Bob Mould is a musician with a couple of different hats. Most music fans are familiar with “Bob Mould, the singer-songwriter.” He’s the punk icon who has left an indelible impression on pop music thanks to his work in Hüsker Dü and Sugar, as well as his solo recordings.
But fewer folks are familiar with “Bob Mould, the electronic artist.” That side came to life in 1999, when Mould began taking a marked interest in dance music: A few years later, he dropped two solo albums—Modulate under his own name, and a companion piece called Long Playing Grooves under his LoudBomb moniker—and struck up a musical partnership with singer-songwriter, DJ, and producer Richard Morel. In 2003, the pair began hosting weekly dance nights in Washington, D.C. under the name Blowoff, a dance night that’s since grown into a multi-city affair and spawned a 2006 self-titled album. Before Blowoff returns to Chicago to play the Metro on May 28, Mould spoke with The A.V. Club about the songs that introduced him to dance music, his history with electronica, and playing records while entertaining dinner guests.
The A.V. Club: What is the first song that really got you hooked on dance music?
Bob Mould: There was a handful of songs, but I guess for me sort of the overall entry point was all of the Global Underground compilations. They were coming out in the late ’90s, you know the stuff. I guess, Sasha And [John] Digweed being the main ones, stuff like Nick Warren.
[It was] the concept of those to celebrate the DJ as the star, as opposed to the individual tracks themselves. So, those Global Underground comps, those were really my entry point into dance music and electronic music.
Sasha put out an EP called Xpander; that one song would be sort of my go-to song if you said, “Well, what song would be the one that I would mention?” But, that was the place that I really started getting familiar with the different styles of dance music and electronic music.
Early on I wasn’t really able to discern the difference between trance or progressive house or traditional house music. Those are terms, and we can all argue about what a song is even to this day, but I remember those Global Underground comps being sort of more progressive and more trance-y than Chicago house or Detroit techno, or whatever stuff came before it.
AVC: You mention the DJ as the focal point. What about having the DJ being this center really appealed to you?
BM: It was a new kind of packaging; it was a new idea. I mean, I came out of 20 years of being in a rock band, where you were in a band and you were in a gang, and that was sort of the presentation. Now I’m seeing these records with these completely different sounds, sort of curated by these guys who travel the world and are sort of famous for just throwing parties and making music. It was just a whole different outlook; it was sort of the antithesis of what I had done with my professional life. It was just something new and fresh.
In 1999, I wasn’t as much of a student of the music and the artists that were making the music as I was as a child or as a punk rock fan, where every detail was important. I think with dance music it was just sort of the overall affect; I was just sort of caught up in the freshness of it. I think as the 2000s went on and I started working with Rich Morel, when we started writing music together, that’s when I started to learn more about the intricacies of dance music. Rich had been involved with Deep Dish and had been working in that genre for years. I think when he and I started working together, I got a better grip of what really constituted the music, how it was made, and what it did, and the subtle differences.
Jump ahead a little bit more to the beginning of 2003, when Rich and I started Blowoff. The idea, to me, was just to throw a party to make friends. I’d moved from New York to D.C. and was working with Rich, and I just said to him, “Maybe we should throw a party and meet some people.”
AVC: You guys play a lot of different kinds of music, not just, say, Chicago house or Detroit techno, but indie rock as well. But did a focus on dance music help pull in a crowd?
BM: It was the music; it was sort of the core, house music, and whether at the time French house, filter house, [or] progressive house. That was sort of the core of where we were building from. But, yeah, I mean, incorporating indie rock, and, then eventually, electro stuff got really popular, I was fortunate to sort of be on the early end of that curve leading up to that.
As far as putting all that together, making a party, we had no idea what kind of people would come to the party. It was just people we knew from our neighborhood in D.C., and personal friends. And word started to spread: As the event got more popular and as the crowds got bigger it, I would sort of dial the music a little more specifically into what I saw seems to work. People really like that song, so I’ll keep playing that one, and maybe I’ll find some other ones that are sort of similar to that.
That would be the way that I would sort of construct my contribution to Blowoff. Just sort of following naturally what people were responding favorably to, the same way [as when] people come over to the house for dinner and I put on a record, and if everybody looks and goes, “I don’t know about this record,” I usually get up to put on a different record!
AVC: Backtracking a little bit, after the Global comps, what else got you further into the world of electronic music?
BM: Daft Punk and all the things that spawned off of that, just a lot of those, a lot of the other acts, I think, at the time. Cassius, even pop things like Phoenix that were associated.
I was really into Paris, sort of the sound that was coming out of Paris, all the different people who were working there. There’s different telepop music ... sort of that more minimal, almost like tech-house kind of stuff.
It’s probably, at the same time, the things that were influencing me with my non-Blowoff work were a lot of the things that come—all the more “music” stuff, like the Notwist, Lali Puna, and things like that—that were more indie-pop. Even Postal Service, which got popular—when was that, late ’02? Those kinds of things, or Her Space Holiday, things like that, were influencing my normal work. That period, like Modulate in ’02, was when I was really, really deep into creating electronic music. Originally, those were the things that came afterwards, that sort of got in my head and shaped the way that I looked at music.
AVC: Had you tried your hand at making electronic music prior to working with Morel?
BM: I had started in ’99, by myself, just making very rudimentary electronic music. And some of that ended up being some of the tracks on Modulate, which came out in ’02. Some of that ended up being the LoudBomb record [Long Playing Grooves], which was a companion piece that also came out in ’02. And those were all things that I had done before getting together with Rich.
From mid-’02 onward is the period when Rich and I started working together, and I think that’s when I had, sort of, got more of a crash course into what to really do with it. Rich—who had played in rock bands before and done a lot of stuff with Deep Dish—I think he was observing how I would approach guitar music, and that’s sort of where we intersect. That’s ’02, at the beginning of not only Blowoff, but [also] the three-year process of writing and creating the Blowoff artist album, which came out in ’06.
AVC: Any plans to make a second Blowoff album?
BM: I’ve had a great time writing and playing together; I don’t know if we’ve got the time right now, to be honest. I think alongside that is the fact that Blowoff is—you know, we’ve got New York, we’ve got D.C., we’ve got San Francisco, San Diego, Chicago, Provincetown. We were just in Dallas for the first time; went to Portland, Oregon; Atlanta. We get together a lot to DJ, but, I don’t know; I have a fun time working with Rich, and planning on doing a 50-50 collaboration on original music, that was a real fun time. But we just don’t have time lately, and I live in San Francisco now, and Rich is still in D.C.
AVC: Blowoff sounds like something that’s part of the D.C. community. Is it strange to have it be a touring show now?
BM: I mean, in D.C. it still feels like home. And when we do events in San Francisco, it feels like a new home I guess, for me. And you know, I think Rich has a great time when he comes. I’ve got to say, when we were doing it every week in the basement of the 9:30 Club, it was like 100 friends packed into the room having a sweaty, gay disco party, and within four years it went to 1,200 people up in the big room.
The history of it in D.C., it went from a crazy idea to get people to make friends, to making friends and having a fun, sweaty party, to having this big event that was happening every month. That happened in a five-year period. That was when it felt very funny, just like funny-peculiar: “When did this come?”
I think it got big in ’06, ’07, ’08 in D.C. for a couple different reasons. I think the main one was there was a club called Nation, which was one of those sort of mega dance clubs, like a Twilo, and they used to be open every Friday and Saturday night for the bigger DJs to come. When that club ceased to exist, that’s when we saw this huge spike in our numbers. There was no coincidence to it; we immediately inherited this audience of people who were looking for a Saturday night, big-room club experience.
We had a hell of a run with that for a while, and some of those people got old and dropped away, or started going to other clubs that opened in D.C. that were sort of in competition with us. We still have a great, loyal, big audience, but it was funny to watch that spike happen, and it was very clear why it happened, so it was fun for a couple years. It was sort of crazy.
Those were some fun times, because it was just really strange to watch this younger, clubbier crowd coming to what was basically a bear party in a way. You had older guys who just drank beer and smoked weed, and to watch everybody sort of integrate and get around the music and get along, it was really shocking, especially in the gay community where it’s a little fractured at times. People have different places they want to go and be with their own age set; it was fun to watch everybody sort of get along.
AVC: You guys have played Chicago before. Do you feel like you’ve tapped into the local gay community, or is it a general dance crowd that shows up?
BM: Well, this is our fifth time at Metro. This is our third year of coming in on Memorial Day weekend, which coincides with IML and Bear Pride. We kind of know there’s sort of a national audience that’s familiar with us; they’re coming in for those events as well, so I think that the bear is what we’re drawing in Chicago right now.
I’ve seen regular [fans of] “Bob Mould the guitar singer-songwriter.” I see those people coming as well, and they give it a try. It’s got two big differences: It’s almost exclusively a gay crowd, and playing dance music. So I appreciate them coming and checking it out; I understand it might not be for them.
I think we also get some house-heads, too, people who just want to come and have that experience, big sort of audio-visual dance experience, that they maybe don’t get as often as they like.
It’s been really great. We keep coming back every Memorial Day; it seems people really look forward to it, and it seems like a good fit. Chicago’s got such a rich history with house music that it’s nice to just come in and play, and it’s going on in SmartBar and downstairs. I mean, the dream would be to get a residency here as well.