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Bob Mould reconciles with his checkered pasts

Bob Mould has lived all over the U.S., starting in upstate New York, where he grew up; to Minneapolis, where he helped found the pioneering punk band Hüsker Dü; to his years writing and DJing in New York and D.C.; to his current stomping grounds in San Francisco.

Through every move, there's at least one possession that has remained with him: boxes of 45s from the mid-'60s to the early '70s given to him by his father, hit singles by British Invasion groups and Stateside purveyors of soul and R&B among them.

"When we moved from an apartment into a house, the house had a grocery store attached to it," remembers Mould, who'll perform at Denver's Riot Fest on Sunday. "The company that sold beer to my dad's grocery store also took care of the jukeboxes in this small farm town that I grew up in. And my dad would buy boxes of used jukebox singles for a penny a piece. Those were my toys as a kid."

Almost everything the 53-year-old musician has recorded to date can be traced back to those boxes: the closing vocal melodies on "Something I Learned Today," which feel cribbed from The Chambers Brothers' 1967 hit "Time Has Come Today"; the bubblegummy swing of "Hate Paper Doll"; the pure pop overload of his work with Sugar. Other influences have crept into his work over the years — Richard Thompson and Neil Young's emotional folk-rock, deep house and electro — but those early singles still provide him with inspiration.

"Whenever I have a question in my own mind about a song I'm working on, if I get stuck," he says, "like, 'How do I get out of this song?' I just walk over there and grab a stack of singles and put them on the spindle and let them drop and let them play. Within a half hour, I'm going to have the answer."

Silver age

The echoes of those boxes of records reverberate as loudly as ever on his 10th solo album, Beauty & Ruin, and not just musically. There are easy-to-acknowledge reference points throughout, from the little doo-wop-inspired intro to "Nemeses Are Laughing" to the Byrds-y jangle of "Forgiveness."

But the deepest resonances come from something much more personal. Right around the time of the release of his previous solo venture, Silver Age, his father passed away. A hard thing for most people to have to deal with, for Mould the emotions involved were especially complicated.

As outlined in his 2011 memoir See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody, Mould's father was a vicious and paranoid man, prone to excessive drinking and meting out abuse to his wife and kids.

You can get a sense of that in Hüsker Dü's sprawling 1984 masterpiece Zen Arcade, which tells the story of a young man escaping from a terrible home life ("Your parents fight / You don't know who's wrong or right / Have to cry yourself to sleep at night," Mould wails on "Broken Home, Broken Heart").

His father's death came in the midst of another career peak. He was celebrated with a huge concert in late 2011 at Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles, where Ryan Adams, Craig Finn of The Hold Steady, Dave Grohl, No Age and others played renditions of material from throughout Mould's career. The next year saw the release of Silver Age, an LP that found him circling back to the more driving rock sound for which he was originally known.

All the rage

Mould's earliest efforts with Hüsker Dü were the product of absorbing both the punk sounds from the East Coast and England and the cheap amphetamines that he and bandmates Grant Hart and Greg Norton had access to. Their first releases (particularly 1983's Metal Circus) were frenzied affairs, the trio barely keeping it together as they tore through track after track. As they continued on, the poppier influences of their childhood years started to get folded into the mix, with college radio hits like "Makes No Sense at All" and "Don't Want to Know If You Are Lonely" arriving as a result.

When that band broke up in 1988, Mould shied away from playing loud rock, using an acoustic guitar and the sound of a cello to drive his first batch of post-Hüsker material. But by the early '90s, the indie world had begun to improve upon the late Hüsker template of marrying the pop formula with loud rock thanks to bands like My Bloody Valentine and Pixies (a group who famously put an ad in a Boston weekly seeking a bassist influenced by both Peter Paul & Mary and Hüsker Dü).

Inspired by what he was hearing, Mould formed Sugar, a new power trio whose woefully short run (1992-1995) left behind a pair of amazing albums and some still-crowed-about live performances.

The next few years found Mould in a personal and creative state of wandering. On his 1996 self-titled album, he played every instrument himself and included a song called "I Hate Alternative Rock." Meanwhile, his interest in electronic music grew during that time, as well, fueled by falling into the club scene in New York.

"I put out a record in late '98 called The Last Dog & Pony Show, and part of the premise is that it was my time to leave rock behind," Mould says. "I'd been doing it for 20 years and I just wanted to spend more time at home. And once I started to really dig into the West Village and Chelsea, there was this completely different soundtrack, and it was dance music."

Some of that sound did leach into his solo work, including the critically derided 2002 album Modulate. But when he moved to Washington, D.C., he concentrated on deejaying, hosting a monthly party called Blowoff that eventually toured the U.S. and resulted in a CD of tracks recorded by Mould and his then-creative partner Richard Morel.

In at least one very significant way, Beauty & Ruin feels like Mould acknowledging that his long period of self-reflection and wrestling with the demons of the past could finally be coming to a close. There's a confidence in his voice these days, one that could be attributed to any number of things: his deeper acceptance of himself as an out and proud gay man, the rave reviews Beauty and Silver Age have received, or simply his age finally tempering the rage of his younger years.

It could also be that, at age 53, he's finally willing to stake his claim as someone who has been a huge influence on at least three generations of young musicians.

"That Disney Hall thing, when everybody's getting together and singing those songs back at me, the depth of that didn't hit me," he reflects. "I thought it hit me when it was happening, but I don't think it hit me as much as it did later when I felt, like, 'Now, wait a minute. If everyone else can do that, why can't I do it? Why have I not allowed myself to do it, to go back and to acknowledge that this is what I actually do'? I don't want to disown it anymore."

A version of this article previously appeared in Paste Magazine.

  • Bob Mould reconciles with his checkered pasts

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