Bob Mould was born in 1960 in a small town in New York near the Canadian border. Little is known about his upbringing but that he listened to Revolver and the music of the Byrds on a small, portable phonograph and (though not necessarily as a result) developed a deep passion for the artfully predetermined craft of professional wrestling. Perhaps because the Canadian temperature was too forgiving, Mould traveled to Minnesota to attend college in 1979, where he met Grant Hart and Greg Norton. Under the influence of enough amphetamines to bring a small European nation to its knees, the three young men formed a band called Hüsker Dü, after the Scandinavian board game, and recorded the live album Land Speed Record, which featured an unprecedented seventeen songs in just twenty-six minutes. Though virtually unlistenable, the record marked Hüsker Dü as one of the most aggressive and unpredictable hardcore bands of its time—an era that included Bad Brains, Minor Threat, and Black Flag.
Something happened, though, over the next few years. While their peers burned out one by one in brilliant, coruscant plumes, the members of Hüsker Dü began to slowly sand away the willfully abrasive surface of American hardcore music to discover the buried remains of the early psychedelic rock and pop music Mould and his bandmates had absorbed as children. Without sacrificing the chaotic fervor that gave life to the form, Hüsker Dü redefined and reengineered hardcore by exposing the pop endoskeleton that girded the static squall of the breathtaking new movement. They were the first American independent band to cross over to the shadowy world of the major record label, and their traumatic experience with Warner Brothers Records, which eventually contributed to their demise in January 1988, would serve as an object lesson for the hordes of like-minded bands they left in their wake.
Mould went on to release a slew of solo albums, and spent the early 1990s fronting the band Sugar, competing with young bands whose sound he’d practically invented. Mould’s passion for wrestling never waned—throughout the ’80s, he occasionally filled in as a referee and kept close ties to the wrestling community. Jesse “The Body” Ventura was occasionally spotted at Hüsker Dü shows although there is no consensus about his degree of participation in the mosh pit. In 1999, Mould took a break from music to work as a consultant for Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling, an experience he describes as “kind of kooky.” His latest solo album is a confident return to form entitled Body of Song.
I. “TO ME, MUSIC IS VERY SACRED. AT THE END OF THE DAY, IT’S ALL I’VE EVER HAD.”
THE BELIEVER: Your new album is called Body of Song. I’m interested in your choice of words because it seems to me that the majority of your work has held the idea of the body in suspicion. The content of your songs brims with the heated emotional shrapnel of failed relationships, but there’s never really been anything sensual about them. Is there something significantly intimate about the title?
BOB MOULD: To me it carries a number of meanings. In the most literal sense, it refers to the actual body of a song—the parts that make up a song, like the verse, the chorus, and the bridge. I think, too, it conjures a very spiritual quality. You know, to me, music is very sacred. At the end of the day, it’s all I’ve ever had. When I take away everything else in my life, that’s the one thing that remains. And we’re living in an age where music isn’t sacred. Where, I think, in a way, music has become devalued. Maybe it’s my perspective because I’m getting older, but it doesn’t seem like people are as passionate about music as they were twenty years ago.
BLVR: How so?
BM: Music has gone from being a very important standalone art form to the soundtrack for other mixed media.
BLVR: You mean the way that, suddenly, every television show has an accompanying soundtrack CD?
BM: I’m just trying to think about it now. It used to be a sort of religious experience to go to see bands. There would be hundreds or thousands of people gathering for this common experience, and you don’t even see that so much anymore. I mean, you do, but everything is sort of down one level from where it used to be. And now I think people are really fond of the kind of event where there’s maybe fifty like-minded people. So we’ve really created this world of niches. I remember seeing this happening over the past ten or fifteen years. I remember the first time I got a CD in my mailbox from AT&T promoting their new 56k modem, and it had, like, four free songs on it. I looked at it, and—you know, I remember getting Archies songs off the back of cereal boxes in the ’60s—But I looked at this and went, “OK, so now something that they wanted me to pay for is showing up for free in my mailbox.” This was almost ten years ago. I just thought, “This is the beginning of the end. The business is so desperate that they’re going to give this—they’re going to start giving it away.” And sure enough, they did, and then all the online mp3, P2P stuff happened.
BLVR: But that, in itself, doesn’t necessarily mean that music has become devalued, right?
BM: Maybe I’m too removed now because I’m older, but I’m just not sensing the sort of affinity that used to be there. You know, when Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert came on and Alice Cooper came out with a snake, everybody talked about it for a year. They were like, “Holy shit, there was this freak on television with a snake.” That was before everything was so overexposed and burned out in ten minutes. There was mystery; there was conjecture about what this guy was really like. That’s all gone now.
BLVR: That reminds me of this clip I saw recently of a Public Image performance on American Bandstand in 1980…
BM: Oh, I loved that—when they just stopped lipsynching.
BLVR: Yes, and John Lydon made the entire studio audience come down on the dance floor. Dick Clark had absolutely no idea what to do. You’d never see anything like that today, despite the fact that we consider ourselves so much more “edgy” and “bold.”
BM: I think there’s just so much now. In an attempt for artists to create a brand or an identity, they will do anything,as often as they can. That’s progress for you. We can’t turn it back now. But it was like—what was it? The last Monkees episode where they had Tim Buckley come out? They just said, “Ladies and gentlemen, Tim Buckley,” and he came out and played a song on acoustic guitar. That was the end of the show. It was a move that ran contrary to everything that the Monkees had done or been. It was one of those moments where you’re just thinking, “OK, this is unbelievable.” In its simplicity, in its contrast. We don’t get so much of that now. The mystery has been taken away.
II. “THERE’D BE SOME KIND OF DEADLY GLOVE ON A POLE, AND WHOEVER GOT TO IT FIRST COULD USE IT.”
BLVR: Your career has been marked by periods of seclusion—when Hüsker Dü broke up in 1988, you retreated to a farmhouse in Minnesota for a year, emerging with an emotionally charged, mostly acoustic solo album called Workbook that was a stylistic about-face from the towering feedback of, say, New Day Rising. In the late ’90s, you took another break from music to work for World Championship Wrestling before emerging with another stylistic departure, the largely electronic Modulate,in 2002. I want to know everything I can about professional wrestling. How did you get that job?
BM: It was through friends of friends. I’d dabbled in it a little in Minneapolis in the 1980s, sort of got let in to the inside and learned how it worked. I had creative ideas, and I talked to people [at WCW]—a position opened up because there was a regime change—just imagine any kind of TV show where the writers are rotated. For seven months I sat in on the committee that basically wrote and produced the TV shows. I was in a very stressful position because I was the last stop before people went through the curtain. It was my job to make sure the show looked right. You know, that the show hit all its marks, I guess, in a Broadway sense. All the time cues. I had to tell the referee to speed things up or slow things down. Or tell the guys to do this or do that.
BLVR: That seems like a huge responsibility.
BM: It was kind of kooky. I got that responsibility put on me by the head writers, and I think I handled it well, but I was there for seven months working with a couple different writing staffs. The numbers were sinking before I got there, and I wasn’t able to help turn it around. I went home and they tried other people and went out of business in a year. I did the best I could.
BLVR: You said you had creative ideas—what would a creative idea look like in a professional wrestling match? I know I sound like a jerk when I say that, but I’m not trying to be snide. I’m just really interested in how an event like that is shaped.
BM: I’ll try to answer that by giving you a short history of how I used to see it growing up as a child and what it used to mean. The roots of professional wrestling are based in carnival. You know, the notion is that you fleece the marks—you tell the audience a story; you con them. They were predetermined fights. After the Second World War, before cable TV and before all that, there was wrestling specific to every part of the country.
BM: When I was growing up, yeah. For me it was basically Montréal, but all cities had wrestling.They had a promoter who owned what was called a territory— they might own maybe four cities’ worth of wrestling. And usually the guy who ran it was the top Babyface in the territory. He was the good guy; he was the one who did commercials for the car dealerships and went to church every Sunday and had a wife and was an upstanding citizen in the community. This Babyface had a handful of friends who were also local good guys of varying degrees of talent. And the heels, the bad guys, would rotate throughout the country every twelve or eighteen months.The Babyfaces owned their territory, so they would stay put and defend their turf. There’d be a guy, oh, say, in Nashville, who was the Babyface local hero; his kids played varsity basketball, whatever, you know, all that stuff, and lo and behold, one day, on this show, some “salt-throwing Jap” would show up…
BLVR: I think I see where this is going.
BM: … And just destroy all of his friends, all the way up to the top Babyface. In that one match, when the heel finally faces off with the Babyface, everyone thinks he’s throwing salt in the Babyface’s eyes, but it turns out it’s actually Drano. And then the Babyface shows up in church the next morning with his eyes wrapped in white gauze bandages, walking in with his family—you see where this is going, you know? The idea was that after four, eight, ten months of this, people were just dying to see the heel get his ass kicked. And so, eventually, there was that moment when the Babyface was being taunted, taunted, taunted, and finally he rips off the gauze and beats the living piss out of the guy and throws him out of town.
BLVR: Wow. That must have done wonders for race relations.
BM: It was so wrong, you know, [laughing] so deeply wrong, but people loved it because eventually America always won. The local hero that went to church every week eventually won. That was the whole point of it. With wrestling, the whole idea is to put heat on these heels—and after the war these guys would all be goosestepping Germans and salt-throwing Japs—you know, all the ridiculous, horrible things that I can’t even say anymore because our culture has advanced. But in postwar America, this is what we were dealing with.
BLVR: It’s an amazingly complex system, though—so deeply woven into the fabric of the community.
BM: It used to be unbelievable! And guys had amazing gimmicks, you know, like an Arab who would come in with a girl wearing a veil at his side, and he’d win, win, win, and then the girl would do something wrong and he’d beat her. The whole community would go, “holy shit, he just hit her,” and then immediately he becomes the ultraheel because he’s keeping his woman in place. Or there’d be some kind of deadly glove on a pole, and whoever got to it first could use it. That was a great tension builder, the glove on the pole, because the villain could kick the Babyface in the balls and get this unobstructed climb up the pole, and everyone’s screaming for the Babyface to get up off the ground and stop him. He does get up once, he gets up twice, and then finally he gets the glove and destroys the other guy. Just like Batman—you know, it’s all just like Batman and Robin, dangling over the vat of boiling oil.
BLVR: Did this system work through the ’50s and ’60s? How late did it go?
BM: It went through until about ’84 or ’85.
BLVR: That’s when WrestleMania took over, right?
BM: Yeah. Vince McMahon went to MTV and USA [Network] and made this deal where he was going to bring in Mr. T and Cyndi Lauper—remember all that crazy stuff?
BLVR: Captain Lou Albano…
BM:Yes, that’s when the whole thing changed. Vince had this notion of taking the whole business over, and it took him eighteen years, but he finally did it. He closed down most of the territories by going in and stealing most of the guys away. And he had cable TV behind him, and Ted Turner was the competition that held on for fifteen years, but Vince finally crushed the WCW and took over the whole operation. Anyway, to answer your question [laughs], this is what I studied as a child and remembered as a child, and took with me to the WCW job, but I walked into a climate where the business had been exposed for ten years, where everybody said “the whole thing is a sham—it’s fake,” which always bothered me—there was nothing fake about it. It’s predetermined. Everything you see is happening, and guys get hurt really badly—and the blood’s real. But it’s all planned out and choreographed. It’s very cooperative, because if any of that was unplanned people would be dead very quickly. The weirdest dynamic is that when you’ve got two guys who are pretending to hate each other so much— you know, guys that were the most convincing, when you really thought they were going to tear each other apart—they were the best of friends. Who else would you do those kinds of things with? It would have to be someone you had complete trust in.
III. “WE HAD TO START GIVING PEOPLE SOMETHING TO BELIEVE, BECAUSE IF THEY JUST SEE WRESTLING AS DISPOSABLE ENTERTAINMENT, THEY’RE GOING TO STOP COMING.”
BLVR: When do you think the golden age of wrestling ended? Was it when Hulk Hogan admitted to using steroids? I remember that having some impact.
BM:Yeah, Vince got caught up in the steroid scandal, and he sort of had to expose the business at that point. I think it was sort of like an either/or type of thing, like “my leg is in the trap, what do I do?” It just became this sort of situation where wrestling had to be defined as entertainment—you couldn’t say it was a sport. So by the time I got into the business in late 1999, it had become very sexually charged and very suggestive, and I was working with people who wanted to tell everybody that it was completely fake, that it was basically a soap opera, and, yes, that’s true, but my vision going in was that we needed to make this more competitive; we needed to make it more believable.We had to start giving people something to believe, because if they just see wrestling as disposable entertainment, they’re going to stop coming.They’ll find something to replace it.
BLVR: And that’s sort of happened, right?
BM: I think it’s starting to happen, yeah.
BLVR: What did the other writers think of your ideas for more fleshed-out, old-school characters? Did anything make it through?
BM: There would be days when I would be sitting on committee, just listening to people bullshitting, just trying to brainstorm, and one week I remember I just said, “OK, I’m going to see how far I can push this.” And I just started saying crazy stuff like, “Why don’t we have this match where these two guys who really hate each other are fighting in a cage. They’re fighting over this girl—we’ll have the girl chained up on top of the cage and they have to climb up the pole to get the key to unchain her so that she can climb up another pole to get some Viagra.” And the head writers were like, “Man, you’re on fire today, Bob! This is unbelievable!” And I’m just sitting there going, “Oh, man. My time here is limited.” There were people in the WCW—talent who had really gripping personal life stories—being homeless at a young age, getting mixed up in drugs, people who were rock stars in Mexico—there were all these true, fascinating, verifiable lives and you could do video packages on these people to try to bring some reality back. Because when you lay out a story like that, where somebody had an abusive childhood, then you’ve got people’s attention. Then, months later, you can do something with it. But, you know, they wanted Viagra on a pole.What can you do?
IV. “THERE’S REALLY VERY LITTLE I CAN DO EXCEPT BOW MY HEAD AND APOLOGIZE FOR MY SMALLNESS.”
BLVR: The opening track on Body of Song, “Circles,” seems to be more politically pointed than a lot of your past work, maybe with the exception of Black Sheets of Rain, which used the destruction of the environment as a lens on interpersonal relationships. But there’s this common idea that keeps cropping up in your work: the struggle between the individual and the institution. Zen Arcade, arguably the first hardcore punk concept album, was the story of a young man besieged by institutions like the educational system, the government, and the nuclear family. Beaster, an EP you released with Sugar, dealt exclusively with Christianity.What is it about that struggle against the institution that attracts you?
BM: “Circles,” to me, is more about a personal sort of forgiveness. Reconciliation—the idea that sometimes the forces around us are so much bigger than we are. Whether that comes in the futility of politics or the futility of failed relationships, or, you know, fighting against the machine, there are those moments where I get overwhelmed by it, and I think,“Well, there’s really very little I can do except bow my head and apologize for my smallness.”And that’s sort of a concept that’s a common thread through my work—whether it’s small versus large, overwhelming over insignificant—those are the daily struggles.
BLVR: You’ve often been called upon to talk about why you always write about depression, and your answer, at least around the time of Workbook, was that you try to exorcise the pain—that the act of songwriting takes the edge off whatever pain you’re feeling at the time. Is “Circles,” in a way, an attempt to address the fact that this pain is actually a cycle that keeps returning? I mean, you’re still making records that are dark and ruminative—it’s almost like that pain resurfaces at regular intervals, always with the same intensity, and there isn’t much we can do but sing for a while to stave off its return.
BM: I think, generally, I’m much sunnier than I used to be. That’s a function of age and just understanding that time is shorter, emotions have to be recognized and dealt with on a much more rapid basis. But the struggle never changes, really. I think seventeen years away from Workbook, I’m much better equipped to recognize and move beyond—to recognize and reconcile and get to the next place. But those things never change, and if they did I would start to worry. It’s not that I revel in the depression, but I do recognize that life offers a lot of beauty and a lot of pain, and a lot of concrete ideas and a lot of indefinites that we have to shape and fit ourselves into.
BLVR: That’s something I’ve always objected to when people have written off Workbook as a depressing record when in fact it’s as much a celebration of the light at the end of the tunnel as the darkness leading up to that light.
BM: The confessional form is a strong form, I think, to work in, but it’s also a very tricky form because in the confessional mode you’re dealing with a very personal, cathartic moment—but how does the writer personalize the experience and also make it resonate as universal? Sometimes it’s easier for people to go, “Oh, yeah, this is depressing music,” but, no, this music really hasn’t changed much in six hundred years. It’s still that same idea:“Forgive me, for I have sinned.” “How do I get to the next step of enlightenment?” It doesn’t change a whole lot. Same chord changes, too