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When indie-rock pioneer Bob Mould came out as gay in a 1994 feature for Spin magazine, he was almost 34 years old, and more than a decade had passed since his former band, Minneapolis pre-grunge trio Hüsker Dü, had released their debut album. Looking back in a Pride Month interview for Yahoo Entertainment, when asked what he would tell his younger self, he quips: “What took you so long to come out? Why didn't you do this a little sooner?”
While Mould’s sexuality was what he calls an “open secret” in the 1980s college-rock scene, he does admit now, a bit ruefully, “I think to have a voice and not to have not used it fully for some moments, a couple years where maybe it could have made more of a difference… it’s not a regret, because everything is good as-is, but I would tell my younger self, ‘You've got an audience. You should tell them things.’”
Mould explains that much of his reluctance to come out wasn’t so much because he feared a backlash in the rock world — although he did experience some of that in ’94 when File Under: Easy Listening, his second album with his post-Hüsker Dü band Sugar, came out in conjunction with the Spin article. (“I lost some fans, and I lost a little bit of support at commercial radio in the deep South. Maybe they didn't like the record, or maybe it coincided with the article. But the two happened together. I don't know.”) Mould was more worried about being pigeonholed and having his music “recontextualized” in light of his sexuality.
“I think one concern was just really how people are going to look at the work… that people would go back and look at my whole catalog and go, ‘Ooh, that song must have been a gay song!’” he explains. “I think especially in the '80s, if one were to come out as a ‘gay artist,’ you got framed that way. But maybe in the '80s, if a lot more of us had been out, we would have resolved some of that sooner, because I think pop culture at that time still had the ability to change the world, or change the perceptions of people.”
Still, in 1992, Mould made a subtle statement with the music video for Sugar’s “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” that connected with his queer fanbase. “I think that was the video that got everybody talking and thinking in that direction,” he reflects. The video depicted people in different romantic relationships — men with men, men with women, women with women — with Mould thumbing through a series of Polaroids, one of which was a photo of him and his then-partner. And the end of the clip, he flipped the photograph over to reveal that he had scrawled on the back, "This is not your parents’ world."
“I think people that were connecting with my '90s band Sugar, maybe those are the folks in the community that come to me and say, ‘That work really meant a lot, and that video really told us without telling us that you were gay. It was all about same-sex relationships, without you having to pronounce. It really left a good impression on us,’” says Mould. “People loved it. I'm guessing that the LGBT community picked up on it immediately. I'm guessing some of my fans just thought it was some political statement, some unaffiliated political statement, because there was nothing super-gay about it. It was a subtle message; it was probably speaking in code maybe a little bit to people still.”
Growing up in the ‘60s in the small northern New York state town of Malone, Mould said he knew by the time he was 10 years old that he was gay. “Well, I can't really say I knew what ‘gay’ was, because I grew up in a rural farm town and there was nobody gay that I knew about. I didn't even really understand what that was, but I knew I was different; I knew my preferences.” It was only when he moved to the Twin Cities when he was 17 to attend college that he started to “confront the idea of relationships or what is being gay.” (His Hüsker Dü bandmate Grant Hart, who died in 2017, was bisexual, although Mould says their relationship was never anything more than platonic.)
But Mould says “it was a slow graduation to understanding what my identity was, then it was another 10 years of struggling with, do I keep it an open secret? Do I come out? How does it affect how people look at my work? How does that all frame up in the '80s against the first wave of HIV/AIDS, all of the misinformation that came along with that?” The Sugar music video was a small step in that graduation process, but it was the publication of the Spin piece, at the “peak of my visibility,” that changed everything.
“Spin really wanted, one way or the other, to talk about this. Is that being ‘outed’? I don't know, because then I said, ‘Sure, I guess it's time to talk about it,’” says Mould. “It was three days with [journalist] Dennis Cooper in my house. We hung out for days, so he saw everything. Then when we got to it, I was still pretty defensive about the idea of being a musician first and a gay person [second]. It was awkward, I felt a little bit of pressure, but I think I was probably putting it on myself. I certainly don't hold Dennis or Spin responsible for anything. I think with time, we all get a good laugh out of it. At the moment, though, it was still shaky ground for me."
Mould’s evolution as an openly gay man, however, was far from over. “Personally, I might have been out at 33, but I didn't really feel like I was part of a gay community until I was 38, 39, in New York. I walked away from music for a while, and spent time cultivating my own gay life and my gay identity, and starting to feel whole, feel like a whole being in that direction,” Mould explains. “I literally took years away from rock music just so that I could learn who I was, and see if I was able to fit into the gay life and feel comfortable, and make a difference.”
Mould spent his time of self-discovery out of the rock ‘n’ roll spotlight recording electronic dance music, working as a live DJ in collaboration with D.C. techno artist Richard Morel under the name Blowoff, and becoming involved in various charitable efforts for gay causes. “Look, there were so many people that did a lot harder work for the cause than I did. I did what I could do,” says Mould. “I don't know if I was any kind of trailblazer, because I was slow to be publicly out. I think once I was out, I did as much as I could do. … I had built this new platform with Rich, we had this voice, and we were able to really activate the community. We gave people a new kind of party that they hadn't seen before, where it was really about music — sexy, but not dirty. I think we were able to do a lot of good with that party, as far as awareness, and just spiritually for people. That was a great stretch of time.”
Mould is now happily settled in Berlin, and he recently released the solo album Sunshine Rock, the title of which reflects his current state of mind — although his latest recording, coinciding with Pride Month, is a cover of queer punk icon Pete Shelley and the Buzzcocks’ “I Don’t Mind.” Says longtime Buzzcocks fan Mould: “The way Pete wrote all the songs gender-neutral, that's where I was unconsciously connecting. That was something that got into my songwriting. Now when I look back at the '80s, and I look back at people who were writing relationship songs that were gender-neutral, maybe more of them were LGBT than I knew at the time.”
Despite his contentment nowadays, Mould admits he still struggles with his coming-out experience, and he both envies and applauds today’s young, openly queer music artists. “I still think about [when I came out]. I still replay it in my head, and go, ‘Eh, what was the right thing to do?’ I think in the '90s when I was even more visible, or more popular, whatever, and I finally did come out, it was a relief. I think a lot of people were like, ‘We already knew.’ It was an interesting journey. Hats off to musicians these days and kids; if they want to be gay and out, and really forward with the message, I think generally music fans are more accepting of that now. I think over the decades, there's been some enlightenment. I hope.”
And while Mould cannot go back in time to advise his younger self, he does have some words of encouragement for anyone coming out relatively late in life: “Just be who you want to be. Be who you need to be. Your family and friends will understand.”
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