Speaking to the Indy from an Athens, Ga. hotel, the 40-year-old alternative rock pioneer is not in the least bit concerned with what might possibly go wrong later that night--the opening show of his current Carnival of Light and Sound tour. Although the ex-Hüsker Du/Sugar frontman has performed plenty of solo shows over the years--acoustic and electric--this tour, complete with multimedia visual images and backing tapes, is without a doubt unlike any he's ever attempted. One listen to Mould's new album, the electronica-heavy Modulate, and it's clear that the man who helped pave the way for throngs of '90s guitar bands is trying a new direction.
"The record starts with zero percent guitar," says Mould, referring to "180 Rain," Modulate's hypnotic pulsating opener. (As the album builds, there are songs that are "100 percent guitar," he adds.) Mould confesses he intentionally front-loaded the album with synth and sample-heavy songs. "Putting that [guitar-less] stuff up front was definitely a statement." When confronted with the notion that his new record might just be his most punk album to date, Mould snickers. "Well, I'm used to people hating my stuff," he says. "That's how it was when I started 20 years ago and everyone hated everything I did."
While Modulate, released on Mould's own Granary Music label, might not be igniting fistfights like the white-noise spewing Hüsker Du did back in their early days, it has generated some very mixed reviews. "I haven't seen anything in the middle," he says regarding the press notices for the album. "I've seen 'What the hell is this?' to 'This is great!'" Even among Mould's loyal supporters, Modulate has been at the center of controversy since its March 12 release. "With the long-term fans it's split down the middle: the ones who think it's blasphemous and the ones who, on second listen, realize it's me. Then there's a group who isn't familiar with the history--and then they hear the record and they love it. "
Even with some of them crying heresy, Mould's "new" direction shouldn't have caught fans completely off guard. His first post-Sugar album, 1996's Bob Mould, was recorded with the aid of drum machines and its follow-up, The Last Dog and Pony Show, featured the track, "Megamaniac," a tentative first step into the world of electronic-based music. "I think back in '98, messing with the sampler on 'Megamaniac,' I was more open to the idea of working with machines than I was before," he says. "It was a pretty natural progression."
Mould credits New York, his current home, with influencing his latest musical leanings. "Just being in New York on a day-to-day basis going to clubs, supermarkets and friends' houses, you're pretty much surrounded by that kind of music," he says. "My ears just started to tune into it and I heard things I could identify with--I became more of a fan." Mould counts Swayzak, Morel and "guilty pleasure" Daft Punk among his most recent musical inspirations.
On the other hand, Mould himself has inspired countless musicians. In the early to mid '80s, as one third of Minneapolis-based Hüsker Du, Mould, along with drummer Grant Hart and bassist Greg Norton, churned out eight albums of sonically brutal-yet-beautifully melodic music and toured the country incessantly in a van. The band's trademark distorted pop would go on to influence everyone from the Goo Goo Dolls to Nirvana. The Hüskers recently got their due when Spin named them one of the 50 greatest bands of all time, and the group is featured prominently in Michael Azzerad's roots-of-alternative-rock tome, Our Band Could Be Your Life. "I think it's really nice," says Mould of the accolades. "It validates in a sense what we hoped was happening--that we were creating a true alternative to the corporate rock and the bowling alley hair bands. It was great to be part of it."
In an odd twist, Mould has found himself in quite a different dilemma than the one he was faced with in 1985, when the Hüskers left Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn's SST Records for Warner Brothers--an effort to get their music heard by as many people as possible. These days, the problem isn't getting people to hear the music, it's getting them to pay for it, and Mould, like many artists, is struggling with that reality. "I've tried to emphasize to people: 'If you burn this record you're stealing from me directly,'" he says. "This is not some huge monolith trying to soak you for $18. I'm asking you to pay what I feel is a fair market value for work that supports me directly."
But Mould doesn't seem to be dwelling too heavily on any of this. In fact, the man seems downright laid back. Maybe it's down to his being a full-time singer-songwriter again after a seven-month stint from late '99 to early 2000 as a creative consultant with World Championship Wrestling ("A dream come true," he says), adding that helping to develop characters and write story lines was "the hardest job I ever had, and much more difficult than music touring." Or maybe it's the fact that the intense performer who fans once feared would actually explode onstage can, thanks to the help of prerecorded backing tracks, relax for a change.
"In the past, doing solo acoustic shows, I've felt compelled to fill every single amount of space possible--trying to play drum parts on the guitar while trying to pick out a melody and sing," he says. "Having the tracks [prerecorded], it eases me up. I don't have to scream and carry on all the time." Mould says he's even worked up new backing tracks for several songs from the Hüsker Du and Sugar back catalog.
"Creating alone and performing alone--I think it's a little more revealing," he says of his decision not to record or tour with a group.
"I can get into subjects that are maybe best dealt with when I'm speaking as a singular voice instead of strapping other musicians with some sort of doctrine that maybe doesn't reflect their lifestyle. I think it works for where I'm at right now--I don't know if it will work forever. It's sort of where I'm at today."