Mould's dark moods -- and at times even darker sonic assaults on the senses -- have been the stuff of legend since he co-founded seminal American hardcore band Husker Du more than two decades ago in Minneapolis, becoming the consummate guitar anti-hero. Nowadays, though, the 41-year-old New York City resident is all about sweetness and light.
You can practically hear the squeaky spring in his step on his new CD, Modulate, the first peep we've heard out of Mould in four years. Back in 1998, upon the release of his fourth, and most accessible, solo effort, The Last Dog and Pony Show, Mould announced he was done with the intensely melodic wall-o'-guitars approach that had come to define much of his work -- especially his output with Sugar, the 90s trio that put the power back in pop and sweetened grunge's sour aftertaste with its impeccably crafted corn syrup. "That band came wound up to play every night," Mould says now of Sugar.
Modulate, with its synths, samplers and computer-based recording techniques, doesn't waste any time dashing prior perceptions of Mould's guitar-wielding manhood. The vocals for the leadoff techno twirler "180 Rain" boast a pitch-corrected stutter right off the Cher dance hit "Believe." And make no mistake, Mould had the former Mrs. Bono in mind all along. "Absolutely," he says without pause.
Elsewhere, Mould references Electronic, the on-and-off collaboration between former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr and New Order's Bernard Sumner, in his efforts to peg the brisk, hypnotic subterfuge effect he was after on Track 2, "Sunset Safety Glass."
"It's got that Joy Division/New Order type thing," he states. "The sound that carries the song is a sped-up 12-string acoustic riff. To me, it sounds like somebody sitting in the street playing a hurdy-gurdy."
Things are a little less alien on "Semper Fi," best described as latter-day Husker Du spun woozy to the "rat-ta-tat-tat" of a mechanized marching-band rudiment.
That pretty much sets the tone for the rest of Modulate, the remaining 11 tracks darting back and forth between the synthetic and the organic -- often within the same song. Thankfully, Mould never lives up to his promise to abandon the guitar as an integral songwriting tool. In fact, the disc is at its best when the fretboard wins out over the keyboard, those moments when hi-tech meets lo-fi and the two trade punches.
When the opposite holds true ("Quasar," "Lost Zoloft," "Trade"), however, Modulate sounds like an album with two left feet. It makes you wonder if Mould simply slept through the late 90s, back when electronica's taut techno-grooves were being touted as the "next big thing."
Mould wasn't actually asleep during the waning portion of the last decade, but he did take a well-deserved break from the music industry. By then, he'd become dog-tired of all the attention -- from the media, in particular -- that seemed focused as much on his sexual orientation as his music. Though he's now at peace with his homosexuality, coming out was a lengthy struggle for Mould -- and its fallout lingers in the lyrics to Modulate's "Semper Fi" and "Lost Zoloft."
"I was really self-hating," he admits. "[I was] a bit of a homophobe -- a gay homophobe, which is not an uncommon thing. [I wasn't] tolerant of the fringes of the gay community, which are now places that I embrace more than ever, just because I know more now than I did then."
But back then, he recalls, "I just didn't want to be a public figure anymore."
So in 1999, Mould took a job as creative consultant for the now-defunct World Championship Wrestling branch of AOL/Time Warner. As astonishing an occupational switch as it may sound to many, those seven months with WCW made perfect sense to Mould, who'd always wanted to work in TV. "It was hard work," he says. "But I learned a lot."
Apparently, it was just the sort of break he needed. Lately, Mould seems more at ease with just about everything, though he still displays familiar flashes of defiance when it comes to his music. When asked whether listeners will take to Modulate's new direction, Mould spits back, "Fuckin' they better. It's a good record, I think."
Then he lightens up. "I don't know. People are funny."
Mould's current tour, which he's dubbed the Carnival of Light and Sound, features the singer/guitarist performing alone on stage, accompanied by pre-recorded tracks -- from Modulate as well as revamped versions of older material -- while behind him a pair of 12-foot screens flash film shorts co-directed by Mould and various indie filmmakers.
"I'm nervous as shit. I haven't got a clue whether any of this shit is going to work or not," Mould says. "Between interviews, I got to sneak out and see the 'Makes No Sense at All' video, which is fucking beautiful and brilliant and controversial and everything I wanted it to be."
Here's something else to consider: With Mould's new electronic sensibility and hipper look -- shaved dome, soul patch, svelte physique -- there's always the prospect of a younger generation of fans latching onto Modulate, a scenario Mould finds somewhat hard to fathom.
"That would be so wild; that would be so whacked out," he says. "The tour is set up for the old folks to sit in the chair and watch the drive-in movie. I hope it'll be reasonably loud."
Bob Mould will perform April 19 at the Visulite. Call 704-358-9200 for details. *