“I’m just not flashy,” says Mould. “I mean, I can do it. If I’m in the mood, I’ll throw fireworks around, but I want it to be a wave coming at you at once, with all the harmonics.”
If you could jump in a wayback machine to 1985, when Bob Mould was tearing up the Minneapolis music scene as frontman for the legendary aggro-punk trio Hüsker Dü, you’d probably get a shrug and a scoff if you told him that one day he’d be identified as the putative godfather of a musical offshoot called emo. With a searing, slashing guitar sound that mixed the urgency of the Ramones with the insurgency of the Stooges, Mould delivered heart-on-his-sleeve lyrics of busted love, betrayal, self-loathing, and self-upliftment that seemed to galvanize a moshpit youth movement desperately in need of a band to believe in.
Fast-forward some 30-odd years and Mould appreciates the reference, but he feels he’s into something even deeper now. His music still has a visceral edge, and he still draws the adulation of fans who identify unflinchingly with the cathartic bloodletting he’s chronicled on a string of solo albums stretching from 1989’s Workbook to 2014’s Beauty & Ruin. That same thread connects the two studio albums he recorded with Sugar—1992’s melody-rich Copper Blue and the 1994 follow-up File Under: Easy Listening, both of which shook up and recalibrated alternative rock for future generations. Through it all, Mould became just as recognizable for his ’88 powder blue Stratocaster Plus, which he bought right after the breakup of Hüsker Dü. He recently rehabbed and retired the guitar, but in its place he’s built up a small arsenal of similarly customized (with Lace Sensor Blue pickups) late-’80s Strats that shimmer and quake with a vengeance.
As a lead instrument, the Strat meshes perfectly with Mould’s guiding philosophy about the power trio format, which he sees as one of the avatars of purity, authenticity, and honesty in rock music. Fittingly, he gushes with praise for his current bandmates, Jason Narducy (bass) and Jon Wurster (drums), a powerhouse rhythm section that has helped shape Mould’s sound since 2009.
“As far as rock music goes, power trios are the coolest thing,” he observes. “Onstage, there’s no confusion as to who’s doing what. When we play, we can hear everything, so the reaction time to a slip or a change is instant. We know where it came from. It’s very reactive, and that’s a cool thing. I think that’s lost on younger musicians who rely a lot on tracks, because they get very formatted in their ways of making music. I think sometimes they just don’t understand that it should be sort of elastic and reactive.”
In person, Mould comes across as working-class professorial—affable and open, but with a sure-footed intensity that simmers beneath the surface. After all, this is the guy who wrote Copper Blue while living in a Williamsburg walk-up well over a decade before the gritty Brooklyn enclave morphed into a post-Starbucks amusement ride of hipster excess. His latest album, Patch the Sky, seethes with all the unruly angst of a songwriter half his age. Lyrically it might be his darkest yet, but the words are yin to the music’s yang, which surges into happy overdrive with the rich, ecstatic, power-punk melodies that have become Mould’s signature. From the mountain-scaling “Hold On” to the confessional “Lucifer and God” to the Joy Division-ish undertones of “Losing Sleep,” Mould continues to probe the familiar while mapping new territory—a feat that doesn’t come easy when you’re 55 and fending off Father Time with the dug-in mindset of a cornered wolverine.
“This record was a little different because I was way more isolated and in my own emotional space,” he explains. “I wrote the material at home in San Francisco, basically all in one six-month sitting when I was really not around anybody. But then we recorded everything in the A room at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio in Chicago, so the sound is heavier, thicker, and denser. I mean, you can hear it on the record. I don’t think I’ve made a record this thick-sounding since Black Sheets of Rain . I hadn’t intended that, but once I started listening back to what we were getting, I realized that was where it needed to go.”
Out on the road, Mould can already feel the songs taking on new directions and new energy—a shot of vitality and the unknown that excites him because of where the music might lead him next. “It started happening last year, actually,” he says. “We finished mixing right before Labor Day, and then I went out and did nine solo electric shows, so I had to learn those songs the hard way. I mean, no bass and drums—just me and the guitar getting this thing across that nobody’s heard. So I did the hard work myself ahead of time, and now they’re evolving. We’re elongating sections and some of the delicate bits are getting crushed and some things are getting dragged out. Where there were fireworks on the record, there can be more of that now, if we want. So it’s getting wilder. I mean, it’s definitely not getting tamer!”
Mould spoke with Premier Guitar at Konditori, a Swedish-style coffeeshop in Greenpoint, not far from his old Williamsburg haunt. The subjects included his beloved armada of Strats, his approach to layering guitars, amp preferences, and the nuts-and-bolts of writing and recording Patch the Sky.
There are so many layers of guitar on this album that it’s actually possible to discover new ones with each listen. I envisioned you playing your trusty blue Strat, but apparently that wasn’t the case?
Yeah, the blue Strat didn’t touch this record at all. That thing has been through a lot, so now it’s just a home guitar. But I have four more—grey, black, seafoam green, and sunburst—that are almost identical. They’re all pretty much late-’80s Strat Plus factory gear, but I’ve swapped out the pickups for the Lace Sensor Blue pickups because I prefer the original Blue ones.
The new Patch the Sky is Mould’s 13th solo studio album, in addition to his work with Sugar and his groundbreaking punk trio Hüsker Dü.
How did you set up to record in Chicago?
Well, this was our second time working at Electrical Audio. Last time we did the basic tracks [for Beauty & Ruin] in the B room, which is the taller, concrete, rough-and-ready room. This time we worked exclusively in the A room, which is where Foo Fighters tracked Sonic Highways—the one with the adobe brick walls and lots of wood. It’s a big, vaulted live room, and we set it up like we would the backline at a gig: with the drum kit in the middle, my rig on the right side of the kit, and the bass rig on the left. We were against the back wall and projecting out.
We had everything miked up, and we just learned all the songs as if we were in a room rehearsing. Then we had a second completely different setup within the space. There’s a tighter isolation room that’s all brick, and that’s where the “real” drumkit was. Then we had an iso room where the bass rig was, and I left my stuff live in the big room. So we worked on the material and kept everything, but then when it was time to record it, we’d move to the other setup and I’d have the whole room for the amps. Everything was always on all the time and miked all the time, so we could also capture from any source.
With these different kits in different spaces, my tendency is to hollow out some of the fat—to try to make things brighter and wider. But lately I’ve been using a lot more amps and room sounds on my home demos, and I just got used to that density. So this time I was like, let’s not start carving. Let’s really go for all the dark air that’s in the room and let’s try to capture it as we’re doing it, with everything flat, and then figure it out later. When we got to mixing, I tried to stay away from carving out too much of that.
This is your third album with Beau Sorenson engineering, right?
This is three in a row with the whole configuration—Jason, Jon, me, and Beau. He got his chops together at Smart Studios in Madison, with Butch Vig and those guys. He was in Portland when we started working together, and now he lives in Berkeley. He just helped put together John Vanderslice’s newest Tiny Telephone studio over in Oakland. They have a 48-channel Neve and a gigantic live space, so I can’t wait for the next time to try that out. That’s a nice car to drive!
One thing I’ve always found interesting about your records—especially the last few—is that the guitars are way out front and your vocals sit right in that sweet spot in the mix. It almost demands that we listen more closely to what you’re singing.
That’s the trick, and it’s a constant battle. I’ve gotten more comfortable in the last few years highlighting vocals when the time is right, but I like that 50-50, or 51-49 kind of thing. It alternates, and that struggle is inherent in the work. I mean, it’s in the studio, it’s at soundcheck at solo shows—it’s in everything, you know? Some people want to push the vocals, and I’m just like, “Why? What’s so important about that?” [Laughs]