Walker Art Center

67° FCloudyVia weather.com

Bob Mould’s Unbroken Line

By Jeff Severns Guntzel

“That was 1981. That was the Reagan era. I was a self-hating homosexual young man living through an administration that deemed me not to be part of the program.”

That’s Bob Mould in a 2007 interview with Michael Azerrad, who co-wrote Mould’s autobiography. The question was about the rage that exploded from those early Hüsker Dü albums. Where did it come from? There was one other thing. The lousy music,” Mould said. “The music on the radio did not speak to us; it was not about us; it was not for us.”

Bob Mould came to the Twin Cities from upstate New York in 1977 to attend Macalester College. He was a student when Hüsker Dü was formed. That decadelong collaboration with two Twin Cities kids—Greg Norton on bass and Grant Hart, the singing drummer—had a brilliant and profoundly influential run that began in 1979. It ended with a personal and professional spinout in 1988—but that is their business, not ours.

Mould has given the world much more than Hüsker Dü. There is an unbroken line connecting his work with the band and all that has come since, and there is so much that has come since—from the absolutely enchanting Workbook, a record he wrote on a farm near Hinckley, Minn., to Sugar, a band with a classic album or two of their own, to his haunting self-titled 1996 release, and onward still to his experiments with electronic music and his blistering 2012 release Silver Age.

Mostly, that unbroken line is the electricity. He learned to channel it and repackage it over the years, but it’s always there—a pulsing current. Raw power.

That power was at it’s rawest when Mould was just a kid, fronting a pioneering hardcore band. He was wide-eyed and earnest as hell, and it’s all on display in the band’s early interviews.

There is a place you can go to read damn near every interview Mould and the Hüskers gave in those early years. Mostly, the conversations are rather dull. In every town they visited, the band faced the same questions: Who are you listening to? What is punk? Do you think you’ll always play that fast?

But never mind the lack of rhetorical rigor. Zines are important historical documents, and they were a critical tool for spreading the Gospel of Punk in a pre-internet age, when a band’s music didn’t cross state lines unless they did.

“Hüsker Dü established the notion of the album as an item to sell on tour,” wrote Andrew Earles in his 2010 book about the band. “At the same time, the band did not tour behind albums—they toured in front of of them, releasing an album and selling copies at gigs but filling their set with songs from not only the next as-yet-unreleased album but also from the album after the next album.”

The zine writers would find them at those shows. Here’s some of what a wide-eyed and earnest Mould told them in the band’s early years. I’ve focused on the very first interviews from the year they made their initial jaunts into Canada and then to the West Coast in 1981 to 1983, when they made their first trip east of Illinois. I pulled one quote in from 1984, when they were about to release their classic double-album Zen Arcade. Into the time machine…

On the geographic origins of punk: “There’s always been the argument: Where did punk rock start? Who cares? It’s not where did it start, it’s why did it start?” (City Pages, 1981)

On the band’s style: “We’ve defined our own style, though our influences are so diverse. … I don’t exactly know what that style is, but it gets people nervous, real jittery.” (Sweet Potato, 1980)

On the band’s sound: “It’s a real antagonizing sound. We could sound slick and have no feedback and be pleasant, but our lyric matter is not. … We are not singing about JoAnn and Shirley and Sally, we’re singing about starving people, military-industrial complexes and messed-up city transit.” (City Pages, 1981)

On kicking people in the face with music: “Things can be changed by just making a few people wake up. One way to do that is to kick ‘em in the face, like we try to do with our music. If they feel threatened enough, they’ll respond. The only way modern politics keeps forging ahead is by groups threatening the established order.” (Mac Weekly, 1982)

On the band’s name: “The ambiguity of the our name is enough that people won’t know what to expect when they come and see us. We don’t want to be pigeonholed.” (Sweet Potato, 1980)

In response to the question, “Are you the fastest band in the world”: “Oh, I don’t know… who knows? Fastest in town, maybe. Probably in the top 10 in the world.” (City Pages, 1981)

When asked, at the end of an interview, for a “band statement”: “Start a band, or a fanzine. Make yourself useful, make it happen and don’t get discouraged. And, as always, think.” (Flipside, 1982)

When asked by a zine writer, “What makes you guys think you’re gonna go national?”: “Because we’re working our asses off. We’ve been at it for three years. I’ve seen bands who sit on their asses do it.” (White Noise, 1983)

Describing Hüsker Dü’s softer side: “The lyrics are more personal, no ‘Reagan’s fucked’—none of that; it’s all personal stuff. It’s pretty much a self-analysis thing … how we’re fucked or everybody’s a little fucked at one time or another. Politics will come and go, but we’re still people. … We’re not worried if Reagan gets re-elected that much anymore. I’ll still be here, you’ll still be here, you’ll still be here.” (Flipside, 1983)

On punks only listening to punk: “God forbid if the only record I had was a Germs album. You can only listen to it for so long. Or any album, for that matter. … There’s no sacred record. It’s sort of hard to shit on anything that came out before you, because what any band is doing now would not be happening if it wasn’t for Bob Dylan, or Arlo Guthrie, or the Beatles … because that’s pretty much where it all began. It just gets handed down.” (Smash!, 1983)

On the band’s logo: “That we designed ourselves. Pretty much our corporate logo. I wish we hadn’t done that, because now it seems that every band has their own little symbol. But it’s there, I guess. It’s easy to spray paint.” (Smash!, 1983)

An announcement from a time before e-mail: “A week and a half before we left, we got our van stolen. We had about two or three months of mail in it. So anybody that’s written us in the last three months … if they didn’t get an answer, drop us a postcard. It’s not like we don’t write people.” (Cretin Bull, 1983)

Response to the question, “Where do you see the band going?”: “I wouldn’t mind if we got real, real big. There’s nothing wrong with telling our stories to a lot of people. We’re definitely not going to change our aggressiveness.” (Suburban Punk, 1984)

On, ahem, playing outdoors: “I don’t like playing outdoors. … It sucks, it’s like grass and trees and dust and stuff.” (Misery, 1983)

Hüsker Dü broke up 15 years ago. And for just about that long, Mould has been answering the reunion question. His answer tends to reside somewhere on the continuum between “not yet” and “not ever”—always leaning toward the latter.

In a 2009 interview with Magnet magazine, Mould explained: “I’m so incredibly content with the place that I’m at in my life right now. There’s no way I’d want to derail the wonderful life I have now to revisit something that was wonderful at the time but doesn’t have a lot of bearing on who I am right now. There’s no way that anything I could now with anybody would live up to some of the things all of us went through in 1982. So, let’s just keep those good memories.”

Jeff Severns Guntzel is a reporter based in Minneapolis. Before its demise in 2007, he was a contributing editor for Punk Planet magazine. In the late-’90s, he played drums for the Freedom Fighters on the Minneapolis punk label Amphetamine Reptile.

Hüsker Dü performing live at an unknown location in 1980 or 1981

Photo: Steve Hengstler, special thanks to Annie Hengstler

Flyer for a Hüsker Dü show at the 7th Street Entry, 1980

Bob Mould backstage at Maverick’s in Boston during Hüsker Dü’s first East Coast trip, April 1983

Photo © Kathy Chapman

Printing plate for Hüsker Dü and Reflex Records, the label run by the band in the early 1980s

Internal document detailing promotional strategy for Mould’s first solo show at First Avenue on May 15, 1989

Photo: Minnesota Historical Society

Flyer from Mould’s first run of solo shows

Photo: Hüsker Dü Database

Bob Mould, 2013

Photo: High Road Touring