Bob Mould looks back on Hüsker Dü with 'rage and melody'by Chris Roberts, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Bob Mould, co-founder of the seminal Minneapolis punk band Hüsker Dü, as well as the hit-making alt rock group Sugar, has written an autobiography. It's called "See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody."
Mould's "trail" began 50 years ago in his childhood home in upstate New York.
Early on he knew he was very musical. He also knew he was gay — something his neglectful mother and abusive father wouldn't tolerate. So he fled to St. Paul and Macalester College, where he eventually met his Hüsker Dü bandmates, drummer Grant Hart and bassist Greg Norton.
Soon, the sonic storm that was Hüsker Dü's sound took shape. It was a blinding rhythm combined with Mould's primal howl singing style, and guitar chords that sounded like a disturbed hornet's nest.
Bob Mould describes those early gigs in his autobiography, "See a Little Light."
"People who saw me scowling and lurching around the stage back then probably wondered what was going on inside my brain," Mould wrote. "It just felt like loose electricity was flying through my hands and off the guitar, and it sounded like my head was being riddled with pellets of ice. It was almost like being locked in the trunk of a car during a massive hailstorm."
"There were three very unique individuals in that band, and when we came together there was a certain energy and creativity that was very healthy," Mould said. "We had an us-versus-them mentality we established very early on, and when people read the book they'll see instances all along the way.
Specifically myself and Grant Hart, I mean very similar in some ways, yet we couldn't have been more different people. That was a healthy ying and yang for a long time," Mould said. "The last 18 months of the band, everybody drifted apart. They had major life changes that they chose, and we had very little in common in the end. But when it was really good it was great. When it was bad, it was terrible."
A FEW OF MOULD'S CONTEMPORARIES WERE INVITED TO ASK SOME QUESTIONS
Mike Madden: My relationship to Hüsker Dü was as babysitter. That was in 1981 when Hüsker Dü was touring Canada, and I was along for the ride with my bike.
My question is Bob, if you ever wondered if you would live to write this book? I'm thinking about a three-night stand that the band did in Calgary, Alberta, at a hotel called the Calgarian.
Bob Mould: Yeah, I think what Mike is maybe alluding to is some of the rougher components of playing at the Calgarian Hotel. I write about it in the book.
Actually, our first time there I think we played six nights. We played a Monday through Saturday. Calgary was the Wild West at that time, and I remember going down to the bar to play. Doing four sets a night, which is ridiculous if you think about it. But we feared for our lives a bit.
There was a lot of cowboys who would come and play pool, and there was a lot of native North Americans who also came to the bar, and they had a bit of a rivalry going, let's say. So there would be physicality between the two groups, until the punk rockers showed up, and then they would both turn on us.
I remember seeing a lot of fights. We'd watch fights outside the hotel — they gave us one room upstairs above the front of the hotel entrance, so we could see people pouring out and fighting. And there was actually a woman who came to a bunch of the shows, and she got stabbed early in the week, and then she came back later and got stabbed again.
I think that's what Mike's talking about. But, specifically, I didn't think I would live to see 30. Fortunately I got hold of my senses before I got to 30, so when I made it to 30 I wasn't that surprised. Now at 50, I'm sure glad I've made some of the decisions I've made.
Chris Roberts: What do you think was Hüsker Dü's biggest contribution to music, to punk rock?
Mould: To punk rock in the early '80s, I think hardcore had gotten, it was a faster more aggressive variant of the first wave of punk rock that had a sort of naive political outlook. And I think what Hüsker Dü did was to let go of that very quickly and start dealing with personal issues. And we brought melody and harmony into it, which was not one of its strong suits. And as time went on, the more aggressive sides of the band became tempered, the melody started coming to the fore, and our audience changed. And you know, within two or three years it was over.
Chris Osgood: I play in a punk rock band called the Suicide Commandos. We still get to play from time to time, and we were very busy between 1975 and the very end of 1978.
Bob, my question for you is, as we watched your career take off and watched you guys get in a van and tour relentlessly in the early years, I've often wondered how you were able to write as relentlessly as you were touring. So many good songs came spilling out in that period, you must have had some sort of system to capture all that stuff.
Mould: Wow, it's great to hear Chris's voice. Chris is one of my mentors and played in one of my favorite bands.
God, songwriting. The simple answer is notebooks, and the sort of strange sort of shorthand notation that I came up with for chord changes and melodies.
A lot of things happened out on the road in those days. A lot of wild experiences, a lot of scenery, just a lot of living on the cheap. Just write it all down, write down as much as you can. And then when I would come home, then I would have my moments where I could start to really consider what the music should be like, and then I'd have these notebooks full of ideas and I could go through and pull things from the notebooks and make nice songs.
I remember buying a $75 banjo in Newport, Kentucky, and writing "Divide and Conquer" on a banjo. It happens when you least expect, you just have to keep notes as best you can.
Roberts: There's an interesting comparison you make a couple times in the book, between Hüsker Dü and the other top Minneapolis band during the '80s, The Replacements.
Mould: The Replacements were a great band. I think their road to success was a little bit different than ours. The Replacements, after one show, had a record deal with Twin Tone Records. Hüsker Dü, we had to struggle for a couple years, doing self releases and then eventually getting noticed by New Alliance Records out in southern California. It's different roads.
The Replacements, I think, was a little more of the traditional rock-and-roll road where they had a manager who was directing traffic, doing a good job getting them to high places very quickly. Hüsker Dü was much more of a ground war. We just continually looped around the country touring, little to no money, and we eventually ended up at the same place at about the same time.
I've got a lot of respect for the Replacements. They went through a lot of different iterations; a lot of different people in and out of the band. ... And with Hüsker Dü it was always three people. And you know, when you're in a gang, that's maybe the way it should be. So I think there's very striking differences.
Another difference I allude to in the book is Hüsker Dü started our own label, Reflex Records, and giving a lot back to the local scene. ... I think that's what set us apart from maybe the Replacements who were on Twin Tone, which did the same thing, but the Replacements personally weren't doing that. And then they would jump to a major label and so would we."
Terry Katzman: I've worked with Hüsker Dü as a fan, a supporter, and as a sound person from their early days — 1979 to circa 1983.
Hi Bob. My question to you is your earliest records were put out on SST, which is a small West Coast independent label. And in 1986, you made the jump to Warner Brothers, a major label. And I'm just wondering if you felt that that helped or hurt the band creatively, financially, or from a relationship point of view — how the three of you got along.
Mould: Oh, Terry. Terry was there at the very beginning.
Creatively, I think the band was already starting to unravel a bit. I think our best days had already occurred.
Financially, I think Warner was a better move, especially in hindsight. SST has not always paid their bills on time. Warner Brothers always pays their bills on time.
As far as the relationship between the band, it gave cause for a different kind of competition. You know, when somebody's holding a flashlight on a band they're much closer. But when somebody's holding a floodlight on a band, they tend to be able to spread out a little bit more across the landscape. And I think that's what happened with Hüsker Dü.
I don't know if there was overt competition to be at the front of that floodlight. I think it was more when you shine a big light on a pack of rats they all run in different directions (laughs).
Maybe that's an odd analogy to answer that question with. But, hindsight's always 20/20, it's always easy to be an armchair critic and say 'Well, if we had only done this and had only done that.' We did what we did and it turned out the way it did. And that's the beauty of getting to write a book about that, and the 23 years that followed.
Roberts: There's a lot of people obviously in the Twin Cities who have such fond memories of Hüsker Dü, and hold the band in such high regard and affection. And they can't help but yearn — not necessarily for a reunion of Hüsker Dü — but for at least the members to be on better terms. And perhaps that's not possible and I wanted you to respond to that sentiment.
Mould: That's a fair sentiment. When I walked away from the band I was content to leave it alone. But I felt like, publicly I was being held accountable for a lot of things that I thought were for the good of the band. Specifically from Grant, who was having a tough time, and we all go through tough times. I was content to ignore it and let it go, but it stung.
After a while, getting hit over and over with comments sort of lessened my fondness for talking about Hüsker Dü at all. Move up to 23 years later and people are still wondering why.
I've had a couple encounters with Grant since then. They've been pleasant. They've been cool. Cool in the temperature sense, not in the hip sense. Sometimes when you put two people in a room and they know how to push each other's buttons, maybe it's better that they don't get in the same room.
Having said that, I've never stood in the way of anybody trying to properly further the legacy of the band. There's been a number of re-issues, mostly precipitated by Grant's attorney, who represents Grant and Greg. And you know, I've cooperated. So I don't think it's a particularly contentious relationship, whatever's left of it as far as the estate of Hüsker Dü.
But emotionally? No, I don't know if it'd be in anybody's best interest. I have no ill will. I'm still stinging a little bit, but life goes on.
Bob Mould reads from his autobiography, "See A Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody" Tuesday night at Majors and Quinn bookstore in Minneapolis.
- All Things Considered, 06/14/2011, 5:48 p.m.