This is definitely a year of milestones for Bob Mould.
It’s been 30 years since the openly gay alternative-rock pioneer made an indelible impact in the evolution of popular music as a founding member of the influential punk band Hüsker Dü and 20 years since he released his first solo album.
Since then, Mould, now 48, has cemented his status as an alternative-rock icon, fronting and writing for another highly regarded band, Sugar, in the 1990s and with even more solo efforts. His highly acclaimed solo career is still thriving today.
Like most of Mould’s solo albums, his latest, “Life and Times,” was written and recorded almost entirely on his own.
“I’ve been pretty self-contained,” Mould said. “I guess in the last 10-12 years, it’s been pretty extreme. I work at home by myself and reach out to other musicians when the work is almost completed. I work in a little bit of a vacuum, but I think that’s part of the charm of what I do. I think that personalizes it for people.”
With a title like “Life and Times” and a memoir hitting shelves in 2010, one might assume the two projects are related. “It almost seems as if I did the album to set up the book,” he acknowledged. “But ‘Life and Times’ was the title of the first song that I sat down to write for this record. The first three songs on the album were written in that order over the course of a weekend. I guess that was what informed the title.”
Anyone who caught Mould on tour last year might recognize some of the songs on “Life and Times,” as he aired some of them live before he recorded them.
“I was doing some acoustic dates last summer and I was playing ‘Sorry Baby [But You Can’t Stand in My Light Any More],’ ‘The Breach’ and ‘City Lights’ a couple of times,” Mould said. “‘Sorry Baby’ was the one that I was playing the most — every night — and getting a very strong response back from people. The rest of the songs sort of fell into place later in the year when I got back home to D.C. and applied myself to finishing out the record. It was a nice, long writing process.”
While many artists 30 years deep into their careers sound like they’re phoning it in, Mould’s latest is a vital blast of alternative rock punctuated by hard-charging songs like “Argos,” meditative tracks like “Lifetime” and the very-hooky “City Lights (Days Go By).” Ten songs later, the ride is over and you want to listen to the whole thing again.
“I’m old school. I grew up on 32-minute albums,” Mould said. “Ten good songs makes a much stronger impact than 16 songs where 10 might be good and the other six are distracting. I think the artform for me has remained the same. So if you can’t get it done in 40 minutes or less, you should reconsider what you’re trying to say.”
“Life and Times,” along with Mould’s 2008 CD, “The District Line,” represents a departure for the artist as both were released on Anti Records, a sister label of the successful Epitaph Records. Mould had issued the bulk of his previous solo work through his own independent label, Granary Music, but said Anti is working out as an appropriate home for his work.
“I think they both worked well,” he said, comparing the two labels. “Granary had a distribution deal with Sony so I had the machinery behind me. With Anti, I think it has a great roster. It’s a place for songwriters and career artists who have a solid body of work to take out and present to people. It’s been a really good fit. It works for both of us. It’s a tough business right now. We’re trying to stay in this business together. I don’t know how new artists make it in the music business. I’m very lucky that I’ve been at it for a long time and I’ve got a brand that sustains and a history that allows me to continue working. We’re in the middle of a major state of change. We’re coming out of the other side and it will be great. It’s a curious time. Nobody really knows what’s next.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is Mould’s popularity as a live performer, and his current solo acoustic tour will find him performing songs spanning his career on April 3 at the North Star Bar.
“I’m going back to Hüsker Dü,” he said. “Since ‘Life and Times’ is a touchstone for the 20th anniversary of ‘Workbook,’ my first solo album, I’m doing a fair amount off of that record. I’m also doing a good amount of Sugar stuff and selected tracks from the second solo era, which started in 1996. It’s a career stand. It goes back to ’83 or ’84. It covers a lot of ground.”
The current leg of Mould’s solo tour will end with a bang when he performs with his band at the Coachella Valley Arts and Music Festival in Indo, Calif. He said that transitioning from intimate clubs to a massive media-circus event like Coachella can be a shock to the system for any artist.
“In my time I’ve done a lot of big festivals like that. It was very overwhelming to walk out and see that many people assembled to hear music. It’s funny because at festivals, they’re assembled to hear music, not specifically my music. When I’m in a small-club setting, everyone is there for one reason: They want to hear the songs that I’ve written and that’s all they want to hear. In a festival setting, there’s the notion that there is that many people together to listen to everybody’s music and, on a big stage like that, you can’t rely on the crowd to be behind you. It’s a real challenge. It doesn’t happen every day. For some people it does, but not for me.”
On top of his solo career, Mould continues to host Blowoff, an alternative-music party he started with out DJ, producer and artist Richard Morel. Since debuting in 2003, Blowoff has grown into monthly event in Washington, D.C., at The 9:30 Club, and a bi-monthly event at New York City’s Highline Ballroom.
Mould said Blowoff’s popularity continues to grow.
“It’s gotten a fair amount bigger in the last 18 months,” he said. “Now we’re going every couple of months to Brooklyn and San Francisco. We’re adding Chicago in over Memorial Day weekend. We’ve got plans for other cities in the U.S. coming up in the next two years. People love the music and have a great time at the party. I’m fortunate to have this career that’s becoming as big as my other career. It’s really busy right now. To us, it’s presenting a solid night of music in the right context in the right setting. Rich and I are very aware of what we’ve got and we’re very conscious of the decisions that we make about it. Rich and I are very protective of Blowoff. I think our crowd knows that and that’s what makes it work.”
Blowoff, with its leanings toward the beer-drinking, leather-daddy and “chunky-hunk” demographic, isn’t your typical electro/dance party, as Mould and Morel incorporate alternative rock and pop into their DJ sets, allowing artists like The Killers and The Cult to bump shoulders with those like Grace Jones and Tears For Fears.
“Musically, I tend to start with quieter intro music: low-fi, experimental stuff. I try to build it up a bit and get people dancing by the end of the first hour,” Mould said. “Usually my second set is the floor filler, with big anthem-y aggressive stuff. Rich usually closes it out with pop stuff and maybe gets a little bit deeper into house stuff. Rich’s background in remixing is way more pronounced than mine. With Blowoff, I think there’s some overlap with the DJ culture. We don’t go into dance clubs. We go into live-music venues to do our events. We’re really trying to focus on the music more than anything else. That’s what works for us. I’ve started to see other events around the country that are taking a similar approach. It’s a different way of doing things.”
Mould added that he doesn’t expect to find new fans for his solo work among those who frequent Blowoff.
“It’s not geared for that,” he said. “If that was a by-product, that would be great. When I’m working on Blowoff, my focus is on putting music together that makes for a great party. I don’t look at it as a way to promote my traditional career. I know there are a lot of gay men that are familiar with my music history that have been fans for a long time and are really big supporters of Blowoff. There are old punk-rock guys who I didn’t know were gay then but are gay now and hanging out at Blowoff.”
Bob Mould performs at 9 p.m. April 3 at North Star Bar, 2639 Poplar St. For more information or tickets, visit www.northstarbar.com or call (215) 787-0488. For more information on Mould or Blowoff, visit www.granarymusic.com or www.blowoff.us.