Four paragraphs into the introduction of his new memoir, See A Little Light: The Trail Of Rage And Melody, Bob Mould describes a trip he made to “a clothing-optional resort strictly for men” in Palm Springs, California, prior to Coachella one year. Three paragraphs later, he describes how a verbal altercation with the resort’s overzealous manager got him and his partner thrown out just hours before his set at the festival. For people who don’t know Mould’s history—co-leader of the seminal punk band Hüsker Dü, leader of popular alternative-rock band Sugar, and prolific solo artist—the story is simply an amusing anecdote. But for fans, it’s a stunning example of how much Mould has changed.
Not long ago, the intensely private Mould—whose homosexuality was an open secret until Spin outed him in 1994—never would have shared such a story, especially one that mentions a “14-inch-high by 12-inch round black rubber dildo.” As Mould writes, he had the same realization as he performed at Coachella later that day. “It was a moment, one of several in the last few years, that showed me how integrated my personal and professional lives had finally become.” As the rest of the book shows, it took more than three decades for that process even to begin. At 50, Mould is ready to delve deep into his past, and See A Little Light (written with the assistance of Michael Azerrad) is the candid story his fans have been waiting to read for years. Just before the book’s release on June 15, The A.V. Club spoke to Mould about the book’s decade-long process, misconceptions about Hüsker Dü, the lesson he took from recording with the Foo Fighters, and much more.
The A.V. Club: How did this come together? You’ve said it was a three-year process.
Bob Mould: A three-year process, but it goes back to 2001. It goes back to Michael Azerrad on the precipice of Our Band [Could Be Your Life] coming out. I was living in New York at the time, and we were communicating. He was getting ready to put some shows together, like CB’s Gallery, to help launch the book and stuff, because I don’t think anybody knew the impact it would have. We were talking about that, and I think it was when we were talking about the CB’s show, he was like, “Michael Pietsch would like to meet with you.” Michael Pietsch was this editor at Little, Brown for Our Band. He said, “We should get together with him for lunch. He’d really like to meet you. He’s a huge fan.” So we did, and Michael Pietsch , at that point said to me, “Have you ever thought about writing your life story?” And I was like, “Well, in the back of my mind, I always thought, ‘Well, maybe.’” So I said, “No, why?” He said, “You know, keep us in mind if you ever want to do that.”
Fast-forward to October 2007, I was out promoting the Circle Of Friends DVD. I was going around the country doing Q&As and then showing the film, stuff like that. One of the nights that I did that was at Herbst Theatre in San Francisco. That was one of the bigger ones, and we brought Azerrad in to do the Q&A, and it went really well. That was what brought the whole thing back. That was my 47th birthday, and it’s just one of those things where it went really well, and I was telling some stories, some of which are in the book. It just started to make sense at that point, because I was verbalizing a lot of things, and it was the beginning of really trying to make sense of all of it. So I got a little more serious about the idea, went back to Little, Brown. And Michael Pietsch, by that time, had ascended to the top of the company. He had done all of David Foster Wallace’s stuff, so Michael had become the figurehead of the company. We went back, and he was like, “Of course.” They wanted Azerrad on as a collaborator, which I thought made perfect sense. For me, my first time trying to write a book, to try to write about myself was a stupid idea—would’ve been a mess.
I got an agent. The agent worked with my lawyer and their people, and it was a very efficient situation, just got the thing done really quick, and then got to work. I started sketching out my life on a timetable, which is really easy to do if you made records your whole life. There’s all that [early childhood] chunk, and then there’s Hüsker Dü, and then there’s this other thing, and then there’s solo years and the Sugar stuff. So you start putting things on a grid and plugging in what I thought were key events, and then Azerrad and I got together for a series of just discussions like you and I are having now, where it was like, I think it might have been a week, maybe two weeks’ worth of stuff. I went up to New York and stayed with friends, and he and I sat day in and day out and just talked. So that was pretty good. That got a lot of stories going. That got a lot of things out on the table. He had some suggestions on things I should think about, mainly family and origin. I took all the stuff back and started doing transcriptions.
I got back together with him a couple months later. We went to see Lizz Winstead do something in New York, but before that, we got together for dinner with David Carr, who was from Minneapolis in those days, and Night Of The Gun was out. David asked, “How’s the book going?” And I’m like, “Well, you know, sort of been transcribing for six weeks, on and off.” He’s like, “What the fuck are you doing? Why don’t you hire a transcriptionist?” I thought that’s what you do. You transcribe your stuff, and then you start working from that.
AVC: Well, it’s very do-it-yourself.
BM: He hooked me up with a transcriptionist, who got everything done in two or three weeks. Then all of a sudden, I had these tomes of conversation and ideas in front of me. I went through and started cleaning all that out, taking all the stories I had on the wayside, and started putting them in the grid. Then I went back to Michael and said, “This is what I’ve got.” So I sent him all that stuff. He took a look at it and sent it back and said, “You really need to think about these things. These are really what you need to dig deeper.”
AVC: Like what?
BM: The family-origin stuff—like this stuff with my dad, the whole thing with the weekends and the rituals, my role as peacemaker/entertainer/golden child, that kind of stuff. Just trying to parse that and take it forward and see what that means as I become a young adult, as I become an adult and wherever I am now. Then the hard work: how that childhood informs how I deal with my intimate, personal relationships. How I deal with my professional life as a musician. How I deal with religion. And most importantly to me, the one part that never was really a public part was my sexuality. And how to weave those threads together. How to tell that story. So just structurally, it’s putting everything in order. Sort of confronting my truth, what I think is the difference between being upset about something and just blurting like people do in interviews. And sitting with it for a while and really trying to be honest with myself. Like, where’s my culpability? Where’s my blame? Where’s my responsibility? It’s easy to just lash out. It would have been easy to put all the accolades on me and put all the shit on everybody else, but that’s not really how life works.
Michael and I would sit side-by-side like a writer and editor would, but we were working by Skype. We would take a month or so of a chunk of time every day for hours a day. We’d sign on, and I would have a chunk that I would send to him; he would go through and do the cleanup, get the tense right, the editor work. And then we would sit side by side, paragraph by paragraph, and just send the thing back and forth. He would say, “What about this?” I’m like, “I don’t use that tense like that. That’s not how I write. That’s not how I talk.” “All right, well, let’s find your voice, find your writing voice.” We got it, and then the process would go faster.
It was a lot of that, but then I would hit these blocks where memory and truth and story all sort of hit. A really good example of that in the book is the time between Hüsker Dü’s last week of shows, Champaign to St. Louis to Columbia. This was something I found early in the process. I went to interview a handful of people that I was close with in their early days. I would go to them and say “Let’s talk,” and it would be all their story—because they’re trying to get their story out, they wanna get in on it, including family. I was like, “Okay, so, I really just gotta find this truth myself, and if I need to verify them, I’ll go on specific things. I can’t be taking personal stories from people. It’s not gonna work.” Champaign to St. Louis to Columbia. I went back to people that were there, who were in the room. Nobody’s stories lined up at all! About anything.
AVC: Yeah. I guess it’s been—
BM: Twenty-plus years. But the point is, what really happens? So I’m like, “Okay, this is what I fuckin’ remember. I’m pretty sure I’ll go to my grave knowing this is what happened, so this is what I’ve gotta go with.” And then Azerrad’s like, “Well, in my book, Grant [Hart] said…” I’m like, “Well, I don’t care. That’s your book, and that’s somebody else’s story. I already tried that route. That’s not working for me.”
That was a really good example of memory, truth, and story, where it’s like, “Fuck, I’m pretty sure this is exactly what happened.” I was sober. I was in a way about things, but I remember. So those are moments where you just say, “You gotta tell your story.” I hope that makes sense. I’ve always joked there’s three sides to the truth: my story, your story, and the thing that’s in the middle. It’s probably what other people think is the truth.
AVC: At what point when you were putting this together did you find out about Andrew Earles’ book?
BM: Pretty early on. He reached out. [Pause.] I sure as hell wasn’t gonna let anybody but me tell my story.
AVC: Have you read his book?
AVC: Are you going to?
AVC: When we spoke in 2005, you said that the only way you’d really find peace with Hüsker Dü is when you wrote a book to tell your side of the story.
BM: Oh! Wait, did I put that seed in there? [Laughs.]
AVC: The theme of the book is definitely an acceptance of your life, so do you feel that peace now?
BM: I’m at peace with Hüsker Dü. That was eight years of my life, and I think I make it pretty clear in the book how I feel about those eight years. I think there’s been an assumption out there that there was always an incredible tension between me and Grant. When, in fact, it was passive aggression that started—where? I don’t know. It could have been the “2541” thing, him getting upset about not having a single. But I think there have been medium-sized comments made by Grant, small comments made by [Greg] Norton, and I can’t gauge how many comments I’ve made in the intervening years that, because of the nature of our business, they tend to get amplified, and they resonate, and they become much louder than they really were. So I think people have this war of words, war of the worlds kind of thing that’s always been painted, when I just walked away from it.
The part that was really upsetting to me—I don’t know if I can laugh about it now, but I’ve surely let go of it, because life’s way too short—that I spent eight years building this empire. It was a really small empire, but that was my life. When I walked away, I don’t know the old saying, but my version of it is, “When something ends between friends, you lock up the secrets and you hand each other the key.” I felt like Grant was upset with me about something, and perhaps he was lashing out by trying to paint me as not the villain, but as the square or the money-grubber or control freak. When you’re trying to build an empire, things need to get done. Whether they’re right or wrong, who can say? I did pretty well for myself after that band by taking charge, by taking singular charge. The Linda Clark thing was a learning experience. And after that, I took charge and had the best run I ever had.
AVC: Yeah, one of the tragedies in the book is when Clark, the band’s manager, sells your publishing rights to Workbook.
BM: And Black Sheets [Of Rain]. Let me say, I haven’t read the Earles book. Heart of hearts, I don’t know what Grant and Greg think about how I approached Hüsker Dü. I think I was the business engine. They wanted more money, I had to make us more money. I had to do things. Notwithstanding whatever good or bad decisions, I took charge of it and tried to make the best of it I could for all of us. To get into a situation where, to go to another major label that paid me way more than Hüsker got, to make two records and then get caught up in the machine, and then find out that the person I trusted to guide me through that had made a fatal error—it was pretty fucked up for someone who, admittedly, likes to control things and steer things. [Laughs.] I’ll be the hard-ass. I don’t have a problem. To hand it over and then that get fucked up, that pushed a lot of buttons.
I have not listened to Grant’s music. I have tried to stay as far away as possible, especially after getting hit with a couple darts. You know, this isn’t gonna go anywhere. I don’t know why he’s doing it. He can do it. There’s nothing I can do about it. But you know what? It sort of stings. Over time, I think with any relationship of value that any of us have in our lives, when events happen that sour you on the experience and lessen the experience and diminish the value of the experience, it just makes me want to think about it even less. I hope that doesn’t sound cold—it was just like, “Fuck, why? Why are you doing this?” Look, I go back to Minneapolis and people come to me with bags of dirt on the guy, and what good is that gonna do? He’s not had any easy time. What are you gonna do? Kick the guy? It’s just like, “Come on. I just wanna get on with my thing. Now you painted me as a bastard, so don’t be surprised if I’m a bastard next time you see me.” Say it and it will be so. [Laughs.]
AVC: Is that how you can be okay with the records languishing without being reissued?
BM: There’s a lot of complications that go into that. Some of them are outlined in the book, and there’s nothing I’ve been able to do about it. I haven’t stood in the way of anything. I think the one thing to consider is in 2001, when I tried to “buy” Hüsker Dü, I went to those guys to give them money to stay out of the way so that a lawsuit could be started. In the state of California, it costs $50,000 minimum to file a lawsuit. So I was willing to spearhead the campaign, but in return, I needed to have a clear run at it. I was not going to get that far into it and have [SST founder] Greg Ginn call one of those two guys and get into their ear and then pay a bunch of money to make it not happen, and then I’d be sitting there holding nothing. Because that’s typically what has happened. I mean, [Grant Hart’s solo album] Intolerance came out on SST. Historically, people have shifted their allegiances in that battle, so I just said, “You know what? This is the only way I’m gonna try this once. If this doesn’t work, I’ll step back.” So that was my shot at it. If that was me trying to buy Hüsker Dü, maybe they should’ve sold.
AVC: You mentioned “Say it and it will be so.” That’s a frequent refrain in the book.
BM: That’s one of them, yeah.
AVC: With that in mind, do you try to be more positive in how you try to write these days? What’s the lesson you took away from that?
BM: That if you say it, it shall be so. [Laughs.] It doesn’t change. The only lesson that I think can be gleaned from that is, once you’ve said it, you can’t put it back. So choose your words carefully in heated moments in personal relationships. Anything you say, people have feelings. If you’re thinking something, you keep thinking it and it just sort of slides out, it’s gonna happen.
AVC: In the book, you write, “I worry too much about the potential fallout of what I say or do.” How do you get from the point of worrying so much about that to putting it all out there for the world?
BM: It’s quite a jump, isn’t it? Putting it out there on the page and assessing it, I mean, clearly I did a lot of self-editing. There were all those periods where we’d be writing, and I’d have to step back, because I was having a bit of a breakdown about it. Listen, I spent a lot of time weighing these words and taking into consideration the feelings of others. There are people who know these situations that have read the book who just said, “Wow, you are overwhelmingly kind, because I know what happened. You were very, very kind.” And I said, “Well, I’m just trying to show people what happened. I’m not trying to bury anybody. I’m not trying to tell stories. I’m trying to show what happened.” I think everything that’s shown in this book, it speaks to an end. There’s not a lot of gratuitous stuff—except, maybe, my slutty summer. There’s not a lot of gratuitous stuff in there, you know. But by then, you’re sort of going, “Bob, when are you gonna wake up and have some fun?” [Laughs.]
But the stuff with my family, you know, I went around and around and around with that in my head, because I love my parents dearly, and my childhood was what it was. There were some wonderful times, but there was a pattern that left a pretty deep impression on all of us. Everybody knows it, and everybody can verify this. I’ve talked to family members who’ve seen it and said, “You were very kind. It was very fair.” So I think I did my job with that. But in the distance between starting the writing and when people were reading it and saying that, I sweat a lot. There was a lot of turmoil, and I had to trust a select group of people in my inner circle to look at it, and I just said, “You gotta read this. Is this too much? What’s going on?” And people were coming back with, “Nope, you don’t have anything to worry about.” There were people along the process who read it and said, “You sure you want to say that about your family?” And I’ll be like, “Yeah, I think so. Why? What’s getting you?” “I was one of five boys, and I was the only one that didn’t get beat.” And all of a sudden, people are weighing in their own value set. So this was not a week of me blabbing off. I only get to tell this story once, and there was a lot of measuring and deep consideration about the feelings of others—but having to stick to the truth as well.
AVC: One of the reasons this book was so anticipated is not only that it’s getting your perspective on this seminal band, but also because you were intensely private. There’s a line where you’re talking about getting a handjob in Hamburg.
BM: Yeah. Did you want to know that? [Laughs.]
AVC: It’s just surprising to hear Bob Mould talking about that.
BM: In the book, I’m just trying to stay in the moment. You can feel that repression in the early days in the book, and you can start to feel that lessening as I get all of that knotted-up craziness about Hüsker’s jumping to Warner and the apologist letter to MaximumRockNRoll. Then we jump ahead to the Dennis Cooper [Spin article] and the pull quote, “I’m not a freak.” [I was] just like, “Fuck! This is exactly why I don’t talk about these things!” [Laughs.]
AVC: What about “I’m not a freak” upset you so much?
BM: The pull quote. I know pull quotes are just sometimes sensational, sometimes it’s like you’re on deadlines. You just gotta find something. And sometimes it’s somebody who doesn’t give a rat’s ass. When I saw it, I just said, “I’m dead. I’m dead. The gays are gonna kill me.” “I’m. Not. A freak.” It’s just like, how self-hating? Just set it back 15 years, Bob. Just do it in four words. In the spirit of the article, it’s talking about how the media portrays the LGBT community, or the gay community at the time, because we didn’t have all these “LGBT.” In context, I thought, it was showing myself—“I don’t identify myself with the gay community as represented by the mainstream media.” There’s the hyper-masculinity, the leather community. There’s the more effeminate side of the camp community, you know, cross-dressing and transgender and transsexual. There’s so many different parts of it that it took me so long to, not accept, but recognize the big fabric of it. But I just wasn’t finding anywhere that felt right for me.
So to say, “I’m not a freak. I’m just me,” and for it to get yanked like that, I was just like, “Ah, fuck.” That’s what that was, and nothing else. My self-loathing and inability to integrate with the community was on clear display. There was no denying that. It was just like, “Oh, great. You give me the mic.” It’s like, you go to the town hall meeting, you give the crazy person the mic. [Laughs.] “Quick, cut him off!” That’s all I saw out of it. And I was like, “Oh, fuck. I’m not getting invited to the party. If I didn’t get in before, I’m not getting in now.” Things have definitely come a long way, but that’s where I was at at the time.
AVC: Did it really affect Sugar’s success?
BM: Only down in the Deep South. A handful of radio stations.
AVC: Even there in the context of 1994, it still seems surprising.
BM: I was indignant, of course, because that’s the way I was at the time. But business is business. You know how that works. Because stations run on ad money. If they’re playing a gay artist, then ad money dries up. So they have to be careful.
AVC: Did your reaction have anything to do with how you felt about the second Sugar album, File Under Easy Listening?
BM: No, that was before the verdict on that record.
AVC: Going into it, you weren’t as hot on File Under Easy Listening as you were Sugar’s other albums, Copper Blue and Beaster.
BM: Well, we had the whole fuck-up at Triclops [Studios]. Huge ordeal, just struggling and struggling and losing perspective, and then sitting there in the room where Kurt hung out when Courtney was making a record. Seeing [Cobain’s suicide] on the TV, it was just like, “Oh, fuck this.” Really demoralizing. My contempt for the business at that moment, because I was hearing stories, and I was just like, “Why? Why, why, why? Why did this happen? Why the fuck did this happen? He was a good kid. Why did this happen?” Everything just started going down the fucking tubes. Just really demoralizing. I had lost perspective, then that. Then I’m just like, “Fuck all this. I don’t even know what’s going on.”
I just went back and retreated and went back to Austin and tried making the record like I made it at home, with the drum machine and the other stuff—just sort of building in a small room with Jim [Wilson, engineer] and trying to reconstruct it the way I did the demos at home. Then I brought David [Barbe, Sugar bassist] back, and life came back into it, but by then, it had sort of been beat to death. All the B-sides, which were the energetic songs, had they been side two, that would have been a completely different record. But I wanted to stretch the band out. If I took all 16 songs and put ’em all together on one record, it’d be real sweet. I don’t know if it was a crisis of confidence, but I was having a shitty year. And then Dennis shows up and then that comes out, so I’m like, “Oh, this is gonna be a fun campaign. I’m really looking forward to this.”
AVC: But it was less challenging than what you went through seven or eight years later with your electronic rock album, Modulate.
BM: Yeah, that was a hell ride. Isn’t that a fun part of the book? Jesus.
AVC: In the book, you say someday you’d maybe like to revisit Modulate. Do you hear it a different way in your head now?
BM: Well, there was the whole era of learning how to make music with the computers. I think some of the ideas in the songs are really strong, and then there was the execution of it, which we know as Modulate. I could have used a hand on that, for sure. Then there was the Carnival Of Light And Sound [Tour], which I thought was ambitious and really has some beautiful moments to it, but it was the antithesis of everything people wanted from me and were expecting from me.
AVC: Right, you had these electronic rock songs, then you reworked some of the old hits through that electronic filter.
BM: That was a race to create content, too, at the very end. Because I knew going out with just Modulate was going to be a disaster. So I said, “Well, shit. I’ll bring some of the old songs in and just rush to put some stuff together for that.” The idea of me playing to a [backing] track was pretty crazy. That was ambitious. I mean, I was working so hard to put that thing together—and having a great time doing it—but again, I could have used a hand. If I ever needed a producer in my life, that would have been the moment.
AVC: You said in another interview that electronic music isn’t as intuitive as pop music.
BM: It wasn’t for me then, for sure.
AVC: How so?
BM: It’s just all different tools. It’s like trying to pound a nail with a saw. It’s like you sit there and try to whack it with the side of the blade for a few years, and it might move a little bit, but if you’re used to using a hammer, you just hit it clean once. [Claps.] Yeah, it’s just different tools. It just wasn’t intuitive. Now, I understand the form a lot more. It’s funny though, ’cause I think I was on the right course. I just could have used a hand.
AVC: You say later in the book that you knew you were on the right track when The Postal Service took off.
BM: I mean, that was just months later. That and all the Morr Music stuff. I mean, Her Space Holiday was around then—they opened the tour, and that was a really good fit. Somebody who was trying to do the same kind of things. I mean, yeah, I think my intuition was right, but the execution wasn’t happening. It was rushed, and it was primitive.
AVC: It seems like working with Rich Morel in Blowoff really helped you learn that.
BM: Yeah. Even simple things, like you only need one kick drum.
AVC: Was there more than one kick drum on that record?
BM: Oh yeah, there’s so much stuff going on in the low end, it gets really cluttered. So we were working on Blowoff music, writing stuff together, and I’d bring in loops. He’d say, “These loops are great, but what if we just filter the low end off this one? What if we just filter it out so it doesn’t have so much clutter?” And all of a sudden, it’d open up. And I’d be like, “Ohhhh.” Because I didn’t know. I just thought more was more. I was used to more of everything, so more kick drums is good.
AVC: That’s always the danger of working alone. You just keep adding more and more.
BM: Or you lose the perspective. You lose the song. There’s too much foundation, and it’s all basement and no ground floor. So yeah, working with Rich was good. Rich’s stuff like Queen Of The Highway was a great record, but I don’t know if he had ever really considered how to create the Sugar-esque kind of things. Because if you hear “Hormone Love,” the opener off the Blowoff record… I remember Rich’s version of it. He’d play me what he had going, and I said, “Rich, do you want to make this a pop-rock song?” He said, “Yeah, let’s try that.” I said, “Well, let me do some things real quick. Let me do guitar No. 1, guitar No. 2, I’m gonna do guitar No. 3. Then I’m gonna do this fourth guitar that does this little thing. You’re not gonna think it’s much, but I’ll show you what we’re gonna do with it in the mix.” Then, when we did all of that, he was like, “Holy fuck.” I was like, “Yeah, that’s how I do my thing.” So that was great. Yeah, Rich was an immense help in showing me how to sort out the electronic stuff, and in return, I think I showed him how to build the rock elements of his stuff up a bit.
AVC: It seems like the book is about belated realizations: accepting your sexuality, understanding what makes a functional relationship, and the late realization of giving people what they want on the Body Of Song tour. Any others?
BM: Well, the big one that you didn’t hit that I think is in the book is that not saying what you feel actually creates more damage. We all have those times in relationships, whether it’s work or personal or family or whatever it is, where there’s something that’s eating at you and eating at you, and you want to say it to the person that you care about the most, but you’re so afraid it’s going to destroy everything. Like the fear of destruction keeps one from saying what they want to say—when, in actuality, by not saying it, things get worse. Because it’s the entropy, the leak that doesn’t get fixed. Forwarding the pain, not to get all Dr. Phil. [Laughs.]
AVC: But it applies to your family and to your band, because in the book, you talk about how the end of Sugar hurt drummer Malcolm Travis.
BM: Yeah, that was tough. I wasn’t alone in that. That wasn’t just me.
AVC: You have a line in there where you say you still haven’t figured out how to end a band.
BM: There is no good way. We go up to ’08 and poor [Bob Mould band drummer] Rob Black, who tried his best. That was an instance where every day, I was working hands-on with him. It wasn’t for a lack of trying, and it wasn’t for a lack of me trying to explain exactly what I wanted. Whether it’s, “You can’t bring two bass drums—you gotta pick the one you like” or “I really do like everybody to wear black T-shirts [onstage].” [Laughs.] And if it doesn’t get in, then what do I do? I gotta let him go, you know? It’s not working, and that sucks. He’s a great guy. He doesn’t want to relive that, so there is no good way.
AVC: But it also seems, like you said, if you’re not upfront about it after a while, it gets worse.
BM: Yeah, and he’s a really wonderful person. I was just like, “Oh, God. Why do I have to do this?” Because you get people like Jason [Narducy, bassist], you get people like Brendan [Canty, drummer], people like Jon [Wurster, drummer]. I don’t have to say a word. Then David. Once I learned how to work with David, I never had to say a word. It’s just like, as my body of work got bigger, and as people like Jason, who know my work and grew up on my work and did my work, so to speak, picked up what I did and he did his thing with that. I don’t need to explain. Walk in a room, and if there’s a time where there’s a passing note that needs to be fixed, Jason knows which one it is. I don’t have to say it—he hears it, because he knows the body of work, so it’s unspoken. Brendan was such an intuitive player. I remember that day. He was like, “Do you want me to play those old songs like they were?” I’m like, “No! Don’t copy that. You play like you. That’s what makes us us.”
I’m a lot better now at telling people if there’s something that’s not right. It’s like, “That one’s not working. How about this?” But it’s hard, because the flip side of that—as a player, I would like to think my intuition when playing with other people is pretty good. Like when I went into stuff with the Foos, I walked in and I did all the vocal stuff, and I sort of worked it out on the spot. Dave [Grohl] was sitting there, and he wasn’t really giving a lot of feedback. I was working with Butch [Vig]. I could see Butch and I could see Dave back in the corner, but not well. Butch is a pro, and he knows how to handle it. So I’d be like, “That felt sorta right, but Butch, do you think I should go this way with it?” And he’s like, “Well, try it that way.” I’d go that way, and we’d both know right away and go, “Yeah, that’s it. That went the right way.” I’d do something and he’d go, “Oh, yeah.” And I’d say, “Butch, that gets the star.” That’s in our language—that means he’s keeping track of the notes, and I said, “Put a star on it.” So that when he goes back to comb through, it’s just like, “Jump to that one, ’cause we all know that’s the one you’re gonna use.”
So we got all the vocals done, and I brought my guitar. We’re sitting there like, “That was great,” and I’m like, “Well, the guitar… Did you envision me playing it on the song at all?” They pulled a good rib on me. Butch is like, “Eh, there’s not a lot of tracks left on the tape…” Then Dave looks up and he goes, “Yeah. Bring fuckin’ Jeff Beck to your house and say, ‘No. Don’t fucking pick up a guitar.’ And Hendrix stops by, it’s like, ‘No, man, we don’t have any tracks left.’” I’m like, “What the fuck?” They’re ribbing me. I play and I know the song. I know that song—I know those songs in B. [Laughs.] So I’m just warming up doing stuff. And I said, “Fuck, Butch, let’s just roll it. Let’s just do this.” Then I’m just hitting the thing, and the way I’m hitting it, and I mean physically hitting it, like, [Pounds fist in hand.] hitting the fucking guitar, and all these tones are coming out of it, and they’re like, “What the fuck?”
So I think my intuition is good, but the point is, I’m loath to tell people. Because I like to think that musicians have intuition, especially if you’re presented with a version of a song or a very finished demo. I pick people that I think have intuition. So I’m loath to micromanage songs. With Hüsker, I talk about it in the book, we just made that shit up as we went along, so that’s what I grew up on. That idea of telling people what to do is a touchy one, but not saying it can really fuck things up, too.
Man, I wish there was, like, a line in here that says, “And these are the moments when you say something, and these are the moments when you don’t,” and it always works that way. Oh, God, it’s never gonna be that simple. I’ll go to my grave and never get it right. Because that’s what we’re here for. It’s the struggle, always the battle to do better. Always the battle to do it right. I’m never happy with these records, I think.
AVC: You can always keep working on it. You’re never quite done.
BM: Yeah, I mean, I’ve learned a little something from that Foos thing. I think, for whatever their story of [recording] analog in the garage, there is a big-picture thing that is like, sometimes when you have too many choices… I should’ve learned it in ’94 with F.U.E.L. in Atlanta, and not getting the sound that I liked. Sometimes when you’ve got only one of each thing and you gotta make it work, then you take all that other stuff away, and you’re left with the song and the delivery and the essence. And then it’s not about fixing it later. You really sort of have to do it, and then you get it.
AVC: Yeah, constraints can induce creativity.
BM: Yeah. I’ve gone from this really intuitive, primitive band that got by on sheer force, and whatever the elements of Hüsker Dü were that the different percentages of those different things made it go for so long. You know, I get to this introspective period where it’s still primitive, but building more elaborate songs, cellos and stuff. To Sugar, where I got to this point where there were too many options. Then I got on that track, and then the electronic stuff where there were, like, a gazillion options. You know, the last three records have been this sort of reversal, and you can see it. Body Of Song had some [electronic elements], District Line had less, and then Life And Times is as close to Workbook as I’ve gotten in a long time. If I step back and look at the trajectory, you can see where it’s going. I know this trajectory is sending me back toward a much straighter-up approach. If I step away, it looks like I’m heading back to the beginning.