(from Nouns out now on Sub Pop)
Bob Mould was the guitarist and singer of Hüsker Dü and Sugar before striking out on his own solo career and Dean Spunt and Randy Randall are the L.A. duo No Age. We asked them to interview each other after they played NoisePop together and before they both played Coachella. This is the complete version of this interview.
Bob Mould : How do you guys make your records? How did you make Nouns?
Dean Spunt (drums/vocals in No Age): We recorded some of at Southern Studios in London. I guess we did five songs.
Randy Randall (guitar in No Age): Only three or four made it on there.
DS: And then we did everything without vocals. This is before we even had a label or anything, so we were doing a tour out there already and our friend was like, ‘Hey, his label goes through Southern for distribution—I can get you guys to record at basically Southern Studios.’ And we were like, ‘OK, lets do it.’ Psychocandy was recorded there, you know, so we went there, did a few songs, and we when we got home we have those and that’s kind of when we decided what label we were gonna be on and then we recorded stuff on our own and went to a studio out here in the East L.A. area. That’s where we did more recording and all the vocals.
BM: So when you record you go instrumental and then sing later? Or sometimes you sing with?
DS: Like always later. When we write stuff—we were talking about this the other day—usually the first kind of stuff we’re writing we just kind of come up with samples or guitar stuff and I would just sit there and hear it played over and over and I just sing. That’s when I come up with a melody, and it’s rare that I come up with a vocal melody. Actually, I do it a lot but I never remember it. Like I’ll come up with it while I’m driving and I’ll try to write notes down, but it’s rare that I’ll remember it.
BM: I was doing a gig last July at Maxwell’s—a solo gig in a sound check—and I started coming up with this idea and I freaked because I didn’t have anything. So I went on the app store and bought a little audio recorder on the spot and two minutes later I was recording it into the phone. I was just like, ‘Phew!’
DS: That’s awesome.
RR: On tour I’ll just use my Garage Band. Just for when I wake up in the morning and I’ll just try and catch that little something.
BM: When I’m home, that’s how I make records now. Like the newer record—so much of that stuff—everything—is just composition stuff. Like I’m not recording anymore. I just turn it on and I’ve got a click and I just start recording and singing and I try to keep as much of the first time as possible.
DS: Then you kind of listen to it and you’re like, ‘Oh, that part’s good.’
BM: Yeah, and I’ve got it all at home on the computer and it’s in time, so I just snip it out and then cross fade the thing back together and then I start to make this arrangement—if I wanted a double at the end, I just clip that one and put it there as a placeholder until I get ready.
DS: I think that’s where we wanna kind of be, but we’re sort of like, ‘We have a practice place…’ But its shared and nothing can be set up all the time.
RR: We have to break down after everything so I leave the computers and recording stuff at home and then try to bring it in—try to make it mobile—but I think what we’re gonna try to do is have a set space where we can go and its mic’d up and we can play.
BM: Yeah, all you have to do is just reach over and go ‘boink’ and it’s ready—that’s so important.
RR: We’ve done some songs—like the instrumental songs, we’d be at home with practice amps and its kind of like layer, layer, layer, remove, go back and take it out, kind of much more like a collage idea. But the more structured songs we have to do the live take with it.
BM: You guys have such a visceral thing, too, you know—the process you got going right now is really good.
RR: Yeah, but over time it would be nice to shift into many different places.
BM: For me everything is about composition right now, so performance is touring and that’s just like giving people a song to learn—so for me to just have it at home to hit record and keep it is great.
RR: Do you still find that there are still things that are inspiring?
BM: The things that really dictate the writing process is if I have a DJ gig on Saturday and it’s Tuesday, and I haven’t got any new music and I have to spend days listening to stuff, I’ll get up in the morning and listen for hours to other peoples stuff. And if it’s dance stuff, then I’m in beat mode. So when I sit down and I wanna write something I go for Reason—I try to make a mangled-up loop and then I start putting something on that. But on days when I don’t need to do that, I’ll pick up the guitar and just start with an idea. So it’s really environmental. It’s what I’m listening to that gets me there. The good days are the ones that I just wake up and I got something buzzing in my head when I’m in the shower or I hear a sound or a ringing and it gets me thinking about stuff. So that’s at least in music terms. The words are always coming.
DS: You’re constantly writing words and stuff?
BM: Yeah, either that or just going through old emails. You know, I have a life and my life is filled with all these people and I’m juggling these things. I try to take care of people and have people take care of me and those are the best stories because those are the ones that are happening as we speak.
DS: I think for us this is really a new process of us recording and then touring and that sort of cycles. Now we’re expected to write and record again and its this new sort of space where we’re like, ‘Well, usually we would work our jobs and then after the jobs come to the practice space and just get everything out and off our chests and that would be the next record.’ At least that’s how it had always been. But now we’re in a position that is insulated when it’s not those other jobs. We have a job now—it’s the band—but we’re trying to figure out how to do it. In your writing cycle, do you experience that sort of thing? Or is it linear from one record to the other?
BM: Well, I mean—I remember when I was more where you guys are at—I sent you an email about that. Just don’t listen to what people are saying and don’t stop writing. All that stuff people say—just forget about it. You know—‘It’s good, it’s bad, you’re the best, you’re the worst.’ You know who your friends are—your friends are the ones who are gonna be there no matter what. But like everybody else—it’s great, but the more you listen the harder it gets.
DS: Yeah, I’ve tried to stop reading reviews and stuff because it’s like—I don’t care either way. Interviews are just like generally—it’s what we said most of the time or you feel like, ‘Oh, I wanna see how it came out, if it came out correctly.’ But reviews—it’s like there’s no point in reading that shit.
BM: When you guys played on Sunday and about three from the end you rolled out a new song, it was amazing. I was just like, ‘Oh my God, wow.’ It really upped the game. And you’ll be able to look out and see when you’re playing a new song you probably gotta think about it a little bit, you can feel it. If you get done and you’re getting a golf clap, you sorta know.
DS: I remember that song—we actually played two new ones. After the second new one, people were like… [claps] ‘Yeah.’
RR: That’s always how it was, though—in the beginning when we were writing songs before anyone knew any of our records, that would always be how you could tell if the song was good or not. No one knew the names or anything and that was the best thing because everything was fresh and we really got to read it.
DS: We play ‘Everybody’s Down’ and that was a good song—everybody went nuts.
BM: That was the thing with Hüsker—we were always an album ahead. We were trying new stuff when were touring a record. When we toured New Day Rising, we were already playing Flip Your Wig.
DS: That was the thing I wanted to ask you about Hüsker because bands generally don’t do that anymore—except Animal Collective. The last time we saw them they were playing—except for like one new song—their Merriweather Post Pavillion stuff. But they’ve been known for like putting out a record and then tour just playing all new stuff and people are like, ‘Oh, this is so weird.’ But I remember reading that and you guys would always do that just play the new stuff and when you’re done, you’d go record with Spot.
BM: Yeah, or we’d do whatever. We’d always work the stuff out live so that by the time we got ready to record it was first take. We already knew what we wanted it to be. And you know, Spot was an engineer—he wasn’t producing anything. He wasn’t making executive decisions like, ‘Let’s go back and do that.’ It was like, ‘No, that’s already done.’
DS: That was you and Grant.
RR: What about in terms of overdubs and studio work?
BM: I sort of laid out all the stuff in my head. I was like, ‘OK, this is the part I’m gonna play first, and this is what I was gonna play second, and this is the solo.’ So it was just like playing the thing that would keep the bass and drums in place, and then play like the fun stuff and do the solo and vocals and we’d be done. Grant would play keyboards, I’d play keyboards.
DS: You try stuff and maybe not use it. Like keyboards—‘Oh, keyboards didn’t work.’
BM: Yeah, that stuff is a little bit more—I have this thing with overdubs being like a house of cards. You put one card too many and the whole thing falls and you’re looking at it going, ‘I shouldn’t have done that.’ Or you start over, or you just have to leave the pile there.
RR: And in terms of that stuff translating live would there be…
BM: That was the hard part because then we started to dig ourselves into a hole.
DS: Because you never had a second guitar player.
BM: Or a keyboard player, which I found out is the right answer.
DS: Right—like in your band now.
BM: Yeah—nobody wants to see another guy playing guitar with me. [laughs] Every time I’ve tried it they’re like, ‘What’s that other thing over there making noise?’ With keys it’s awesome because it’s all the strings and it’s like dirty Hammond—it really fills that space and it eases it back for me. So when Rich is doing that stuff—adding all that thick mid—I can just play what I’m feeling. I don’t have to play three chords at once anymore.
DS: Was there a second guitar player in Sugar?
BM: Nope. Three-piece. The stuff went across well that way.
DS: It’s weird because I feel since there’s only two of us playing live there’s a lot of tightening in the stomach whenever we play live because there’s so much shit to do. Like—I have pedals and Randy has pedals and samplers and stuff.
BM: Yeah, you guys are doing a lot up there. I see what’s going on.
DS: There’s something really awesome about it that I really enjoy, but there’s another part that I wonder if… Like we played a show in Australia recently where I didn’t bring a sampler. I just had a mic and played drums and I was like, ‘Fucking easy. Wow, I’m just sitting here playing.’ But in relation to just—bringing it back to overdubbing and playing guitar only and playing live and then feeling like it doesn’t sound right, or something.
BM: But that’s part of the ride. That’s what the ride is when you’re on it. That’s what you’re used to. You do it live and you know that’s what your job is and you gotta get it across.
RR: Was there that sense of urgency in Hüsker Dü? Because sometimes there’d be like two records a year.
BM: Well with two guys writing non-stop…
RR: So the material was there—it wasn’t like you felt like you had to have it there. It was just coming.
BM: We didn’t have jobs—it’s all we did. We toured, we made records on all the tour, and we went home and wrote more records.
RR: That’s amazing.
BM: It just didn’t stop.
RR: Was it a different time then? Did if feel like it was isolated? When you were touring the world with Hüsker Dü, it was still the same stuff?
BM: Yeah, when we started adding Europe into the loop because we always used to go west, then we added east and then we added Europe.
RR: It never became too much?
BM: No, I mean we had one big break towards the end. Like after we toured Candy Apple Grey for Warner just as it was coming out and we got ahead on the touring so then after we got done with that, there was this big stretch for the last six months of ’86 that was down time.
RR: And you wrote a lot of Warehouse?
BM: That was Warehouse plus the slow dissolve started.
RR: Now Dean’s said this in interviews and I know we’ve talked about this a lot but I think Warehouse—you go between different songs, but Warehouse always comes back as your favorite record. As the artist writing it, did you know it was going to be the last record? How do you feel the songs went into that? Or when you look back on the catalogue and hear somebody say that’s their favorite record how does that…
BM: No, it’s great—everybody’s got a different place. I think a lot of people get on their first and then go backwards and I’m always curious to see how far back they can go.
DS: Well, actually I’ve kind of done the opposite—started with Zen Arcade and even Land Speed and then kind of went like, pop—like, ‘Whoa pop.’
BM: It’s funny, if you think about it like refinishing furniture or something. Warehouse is like the finest grit and then you get back to Land Speed and its like there’s a chainsaw on the table. It’s like reverse finessing—it’s more destructive. So I know Zen is, you know, the one people always hold up. It was cool, everything was fucked right then so it was good. That was when everybody had these really crazy ideas in their head. I think Flip Your Wig was the best because that’s when we got rid of Spot. And Spot did a great job but Grant and I did it—that’s when we took charge of everything.
RR: You engineered it?
BM: Yeah, we mixed it. We had an engineer in there with us but we mixed it.
RR: Where did you record?
BM: We had our own studio. We had built our own.
RR: Wow, that’s amazing. ‘Baby Song.’
BM: Yeah, ‘Baby Song.’
DS: What is that instrument in there, by the way?
BM: It’s a kazoo.
DS: That’s also in another part in Candy Apple Grey.
BM: Yeah, it reappears—I think Grant may have brought it back on one of his songs.
DS: So that’s when you guys got rid of Spot?
BM: Yeah, I mean—the Spot era was great, but we had an idea what we wanted and we knew we were a pop band by that point, so that’s what we wanted to focus on and not so much the punk rock. And we really spent time on that record and really tried some different things. So that to me was like the peak cause after that everything got funky. Yea—Warehouse, that was a tough stretch. But it’s a good record. Had it been pared back to a single record it might have had more impact, but we were already loggerheads at that point.
DS: Were you trying to redo Zen Arcade in that concept?
BM: If we did, we failed. There was no grand scheme there. It was just a battle of the writers.
DS: I think that’s why—being a musician and listening to all your records and listening to Warehouse—I think that’s why it hits me the hardest because it seems like the darkest and it seems heavy and I think it comes through and it’s kind of an incredible moment.
BM: Yeah, you see the last side—you can see people saying goodbye and I think that’s where…
DS: I think that’s why I’ve really come to like it because it’s really dark and heavy and cool and awesome. But the songs are incredible, too.
BM: Yeah, there’s fun tunes on there—there’s a few real shining moments.
DS: Did you guys produce that, too?
BM: Yeah, Grant and I did the last three.
DS: Was that hard going from SST to Warner Brothers world?
BM: No. I mean, there was stuff, but no.
DS: Back then it seems like the expectations were maybe lower even.
BM: You gotta remember that’s when 120 was really on fire and MTV and that was the ramp-up for everything that happened in ’91. That’s really the groundwork for everything. So there wasn’t much pressure cause we sold enough records to recoup a way, so it wasn’t like we were fighting from underneath to do things. We set up a deal where we knew we would keep charge of it.
DS: Being able to produce your own record seems kind of uncommon today. In the major label world if you said, ‘We’re gonna produce it,’ they’d be like…
BM: Not unless you’re like Radiohead or Beck or something—somebody that’s really earned that spot. And maybe look at it that way. Radiohead spent how many years to get to that spot? That’s like Husker, that’s like Beck, you know.
RR: I did a little Internet research and you also ran a label as well.
BM: Singles Only Label—that was after Hüsker when I was living up on the farm in Minnesota. We had a generic cutout sleeve that sort of looked like the old Sun Records sleeve so we tried not to do picture sleeves. We tried to do it where everything looked the same. That was fun—that was me and Steve Fallon and Nick Hill who was a DJ at FMU who more or less laid the groundwork for Brooklyn to be what it is. You know we all lived in Williamsburg together in the early ‘90s and it was like They Might Be Giants was getting started, too, and Jeff Buckley. We were just hanging out doing stuff, too.
RR: That was your second label though, right?
BM: Yeah, Reflex was the first. SOL and then Granary Music is my imprint for stuff since.
DS: The first Reflex thing was Hüsker right?
DS: You started it basically to put out stuff because no one else would. I mean, the first 7” I ever put out was this band from Portland and then I put out a 7” and I was like I don’t want to do a label anymore. And then when we started our old band, Wives, we were recording and I was like, “I have a label—I could do a 7”.” You know, nobody else wanted to—sort of that necessity.
BM: And now you see the value of it, probably. It really means people look forward to 7”s—they look forward to releases because the label is a brand and it’s a thing where they know what to expect. Or at least they know that it’s being vetted properly.
RR: Is that something you’re still involved in?
BM: Labels? Not so much. That would be a stretch right now. It’s a full-time gig and people are dependent on you. I’d like to do something like that but not another label specifically.
RR: I love the story of the making of the Warehouse cover.
BM: Yeah, we built that set in the big live room in the recording studio in Minneapolis and it was going out and gathering all the debris and stuff and setting up that—staging it like that, painting things in Day-Glo, and going in and using a multi-minute exposure but we were walking through this staged area with black lights and painting stuff with light by hand and moving so we didn’t show up in the shot.
RR: We talked with Todd Trainer from Shellac and he was going on about Minneapolis and Mats versus the Du and what was really happening. But the idea of a scene or a city being built around a band—how did that feel? Because we sometimes get that like, ‘You’re the L.A. band.’ It’s a big city but I’m proud of where we’re from. Was it your purpose?
BM: We were just trying to be the best band in the world—that’s pretty much it. I think the difference between the Replacements and Hüsker Dü is the Replacements never started a label to help out the other bands. So let’s boil it down to what it is—the Replacements were good at being the Replacements, but we saw the value of giving back. So there’s your difference. No disrespect to them but they were about the Replacements and we were about making a scene.
RR: What about Prince?
BM: Northside, southside. It was like Detroit in the ‘60s—Motown and MC5 and Stooges. It was not a racially divided town but you know—Prince and Terry and Jimmy, that was northside Minneapolis. Hüskers, Replacements and Soul Asylum was in south Minneapolis and everybody played at First Avenue, which was right in the middle of town. It was the old Greyhound Bus depot.
RR: So you would see them play?
BM: Yeah, I’ve seen Prince plenty of times.
DS: But you guys wouldn’t play together?
BM: No, not a terrible amount. I mean, you’d see people in the studio, like the Jets would be working in the front room of our place—but does that count?
DS: Here’s a funny story. The last Wives tour, we played First Avenue. We played Seventh Street Entry. We played and then after the show we were looking out and Prince came in. He walked in with one big bodyguard and two little women. We’re like, ‘Dude, Prince just came in!’ We were like, ‘Gimme a CD, gimme a CD!’ ‘Hello, Mr. Prince, we want to give you a CD.’ And the bodyguard takes it and just goes, ‘Mmm-hmm.’
BM: Yeah, you don’t get to him.
RR: But it was nice. We were literally there but he wasn’t talking to us. He didn’t acknowledge our existence. But it was just rad that he even came to the show or came to the place. Does he own it?
BM: No, no, he has a little private area on the side.
DS: Right next to your private area?
BM: Not so much. I can do pretty much what I want there but not like Prince. But, yeah I mean it was a great time and there was a lot of stuff happening—it was a great music town. There were a lot of people there that had to do with it. It’s like building things. Seriously, with the Replacements, that’s really the difference. They’re great guys, and they were a great band, sometimes—like one in ten they were brilliant, and the other nine it was Faces covers or whatever. You never knew what you were gonna get because they drank so much. Those shows when they were on, it was the best thing in the world—but all the rest it was like if Paul gave up halfway with the set, then it was just like, ‘Fuck, not another one of these.’
DS: Did you guys play together quite a bit?
BM: We played enough together. We took them out of town on their first shows. We took them to Chicago to play punk rock shows. But yeah—it would be so frustrating.