To celebrate the recent release of our 33 1/3 on Bob Mould’s Workbook, we’re pleased to bring you the third installment of Bob Mould Week by authors Walter Biggins and Daniel Couch!
An interview with Cordon Simons of the Gentlemen Rogues
Though Workbook is Bob Mould’s debut as a solo artist, it’s by no means his first record. He was the guitarist, a lead singer, and primary songwriter for Hüsker Dü, the legendary 1980s post-punk band that was one of the first underground acts to sign with a major label. So, when Workbook came along in 1989, it came with a lot of context—okay, let’s call it baggage—for audiences to sift through. Is it a response to the fractious dissolving of Hüsker Dü? Why is it such a conscious departure from Mould’s punk and hardcore roots, and why? How is it in conversation with Mould’s underground peers, such as Mike Watt (Minutemen, fIREHOSE), J. Mascis (Dinosaur Jr.), and his fellow Minnesotans in Soul Asylum and the Replacements? How do you measure it against the mainstream rock that was on the radio at the time? And, now that it’s 28 years old, how influential has Workbook been?
Our book concentrates on that context, on gauging Workbook‘s cultural significance within rock culture then and now. While we write about Workbook‘s production a good deal, we don’t discuss the album as much in technical music terms—music theory, sheet notation, chords, and tones. So, here, we decided to address some of those technical gaps by talking with someone who approaches the album in that way.
There’s where Cordon Simons comes in. He’s a mutual friend who went to high school with us. More important, he’s a rock guitarist, songwriter, and producer. Currently, he’s a member of the Gentlemen Rogues, based in Austin, TX, and he has led and played for a variety of Austin-based bands. He’s also a fan of Bob Mould, and Workbook in particular, so we had a lot to talk about. We recorded this conversation by Skype on May 26, 2017.
— Walter Biggins and Daniel Couch
Daniel Couch: What is your history with Bob Mould, Cordon?
Cordon Simons: I went back today and listened to Copper Blue, which was certainly the first thing I heard from Bob Mould and probably the first song ever with his voice on it that I heard was “Helpless.” Looking back on it, it’s an exciting song. It opens up with that cracking snare drum roll. It kind of reminds me of “Surrender” by Cheap Trick. It’s ready to bust in, and the guitar sounds perfect on that song. But going back, I remember reading skateboard magazines growing up and seeing Hüsker Dü t-shirts in the back and thinking that sounds like a bad metal band name.
Walter Biggins: Not one but two umlauts.
CS: Yeah, exactly. That’s a lot of umlauts. I think that I seriously didn’t give the band the time of day based on the name. That being said, I bought a Lemonheads t-shirt out of that same skateboarding magazine without knowing the Lemonheads were a band.
DC: I remember you wearing that shirt.
CS: The “Hate Your Friends” shirt?
CS: At first I assumed the Lemonheads was the branding of the t-shirt. But it was a cool t-shirt. I don’t think I heard Bob’s music until Copper Blue, and that was certainly a soundtrack from at least a summer or two. I think most of it holds up. Some of the guitar tones and the bass tones remind me of the Pixies, but at the time I didn’t understand the context of that. That the Pixies were most likely so influenced by Bob and here he was making this record with these guitar tones that I had never heard before.
It’s interesting to even to be having this conversation about Workbook, because so much of it I’m listening to it after the fact. Whereas at the time it was so groundbreaking, so different than what had been done before and really what came after, so thanks for having me.
WB: You mentioned that Workbook sounded different. When did you get to Workbook? I ask this because I didn’t get to it until much later as a record. I felt like I discovered Sugar. I went back to Hüsker Dü. I danced all around it. I’m just curious, at what point did you actually listen to the record?
CS: I’ll be honest, I’m sure I heard it in high school, but I didn’t sit down and listen to it until you and Dan started writing this book.
First of all to be honest the production on it is pretty dated, and I think even at the time when I heard it, that turned me off. That’s certainly more my failing than Bob’s.
WB: Well, it has since been remastered.
CS: Yeah. I can hear past that now but in my teens and twenties I was listening for aesthetics as well as songwriting. But I can really much more appreciate the songwriting now. But there is something about the reverb on the snare drum and the way the acoustic guitar sounds that nags at me. It’s pretty eighties.
DC: We’re glad you have ears for that sort of thing. While we really tried to put it in that kind of context, it wasn’t our area of expertise. Neither is musical theory, and another thing we want to ask you about relates to what we are hearing with specific songs.
For example, one of the observations that Walter and I both made is that the first and the last songs on the records, “Sunspots” and “Whichever Way the Wind Blows,” function more or less as an intro and a conclusion, as bookends to the album, and that we feel that the body of it is what takes place from “Wishing Well” and “Dreaming I Am.” There’s a little brief flash of hopefulness that happens with “See A Little Light,” that immediately gets buried by “Poison Years.” But it’s not really until we get to “Dreaming I Am” that we get another feeling of hopefulness. Even then, it’s strained; it’s complex. I’m pretty sure the reason for that has something to do with what’s going on musically. But I’m not positive what’s going on, and I was wondering if you had a chance to listen to “Dreaming I Am” since coming back to the record, and what you can tell us about “Dreaming I Am” specifically and how it creates that rich, complex mood.
CS: I’ll be honest, I tried to sit down and figure out some of it, but there’s not a lot of information online, and there’s not any videos that I could find that show his fingers playing it. So all you have is your ears. And that’s cool. He may have used some alternate tunings, and I know for sure that Bob used a 12-string [guitar], so there could be some things going on that I misinterpreted.
But, anyway, the first major thing here is that it starts off in a minor key—G sharp minor—and it just goes back and forth between that and the only change in the verse, which is E major. What’s really cool is that, the first verse, you get eight measures of this but of course that’s not really what the guitar is doing, and then you get another eight measures of E major. Once the second verse starts and the drums kick in, you get eight measures of the minor and only four measures of the major, when they all line up with the lyrics there, and then it repeats basically the intro. This basically establishes us in the key of E major, starting on G sharp.
The chorus starts on the same chord as the end note of the verse, which is kind of hard to explain without being able to play this all through.
It all kind of builds up, and then [Cordon sings,“Dreaming I am…”]. So, it starts on the same chord that the verse finishes on, which is a really neat trick by doing almost nothing at all.
CS: It’s so understated, but it also leaves the band and the dynamics to pick up because you’re not changing the note there. Bob basically changes keys here with, again, one of the simplest moves of all, which is he’s playing an E major:
and then he goes to an F sharp major. So, what this does, though, is it takes it out of the key of E and puts it in the key of B, just with that one chord; because if it was in the key of E, you’d actually get a minor chord there, so it would sound like this:
F sharp minor with that note, which sounds sad.
WB: It’s a very different sound.
CS: Right, it’s a sad sound. So, Bob is intentionally changing that to make this uplifting. He’s pulling you out of one thing and saying, “No, this is going to be uplifting here,” with that chord. But then he— If you’re given that musical context, of going here to here [Cordon strums], the next place you’d wanna go is to a B major chord, so now it would sound like this. [Cordon strums the lick]
DC: Right, that sounds so natural.
CS: But what’s so funny about that is that Bob just says, “You know what? I’m never gonna do that.”
WB: So, you would anticipate that happening, but it doesn’t ever happen [in “Dreaming I Am”].
CS: Right. You have to have some amount of repetition to establish a key, so that the listener really is expectant of something, and then you can either meet that expectation or undercut it. And Bob’s doing that in a really interesting way here because he’s basically playing a song in the key of B without ever hitting the B chord, without ever going home. So, you could say that the chorus of “Dreaming I Am” could go:
and then you hit that and then you’d be going back to it, but he just goes right back into [Cordon does E major strumming].
It’s this really uplifting section. You almost want to hear the chorus repeated, and you could even kind of go other places with that. But it’s repeated just enough—it’s only done twice in the song—that I think it’s really brilliant in the way it leaves you wanting for that portion of the song to repeat. But, at the same time, it never goes back to that home chord, which would be the B, and I think that even adds to it, where you’re kind of lost until you get to that chorus section. And then right when you think it should go to the [Cordon strums the B major], it goes into [Cordon plays the opening chorus section of “Dreaming I Am”], this other section.
WB: That’s really great. It’s funny, Cordon, because that’s kind of a theme that Dan and I have noticed lyrically throughout the record. There are all these ideas about wanting to go home and sort of resolving things, but it’s a record that doesn’t resolve cleanly. None of the songs do, I don’t feel like. I don’t feel any of the songs go precisely where you anticipate them going. Not just musically but lyrically as well.
DC: Right. It resists that resolution like so much of the rest of the album also does, but with the major chords it hints at a resolution. It feels like you’re waking up from a half-remembered dream. I think that part of it is happening from that musical choice that he’s making, too.
CS: Absolutely. There’s one other thing that I wanted to mention about this song. I talked earlier about the “B” section of the chorus, how the first one or, I guess, the second one after the intro is shorter. I think that also adds to keep the interest up in these verses, because otherwise the song is pretty symmetrical. After that first end, it basically just starts over. But it’s neat that, in starting over, you still have these sections that are not consistent every single time, or are consistent in their inconsistency. You know, one goes half the length of the other, so it really kind of propels the song along.
WB: It’s funny, Cordon, because a couple of songs before, I saw a similar sort of framework happening with this, with “Compositions for the Old and Young” and, after that, “Lonely Afternoon,” which, to my ears—and of course I’m not at all trained musically, so feel free to correct me on any and all of this—but, if you listen to those two songs back-to-back, and they come back-to-back on the record, the initial chord progression is very similar, the tempos are very similar—
DC: The opening drumbeat, too. Oh man—
WB: Yeah, all of it starts the same way, except that “Lonely Afternoon” has a very different, maybe minor-key feel; it has a darker feel to it than “Compositions.” I’m curious if you can talk about that, about “Lonely Afternoon” in particular, because I know that’s a song that held a lot of interest for you.
CS: I think that, like most things on the album, that one didn’t have any standout modulations or key changes, but it’s got that melancholy mix of going back and forth between major and minor. “Lonely Afternoon” is a cool song. There’s something Dan and I had, in talking about it, sort of discovered, which is that “Lonely Afternoon” has this walk-down [28:17- ], that is similar to “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” [from Sugar’s Copper Blue (1992)], where it says—
WB: [sings, “I love you even still,” the part from “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” being discussed]
CS: [sings and strums that part of the song, “I’ll stay that way until…”] That little lick, right? I’m doing it in a different key here but, if you put it in the key of “Lonely Afternoon,” it’s similar. Like, where he says,
DC: “As words go turning by, I wish they’d all come clear.”
CS: That it’s a Bob-ism in a way, you know? This little walk-down:
is definitely rooted in ’60s pop. It’s not it’s a super-unique musical move, but it’s something that I think Bob is attracted to, and is one of those things that becomes second nature. Like, “How am I going to get down from this chord to this chord?”
WB: Cordon, that’s fascinating to me that you talk about it as a Bob-ism, because one of the things that we talk about in our book is that Workbook, in a lot of ways, is where a lot of his Bob-isms, both lyrically and technically, where they emerge. You don’t hear a lot of that natural chord progression that comes from the Beatles, that he loved, or ’60s jukebox 45’s, which he loved—you don’t have a lot of that in Hüsker Dü, but you certainly have it in his music from Workbook on. So, to me, that’s fascinating that you can hear the lineage of that line that you hear in “Lonely Afternoon” come through three, four years later in “If I Can’t Change Your Mind.” To me, that’s really cool and, in a lot of ways, that starts here. So, thank you for getting us to see that.