During the course of his decades long career, veteran singer-guitarist Bob Mould has often paired bright melodies with dark lyrics.
That formula works to perfection on his latest effort, last year’s Patch the Sky
The shimmering opening tune, “Voices in My Head,” establishes his approach from the beginning as Mould barks the vocals over an incredibly infectious guitar riff.
His mother’s death in 2014 informs the tone of many of the songs, and titles such as “The End of Everything” and “Hold On” suggest the highly personal nature of the tunes.
“[My mother’s death] was a complicated passing, not that any of them are easy,” says Mould in a recent phone interview from his San Francisco home where he says he’s “laying low” before starting a solo electric tour that brings him to Music Box Supper Club
on April 23. “That was not debilitating, but it was heavy on my mind. There are other ideas in there. A lot of them are pretty dark. I’ve been the kind of person that writes what I know. The subject matter was very heavy, and the thing I could escape in the other direction was the heavy melodic element. It’s the contrast of that heavy material and the catchy musical content. I think that’s a writing style I’ve used for a long time — the heavier content and brighter ’60s melodies.”
Though it doesn’t stretch all the way back to the ’60s, Mould’s career goes back decades. In the early ’80s, he began cranking out vibrant post-punk with the Minneapolis band Hüsker Dü, which released several albums on the influential indie imprint SST Records before signing a major label deal. Mould’s fierce guitar playing established him as a guitar hero in a post-punk world where there were few guitar heroes.
“In the ’70s while learning the instrument, I had a Sears SG copy, and the high E string kept breaking,” he says when asked about how he developed his own voice on the instrument. “I learned a little on five-string. I went from that to learning how to play the first Ramones album cover to cover to the early punk stuff that had a great influence. There was also the Buzzcocks, Johnny Thunders, the Dolls. And those were the people I looked to as far as the contemporaries. Obviously, [the Who’s Pete] Townshend and [guitarist Jimi] Hendrix and those kind of guitar players had an influence too. When did it all start coming together? Maybe in the middle of those SST records, I started combining all the elements in a way that didn’t sound like any of them.”
In the wake of Hüsker Dü’s dissolution, he launched a solo career in 1989, retreating to a farm in rural Minnesota to “hang out with the chickens” and compose the songs that would become his solo debut, 1989’s Workbook
“The key thing was to write what I know and not rely on the standard tricks I used with Hüsker Dü,” he explains when asked the challenges of writing without a band. “I was moving away from some of that stuff. It was sort of scary not to have that safety net or that built-in name recognition, which is what we used to call it before we called it a brand.”
He recalls that one of his fondest memories from that time remains a pair of solo acoustic shows he played in the early ’90s at McCabe’s, the guitar shop in Santa Monica that often hosts intimate concerts.
“It’s a legendary place for singer-songwriters,” he says of McCabe’s. “You had 150 people sitting and watching. That was so different from the previous nine years of playing loud. It was a great pair of shows and got me started on that path of doing sort of what I’m going to be doing on this tour, which is me and a guitar and a songbook.”
Mould says he began doing the solo electric thing on a regular basis in 1991 during a nine-month stretch on the road.
“On that tour, I brought my Yamaha acoustic 12-string that I used all over Workbook
, and I brought my blue Strat,” he says. “I did two thirds of the show with the 12 string and the final third with the electric. For me, the electric is easier on many levels. It’s easier to get a sound with it. It’s a grab and go kind of sound. The electric is easier for me to solo on. As the years have gone on, I have phased out the acoustic. I just bring one electric and it’s more portable and easier on my hands as I get older. It allows me to do a wider variety of things with the guitar. Over the 25 or 26 years of solo shows, I’ve fallen into the solo electric thing, which is a lot of fun for me.”
Mould admits that as he gets older, “touring gets a little tougher each time around.” But he also says he likes the fact that his last few albums stay more true to the sounds he’s explored with both Hüsker Dü and Sugar, the hard rock act he fronted in the '90s because it has meant that longtime fans find the music appealing.
“I do wonder how long the car will run at its optimal setting,” he says when asked if he ever contemplates retiring. “I think I’ll be making music until the day I die, but I don’t know how actively I’ll tour behind every release. I’m more aware of the gratitude and being in the moment and being aware of what I do and how people respond to what I do. I’m grateful for that. That’s the fuel for it. For decades, I was the difficult artist who wasn’t doing what’s expected. Not that you have to give the people what they want, but I know what people want, and I know what I have to do. If they end up being the same thing, that’s great. That’s the first time in my life that this has happened. I keep that in mind as I start to do a tour and write another record. It’s that gratitude and serendipity. I’m enjoying that.”
Bob Mould, Jenna Fournier, 8p.m., Sunday, April 23, Music Box Supper Club, 1148 Main St., 216-242-1250. Tickets: $28 ADV, $32 DOS, musicboxcle.com.