Mark Arm of Mudhoney on 25 years of being the court jesters and knowing their limitations

Mark Arm of Mudhoney on 25 years of being the court jesters and knowing their limitations

In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers, and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two in the process.

The artist: As the frontman of first Green River and then Mudhoney, Mark Arm was at both the center and the fringes of a scene he unwittingly helped spawn, inspiring the “grunge” sound despite never, to anyone’s reckoning, actually playing “grunge” music. Arm and Mudhoney have continued along that iconoclastic path for a quarter of a century now, outlasting (and outliving) many of their contemporaries, and never wavering from the grimy, smartly sardonic garage-punk that they first began releasing on Sub Pop in the late ’80s. The group just released its ninth studio album, Vanishing Point.

“Touch Me I’m Sick” (single, 1988)

The A.V. Club: This was the first thing anyone heard from you guys.

Mark Arm: Well, that all depends on which side you played first. And actually, there was “Twenty Four,” which was on AmRep’s Dope, Guns ’N’ Fucking In The Streets. Which came out before “Touch Me I’m Sick.”

AVC: Okay, then I’m wrong. 

MA: Yeah. You’re definitely wrong. [Laughs.]

AVC: Well, let’s say it’s the first thing that got you any attention. How about that? 

MA: Yeah… Man, you’re asking me to try to remember something that happened so long ago. I remember, in those early days, Steve [Turner] coming to my apartment, and we would play riffs for each other on our guitars that weren’t plugged in. They weren’t acoustic. They were electric guitars that weren’t plugged in. And trying to at least have some ideas before we actually went in and practiced with bands for the first time. I couldn’t really tell you what the very first thing we wrote was, but “Touch Me I’m Sick” was definitely in that first batch. 

To me, the riff kind of follows the template of The Yardbirds’ “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago,” and then also the fast part of The Stooges’ “I’m Sick Of You.” There was a local band called The Nights And Days that had a song with a similar-ish riff that really inspired Steve. I don’t think it was a direct rip-off or anything, but, you know, sort of like a fast bunch of chords jammed together. And for some reason I thought the line “Touch me, I’m sick” was funny and decided to write verses around that.

AVC: It’s one of those phrases that came out of nowhere, yet it became a scene slogan—like Sub Pop putting out the Fuck Me I’m Rich compilation.

MA: Right, right. Once we actually, like, started going out on tour a little bit, where the drums stop and there’s a break—which, we don’t really play it that way anymore—I started singing “Fuck Me I’m Rich,” as if we were.

AVC: Which you were not.

MA: Yes, exactly. None of us had day jobs anymore. That’s pretty much all we’d accomplished. [Laughs.] I had to move into my girlfriend’s mother’s place after going out on tour for the first time. “I quit my job. I’ve got no place to live. This sucks.

AVC: The other most famous iteration of that phrase is in Singles, where Matt Dillon’s character is explaining “Touch Me, I’m Dick.” 

MA: Yeah, I remember enjoying that and thinking it was funny. And weird. It wasn’t anything that, like, bothered us. We were big in Belgium. [Laughs.] Even if we were being mocked, it was probably worth mocking.

AVC: This song seems to still be in constant rotation at shows. Is it something you feel obligated to play?

MA: You know, there was a time period kind of early on that we didn’t play it, consciously, because it was a song that all the attention was on. I think we also haven’t played a show without “You Got It,” but that song didn’t have the same kind of weight that “Touch Me I’m Sick” seems to have in people’s minds. There was a short period where we were somewhat mildly resentful toward the song. Like, there’s all these other songs. But we came to terms with that pretty quickly. It’s a great song. There’s no point to not play it. And you know, as a fan of bands, I always like—Black Flag always played “Nervous Breakdown” every time I saw them. I kind of appreciate that. We toured with Sonic Youth for a while, and they’d play only their new thing. Which is kind of cool on some level, but, geez, I’d really like to hear “Expressway To Your Skull” or “Tom Violence.” 

So I think there’s a balance to be struck—especially if you’re a band that’s been around as long as we have. You don’t really know why people are there, exactly what time period those people are really into, and why they showed up to see you. Did they just find out about you? Or are they people who only want to hear these old hits? There’s a couple of dudes we met along the way, like this guy in Italy and this guy Peter who lives [in Seattle], and they both did fanzines—er, websites. Both of them, the record they got into us on was My Brother The Cow, and they’re like, “How come you don’t play anything from that record? It’s a great record!” Well, fucking shit. I didn’t even think of that. Who would have thought that? So we try to play something from everything at this point. Which can make the sets longer then they should be sometimes.

AVC: In Our Band Could Be Your Life, you said you thought “Touch Me I’m Sick” was basically the best song the band ever wrote.

MA: If I did say that, I was probably talking out of my ass. Or Michael Azerrad was misrepresenting what I said, which wouldn’t be the first time that he’s done that. I haven’t read that book in a long time. I remember enjoying the Butthole Surfers chapter the most. And it seemed like every other band had a chapter that was about the band. Ours was half Sub Pop and half the band. Which, I don’t know, I guess we represented that. And I’m happy to represent Sub Pop. Some people—a lot more people these days probably feel like Beach House or Fleet Foxes or something represent Sub Pop. And that’s how it has to be. You can’t just mine a narrow musical form and expect to stay relevant and interesting. Just imagine, if they were only working with quote-unquote “grunge bands,” how shitty those bands would be at this point.

“In ’N’ Out Of Grace” (from 1988’s Superfuzz Bigmuff EP)

MA: Yeah, we also play that a lot. It’s one of the funnest parts of the set.

AVC: Is it because of that long break where you can just basically do whatever you want for three minutes?

MA: Yeah! And it’s fun to watch Dan [Peters’] drum solo change and Guy [Maddison, bassist] locking in on that. It’s maybe our tiny little Grateful Dead moment. It’s never exactly the same. The more structured parts of songs, you know this is what’s going to happen. It’s not like an insane surprise, what’s going to happen in that song. It’s fun to hear the differences.

That was a riff that Matt [Lukin, former bassist] brought to the band, and Steve and I—who were huge Blue Cheer fans—were like, “Let’s throw in this Blue Cheer-like break.” That first batch of songs came together quickly. We started practicing—me, Steve, and Dan—probably in November of ’87 or December of ’87, and our first practice with Matt was New Year’s Day, 1988. I think our first recording session was in April or something like that. So things moved really, really quickly right at the beginning. To be a band for just a couple of months, then be going to the studio, and then have a single out, and later on in the year have an EP out—that seemed super-quick to me. Luckily we had a support system with Sub Pop. That was obviously a holdover from being in Green River.

“When Tomorrow Hits” (from 1989’s Mudhoney

AVC: This is the song that killed Spacemen 3.

MA: [Laughs.] What do you mean?

AVC: I’m kidding, but their cover of this was the last thing they ever did. And according to legend, they were also really mad at the time about your cover of their song, “Revolution.”

MA: Yeah. They took it seriously. Which is kind of a bummer. But you know, since then I’ve made peace with Sonic Boom. I guess, for some reason, I figured that people would maybe share the same sense of humor we had. I mean, we’re talking about “Revolution” here, not “When Tomorrow Hits.” They were doing these interviews and talking about some sort of “junkie uprising” and us doing a lot of drugs. And I was like, “There’s no way there’s going to be some sort of junkie revolution.” To get everyone all together [and] not totally nodding off to make something happen. I don’t know what kind of dream world they were living in. [Laughs.]

AVC: This was one of your earliest, slower, almost-ballads. Was there a conscious effort to slow things down a bit?

MA: You know, we were always big fans of Spacemen 3, and we—to me “Mudride” is like an earlier version of that kind of song, like a drone-y, Spacemen 3 kind of thing. And I’ve always loved “We Will Fall,” which is that really long, slow song that a lot of people skip on the first Stooges record. I think it’s great. It doesn’t feel like a ballad to me, but it’s definitely a different mood.

AVC: Maybe “dirge” is a better word.

MA: Yeah. And there’s the little turnaround in there that’s obviously a ripoff from “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” [Sings guitar part.] That was some beautiful humming there. And then, when it comes to the end of the song and the picking part becomes the two chords, we realized it sounded like “Lowdown” by Wire. So that’s why it ends with, “That’s the lowdown.” That wasn’t intentional. That was something we realized once we were playing it. “Hey! That sounds an awful lot like this song.” But that little “I Wanna Be Your Dog” turnaround was an intentional thing.

“Overblown” (from 1992’s Singles soundtrack)

AVC: This was probably the song that introduced you to the most people.

MA: Yup, probably. And my theory on that is, like, I have a platinum plaque of the Singles soundtrack. So at least a million people bought that record. And I think Piece Of Cake sold 150,000. That’s our biggest-selling record. So my take on it is, like, 850,000 people heard us and said, “No.” 

AVC: That song is such an anomaly on that soundtrack. Right in the middle of this celebration of the “Seattle scene,” here’s a song saying that very thing is ridiculous. 

MA: Well, you know. We’re not very reverent. Things had gotten so ridiculous at that point, and what had happened from the time we’d started. It used to be, throughout the ’80s into the very early ’90s—before people’s records started going platinum and stuff—there were always people that you knew. In the ’80s, it was a real kind of small, tight-knit scene of goofballs and rejects, and the occasional Fonzie punk dude. Who, I guess were goofballs and rejects in their own way, even though they thought they were super-cool. But they were definitely rejects in their high schools, probably. 

And then we’d go away on tour—and we’d be away for weeks, if not months—and come back and go to shows and it’s like, “Fuck, I recognize, like, five people in this crowd. Where did all these people come from? And where did all the people I used to know go?” I think a lot of the people were just like, “Fuck, this is insane, this isn’t our thing anymore.” And as a band, you’d be stupid to be bummed out that more people are going to your shows. But it was just that the feeling had changed completely. It went from being people who knew everybody—even if they weren’t in a band, but were on equal footing—to now there’s an audience that looks up to the musicians. That wasn’t there before. It was just the whole punk-rock thing, where everyone is on equal footing. Some of them play in bands, some of them don’t—who cares? Then all of a sudden, there was this reverence for the bands. Like, “Ohhh, that’s Jerry Cantrell.” [Laughs.] It’s like, the guy is just having a beer. Leave him alone. 

AVC: There’s that one line, “You’re up there, shirtless and flexing…”

MA: That was Chris Cornell.

AVC: Did he know that? 

MA: I don’t know. I don’t really know Chris very well at all, but I’ve known Kim [Thayil] since 1983. Chris Cornell is a better singer, has a better body. Maybe it was a little bit of jealousy. [Laughs.] I saw them last Friday. They were great.

AVC: Did he take his shirt off?

MA: No. There was kind of a weird period where I think he stopped doing that—not because of the song, obviously, but there was maybe a Spin cover or something like that with his shirt off, kind of mugging to the camera. It’s like, oh God, just stop it. 

And I know how that can go. You’re at a photo shoot, and the more comfortable you are with the photographer… It starts off, you’re just taking these photos and they’re pretty normal. And then the photographer starts goading you into doing stupid shit and you do it. And you go, “Aw, fuck, that’s the one they’re using.” That’s happened to us way too many times. Not with the shirt off, necessarily. 

AVC: Really? Most of your photos seem like you’re just kind of hanging out. There’s that one where you’re all stacked on top of each other …

MA: Oh, the one on the “Touch Me I’m Sick” single? Yeah. That was our first photo shoot ever, with our friend Michael Lavine. We just got hammered and started rolling around. I don’t know why we did that. He wasn’t trying to tell us to do anything. We were just drunk and stupid. We were like, “You know what would be funny…” [Laughs.]

“Good Enough” (from 1991’s Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge)

AVC: Did you set out to make something a little more pleasant or pop-oriented?

MA: Yeah, maybe. But it’s not really a hooky song. It doesn’t have, like, a big chorus. It’s not an anthem or anything. It’s kind of a cool, shuffle beat with a somewhat jangly guitar sound. It would be stupid to scream over the top of that. Our musical interests are pretty broad and diverse, and it’s not like we only like Blue Cheer and The Stooges. We like Neil Young, and that was touched on in the first album. “Come To Mind” is kind of that. Our best fake Neil Young song is probably “Broken Hands,” and that’s kind of a quieter thing, too, on the same record. As much as I love Discharge’s Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing, I don’t want to do an album that’s all almost the same song.

AVC: The cover of this album seems to be an effort to change things up. It was this big, bright cartoon released in the middle of all these stark, black-and-white grunge records. 

MA: In a way, it was kind of a reaction to the heaviness of what was coming out of Seattle. When we worked on Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge, Steve was like, “I definitely don’t want to do another record that sounds like the first Superfuzz record and the first album.” After we did the first album, we realized, “It’s kind of like this is Superfuzz Part II, but with more songs.” And [we] just wanted to not work with Jack Endino, who was recording, like, every band. So we got in contact with Conrad Uno, who worked with the likes of Young Fresh Fellows, and Girl Trouble had recorded there. Conrad has more of a pop-garage sensibility. And I don’t have too much of a pop sensibility, but I definitely have a “garage” sensibility, if that makes any sense. 

And at the time, people weren’t into garage rock that much. Definitely on an underground level, but not on an MTV, mainstream level. The Mummies were going at the time, Thee Headcoats, bands like that. I’ve loved The Sonics ever since I heard them in 1980 for the first time. And you know that label Estrus that Dave Crider had? He was in the Mono Men and it was all garage rock and stuff. Actually, Estrus was going to do a compilation album, so we’re like, “Let’s try to write a fake Sonics song.” That’s what “Who You Drivin’ Now?” was. And we thought, “This is too good to give to Dave for his compilation, we’ll just write another one.” [Laughs.]

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“No End In Sight” (from 1992’s Piece Of Cake)

AVC: It almost feels as though Piece Of Cake was some sort of conscious effort to not take your big major-label album seriously. So with “No End In Sight,” it’s like, “Here’s the first song: the most awesomely bonehead riff imaginable.”

MA: [Laughs.] We are not opposed to bonehead riffs. And it sounded good. I think that was the whole point behind that. We haven’t played that song in a very long time. There’s a lot of lyrics in there. I couldn’t even understand half of them when I was listening to it the other day, preparing for this. I was like, “Oh man, what am I talking about?”

When we got signed to a major label, we made a conscious effort to record at the same studio we recorded Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge at. I was so disheartened when The Replacements and Hüsker Dü put out their major-label records. It seemed like bands moved to major labels and put out really glossy records. Even fucking Nevermind, you know? I thought the production on that was awful. I remember those songs live. It just sounded too slick to me. To me, that record sounds incredibly sterile. And I actually heard that things were looped on that record—like, drum parts were looped, and guitar riffs were looped to make a more perfect record, which is kind of funny. I don’t know what the truth is, because I wasn’t there. But that was what people were saying at the time that record came out.

AVC: But—and maybe this is just hindsight—so much of Piece Of Cake seems like such a direct “up yours” to the whole post-Nirvana, major-label expectation. There’s a track that’s literally just fart noises for 30 seconds.

MA: Steve had this idea that we could all have our little snippets where each person recorded everything on their snippet. So, when it came to Matt, it was fart noises. When it was me, it was a techno goof. At this point, techno hadn’t really hit the States, but in Europe, any time you were in a hotel room and you turned on German MTV or whatever, there was this music that sounded exactly the same. [Mimics techno beat.] And all these songs had the same kind of riff and stuff. It was just like, “What the fuck is this?” And then it became really huge. I think my song probably paved the way for that. [Laughs.]

I was also incredibly high at that period in time. That was the depths of my drug addiction. So I was not very present. It is what it is. Can’t really do much about that. I don’t think we’re the kind of band that, even if I was there, we would have written an album that would have broken through to the mainstream. That’s just not the kind of band that we are. We have our limitations. I’ve got a particular vocal style that may not appeal to very many people. And there’s things that we just wouldn’t do.

“Into Yer Shtik” (from 1995’s My Brother The Cow)

AVC: This song got a lot of attention when it came out, because a lot of people decided it was about Courtney Love.

MA: Oh, you know… if the shoe fits. But it wasn’t strictly aimed at her. That’s a song that’s fallen by the wayside, because I don’t feel that angry about all that anymore. You know, it was after Kurt [Cobain]’s death and how that whole thing went down—just really, really horrible. There were people, like, sucking up to the whims of Kurt and Courtney. People who I’d known who previously were not at all into heroin or anything like that were going out and finding heroin for them. [Laughs.] Because it’s “the guy from Nirvana” and shit like that. That whole thing just sort of shifted.

AVC: You’ve also said it was inspired by a crappy experience with Steve Albini.

MA: Well, that’s where the whole “shtik” line came from—you know, “I like your act.” [Laughs.] It applies to all kinds of people. With any kind of musician out there, there’s some sort of artifice. Who, when they get on stage, is really themselves? Who is really that same person at home, sitting on a couch watching TV? No one wants to see that. It’s just those different degrees, different levels, and different amounts of buying into it and the people believing it. Believing their own hype and whatnot.

AVC: That seems to be a recurrent theme in your work—deflating “hype” and that sort of attitude. 

MA: Sure. Maybe. [Laughs.] I think a lot of people saw the absurdity. Other people were under a lot more pressure than we were. Their ways of dealing with it were different than ours. It’s not like we were in the spotlight. We’re like the court jesters, in terms of that kind of stuff.

“F.D.K. (Fearless Doctor Killers)” (from 1995’s My Brother The Cow)

MA: The weird thing about that song is that was in the mid-’90s when abortion clinics were being blown up, and… who’s that guy who went hiding in the mountains?

AVC: Eric Rudolph?

MA: Yeah, Eric Rudolph. That was a kind of dominant thing in the Clinton administration. Then 9/11 happened, and you stopped hearing about domestic terrorists. And militia people and that anti-abortion thing, it just sort of seemed to disappear. People weren’t blowing up abortion clinics anymore. After I was talking to those kids I was telling you about, who liked My Brother The Cow, it was like, “Oh, that’s a good song, we should revive that one.” I just remember [thinking], “This kind of feels really irrelevant right now,” because it was still in the Bush administration. Then, as soon as Obama becomes president, they start blowing up abortion clinics again and killing doctors who perform abortions and the militia starts on the rise. Like, holy shit, this is crazy.

AVC: It stands out in your catalog, because you guys don’t usually do political songs. What inspired you to do this one?

MA: I don’t know, the obviousness of the hypocrisy of those people was something that struck me for a long time, and it just sort of spilled out one day. I don’t really remember how or why. Personally, I take my lyrics seriously, but I don’t expect other people to. I try to hold myself to a certain standard, and sometimes I fail. They’re important to me. It’s part of my job. But I don’t want to give them too much weight in interviews, because then people ask you to explain them and stuff like that. And I don’t really enjoy doing that.

“Beneath The Valley Of The Underdog” (from 1998’s Tomorrow Hit Today

MA: Umm… I don’t know. I came up with a heavy riff. [Laughs.] There is an actual Catholic Seamen’s Club in Seattle on First Avenue. There isn’t a strip joint right next door, but there’s one not too far away. I just sort of condensed that landscape in my mind. You know, I saw that sign since I was a kid—the Catholic Seamen’s Club—and it always cracked me up. And there’s that Monty Python thing: “Every sperm is sacred.” So inside the Catholic Seamen’s Club, every sailor is sacred. [Laughs.] That’s, I guess, kind of the germ for that. And then the title references the Charles Mingus autobiographies and Russ Meyer’s movies. Two great things that go great together.

AVC: The longer you’re around, the more tempting it is to read into things like putting “Underdog” in a song title, seeing as you’ve been mythologized as “the underdog” for so long. 

MA: Yeah. I think you can do that with the title of “The Lucky Ones,” and if you just didn’t listen to the lyrics, you’d think from the chorus, that that’s what it’s all about. But I think if I’m going to get into a character to write lyrics, it’s definitely from the point of view of someone who’s not in a good place. Because that’s more interesting to me than writing about how you’ve got it all figured out. 

We do feel lucky that we’re still around and that we still get to put out records and go on tour. We don’t get to do it that often, so when we do, it doesn’t feel like an obligation. It feels like something we actually get to do. We get to go to these cool places. And in many places, meet up with people we’ve known for a long time, and other places, meet new people who are pretty cool. And occasionally get harassed by a total freak. [Laughs.]

“Baby, Can You Dig The Light” (from 2002’s Since We’ve Become Translucent)

AVC: This seems to be one of the most controversial songs you guys have ever done.

MA: What’s the controversy?

AVC: Just that it was so different from anything else. When it came out, the reviews were fairly savage about the whole “psychedelic” aspect.

MA: You know, I think it’s partly placement on the record. If it was the last song on the record, people would have just been like… You know, we had taken kind of a break. Matt had left the band, and we’d taken a break for about two years. And I’d been watching Live At Pompeii by Pink Floyd quite a bit. [Laughs.] That was kind of the inspiration for that. Then we brought in our friend Craig [Florey] to play sax on it. I think it’s a great chunk of music. And we just decided to put it on the front of the record, like, “Here we are. If you’re still with us, if you can make it through that, you’re still with it.” It was like separating the wheat from the chaff.

AVC: Do you feel you’ve put yourselves in a box, where people have expectations about what a Mudhoney song should sound like?

MA: We haven’t put ourselves in any box. [Laughs.] Other people might categorize us as a certain thing. But that’s their problem, not ours. That’s the way they view things. There’s nothing we can do about that. And if we just fucking played… If we were a band like AC/DC or the Ramones or Motörhead or something, where essentially you’re doing the same song for 30 years or whatever, what’s the point of that? There’s a reason people kind of stopped buying Ramones’ records after the fourth one. You know what I mean? 

And conversely, we’re not the kind of band who’s just gonna try different things on, just for different records. Like, “Our last record was a punk record, so this record is a skiffle record. We’re gonna try to hop on the current fashion and maybe kids will like that.” That would be silly. We want to keep things interesting for ourselves. That’s the key for us. It’s not like our lives are dependent on the money we make from this band, so we can do whatever we want.

AVC: You’ve been playing in this band for 25 years. Do you feel like there’s anything you still want to do that you haven’t done? Are you mostly just driven by inertia at this point?

MA: [Laughs.] You know, there’s a certain amount of inertia there. It’s not like there’s an intense amount of momentum pushing us along or anything. There’s no striking while the iron’s hot. And there’s so much great stuff on TV now.

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