The front man for the eighties’ Minneapolis-based hardcore band Hüsker Dü, Bob Mould made meaningful, noisy music out of a very punk spirit of “despair meets resignation.” The band ended in 1987, and Mould went on to have more success with Sugar in the early nineties, and remains on the festival circuit today. More recently he’s also become a D.J. who throws an itinerant party called Blowoff that appeals to unabashedly manly gay men — bears. He’s just released a memoir, called See a Little Light, which he wrote with journalist Michael Azerrad (Little, Brown & Co., $24.99). In addition to being a detailed document of punk going mainstream, the book is an unsparing self-examination. Carl Swanson spoke with Mould for a New York Magazine feature, but here is the largely unedited transcript of their wide-ranging conversation.
You’ve always been so protective of your privacy. And yet you’re here writing about your ex-boyfriends, drug use, being molested, your parents — everything.
It’s a liberating feeling.
I think so, yeah.
You even go back and explain how you think what happened to you in life was reflected in your music. A lot of musicians won’t do that.
Yeah. Songs are sort of ethereal. You can sit down and try to write a song, and sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s not, and a lot of times the inspiration hits you when you least expect it, and you’re not really sure, in the moment, what provokes it. It’s sort of a strange concept. But going back, you can sort of see what the meanings were, what the situations were. A lot of them are composites; it’s not always, “this is what happened from when I woke up at breakfast to when I left the house in a huff.” It’s not that simple. Copper Blue is a very optimistic record. You know, things were good in my personal life; professionally, I had sort of taken the reins back from a confusing situation with Virgin and outside management. So that was sort of empowering, which I guess is happy.
You also have this sort of diary, a journal of where you are artistically and what you were feeling at that time. Was that helpful in writing the book? Did you go back and listen to the whole catalogue?
No, I know the songs pretty well [laughs]. I was loath to get into specific meanings of songs. They pressed really hard for me to do that.
Michael Azerrad or the publisher, Little, Brown?
Both Brown and Azerrad. He was just like, “You can’t write a book and not deconstruct some of the songs.” But I was loath to do it because why should my literal meaning of a song — why describe it to people? It takes away. When people hear songs, it’s a visceral moment. When you hear things like that, they resonate, and get into your molecular structure, and become part of who you are, and make you think different ways. For me to go back, several years later, and tell somebody, “This song was about firing my whole team because we lost a kickball” — you know? To them, that’s their wedding song, and it’s like, all of sudden… I think the greater picture is showing people what my life was like at the time, because that’s more the overall feeling of who I am and what I do and whether those things intersect. I mean, I’m pretty self aware. There are spots in the book that speak to one of my idiosyncrasies: worrying myself to death with what people must think.
It’s like you feel a certain sense of responsibility to the fans.
Well I’m a huge fan of music, and I know what it means to people, and I know what it means to me, and I project what music means to me onto others, through my own work, and I come up with these scenarios, like when Hüsker Dü went from SST to Warner Bros., and I was so worried about what people would think about it. I write this incredibly abrasive song that has to be the opening, so people don’t get the wrong idea that we lead with a pop song. Writing a whole apology letter to rock and roll, that speaks so clearly to my …
Yeah. It’s a terrible idiosyncrasy, hard to get rid of. And you know that comes from — well, it’s all set up in the book. I’m not sure where everyone gets their hyper-vigilance. To me it’s very clear.
You mean with your family being so abusive?
That just seemed like the norm. And I knew nothing different. I saw it in other families around me, and that just what it was: Men drink and have frustrations and take it out on their spouses and that’s just how the world works. And you learn that, and when I got to 25, I got to cut off. It’s a battle. That’s what life is about. It’s a battle to try to get to the next place, and leave behind the parts that don’t work.
There’s a great sense of that self-knowledge in the book. You don’t have that mooning over your past career. You could be that person. It’s good that you’re not.
I’m very quick to toot my own horn; I’m also equally as quick to recognize unrealized projects, or things that didn’t go as well as I thought they would. If you don’t get wrapped up in your own bullshit, you can see where you sort of slipped, and why you slipped.
It’s a very pragmatic perspective. What did you listen to growing up?
I had such a rich knowledge of music, and it was those jukebox singles — I still have half of them. When in doubt, I could just put something on and it’ll put me back on track. If you can get all the jukebox singles from the sixties and have them as your foundation for music, it’s pretty damn strong. The melodies and range, and harmonies — the idea of singing along with records and being able to harmonize. I’ve taken that over the course of my career of being able to harmonize really well with people on the spot, just improvising. Melody’s important. It’s good to have a song that people whistle as they walk down the street. It resonates.
The Hüsker Dü song “Everything Falls Apart” always pops into my head.
It was really one of the early songs of that sort of despair-meets-resignation, with a really catchy melody.
And the voice down low in the mix.
It makes the music seem louder!
Have you stopped burying the words?
It depends on the song. Now that I’m older, the music isn’t quite as frenetic as it used to be, and I want the stories to be more out front. Also, as I’ve gotten more comfortable with my voice. You know, I never really liked my voice, so it’s nice to bury it a little as well. But now that I have a little more control over the words and I’m more comfortable with my actual voice, I push it up a little more. It depends on the actual song. If I want the message to be clear, then the vocals will go pretty far up. If it’s punk rock, then the vocals will go back. That’s the aesthetic.
How did you and Azerrad work on this book together?
We’d Skype. We had the voice on, no video, and the chat window open. We’d just copy parts back and forth. I’d have a manuscript, a couple of other windows open. I’d have, like, four windows open, and I’d just copy and paste. I’d be able to have mine, then put his revisions, and then revise. He was telling me, when he’s worked on books before and he’s the editor, a lot of times, people will write side-by-side towards the end, in the editing process.
What else did he push you on?
The personal stuff. Sometimes I would mention a story and he would connect the dots, and just suggest that I take a harder look about what I just said, and suggest I spend some time with it.
It’s a very literal, as-it-happened type of feeling.
I’m trying to tell the story in the moment. I think it’s the story at the end of the Hüsker run when I was in England, and [former Hüsker bassist] Greg Norton shows up with this contract, and he was probably very benign and just showed up, but I was so out of my mind, so the perception was that he was this crazy person who had worked with this lawyer to extract a bunch of money from me. To me, it was like this AHH. I’m just trying to show people how out of my head I was. It’s not flattering to me. [Laughs]
It’s not. It’s very self-critical. You don’t always tell people how you’re feeling.
To me, sort of how it worked with Hüsker Dü, it was such a natural fit, for the most part, ‘til the end. There was nothing that needed to be said; we just went about our business, and I thought, “So that’s how we do with musicians.” With sugar, I got very specific about how I wanted things to do, and it was successful. I got beat up a little being for being a control freak.
You stopped drinking at 25, you write to avoid becoming your abusive alcoholic father. Was it also your being a control freak?
In a business that encouraged bad behavior— and it worked to the benefit of the record companies to keep the artists in that state of mind; they don’t want anybody stopping and thinking about things — it’s like suspended adolescence that goes on indefinitely, until all of a sudden you don’t have a career and you’re thrust into the adult world with no skill set. It’s frightening, and a lot of people get depressed and kill themselves. Did you see The Wrestler? A great movie that tied it all together. It resonated with me on a lot of different levels. The main character was sort of over-the-hill and lost his way and didn’t have anything else he could do. And there’s one part in the movie where’s working at the deli counter in a Safeway and he got so frustrated and people would come up and say, “Weren’t you that guy?” And he wanted attention just like the wrestlers do, he just stuck his hand in the meat grinder and started bleeding. He cannot even cope with the fact that he is not a celebrity anymore, but in a moment of panic or doubt he reverts back to mutilating himself, because that’s what he did his whole life.
Speaking of which, I loved the part where you go to work for WCW professional wrestling.
I tried to write a book inside a book. When you get all the way to it, it’s just one or two little mentions, and then you hit that part and it’s like “rockstar gay and all” and then just boom, I reset and start talking about when I was a kid again and this other life that was really important to me and nobody really asked me about before.
When you think about it, pro-wrestling is pretty gay, isn’t it?
It’s homoerotic. And I think they know it, and they don’t want to acknowledge it too much.
They’re tapping into something that is an outlet for a lot of men. Which isn’t to say all men are gay.
Up until about five years ago, they catered to all sectors. They tried to get teenage kids, because they’re looking for superheroes, really impressionable, looking for good versus evil. But now, in the last five years, pro-wrestling exposed that it was choreographed, just a show. So now you’ve got Ultimate Fighting Champion, where the old wrestling fans from 18 to 55 went to that, because it’s the same thing, but it’s real.
That’s homoerotic. It’s just not as silly. It’s upsetting, but it’s more real.
Guys just push themselves to the limits every day of their lives. It’s a crazy world. I couldn’t believe I got the call to come in and help.
Were you coming to relate to the crowd? Were you coming it to that perspective?
I was just so overwhelmed of sitting in the War Room, with these guys I grew up watching on TV, and shaping this product that five million people watch every week. I came in with the utmost respect for the business, a knowledge of the business — as a fan, I understood the mechanics of it. With 20 years of travel, I was able to keep up with the pace. A lot of people can’t. They saw that right away, and they were, “You can run with us, you can run fast, let’s go!” I also brought good grammar, good punctuation, good handwriting.
In terms of the story stuff you brought —
A lot of it was trying to keep continuity. They brought in a couple writers from New York who were ADD, who were so scattered that they couldn’t remember what they’d done from week to week. We’d write the stories on Wednesday and Thursday at the meetings, and I would say, “We did this two weeks ago.” Or there would be things that were sort of homophobic or racist, and I would say, “Do you really want to have the Mexican guy hit the Japanese guy over the head with a tequila bottle?” And somebody would be like, “Are you calling me a racist?” And I’d say, “No, but the idea is a little funny.” I became the naysayer with a certain group, and with another group, they were counting on me to be the naysayer. It was a little crazy.
When I went to see professional wrestling once at Madison Square Garden, all the stories and characters and back stories — it seemed like a form of soap opera for men.
It’s like Shakespeare, the 16 stories. You stole my wife, you stole my belt, you ruined my car, you ruined my life. You have to position people in a certain way and if you’re gonna tell the story over a long course of time, you have to somehow screw this guy until the very end, when good finally triumphs. You have to drag people through that story, and pace it. And that is becoming a lost art form. It’s become now these guys who do a 14-minute soliloquy to set up all these stories, and they think they’re Hollywood guys. It’s not like some of the eccentric characters who go out there and improvise off of three bullet points, which is what it should be. There should never be someone writing lines for guys to go out and say. That’s not the essence of it. It was a crazy time. I was fortunate to have my time there and see how it worked and make some big decision and got caught up in a lot of politics and walked away.
Did your steroids use end when you left?
I was still doing stuff — some OTC stuff, to keep you strong and big. Not like Annadrol, that’s sort of a hardcore steroid. I wasn’t using a lot. I can’t do them any more. My testosterone levels are too high naturally. Last time I asked a doctor about the possibility, and he said there’s absolutely no way. There’s breast cancer in your family history, your testosterone levels are already too high. You cannot do them. I was like, “Ok.”
You seem like a solidly built guy.
The last five pounds would be nice to lose, but I can’t shake it.
But you seem like to actually eat.
Food is important. I eat six times a day. I eat all day. I work out every day. I don’t do cardio or any of that, I just go and lift. The steroids are a big part of the gay culture, that’s for sure. A lot of the drugs I put into my system eventually put into my system became part of the gay culture; like speed became this Big Gay Drug. It sort of came out of the SoCal gym culture, and then became part of the gay, body-specific ideal.
You seem almost invisible to gay culture.
The beauty of invisibility is that you gain a much wider palette for observation. If nobody’s looking at you, you can look at everything. Then there are times where you’re the focal point, so there are all these different perspectives that I sort of walked through. With sexuality and identification — in the book I explain my ignorance of gay culture. I’m an uncomfortable spokesperson because I blurt, and I’m not always politically correct. And the gay community, more so than other communities, are very quick to reparse your thoughts, and if a couple words come out askew, they will tear you apart, so I don’t step up much. Also, I didn’t embrace the more flamboyant side of gay culture — the effeminate, the drag, the transgender — since I didn’t identify or understand it, when I would see the conservative media in the 80s covering ACT UP, who were doing all the heavy lifting. I just didn’t appreciate it at the time. They weren’t lifting for me, they were lifting for people with AIDS, and I just didn’t get it. That is one of my two enormous laments about my sexuality. The other is, if I’d be out in ‘86, what things would be like.
And yet, in 1994, you came out in Spin, but that didn’t go well. You seem to have regretted it.
I didn’t feel like it was contextualized. I was like, “For hanging out all that time, you took that one and ran with it.” Now I laugh about it. I mean, it was good for business, it made for a memorable moment.
Are you worried about how your estranged Hüsker Dü bandmates will feel about the book? You’re not always easy on Grant Hart, the drummer.
No. Nothing I can do about that. I think I was pretty fair.
Even the people you don’t like, you say, “This is what’s good about this person.” There’s nothing particularly score settling.
I worked out a lot of the anger before the copy edit. When I got to the bottom of it, I think I’m at a pretty even spot with it. Grant’s story was “I quit the band, Bob’s a tyrant, fuck this whole thing, I was held back.” And I was reading that and I was thinking, “That’s not my story.” But I will wait, and I will focus on my music, and I will let this go. But it continued, and it continued, and it continued. And I was just surprised: Why am I all of a sudden a dartboard? I never publicly made my thoughts known about how the band wrapped up. It’s not my story to tell, so it was sort of frustrating that people would always come to me with pieces of information, ways to bury Grant. It should be so clear in the book what the deal is. For eight years of my life, that was my life. That’s all I cared about. I had a partner, and that was important too, but it always took the backseat to the band, and I was trying everything I could to make that work for everybody. If somebody’s going to call me a prick, it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If that’s the person you want, that’s the person you’ll get. You may be one of the only three people that feels that way about me, but if that’s the person you want, I will be that way for you. But Hüsker Dü was third on the list of things to worry about. The two things that weighed most heavily were my family and my long relationship with Kevin. I lost months of sleep over those two. With Kevin, it was very clear. I was very insecure in the relationship, there were things missing in the relationship that he needed.
Well, you did have several fairly long relationships.
My first relationship with Mike Covington was giddy. We were both in our twenties and it just blew up, and that was fine. With Kevin there was an incredible investment, on all sides. When it started to weave together professionally, then we became embedded in it. We were joined at the hip.
He probably thought he had to do that to be a part of your life…
He was able, as well. It wasn’t like he was a traditional partner in the wings questioning the manager. He was right in their taking my thoughts and setting them properly. Walking away from Kevin, the reason why it was civil, is because I clearly still have a lot of feelings for him. The temptation to try to barter and hold on longer — I couldn’t even look back. [Laughs] The temptations always there to try to fix it again.
You seem to have a pretty good circle of friends today.
Yeah, we just hang out, we’re just regular guys, and we all just love music and good food. That’s what ties us together. It’s pretty amazing.
What about your family? Are your parents still alive?
Yeah. They live in central Florida. I got them settled in down there. They’ve been there for 15 years. They’re getting up there in age. Still alive, still together. That’s their life. That’s their dynamic, not mine. They’ve always been incredibly supportive, incredibly proud of my work. My mom is one of my biggest fans, and I think my dad is, too. Not only did he give me all that turmoil, but he gave me music. And now I see those fit together.
Do you think you are like him?
Yeah. We’re all like our parents in some way. A combination of both parents, sometimes more than the other. I’ve spoke to my dad about his father, and he told me things that happened in his life with his parents; different things that hit him, that spun around and they’re the same when they hit me. And you can’t put blame, and say, “I hate my parents for what they did.” No, they’re your parents. You love your parents and you take what you get, and you learn from them and you learn to let go of the parts that aren’t valid for you.
You said you were going to start going to the Catholic Church in D.C.
Yeah, I went back to church.
I couldn’t tell that much about your actual religious upbringing from the book, other thing whether or not you should go to parochial school.
I went on Wednesdays. It was an exchange program with the public school.
My religious background was semi-fundamentalist / protestant. Jesus was not on the cross. There was no blood.
There’s a lot of blood in the Catholic Church. It’s the principal. There’s community and giving and caring and the structure of these rules and guidelines, but the image is someone who suffered greatly. And when you get that as a child, that’s part of what you know and what you learn and you study it. You go to CCD and you get this fourth name and all these things—they give you the name and hit you on the head and you’re gone, and then you’re on your own with it, left with all that stuff you learn. And the abusive privilege that the Catholic Church is famous for, that violation of trust — that’s a complicated reveal. With religion, I get all that stuff in me, and in a moment of uncertainty, I go back and reexamine it and spend a number of years in the church trying to find a place to connect. I love it, it’s like the set list — it doesn’t change. You go in, they give you this, they give you that, they get to the sermon. It’s this ritual you learn, and it’s natural, and it’s comfortable. And again, those three levels of the church, and why I’ve stepped back from it again, is because the top level is so nonsensical and nonhuman right now. They haven’t accepted the fact that they’ve lost control of imagery. For centuries, they were the curators of art and culture and progress. They controlled that you had to go to them to see those images and hear those stories, and they then lost control of that over the last 100 years to Hollywood and now the Internet. They haven’t adapted with modern times. The previous pope, yes, because he was so of the people, but the new one is so [smacks his hands] he’s just trying to protect these archaic ideas and protect what’s left of the riches.
And the way they handled the abuse — and you have your own story…
I brought that in at the moment of discovery, as opposed to the beginning which would have made me a victim for the whole book. The thing of the church is that, on the top, you have the people who are trying to protect the real estate, and in the middle you have the people who actually have to maintain it on a day-to-day basis, and built a constituency to support it, and then underneath, you have the believers, who go there because they care and they’re wonderful people. And the fact that society now beats up people on the bottom because of the abuse at the top — it’s frustrating to me, as a cafeteria catholic.
You had the description early on about forcing people to understand something … your attitude to being onstage has changed.
We were provocative. It wasn’t scorched earth as much as really trying to stay away from the more dogmatic parts of our movement, trying to stay away from the blind politics and moving more towards the personal. So many people jumped in on that “fuck the government, fuck Reagan” — and rightfully so — but as we moved beyond that rudimentary anarchistic idea, the bigger story becomes what do you do in your community, what do you do in your relationships, what do you do in your life?