15 Years Ago: Bob Mould Embraces Electronica on ‘Modulate’
It’s not like Bob Mould was guarding his intentions. The former Hüsker Dü and Sugar singer-guitarist had named his 1998 solo record The Last Dog and Pony Show to indicate that it would be the last time (at least for a while) that he’d be making music with a guitar-fueled rock band. Mould was ready for something different.
“In ’98, it had been literally 20 years of the same thing,” Mould told the A.V. Club. “Everything was really good up until ’95, ’96, and then it was just like all those s---ty bands ruined a good thing, and that’s like, ‘Uh, I really don’t want to have anything to do with this stuff much longer’.”
So he took a break from music. A lifelong wrestling fan, Mould wrote scripts for World Championship Wrestling for a few months in 1999 and 2000. Around the same time, he was getting more and more interested in electronic music, gravitating to records by the likes of Daft Punk and Sasha and Digweed.
Although he had toyed with loops on Pony Show, Mould sought to create a self-sampling solo record that brought together his voice and guitar playing with electronic elements that he created on his computer. The result would be his fifth solo album, Modulate.
“A lot of it was taking guitars and keyboards and really sort of destroying them inside of a computer, crunching down heavy with distortion and compression, flipping them over,” Mould told Rolling Stone. “There’s no outside samples – I tried going that route but it just didn't sit with me. … I think as a composer it made more sense to me to make my own sounds. It all sort of generated for me from my hands and my head.”
In addition to hitting on a new sound, Mould was taking a new approach to some of his songwriting. If the singer was still dealing with depression in some songs, such as “Lost Zoloft” and “Sunset Safety Glass,” his lyrics also saw a little (more) light in tunes like “Comeonstrong” and “Soundonsound.”
There were also a pair of nods to Mould’s time in Hüsker Dü. “The Receipt” was widely considered the songwriter’s kiss-off to former bandmate Grant Hart (with Mould declaring, “I still hate your favorite song”). Meanwhile, Modulate’s penultimate track “Trade” actually came out of the waning days of the post-punk band in 1987.
“‘Trade’ is a very old song. That dates back to the end of Hüsker Dü basically,” Mould revealed to Delusions of Adequacy. “It’s a song that band could never manage. I was working on one piece and it reminded me of that song, so I just re-approached that song with the new style.”
Not under contract at a record label allowed Mould the creative freedom to experiment in this way. He released Modulate on his own Granary Music on March 12, 2002. While the singer-songwriter was excited to expose his new sonic approach, he was also aware that the reaction of his hard-core, rock-oriented fans might not be positive.
“I got the kind of feeling, ‘Wow, people may hate this’,” Mould said. “Once I got used to living with that fear, it freed me up even more for the first time ever. When I realized there was a lot to be gained from failing in some people’s eyes, it made it all the more interesting.”
And Modulate was definitely a disappointment in the opinion of some fans, and plenty of writers in the rock press. Mould might have been forthright about the record being an experiment, but critics mostly saw the sonic alloy as a failed one. In addition, the album became the first of Mould’s solo discs that neglected to make the Billboard albums chart.
“I just felt really exhausted after Modulate,” Mould recalled in 2005. “I felt like I was on the defensive all the time, and I don’t know if I was put there or I started fighting for Modulate because it was so different. I felt like I was having to explain too much instead of just saying, ‘This record rocks. You’re gonna love it.’ And maybe if I had done that, people would have been more receptive.”
Even though Mould’s tour to support Modulate also was unconventional – with the musician performing solo to backing tracks while films were projected behind him – the live performances of new material and re-worked favorites from the back catalog seemed to get a better reaction.
What got lost in the shuffle, even to Mould, was his original three-part plan, showcasing the range of his musical interests circa 2002. The idea was to put out the songwriter/electronic hybrid Modulate in March, and the more DJ-oriented Long Playing Grooves (credited to the anagram LoudBomb) soon after. Then, in the fall, Mould would deliver the more traditional, acoustic-based Body of Song to complete the picture. But, the last release got delayed, creatively and logistically, and wouldn’t come out until 2005.
Would Modulate have been better understood if it had been quickly followed by Body of Song – instead of that record getting the “return to form” tag three years later? Perhaps, but for Mould, he wanted to first present a more daring sound.
“Leading with Modulate was the brave move,” he said in 2002. “The brave and perhaps stupid!”
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