Playing the Angles: Bob Mould
The ex-Hüsker Dü leader unleashes jagged stacks of Strats for his darkest, thickest-sounding album in decades and strikes a blow for the sanctity of the rock power trio.
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]
But back to those layers of guitar—can you take us through the song “Hold On?”
Well, I wrote “Hold On” very early on, at home on my ’49 Gibson J series acoustic. It was much slower and ponderous, in chordal blocks all played on the low strings with a capo at the 3rd fret. So when we got to the session I wanted to try to build this field of sound with it, to see how big I could make it and still keep the clarity.
I used a number of small variations with the amps, and that’s where I really got into the layering. I had three different half-stacks out there—two Blackstars and an old Hiwatt, with each head going to the same cabinet. So I had six different rhythm guitars essentially doing the same thing. I’d get three different tones with each guitar, miked close with a [Neumann] U 67 and a Coles [ribbon mic] about 10 feet out from the cabinet. And then each tone was spread across three tracks, so I had 18 tracks of guitar.
Then I went back and did second verse embellishments, like elevated unison riffs—just a couple of those. We recorded the song to a click, and the solos are actually flown in from home recordings. Then, at the very end in mixing, I didn’t feel like everything was moving enough, so I brought in my home amp to the mix room in San Francisco and I doubled the bass line in unison, but by sliding up to the notes. I sank that underneath to meet the bass guitar, so it feels like it’s moving in a different way, with a little slip and error. I mean, the song is called “Hold On,” so I wanted to make it feel like you can’t hold on.
How did you get turned on to Blackstar amps?
In the summer of 2012, I went to the U.K. on some dates for the [20th anniversary] Copper Blue tour. My tour manager there worked with an artist who had a deal with Blackstar, so he reached out to them to get the Artisan 100, which is their top-of-the-line classic amp. I had asked for something as close to solid-state Marshall as possible—something with clean volume that doesn’t go haywire as soon as you turn it up.
So he had the amp at a rehearsal space in London when I showed up, and he goes, “I know you asked for the Marshall, but give this a try.” I put my pedalboard in and went with my standard distortion and compression on the floor, flipped the amp on, and hit a first position E5 chord, and I was like, “Winner! That sounds like me!” And I haven’t really looked back since. Live I use two [Blackstar] slant 4x12s, and I never put the amp past two. If you want to go that way, you can, but I find I’m turning down more as time goes on. Stage volume is less now than it’s ever been, and that’s good for me.
Do you ever find yourself pulling things out to get the sound you want in the final mix?
Yeah, there is too much of a good thing, where you start to lose clarity. “Hold On” was the most extreme example on the record, so if you think that sounds tight, that’s great.
Sometimes I start with a motif or a position that feels like the right key, but as I start to build and a song evolves, and vocals change, I may reconsider the foundation and move it up a step, or capo it up, or I’ll just do something different. “Lucifer and God” is a great example. That song stays really tight to the original vision, but I made adjustments when I was demoing it at home. It’s in my low B chord—standard tuning, with the fingering low-to-high at 2-2-4-4-0-0, with the two high open strings. Everybody uses that now; it’s featured on many records.
So the song is based in that, but when I was working at home, I wondered what would happen if I capoed it at the 2nd fret, and then moved it up to an A9, so all of a sudden the major third gets introduced? That taught me how they ring together. I wouldn’t have even considered it, and then when I got to the studio I had to decide, “Are they equal, or do I highlight one in certain spots?” So those kinds of things are fun. Transposing capos and changing keys gives you a whole different set of harmonics to work with. But I guess I’m answering a different question now, too. [Laughs]
Well, speaking of that evolution, “Losing Sleep” goes through some pretty interesting changes in dynamics, which makes it stand
out from the rest of the album.
That’s my desert disco track. It started with the very Mancunian bass line, but the imagery of the song is not cold, rainy Manchester as much as a late-night, dry desert, sleepless drive in Palm Springs thing, so I tried to move the colors in that direction. I had very little to do with that song, to be honest. I mean, I wrote it, but I literally came in
with that bass structure, an upstroke disco-y chord pattern, and a handful of mumbo-jumbo, you know? Jason extended the bass line and added some color to it, and Jon added a ton of texture.
He went into the percussion closet and went crazy.
The guitar is just a clean Strat with some direct signal, and we may have switched to a Fender Champ. I can’t remember exactly, but sometimes I get that sound by going direct into a Drawmer
1960 [mic pre/compressor]. The stereo tube compression just slams it, and it’s got the EQ on the front end so you can brighten it up. I remember the day we put it up to mix. Beau was like, “What do we do with this?” I was still trying to write words for the last song, so I told him to have some fun for five hours and went in the other room. The demo had that same sparseness and structure, but it was nowhere near as colorful as what Beau came up with. That one’s the outlier on the album for sure, so everybody’s talking about it.
You just mentioned compression. How do you use that for your live sound?
For me, that goes down to the pedalboard first, because the last thing I use is compression, unlike most people, who put it early in the chain. I always put it last, even with my live effects. Distortion, delay, Freeze, compressor—I’ve built that chain with a reason behind it. It’s taken a long time to get it where I like it now.
But I like using compression just to keep the constancy of the guitar. In a live setting, it’s great because my stage volume is such that my house engineer should never have to boost a cabinet for a solo. The second I start a solo, I’m off that vocal mic, so why bother? I’m shielding it until I stop singing. But it’s also about really dialing in to find where the harmonics are sitting right, and how much you send an effect to it at the end. So it’s a lot of mapping.
There’s also a lot of unconscious stuff that I do with my hands and the pick that I don’t even notice. Sometimes Jon and Jason will hang around when I’m cutting rhythm guitars, and they see it. What they tell me is, “It’s not what you’re doing—it’s all the stuff in between what you do.” But I don’t want to start getting hung up on what my hands are doing. That’s how you fake yourself out!
Even in a stripped-down, solo setting for a broadcast on New York City’s Fordham University radio station, Bob Mould’s unmuted strumming and hard attack create cascading waves of sounds. Although this song started as an acoustic demo, the version on Patch the Sky features 18 tracks of guitar.
Who are your favorite players from back in the day and currently?
I looked to Pete Townshend, of course, for rhythm and lead. That stuff got in my head, and then, down that road later on, it was Richard Thompson, because somebody told me I sounded like him.
But right as I came to the guitar I was listening to Kiss and Aerosmith and the New York Dolls, so I understood the difference between what Paul Stanley and Ace Frehley were doing, or what Joe Perry and Brad Whitford were doing. I could see it, and then I started putting it together—like where you play on the neck. Some people play their solos up high, some further down. Joe Perry is [fret] 7 to 12—that’s his hot spot. And then [Johnny] Thunders and [Sylvain] Sylvain—I mean, given my druthers, I’d much rather play rhythm guitar. If I had to be in a band with two guitars, I would immediately take rhythm guitar. That’s my strong suit.
I’m just not flashy. 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. People like Kevin Shields [My Bloody Valentine] are like that. And among current guys that I’ve seen, I default to Gary Clark Jr. He’s got Austin in him, but with a new way to look at it, which is great. When he and Bonnie Raitt played together at the Grammys, I was like, “Finally—it’s music again!” What a treasure.
Then you have the War on Drugs and Thee Oh Sees—there’s so much passion in that playing. It’s really visceral and physical. People don’t do that anymore, and that used to be the middle line for all of us. Now when people see that, they’re like, “Oh my God, it’s gonna blow up.” And I’m like, yeah, compared to everything else that’s happening!