A year after the 1988 breakup of Hüsker Dü, the mighty punk trio that Bob Mould fronted for a decade, he played his first-ever solo shows at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica in support of his debut solo album, Workbook.
“It was really nerve-racking the first couple of times I did it, because when you take away bass and drums, a lot of the percussion has to be carried with the guitar in addition to all the guitar parts,” Mould says of those shows.
Mould also wrote about those shows in his autobiography, See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody: “I was learning on the spot: How do I make this voice and solitary guitar sound like a raging storm? What I learned: If the song is good, it will resonate, no matter what the orchestration.”
Mould says that when he tours with drummer Jon Wurster and bassist Jason Narducy, they tend to stay pretty close to whatever new album they’re touring on, as well as a fair amount of hits and the punkier stuff, which is stronger with the band. But when he plays solo (as he'll do in Denver this weekend) his whole songbook is open, including material from Hüsker Dü, Sugar (the trio Mould formed in 1992) and twelve solo albums.
“The songs I can remember,” Mould adds with a laugh. “The songs that seem relevant for the time. I’m able to go off the page a little bit more with the solo shows. I can improvise easier, in terms of if I want to cut out a verse or I want to stretch things out twice as long or I want to go off the set list that I’ve got in mind, depending on the crowd. I’ll run into somebody earlier in the day, and they’ll go, ‘Yeah, man, I haven’t heard this song in forever. I haven’t heard “Bed of Nails” off of Hüsker Dü's Warehouse.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, well, if I can remember the third — give me a little time in the third verse, and I’ll see if I can get it together for the show.”
Mould says the solo shows are a little more freeing, and adds that it will be nice to go back and look at some deeper cuts and songs he hasn’t played in years.
“Overall, they’re pretty fun shows,” Mould says. “Physically, they feel like more work for me; I don’t why. Maybe because I have to be cognizant of the fact that there’s no rhythm section. It’s a different approach to playing.”
During recent solo shows, Mould has been getting in a fair amount of material from his latest solo effort, last year’s Patch the Sky. The songs on the album continue what he’s called a “perfect balance of bright melodies and dark stories,” a juxtaposition he’s used for years.
“It’s a style that I grew into,” Mould says. “If I went back and looked, there might have been shreds of that showing up in the work. I think personally, once I realized that that was the way that I was doing my work, I was like, ‘Oh, well, now I sort of know what I do.’ I think it’s probably that point in one’s late twenties, early thirties, when you really sort of understand what your work is about, and then you can really refine the work and get really good at your craft. That was probably late ’80s when I started to really get a handle on that.”
Patch the Sky was written during an intense six-month period of isolation following the death of his mother as well as the loss of several friends. When performing the darker material — like from Patch the Sky, Mould says — he’s somewhat aware of the events as they go by, but says the songs sort of smooth out over time.
“For Patch the Sky, all of those feelings are generally pretty fresh. still relative to [1992 Sugar album] Copper Blue, let’s say,” Mould says. “Copper Blue now is sort of this finely honed marble as opposed to of this rougher sort of jagged cement that things are when they’re fresh. Over time, the older songs smooth out a little bit, but the newer ones are still a little more current, I guess, or immediate in the emotional department.”
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And Mould adds that he wouldn’t want to play Sugar’s Beaster (which he called a “brutally dark piece of work” in See a Little Light) or his equally somber 1990 solo album, Black Sheets of Rain, every night.
“That’s a little tough,” Mould says. “Tough on the soul. That’s the beauty of having a big catalogue I can sprinkle them in as opposed to just using it like frosting.”
Bob Mould (solo electric), with Andy Thomas, 8 p.m. Saturday, April 15, Oriental Theater, 720-420-0030, $27.