Punk hero Bob Mould on touring, staying healthy and keeping others safe
Welcome to the conclusion of Alternative Press’ two-part interview with Bob Mould. In the initial installment, the former Hüsker Dü/Sugar leader addressed the harsh American political climate of the past few years and how it inspired the Dü-esque rage of his latest album, last year’s Blue Hearts. He explained he connected the Trump years with the Reagan era, which fueled his early ‘80s tunes, such as "In A Free Land."
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Being a then-closeted gay man as the AIDS crisis erupted, and seeing the homophobia unleashed as well as the lack of response from our leadership? It’s not a huge leap to Trump’s racism and the bully-ish climate still permeating the U.S. He also discussed whether punk changed the world and one-time anarchist John Lydon’s recent rightward lean. Now Mould addresses how he handled the COVID-19 pandemic, his creative process and how he is touring in world that isn’t exactly post-pandemic yet.
How did you work through COVID?
Not nearly as much as I should’ve been. The lockdown, the whole thing’s been pretty tough on me, to be honest. I doubt I’m the only one who says that. I was very lucky to be able to workshop the songs for Blue Hearts right before we made the record at Albini’s place in February of 2020. I was able to get all the stuff done before March 1. So, the record was done. All that was left was putting the album art together.
Then lockdown happened.
Let me go back to Valentine’s Day of 2020. I had been on the road for three weeks and in the studio for two weeks. I got home on Valentine’s Day at dinnertime and yelled, “Honey, I’m home” to my partner. He just says, “Sit, I have to tell you what’s happening.” My partner was a dentist, so he studied virology in med school. And he started describing — and it took him about 30 minutes to do it — what he thought was happening, what he thought was going to happen and so on. Basically, along the lines of Laurie Garrett or somebody like that. I was just like, “Oh, OK. What do we need to do, then?” It was another four to five weeks before the first lockdowns happened in mid-March.
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I’ve been a wreck the whole time. It hasn’t been terribly productive for me. Making a record like Blue Hearts that’s built for the stage, and not being able to share it, was tough. But I get it. In the interest of the collective health of the world, we all need to stay home. So I was out of work. I’ve been keeping a lot of notes. I’ve been working on music, but not in earnest. Quite honestly, I feel like Monday, when I go to the airport and head to Chicago to do pre-production to get ready for next Thursday’s show? It’s like Monday is when I reach over on the tape machine and I hit play again. It’s been stuck on pause on me, for a year-and-a-half.
I wish I could say I wrote a record on my phone with somebody else. I wish I could say all those things. But really for me, it was about keeping my home health, keeping myself alive, taking care of my body, trying to keep my mind from going down too many dark tunnels. It was a lot. There were some really dark stretches, and I doubt I’m alone in that. I had the sense to be exercising and watching my diet, watching my mental health and making sure that vices didn’t start to take over.
I did a really great job with that, but those things were my main focus for the last year-and-a-half — making sure my friends were up to speed with staying healthy and family was up to speed with staying healthy. Those were the kinds of things that were taking up my days. I wish I could say there are three unheard albums. But there are not. [Laughs.]
I am surprised. I remember being there at SXSW during that songwriter’s panel, as you described your typical day as being, “I get up, make coffee, make more coffee, make more coffee, then I sit down and write.” [Laughs.]
Yeah, I know. And I have been writing. I have a lot of thoughts documented. But let me try to describe it this way because maybe this will make sense. So if you go back to the prolific era of Hüsker Dü, for instance when SST delayed the release of Zen Arcade, and we had already written New Day Rising and we’re looking past that to another record. That was my life. That cycle was what kept me alive. And what is that cycle? I describe it as: When people come to a show to hear the new album, I am presenting my thesis. After I have presented the thesis and I have gotten recognition — or condemnation, or applause or boos, whatever happened — the next thing that happens is the beginning of the writing cycle.
The touring is over, I’ve been gathering stray ideas and notes and Voice Memos and crib notes and napkins and gum wrappers — all that stuff. That is the moment when I go to my room, so to speak, with all these things. Then I start to look at what I’ve been thinking about as I have been presenting the prior thesis. That’s where the writing of a record begins. I start writing, and I get my tent poles and my important songs, and I recognize them. Then I start putting the top on the tent, and I have an album in mind. Then I get my musicians together, and we make the album. Then I get the artwork, and I wait a little bit. Then I start press, and then I do shows. That’s when I present my thesis.
Without being able to take Blue Hearts out to get the thesis out of the way, I’ve been on pause. That’s how it feels to me.
And you will be in an interesting position as you start to go out next week. At the time the shows were booked, it looked like we could let our masks down and perhaps sensibly dangle a toe into the live music waters, and be a bit more social if we were careful. Then Delta happened.
All of this that we are going through now is a work in progress. I think if we go back and we look at the footage from China of a fairly controlling government forcing people to stay in their homes? That’s never a good sign. Then we saw the first wave, and we saw the casualties, and we did not understand what we were up against. We had a good idea. Thank goodness for someone like Anthony Fauci, who I grew up listening to, by the way. Fauci was on the frontline with HIV/AIDS. His battles with Larry Kramer are legendary. He was the primary voice for any of us who lived through that period when HIV was unsolvable. He was doing everything he could do, so I trust the guy. He’s been a voice throughout my life.
We’re trying to figure this thing out. What happened in New York City, in Queens? My God! I remember saying to my partner, “I would wake up, and I would walk myself through my normal day in New York City.” This was as the first wave was starting to ramp up. I was just like, “This is not going to be good. This is not going to be good for cities with mass transit. This is not going to be good for densely populated areas. This is going to be really hard.” And it got so bad. Then the anti-vaxxers! They never miss a beat. They always show up at the wrong time with the wrong message.
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We all got through the second bump, and the third one was the one we all had to climb together to try to get out of this at the beginning of the year. And then June 15, where we collectively did this thing. Within three weeks, we quickly realized that masks work. We also realized that this vaccine wasn’t a cloak of invisibility. It was basically a bulletproof vest. The primary intent behind this vaccine was to alleviate undue stress on hospitals.
Once we all caught that in early July, once we caught those ideas and framed everything properly, we had to backtrack. I get it. I think we had to try in mid-June. I think this was with the best of intentions. Thankfully, we caught ourselves within three weeks and realized, “No.” It was like mid-June that everybody stopped getting vaccinated — they thought it was over.
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It didn’t have to happen. But I see it that way: We tried. We tried getting unmasked. We tried getting everybody vaccinated. People resisted, and people resisted more, and here’s this thing that happened. So much of it came out of the data from Provincetown in early July. I always went to Provincetown for Bear Week in early July. I know the behavior. It’s people getting together in tight spaces and doing things they haven’t done for a year-and-a-half. But thankfully, there’s a lot of gay men who use hookup apps so you can see everybody you’re trying to get with. So it was an incredible case study. Lollapalooza was an incredible case study, and other large outdoor gatherings where people threw caution to the wind. I don’t know how anybody can deny all those things. They’re pretty clear to me. Am I crazy?
I think you’re dead on. I haven’t seen any stats from Lollapalooza yet.
The breakthrough cases are in line exactly with the overall statistics. No more, no less — everything is exactly as it would be in a normal setting.
This is a tough one. Jon Wurster, he’s been out for three weeks with Mountain Goats. They started by going through the deep South. I was just like, “What’s it like? What’s happening?” Every day, the first thing when I wake up, it’s like, “What are the numbers today? What are the trends today?” Is today the day I unfortunately go to my tour manager and say, “I think we need to put barricades up.” You know I hate this, but anything we can do to create some sort of peace of mind for all of us in this setting. This is every single minute of every single day. We have 150 COVID tests, sitting and waiting for the first day of rehearsal. It’s just insane.
We’re doing everything we can. That’s all we can do. We’re bubbled. We gotta stay healthy. If one of us goes down, the whole thing goes down. I’m working on the wording now, but we’re telling everyone: You have to be fully masked, all day and all night, inside the venue. There’s just no other way to do this. You’ve got to do this. Holding a drink in your hand is not “except while eating or drinking.” Sipping — how about that? [Laughs.] Except while biting or sipping. I have faith that people want to do the right thing. But it’s so hard, imploring on them: “You've got to help us do the right thing here! You’ve really gotta help us. You’ve gotta help everyone in the room.”