Within the last four decades of alternative music, there have been few musicians as consistent over a long period as the legendary Bob Mould.
Whether it was in the 1980s with the trailblazing Hüsker Dü, the ’90s with the short-lived but beloved trio Sugar or any combination of solo and band work under his own name in the meantime, Mould has made his mark delivering urgent, important music.
After a recent bout with COVID-19, Mould, 61, is back on the road just in time for his first-ever live appearance in York, a solo electric concert at The Appell Center on Saturday, May 14.
The tour is in support of his most recent album, 2020’s “Blue Hearts,” an album marked by of-the-moment songwriting and impassioned worry at the state of the country. According to Mould, the material has only gotten more prescient since he wrote most of it in 2018. To wit– the album’s single, “American Crisis” was released only a few weeks after the murder of George Floyd in 2020.
Despite the album’s heavy themes, Mould promises an entertaining show.
“We will have a fun night in York, I will keep the commentary to a minimum and music to the maximum,” Mould says with a laugh over the phone.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
LNP: So, how are you doing after your recent bout with COVID?
Bob Mould: Oh, I feel about 95%. It sure comes out of nowhere, it was pretty sudden and pretty serious for about 24 hours. But I'm feeling better, and I think I'm going to be able to make this next round of shows.
I sense that we might be in for a number of rounds of this kind of disruptive stuff. I went out last fall with the band and we did fifteen shows in three weeks across the U.S. A lot of flying, and a lot of driving. At that time, we were really strict with masking, no backstage guests, no going out to the merch table, and we were very fortunate to make it through in one piece. I guess this year, with less guidance from the government and less protocols in place, it might be a little bit trickier. It was a combination of things that lead to sticking to mostly solo shows in 2022.
It's a community effort, you know? Obviously, (the protocols) help the likelihood of the tour coming to completion. But it's also for the people in the room, people who are immunocompromised or don't feel comfortable going out. It's a very small thing that we can try to do to ensure success. I'm not going to stop the show and tape a mask to someone's face, but it will be nice if people give some consideration.
LNP: I'm curious how the recent material has evolved in the shows you've been playing over the last two years. Do you feel like people maybe understand where you are coming from more now as opposed to a few years back, and that you don't have to explain the songs as much?
BM: It's funny, two years ago when we were test driving the material for "Blue Hearts," I was talking a lot and setting up the songs, saying, “We're getting to this moment in history where we have to choose what we really believe in and vote that way,” and being emphatic about the shows in early 2020. Two years later, with the album out, I've been cutting down on the preachy parts, letting the work speak for itself. It's still a very urgent situation, but I guess that the disguises are off and we can see these people for what they are and what they're trying to do? I don't know if I need to give a preamble anymore (laughs). It's pretty clear.
LNP: For someone who has been songwriting and playing the guitar for as long as you have, do you find that you have to prevent yourself from "going back to the well" on certain chords and musical keys?
BM: They come in all different ways. Sometimes words first, sometimes the key melody line and then words tumble out. I certainly know the songs I've written before and the motifs, and they're very familiar to me. When I see a song come up that conjures a motif that I use —and I think I've got a handful that I like to use — I'm pretty much like, “Oh yeah, it's falling into this pocket, the upper mid-tempo, major chord chorus type of song or whatever.” And then it's just following through with it and trying to find a new wrinkle or a new twist into it.
It might not be super obvious to music fans who don't write music, but you might hear it and think, "Oh wow, the way he inverted that chord or turned this thing upside down, it sounds like him, but I've never heard that wrinkle.” I'm not afraid to be influenced by myself (laughs).
LNP: I read online recently that, in putting together your career-spanning box set "Distortion," that you actively spent months poring over every facet of the material, which not every artist does. Did that process change how you felt about any of your work?
BM: I generally am a pretty forward-looking artist, for lack of a better term, so anytime I stop and look back — and I did that when I wrote the "See a Little Light" autobiography in '09 — that period was a lot of reflection, and likewise with the “Distortion” box. It was months of reflection and going through archives and double-checking lyrics, working with an artist on all new, unifying album art —that was a lot of looking back. The one thing that happened with the book and again with the box set is that, over time, the songs take on different meanings for me, or maybe the original meaning is, well, not diminished, but it just becomes a song, right? I play it fifty, sixty times, and tell the story over and over, and then it falls into that comfortable, “legacy” spot or whatever.
But when I look back and I'm trying to create a bigger narrative, the songs sort of conjure up the original time and place when they were written. I don't usually go back and listen to the first side of (1989 album) "Workbook," for instance. I know it, but when I have to listen to re-present it to people, then the farm comes back, the people that were around right before and after, the songs themselves all come back to life. It's a weird little bit of time travel.
LNP: On a similar note, are you someone that notices or appreciates anniversaries of albums or things like that?
BM: Over the last decade, more so. I was never a big anniversary guy. In 2012, (record label) Merge approached me about reissuing the Sugar records. I had never done that before, it was sort of odd for me. I remember we were going out and playing (1992 Sugar album "Copper Blue") start to finish for a couple of months, and we were also playing all the (2012 album) "Silver Age" stuff. I didn't want to live in anniversary land forever. I remember telling management, “This is a finite amount of shows where we're doing this.” And then in 2014, we did the "Workbook" 25th anniversary reissue, and now the box set. I guess as the anniversaries pile up, they get harder to ignore, but I try to be careful with it and not spend too much time in the past.
LNP: You produced an album that I really enjoyed from a few years back, the Titus Andronicus "An Obelisk" record. Are there other bands or artists that you would like to produce an album for?
BM: The Titus record was a real fun project. They reached out and I knew their body of work. They came to me with the idea of doing a really rough and ready, early punk record. I think that their previous work was really big in scope, so they were looking to economize and maybe go to the core of their sound. Great band, super nice guys, really hard workers. It was a really fun project.
Patrick Stickles has a lot on his mind. His band, Titus Andronicus, will be performing at the Chameleon Club on Wednesday, Oct. 9.
As far as other people on my radar, maybe not so much for producing. It's funny, one thing I have not done a lot of is collaborations. The "Blowoff" album that Rich Morel and I did together, that was like a true 50/50 collaboration. Other than that, with Hüskers, Grant (Hart) and I mostly wrote separately, but there was always the push and pull of two songwriters. That was sort of a collaboration, not like Lennon and McCartney, but we affected each others' writing. Instead of looking for bands to produce, sometimes when I hear new artists, I think, “Huh, I wonder what it would be like writing with that person on a peer basis?”
LNP: You're someone who is famous for your writing style and ability to play new songs live before they're even recorded. Has your writing cycle been getting back to normal after the stop and start touring and promotion of your last two albums?
BM: It's starting to get back on track, the productivity and inspiration are coming back. The cycle got knocked pretty far off course in the last two years. In the last two years, there hasn't been a lot to write about that's been positive. I'm not really sure how much of this era I would like to carry with me for the rest of my life (laughs). I've been writing some really neat stuff, but it reminds me of being a child and asking older people about the Depression.
With "Blue Hearts," that is a very timely record because the subject matter — for me, it was so obvious what we were heading towards. Coming of age in the ‘80s, being in the underground, in the resistance and being protest-minded at the beginning of HIV/AIDs, the Reagan years, all of that, it's tough for me not to say things and tough for me not to be upset. I remember what it was like then, and it seems to be getting worse now. How could I not say something now?