The '90s alt-rock boom never would've been possible without the '80s groundwork laid by Bob Mould: Here's the story of his victory lap
If 1991 was the year punk broke, then 1992 was the year everyone tried to pick up the pieces, or, alternately, figure out how to sell the pieces. Bob Mould was not among those wringing their hands over preserving the sanctity of underground DIY culture or the tangled ethics of commercial success. His groundbreaking Minneapolis punk trio Hüsker Dü capped their historic career with two albums on Warner Bros. before breaking up acrimoniously in January 1988.
Mould exorcised (and exercised) those bad Hüsker vibes on 1989's sparse, acoustic Workbook and 1990's lacerating Black Sheets of Rain, but the poppier new songs he had aired out during solo shows in 1991 begged for a little backup. He enlisted bassist David Barbe (of the Athens, Georgia band Mercyland) and drummer Malcolm Travis (who played with Boston punks Human Sexual Response and the Zulus) to learn some of his new demos. In September of '92, the new project, Sugar, released Copper Blue — a bright, blaring riposte to surging Hüsker Dü-influenced bands like Nirvana and the Pixies. It sold more than 350,000 copies, thus becoming the biggest commercial success of Mould's career, thanks mostly to its fourth single, the unabashedly pop-leaning "If I Can't Change Your Mind," which went Top 30 in the U.K. Not exactly New Kids on the Block numbers, but New Kids on the Block didn't make Zen Arcade. "I felt like I was getting my due after a long time," he says.
Twenty years later, Mould is celebrating that belated mainstream success by playing a handful of Copper Blue shows, with Jason Narducy and Jon Wurster sitting in for Barbe and Travis (Barbe has played with Mould occasionally since Sugar disbanded in 1995 and is now director of the Music Business program at the University of Georgia). Even more intriguing, though, is Mould's album due this fall on Merge Records, with Narducy and Wurster, made very much in Copper Blue's image.
After more than a decade of exploring his interest in dance music and club culture, to say nothing of his interest in exploring himself — the memoir See a Little Light, which came out last year — Mould is giving the people what they want. Well, other than a Hüsker Dü reunion; the people aren't ever getting that.
What do you remember about writing "If I Can't Change Your Mind"?
Bob Mould: It's funny. It seems like some of the songs I've written over the years — the catchier, poppier ones — don't take more than a half an hour to write, start to finish, and this was one of those. After Black Sheets, I spent almost all of 1991 on the road playing acoustic shows. I would keep trotting out new material that would wind up on Copper Blue. I probably wrote this around September or October of 1991; it was probably one of the later additions.
I wrote that on a 12-string: I put a capo on the third fret and basically went to first-position B. It's a real simple riff. It reminds me a lot of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," that kind of melody.
Do you remember consciously trying to write a song that could be a pop hit?
Mould: Other than that song, Copper Blue was a pretty hard-driving record. I knew "If I Can't Change Your Mind" was going to be one of the highlights, so when [engineer and co-producer] Lou Giordano heard the arrangement, he said, "Shouldn't the guitar solo be twice as long as it is now?" And I said, "Not really — this is going to be a single; it's best to keep it moving to get back to the verse as quickly as possible." We kept it pretty clean compared to the rest of the record. It stands out because it's not as loud.
Lou Giordano: I honestly don't remember wanting the solo to be longer. Bob and I pretty much agreed on everything except vocal levels and tempos. And we weren't far off, just that I would favor louder vocals and slower tempos.
Mould: This was 15 months after "Smells Like Teen Spirit" — the door was open, anybody could do whatever they wanted. This presented itself as a pop song that should be a single. Seemed pretty clear that's what it was supposed to be.
David Barbe: Bob had really detailed home demos of everything by the time we started rehearsing in early 1992. There is a lot of pop sensibility on the album, which was what differentiated those songs from the Beaster [EP] we were working on at the same time. In retrospect, it is far more pop than most of the material. Bob is unabashed about his childhood love of '60s pop singles, and "If I Can't Change Your Mind" definitely sounds like a product of that musical upbringing.
Even though the commercial climate for music like yours was more open by late 1992, were you surprised by the positive reaction to the song? And was there any blowback from older fans?
Mould: It was the fourth U.K. single and the third video, and it's what really put the record over the top. MTV and KROQ in Los Angeles noticed we were successful in the U.K. The big thing was the video, which told this story, and it was an interesting place for me because I wasn't out as a gay man. But if you go back and look at the video, it's very clear what we were trying to do: It's about all different kinds of relationships, all these Polaroids, including one of me and my then-partner, and I turned it over and it said, "This is not your parents' world."
Most of the Copper Blue tour happened before the video and single. Next time we came around to play [in the U.S.], we were doing Beaster, which we'd play beginning to end, and there was a mini acoustic set. I'd play "If I Can't Change Your Mind" acoustically, without drums even.
Barbe: I think that most Hüsker fans were excited about the prospect of Bob Mould being in another rock band. It is also worth noting that the fans who bought Zen Arcade in 1984, like I did, were eight years older when Copper Blue hit and may have been more open to Bob expressing himself in a different format. I see how somebody who eats and sleeps Land Speed Record might be put off, but I don't recall any backlash. Since I wasn't in Hüsker Dü, it wasn't my legacy to worry about. We pretty pointedly didn't play any Hüsker covers — or Workbook or Black Sheets of Rain, for that matter. It was always intended to be its own thing.
It was a blur of activity. Since I had come from the Mercyland background of van touring, indie seven-inches, and sleeping on floors, the whole thing was a bit of a rush. At first, I wrongly assumed that this level of popularity and excitement was standard issue for Bob. It didn't take long to realize otherwise. In addition to making two records at the same time and touring, I had a wife and two babies — with a third coming soon — and was engineering a slew of indie and punk records when I was off the road. Malcolm was the first person to ever call me a workaholic. It was hectic, but a blast. I was always aware that I was in a unique position, and quite lucky to be.
Mould: Honestly, when I see people's faces when that song comes up, I know that that was the point where half of them first heard of me; that's where they came in. They heard that song on the radio and said, "I gotta know more about that guy." So that song has a lot of power in the catalog.
Why does Copper Blue hold up so well after 20 years, to the point where you're revisiting not just the album, but that entire mode of songwriting?
Mould: The obvious answer is, I could see the 20-year benchmark coming. I love playing those songs, I loved recording those songs. It was a great time for me, a lot of excitement. I knew the [Copper Blue] reissue would be coming out. I figured, why not?
There's a number of things that led me back to the spot — working with the Foo Fighters [on last year's Wasting Light], spending three years writing the story of my life, then the next nine months telling that story to people; it felt natural to go back to this moment. I was in contact with Malcolm and David [about a potential Sugar reunion], but David's schedule did not allow for what we wanted to do, and without David, it was tough to make it go. It would have been great, but this many years later, people have different lives. It's fun to say, oh, let's make a record that sounds like Copper Blue, but it's also daunting. We're not trying to emulate Sugar, just pay tribute and move forward.