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EXCERPT: Zen Arcadia



Bob Mould has survived the rise and fall of Husker Du in the 80s, Sugar going supernova in the 90s, a premature retirement in the late 90s, a detour into DJ culture during the twilight of the alt-rock gods in the early aughts and a wilderness period in the late aughts. And now, at 53, he is simply making the best music of his career. MAGNET goes to Portlandia to find out how that is even possible.

By Jonathan Valania

One day last month, Bob Mould walked into Portland Music Company, a beloved purveyor of amps, axes and snare drums that serves as armory for the Portlandian indie-rock wars. With his balding dome shaved down to stubble and white Gorton’s fisherman beard, his mouth a crooked scribble, Bob sort of looks like Charlie Brown as a middle-aged man. For reasons not immediately clear, Bob disregards the vast array of musical gear on display and peruses the MUSICIAN WANTED ads tacked to the wall. There’s the usual sad, desperate, Sharpie’d pleas of go-nowhere bands trolling for fresh souls to lure into their drain-circling miasma of FAIL.




Pathetic. Bob’s eyes begin to glaze over but as he turns to walk away, one ad catches his attention.


That’s weird, he thinks, those are the exact words of the want ad that Kim Deal responded to when she joined The Pixies 1986. Intrigued, he reaches for one of the tear-away tabs with a phone number and the name CHARLES written on it. Suddenly Jason Narducy, who has been Bob’s touring bassist since 2005, and his biggest fan since the day he heard Workbook, appears out of nowhere and angrily rips down the sign, crumbles it up and storms off, like Lucy pulling away the football from Charlie Brown at the last minute. Startled, Bob’s face lights up with alarm and then dims to that defeated, deflated Charlie Brown look that betrays years of subsisting on on a daily diet of disappointment and quiet desperation. You can see it in his eyes: he feels foolish and unsettled and maybe even a little hurt. If I didn’t know that Narducy was married with children, I’d think it was a lover’s spat. It’s an odd, unflattering moment, uncomfortable to watch, and someone as intensely private as Bob must surely regret that it happened in front of a visiting journalist.  Fortunately, it never really happened.


The camera stops filming and everyone on the film crew breaks out in laughter. Nailed it. Next.

The film crew is shooting a video for “I Don’t Know You Anymore”, the uber-catchy earworm of a single from Beauty And Ruin, Bob Mould’s 14th post-Husker Du album and easily his most vital and vibrant work since Copper Blue, maybe since Flip Your Wig. The premise of the video takes some explaining but it’s written by Jon Wurster — who’s been Bob’s drummer for the last six years, in between tours with Mountain Goats and the reactivated Superchunk — so it’s worth the trouble. Because if Wurster is not the the greatest drummers of the indie- rock era, and he could well be, he is certainly the funniest. So let’s break it down: Bob Mould runs into The Decembrists’ Colin Meloy at a Portland rehearsal studio. Meloy plays a slightly more Faustian version of himself and, with thinly-veiled ulterior motives, sets about convincing him that 7-inch singles are a relic of the past. Kids don’t line up to buy records these days, he says, they line up to buy smart phones. If you want to sell music these days, you have to convince people that it will make their lives better. From this exchange Bob gets the bright idea to convince ‘the kids’ that a 7-inch is, despite appearances to the contrary, actually some new, amazing and life-altering form of technology (which, if you think about it, is actually true if you take the word ‘new’ out of that description). Bob assembles the rest of the band for a kooky powerpoint presentation on how to pull off this hoax-cum-marketing-scheme. By the next scene the band has morphed into the marketing equivalent of the A-Team, outfitted with ridiculous matching blue shirts, bricked smartphone pendants hanging around their necks and staple guns, which were, once upon a time, the glue that literally held together the original social media: punk rock flyering. Hilarity ensues.

Now we’re in a gay bar called Crush, and a drag queen with huge Ann Margaret eyelashes and Betty Page bangs is rubbing Bob’s bald head like he’s Buddha. Bob blushes and then he fans himself. It’s getting hot in herre.


The camera stops filming and everyone on the film crew breaks out in laughter. Nailed it. Next.

These are glory days for Bob Mould, valedictorian of the indie rock class of 1984; glowering godfather of alt-rock circa 1992; dark lord of the molten dirge circa 1998; shirtless dancing bear spinning the wheels of steel for the Blow-Off, his hugely successful gay-friendly DJ parties, circa 2002; celebrated warts-n-all memoirist circa 2011; and acknowledged American Master of punk-as-fuck-three-chords-and-the-truth tunesmithery circa now. If it looks like things are finally breaking his way, that was never guaranteed. It could have just as easily gone the other way. In October he turns 54. In rock n’ roll years, that’s 108. At this age you’ve either become a living legend or you’re just old and in the way. You’ve either become a classic or just another neglected wreck rusting in the back yard of the music biz. Perhaps mid-to-late aughts, when Mould released and toured a string of middling albums, a case could have been made that he was trending towards the latter. But in the wake of a high-profile autobiography, “See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody” and a like-titled tribute concert, “See a Little Light: A Celebration of the Music and Legacy of Bob Mould,” curated by Dave Grohl and featuring the likes of Britt Daniel from Spoon, Craig Finn and Tad Kubler from the Hold Steady, and No Age performing his songs at Disney Hall in Los Angeles, not to mention a pair of instant-classic late-career albums for Merge, Bob Mould has raised the curtain on third act that may well trump everything that came before.

Now we’re in Crema, a cavernous dispensary of high-octane caffeinated concoctions, teeming with nattily attired hipsterati sucking back double skinny lattes and pecking away at laptops and smart phones. In between takes of a scene — wherein Team Bob works the room, hyping the mysterious, life-changing invention they plan to unveil the following day at this thing called a record store — a steady stream of 20 and 30somethings approach Bob for autographs or selfies or just to tell him how Flip Your Wig or Copper Blue got them through many a dark night of the soul. MORE


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