Bob Mould talks reviving punk rock, recuperating rebellious streak

Cover of Bob Mould's album Blue Hearts
Merge Records/Courtesy

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Looking back on his decades-long career, Bob Mould can’t quite believe the magnitude of his influence.

In 1979, the musician serendipitously folded into a relationship with future Husker Du bandmates Grant Hart and Greg Norton while attending a small liberal arts college in the Twin Cities. Together, the power trio navigated the underground punk scene, making waves on college airways before eventually breaking into the mainstream. The band may have broken up in 1988, but it continues to leave a lasting impact — cited as an influence for artists such as Dave Grohl and Billie Joe Armstrong.

“We had eight wonderful years of challenging the system and following our own crazy way of seeing the world and how we felt about things,” Mould said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “The fact that anybody picked up on that and carried it forward into the rest of time is just wonderful.”

Today, Mould remains a mainstay in the punk rock scene. His time in Husker Du and Sugar long over, he now records and performs as a solo artist. In his most recent album, Blue Hearts,  however, he harkens back to the beginnings of his career, latching onto searing melodies with an overtly political bite.

“Being a not-out gay man in the early ’80s was really crazy and hard and sad and challenging,” Mould said. “The Reagan years were not good for me and not good for a lot of my friends who didn’t make it through the ’80s. The fall of 2019 was pretty much like 1981 again, or 1983. It took me back to that place, and I started considering what it was like back then.”

During “Siberian Butterfly,” a track off the 2020 record, Mould paints the sky with rainbow butterflies and unabashed pride, delivering poetic lyricism in an unrelenting shout. The song buzzes with titillating complexities, a passionate expression of identity that roars over punk instrumentation.

“There’s two different stories going on. One is the old adage about metamorphosis. We grow into ourselves over time,” Mould said. “On the other side of the story, it’s suggesting a character who is a butterfly collector — a rich hobbyist who validates themself by collecting rare artifacts.”

Throughout the years, Mould has grown into his identity. After coming out in the ’90s, he has become more comfortable speaking about his experiences and his concerns for the LGBTQ+ community. Especially in the present political environment, he refuses to remain silent.

“Two years ago, I really had a lot of concern for the trans community, especially trans youth. And sure enough now, I’m seeing those concerns being played out again,” Mould said. “How could I not speak up this time around? Things I maybe should have been more emphatic about in the ’80s — I’m not going to sit by this time and couch anything.”

Released in 2020, the timing of Blue Hearts feels almost uncanny. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the presidential election, the American landscape was rife with the very issues Mould addresses in his music.

“I remember Donald Trump and his family doing the Bible walk and tear-gassing people at Washington Park in D.C., where I used to live,” Mould shared. “I was like, ‘Oh great, in 36 hours I have this song called ‘American Crisis’ coming out and all this stuff is on fire right now.’ Is it life imitates art or art imitates life, or they’re both the same? I’m never really sure.”

Two years after the album release, Mould is on the road to promote Blue Hearts and Distortion in a solo electric tour. Though his set will cover much of his new music, he will not hesitate to flip through the pages of his four-decade-spanning songbook, reaching into the archives and reviving the days of Husker Du.

“They’re really fun shows,” Mould said, referring to the tour performances. “They mean a lot to me. They’re a little more flexible in terms of the set list and dynamic approaches than when I’m playing with the band.”

Mould may be a solo artist, but he is not one to shy away from the spirit of collaboration. Notably, he has a close relationship with Fred Armisen of “Saturday Night Live” and “Portlandia, with the pair performing together for the 2021 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. Though an unexpected match, the two unite in effortless harmony.

“Fred is one of the coolest people I know. He’s a great musician. I mean, he learned a whole set of my stuff just like nothing,” Mould said with ease. “We’re good buds, we just like hanging out. We have a good time.”

Like a Siberian butterfly, Mould resists confinement to any single box, instead embracing the beautiful multiplicities in art, identity and life. With his unabated charisma and penchant for punk, he is sure to keep rocking well into the future.

Lauren Harvey covers music. Contact her at [email protected].