Thrills & spills working with Bob Mould & Sugar!
BOB MOULD & SUGAR
One of the things that inspired me to start this site was Bob Mould’s excellent autobiography, “See A Little Light”, which I highly encourage you to buy here.
I moved to Minneapolis in 1984, a little after “Zen Arcade” and a little before “New Day Rising”. Many of my friends in the Ryko Minneapolis office had known Bob for years. Brian Paulson (who later went on to produce Wilco, among others) and Pat Woods had been in a band together called Man-Sized Action. Bob had released their records on his Reflex label, and although the band was no longer an ongoing concern, they stayed in touch. Brian, an excellent guitar player, had even been asked to join the Bob Mould band that toured for “Workbook”.
I’d been a Husker Du fan. I enjoyed bits and pieces of the early hardcore stuff and appreciated Zen Arcade for what it was, but from New Day Rising on, I was fully on board. And while I loved some of the tracks on Bob’s solo records, I didn’t love those albums the way I’d loved the Husker stuff.
While I can’t argue that both records aren't important works, I felt “Workbook” was too far from the Husker stuff, although, as always there were undeniable songs. “See A Little Light” may be one of the most perfect singles ever.
Like many fans I was excited that “Black Sheets Of Rain” was a return to electric guitars, but despite a few great songs, overall the mood of the record was too down for my taste (or at least my mood at the time). Both of these records were spawned from turmoil, and while sometimes getting the poison out creates masterpieces (Shoot Out The Lights and Big Star Third come to mind), other times the turmoil poisons the well.
Workbook had gone in a folkier, quieter direction than Huskers, but as people were acclimating to this new Bob Mould music, “Black Sheets” came storming in. It probably wasn’t the right record to follow up “Workbook’ with. It’s more Sabbath than Thompson, if you get my drift. On top of this, Virgin had futzed the marketing and he was having management problems, which combined to create an ugly shadow over that record.
Anyway, I think Pat Woods was the one who’d first heard Bob was free of his Virgin deal and looking for a new situation for a new album.
At this point, the record was supposed to be Bob Mould solo album #3.
By Bob’s own admission, after “Black Sheets of Rain” he was somewhat persona non-grata; none of the A&R guys he played the “Copper Blue” demos for responded to them and I think his fans (largely holdovers from the Huskers era) were a bit flummoxed by the contrasting tones of the two solo records, too.
There may have been a hint of desperation preceding the making of “Copper Blue” but in this case determination triumphed.
During the Huskers years, Bob & I had run into each other in Minneapolis a couple of times (I attended 7th Street Entry party after Husker Du signed to Warner Brothers, and bumped into him electronics shopping on Lake Street), but we’d barely spoken.
Our first real meeting was when Ryko President Don Rose and I flew to New York and visited Bob and his then partner/manager, Kevin O’Neill, to hear some new demos. They were way ahead of the “Brooklyn as hipster haven” curve, living in a really cool loft above a sweatshop (possibly not zoned residential). It’s probably a 3 million dollar condo now.
Kevin did most of the talking at first. Eventually I think Kevin & Bob left us alone and we listened to some very convincing demos. I can’t recall which tracks they were but it was only 3-4 songs, I’d guess. I don’t know if they even had titles at this point, but I know one of them was “Hoover Dam.” Don & I gave each other a knowing look after “Hoover”, a “this is a hit” look.
It was clear this was not only a return to form, but that the promise of the demos was a cohesive summary of all Bob’s directions to that point, fused into an intensely appealing package. I was expecting to like what I heard but instead I was completely blown away.
After we’d heard the stuff, Bob was more talkative. I think we had a smoke together. Our enthusiasm was palpable, letting him know we were really excited to sign the (as yet unrecorded) album – this is not always the best way to get a deal as you can come off as desperate. Don and I went back to our respective offices with our fingers crossed. Bob had a few suitors at this point (ironically my future employer Caroline was our biggest competition), but something about Ryko convinced him to sign with us. I’m not sure if it was deal points, our enthusiasm, or something shitty about the other interested labels, but he eventually signed with us. Part of it may have been that we had an office in Minneapolis where he knew people he trusted. Another was that Ryko was not a traditional indie label, nor did we have any ownership ties to majors as Caroline and others did. We were a “mid-size” US record company, when virtually no other existed in the same space, although Creation in the UK was probably similarly positioned. It probably didn’t hurt that I was a wrestling fan at the time.
Then three things happened that made everything a hundred times better.
First, Bob made the record. It was a thousand times greater than I’d have ever expected, and it’s not like my expectations were low. “Hoover Dam” went from being an obvious single to fourth or fifth choice, and that wasn’t because the final version wasn’t amazing, it’s because the rest of the material rose above it. As much as I was encouraged by what I’d heard on the demos, I was stunned by how powerful, confident, uplifting, bright and shiny the finished work was.
There’s no point in me waffling on about the merits of the album, but one caveat; if I had my way I’d have ditched “Slick” for “Needle Hits E”. I mentioned this to Bob after I finally heard “Needle Hits E” (I’m pretty sure he delivered the b-sides after the album) and he brushed it off at the time, but in the liner notes for the Merge reissue, he can’t remember why it was left of the album. It’s probably a bit close in feel to some of the other stuff on the album, but I still think “Slick” is a bit plodding & overly-repetetive; a downbeat anchor at the end of a largely bright, poppy album. I’d argue “Needle Hits E” is a better song and would’ve made a great first track. On the other hand, if he’d tacked it on to the front of the record, I’m not sure anyone would’ve ever made it past “Helpless” without going back to the first song and starting the album over – what an amazing first five!
Second, he changed the artist billing from a Bob Mould solo album to a band album.
When he told me, my first thought was “Fucking-A, yes!” and I told him so. The guys at the top of Ryko were a bit more in love with the idea that they’d signed the well-known artist Bob Mould who’d made “Workbook” – an album and direction that fit the Ryko “adult artist” model. When it turned out they’d signed the unknown band, Sugar, which was closer in spirit to Husker Du, I think they blinked a bit. This speaks to an issue at Ryko regarding new signings that I’ve touched on in my Morphine page or the liner notes to the Ryko 20th Anniversary two-CD set, so go buy that for nothing here and I’ll refrain from retreading that story.
It took some convincing to get them on board, but they trusted us and did buy in.
Even though the “Copper Blue” sessions started as a Bob record, the idea of THESE Songs made by a BAND harkened back to the work that he was best-loved for; the Husker Du records. Many hardcore music fans felt bands they’d adopted and adored, like the Huskers, Replacements, Mission of Burma, Pixies, what have you, had never gotten their due. In many ways a band record featuring Bob was going to be an easier sell and it spoke to what was happening at the moment – that new bands (Nirvana, Pearl Jam) who hadn’t fought the battles their forefathers had, were cashing in big-time on the groundwork those pioneers had laid for them.
Third, he signed to Creation Records for Europe. The signing went about the same at Creation as it had at Ryko – Bob played them the demos and they wanted the album just as much as we did.
So Bob signed with Ryko and Creation, and we were thrilled.
Creation was a top label, developing great quality acts (Primal Scream, Ride, Teenage Fanclub, and eventually Oasis). The UK press loved them and back then, the UK music press, despite it’s predictable “love you today, hate you tomorrow” habitual knee-jerk, with rare exception, was the only music press anyone gave a shit about, in terms of influence. I don’t think anyone was reading Rolling Stone at that point and thinking, “this is cutting edge.” Spin was fine at first but had turned into Rolling Stone with an edge, and that’s not saying much, so knowing the UK music press was so important, and that they’d love the record, Creation was absolutely the right place for Bob to land.
Once Bob decided to sign to Creation, McGee played Copper Blue to many US labels he had his licensed UK signings to. Creation had deals with all/most of the majors at this point, and Alan was in the States a lot because, as told me once, he loved the drugs, record-shopping and girls. Every major tried to secure Stateside rights, at often staggering amounts of money, but Bob had just escaped a terrible major label situation and he stuck with us, bless him.
It was a little disingenuous of Alan to be shopping the record around, as he had no rights to offer, but ultimately his enthusiasm is what drove Creation and made that work. Playing the album to label heads probably helped get buzz going in the US industry. Plus he’s fucking Alan McGee. Respect.
Ryko had worldwide rights to Bob’s work outside of Europe, and ultimately the record was a great success in Japan. McGee claimed in his book that he Bob for the world ex-USA – not true. But again, he’s fucking Alan McGee, he gets a pass.
Bob & I had a great working relationship from the start. And working with Creation was easy and fun, too.
I think Bob has assigned a lot of the pressure of Sugar on Ryko and in particular how much the label had grown on the back of the success of “Copper Blue”, and moreso was relying on "FU:EL" to be an equal hit, delivered in a short timeframe after "Copper Blue".
I’m not sure if that’s really true; while every label is a business with projections and financial obligations, Ryko at that time had the David Bowie catalog, the Zappa catalog, a bunch of great-selling Mickey Hart titles, and were about to launch the Elvis Costello catalog on CD properly – we weren’t broke.
Bob seems more relaxed these days, but back then he was quite capable of putting stress on himself. He pushed himself hard, that’s who he is / was. I was his main contact at Ryko and we spoke often. Maybe someone else pushed him, but I don’t recall leaning on him to work harder, although his seemingly indefatigable work ethic may have subconsciously created unrealistic expectations. From the moment "Copper Blue" left the gate Bob & the band hit the ground running.
Interestingly in the liner notes for the Merge "Copper Blue / Beaster" re-release, Bob says it took some convincing to get Ryko to put out "Beaster" so quickly on the heels of "Copper Blue". I don’t remember it that way at all. In fact, once Bob made "Beaster" known to us, pre-"Copper Blue"’s release, I suggested we put them both out at once – Springsteen and Guns N Roses had done it, but no alternative act ever had. He laughed it off, and he was right. Although it was a great idea as a stunt, it would’ve diluted focus and sent a mixed message to the audience.
Through the April (?) release of Beaster and into the summer of 1993, it was non-stop upwards trajectory and largely at his direction. He had the whole thing laid out in front of him and saw exactly how it was supposed to work, and it did.
Bob has said he felt Ryko wanted Sugar to tour Copper Blue / Beaster more and, looking back on the tour dates at Paul Hilcof’s excellent Husker Du database, I do think Sugar could’ve (and should’ve) played more US dates around Copper Blue. There were 13 US warm-up gigs in July 1992 (two months before album release - this is great to prime the pump, but before most ordinary fucking people had a clue who or what Sugar was), then off to London for 3 warm-up dates there. As Copper Blue came out, the band was back to the UK, then they played a 29 date North American tour from mid-October to mid-November and back to Europe to play 44 dates that took them to the end of January ’93 before heading to Japan in February for 4 more.
Beaster came out in April and Sugar was back on the road in the US in late April, for 16 shows. Then back to Europe where they did 15 shows, mostly festivals (huge money and great exposure).
That was essentially it for Copper Blue & Beaster touring – three spurts of 58 US dates total, with the lion’s share split by a five-month break. I’m not saying this isn’t a lot of dates when taken as a whole, or there weren’t other Sugar-related pressures on Bob – as frontman he took the brunt of everything, he had to do press and plot out the videos, etc. Although his then-partner Kevin was shouldering a lot of the management, Bob was clearly driving the bus. And it was his project – professionally, personally and financially he had a lot at risk. Somewhere in there, I think he also made the move from NY to Austin, TX.
But these were HIS two records - still selling great and there was a potentially next level to hit, well within reach. In my view, the band SHOULD have toured the US more – there was still a lot of hay to be made, even if they took a break.
Hindsight is 20/20 but one thing that may have contributed to the decision to wrap Sugar: Phase One was that KROQ, LA’s top alternative station and arguably the first in the US, had never added the record. This may not seem like a big deal – after all, despite its influence, KROQ is just one radio station in one market and it wasn’t like the rest of the country hadn’t fallen in love with “Copper Blue”. But if you were going to cross a record from the Alternative / College Rock radio stations to AOR (or mainstream rock), you needed KROQ. And no matter what we did, they just didn’t buy in. Ironically, I think it was because the record was TOO mainstream rock for them – it wasn’t angsty / pale / British enough for them, and, as Bob himself put it, “there’s plenty of Midwest Cheap Trick in there.”
So maybe he felt the fight wouldn’t have been worth it; that no matter what they did, without KROQ, the scales wouldn’t have tipped in their favor.
And it wasn’t like Bob didn’t have the stamina; in fall of 93, he did a punishing 15-gig solo acoustic tour. By punishing I mean he was playing almost every night, and probably fully solo, driving himself from gig to gig – although the last two dates were spaced out weeks after the first body of 13.
I’m sure part of the purpose of those tours was to decompress and re-energize his creative juices. Bob definitely enjoyed the solace of the solo tours and loved to drive - although many years later, after making his first flight (instead of his usual drive) from from NYC to Boston for an office visit, he said “I’ll never do that drive again.” Even so, I think those tours took more out him than he realized at the time.
Bob and I had a very easy relationship. We got along, our viewpoints on how to proceed were generally very similar, we enjoyed hanging out together, chain-smoking and talking wrestling whenever he was playing in town, or when I went to see him on the road, which I frequently did. So, while it was a work relationship, it was very friendly.
It was getting to be time for the recording of the next record and Bob played me a few demos. I don’t recall exactly which songs they were, but “Favorite Thing” was among them – I distinctly recall it standing out, and even though it was a demo, it had the same energy and intensity of the best stuff on “Copper Blue” – which made me think, “Wow! He’s doing it again.”
So, as has been well-documented, when the first attempt at recording the songs for “FU:EL” had fallen apart, I made probably the biggest misstep in our relationship. When he told me Sugar was going to take a break and regroup before going back to record again, he explained the situation, and all of the factors that contributed to the sessions going wrong. The gravity of what had happened didn’t really sink in.
I blurted out something like, “okay, when do you think you’ll deliver the record?” which, in retrospect, was not what he needed to hear. I didn’t fully comprehend the magnitude of the drama surrounding it or how burned out Bob felt. To be fair, since we’d started working together, he had been going non-stop, and at a pace he set. And in the Husker days an album every few months wasn’t unusual. I assumed that rate of work was the norm. As a co-worker and more importantly, as a friend, I really should’ve expressed more concern and sympathy.