By Nevin Martell on March 21, 2012
Photo by Noah Kalina
It was 20 years ago, but many of us can still remember slipping the cassette of Sugar’s Copper Blue into our stereos, cranking up the volume and stepping back to stand in the middle of our poster-lined bedrooms to wait for the crunch. There was a moment of silence, then the chugging riff of “The Act We Act” began rattling our cheap Sears stereo speakers to their Made in China cores. There was something velveteen about it, a kind of heavy harmony. This was not your usual, overly distorted and poorly produced indie fluff.
A sharp drum beat and a buttressing bass line joined in, further straining the hi-fi, before singer Bob Mould’s first words slickly overrode the maelstrom: “I’m watching you walk / As you walk that distant way.” Accusatory, semi-stalkerish and utterly intriguing—the perfect opening couplet. It was decided in that instant that Copper Blue was a classic. Twenty years later, that opinion has only been strengthened.
Every one of the 10 songs on the trio’s 1992 debut is entrancing, each in its own way. There’s the chiming head bop of “Changes,” “Hoover Dam” with its soaring bravado and the cheerful fuck off “If I Can’t Change Your Mind.” Though singer-guitarist-songwriter Bob Mould had earned a cult following in Hüsker Dü and good reviews for his two solo albums—1989’s Workbook and 1990’s Black Sheets of Rain—Sugar secured him something more: mainstream success.
After the Hüskers’ implosion in the late ’80s and his subsequent solo outings, Mould found himself without a record deal or management in 1991. “I had to rely on myself,” he says now. “I felt like I had something to prove after that wonky ending with my label and my manager.” The professionally homeless artist spent the year playing solo acoustic shows to test out new material. Over the course of these tours, he amassed 30 tunes that balanced the bombast of Black Sheets of Rain and Hüsker Dü with up-front, anthemic melodies that recalled Mould’s high-school favorites Cheap Trick. “The songs were simpler and a little less introspective,” Mould says. “They were pop songs.”
For the most part, the lyrics were gender neutral. Mould had yet to be forced out of the closet by Spin magazine, so in the early ’90s he was still a gay musician in an overwhelmingly hetero scene. “I never flew my sexuality flag in my songwriting,” Mould says. “And gender’s not that important when you tell a story about the feelings you have for another person.”
The one exception is Copper Blue’s “A Good Idea,” which weaves a tale so macabre that it makes Slim Shady look like a loving husband: “He held her down deep in the stream / He saw the bubbles and the matted hair / Mixed with seaweed.” “It’s one of those classic girl-dies-in-car-accident songs,” explains Mould. “It’s an extension of Appalachian folk music where there’s always this comical tragedy that gets wrapped up in three happy chords so nobody notices.”
As Mould demoed his road-honed creations near the end of 1991, he realized that he would need a band to give the tunes a fully rounded sound. He roped in bassist David Barbe, formerly of indie punkers Mercyland, and drummer Malcolm Travis, who Mould had met while producing the sticksman’s old band, The Zulus. Despite the call for backup, Mould was still thinking that the material he was working on would make up his third solo album, not his new band’s debut.
It wasn’t until the newly minted threesome made its first live appearance, at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, Georgia, that Mould really began to think of the group as a band. Shortly after that show, the trio convened to the studio with producer Lou Giordano (Belly, Mission of Burma) to lay down 10 tracks for Copper Blue, as well as a number of songs that would become 1993’s Beaster EP.
When Sugar’s debut hit shelves in the fall of 1992, it was a bona fide alterna-hit, spawning a pair of modern rock radio singles—“Helpless” and “If I Can’t Change Your Mind”—and earning album of the year honors from NME.
Two decades after “The Act We Act” first blasted out of all those suburban hi-fis, Mould is commemorating this landmark album by re-releasing it with a host of to-be-determined extras, including live tracks, B-sides and archival footage. (It was remastered and re-released on vinyl in the summer of 2011 without any bonus material.) Mould will also hit the road for a limited series of shows with his new band to play the album in its entirety. The other Sugar records—including Beaster, File Under: Easy Listening and Besides—will likewise be remastered and re-released.
Asking Mould about Copper Blue now, he still seems pleasantly surprised by its success. “I got lucky,” he says. “It’s one of those records that sounds like it’s 20 years old; it sounds like it’s 50 years old; it sounds like it was made last week.” F
“The Act We Act”
Twenty years ago—when albums were important—I was always excited when you put the needle down for the first time, because it sets the tone for what’s about to come. The intro has that drawn-out, slower-tempo guitar riff. Then Malcolm and David come in. Finally, the song opens up at the chorus and you’re like, “Yes, catchy pop melodies!”
One of the best songs I’ve written. It’s got so many great ’60s touchstones—from the homage to the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” at the beginning with the pumping organ to the Beatles-y “Tomorrow Never Knows” ending.
“If I Can’t Change Your Mind”
With the exception of The Daily Show theme, it’s the most-heard song I’ve ever written. It still shows up in my setlists 20 years later, whether I’m playing with a band or I’m solo acoustic.