After spending nearly 40 years in the music business, Bob Mould is still a man on the move. When I spoke to the rock legend in February ahead of his latest U.S. tour in support of his new album, “Sunshine Rock,” he was just catching his breath after a searing, solo 95-minute practice set to prepare for the spate of live performances.
“Right now,” he says with a laugh, “I’m literally trying to figure out what to do with all these new songs that were so beautiful and elegant and I’ve not played any of them while singing yet.”
That sort of diligence has driven Mould throughout his life, propelling the music and career of his first iconic alternative band, Husker Du, and spurring his regular musical and personal evolutions: solo work after Husker Du, leading beloved alt-rock band Sugar, diving into the gay electronic club scene of Washington, D.C., continuing to record acclaimed solo albums, and even writing a memoir.
More recently, Mould has built a life in Berlin, a city that, though often considered gray and dreary, inspired the brightness and optimism of “Sunshine Rock” that have had critics calling it some of Mould’s best work in years. “I’ve been splitting my time between Berlin and San Francisco the past three years,” he says. And “Sunshine Rock” is “a little bit of a love letter to Berlin.” He laughs when he recalls, “Everybody’s like, ‘Why did you go to Berlin to write your optimistic record? How did you do that?’”
But the ever-curious, ever-growing musician cites the experience of adapting to a new place and culture as a major inspiration for the sunny — but still characteristically heavy — sounds of “Sunshine Rock.” “The daily routines, having to learn new paths of life, whether it’s going from here to there, or whether I go to where my friends are or I meet new people, that kind of stuff is really exciting, especially at this point in my life.”
Ultimately, he said, he has learned that “when you’re thrust into a new culture or new environment, we all can adapt pretty quickly I think. But that process of adapting is pretty invigorating.”
As much as the musician finds inspiration from new places and experiences, he always has a place in his heart for Austin, where he lived from 1993 to 1996. Quite simply, he told me, “I love Austin.”
Mould has visited regularly since leaving, including to perform a last-minute intimate show at downtown hot dog restaurant Frank several years ago — “It was, like, a surprise party for someone… I was like, ‘Uh, let me see if I can find a flight. …’” — and to play Hi, How Are You Day in January, established in honor of Austin musician Daniel Johnston to raise awareness about mental health struggles.
And just like all of us, he’s seen the city explode with growth. “But,” he says, “I think the soul of the city still feels like it’s mostly driven by music, and by film and creative people. … Austin is still Austin. South Congress is still South Congress. Neighborhoods are changing, but when I go up the Drag and I go up to Hyde Park where I used to live, things are pretty much still as they were.”
Mould has a massive well of life experiences to pull from in his work, along with an ever-expanding songbook that makes planning for a tour an intensive process. “I’ve got three or four (set list) layouts right now,” he says, acknowledging that they pull from work throughout his career, from Husker Du to solo work to Sugar to the newest tracks off “Sunshine Rock.” “I think we’ve got about 55 songs right now in rotation, so on any given night we’ll probably play 20 to 25 songs.”
So how does he decide what to play? “Typically, we start a tour and we sort of go with what we know is going to work. Then as we get warmed up and the tour progresses, we start to open up the songbook deeper.” And that’s where things get interesting. “Some nights, what we’re doing might not be connecting with the particular audience, so we have to call an audible and try something different.”
Mould sees it as his job as bandleader to be in tune with the audience: “I can always feel what the crowd is up to — if they’re completely connecting with what we’re doing or if they’re drifting a little bit. I guess that’s my job to figure that out. It’s hard to describe. It’s sort of like second nature. I guess it is empathy, yes. But it just happens.”
It’s clear in our conversation and Mould’s posts on social media that the musician still gets an intense joy out of writing music and performing his work for audiences. When asked about his passion for rhythm guitar over lead guitar, he muses on just exactly what has made his songs so meaningful for generations of listeners: “I love playing rhythm guitar. I just really enjoy coming up with these clusters of chords that have all of this harmonic content. ... These invisible notes that start to appear. That’s what I love doing. That’s where my songwriting really shines, when I create that heavy sky of sound and find words that match up to it and tell good stories.”
Austin crowds will get to experience that transcendence April 3, when Mould and his band play Mohawk. “Austin crowds are great,” the musician says. “It will be a lot of old friends. We know that room really well. We’ve had great shows there over the years; it will be good.” But he’s too familiar with the city not to add with a laugh, “It’s early April, so I’m sure my cedar allergies will be in full throttle.”
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