He's the man who once told the world to fuck off, who wore his anger and hurt on his sleeve like a fresh, bloody tattoo. In his eight-year run with Husker Du, Bob Mould was the epitome of the angry young man, pissed off and tired of being pissed on.
With a buzzsaw scream and rapid-fire delivery, he spat out messages of alienation and despair. Even after the band broke up in 1987, his solo work was still filled with venom as he continued to expunge his demons. In between solo albums, from 1992 to 1995, Mould began to relax a bit with his pop punk band, Sugar. But even on the group's poppiest and most upbeat release, 1994's File Under: Easy Listening, Mould was still lashing out, as he did at a celebrity who'd overstayed her welcome on "Granny Cool": "You've wallowed in yourself so long/ And dragged your other friends along But your room is empty now/ There's no more friends to drag around/ I wouldn't want to be/ Stuck in a room with you."
But the pleasant, cordial guy on the phone who says he's Bob Mould has nothing in common with this other person. A conversation with Mould today is like talking to an avuncular uncle who's willing to share his insights and experiences in the music business.
The current state of the business is enough to get a man all worked up, but today's Mould discusses it calmly, with a sense of humor. "Music used to be a religion to people, and now it's simply an accessory," Mould said by phone from his Washington, D.C. home.
The singer/composer recalled the sacred ritual of procuring vinyl records in his youth. First, you saved up your money from the crap job you hated, caught the bus to your downtown record shop where you frantically perused all the hip music magazines to see what was worth a listen. You took hours making your selections before working up the nerve to see if your selections were good enough to escape the disdain of the hip employees who rang up your purchases. Even then you wouldn't know if you had wasted your hard-earned money until you unwrapped the cellophane and put the platter under the needle for the first time.
Now, the journey is only as far as a keyboard. "It wasn't as easy as walking to a laptop and going, 'Look, an MP3 blog with 38 new songs that aren't even out yet,'" says Mould. "I'll just download all of those. I have no idea what the artwork is, I don't care anything about the band, maybe there's 15 seconds in here that speaks to me. If it does, I'll drag it into my iTunes library and maybe I'll remember it's there tomorrow."
That ritual of Mould's youth deepened a connection with the artist who sent the listener on a journey that made them think about their own choices in life. But today the portability and ready availability of music has shrunk the global village to a trailer park. "We should just all live in Airstreams basically, 'cause it's much easier to hook them up next to the little Intel shopping mall that has the Apple store and the Whole Foods and the Barnes & Noble so you can just live right there," Mould says. "And when you get tired of that one, you can just move 13 miles down the road to the next one."
But that's not the angry young man resurfacing. Mould interrupts his mild-mannered prognostications with chuckles. "I don't think I really get too angry about things," he says. "There's a sense of resignation, that life is gonna go the way it goes no matter how much I try to change it."
Case in point: Music has become such a part of the background in most people's lives that it might as well be wallpaper, diminishing the music as well as the artists. "People (are) finding out about Sonic Youth by playing Guitar Hero," he says, laughing, "and the 3-D representation of Sonic Youth looks more like Pink than it does like Sonic Youth. It's a very fractured sense of history."
Mould says he wouldn't have made it in the current marketplace. "If I was coming up now, I'd just throw my hands up and go 'This is nonsense,'" he says. He thinks he'd be better off as a graphic artist, a painter or perhaps in social work. "I think that's always a good alternative to music, to get out in the community and help people less fortunate," he says. "You're actually gonna have a much richer life than if you try to be a musician."
But that doesn't mean Mould's ready to retire or change jobs. He's come to terms with what he can do with his music. "I think any kind of preaching is really pointless," the singer says. "I think the work is going to resonate if people can act at levels that I can't predict."
His latest, District Line, has some of the instrumental fire of his earlier work, but the lyrics have mellowed. "Growing old, it's hard to be an angry young man," he sings in the middle of "Return To Dust," after amping up the guitars to an angry buzz, making sure he's got your attention before delivering his message. But this time out, his concerns are those of a mature, confident man coming to grips with his demons. "I figured out years ago that the bigger issues are: if my friends are OK, is everybody healthy, is everybody safe, does everybody have enough to eat, what's my role in my very small world," he says. "There's a lot of things that I haven't got involved in yet -- film scoring, creating music for other projects, musicals -- there's a lot left to do."