The notion of an artist “coming full circle” or “returning to his roots” is an appealing one, especially to longtime fans — for whom such a “return” can sometimes seem no less portentous than the prodigal son coming home after years of decadent and callow indulgences.
For the better part of the last year, Bob Mould has been anointed for just such a “return” – ever since the release of Body of Song (Granary Music), his first studio recording of guitar rock since 1998, after having immersed himself in electronic music for several years prior. And while the “full circle” tag is a bit facile – a few Body of Song tracks pulse with electronic grooves and oscillating sonic shapes — it is indeed the guitar-intensive record Mould-ophiles have been waiting for since his late-’90s fall from guitar grace.
They can be forgiven for such intensity, though, because Mould’s own intensity has long inspired such devotion — ever since his band, Huesker Due, was one of the seminal acts on the 1980s hardcore scene. Indeed, Mould’s mix of savage guitar fury and savvy popcraft was a big influence on Nirvana (along with the Pixies, of course). And the seductive tunefulness of his songs helped keep the hardcore scene from swallowing itself in a melody-free squall of noise.
Body of Song is hardly a revisitation of Huesker Due’s pulverizing guitar din, however. In some ways, it evokes Workbook, Mould’s bristling but elegant late-’80s solo debut, or Copper Blue, the sonically ambitious ’92 debut by his short-lived ’90s band Sugar. On Body of Song, as with those discs, Mould creates brisk power-pop contexts for his eloquent grunge and careening, stacked-guitar collisions. But the presence of electronic effects on a few tracks gives Song a decided 21st-century vibe.
Mould, who comes to the Grey Eagle on Tuesday, cites several reasons for his late-’90s departure from guitar rock.
“I’d become pretty frustrated with the electric guitar, and with American guitar rock in general,” he says by phone from his home in Washington, D.C., where the Minnesota native has lived for the last few years. “I had been making that kind of music for 20 years, and it was what was expected of me, and I just really felt stuck. I also didn’t hear much happening in guitar rock at the time that I found very inspiring.
“Also, I was getting close to 40, and I was starting to become concerned about my hearing, from all those years of playing with bands, and playing really loud.”
That’s for sure. I caught Sugar in the mid-’90s, not long after he and bandmates David Barbe and Malcolm Travis sculpted huge slabs of compressed sonic fury on the Beaster EP — and remember thinking, “Man, this guy is going to blow his ears out.”
“Yeah, that was definitely the loudest tour,” says Mould with a laugh. A couple of years later, on his ’96 Bob Mould solo disc, he signaled his first ripples of guitar-rock discontent with his only-half-kidding song “I Hate Alternative Rock” — and, in one interview, when he mockingly referred to Smashing Pumpkins as “Smashy Punky.”
Mould initially intended to release Body of Song in 2002, as a companion disc to the Modulate CD, his foray into the electronic world of samplers, vocoders and other computerized effects, as he sought to create new sonic textures and new contexts for his oft-brooding lyrics.
“I had a few songs written and recorded, but I still just wasn’t into it,” says Mould of his efforts to find new possibilities for the electric guitar. “I wasn’t feeling it, so I decided to just put it on the shelf for a while.” The hold that electronic music had taken on him was evidently still a strong one. “I’d spent the last few years living in New York, and dance music was just huge there at the time,” he recalls. “It just began to strike me that some of the most creative and intriguing music wasn’t being made by rock bands, it was in the dance clubs.”
Modulate‘s electronic textures were the result of what Mould now calls “a self-taught experiment. I really didn’t know what I was doing with that equipment at first, so it was very exciting to be learning this new thing, and stumbling onto new sounds. I think that’s true any time you try something new. With guitar, I found that I had sort of fallen into muscle memory — after so many years, your hands start falling into the same patterns. But with electronic music, and the samplers, it was a whole new world.”
Then, in late 2004, Mould says, “I was fooling around with the samplers and I looked over at the guitar, and it just felt like the time was right for incorporating electronic music and electric guitar.”
One of the most intriguing tracks on Body of Song is “Always Tomorrow,” an ominously atmospheric excursion built on a shuddering, dubby bass line played by Mould (he does bass duty on all the tracks except two, “High Fidelity” and “Gauze of Friendship,” which feature the aggressive bottom-end of his old mate Barbe).
Mould went out with a band for much of ’05, promoting Body of Song, but the mini tour that comes to the Eagle is a solo outing — just Mould, with a few acoustic and electric guitars. A live DVD culled from the ’05 full-band tour is in the works.
Next up is another album, inspired by the “Blowoff” DJ gigs Mould has been doing in D.C. the last few years with his pal Richard Morel, previously the engineer and songwriter for the techno act Deep Dish. The “Blowoff” disc is slated to be released this year.
“There’s a lot of guitar, and some synthesizers, and both of us sing,” says Mould. “Richard wrote some songs, I wrote some songs, and it goes from downtempo, to house music, to ’60s pop, to some dark ballads. Stylistically, it’s really all over the place.”
We wouldn’t expect anything less.
[This is Kevin Ransom’s seventh interview with Bob Mould, dating back to 1989.]
Bob Mould plays the Grey Eagle (185 Clingman Ave.) on Tuesday, March 28. 8 p.m. $13/$15. 232-5800.