To celebrate the recent release of our 33 1/3 on Bob Mould’s Workbook, we’re pleased to bring you the first installment of Bob Mould Week by authors Walter Biggins and Daniel Couch!
Our book, Bob Mould’s Workbook, emerged as a series of handwritten letters to each other, which were then expanded by phone, Skype, and email conversations with the album’s musicians and producers. Last week, we had yet another exchange—a phone call in which we discussed our process. Enjoy.
—Walter Biggins and Daniel Couch
Walter Biggins: Do you remember how we decided to do this?
Daniel Couch: I remember when better than how. I wrote that first letter around June of 2014. I know this only because I’d recently written a review of Beauty & Ruin for Glide Magazine. After I was finished, there was more I wanted to say, and I wanted to process some of that with you. But I’m not sure why I decided to write you a letter instead of calling or emailing. What I do know is that in doing so it slowed my process down in a really nice way. I was able to sort through my thoughts more deliberately than on a phone call where I’m often fragmentary or in an email where I’m a little too quick to get through it.
WB: It’s funny you mention slowing down because Workbook was the first record where Bob slowed down. Everything about the way he made the record—retreating to a Minnesota farmhouse, not talking to people for long stretches of time, working on a typewriter, retuning his guitars, teaching himself to play new instruments—it was all a way of redirecting his energy and relearning to make art. For me, the handwritten letters were a way of honoring that. I’m not sure we were conscious of that at the time because for the first couple, we were just writing letters to each other like it was fucking 1849 or something.
But that was kind of the point, right? These were true letters in that regard. Which is to say that we were talking about what was going on with our families. We were talking about what was going on with our lives. Workbook simply became the prism through which we could do that kind of thing. But looking at it now, I think it’s clear we were trying to honor the spirit in which Workbook was made. What’s a little bit less clear to me is what is it about Bob Mould that compels both us to reach out in this way to each other. What do you think?
DC: I suspect it’s probably because he was the artist through which our friendship first formed. We have a lot of difference in our music and we have a lot of overlap in our music, but it all started from Bob Mould and that mixtape you passed me in high school.
WB: Yeah, I think it was you that passed it to me. I don’t think that’s one of the things we’ll ever resolve.
DC: Probably not.
WB: Regardless, I do sense that Workbook emerged out of that conversation about Bob because the two of us were at a crossroads. We were both approaching 40. We were thinking about crossroads and middle paths and what you do when you get to a fork in the road and there’s a potential for new directions. Because that’s so much of what the record is about.
DC: I couldn’t agree more. So, tell me, how did you go about writing your letters? What was that like for you?
WB: For me, I made it into this weird sort of ritual. I would make a French press pot of coffee. I would spread out your most recent letter on the dining room table and make notes on a legal pad until I figured out what it was that I wanted to say. I never outlined the letters, I don’t know how you wrote them, but I would have these fragments of paper and notecards and ideas.
DC: That sounds a little like Bob’s lyric-writing process for the album.
WB: Right. But unlike him, I don’t think I referred to my notes once I started writing. I’m not even sure they helped me that much, I think it was more the process of doing the outlining that forced me to think through what I wanted to say. To me, it was important to let things flow and to go where my mind wandered. In retrospect, I wonder if I should have planned out more. I remember writing a passage that ultimately didn’t make it in the book about Bob’s homosexuality and the history of homosexuality in my family, and I needed to write that initially to get where I was going. But, once I wrote it, I could look back and say, “Okay I wrote these 2000 words to get to this point at the end and it’s this point at the end that matters and all the rest can go.” What about you?
DC: My process was similar to yours. I’d read your letter and think through my response. Sometimes that took weeks. Sometimes it took months. When I was ready to respond, I’d make a cup of afternoon coffee and write during the two-hour window we referred to as “quiet time” in our house. One kid would play quietly in the kitchen and the other in their bedroom. I’m pretty sure I instituted this specifically so I could write you back. I’d write in the living room. I usually had a rough outline of what I wanted to touch on up on my computer screen, but like, you, I didn’t often refer to it. It was mostly there for me to be able to get quotes correct that I’d found and wanted to share with you. Like you said earlier, these started as true letters, so I didn’t feel the need to agonize over them and make them perfect. I trusted you to know what I meant.
WB: I don’t know about you but for me it wasn’t clear immediately that this was a book. I don’t think it was until the second or third exchange (so like letter five or six overall) where I was consciously thinking about this in terms of a 33 1/3 proposal.
DC: Same here. I considered them private correspondences and while they largely focused on Bob Mould and eventually Workbook, it wasn’t until later we realized we had something here we might want to submit to Bloomsbury. It wasn’t until the proposal was accepted that I felt like we needed to do a bit of light editing to remove the parts of our lives that didn’t necessarily pertain to the story we were telling about the album.
WB: Writing a memoir or letter is one thing; knowing it is going to be published and knowing I could potentially hurt people inadvertently that I was writing about, that became a responsibility that became present in my mind once I knew we were doing a book so I tried my best to excise the stuff that I thought might be hurtful or I thought might reveal things that weren’t publicly known. There is some stuff that I kept but only insofar as I thought it helped understand the record, or understand the eighties or understand music culture, if that makes sense.
DC: Was there anything else that knowing we were making a book that started to change your writing process as we went through?
WB: Not so much the process, because I think that stayed the same throughout the whole of it, but once I realized we had a book I started making notes for future reference. “Oh, this thing that Dan mentioned back in September 2014 really needs to be placed elsewhere in the manuscript.” I made notes where that sort of fudging would have to take place. Because we do these sort of silent revisions after the fact. The book appears in a strict chronology and I love that illusion but it’s not entirely true. I think that was the biggest change in process.
DC: I think that for me one of the things that changed was that as we were talking more and more we got to the point, or at least I got to the point, where I said what I wanted to say about Workbook. There’s only so much we could interpret about the album. We needed to know more about the intention of the people who made it. Talking to others and reporting back to you in letter form about those conversations, which was so hard to do when I could just as easily call you and tell you, opened the album back up for me. It was an opportunity to explore a whole other side of Workbook, not just how we perceive it as fans but what it was like to make it and that talking to the artists, including Bob himself, and it allowed us to do something with our book that we couldn’t have done just as a series of letters between two friends.
WB: Exactly. I too got to a point where I realized I said what I could say but I still had questions and those were questions that can really only be answered by the musicians. Some of the notes I was making were like, “I have this question for Dan, but it’s really a question for Bob” or it’s really a question for Anton Fier. What’s interesting about Workbook is that though it’s a pivotal record in Bob’s career and he certainly mentions it in his memoir, See A Little Light, there’s not a whole lot of documentation about it. There’s never been an oral history about the making of Workbook, for instance. There’s not a lot of journalism on the record in that way. So there were a lot of things that were unanswered, there were a lot of things that were unclear. But beyond the way the record was made, the other thing that interested me was what did Bob, specifically, but all of them, think of the record now. By the time we were interviewing people, mostly in 2016 I think but late 2015 too, even the reissue was a couple years old, so now it’s a 26-, 27-year-old record. What did the people who made it think of it? Did it loom as large for them as it did for us? I was really curious about that. And again that’s not a question we can answer. We can speculate but ultimately that has to be answered by the people who made it. That’s why I think we had to start reaching out.
WB: I think we have both at some point talked about what we did with our letter exchange that led to the book as a kind of conversational criticism. The whole idea is that we are not shutting down conversation. And I still think that at the end of our book, we don’t answer everything. I think we answer it to our satisfaction, but there’s a lot of room for alternate takes, and I think we do a really good job of saying that Workbook invites that. That Workbook is a record that continues to resonate because everyone goes through middle age, everyone goes through major changes…
DC: If you’re lucky.
WB: Yeah. If you live long enough, everyone goes through major changes, so the themes on the record and the way Bob approaches them will continue to resonate and I think our conversation is a testament to that and certainly our conversations with the musicians with the producers are a testament to it as well. All the musicians who played on the record talked to us and were willing to be engaged with us about that record specifically, which I think is a testament to its lasting influence and its lasting importance. All of the people have been involved with a lot of different records. Not all of those records are worth talking about at length or revisiting over twenty years after the fact, but this one is. If we do anything [with the book], I hope we are opening up more conversation about Workbook about Bob Mould about the legacy of indie rock and alternative rock—that we aren’t shutting down anything.
DC: No, in many ways it’s just an extension. It started with us, we extended it out to musicians, and now we’ve extended it out to readers. I think in that way it’s a natural progression for new conversations, conversations that do what good art does—get people talking and thinking.
WB: That’s what good art does. It reconnects to our lives and gets us to think about our lives in new ways, or at least look at them from new perspectives. Workbook, the album, doesn’t change. Rather, our relationship to it changes as we change, and it was really cool to see that play out in real life.