BOB MOULD'S new album, "Body of Song," has garnered increased attention because it features him serving up rock guitar and loud music for the first time in seven years. During that time, the frequently frenetic frontman of hard-core punk pioneers Husker Du and grungy power pop trio Sugar seemed much more interested in pursuing the danceable pulse of electronic music.
Now, in his first band tour since 1998's Last Dog and Pony Show -- that tour name implying Mould was retiring his rock persona -- he's showcasing songs from his entire career, the first time he has ever done that with a full band.
Maybe Mould should call this tour "Body of Work."
Certainly, fans wanted to hear the older songs, and Mould revisited some in his solo concerts. But his latter bands always focused on current material, and Mould specifically refused to dip into the Du bag, mostly because of bad memories relating to that band's breakup and his fractious relationship with drummer Grant Hart, Du's other principal songwriter.
"It's a big deal to some people," says the now-Washington-based Mould, acknowledging hard-core fans' reaction to his willingness to revisit the past. "To me, it's just that I'm getting comfortable with my legacy. The fact is, I don't hold the electric guitar-bass-drum version of Husker Du stuff sacred anymore because there's no good reason to -- they're just my songs.
"And they sound so much better with Brendan playing drums," he adds, referring to Brendan Canty of on-hiatus Fugazi.
Which sounds suspiciously like a dig at Hart.
"It's not mean if it's true," Mould says evenly.
Mould has known Canty for years. After all, both Husker Du and Fugazi are charter members of the Iconic American Punk Band Club. In fact, Mould notes wryly, "there's a few promoters out there who are taking advantage of the lineup in their advertising, which makes it look like we're an '80s hair band! People should know better."
But, Mould adds, he didn't get to know Canty personally until he moved to Washington three years ago. They first collaborated last year on the film "Burn to Shine," Canty producing and Christopher Green directing Mould in a solo performance of Sugar's "Hoover Dam" in a Bethesda house that was then burned down (all on the up-and-up: It was a training exercise for the county fire department).
When Mould decided to put a band together, Canty was an obvious choice, though the drummer had to do some serious iPod listening to familiarize himself with those Husker Du and Sugar oldies. Mould insists Canty "knows the essence of it, he just needed to get the structure down."
Although Mould is reconnecting to band versions of his Husker Du material, don't expect that band to reunite in the manner of such similarly contentious '80s groups as the Pixies and Dinosaur Jr. Though it was named after a classic Danish matching and memory board game -- Husker Du means "do you remember?" -- Mould seems intent on forgetting since the Minneapolis band's breakup in 1988. He and Hart had no contact for 17 years before sharing a stage last October at a benefit for Karl Mueller, the bassist for Soul Asylum, one of numerous Minnesota indie bands influenced by the Huskers. (Mueller died of cancer in June.) They performed two Husker Du songs -- the Hart-penned "Never Talking to You Again" from "Zen Arcade," and Mould's "Hardly Getting Over It" from "Candy Apple Grey" -- and those titles proved ironically accurate.
"Those were just easy songs," Mould insists. "That was a goodwill gesture that went horribly wrong -- I learned from that. There's nothing there, no relationship. I don't even like being in the same country as the guy."
Mould is clearly more comfortable with his new bandmates, who include Jason Narducy of Chicago's Verbow on bass (Mould produced that band's 1997 album, "Chronicles") and Maryland-based dance music artist and remix producer Richard Morel on keyboards.
"I've known Jason 15 years, and we have very simpatico influences and writing styles, and he's very familiar with the entire catalogue, so he was an easy choice," Mould says. As for Morel, "I've never toured with a keyboardist, and because Rich is so tight on the stuff and really has a great sensibility with the songs, it gives me a little space not to have to play three different guitar parts at once. I can actually play guitar and sing, which is nice."
Mould and Morel have worked together for several years: After taking an "I'm so tired of rock" break after the Last Dog and Pony Show, Mould resurfaced with a new, and in some quarters, controversial sound, evidenced in 2002's "Modulate." (under his name) and LoudBomb's "Long Playing Grooves" (a side project using an anagram of his name); both had touches of guitar but were dominated by keyboards, tape loops and electronics. Mould and Morel also have a DJ project, BlowOff, at clubs in town; a BlowOff record is done and, Mould laughs, "if somebody came with a wheelbarrow full of money, they could buy it!"
A version of "Body of Song" begun three years ago was much more quiet and acoustic, harking back to Mould's solo debut, 1989's "Workbook." As Mould sees it, "the difference between 'Body of Song' and 'Modulate.' is the guitar is more forward, but there's a lot of electronics underneath holding the thing together. Last year, when I got back to writing this record and came up with the two-thirds of the record that is brand-new, I got more comfortable with my guitar stuff again, that sound that I sort of bailed on a few years ago. I went: I wonder what would happen if I just forget about [that anti-rock stance] and just go back and work with it in the context of developing some of the electronic stuff?"
Well, you'd get a career-embracing representation through such songs as the rough-edged "Missing You," the surging "Paralyzed" and "Underneath Days," and the spare "Gauze of Friendship" alongside the bittersweet "Days of Rain" and melancholy ballad "High Fidelity," which features Amy Domingues's cello. The album's urgent opener, "Circles," was used in a recent episode of the music-savvy television series "The O.C."
There's also the uplifting "(Shine Your Light) Love Hope" and "I Am Vision, I Am Sound," both featuring what sounds like a vocoder effect (leading to some charges of Cher-ism). Actually, Mould explains, "it's Autotuner. [Using the pitch-correcting hardware] is usually a result of trying to save a vocal that has the essence of what I'm trying to say but terrible pitch because I sang it first thing in the morning," he laughs, adding, "I like that sound, when the voice gets fractured like an instrument!"
The new album's long gestation was also partly because of another distraction: Mould was experiencing writer's block.
"My days were consumed with staring at the computer screen and bootleg mixes of different things," he notes. "I just wasn't thinking about words a lot or song structures."
Mould's eventual solution: a blog (modulate.blogspot.com). Subtitled "a quiet and uninteresting life," it's filled with thoughts on music played and heard, tour notes and state-of-mind-and-body observations. The "Boblog," Mould says, helped him regain discipline in his writing. "Sometimes I take the long way around. I realize that about myself as a human being now."
Take the anti-rock stance of 1998 and the break Mould expected to be a lasting one.
"People don't really understand where my head was at the time -- I was just not happy with where I was," he explains. "The tumult [of rock] is one thing, that's part of the deal with artists, that's what we get. What I needed was to get away from that sound because I was tired of it, because it has been beat into the ground in the '90s by corporate rock, and none of it really held any value to me.
"More importantly, I needed some time for myself as a man, a gay man, a gay man living in New York trying to connect with his community for once, as opposed to being on the road in ostensibly a straight environment. That was really important to me at 38, because I never really took the time to do that."
In 1994, Spin magazine "outed" him in a profile that, he says, made him "look like a self-hating ogre. There was an element of that in my personality at the time, but I don't think that was all of it. It was an awkward coming-out. Why? Sugar was big [and far more successful than Husker Du], and that sells magazines. It was going to happen sooner or later."
But, Mould points out, "I was never closeted, I was just never out. I always walked that line where it wasn't anybody's business. In the last 11 years, I've tried to assimilate a little more, get more comfortable. I've been called upon to represent the community at times, and that's a responsibility I don't take lightly. It's always a tricky one for me because I'm sort of a singular person. I do feel part of the community now, and I think I understand the diversity of the community, which I didn't at the time because I wasn't a part of it."
As for that "no rock" zone, "that was a really pivotal stretch of my life," Mould insists. "But the whole idea of making a grand statement like 'I'm not doing this again' -- I had no choice!
"Now I've tempered the statement, and I've assimilated some of the goodness of my prior life into my current life. I've got a good balance now, and I'm happy with it. It's me, and I like it. It takes a while."
BOB MOULD -- Appearing Friday at the 9:30 club.