Hüsker Dü Database
Magazine articles & interviews

Guitar for the Practicing Musician, Jul 1987

Nicely written Bob Mould feature in this issue, with a bit of technical stuff and a whole lot of reminiscing. Photo credit: Daniel Corrigan/Artist Pub.

n a rock 'n' roll world seemingly littered with spandex sheep, Bob Mould is a definite character, from his solid, Midwestern farmboy
semi-crew and lumpen prole demeanor to the sound and stance of his minimalist speed punk band Hüsker Dü. Who else but a character of the first order would choose to release as a homemade single, a cover of "Love Is All Around," the theme from The Mary Tyler Moore Show? WHo, of course, but a fellow native of Mary's own turf, Minneapolis. It was Mould and cronies, you may or may not be surprised to discover, who offered one night to a not-quite standing room only crowd in Northern Oklahoma*, a 45-minute encore of a single note.
      "That was interesting," Mould snickered, recalling the event with an insurgent's glee. "A lot of people were pinned to the wall. A lot of people left. After we stopped it took the people who were pinned to the wall about five minutes to gather their wits back up, and then there were sort of these blank looks on their faces and they were walking around bumping into each other. They didn't quite know what to make of it. 45 minutes of the same note will do it."
      A chubby American original out of Mark Twain, Bob Mould was not designed for the haute couture guitar politics of Princeville. "People hated our
guts with a passion," he recalled with a certain Lou Reedlike detachment. "We were obnoxious brats; we were brats of the first degree. We told everybody where they could stuff it. And we were so fast you couldn't tell one song from the other. We said, 'Why don't you all go to hell; we don't give a shit what you think. You're not going to make us go away just because we don't come to your parties after the gig.' In Minneapolis we were not cool; we were not a skinny tie band and we didn't sound like Prince, so we didn't fit in. We were brats; we told everybody where to go. It paid off."
      Not fitting in never bothered the likes of Mould, or his compatriots in Hüsker Dü, which may be why their music is widely accepted among college students. Something about that eternal quest for identity and intellectual stimulation must be stirred by Hüsker Dü's emotionally and sonically shattering sound. "They have strong personal beliefs, and they have a strong belief in themselves," Mould commented of this college constituency. They're strong individuals, or maybe they're the opposite. Maybe they're really weak individuals and find strength in what we're doing. Our main message is that we don't have answers for people. You really have to think your own life out yourself and be responsible for what you're doing on all levels."
      Mould has done a lot of thinking about the uses and abuses the guitar
has undergone in its varied history as the spokespiece of rock 'n' roll. Not taking up the instrument until he was 16, Mould was moved to future greatness by a seminal moptop quartet. "Believe it or not, the Ramones were the people who got me to pick up a guitar," he admitted. "I just heard all that power chording and I was going, 'if it's that easy, anybody can do it.' They had a good sense of upper harmonics. I liked that overring they got out of their instruments. Nobody's really gotten that for years, just that sound out of one guitar."
      Characteristically, Mould is somewhat of a guitar purist. "I think for a lot of people the accoutrements, whether it's the look or the whammy bar or whatever, is a confidence builder for them. The more cliches, the more trappings they can surround themselves with, the more comfortable they think they are because it's tried and true. To get out there in your regular clothes and break convention and just play what you feel like playing is a big challenge. We used to get a little nervous before we played; now we look forward to it. Every night is a challenge for us to get it across the way it's supposed to be." The way it's supposed to be for Mould is to play what he feels.
      "Not even worrying about breaking convention, just doing emotionally what's coming out of your hands and your head at that moment and hoping that you can

* This was Norman, Oklahoma (misheard by the author, or maybe a typo).

get it across," he elaborated. "And then when it starts to falter, you come back to reality. It happens little by little. People accepting your music helps. You get to the other side, to where it becomes second nature. Sometimes I start tryng to explain the way I play. But it's like, how do you tell people to put the palm of your hand on the 3rd fret here, and then just start whacking strings at the 15th fret with your other hand while you're faced at a 45 degree angle ... a lot of it is just winging it. Sometimes I'll get off on a tangent where I can't come back. I just go blank. I get so wrapped up in it all. I just try to completely remove myself from reality and not think consciously about anything that anybody else is doing, not even think about what I'm doing, just whatever sounds come out is what it is.
      "I had hit a point where I wasn't getting any better and then all of a sudden I got a lot better," Mould said. "It wasn't a mastery of the instrument, but just a better understanding of how to work with it. A lot of it comes out of sheer frustration. You've got your barre chords and your suspended chords and you learn your little bit of jazz thing, you know, your 13ths. And then you're like, 'oh yeah, I can play fake lounge chords.' And then all of a sudden you just go 'wait a minute, what would happen if I decided to take the idea of hammer-ons and twist it around backwards so that I'm not using vibrato?' I have to think ahead. If I want to do a bend, I can hammer on 7th fret, 9th fret, and start by jacking the string with my hand behind the foundation note instead of doing it up there. Or doing things like trying to put the pickups at the top of the neck. A lot of how I started experimenting on my original discipline was trying to learn how to play everything backwards, and that opens up a whole new school. I had a nice period where I started finding out the value of real obnoxious feedback, and working different grooves with it. A lot of it is just breaking convention and really not listening to what other people are playing. I was never a flashy lead player, and I don't consider myself a good lead player now. But it's like you have to learn the rules before you realize there's none."
      Now that Warner Brothers has gotten into the act with a major league record contract, don't expect the Hüsker Dü machine to suddenly turn into the Big Red Machine. "When they signed us they knew what they were gettng," said Mould. "They were getting a band that had been set in their ways for nearly seven years and they weren't going to be very open to major change. They wanted Hüsker Dü for the band that it is, not the band they think it should be. They don't affect our creativity whatsoever."
      Still, they were not about to return the advance money. "We invested in recording equipment," Mould allowed. "We keep our overhead really low. We do a lot of investigating our options as far as whether it's cheaper to bring our own or rent full PA monitors and tack it onto your guarantee. We found the best thing is to go with a proven sound company in a certain city, bring in your own monitor system, bring in your vital microphones, your vocal mikes and DR lines, and just go with a good rented system. We rent lights; we don't need to bring 150 lights with us. We just need a PA that will kick out 120 clean at the board." Roots guy that he is, bedrock individualist, Mould is also Hüsker Dü's manager.
      "I think the business has changed to where it's not enough just to be a guitar player in a band and write songs. It's nice to know what's going on and which radio stations in which cities are playing you, who's doing the interviews, what time of day, which radio stations are the ones to talk to right away, and which ones you do a phone interview with later, and how's the record selling here, and who's the local person who's going to come out to see you, and what's the guarantee, what's the break point? How much did the PA really cost? You have to play the right venue for the market you're dealing with. If you're getting a lot of commercial play you want to make sure you do a bigger show. You try to translate record sales and press and radio play into what knd of show you're going to do; not what you're going to play on stage, but what promoter, what night of the week. We were always doing New York on Wednesday just because we thought it was more valuable for us to get into Philadelphia on a weekend, or get into Baltimore or Washington on weekends. Now we do Washington on Sunday night; you always do Boston on Sunday afternoon; you always do Cleveland ob Friday night. You always do Madison Friday, Milwaukee Saturday, Chicago Sunday afternoon.
      "We usually do a 75 minute set. We don't write a set, we work in blocks of three or four songs that fit well together, usually taken right off the records in that order because that's why they're in that order in the first place, 'cause they work well together. We'll jump from maybe half of side one of one album to side two of another album, and then interchange a lot of songs depending on the mood, depending on what the crowd's like and depending on how we're feeling. If somebody blew their voice out, we try to avoid a song where there's a lot of high notes. We try to cover for each other. It's a matter of pacing, knowing your material
Continued on page 106

Continued from page 12
and knowing how your material is going to affect people. You know, how you run key changes together, how you run tempos together. We traditionally come out for about 25-30 minutes of solid blasting, where it's really loud and pretty uptempo and pretty aggressive. We'll take it down for about 15-20 to give people just a little bit of a breather. We never used to give people a breather before. We used to play 45 minutes straight, just as fast as we could. Some nights my hands are just so tired that I cannot bend a note a whole third. I can't do it. And some nights the acoustics in the room just don't allow your playing to come across as well as it should. Those nights you fall back into your per the record playing. But the good nights are real good. Sometimes I think it's the best we ever played and people come up to us and go, 'wow, that was weird.'"
      Starting from the bottom, the Hüsker Dü sound is powered by two Marshall cabinets with 12 volt Celestions, two Yamaha 100 watt heads, a Fender Concert and a British Fender Twin Junior on top. "So I'm using a combination of a lot of solid state stuff to get a real heavy low end out of it and then I'm using tube amps on the top to get a really screaming high end," Mould explained. "I've got three Ibanez 1975 Flying Vs. I got one about nine years ago, and then I got a second one. Then I found another '75 Ibanez. Somebody had pulled the stock pickup out of the lead position and put a PAF in there. Ibanez had the super 70's pickup on the Artist's Series, sort of like a jazz sounding pickup, real microphonic but real clean. Then I run all that stuff through an old MXR distortion. So it's really cool cause you still have some of the original bite left after the wash and the noise."
      A homemade band from the get-go, Hüsker Dü has left behind the basement days— in an East St. Paul church— but Bob Mould won't soon forget his earnest beginnings. "It's just a matter of taking all the money that your band makes and keepiong it for the band and not spending it on beer and pizza after the show. When we did our first single we pressed up 2,750 copies and thought it would be reasonable.
It turned out to be way too many for the first outing. We only sold 1000 or so. We got loans and kept deferring them to rent a truck to do a tour. Zen Arcade was the big turning point for the band. We started adding a lot of things to the mix— acoustics, keyboards, doing a lot of backwards stuff. Everybody thinks we did a lot of tape looping, but it was all straight backwards playing. We never use loops. We did that double record in 80 hours. It cost $4000." Their new release, Warehouse: Songs and Stories, also a double album, took nine weeks to record, but they brought it in for $30,000, still a pittance by today's standards. "We spend more now because we have the luxury of making sure that the drums sound exactly the way they should, so that we don't have to mess around later on," Mould explained. "It was also material we hadn't worked out live before we went in, so we needed time for sonic explorations. As far as production goes, it's just a matter of quality control, trying to improve on your sound."
      Back in humbler times, such niceties seemed as far away as Hüsker Dü's first trip West. "We spent about four months practicing and writing two sets of material; after that it took almost a year and a half before we played out of town, because we were getting our chops together. Then we put out a single and then we hit the road, started touring, started living on a wing and a prayer. We just got in a truck and went," Mould said. "We had some friends along the way who had some contacts with promoters and we tried to get on shows for $10, $20, $30— anythng we could do. We learned a lot about life. We were sleeping on people's floors until last spring. Living on three dollars a day is not a lot of fun. Then the critics in the bigger papers started going, 'Look, I don't like this kind of music, but these guys have an edge and an energy and a way with a crowd that nobody else has.' And it just started filtering back and a buzz got started and once it gets started, then you can do real well. And then the buzz gets real big, and that's when they set you up for the backlash, which is inevitable.
      "You've got to have a tough skin," Mould concluded. "If you're a musician, you've got to be calloused all over."

Back to Hüsker Dü magazine articles page
Back to Hüsker Dü database main page