Through All the Noise, Bob Mould Looks Toward a Brighter Future

Bob Mould (center) headlines the Boulder Theater with his trio on Monday, October 4.
Bob Mould (center) headlines the Boulder Theater with his trio on Monday, October 4. Blake Little Photography
Nothing sums up Bob Mould's music career better than the word "distortion."

“It's the one constant,” he says. “The sound of my music, the guitar tone or just the aggressive nature of a lot of the words that I write."

When it came time to title his 24-CD boxed set spanning the three-plus decades of music he's made since the 1988 breakup of his iconic punk trio Hüsker Dü, Mould says "distortion" was the first thing that came to mind. "It was a no-brainer when trying to look for a pithy title or an ironic title or a numerical title or, you know...whatever. I was just like, 'Distortion' is so simple.”

Demon Music Group released the limited-edition CD version of Distortion: 1989-2019 in October 2020; the company has also put out four different Distortion boxed sets since then, the most recent being Distortion: Live, an eight-LP set that includes live recordings from Mould’s solo career and his alt-rock trio Sugar.

When looking back over his post-Hüsker Dü catalogue — his solo albums or other projects like Sugar and long-out-of-print electronic projects Loudbomb and Blowoff — the songs don’t necessarily take on new meaning over time. Rather, Mould says, their original meaning is always there for him.

“It's over time how they fit into shows or eras of what I've done since they were written,” he says. “Sometimes they occupy different spaces — you know, emotional spaces. But going back and spending the better part of four months, every day, proofreading and going through the lyrics, all the new artwork and through the liner notes — all the songs came back to me in their original form.”

With that, the memories of the people who were part of those projects returned. He says he had a similar experience writing his autobiography, See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody, from 2009 through 2011.

“I didn't see the emotional weight of the memories coming back when I was putting the boxed set together,” Mould says. Yet it did.

Once he started working with the people at Demon Records in London and really got into the mechanics of the project, “all of that stuff was reanimated," he recalls. "It was a lot to contend with, but it's great. It's a big project. It's a big piece of work, and it definitely took me back, and that's a great thing, even if there's plenty of painful moments in there. But it’s what I do.”

Mould had hoped to take his trio, which includes bassist Jason Narducy and drummer Jon Wurster, on the road last fall, following the release of Distortion: 1989-2019 and Blue Hearts, which came out in September 2020 on Merge Records; instead, he chose to push the tour in support of both albums back a year. The 2021 run includes a stop at the Boulder Theater on Monday, October 4.

In January 2020, Mould finished writing material for Blue Hearts and started recording the album the following month. At the time, he says, he was scared about the future of the United States and frustrated by the divisiveness splitting the country: “I was writing really pointed political songs and making a record that had pretty strong thoughts — some polarizing thoughts."

Mould says he gets lost in the process of writing music, sometimes entering a trance-like state. He doesn't even remember writing a few songs on Blue Hearts, like “Leather Dreams." For the album, the sixty-year-old Mould says he thought about his early twenties, when Hüsker Dü was working on the lyrics and music for 1984’s Zen Arcade.

“That was a tough time for me as a kid, struggling with my sexuality, struggling with not being out in the gay community yet,” Mould remembers. “And watching HIV sort of beginning to ravage the community and how that lined up against [Ronald] Reagan and the Moral Majority that informed so much of the politics of the ’80s."

With the rise of the right and the Trump era, he says, “I couldn't help but think, ‘Here we go again. This is really that.' Not that it ever went away, but the volume was turned way up over the past four or five years. And I was just outraged, like, how can this be yet again? And bear in mind also that all of this music and words were written before COVID became what we're still contending with now.”
Mould has spent decades being marginalized by religious people hell-bent on weighing in on public-health issues. Comparing the issues the gay community faced in the ’80s and ’90s with what the public has to do to protect itself from COVID-19 — namely, wear masks — he's floored by the response of many fundamentalists.

“Through the ’80s or ’90s, the odds of protecting myself and protecting my community and taking proper measures to make sure that I don't hurt anybody else...and now to get to where we are today, and to look around and just go, ‘Wearing a mask in a public space is not that hard compared to other things,’" he says. "Some of us have had to do that throughout our lives. It’s just not that big of a deal.”

Still, the pandemic kept him up at night and wore on his mental health.

“Late last year was pretty hard for all of us and hard for me,” he says. “I think we're on track for the future, but there were a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of just trying to follow the guidance and be flexible and understand the things that we're going through — and they change on a daily basis. And just trying to prepare, and then just the thought of hope for the best in myself and in people, which is a lot to ask. But you've got to hope for it, right?”

On “Baby Needs a Cookie,” from Blue Hearts, Mould sings, “Everything is upside down / But I still feel hope.” That feeling of hope is one of the album’s themes, even when the things we rely on to make us feel optimistic — whether it's education, science, compassion or community — are evaporating.

Despite the challenges, Mould is hopeful for the future; he also hopes that people who come to his shows are fully vaccinated, just as everybody in his crew is.

“I hope everybody's trying do the right thing for the good of all of us,” Mould says. “I have faith in my audience, that's for sure. I know they're good folks. I've known them a long time. They've never let me down. I know they're doing the right thing. I'm strongly asking people to mask up for the good of the tour and for the good of the community. We’ve got to get back to being able to be together to have community and make music. It's a really small thing.”

Bob Mould plays with opener Slow Caves at 8 p.m. Monday, October 4, at the Boulder Theater, 2032 14th Street in Boulder; tickets are $25-$30.
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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon