"I just pretty much started writing everything fresh, on electric guitar and incorporating a lot of grooves I had. I sort of started reconciling my disdain for my own stuff."
It’s the midlife crisis of a musical career: struggling to find new ways to express themselves musically, artists will branch out into completely new sonic territory, leading to acceptance, confusion, or mutiny from fans, depending on the distance the artist has leapt without bringing their fans along.
In a career that has always refused to sit still, Bob Mould has seen it all. His 80’s punk band Hüsker Dü were pioneers of the hardcore scene, but within a few short years, the trio was experimenting with folk, experimental sound collages, and even free jazz on their landmark double-album Zen Arcade. By the band’s demise in 1988, they had morphed into a more traditional guitar-pop band, alienating some fans but gaining legions more in the process.
Mould’s solo debut, 1989’s Workbook, shocked even those used to his chameleon-esque approach, dedicated more to delicate acoustic songs than his trademark electric barnstormers. His biggest success came with his short-lived power trio Sugar in the mid-90s, where Mould put a modern sheen on the guitar-rock sound he originated. Once again recording solo, Mould shocked his fans yet again with his last release, 2002’s Modulate, where his pop sensibility was filtered through Daft Punk-style electronica.
"I really wanted to find a different way of presenting things," says Mould, looking back on Modulate. "I expected [a mixed reaction], knew it when I was making it. But it didn’t really stop me from making the record I wanted to make."
When originally announced, it was to be one of three new Mould albums released in 2002: Long Playing Grooves (a pure electronica album released under the pseudonym/anagram Loudbomb), Body of Song (a return to the Workbook singer-songwriter era), and Modulate (which was to split the difference between the two). Mould convened in Athens, GA, with Sugar bassist David Barbe and former touring drummer Matt Hammon and began recording the original incarnation of Body of Song.
"The original vision of Body of Song was a number of solo acoustic tracks mixed in with a handful of band oriented performances," Mould says. "And for some reason, after the sessions with David and Matt, I just wasn’t hearing Body of Song as the record I thought it should be. We reconvened and tried more stuff, and…good songs, I mean, some day they’re going to see the light of day, but it just wasn’t feeling right."
Mould set aside his embryonic new album, and threw himself headlong into a new project that fed his electronic side, teaming with house artist Richard Morel. The new project, christened Blowoff, began spinning regular monthly DJ gigs at the 930 club in Mould’s new hometown of Washington, DC, gradually becoming one of the most talked about dance sets in the city. Eventually, the duo began creating new material and doing live artist sets as well.
The specter of Body of Song still loomed, however, and after a series of 2004 solo concerts, Mould rediscovered his rock side. "I just pretty much started writing everything fresh, on electric guitar and incorporating a lot of grooves I had. I sort of started reconciling my disdain for my own stuff," he laughs. During the writing process, Mould jettisoned the original album’s concept. "One of the biggest things I regretted in ’02," he recalls, "was that I was sort of compartmentalizing all these different styles."
That wouldn’t happen again. In new recording sessions performed primarily by Mould with Fugazi’s Brendan Canty behind the drumkit, he created a set of songs that touch on all of Mould’s trademarks while giving them a modern spin, thanks to his more confident use of electronics. "Circles" opens the album, Mould’s first for indie giant Yep Roc, with a guitar-driven dirge worthy of Mould’s 1990 solo Black Sheets of Rain, but don’t get too comfortable. "(Shine Your) Light Love Hope" follows with a deep, disco dance groove supplied by Canty, and Mould’s heavily vocodered vocals; it still sounds like the same old Bob, however, thanks to its punchy guitars. "Everyone thinks it’s this big return to guitars," Mould comments. "And it’s like well, yeah, the guitars are louder, but there’s still a lot of electronics." The electronics and guitars fuse well, whether it’s Sugar-sweet pop like "Paralyzed" or the low key bass jam "Always Tomorrow."
The original Barbe-produced sessions surface on two lovely acoustic songs in the album’s back half: "High Fidelity" ("which everyone’s been waiting for for 10 years," Mould jokes) and the exquisite "Gauze of Friendship." What about other songs from the original Body of Song sessions? "I just know that there’s a batch of good songs," Mould remarks. "After this tour is done, and whatever comes next, it’s always there. It’s always there."
"This tour" would be Mould hitting the road with a full band, something he swore off of after his 1998 album Last Dog & Pony Show. "The idea of going out and doing a couple dozen shows doesn’t seem that daunting right now. I think if I was embarking on 120 shows, I’d be freaking out right now and I wouldn’t do it," he chuckles. "You know, five weeks, I think I can handle." It helps that Mould will be touring with friends: his band line-up includes his Blowoff partner Morel on keyboards, ex-Verbow singer Jason Narducy on bass, and Canty on drums. The tour starts late in just a few weeks, but that doesn’t mean that the setlist has been finalized. "When I get everybody together, and we run through the top ten and I see how we play together, I’m going to know exactly what ones are going to work. It won’t be hard to tell see what the chemistry is." The tour also marks the first time Mould will play songs from Hüsker Dü, Sugar, and his solo material together in a band setting. "I don’t want it to sound like Sugar or Hüsker Dü," he warns. "I want it to sound like me playing with these guys."
"That’s what I think is the beauty of [Body of Song]," he adds, "is sort of embracing the strengths of all of these things put together." With both his new record and new tour, Mould has finally reconciled all of his disparate musical personalities – Bob the rocker, Bob the songsmith, and Bob the DJ –into one cohesive whole.