Bob Mould’s new band might know more about his old band than he does. Or so it seemed in August, as the Minnesota music expat mapped out the set list for a surprise show at the 7th Street Entry the night after playing the State Fair grandstand.
“Let’s start with ‘In a Free Land,’ because that’s how ‘Land Speed Record’ started,” Mould suggested, referring to the breakneck-paced album his original trio Hüsker Dü recorded in the Entry in 1981.
“No, it didn’t,” drummer Jon Wurster, also of Superchunk fame, rightly interjected.
And thus began a hopelessly nerdy conversation with bassist Jason Narducy about what songs Hüsker Dü played that night. Mould could only smile. “I honestly don’t remember any of it,” he said. “But I will say, we were having a lot of fun at that point.”
Like Narducy (ex-leader of Verbow), Wurster is one of many reputable indie/alt-rock musicians in their 30s and 40s who’ve expressed their fanaticism for the 54-year-old ex-Minnesotan’s work.
Others on that list include the Foo Fighters (who had Mould guest on their last album), Colin Meloy of the Decemberists (who appeared in Mould’s recent video for “I Don’t Know You Anymore”), members of Spoon, the Hold Steady and No Age (who starred in a 2011 Mould tribute concert in Los Angeles) and Ryan Adams (who was also a part of that tribute and has been playing a lot of pinball with Mould of late).
Thanks in part to his current bandmates’ enthusiasm — but also to the baggage he unloaded in his cathartic 2011 autobiography — Mould is finally having fun again playing the songs he wrote during his tumultuous decade in Minnesota.
August’s surprise show at the Entry, his first there in 23 years, perfectly fit the mold of his recent tours with Narducy and Wurster. They have been tearing and blaring their way through sets in classic fashion and dusting off more old songs, which fit in neatly alongside the strong crop of material from Mould’s two feisty solo albums of the past three years.
Fans can expect more of the same when the trio returns for a two-night stand Friday and Saturday at First Avenue (next door to the Entry). First Ave was also obviously integral to Hüsker Dü lore and to Mould’s more commercially viable band that came after, Sugar, which recorded a live album there in 1994.
“It’s great the place has survived, and I get to keep playing here,” Mould said, seated near a Hüsker Dü photo circa 1987 that hangs prominently in First Ave’s green room. “That really helps it feel more like I’m coming home.”
Going through that night’s set list, he pointed out songs that Narducy and Wurster pushed him to start playing live again: “Flip Your Wig,” “Real World,” “Hate Paper Doll” and the post-Hüskers nuggets “Come Around” and “Sinners & Their Repentances.”
“These guys love those [old] records, and if they get excited to play that stuff, I do, too,” Mould said. “The caveats are, I have to be able to sing them without reasonable vocal damage, and I have to be able to remember the words.”
“Up in the Air,” from Hüsker Dü’s double-LP swan song “Warehouse: Songs and Stories,” made the set list that night for the first time only after Mould mustered the lyrics at sound check that afternoon. Conversely, the oft-requested Sugar scorcher “JC Auto” never makes the set list because Mould says it’s too hard on his voice (he made Narducy sing it one night to prove the point).
About 30 pounds lighter than he was a year ago, Mould said he practices a very un-punk-rock health regimen to be able to play like a young punk.
“I do a lot of time in the gym and completely change my diet getting ready for a tour,” he said. “There’s probably no way I could be playing this way at my age otherwise.”
Wurster piped in with a story about a particularly bad 1996 show with Superchunk that happened to take place in the Entry.
“I was downstairs in the green room and had decided I’m going to drink whiskey before every show from here on out because it worked great the night before,” the drummer, 48, recalled. “Amazingly, though, the next night it didn’t work well. Not at all.”
A celebrated past
The roughest days for Mould ended when he still lived in Minnesota. When asked to reflect on his 11 years here (1978-89), he divides them into pre- and post-sobriety.
Mind you, he’s not entirely a teetotaler these days in San Francisco, where he has lived for five years — and where marijuana is legal statewide. “You can get some really nice stuff that doesn’t get you high,” he said, “and some really nice stuff that does.”
But that’s a far cry from his time in Hüsker Dü, when he was visibly fattened by his heavy drinking, and when the “speed” in “Land Speed Record” wasn’t just a musical reference.
“For many years when I was here, it was just a blur,” he said.
“When I got sober, then it was a different city for me. I had a different view. The band was on the ropes, things were changing. I was spending more time at home because I didn’t want to go out drinking. The CC Club isn’t a lot of fun to hang out at if you aren’t drinking.”
During the previous night’s set at the State Fair, Mould said he got wistful playing 1985’s “Celebrated Summer” — one Hüskers song that never really left his performance canon — just as the sun was setting behind the grandstand.
“There was this gorgeous patch of sky, and the lights from the fair were all coming on,” he said. “That’s exactly what that song is about.”
He continued, “I loved my time here. I didn’t appreciate it as much when I was here as I should have. I learned how to play music here, and learned a lot about myself here.”
Mould learned more about himself than he ever could have hoped, he said, by sorting through memories for his 2012 autobiography, “See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody.” Writing it, he said, “was such a heavy deal, afterward I felt lighter. It set the stage for me to have fun again.”
He did just that on a 2012 tour playing Sugar’s 1992 album “Copper Blue.” That led to the fast and freewheeling “Silver Age” album, which he called “my nearest thing to a party album, except for maybe ‘Flip Your Wig.’ ”
However, last summer’s album, “Beauty & Ruin,” casts a darker tone. It was largely inspired by his father’s death in late 2012. Bob’s book recounts a childhood far up in Upstate New York tainted by his dad’s stormy temper and alcoholic leanings, but also better moments, like the elder Mould driving out to Minnesota with Hüsker Dü’s first tour van.
“Pull the poison out, drink the pain away / Chances that I wasted in my unforgiving days,” Bob sings in the album’s opening track, “Low Season.” One of the raging highlights of the Entry set, “The War,” also includes the lines, “You were the one who taught me most / I carry your remains / Your emblem and your name.”
Mould said of the new album, “After getting a sort of pass to have some fun, time, place and circumstance sort of caught up with me.”
Another stormy relationship is somewhat on the mend. He and Grant Hart, Hüsker Dü’s other singer, have stopped waging war on each other in the press. He called Hart’s “The Argument” album of 2013 “a high-water mark for him.” He also said of the business surrounding the band’s long-neglected catalog, “Everybody is in communication and participating — we’re in sort of an assessment period.”
Don’t go getting your hopes up beyond possible reissues, though. After expressing his excitement for both the Replacements and Babes in Toyland being back in action, Mould laughed when reminded there’s one legendary Minneapolis band of the ’80s left to join the reunion circuit.
“Who’s that? The Wilburs?” he cracked.