isIt has been two weeks since Bob Mold was able to open his windows. “The air is quite toxic,” he reports from his home in San Francisco, as forest fires in California are gradually turning the sky orange. This is just one example of the unfortunate foreknowledge of his new album, Blue Hearts, which opens with the words “the left side is covered in ashes and flames”.
Veteran singer / songwriter response to President Trump, Blue Hearts tries out a shattered America, from climate change, to Civil War rumbles (Heart on My Sleeve), to religious right-wing hypocrisy (Forecast of Rain, which anticipates Jerry Falwell The recent scandal of Jr). “The terrible division in this country right now comes from the top, from our leader,” he said contemptuously. “It’s runoff racism.”
Blue Hearts’ most blatant controversy is American Crisis, evoking the blitz attack by Mold’s pioneering 80s hardcore group, Hüsker Dü, as he yells, “I never thought I’d see that crap again.”
“The lyrics fell from me in about four minutes,” he says. “I could see flames on the page. I saw parallels between Trump and Reagan, those Hollywood celebrities brought to power by the religious right, and I remembered how I felt in the 80s, a young gay man certain of my sexual preference, if not my gender identity, with the “moral majority” telling me that AIDS was God’s punishment. I did not understand then how to advance the cause of my community. But things are so bad now that no reasonable artist can shut up. And the words on this album are straightforward. Now is not the time to be oblique or allegorical. Writing the album was a visceral compulsion, he said, something he had no control over. “This evil echoed so clearly through my body that I had to write to cancel the resonance. It’s like when my tinnitus is really bad I have to go to the beach because the only thing stronger than my tinnitus is the ocean.
Music has always been Mold’s refuge. “My father, who had a terrible temper and could be really violent, also brought me music,” he recalls. “He would buy old jukebox singles for a penny a coin. These records were my toys. I played them day and night. They represented the world to me and are sitting on the shelf four feet from me right now. They remain my main inspiration. I was this broken little child and music was the only thing that could choke all the chaos I grew up around. I still believe that music can change the world – I watched The Beatles do it.
By the time he got a scholarship to Macalester College in Minnesota, he had changed allegiance to the Ramones, forming Hüsker Dü with two local record store employees, handlebar mustache bassist Greg Norton and shoeless singer / drummer Grant Hart. . Few in the hardcore punk scene have performed so fiercely or so quickly, but the trio quickly recognized such mastery as a creative dead end. They showed ambition on Zen Arcade, a 1984 double-concept album recorded in a weekend of speed, mixing punk, pop and psychedelia. “We were evolving, going beyond hardcore,” he recalls. “We evolved into relationship-based songs – Pete Shelley of Buzzcocks had shown me the power of gender-neutral love songs.”
Hardcore was a relatively heteronormative scene, with the Texas Dicks and Big Boys among the few groups with openly “out” members. “The credo of the military was ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’; in hardcore it was ‘don’t advertise, don’t worry,’ ”says Mold. “I’ve had a few casual encounters with guys on the road. But it was a community of misfits, and most of the time no one cared what you were doing behind closed doors. Although when [genre pioneers] Bad Brains stayed with Grant’s parents when they played in Minneapolis, they left a note saying “Die, bundle, die”.
In 1986, Hüsker Dü signed with the big label Warner Bros., but was already fragmenting. “Grant was heading to another group of musicians who didn’t have the healthiest habits, Greg had married and moved to the country, and I had quit drinking,” Mold recalls. They broke up after Hart accidentally broke his methadone bottle at the start of a tour and began withdrawing from heroin. But Mold says the incident was only “the period after a sentence of 18 consecutive months.”
Hostility smoldered between Hart and Mold for years. Meanwhile, Mold isolated himself on a Minnesota farm for 18 months, returning with an acclaimed folk-rock album, 1989’s Workbook. He was dropped by his label after a commercially disappointing follow-up, but the monster success of a group in debt to the former group of Mold would skyrocket its stock. “What Nirvana did was nothing new – Hüsker Dü did it before us,” Krist Novoselic said of the metallic melodies on their groundbreaking album Nevermind.
Approached as a possible producer for Nevermind, Mold had otherwise dealt with his new songs, indebted equally to the Beatles of the Revolver era and My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. Copper Blue, the debut album by his new band Sugar, was the biggest commercial success of Mold’s career. “To triple the sales never made by Hüsker Dü,” he says proudly. “It was a different landscape. We had done all the heavy lifting in the 1980s, and Nirvana had built a skyscraper on the foundation that we had laid. Sugar took the elevator to the 25th floor.
In 1994, however, Spin magazine signaled its intention to “get out” of the mold. “It was, ‘We can do it the hard way or the easy way,’” he recalls. ” They sent [novelist] Dennis Cooper for the interview, and he was a good guy. But it was horrible. I was gay, I had an affinity with the community, but I was in a monogamous relationship, I wasn’t in gay bars, I hadn’t buried my friends every weekend. I was neither Jimmy Somerville nor Tom Robinson, the guys who had done the heavy lifting at the time. I couldn’t be a spokesperson for anything other than my music.
The experience was traumatic, but ultimately helped Mold reconcile his sexual preference and gender identity. In 1998, he moved to Chelsea in New York and became “part of the scene, finally.” I decided, “I’m going to be gay, get pretty, go to the gym and have a new lifestyle. It was great spending time with pornstars, going to wild parties on Fire Island, training with Sandra Bernhard. Electronic music was the soundtrack to it all: Sasha and Digweed, Madonna, Cher… Here’s the vocoder!
Mold began to experiment with electronic music, confusing his longtime fan base. “A gay story without a guitar equals WTF?” he’s laughing. “I had no idea what I was doing, and no one else understood it, but I didn’t care. He then moved to Washington DC and, alongside DJ Rich Morel, started the weekly Blowoff Party, where he discovered and was adopted by the “bear” community. “I had been this confused gay who had no real identity,” he recalls. “Finding a community that I was comfortable in, in a scene that wasn’t ‘body-centered’, was like finding a home. And these parties were my craziest escapades as a gay man. One evening Lady Gaga’s bodyguards took over the DJ booth and she performed Bad Romance for the very first time, standing on the balcony like Eva Perón, and the whole dance floor froze… ”
Mold eventually returned to guitar music with Body of Song in 2005, and in 2011 wrote his memoir, See a Little Light. But if he had made some peace with his sexuality and traumatic childhood, there had been no reconciliation with Hart, his collaborator and competitor in Hüsker Dü. They had maintained an icy distance over the decades, until they finally agreed to collaborate on what became Savage Young Dü, a 2017 set of pre-renamed archival recordings. However, Hart would not live to see his release.
“I was told that Grant’s health had changed, so I flew to Minneapolis from Berlin, where I lived,” he says. “We spent a weekend together and it was wonderful. We cleared it all up, we laughed at the past and we cried about it too. We shared a lot of fun stories, a lot of personal moments. I’ve never talked about it before. But eventually our relationship ended as well as it could have. I was really grateful to have this chance, this time with him.
Today he awaits the pandemic in San Francisco, having compiled an exhaustive 24-CD box set of his post-Hüsker Dü release, and can’t wait to take Blue Hearts on the road. “My head is on fire, I’m unemployed, but I love my life right now,” he smiles. “I hope this doesn’t sound insensitive in the face of a global pandemic and the death of democracy in America.” The election is on his mind, because it will be until November. “Blue Hearts was written as that terrible warning, but it will be a crazy party if we get to the other side,” he adds. “I can’t wait for the party.”
• Blue Hearts is now available on Merge. The 24-CD Distortion box set releases October 23 on Demon, alongside the first of four vinyl boxes.