Punk legend Bob Mould on unleashing his need to scream with ‘Blue Hearts’
"Government authorize education/(Don't mean a thing)/They'll teach you what they want you to think/(Don't mean a thing)/Saturation of stars and stripes/(Don't mean a thing)/The only freedom worth fighting for is for what you think/Why bother spending time/Reading up on things/Everybody's an authority/In a free land"
Those 11 lines comprise the entire lyric of “In A Free Land,” the second 45 issued by Minneapolitan hardcore pioneers Hüsker Dü, from 1983. It remained a set staple henceforth for singer/guitarist Bob Mould, singer/drummer Grant Hart and bassist Greg Norton, until their 1988 demise. Even as Mould and Hart indulged their love of ‘60s pop and the more melodic strains in ‘70s punk — Ramones, Buzzcocks — and their lyrical themes turned increasingly personal, that ballistic rant against blind patriotism as the Reagan administration ramped up held pride of place in the Hüsker Dü canon.
So how can anyone be surprised at the harsh, tense scream rock excoriating Donald Trump’s America that populates Mould’s 13th studio-recorded solo LP, Blue Hearts? A more-than-fair-weather Mould fan could just pull out their scuffed old copy of “In A Free Land” as the offended yell for “the old Bob Mould, before he became a liberal!” Then wave it in the boors’ faces and ask, “Really?”
Mould was a frequent visitor to Alternative Press’ pages in the ‘90s, always interviewed by this writer. He even broke a self-declared year-long press sabbatical in 1996 to speak with us about Hüsker Dü’s history for our year-long punk history series. Hence, he was more than happy to talk to us on the dawn of his Distortion and Blue Hearts tour, to help clarify his renewed need to scream about today’s issues over rampaging drums and ultra-distorted electric guitars.
I am pleased to see how your solo work has progressed the last few years. I obviously love the return to punk rock. I loved that you made an effort to write nothing but positive songs on the album before last, Sunshine Rock. But Blue Hearts especially thrilled me! Hearing you that angry again! I thought, “Wow! The Bob Mould who led Hüsker Dü just stepped back into the room!” That rage!
Pretty much! It’s October 1983 all over again! How in the hell did this happen to this country? I have my theories. People who think reality TV is real watched a person on television for a long time. But I do not know why anyone would think that would make a good leader for the largest country in the free world. I just do not understand that.
I had somebody once tell me, “Well, he’d probably be good for business.” I told him, “That is probably the worst reason to vote for him! Besides, have you noticed that he has declared bankruptcy six times?”
It’s just a terrible, terrible charade with global implications and ramifications. Anyway, back to Blue Hearts! [Laughs.]
Rather than Orange Hair!
I didn’t know this record was coming. I’d been spending most of my time in Berlin, coming back to America here and there, being basically removed from the onslaught of polarized mainstream media. When I got back to writing for a stretch to get Blue Hearts into shape, I came back for fall of 2019 and thought, “This is awful! It’s much worse than I thought!” We are even more polarized and divided than I even could imagine.
When I was in Berlin and watching all this stuff — especially in ‘19 — and seeing how bad it was getting, it really took me back to 1983. It really took me back to the Moral Majority and Reagan and being a 22-year-old kid who was a little uncomfortable with being gay but seeing how it was affecting my community. I was trying to do what I could but was not doing enough. I was like, “I’ll be fucked if I temper my words this time around.” So that’s how that starts.
Yeah, you had a roar back then that eventually acquiesced to your love of pop music and melody. I wholeheartedly approved of your progression. But God, it was good to hear the old Bob back!
[Laughs.] Well, thank you for that. With Blue Hearts, I needed to make a point. I needed to make up for any of those tempered thoughts back in the ‘80s that should have been a little more extreme. I guess I had to make my position really clear to people who may not understand me completely or even understand me in the general sense of being a solid liberal with good reason.
I went through the ‘80s being on the outside looking in, and then there was that moment where Hüsker Dü moved through and went over to Warners for two records. They treated us well, but we were working for The Man. I tried a couple of more solo records working for The Man. By the time Sugar came along in ‘92, I thought, “I don’t think I can work for The Man.” They’re fine for some people, but maybe it’s not in my best interests. I’m not a profit center. But then with Sugar, working with independent labels and getting extremely successful brought a mainstream component to my audience. So with Blue Hearts, I guess I had to separate people back out again. I dunno. You know what I mean — the “shut up and play” crowd.
There was a Facebook group I eventually had to leave called “Bob Mould and Hüsker Dü Fans.” People were posting more political stuff in there because you were getting more overtly political and out-loud leftist. You were getting more outspoken about the last administration, and there was a whole buncha those “shut and play, Bob” people on there, suddenly incensed. It started a war. Suddenly the topic was taboo.
I was jumping in, saying, “This is the artist this page celebrates! He’s speaking his mind! ” I left the group, but not before leaving a statement on its wall: “You people clearly have not been paying attention, either to this artist or Hüsker Dü. Did you ever read the lyrics to ‘In A Free Land’? This group is a travesty. Bob would be ashamed of you people.”
Boy! To each their own! But one would have to really be blind and deaf and dumb to have missed all that. You’re absolutely right. It’s mind-blowing, and especially in times where there are great divisions. To those folks who say I need to respect the president? All I can say is, “He’s your president. He’s not my president. He’s a failed television actor. I remember the last actor who was president, and I remember the last California governor who was an actor. Not always the best fit.”
Wow. It’s more like, “No, your guy actually started this. And look at what’s happening as we speak in this country. How do we think we got to this point? Who came in talking about shooting civilians in the middle of New York City?” That’s all I needed! [Laughs.] That’s all I needed to know it wasn’t going to go well.
We both lived in New York at the time he was the big land barron. And I didn’t know any New Yorker who liked or respected that guy.
No, and he tucked tail and ran when they started to put the heat on him a couple of years ago. I lived in New York for most of the ‘90s. I had my stint in Austin, which was great. Unfortunately, I got to see what happened to Ann Richards, and we know where he ended up! [Laughs.] But what a wild ride! It’s really weird to still be standing through all this craziness.
I know. I was a teenage Clash fan. I grew up thinking electric guitars would change the world.
But they did! They did it before we started playing. We helped keep it alive. And there’s still people doing it. It still works. It might not be the preferred mode of expression for the youth of America at this particular point. It might be a bit more of an accessory than a necessity. But no, it still works. It worked when the Beatles did it. It worked when the Ramones and the Sex Pistols did it. It works.
Now, there’s something to chew on! What about folks like John Lydon, who is now on the other side of the divide, seemingly all of a sudden?
I don’t know what to think of that. I’ve only spent a few moments with John. Johnny Rotten is a wonderful persona. John Lydon is as nice as can be — when he wasn’t being Johnny Rotten — behind a closed door with me. So, I sorta get it, because part of it is showbiz and part of it is who we really are. When I look at it, I wonder if this is like when rappers beef to help elevate each other on a project? Or does he really have a problem with someone else representing his likeness in another work of art using the original music? I don’t get it! What’s he on about, right now?
The lawsuit over the miniseries is one thing. But what about him supporting Trump and Brexit? The guy who wrote “Anarchy In The U.K.” and “God Save The Queen.”
People constantly amaze me. As we all get older, the tendency is we maybe get a little more conservative in our views. Maybe we’ve seen so much, and the world is moving so fast, current ideas pass us by. But with him? I don’t get it. And the dismissive tone towards those guys in the band? C’mon, man. That’s gimmicky, petty stuff.
When he put out his press release about the court judgment, I reposted it with an introduction where I said, “You were one-fourth of a band that changed music and musical history. You changed my life and many others. But it wasn’t all you, anymore than it was all Malcolm McLaren. Even Malcolm had his part to play in it.” I concluded, “I love Johnny Rotten — he changed my life. I’ve grown to hate John Lydon, especially because he lied to me the last time I interviewed him.”
Word to that. Malcolm McLaren? I shudder to think that the Sex Pistols might have been Communist [New York] Dolls, Version 2. [Laughs.]
They basically were!
“Oh, there’s an anniversary coming up! Let’s do this!” I could be really cynical and say something like that. But I don’t want to. You know I’m half-joking. But when you mention Malcolm? Well, that version of the Dolls was sorta kooky!
It was sorta interesting…
My love of the Dolls and [Johnny] Thunders will never change. But man, that late era was like, “What’s this?!”