Bob Mould, alt-rock’s gay icon, takes on American evil: ‘My head’s on fire!’

It’s been a fortnight since Bob Mould could open his windows. “The air is pretty toxic,” he reports from his home in San Francisco, as the California wildfires gradually turn the skies orange. It’s just one example of the unfortunate prescience of his new album, Blue Hearts, which opens with the words “the left coast is covered in ash and flames”.

The veteran singer/songwriter’s response to the Trump presidency, Blue Hearts essays a broken America, from climate change, to rumblings of civil war (Heart on My Sleeve), to the hypocrisy of the religious right (Forecast of Rain, which anticipates Jerry Falwell Jr’s recent scandal). “The terrible division in this country right now comes from the top, from our leader,” he says, scornfully. “This is trickle-down racism.”

The starkest of Blue Hearts’ polemics is American Crisis, evoking the blitzing attack of Mould’s pioneering 1980s hardcore band Hüsker Dü as he howls: “I never thought I’d see this bullshit again.”

“The lyrics fell out of me in about four minutes,” he says. “I could see flames on the page. I saw parallels between Trump and Reagan, these Hollywood celebrities brought to power by the religious right, and remembered how I felt in the 80s, a young gay man certain of my sexual preference, if not my sexual identity, with the ‘moral majority’ telling me Aids was God’s punishment. I didn’t understand then how to advance my community’s cause. But things are so bad now that no reasonable artist can keep their mouth shut. And the words on this album are blunt. This is no time to be oblique or allegorical.” Writing the album was a visceral compulsion, he says, something he had no control over. “This evil resonated so clearly through my body, I had to write to cancel that resonance out. It’s like when my tinnitus is really bad, I have to go the beach, because the only thing louder than my tinnitus is the ocean.”

Music has always been Mould’s refuge. “My father, who had a terrible temper and could be really abusive, also brought music to me,” he remembers. “He would buy old jukebox singles, for a penny a piece. Those records were my toys. I played them day and night. They meant the world to me, and are sitting on the shelf four feet away from me right now. They remain my main inspiration. I was this broken little kid, and music was the only thing that could drown out all the chaos I grew up around. I still believe music can change the world – I watched the Beatles do it.”

By the time he won a scholarship to Macalester College in Minnesota, he’d switched allegiance to the Ramones, forming Hüsker Dü with two local record store employees, handlebar-moustached bassist Greg Norton and shoeless singer/drummer Grant Hart. Few on the hardcore punk scene played as fierce or fast, but the trio quickly recognised such brinksmanship as a creative dead end. They flexed their ambition on Zen Arcade, a 1984 double concept LP recorded in one speed-fuelled weekend, blending punk, pop and psychedelia. “We were evolving, outgrowing hardcore,” he remembers. “We moved towards relationship-based songs – Buzzcocks’ Pete Shelley had shown me the power of non-gender-specific love songs.”

Hardcore was a relatively heteronormative scene, with Texas’s the Dicks and the Big Boys among the few groups with openly “out” members. “The army’s credo was ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’; in hardcore, it was ‘don’t advertise, don’t worry’,” Mould says. “I had a handful of casual encounters with guys on the road. But it was a community of misfits, and mostly no one cared what you did behind closed doors. Though when [genre pioneers] Bad Brains stayed at Grant’s parents’ house when they played Minneapolis, they left a note reading, ‘Die, faggots, die.’”

In 1986, Hüsker Dü signed to major label Warner Bros, but were already fragmenting. “Grant was drifting towards another group of musicians who didn’t have the healthiest habits, Greg had married and moved to the country, and I had quit drinking,” Mould remembers. They split after Hart accidentally broke his bottle of methadone at the start of a tour and began withdrawing from heroin. But Mould says the incident was just “the period after an 18-month run-on sentence”.

Enmity would smoulder between Hart and Mould for years. Meanwhile, Mould isolated himself on a farm in Minnesota for 18 months, returning with an acclaimed folk-rock album, 1989’s Workbook. He was dropped by his label after a commercially underwhelming follow-up, but the freak success of a band indebted to Mould’s old group would send his stock skyrocketing. “What Nirvana did was nothing new – Hüsker Dü did it before us,” said Krist Novoselic of the metallised melodies of their breakthrough album Nevermind.

Approached as a possible producer for Nevermind, Mould had been otherwise occupied with new songs of his own, indebted equally to Revolver-era Beatles and My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. Copper Blue, the debut album from his new band Sugar, enjoyed the greatest commercial success of Mould’s career. “Triple the sales Hüsker Dü ever got,” he says, proudly. “It was a different landscape. We’d done all the heavy lifting in the 80s, and Nirvana had built a skyscraper on the foundations we’d laid. Sugar rode the elevator straight to the 25th floor.”

In 1994, however, Spin magazine signalled their intention to “out” Mould. “It was, ‘We can do this the hard way or the easy way,’” he remembers. “They sent [novelist] Dennis Cooper to do the interview, and he was a good guy. But it was awful. I was gay, I had an affinity with the community, but I was in a monogamous relationship, I wasn’t out at gay bars, I hadn’t been burying my friends every weekend. I wasn’t Jimmy Somerville, or Tom Robinson, the guys who’d done the heavy lifting back then. I couldn’t be a spokesperson for anything other than my music.”

The experience was traumatic, but ultimately helped Mould reconcile his sexual preference and his sexual identity. In 1998, he moved to New York’s Chelsea and became “part of the scene, finally. I decided, ‘I’m gonna be gay, get pretty, go to the gym and pick up a new lifestyle.’ It was a blast, hanging out with porn stars, going to wild parties on Fire Island, working out with Sandra Bernhard. Electronic music was the soundtrack to it all: Sasha and Digweed, Madonna, Cher… Here comes the vocoder!”

Mould began experimenting with electronic music, confusing his longtime fanbase. “A gay narrative plus no guitars equals WTF?” he laughs. “I had no idea what I was doing, and nobody else was getting it, but I didn’t care.” He later relocated to Washington DC and, alongside DJ Rich Morel, started the weekly club night Blowoff, where he discovered and was embraced by the “bear” community. “I’d been this confused gay guy who didn’t really have an identity,” he remembers. “Finding a community I was comfortable in, within a scene that wasn’t ‘body-centric’, was like finding home. And those parties were my craziest escapades as a gay man. One night Lady Gaga’s bodyguards took over the DJ booth and she played Bad Romance for the first time ever, standing at the balcony like Eva Perón, and the whole dancefloor froze …”

Mould eventually returned to guitar music with 2005’s Body of Song, and in 2011 wrote his memoir, See a Little Light. But while he’d made some peace with his sexuality and his traumatic childhood, there had been no reconciliation with Hart, his collaborator and competitor in Hüsker Dü. They’d maintained a frosty distance over the decades, until finally agreeing to collaborate on what became Savage Young Dü, a 2017 box-set of archival pre-fame recordings. However, Hart wouldn’t live to see its release.

“I was told Grant’s health had taken a turn, so I flew to Minneapolis from Berlin, where I was living,” he says. “We spent a weekend together, and it was wonderful. We cleared everything up, and laughed about the past, and cried about it, too. We shared a lot of funny stories, a lot of personal moments. I’ve never spoken about it before now. But ultimately, our relationship ended as well as it could have. I was really grateful to have that chance, that time with him.”

Today, he’s waiting out the pandemic in San Francisco, having just compiled an exhaustive 24-CD box set of his post-Hüsker Dü output, and is itching to take Blue Hearts on the road. “My head’s on fire, I’m unemployed, but I’m loving my life right now,” he smiles. “I hope that doesn’t come off as insensitive in the face of a global pandemic and the death of democracy in America.” The election is on his mind, as it will be until November. “Blue Hearts was written as this dire warning, but it’ll be a crazy celebration if we make it to the other side,” he adds. “I’m looking forward to the party.”

• Blue Hearts is out now on Merge. The 24-CD box set Distortion is released 23 October on Demon, alongside the first of four vinyl box sets.