There are the records you like that everyone else seems to like, and the records you like that very few people have heard. And then there are the records you like that everyone else who has heard them seems to despise, the records that sank, or nearly sank, musicians’ careers. At the top of that third stack, for me, is Bob Mould’s modulate. Before it came out in 2002, Mould was known as an indie-rock guitarist, writing grim, angry, straightforward songs. modulate, though, was half mumbled and half AutoTuned, flipping disconsolately between dirty guitars and a low-budget version of the Pet Shop Boys, composed partly on synthesisers that sounded as if he’d just bought them; it was dance music that nobody could dance to, a collection of could-have-been hits undermined and overrun by brassily programmed samples, police sirens, bells, boxy electronic drums, and other touches that repelled a rock audience without going out of its way to grab anyone else.
I love its flailing, between-two-stools doggedness, the way it tries to enter a brighter digital future, to get away from rock, without getting free; I love the vocal lines, subdued yet desperate, self-questioning or sarcastic (‘I bet you thought we had it maaaaade,’ one song whines); I love the way the songs end abruptly, as if giving up on themselves midstream. And now that I’ve read Mould’s terrific memoir, See a Little Light, I know more about how modulate came to be, and more about the life that generated the other records, before and afterwards, that tens of thousands of people liked more.
Mould made his name singing and playing guitar with Hüsker Dü. The band was formed in 1979, in Mould’s first year at Macalester College in Minnesota, where I used to teach. Mould met Grant Hart, Hüsker Dü’s barefoot drummer and second songwriter, in a record shop down the street from my old apartment, 20 years before I lived there; with Greg Norton on bass they booked their own almost non-stop US tours through the early 1980s, sleeping on local scene-makers’ floors, playing faster than anyone else in American hardcore punk, and learning to write proper songs as they went. Their double album Zen Arcade (1984) shook up the insular ‘underground’ rock world: no one, at least in America, knew you could play so furiously and produce a consistent melody too. Without it, we might never have had Nirvana, or, for better or worse, Oasis.
The songs were exhilarating, but also morose: inspiring, soaring even (they covered the Byrds’ ‘Eight Miles High’), but not exactly fun. And after a while, the band was no fun to be in: See a Little Light describes the push and pull between Mould’s workaholic intensity (fuelled until 1985 by ephedrine, a.k.a. ‘trucker speed’, and until 1986 by copious drinking) and Hart’s shambolic detachment (made worse by heroin). First in rural isolation, then in Manhattan, Mould constructed a solo career and put together other bands, most famously Sugar, which found commercial success in Nirvana’s slipstream in 1993-94. ‘Hüsker Dü was an eight-year ground war,’ Mould writes. ‘Sugar, in twelve months, went from… a punk show in Morgantown, West Virginia to playing gigantic European festivals with Metallica. Which part of my life do you think I enjoyed more?’
It’s a disarming question and a good introduction to the tenor of the book, which is wry and clear, thanks in part to Mould’s collaborator, Michael Azerrad, who also wrote a book about Nirvana. Reviewers have focused on the true confessions (Mould’s alcoholic father abused his siblings but supported his music); I was more interested in the details of making music, that the ‘piano interludes’ on Zen Arcade, for example, are there ‘to bridge songs in unsympathetic keys’.
Fans know Mould takes care with his recordings, but few could have known how much care he takes with the business end of the music – which helps explain why he still earns a living by making it. In his early twenties, with Hüsker Dü, he handled (though not on his own) the finances, and booked (though not on his own) the long tours:
Concert promoters were (and still are) my lifeblood… Very few bands ran this tight an operation. We… worked hard for years to build our brand, and, along the way, we didn’t waste a lot of time or money.
The second half of the book describes coming out: Mould is gay (as is Hart), and by the time Hüsker Dü broke up, everyone close to Mould knew it. But he had little connection to gay culture, no public identity as a gay man, until a music magazine outed him in 1994. From there Mould explains how a lonely, self-hating, largely closeted Midwestern workaholic guitarist gradually became a happily coupled bicoastal urbanite, a club DJ, an activist and a sexual adventurer, on one tour ‘sleeping with someone from every branch of the military’ – while remaining a workaholic guitarist.
That story involves five American cities, three serious boyfriends (one now dead) and one year away from music entirely, crafting scripts for professional wrestling, a field even faster-paced and worse for its workers (even the writers take steroids) than rock and roll. Mould found what he wanted, eventually, among bears, gay men who like ‘flannel shirts, beards and burly bodies’, where it’s OK to be unadorned and middle-aged. Bear culture ‘reminded me of my punk rock days… I didn’t have to try to look or act like a bear because I already was one.’ The title of See a Little Light refers to one of Mould’s best solo songs, to his Christianity, and to his sense that his life has turned out sunny after all: ‘I guess I was a very late bloomer.’
Mould may be able to hold all the parts of his life together now, but he couldn’t in 2001-02, when modulate was made: in it the Chelsea club culture of his present and the straight-identified rock of his past collided for the first time. He had grown ‘tired of alternative rock’: ‘In order to have a new life, I had to have new music.’ He was also trying to make pure club tracks under the anagrammatic name LoudBomb; trying to decide whether to stay in New York after 9/11; trying to figure out how to use electronic tools without feeling overwhelmed by them; and trying to keep an unfaithful pothead boyfriend from moving away.
You can read Mould’s life story as a set of conflicts, with other people and within himself: rock culture against a gay identity, a performer’s need for an audience against an artist’s desire for independence, masculine self-reliance against gay love. The memoir shows how Mould resolved them, and I’m glad to read about it, but it sent me back not to Hüsker Dü or to Mould’s attractive latest projects, but to modulate, where none of the problems are solved.