City Paper is not for tourists
It’s well after midnight on a Saturday in June, and the second floor of the Velvet Lounge is quaking. The floorboards bend beneath a dancing mass of a perhaps 100 peoplemost of them men, many with their shirts off to reveal carefully sculpted physiques glistening with sweat. On the small stage at the front of the room, a DJ concentrates on his mix. With his 40-ish face bathed in a purple glow and thick black headphones clamped onto his bald-shaved head, he looks perfectly in his element as he nods vigorously to the beat. If he weren’t so tall, you might even mistake him for Moby.
Or you might know that he’s someone very different. That in fact plenty of people know him not as a DJ, but as a musician. That he used to perform for crowds many times this size, usually with a Stratocaster strapped over his shoulder as he shouted himself hoarse over distorted power chords. That he was a punk pioneer and a founding father of modern alternative rock. That much of his fan base used to consist of alienated college students, not grooving gay professionals.
Bob Mould has certainly come a long way since he was the chubby kid fronting the Minneapolis hardcore-punk trio Hüsker Dü in the late ’70s and ’80s. First the Hüskers themselves mellowed, and after their 1988 breakup, Mould produced both smart, catchy guitar rock with his ’90s trio, Sugar, and a series of introspective, sometimes gentle solo albums. Today, however, Mould seems burned out on the sound that made him a star.
He’s now conducting an ambitious artistic reinvention here in Washington, his home for the past year. Most visibly, that involves his collaboration with Richard Morel, a Takoma Park, Md., resident best known for chart-topping remixes of artists such as t.A.T.u. and Mariah Carey. Under the banner of Blowoff, Mould and Morel have been DJing once a month at U Street’s Velvet Lounge since January, offering up what Morel described in a recent press release as a mix of “sleazy house, explosive agit-punk, classic rock, subterranean new wave, electro and unreleased gems.”
At the same time, Mould is evolving personally. Since coming out publicly in the mid-’90s, he’s grown steadily more open about his sexuality. And the once angry and dour rocker seems to bewell, lightening up and having fun. Whereas for years he churned out stormy dirges with titles such as “Poison Years,” “Hanging Tree,” and “Helpless,” Mould now spends his time ginning up euphoric dance tunes for what he calls the “homos” who come to Blowoff.
“I’m just trying to have a good time, trying to get people dancing,” he says, adding with a laugh: “And to take their shirts off when it gets hot. That’s about it.”
Though he’s now well-versed in such subjects as Europe’s hottest house DJs and the hierarchy of D.C. dance clubs, Mould is still relatively new to the world of electronic-based music. “[E]specially in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when I was making my name with the hardcore punk thing, it certainly was the last thing I would have listened to,” says Mould, sitting on the patio of the cyberSTOP cafe on 17th Street NW. “Back then, the whole disco thing was, you know, verboten.”
That began to change after a move to New York in 1986. Mould lived in Tribeca, though he often hung out in the nearby West Village and Chelsea, where he began to notice posters and fliers for such artists as Paul van Dyk and John Digweed signaling a burgeoning new scene. “I would start hearing that music everywhere I went,” he says. “Granted, it was either the gym or Chelsea restaurants. But hooking up a little harder with the gay scene in New York, I fell right into that soundtrack.” Mould didn’t take to “that screaming diva shit,” but he says he was struck by how much electronica was “made by musicians for music fans.”
“I’d spent close to 20 years with one format,” he says, “and I was feeling a little limited by it.”
A real turning point came when Mould discovered something unexpected in an electronica album: an echo of his own rock sound. Mould’s guitar-playing has always had what he calls a “droning, hypnotic” qualitya steady roar that can become almost lulling, like an airplane engine. When he first heard the song “Xpander” by British progressive-house DJ Sasha, Mould says, it reminded him of a caustic EP Sugar released in 1993.
“The first time I listened to [‘Xpander’],” he recalls, “I thought, Wow, this sounds just like Beaster, but with machines! It had that really aggressive droning to it.” Mould began fooling around with digital music equipment, and in March 2002 he released Modulate, a sudden leap into electronica that caught many of his longtime fans by surprise.
A few months later, Mould had tired of Manhattan and moved to Dupont Circle with his partner. Already friends, Mould and Morel began collaborating soon after. For Blowoff, they alternate DJ sets of about an hour each over the course of a night. Their play lists are wonderfully eclectic: A June 21 performance featured songs by or samples of Deep Dish, Stevie Wonder, Sasha, Garbage, Cocteau Twins, the Pixies, Sigur Rós, Daft Punk, and Queen, with Morel spinning a manic adaptation of “Another One Bites the Dust” that cranked up the chorus to perhaps triple velocity. Mould and Morel also play some fruits of their ongoing studio collaborations, an album of which they plan to release later this year.
For Mould, Blowoff has been a test. Queen remixes aren’t the sort of thing that appeal to his mostly straight fan base of old. And among the largely gay club crowd for whom he plays now, Hüsker Dü may as well be a Nebraska hairstyle. The name Bob Mould, he admits, “doesn’t mean anything in that world”which means he must establish a new kind of credibility for himself. “The way that we’ve been building this thing up sure reminds me of the way I started a long time ago,” he says. “Just going around the neighborhood and handing out these little business-card fliers and hoping people show up.”
So far, the approach seems to be working. Blowoff started small, initially attracting just a few dozen people, but it has grown steadily. On June 21, Mould says, paid attendance was 200by far the biggest draw yet. “We’re really trying to build the scene that we want,” he says, “which is a scene that’s missing: guys who are mostly homos listening to really good music who aren’t trapped in a bar scene. It’s a music party….There’s other nights in town where I think it’s just about guys hooking up or being on the scene.”
Meanwhile, Mould says he’s been playing beat scientist on his own, deconstructing and rebuilding old favorites on his laptop. “The last couple of weeks, I’ve been taking a bunch of late-’80s and early-’90s guitar stuff and doing a lot of really weird, trancey industrial remixes. That’s the fun of thisone week I’ll get off on a kick and do, like, five Al Green remixes. This week, it seems to be four Pixies remixes. One of my favorites is to take ELO’s ‘Strange Magic’ and slam it together with ‘Magic’ by Pilotsame key, same approximate tempo. So I put them together with a house beat and people go nuts!”
Mould plans to release some of this work under the name LoudBomb. This project, too, is leading him in unexpected new directions, such as when he was invited to try out some new material at the Black Cat earlier this spring. He happily acceptedand then had a minor panic attack. “I was like, ‘Sure!’ Then I realized I wasn’t going to stand up there and DJ on the main stage at the Black Cat on a Saturday night.”
Mould called Fugazi’s Brendan Canty and Jerry Busher and asked for help. With Mould playing bass and Canty and Busher switching between guitar and drums, the three played as a live band over Mould’s LoudBomb tracks. “It was just a hi-tech hootenanny,” he says, wide-eyed and clearly delighted. “I think we’re going to try to do it again.” Peering into an abandoned laundromat next door to cyberSTOP, Mould even floats the idea of opening some kind of a club. “Or just a coffee shop where I could DJ every night.”
Fans of blaring Stratocasters needn’t abandon hope, howeverMould hasn’t spurned his rock roots completely. He’s nearly finished producing a new guitar-based album, Body of Song, which he plans to release next spring. (“Everybody will recognize it; it’s exactly what they’re used to,” he says with a touch of weariness.) And he’s scheduled a series of solo acoustic performances this summer; the first was a June 23 set kicking off the summer season at Fort Reno Park.
Even so, Mould has been slow to put finishing touches on Body of Song. “I’m just not feeling the vibe at the moment,” he says. That’s one reason he’s embarking on the tour: “To get my head back around the organic instrument to get the next album finished.”
Yet Mould will probably never completely return to his rock-icon life. By his own admission, some of his former fans have “disappeared” in recent years. And those who keep up with him see him differently these days. “Guys who are 35 to 45 are showing up at all the solo gigs now, and they’re all fully out and integrated,” he says. “And they’re like, ‘I used to see
Hüsker Dü in college, and I sort
“Then there’s that really weird group of self-identified straight guys,” he continues, “who always say things like, ‘Yeah, I was in a fraternity in college. We fucked around.’ I’m sort of like, ‘OK, I guess I understand what you’re saying’”he pauses, and adds with a laugh, ‘I think.’”
If Mould is occasionally confounded by his straight fans, it seems to be happening more regularly the other way around. After he peeled off his own shirt at a recent Blowoff nightsomething he wasn’t prone to do before he became the svelte and toned gym rat he is nowone fan who saw photos on his Web site posted a perplexed-sounding message: “I guess I just didn’t know what to make of Shirtless Bob….I thought I had the wrong link. Then I realized it WAS Blowoff pics, but thought they’d been ‘doctored’LOLOLOL. Then I saw it for what it was, and did not know what to say!”
For his part, Mould doesn’t spend much time thinking about how his old fans feel about his new image. “Time gets shorter when you get older,” he says, “and there’s not as much time to worry about those things.” CP
The next Blowoff takes place at 9 p.m. Saturday, July 19, at the Velvet Lounge, 915 U St. NW. For more infomation, call (202) 462-3213.