In one sense, Sugar was the phoenix that rose from the ashes of Bob Mould’s former band, Husker Du. Commercially, Sugar was far more successful than anything Husker Du ever forged; the band was given extensive radio play, they garnered leagues of accolades from critics and fans alike, and their debut album sold over 350,000 copies—far more than any Husker Du album. However, in terms of influence and precedent, the band falls below the status of its frontman’s former incarnation.
Sugar is, at best, a successful alternative rock band, and, at worst, a footnote in the legacy of Bob Mould’s exceptional career. Though torch carriers of punk rock still hold Husker Du to exacting standards of DIY and punk ethos, those who were willing to follow Mould along on his post-Husker Du journey discovered his penchant for crafty, melodic, and unabashedly loud, guitar driven pop-punk rock.
Formed in 1992 after Mould finished a successful ten-month solo acoustic tour of the US and England on the heels of two solo albums (1989’s Workbook and 1990’s Black Sheets of Rain), Sugar was comprised of Mould, the primary songwriter, singer, keyboardist, and guitarist, Mercyland band leader David Barbe on bass, and drummer Malcolm Travis who Mould met while producing an album for Travis’s band Zulus. Reportedly Travis and Barbe had never met before Mould introduced them at the first session of the newly formed Sugar, but the rhythm section locked in almost immediately and Sugar debuted in Athens, GA at the legendary 40 Watt club in the spring of 1992 before heading to Stoughton, MA to record their first album for Rykodisc, Copper Blue in September 1992.
In a 2006 interview with Punk Planet, Mould acknowledges that Copper Blue is one of the “best records I’ve ever written” (the other one Workbook) and that his new band Sugar was “the right sound at the right time” (Mould 34). Released at a time when grunge was beginning to take hold of the American airwaves and bands such as Nirvana, Soundgarden, and The Pixies were no longer being relegated to the bottom tiers of radio, Copper Blue was a sonic assault of crunchy guitars, ingenious lyrics, heavy bass, and thudding drums all wrapped in clever melodies and Mould’s earnest tenor. The albums spawned several radio singles including “Helpless” and “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” and included personal and introspective songs such as “Changes” and “The Slim,” Mould’s recounting of the death of an individual who succumbs to AIDS. Meanwhile, songs such as “Hoover Dam” find Mould utilizing synthesizers to create layers of atmosphere to a somewhat dated effect. Reportedly, the second track on the album “A Good Idea,” a song about a man who murders a female companion by drowning her in a river, is a clever homage to The Pixies with its prominent bassline, hammered riff, ambient drone, and Mould affecting Frank Black in his vocal delivery.
NME named Copper Blue 1992’s Album of the Year and Spin ranked it #6 in their year end review for ’92. Fans adored the album and Sugar enjoyed widespread radio success.
Sugar toured the world successfully on the heels of Cooper Blue and in 1993 they released a six song EP titled Beaster that contained material recorded during the Copper Blue sessions a year earlier. In the short lifespan of Sugar, Beaster is a rather weak and repetitive EP containing only about two songs worthy of its predecessor. These six songs were deemed too dark for commercial release by the band and struck from the more pop-oriented Copper Blue to maintain balance and consistency.
The songs on Beaster are dark and layered with intricacies and lyrical themes and the entire six song cycle deals in a mash of ambiguous themes such as religion (“JC Auto,” “Judas Cradle,” the fiery sermons on the radio at the end of “Tilted”), relationships (“Feeling Better,” “Walking Away”), and experimental musicianship (“Walking Away,” “Come Around”). “Tilted” the second track on the EP would fit comfortably in with the rest of Sugar’s catalog, but other oddities such as “Come Around” with its repetitive and hypnotic sequence and “Walking Away” with its echo drenched vocals and sanctuary like keyboards make Beaster rather self-indulgent.
After the tour in support of Copper Blue and the release of Beaster, Sugar began work on their next proper album, File Under: Easy Listening (FU:EL). It was to be their last official album though no one in the band knew it at the time.
In a 1994 interview with Spin, Mould, a closet homosexual since his days in Husker Du, was forced to admit to his homosexuality. In a 2005 interview with Harp, Mould recalls, “I had to figure after selling that many records that it was going to become an ‘either you talk about it or we’re just gonna talk about it anyway’ kind of thing…so Spin sent Dennis Cooper down to my house for a couple of days, and he turned on a tape recorder for fifteen fucking minutes. And I didn’t handle it real well. I got kind of wound up and he sort of captured that…” (Mould 113).
Mould attributes poor albums sales of FU:EL to his recently divulged sexuality. “Professionally, I felt it immediately,” Mould told Harp, “Radio stations in the South reacted poorly. You can talk to (Ryko) radio people that were there at the time. They got the ‘We can’t play that fag music. We have advertisers to answer to.’ A couple of stations in Texas, too.”
Despite poorer album sales than Copper Blue, FU:EL is Sugar at their finest. Song such as “The Gift” and “Your Favorite Thing,” the album’s first single, are trademark Mould—vocal hooks, loud guitars, and pop melodies. Other standout tracks include the ultra-happy “Gee Angel,” an ode to the touring life, “Panama City Motel,” and the album closer, “Explode and Make Up.” FU:EL also has one Barbe original, “Company Book,” where Barbe takes over songwriting and lead vocal duties.
Sugar toured in support of FU:EL for about a year, but broke up in 1995 due mostly to the geographical distance of the band members and Barbe’s family obligations to his wife and three children. In July 1995, the band released its last official album Besides, a collection of live tracks, new tracks, and b-sides from their tenure together. Though it was a hodgepodge of a final album, Besides was greeted with success and good album sales and stands alongside both Copper Blue and FU:EL in terms of strength. Standout tracks include the explosive opener “Needle Hits E,” “Anyone,” another Barbe original, and a live cover of The Who’s “Armenia City in the Sky.” The first 25,000 copies of Besides came packaged with a rare live CD recorded on the FU:EL tour at First Avenue in Minneapolis, MN, one of Husker Du’s old birthrights. The live CD, as well as the live tracks on Besides, captures the band at the height of their musical form and ability.
By the time Mould started Sugar he was, by all rights, a veteran of the punk rock scene and had begun to morph into a more sophisticated and intelligent individual. Around the time of Sugar’s first release Mould was beginning to see the growth of the seeds he had planted years ago in his former band, Husker Du. Young artists such as Kurt Cobain and Frank Black who had attended Husker Du shows in their youth were now forming their own bands and being greeted by moderate success. To have them rise to popularity at the same instance as Mould’s second band took flight was a testament to his endurance and influence in ‘90s post punk. Because of Sugar’s brief lifespan, many fans and critics have forgotten what a debt grunge, post punk, and alternative rock owe to such an influential band. Mould continues to make solo albums and produce independent bands, but has not formed another band since Sugar.
Mould, Bob. Interview w/ Scott Crawford. “Zen and Now.” Harp Magazine July/Aug.
2005: 110-115, 169.
---. Interview w/ Kyle Ryan. “Bob Mould.” Punk Planet 72 March/Apr. 2006:
Copper Blue, LP (Rykodisc, 1992).
Beaster, EP (Rykodisc, 1993).
File Under: Easy Listening, LP (Rykodisc, 1994).
Besides, LP, b-sides, rarities, live tracks (Rykodisc, 1995).
© Scott Elingburg 2006