With a career that spans four decades, three bands, nine solo studio albums, and a brief foray into scriptwriting for the professional wrestling industry, Bob Mould has learned a thing or two about evolving. At 51, the songwriter and guitarist is perhaps still best known for his mid-'80s persona, the surly Minnesotan kid at the helm and tortured heart of Hüsker Dü. Five years later, that intensity had softened into the sweet, angsty alt-rock of Sugar — whose classic album Copper Blue Mould will perform in its entirety in an intimate (and already sold-out) Bottom of the Hill show this week to celebrate the record's 20th anniversary.
Mould is kind of a father figure to Noise Pop: Both Hüsker Dü and Sugar were favorites of festival founder Kevin Arnold, as evidenced by the inaugural lineup in 1993, packed as it was with bands like Overwhelming Colorfast, whose Mould influences shone plainly through. And Mould has played the festival a handful of times himself. After becoming a fixture of the music scenes in both New York and Washington, D.C., Mould now seems confidently at home in his latest incarnation: a soft-spoken, bespectacled San Franciscan who DJs on the weekends, knows the baristas in his local Castro coffee shops by name, and attends community board meetings. We caught up with him to talk songwriting, civic pride, and roving bear discos.
You've been in San Francisco since 2009. What's it like here for you as a gay man? As a sober person?
I love it here. I'm part of the bear community, and that's a great, strong community. I think guys my age can still kind of live gracefully in San Francisco.... As a sober person? You stand around a lot while other people are drinking, but that's anywhere. And the weather here is unbelievable. I never want to hear anybody complain about any of it, having lived my life in snow.
What led to you playing Copper Blue at Noise Pop? People love that record — do you still enjoy playing it?
[Noise Pop co-producer] Jordan Kurland is my manager, so Noise Pop is really special to me. As for Copper Blue, I love that record. Over the years I've written some pretty dark music, and Copper Blue has its moments, but overall it's a pretty bright record. I think after 2011, with the heaviness of the book [2011's memoir See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody] and reconciling all these things in public, I'm like, okay, I'm just gonna have fun.
You were known for so long as a very private person. What was that transition like for you after the book came out, going from that to having —
Everything out there? It was like getting your wisdom teeth out. It happened really quickly, and I don't remember much of it. (Laughs.) It felt good. I've always been incredibly private, angry, really driven, and I never appreciated things that were happening to me in the moment ... which is a weird way to live. It informed my work, made it what it was, but there's a time and a place to stop and be a person who enjoys life, who can take a compliment, and see the simplicity of it.
As a songwriter, how did you find the book-writing process?
It was like trying to write 200 songs at once, in order. Songwriting's easy! The finishing work can be hard, but the concepts, that's just living and documenting, and then you get a spark.... With a book it's all these different stories, and then you look inside them and go, "What's the narrative?" When I started to see the narrative unfold it was like everything that was blurry in my life started to refocus. "Oh, that's because of religion, oh, that's because of my dad, oh, that's because of my sexuality."
Looking at the tour you're doing before Noise Pop, there are dates where you're reading from the book, sometimes you're playing solo — and then there's Blowoff. Which is what, exactly? I've seen it described on the Internet as a "roving bear Woodstock."
That sounds about right. Back in '03 I started DJing with my friend [Richard Morel], and it sort of became a bear disco by accident. We play everything from lo-fi to chillwave to indie rock to electro to progressive house to club anthems, with live video. It's not like going to a typical gay club where you hear scream-y remixes of pop stuff — I'm a songwriter, so I actually listen to music and lyrics.
What's your favorite stuff to perform these days?
Lately I've been really feeling the rock again, feeling good about playing loud. Part of it was doing stuff with the Foo Fighters last year — I went to the East Coast and England with them, and just hanging out with Dave [Grohl], I got into that headspace.
How did you two become friends?
We started talking a couple years ago at the 9:30 Club in D.C. He came up all nervous and was like, "Hi, I'm Dave, I kind of borrowed your stuff for a while." I guess he thought I was gonna be mean, but I was like, "It's cool." I always really liked Nirvana, and we hit it off. Dave's a sweetheart; he's exactly what he appears to be.
What do you make of all the '90s nostalgia going on right now?
I've been waiting for it. I can't wait to see that Creation Records documentary [Upside Down: The Creation Records Story, at the Roxie Theater on Feb. 25]. It was such a pivotal moment in my life and in British rock, with bands like Swervedriver, who were so informed by Dinosaur Jr., and the Stooges and American rock, or My Bloody Valentine.... And then American college rock comes of age, the Lemonheads, Nirvana, the wake of the Pixies getting big.
We all think a certain era of music was important, but that really was a good couple of years. MTV was giving those bands a lot of exposure, for better or for worse — by '95 it was pretty bad, but there were three or four years where loud rock was really in, and it was good ... after the '80s loud rock, which was not always great.
What's going on with the rights to Hüsker Dü stuff? You tried to buy some of it in 2001. How's communication with Greg Norton and Grant Hart?
In 2001, I went to them and said, "I'll be glad to pay for a lawsuit, but you need to stay out of the way." That didn't work. So that offer has been rescinded. We have a point person we communicate through. It's not great. It's like a relationship that should never be revisited unless somebody's moderating.
How long did it take Greg Norton to groom his mustache?
You know, he would just show up like that. I honestly don't know what he put it in it. I would hope it didn't take him more than an hour....That is a great question. It definitely stood out.
What else do you want people to know about Bob Mould, Castro District resident?
I have a couple diatribes, but I try to save those for my community board meetings.... I guess I would like to see the city shine a bit more, because it's a tourist town, and when people come here and they see the harder parts of the city on display, they don't come back. My other thing, and this is my filibuster, is that totally naked is cool by me, but when you put a cock ring on, you're not naked. It crosses over to something else.
Did you think it was silly when the nudity issue became national news last year?
That, and the bill to get [banning] circumcision on the ballot. And the city's broke. I'm totally down with nudity. But when it gets a little lewd, it's not nudity. I'm no prude. I love cock rings too, but there's a time and a place.
We'll make sure that message gets out.
Great, now I'm in trouble. I'll have people coming after me.
With cock rings.