‘And how do I take this song, with this message, about me feeling marginalized as a twenty-two-year-old gay kid, when we have a similar, but much greater current injustice that Black Lives Matter is trying to bring to life?’ Yes, I have empathy. I have this story that’s my story, but their story is so critical right now.
Interesting campaign so far… [laughs]
QRO: Are you upset that you can’t immediately tour off the new record?
BM: Of course, but we can’t, because it can’t be done. It’d be irresponsible for me to try to do that.
I guess my frustration is, this record was so built for the stage. It’s one thing if I’d written a record of orchestra music or something else that could wait, but this one, the urgency of the lyrics, it was built to be performed more-or-less start-to-finish. Yeah, it’s really frustrating.
There’s also that part where live performance is one of the few ways any musician can make a living now, so there’s that part too. So, that has affected the three of us, and our crews.
Of course, it effects all of the venues that we had – we had these magnificent plans for touring in September & October. We had these wonderful ideas, and all of that have been shelved.
Again, thanks government for that. Six months of not letting any of us know the truth – until this week…
How do I take this song, with this message, about me feeling marginalized as a twenty-two-year-old gay kid, when we have a similar, but much greater current injustice that Black Lives Matter is trying to bring to life?
QRO: Have you thought of doing any [bassist] Jason Narducy (QRO interview)-style lawn shows?…
BM: I have a small front porch that goes right out onto the sidewalk. I guess I could stand out there and bother my neighbors… [laughs]
I love that Jason’s been so proactive. I love that he’s got the folks at Space up in Evanston that have figured out a way to create safe spaces for people to hear music, albeit in a sort of minimized form, I suppose?
That looks like it works for some people. I like the crowd, I like the noise, I like the community of it, so…
I’m looking at what people are doing. Livestreaming from home; livestreaming from venues without an audience. People have a lot of cool ideas. I don’t know how many of them really work for me, but I’ve been watching & trying to figure out where I can fit in to that, at least as a temporary kind of presentation.
But I sure do miss the idea of community, you know? People get together and sing. It’s real important. We’ll see, we’ll see…
QRO: Dinosaur Jr. just did some drive-in shows…
BM: It looked really cool. It looked like it was a fairly elaborate show on the stage side.
I don’t know about that one. That one’s a tough one. I think the lawn show looks a little more familiar to me, I don’t know. I think streaming might even be a little – if it was the right place & time, it might make more sense.
Everything’s so strange. There’s no handbook for any of this. People should do what they do, and just don’t do what, you know, old groups from the late nineties did at Sturgis…
How fucked up was that?
QRO: Part of me thinks, ‘They must have really needed some money…’
BM: I think, also, for any artist to do that, it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, look how defiant you are…’ ‘That’s really something…’
That’s really the last time we really need to say your name in public, okay…
QRO: That rock desire to rebel, but you’ve gotta direct your rebellion.
BM: Yeah. Give it just a moment’s thought before you do it, and you’ll see just how absolutely stupid you look for having done it.
Even today, it’s like there’s more musicians starting to pile onto that bandwagon. I really wish that they would just stay in their castles, wherever they are, and just zip it… [laughs]
I think a lot of musicians have a terrible fear of not seeing their name in the press all the time. And they’ll say & do outrageous things instead of actually adding some constructive ideas to the stew that we’re in right now.
QRO: It’s hard for musicians to not play. Maybe that desire gets the best of them.
BM: I think a lot of musicians have a terrible fear of not seeing their name in the press all the time. And they’ll say & do outrageous things instead of actually adding some constructive ideas to the stew that we’re in right now.
Ehh, whatever. People have been dumb forever, you know? People have been smart forever.
It’s always a surprise when you see someone – not surprise when people on the far right do what they do, but when people who you think are on the correct side of it do something stupid, you’re just like, ‘What makes you think that’s a good idea?’
QRO: It hurts a lot more when it’s Morrissey or Noel Gallagher…
BM: Oh my god! Ding, ding! Two-for-two! What a surprise…
Bob Mould’s video for “American Crisis”:
QRO: To go with the singles that you’ve released, “American Crisis” (QRO review), “Forecast of Rain”, and “Siberian Butterfly” (QRO review), you put out some videos – but those videos were all done during the lockdown, correct?
BM: Yes. [laughs] Home videos…
QRO: Do you miss doing ‘full-fledged’ videos, or are you happy to not have to?
BM: I actually did not mind the restriction of setting up an iPhone on a tripod and lip-synching at home. I did not find that to be difficult.
I like it all, you know? I like making the big videos. They’re fun. You get to do really cool stuff.
I think with these three videos, it was a minimal amount of effort from the three of us to do what we did. It was trying to figure out a simplistic way to make a nice lyric video, so it’s out of those three.
Bob Mould’s video for “Forecast of Rain”:
For “Forecast of Rain”, we tried a little bit of, I guess, for lack of a better term, sort of ‘Monty Python’ storytelling, using metaphor. Just being sort of ‘dumb clever.’
I think the third one, “Butterfly”, was a complete shocker, to sort of go all Jem & The Holograms with glitter. That was fun.
That was exactly what everyone needed. [laughs] As I could not leave my house because it was orange outside, I thought, ‘Well, how about some rainbows & unicorns?…’ [laughs]
Bob Mould’s video for “Siberian Butterfly”:
QRO: I really loved the one for “Star Machine”, as I know that place, Cake Shop (QRO venue review)…
BM: It was really fun. And to work with Jon Glazer, too.
He sort of storyboarded the whole thing. Glazer & Jon Wurster, who’s sort of the grizzled veteran of TV, I guess, of the three of us, let them run with the show.
QRO: I’ve always thought that Jon Wurster & Jason are two of the funniest musicians on Twitter, social media…
BM: Yeah, yeah, I know…
I stay away from social media. I’m terrible with it.
I’m glad they do great stuff, and whenever it’s something fun, I can just repost what they said. Always a good day for me.
Me & social media, we’ve had our troubles… [laughs]
Bob Mould’s video for “Star Machine”:
Bob Mould Band playing Sugar’s for “Fortune Teller” live as part of SXSW 2012 in Austin, TX:
QRO: Where did the impetus for putting together your giant career catalog Distortion: 1989-2019 come from?
BM: That’s Demon Music Group in the U.K. They did the Sugar box set back in 2012. They had been proposing doing a career retrospective. It’s been on the table for the last five years.
After Sunshine Rock, I thought that the fall of 2020 was going to be a quiet period for me, so that’s where we started making the hard plans to do the box set. Blue Hearts just sort of wrote itself in the middle of all of it. I did not plan to have all of that at once.
So, the box set’s been five years, on-and-off, in the making. Working really hard the last year to get it all pulled together. Really working hard the last six months to get it all, listening to the new audio, digging through and finding all the rarities, going through all the lyrics again. Reimagining all of the album covers. Trying to tell a sort of ‘travelogue’ type of story with the new covers. People & places & situations, all my different homes over the years. My luxury of self-employment, being able to live in different places.
I guess that’s five years in the works, and the last six months have been crazy, trying to get it all finished on time.
All those songs came back to life there, over the past few months, when I was really having to dig in and review everything, and make sure it was 100%, or as close to 100% right as it could be.
QRO: When you were putting it together, did you listen to your old stuff, maybe hear some pieces that you’d forgotten about, get all nostalgic?
BM: There have been situations, maybe? You know, songs take on different meanings over time. Sometimes, when I think about a song from an album, and I put it in a set list, it’s like, ‘Oh, that fits good with the songs around it.’ As opposed to, ‘Oh, I remember that specific person that precipitated that story & that moment in time.’
So, going back and dealing with them in their original situation, that’s where they came more to life I think, than the reinterpretations over time, if that makes any sense?
They come back to life in context. That was the heavy part, I think. It takes me back to the places. It takes me back to the apartments, or the houses, or the partnerships, or the colleagues – all that stuff comes back in rich detail, when it’s in context.
Me & social media, we’ve had our troubles…
QRO: Were you at all critical of yourself, seeing all the things that you could have done better back when?…
BM: Right now, I’m really critical about Blue Hearts, because I know that the next record has to be better. [laughs]
That’s typically my style. I make a record, and I think it’s the best I can do. And then, all of the flaws start to appear over the next few months, in that in-between period, between March & September. [laughs] And then I go, ‘Wow! Okay, here’s where it got better, and here’s where I can do better next time.’
That’s where I’m usually my harshest critic, is the in-between – between mastering & release.
After that, I sort of let go of it, because I’ve already sort of made my critique.
Bob Mould Band playing “Egøverride” live at Bowery Ballroom in New York, NY on February 26th, 2013:
But I think the biggest thing that I saw, looking back on this batch, was the 2000s. You know, with Modulate, LoudBomb, Body of Song, and the last strands of electronica that made it to District Line (QRO review).
I think those records were such a shock to my core audience. Maybe now, twenty years later, now that we’ve all listened to a lot of electronic music in the last two decades, maybe we can look at those from a different perspective? Maybe they don’t seem so awkward or so out of place, given where music went.
Especially 2006-2007, when Coachella became really heavy electronica, with Daft Punk, the pyramid show, ’07 when they curated the Sahara Stage. Everything got different then. You know, the vocoder didn’t seem so strange, all of a sudden.
You know, songs take on different meanings over time.
QRO: Why did you decide to include not just Sugar in the collection, but also [his solo electronica] LoudBomb and [electronica team-up] Blowoff?
BM: Cause those are really important records.
Blowoff, that’s a 50/50 collaboration with me & Rich Morel. That’s a really unique piece in the box set. Because everything else is, by and large, my compositions, and a handful of David Barbe songs during the Sugar era.
I thought it was real key to show people how much that period meant to me.
The LoudBomb record, I think because it didn’t carry my name on the title, much like Blowoff, again, it’s a real anomaly for the long-time fans. I think that era, it’s nice to go back and look at it again.
I know both of those records went well under the average Bob Mould fan’s radar. It’s really good to have those in there, to round out that part of the story.
Bob Mould Band playing “Keep Round the City Square” live at Williamsburg Park in Brooklyn, NY on September 7th, 2012:
QRO: Did you rediscover any long-lost songs that you might play live for the first time in a long time?
BM: Oh, like if I went through, and went, ‘Oh my God, why don’t we ever play…’
QRO: Or just like, ‘Hey, maybe it would be good to play…’
BM: I remember seeing a lot of songs that got put on the live shelf, and then we bring them back.
A song like “Moving Trucks”, from The Last Dog and Pony Show. It was always a song that people were like, ‘Oh my God, it’s one of your best songs! One of your best songs! It’s so great! Why don’t you play it?’
I remember one tour, we started playing it live. We played it as best we could, and I thought it was really strong, but people were looking at us like, ‘Oh, you played that one…’ [laughs] It got less of an enthusiastic response than I thought it would…
It’s a lot of trial & error, with old songs that you try to breathe new life into them. It’s a tricky one.
It’s really hard to tell. A song like “Stand Guard” off of Black Sheets [of Rain]. Now that we’ve brought that back into the set, we sort of revisited how we look at it, that one’s really shining these days.
Man, it’s hard to tell. Sometimes, it’s where you put it in the set list. It’s a lot of trial & error, with old songs that you try to breathe new life into them. It’s a tricky one.
Because I always love to keep the shows as current as possible.
QRO: Naturally. Whenever you can next tour, there are going to be fans who are hoping for rare oldies thanks to Distortion…
BM: Yeah, maybe I’ll do a shout-out, get that out of everybody’s system, and maybe we could get a Top 20 or close list put together before the tour, something like that… [laughs]
Some of them work really well live, and other ones are too complicated to get across as a three-piece. There’s always a lot of variables involved.
Bob Mould Band playing “The Final Years” live at Brooklyn Steel in Brooklyn, NY on February 12th, 2019: