Yoni Wolf vs. Bob Mould: Making a Scene
- Words: Ken Taylor
Since his days as the lead singer and guitarist in Hüsker Dü, the Minneapolis, MN-based band that was synonymous with U.S. hardcore punk of the early ’80s, Bob Mould has defined what it means to be “indie.” A child of the internet, Yoni Wolf, of hip-hop experimentalists Why?, took a different path to underground success. But despite their dissimilar origins, Mould and Wolf acknowledge there are universal truths and commonly shared experiences to “doing it yourself.” We brought the two together to see if, even with 20 years between their respective starting points, much has changed in the independent scene.
XLR8R: If it’s possible to summarize, how do you think the indie scene has changed in the last 30 years?
Bob Mould: I’ll go with my entry point, which was as a fan in the late ’70s in the first wave of punk rock and seeing the different components involved in that. It seemed like the common thread, which was one that I could identify with, was, ‘I really hate everything that the mainstream has to offer me right now, and there’s a number of ways to rectify that.’ I think as a musician, for me the goal was to change things, to make them more the way I would want them to be, or just make them different. I think that sort of implies “independent” in and of itself, whether it’s releasing your own records and creating an alternative environment to work in. That was sorta where I started.
Yoni Wolf: It’s interesting to hear Bob say that. I’m more insular or within some sort of bubble. Bob set out to do something, in a way. For me, it’s always been this sort of, you know, each song is like a quick fix or trying to figure something out more so than trying to add to the general good of society or the music world, which Bob has definitely done. I’ve never been able to think that far outside of myself.
BM: Have you ever found yourself consciously having to make decisions where you have to create alternative spaces to do performance or just different ways of working that don’t fall into what the world thinks of as, “Oh, this is how music is presented”?
YW: I went through a period a few years ago where I was sorta done with the whole bar scene. I quit drinking for a while and was not into that whole world and people coming up to me all drunk and screaming at shows like fools. I went through a period of trying to find alternative ways to have shows that don’t rely on selling alcohol. But that’s a different thing. I guess I was thinking more of songwriting and stuff like that but I guess it’s all tied-in in a way.
BM: For me, my songwriting sensibilities were so traditional, despite the fact that the first wave of punk seemed so unique and so different… At the time, I was a kid of the ’60s pop music. I always thought that melody was important and that kind of stuff. The early Hüsker Dü stuff might not appear that way, but maybe it sounded that way in my head as it was going by. [laughs]
YW: I came from the same stuff, really. My dad’s records, that’s the same stuff that early on got me going. Beatles and all that kind of broader stuff… I only got into Hüsker Dü in the last year. I was in Minneapolis recording our last record and we recorded at this studio called Third Year… Tom Herbers was the engineer, and he has this great photograph of a Hüsker Dü show in ’82 or something like that. You’re out front playing and he’s about three feet from you. There’s a spotlight on him as a 16-year-old kid [laughs]. It’s a great photo.
BM: [laughs] Tom’s a great guy and I know the exact photo of which you speak.
YW: He kinda hipped me to the stuff and so that’s where I come at it. I mean, I didn’t get into modern rock music until like four or five years ago, something like that. You know, indie rock. Anything before the ’60s and ’70s—I was into that old stuff that my parents got me into and then I was sorta into rap music.
XLR8R: I had thought you had come from more of an indie rock and punk background, only insofar as the stuff you guys make as a hip-hop group is definitely not traditional hip-hop. Where, in listening to hip-hop, did you diverge into this way left-of-center approach?
YW: It’s similar to you, Bob, you were saying the early Hüsker Dü records don’t sound like ’60s melodic pop but you thought you were doing that in a way. The same thing happened with me with rap music… I didn’t know if it was normal or what, but it was my version of what I was hearing just filtered through my brain and coming out of my unschooled sense of music. I guess it was the same thing for me and I only realized later when everyone talks about it do you know that it’s totally different.
BM: [laughs] That’s always a moment when that happens… ‘I thought I sounded like the Righteous Brothers. What are you talking about? … I was totally going for that feeling.’
XLR8R: That early-’80s DIY scene was known for setting up its own networks and working under the radar, touring in cities that normally wouldn’t see tours. I wonder how much that has changed now, and what’s remained of setting up these communities at the grassroots level.
BM: This is the good stuff to me. This is the stuff that will never happen again and will always happen again, and I’ll get into why. If you go back to the early ’80s, just look at where the technology was. No internet, no cell phones. People were truly separated by time and distance… And this is totally gonna start sounding like Dennis Hopper or something. But in Minneapolis there was a punk rock bar and when you got tired of playing the punk rock bar, you could rent a VFW hall for 50 bucks. And you could drag a PA up a couple flights of stairs and you could do whatever you wanted to do inside that room. And that was what created community outside of the norm. That is where everybody got to express themselves and everybody could have 20 minutes as long as they helped out. And that’s community and that was a real beauty. We didn’t know in 1980 that everybody else in the rest of the world was doing it as well. None of us knew. It was these scenes that were sort of isolated that were happening; something would happen in Chicago like that, and something would be happening in DC like that, and in Austin–all cities. And then there were those few bands that were the real pioneers that went out and spread the word and made the connections for everybody. I think about Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys… It was insane and there was no like, “Oh, I’m totally into synthetic goth disco. I’m gonna Google up the other seven people in the world that are into it.” This was this thing that took a lot of time and effort and community to build. I don’t know if that could ever happen again, but it always happens. That’s what I meant by it always happens. I think for all of the technological advancements and sort of the weird disconnect, I still do believe in community. And the dampness and the smell of a live music experience where everybody’s sharing–it’s really trying to get people back to that. It’s great that we can Google everything in the world but it’s also the shared community is important.
YW: It’s interesting to hear all that. It’s such a product of the different times that we came up in. My experience has a certain parallel sensibility about it but is so much a product of the late ’90s when I was starting to do stuff and it was about the tape trade in indie–I’m hesitant to say “underground hip-hop” but that’s really what it was at the time for us, where we were isolated, all of us around the country, in our own bedrooms making records on four-tracks and whatnot and then dubbing tapes and sending them. The internet had a large part. This probably sounds like hell to you, Bob, because it’s really the exact opposite of what you’re saying in a way. It just was a product of the time I came up doing it.
XLR8R: But it’s still a community-building exercise.
YW: It is a community. It was really interesting. All these remote participants in this fairly broad community of kids who couldn’t wait to get their hands on the newest tape of the most revolutionary rapper that you could hear, or someone that had some style that just sounded odd and awkward and beautiful that you had heard about on some message board somewhere and, ‘How can I get a hold of this tape?’ ‘I’ll send you a fifth-generation copy but it’s mostly just hiss and the guy’s vocals might poke out a little bit and you might hear a snare drum.’ That was my experience and it was beautiful.
BM: That’s totally cool. Did you find that that created a scene where people wanted to see the person in real life?
YW: It started happening out here in the Bay Area, I guess, where this seemed to be the most active hot spot for this kind of stuff. I made connections with about 12 other entities in other cities that were doing similar stuff. A lot of us moved out here to the Bay to have a community that was face-to-face and not something on the phone and internet.
XLR8R: Speaking of the internet, I know that Bob, you’re into blogging these days and Yoni, new Why? record has this series of web vignettes to promote it. What’s been your experience with it as far as connecting with fans. Does it work as a replacement for meeting people face-to-face?
BM: For 25 years I sort of kept my business to myself and just dealt with the work, and over the past four years with the blogging, I’ve sort of pulled the curtain back and shown people, like, ‘Look, I’m pretty content with my life and content to share a little bit more now, and look, it’s really not that thrilling. [laughs] Here’s where I shop, here’s where I go to the gym, here’s where I socialize with my friends.’ I definitely don’t have any stalkers because everybody knows where I am.
YW: It’s not exciting for a stalker. How can they get excited if they know?
BM: I think in this day and age where people want more information, I don’t mind sharing the general information like that if it helps to frame me as a person who makes this work. It’s also had a nice affect of where, some of the mystery is gone, but some of the people projecting and personalizing my work even more than I would, it’s diffused that a little bit which makes things a little more casual and sort of cool as I get older.
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