The Hold Steady's Craig Finn came along for the ride too.
Noisey and Bob Mould in Hüsker Dü's first rehearsal space which is now a hairdressers called Divine Cuts by Rome.
There’s a lovely moment—captured in the third episode of Made in America: Made in Minnesota—when Bob Mould is walking through Divine Cuts by Rome, a hair salon which used to be a record store, the basement of which served as the rehearsal space for Hüsker Dü. It’s a relatively early weekday morning, but the salon is already buzzing with women nattering away above the hubbub of hair dryers and running water. The customers have been been notified that a camera crew is coming to the salon with a famous musician for a trip down memory lane and one inquisitive stylist is prodding Bob with questions. She wants to know what song he recorded—she’s curious about his big hit.
Bob barely misses a beat. He’s hardly going to tell her that in the 80s he was the frontman of Hüsker Dü, a seminal band who explored the parameters of hardcore punk and then pushed beyond them. He’s surely not going to mention that he went on to front Sugar and continues to make music as a solo artist to this day. Bob knows he’ll be met with blank stares, and so in an attempt to establish common ground, he tells her his band recorded a version of the Mary Tyler Moore theme. “Oh OK!” she says, beaming. As a writer friend wrote on my Instagram recently: “Bob’s the sweetest dude ever,” and he is.
There’s no way this report on the Minneapolis/St. Paul scene would be complete without the presence of Bob Mould. Although he now lives in San Francisco, as luck would have it Bob was back in his hometown for a day and was kind enough to take Noisey to some of his old haunts, as well as taking the the time for a spot of vinyl shopping and reminiscing with The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn (of course they’re from different generations, but they have so many Minnesota/musical touchstones in common). Plus we talk the romance of record stores, and the loss of his father and how that inspired his latest, deeply personal album, this year’s Beauty and Ruin.
Where are we off to right now?
Bob: We’re going to go to 1451 University Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, and I can’t believe I remembered that off the top of my head. Northern Lights Records was one of many record stores in the Twin Cities in the late 70s. In the basement of Northern Lights is where Hüsker Dü originally got together to rehearse.
Was that where any band could get together, or did you have a special connection?
I’d met the drummer Grant Hart at another record store, Cheapo Records, which was right next to my dorm at Macalester College. Grant was saying he knew a guy who’d play bass at Northern Lights and we should all get together and play. So that was because Greg the bass player worked there, we could play in the basement.
I love that back in the day record stores were a place people could actually meet and hang out. It’s a bummer that that’s no longer part of the culture really.
Oh my God—there’s a number of key formative or influential moments as a musician and a fan of music where record stores were the nexus. When I went to school at Macalester I would shop at Cheapo and Northern Lights, but on Saturdays I would take this 45 minute bus ride with transfers from St. Paul to South Minneapolis to Oar Folk [legendary but sadly now defunct record store]. It was the kinda place you go and there’d be want ads for other musicians. I’d sit on the radiator and read NME for my Brit injection, try to figure out what singles I wanted to buy, and hope the record store would have them. And then you’d just sort of sit there with the single in your hands and hope for the best.
And that ritual of watching people shop for music. If they’re thumbing through the browsers, and they pull out like, Air Supply, you’d probably avoid them. But if they pull out Throbbing Gristle, you’d want to see what they’re about. Though I guess you could still probably do that online.
There’s way less romance to it. But you’re originally from Malone, New York. What drew you to the Twin Cities? Was it the liberal arts scene, or did you know there was a happening rock scene that you had to check out?
Well I knew a little bit about the scene from reading this magazine called Rock Scene. I’d follow it to keep up with Aerosmith and Kiss, but then they’d have articles about The Ramones and Blondie and Television. They’d also have articles about local scenes, and there was this piece on the Minneapolis scene. They mentioned this band from Minneapolis called The Suicide Commandos. I then bought the record in Burlington. But to get back to the story, I came to St. Paul to go to school at Macalester College because I was fortunate to get a full scholarship. My family was pretty poor, and they had a quota for underprivileged kids, and I guess I fit that quota.
So as we’re in a car reminiscing can you tell me a bit about the church you used to rehearse in?
The church! There was a church in East St. Paul that a friend of Hüsker Dü owned, or was the landlord of. It ended up being one of those classic almost squatter-type situations. People would live there for a while, and then not live there, bands could play and practice, rehearse, and occasionally there would be shows at night.
In the house of God?!
Yeah, that’s where a lot of the improvisation and ideas, the genesis of the Zen Arcade was done. A lot of it was written on the road as well, but that’s where the band was practicing for a short period of time. It was a really interesting scene, a lot of people coming and going. I don’t think anyone ever paid anything to live there.
Who were you guys hanging out with at the time, or were you pretty self-contained?
Hüsker Dü had a small label called Reflex Records, and we’d work with a lot of bands from the Midwest—skate punk and hardcore bands, bands that we liked. Man Sized Action, Rifle Sport, Ground Zero, Otto's Chemical Lounge. Just putting out 7-inch singles, putting out albums, making cassette compilations. So that was our gang, everyone would share equipment and resources. We’d help each other out as much as we could, and it was a really great scene.
Punk and hardcore aside, there was a lot of great funk in Minneapolis…
A lot of great stuff. There was Prince, of course, and his expansive reach: Alexander O'Neal, Terry and Jimmy, The Time, Paisley Park in general. It’s funny because people think Minneapolis, they think Hüsker Dü, Replacements, Soul Asylum, Bang. The Twin Cities—Minneapolis in particular—was comparable to Detroit in the 60s. There’s the north side music where you had stuff like Prince, Terry, and Jimmy, and the south side: with Hüskers and Replacements. And then First Ave & 7th Street Entry, the old Greyhound bus depot downtown where everyone played—that was the common space we had that we could all play. It was a really interesting time for music, there’s a lot going on here. It wasn’t just punk rock or Twin/Tone, and it wasn’t just Paisley Park or Prince. There was a pretty wide variety of things happening and everyone co-existed, and it made everything seem much bigger.
Ever have an encounter with Prince?
In 1988 I worked at Paisley Park for a week on my first solo record, Workbook. Really amazing studio. He had three different rooms there, a B room that had an old API console that had some history, and he built this gigantic soundstage so he could rehearse his tours there.
That’s like peak Prince-era.
Yeah, peak Prince. I remember we went into the A room and that’s where he hung out. We went in there for a couple days to do some bass overdubs, and the control room had all the scarves and stuff. He also had a 20 foot all-white lobby that had a really tall birdcage with a dove at the top of it. It’s a really nice studio, very well appointed.
Now that you live in SF what do you miss about the city?
People are really sweet, really wonderful. There’s that Minnesota nice, I’m sure you’ve heard it.
I encountered it on the plane over with the stewardesses. So chirpy.
[Laughs.] All the way. People have been really good to me, from the moment I got here to go to school to every time we come back. It was a great place to get my start, very supportive community.
I spoke to Lori from Babes in Toyland on this trip too. You know her well right?
She was in the scene, we were all around, and it was like, "Hey I’m Lori, hey let’s hang out, let’s listen to punk, do shows, help out bands that come to town.” Lori was amazing, just as far as going to cement the Minneapolis scene. She was sort of the liaison with the clubs and the musicians.
Let’s talk about your new record. You’ve explored some pretty personal stuff on there…
Yeah, the album is called Beauty and Ruin and I started writing it in October of 2012. That’s where the mile-marker went in the ground because that’s when my father passed away. My dad was the person who brought music into my life as a kid, and brought me those 7-inch singles I had when I was little, bought me my first two guitars, and bought and delivered two vans for Hüsker Düto tour in. Driving them 1200 miles across the country.
Wow he was pretty instrumental then.
Very instrumental. And he was a tough case, I had a rough childhood, but who didn’t? So his passing made me stop and think about things and that was the beginning of the twelve months of writing that became Beauty and Ruin. In order the themes I touch on in the record are loss, reflection, acceptance, and future. Those are the four [proverbial] picture frames I tossed all my Polaroids in to make this record. It’s a really nice record, it sounds like all the things I do well. Very catchy, very dark at times, loud most of the time. People seem to be responding well—it seems to be resonating deeply with people.
I’m sure in part because you’ve been so up front about the subject matter.
Yeah, and that’s always a chancy thing. When you say stuff like that, people could be like, “Oh my God.” But I had a couple choices when it came time to buckle down on the record: I could write what I know, or I could fake it and make another happy record and put a fresh coat of paint on things that happened. That’s not really been my style. So it’s been go with what you know and hope for the best. I’m very fortunate that I have a very loyal audience—my audience tend to skew much older than most pop stars these days, and I think that a lot of the people that listen to my music have either gone through, are going through, or are about to go through these kinds of things. So maybe they’ll see that it’s OK, or my view of what it looked like, and what to do in the wake of it. Consideration of legacy, what legacy means, how you don’t have control over it. You just do your work and hope that people get it. You accept the changes no matter what they are, and realize the future is now and not tomorrow. The future is, “Oh, I’ll get to that in the future,” when actually you can get to it right now.
You’ve also brought out that autobiography, so really you’ve been digging into your past for a few years now.
Yeah, it’s been interesting because I’ve never been one to look back at all. I tend to do my thing and move on as quickly as possible to get to the next. This has been an interesting couple of years with the autobiography, the Sugar reissues, the Workbook reissue. I think all of that—getting my story in order, see the trends, oscillations, good and the bad all laid out on a timeline like that—I have a better understanding of what I do, and I feel a little more comfortable with myself, the work that I do, and the work that I’ve done. I have a pretty good sense of what I’m supposed to be doing now, and we’re all having fun with this. I’m 53 and punk rock is for the young, but we’re all having a good time with it. I don’t know if it’s something I want to be doing 10 years from now so we’re at this point where me, John, and Jason are having fun together, and people are responding well. Simple enough right? Give the people what they want for once.
At this point we arrive at what used to be Northern Lights Records and is now Divine Cuts by Rome. After poking around the basement-rehearsal-space-turned salon, we head next door to what remains of the record store and meet up with Craig Finn of The Hold Steady.
Craig, did you know Hüsker Dü used to rehearse in this basement of this store?
Craig: I knew it through reading the history of it all, but certainly not at the time. So Greg [Norton, Hüsker Dü’s bassist] worked here?
Bob: Yeah, Greg worked here, Grant worked at Cheapo. That’s where Grant and I met, and he said, “I know this guy who has a bass, he works over at Northern Lights.” We all got together and that was that.
Craig: That is one amazing thing—how much activity record stores created, that doesn’t happen anymore unfortunately.
We were just talking about it in the car, how record stores used to be a social hub where you could meet friends and new people. Prospective partners.
Bob: Right, the idea of people congregating and meeting and sharing in record stores, as opposed to buying stuff online, which is nice and convenient, doesn’t have as much weight.
Craig: I used to go to Oar Folk and you could wait around til someone cool shows up. Bob Stinson, or Dave Pirner or something. But Terry Katzman [who worked there] would always recommend records to me. At a young age it was very cool and informative, and it was nice to have those relationships. Like, they’d say, “You got that record last week, did you like it? Then you might like this.”
Bob: I used to go over on Saturdays, grab Sounds, NME, or Melody Maker and sit on the radiator that looked across to the hardware store. I would just sit there and read those things, and then go over and see if they had any singles that looked cool. Like, “Oh, GBH? What do they sound like? I know what they look like.”The Suicide Commandos – “Burn it Down”
I wanted to talk about The Suicide Commandos cause you both mentioned them as being so central to the Minneapolis music scene and indeed your own music.
Bob: It’s funny, we have similar stories to share. Mine was reading about The Suicide Commandos in Rock Scene magazine when I was in high school. When I came out here to go to school [from New York State], I was 17. Got the paper and saw they were playing at a place called Longhorn, and had to go get a fake ID to go see that band because I loved Make a Record record. It was my first weekend here in the Twin Cities and at the time The Commandos were just about to break up, and Chris was in-between things so he was giving guitar lessons. I was such a fan, I was like “Oh my God I get to hang out with Chris.” After the second lesson he was like “OK. You just need to go start a band.”
What did he even teach you, power chords?
Bob: We just hung out mostly and played stuff. Did a couple little tricks here and there, and he was just like “You’re done.”
Craig: He was actually recommended to my parents as a guitar teacher. For my first lesson I brought this Ramones record and I didn’t think this guy would know who the Ramones were, and I was explaining it to him and he was like “I actually know the guys,” and I just flipped. And he was like, “I made a record too.”
He also had these great life lessons, like if a phone was ringing, before he answered he would turn up the stereo really loud. I’d ask, “Why’d you do that?” and he’d say, “You always want people to think you’re having a really great time!” [Laughs.] Invaluable. And then he’d teach me a lot of Ramones songs because those are just the basics, it’d be like “Let’s do another one, let’s do another one.”
And Ramones were a jumping off point for you too, right?
Bob: Yeah, that’s where I got off of metal and got into punk. I knew punk was bubbling, but when I heard that first record, it made way more sense than Aerosmith’s Rocks.
So where’s Chris today?
Bob: He’s still around. There’s a McNally Smith College of Music, and I think he’s the vice president there. It’s a large facility that’s for learning about music. Chris being one of the key people in my musical life, I always go and visit him there.
Was there any rivalry between Minneapolis and St. Paul?
Craig: Yes. There probably still is. There better be! [Laughs.] You know how you hate the town next to you in high school, but you can’t seem to not go to the same parties? It’s like that, the rivalries still there.
Bob: With Hüsker we definitely felt like we were waving the St. Paul flag, and it was very different than the Minneapolis flag.
Craig: The St. Paul thing—at least my interpretation—is that it was a smaller town, so it kind of ran deeper. People would come to shows in Minneapolis, and they would identify as being from St. Paul. When I was growing up there was a hardcore band called Blind Approach that was pretty big from over here. They had a song called “St. Paul Hardcore,” and all the St. Paul people would come and sing loud. So it went both ways, but I felt like St. Paul maybe was a little more tightly knit.
Bob: The cities always had it too. At the beginning it was completely different, south St. Paul was all stockyards, livestock cattle yards, and Minneapolis was Pillsbury, grain town. So each side of the river had different industries.
So the rivalry runs beyond than music—it’s a city thing. You guys don’t live in Minneapolis anymore, but what do you think makes Minneapolis and St. Paul unique?
Craig: I do think people are very supportive of the local scene here, and that’s unique. I’d look over at the guy next to me and say, “If this guy didn’t live in Minneapolis, he wouldn’t be at that show.” But fourteen years removed I don’t feel like I can intelligently talk about what it’s like now.
Bob: For me there were people like Chris or Steve or Tim Carr, rest in peace, who was really instrumental in working with the Walker Arts Center and the Guthrie Theater. In the late 70s early 80s there was a festival called M-80, a two day festival that Tim helped put together that really put the city on the map—people like Devo would play, which was unheard of it. And I think the weather has a lot to do with it, when you’re inside six months of the year you need to find stuff to do with your friends. And there’s music and drinking.
Which go hand in hand!
Bob: It’s all things Minnesota which is cool. It’s just a great place.
Director Lance Bangs, Bob Mould, Kim from Noisey, and Craig Finn.
Kim is the host of Made in America and a Noisey editor and she’s on Twittter - @theKTB