Bob Mould - Sunshine Rock Solo Electric w/ Will Johnson - 9/26/19Thursday, September 26 2019 6pm Doors / 8pm Start
- Front Premier
- Bar Stool
Bob Mould - Sunshine Rock Solo Electric w/ Will Johnson - 9/26/19
at City Winery Washington DC
- Front Premier
- Bar Stool
The cliché that circulated after the 2016 election foretold a new artistic golden age: Artists would transform their anger and anxiety into era-defining works of dissent in the face of authoritarianism.
Yet Bob Mould calls his new album Sunshine Rock.
It’s not because Mould—whose face belongs on the Mount Rushmore of alternative music—likes the current administration. His decision to “write to the sunshine,” as he describes it, comes from a more personal place – a place found in Berlin, Germany, where he’s spent the majority of the last three years. Here Mould would draw inspiration from the new environments.
“Almost four years ago, I made plans for an extended break,” Mould explains. “I started spending time in Berlin in 2015, found an apartment in 2016, and became a resident in 2017. My time in Berlin has been a life changing experience. The winter days are long and dark, but when the sun comes back, all spirits lift.”
These three years in Berlin would quite literally shed new light on Mould’s everyday mindset.
“To go from [2011 autobiography] See a Little Light to the last three albums, two of which were informed by loss of each parent, respectively, at some point I had to put a Post-It note on my work station and say, ‘Try to think about good things.’ Otherwise I could really go down a long, dark hole,” he says. “I’m trying to keep things brighter these days as a way to stay alive.”
That makes Sunshine Rock as logical a product of the current climate as any rage-fueled agit-rock. Variations on the word “sun” appear 27 times in five different songs over the course of the album’s 37 minutes. To hear Mould tell it, the theme developed early.
“‘Sunshine Rock’ was such a bright, optimistic song, and once that came together, I knew that would be the title track, and that really set the tone for the direction of the album,” Mould says. “It was funny, because writing with that as the opener in mind, it was like, ‘This is not Black Sheets of Rain.’”
Mould’s famously dour 1990 solo album still serves as a point of reference: a title track that sets the tone for the album, though on Sunshine Rock, it’s the opposite of Rain.
This being Bob Mould, Sunshine Rock still has darker moments. “Lost Faith,” for example, has him quietly lamenting, “I’ve lost faith in everything / Everything, everything.” The Mould of 1990 may have wallowed in the feeling, but the Mould of 2018 jumps into a hooky, bombastic chorus where he sings, “Really gotta stop this now, this is your / Last chance to turn around, I know we / All lose faith from time to time, you / Better find your way back home.”
Those cathartic moments in “Lost Faith” foreground a surprising element of Sunshine Rock: Mould’s rawest vocals since his throat-shredding days in Hüsker Dü. It started when Mould and the band—drummer Jon Wurster and bassist Jason Narducy—had extra time in the studio with Mould’s longtime engineer, Beau Sorenson. They settled on a cover of Shocking Blue’s “Send Me a Postcard,” and Mould decided to lay down vocals right there.
“This was the first real vocal take during the session. I walked to the mic, not knowing how I would sing these words. Three minutes later, I went back into the control room and everyone was like, ’What the fuck, that was wild!’ I was like, ‘Yeah, it’s pretty good!’ That was the only take, and that’s what you hear on the album.”
“After that moment, I learned to let go and be more spontaneous with my vocals. Because of that, there’s way more emotion on this album. Perhaps I was ironing some of that out in the past by double- and triple-tracking vocals, hoping for some perfect pop result.”
The rawness of the vocals counterbalances the strings that appear on five songs. Although Mould has experimented with small-scale string accompaniment on previous albums, Sunshine Rock ambitiously incorporates an 18-piece orchestra.
“I had this idea as we were right up on recording, ‘Why not take some of these extra melodies that I’ve got kicking around and build them all into string arrangements?’” Mould says. “I like really big, dense chordal structures and rhythm guitars, those layers that come at you. This time, I was just trying to be mindful of adding more melody.”
Mould wrote the string parts, which collaborator Alison Chesley transcribed for the various instruments with some input from consultant Paul Martens. The Prague TV Orchestra spent a day recording the parts while he listened remotely from his home studio in San Francisco. The process came together so easily, Mould laughs, “It’s going to be tough not to use them now.”
It all amounts to Mould’s catchiest, grabbiest album since Copper Blue, the acclaimed 1992 debut of his trio Sugar. Back then, Mould’s work in Hüsker Dü, as a solo artist, and in Sugar helped define the sound of guitar rock in the alternative age. Sunshine Rock finds him doing it again for an era that has ostensibly eschewed rock.
“I’ve heard this thing about ‘guitars are dead’ at least five times, and they always seem to come back,” he says. “For better or worse, this is what I do. I think there’s a lot of people trying to aspire to make great albums. That’s really what this is about: trying to make great rock albums for people because there’s not that many anymore.”
Maybe that cliché about great art coming from strife could be true—but who would’ve guessed it’d be called Sunshine Rock?
“Sunshine Rock is one helluva way to wrap up the busiest decade of my career,” he shares. “The autobiography, the Disney Hall tribute show, reissues of several albums from my catalog, three current rock band albums, several world tours, and now this new album — I’m humbled and grateful to still be making new music while celebrating my lifetime songbook.”
Over the course of his quarter-century-plus career, Will Johnson has dealt with every challenge a musician can face. The silver lining, however, is that the Austin-based songwriter excels at taking bumps in the road and turning them into gold.
A week before Johnson was to begin tracking his fifth solo album, Hatteras Night, A Good Luck Charm, he hit one such bump: His usual studio haunt, the Echo Lab—where he’s recorded solo work, albums by his beloved former band Centro-matic and side projects such as South San Gabriel—suddenly became unavailable due to a fire. Luckily, a friend and collaborator, Britton Beisenherz (Monahans, Milton Mapes) stepped in and offered up his Austin, Texas, studio, Ramble Creek Recording.
The last-minute switch was a blessing in disguise. First, the session now brought together both old friends (his Centro-matic bandmate Matt Pence, a pal of 27 years and the Echo Lab’s manager) and newer friends (Beisenherz, Ricky Ray Jackson, who’s worked with Phosphorescent and Steve Earle).
In addition, this combination of musicians ended up unexpectedly adding more depth to the album’s desolate, folk- and Americana-leaning songs. Anxious soundscapes—specifically, hushed harmonies and a mélange of drums and splintered acoustic guitars—give “Hey-O, Hi” cinematic tension. Elsewhere, mournful, coyote-howl pedal steel wafts through the country croon “Childress (To Ogden)”; “Ruby Shameless” is a gentle, lullaby-like song with a chiming melodic backbone; and on the easygoing “Predator,” winking piano peeks out from layers of burnished guitar strums and sparking percussion.
“Having Britton’s personality and his fingerprints on this record definitely added more to it,” Johnson says. “At first, I thought Hatteras Night, A Good Luck Charm was just going to be Ricky Ray and me holed up in the live room, making a really subdued, largely acoustic, pedal steel-type of record. But it wound up turning into a more involved and layered affair, and one that was even more rocking in places than it might have been had we done it at the Echo Lab.”
The latter development is most evident on “Every Single Day Of Late,” which has a creeping sense of dread thanks to shuddering distorted guitars and rhythmically off-kilter percussion, and on the roaring, hurricane-like “Heresy And Snakes.” These moments might remind some people of Centro-matic, although Johnson says that band’s absence is more of an influence.
“When Centro-matic was still intact, my solo records were usually really subdued,” he says. “I would take them in a completely different direction than the cascade of guitars and feedback that we were really into. Now that Centro-matic is not in existence anymore, there are going to be moments where I just want to turn everything up and kind of go for it.”
On some level, his ability to let loose stems from his chemistry with Beisenherz and Jackson, both of whom added prominent instrumental contributions to Johnson’s last album, 2015’s Swan City Vampires. However, this approach also reflects his comfort level with Pence. Although Hatteras Night, A Good Luck Charm marked their first full session together since 2012, their creative and studio relationship always tends to pick up right where it left off.
That enduring connection especially helped this time around, since the crew only had five days to make Hatteras Night, A Good Luck Charm. Although Swan City Vampires was almost as economical—it was recorded over six days—that record found Johnson navigating both the loss of his mother and the 2014 breakup of Centro-matic. Hatteras Night, A Good Luck Charm is a different animal: The record largely revolves around fictional narratives featuring vibrant, well-defined characters dealing with “situations of tension,” as Johnson puts it.
On “Every Single Day of Late,” the protagonist finds much more than spiritual fulfillment after seeking out religious counsel, and soon becomes addicted to the taboo relationship. Milaak’s titular song demonstrates the anguish which often goes hand-in-hand with human connection, while on “Heresy and Snakes,” misunderstood Mazie May’s actions are perceived to be more nefarious than dignified. The keening “Filled With a Falcon’s Dream,” meanwhile, namechecks the ill-intentioned trio of Lucius, Timmy and Steve.
“I was in a mindset of exploring risky connections between people, and their willingness to look the other way and just go through with them, for the simple need of human affection and an almost devil-may-care attitude,” Johnson explains.
Still, he is a benevolent songwriter. For example, the narrator of “Ruby Shameless” looks at the song’s main character, a stripper, with tenderness and humanity; he sees her as a person worth cherishing, rather than a devalued object. Hatteras Night, A Good Luck Charm’s characters aren’t “morally bankrupt,” Johnson says, just dealing with a devil and an angel perched on their shoulders, whispering in their ears.
“I’m sympathetic to all of these characters, even though they’re flawed and maybe a little confused,” he says. “A lot of the time it’s good people making bad decisions. And they may just need some affection, and then will move on. It’s more coming to terms with, ‘I’m going to be alone in this world, and I’m okay with it. I’m totally okay with this solitary situation, and this empty bed.'”
As a solo artist, Johnson also knows all too well the balance required to navigate solitude and collaboration. However, on Hatteras Night, A Good Luck Charm, finding this equilibrium helps him discover nuanced and intriguing sonic directions. The album ends up a thought-provoking meditation on what it means to exist in a world that often misunderstands (or chooses to ignore) emotional complexity.