Mudhoney’s Mark Arm
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Pop culture at large will always remember Seattle contributing four bands to the quintessentially ’90s phenomenon of grunge: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, and Soundgarden. Even while it didn’t achieve the fame of its contemporaries, Mudhoney was also a fundamental part of the city’s scene. Originating from the ashes of Green River, the band built its name on sturdy, unkempt riffs steeped in punk, garage rock, and blues; self-aware humor; and a deliciously weird lyrical perspective. After debuting with 1988’s Superfuzz Bigmuff, Mudhoney steadily released records throughout the following decade, moving from indie label Sub Pop Records to the major Reprise Records with 1992’s Piece Of Cake. (The band returned home with 2002’s Since We’ve Become Translucent.)
The group has tried small experiments over the years—writing placid acoustic numbers, incorporating brass, letting vocalist-guitarist Mark Arm run amok during shows like Iggy Pop—but, by and large, Mudhoney sticks to what brought it to the game. With Mudhoney scheduled to play a benefit show Friday, Jan. 6 at the Bluebird Theater, with The Fluid and Purple Fluid, we spoke to the blunt but good-natured Arm about grunge, post-grunge, the reason for this one-off date, time travel, and the perfect distorted guitar sound.
The A.V. Club: In a recent Rolling Stone interview, you said, “Ugly people weren’t allowed to rock before us. ... Sub Pop came up with the idea of the ‘loser.’” Later on, you also said, “I don’t think we did anything groundbreaking ... It wasn't like we invented something that didn’t exist before.” Isn’t there something of a conflict in the idea that you didn’t do anything groundbreaking, but ugly people weren’t allowed to rock before you?
Mark Arm: That [“ugly people” part] was Sub Pop’s idea. I was talking about our music, which stems from a big bouillabaisse—it’s a big fish stew, basically—of all kinds of influences. It’s not just punk rock; it’s also ’60s psych and some heavy metal—[more] the earlier stuff like Black Sabbath than, say, Iron Maiden. We pulled [ideas] from different directions and kind of brought ’em into our thing, and then tried to simplify things as much as possible, too. None of those were radical notions. I’m a firm believer that there’s no way you can come up with a complete, unique genre of music. Everything comes from something. Captain Beefheart, who you could point to as one of the great musical iconoclasts—you can hear Howlin’ Wolf in his voice, and you can hear Ornette Coleman in the band. There’s blues, jazz, and rock in there. He did it very uniquely, but it’s not something original.
MA: [Laughs.] Uh ... okay.
AVC: How do you feel about that?
MA: I don’t know. It’s not something I would fight for. [Laughs.] It’s just not a title I would argue for.
AVC: Do you remember when you first heard the term “grunge”?
MA: Well, the word had been around [before the music], but mostly in adjective form, like, “That’s a grungy guitar sound,” which I guess means fuzzy or gnarly in some way.
AVC: When you heard Mudhoney associated with the word for the first time, what was your reaction to it?
MA: We thought of ourselves as a punk band. To me, punk was just sort of a euphemism for underground rock, right? The Butthole Surfers were, to me, a punk band, as were more straight-ahead bands like The Replacements and Hüsker Dü. To me, Sonic Youth was a punk band. Big Black. All these bands that had these roots in punk rock, and were maybe going in different directions, or whatever. If you look at the early days of punk, things were a lot broader. There’s arty bands right next to straight-up rock bands, for the lack of a better term. Two of the earliest punk bands came out of one band called Rocket From The Tombs in Cleveland: One’s Pere Ubu, and the other one’s the Dead Boys. They sound very different, but they all come from the same place. I like that more open sense of it than a strictly defined sense of rules that “you’re not punk if you don’t do this.” Whatever, you know. Who gives a shit? [Laughs.]
AVC: How do you think Mudhoney’s association with grunge shaped the band in the public eye?
MA: It’s nothing I really care to think on too deeply, because there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m not sure even sure what the word really means. It was initially tossed around as an adjective for guitar sounds and stuff like that, so when it becomes a noun, I’m not quite sure what that means. There’s a huge difference between us and [other Seattle grunge bands]. Where we fit in with those bands, I don’t know, except Steve [Turner, guitarist] and I were in Green River with Stone [Gossard] and Jeff [Ament]. We’re friends, and a lot of us went to hardcore shows in the early ’80s, but where we’re at now—even where we were at when we started—I don’t see a huge similarity. But to my mom, who’s an opera fanatic, she’d be like, “Oh, all these bands sound the same.” [Laughs.]
AVC: The early ’90s in Seattle have been mythologized as being such an important time in music. Do you really feel it was as important as it’s viewed now?
MA: I think it was less important than punk rock. It had more of an impact on the commercial side of the music industry, I suppose. But with punk rock in 1974, you had Radio Birdman in Australia, Rocket From The Tombs in Ohio. Television was already started; the Ramones had started. There was this thing that was starting to happen worldwide. It wasn’t just from a particular city; it was much more of a universal thing that became a movement, whereas you don’t really see that with what is now commonly known as grunge. Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains and Soundgarden struck fear in the hearts of hair-metal bands and some pop acts for a while, but the record companies soon gained control. In the end, it was maybe a detrimental thing, because it made people who had been working in the underground think that they could have a hit if they just toned down their sound a bit. You end up with “Runaway Train” from Soul Asylum.
AVC: Do you think the importance of “selling out” as a topic of discussion in punk and indie rock has diminished over time, or is it perceived the same way it was in the early ’90s?
MA: I have no idea how other people perceive it at this point. At this point, younger bands have no problem selling songs to commercials or getting corporate sponsors for stuff. That would have been something that would really been looked on with suspicion in the ’80s and even the ’90s. I’m not quite sure what flipped the switch, except that maybe bands can’t make as much money off of record sales anymore.
AVC: Here’s a hypothetical question involving a time machine. Mudhoney’s music will stay exactly the same, but you can transport yourself to any other era. Would you have changed the time period the band played in—one deeply tied to grunge—or stuck to it?
MA: Oh man, if I could do that, I would go back to the 16th century and bring electric guitars and show Bach how to do it right.
AVC: That would be a hell of a concert.
MA: Yeah. “Where do we plug these things in? Where’s the outlet?” [Laughs.]
AVC: With all of this stuff in mind, how do you feel about the idea of post-grunge?
MA: I don’t know what that means. [Laughs.] What is post-grunge? You’re blowing my mind, kid.
AVC: Based on the commonly used description, it takes the ideas of grunge but makes them more commercial. Bands associated with it include Creed and Nickelback. Foo Fighters might be there also.
MA: Just fucking shoot me now if I have anything to do with those bands.
AVC: So you’re not a fan of post-grunge, then?
MA: I don’t even know what it means. Creed and Nickelback are two things I can’t handle.
AVC: Mudhoney has always been linked to distortion and guitar effects. Do you feel any particular emotional connection when you hear those sounds?
MA: Yeah, but I can’t really describe it. I love a great fuzzed-out guitar sound.
AVC: Do you have an ideal guitar effect that you’ve heard from another band?
MA: The ideal guitar sound is what happens right at the intro of “I Wanna Be Your Dog” by The Stooges, when Ron Asheton hits a chord but then lets it ring, and the feedback builds right there before the song starts. That’s the perfect sound to me.
MA: Yeah, things are kind of fucked. [Laughs.]
AVC: What is the most single fucked thing in the world right now?
MA: I’d have a hard time narrowing it down to one.
AVC: How about two or three, then?
MA: Oh, I don’t know. I would have to have a good hard think on it to distill it. I don’t really feel like obsessing about that right now.
AVC: Going back to Under A Billion Suns, the most notable thing about the record was how it added horns to Mudhoney’s sound. Do you have any other itches you want to scratch?
MA: I don’t know. I probably didn’t know I had the itch until we started working on that record. That particular thing started with the previous record, Since We’ve Become Translucent. We brought in Craig Flory to put some horns on the record on the last recording session for that record, so that was kind of like, “Oh, maybe we’ll do that on the next one.” Whatever we want to do, we can do.
AVC: This might be a futile question, but do you have any updates on another Mudhoney record?
MA: Nothing solid. We’ve got a bunch of riffs down. Maybe like six completed songs, but I think we want to amass more. One we’ve been playing live in Australia, and the other one needs a little bit more honing before we feel comfortable playing it live.
AVC: Speaking of playing live, what’s the reason for this one-off date in Denver?
MA: You know who Rick Kulwicki is? He was the guitar player in The Fluid. He died of a heart attack earlier this year, leaving two sons behind—twin boys. Basically, the point of it is to raise money for them so they can stay in their house and hopefully go to college and be taken care of, because they don’t really have anyone else at this point.
AVC: That’s very magnanimous of you. This contrasts that idea of you being cynical.
MA: [Laughs.] We’re not entirely cynical. Who said that?
AVC: This is just going off talking about the world being fucked from that Under A Billion Suns interview.
MA: That doesn’t mean that you can’t fight against it. Once you recognize it, then you’ve got something to do. If you’re just walking around oblivious, just going, “I like shopping!”—if you’re nothing but a consumer, then what’s the point? [Laughs.]
AVC: What’s the status of I’m Now, the documentary on Mudhoney that was supposed to come out in the fall?
MA: Ryan [Short] and Adam [Pease], the guys who are putting it together, maybe jumped the gun on that. The documentary is pretty close to done, but the problem is they have a bunch of music licensing, and I think that the wheels turn slowly [on accomplishing that].
MA: Yeah, I’ve seen it a couple of times in the process of them putting it together. They had kind of—for a lack of a better term—a wrap screening about a month ago, and yeah, I think it’s good. It’s funny. [Laughs.]
AVC: Does it have any kind of dramatic arc?
MA: Well, that’s kind of the problem with us. We’re a band that basically has been around for a long time ,and we get along. We haven’t had a huge crisis in the band, so there isn’t any kind of drama in it. You couldn’t just make some up. When they approached us about doing a documentary, I’m like, “Y’know, this isn’t going to be a Behind The Music-type thing.”
AVC: How does it feel to have a documentary made about you?
MA: You know, odd. [Laughs.] It’s odd to have a certain part of your life and just watch it on the screen. At this point, almost every band has a documentary out. It’s so much easier these days to make a film, just like it is to record. With a computer, you don’t have to shoot it on film, so it’s a lot less expensive to make a quality documentary than it was 20 or 30 years ago.
AVC: Since you don’t do Mudhoney full time, you’ve also been the manager of Sub Pop’s warehouse. Is that still the case?
MA: That’s where you’re talking to me from.
AVC: Do you pay much attention to what Sub Pop puts out nowadays?
MA: Depends on what you mean by paying attention. Do you mean listen to?
MA: No. [Laughs.] But I pay attention. There are some bands that I really, really like, and then there’s a lot of bands that I’m indifferent to. But at this point, I’ll be 50 in February. The music biz is generally aimed at much younger people, and if it was all about me, I don’t think the label would be very successful.
AVC: What are the Sub Pop bands you do like?
MA: Obits, Pissed Jeans, No Age, Kelley Stoltz. I really love Comets On Fire, but they’re broken up. That’s reaching into the past a little bit. Sub Pop’s putting out a Feedtime box set, which I’m stoked on. That will come out in March, I think. That was a band that was really influential to Mudhoney. They’re from Australia, and hopefully they’ll get some recognition that I feel is due to them.
AVC: At this point, how much would you consider touring and making new music a priority to you?
MA: It’s as much of a priority as it can be, given the reality of the situation on the ground, as they say in war movies. [Laughs.] We tour as much as we can, which isn’t all that much, and we practice and write songs as much as we can, which is a lot less than it used to be. Steve moved to Portland a couple of years ago, so for him to come to practice is a six-hour round-trip, so we don’t just practice four times a week like we used to. A couple of us have jobs; we all have families. We need to think about that first.
AVC: Heavier Than Heaven author Charles R. Cross wrote about Mudhoney for The Rocket and said, “Certainly, when it comes to outliving their peers in Northwest rock ’n’ roll, they have discovered the eternal fountain of youth. They sound exactly as adolescent and as snotty as they did when I first saw them 10 years ago.” That article was published in 1998 and, by all accounts, youthfulness is still a part of Mudhoney performances today. Do you have any secret to staying young?
MA: Yeah, immaturity. [Laughs.]