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Interview: Mudhoney

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There are few bands in recent underground music history who command – and deserve – as much respect as Mudhoney. Survivors of the late-’80s/early-’90s Seattle explosion, singer Mark Arm, guitarist Steve Turner, drummer Dan Peters, and bassist Matt Lukin (replaced in 2001 by Guy Maddison) have been at it since 1988, when their seminal EP Superfuzz Bigmuff accidentally helped to father grunge with its blend of fuzz-drenched Stooges dynamics and ironically detached punk nihilism. In the years since that debut, they’ve plowed an even deeper furrow: mining garage, blues and even Hawkwind-esque psychedelia to their rawest extent, sharing the stage with Bo Diddley (and earning it), and in general, rocking well into their forties.

The Modern Pea Pod was lucky enough to speak to Mark Arm for a solid hour, during which we discussed the band, rock history, national politics, and Mudhoney’s excellent upcoming record, Under a Billion Suns. I hope you enjoy the ride as much as I did…just please, don’t call them alternative rock’s answer to the Rolling Stones.

Modern Pea Pod: So you guys have been around forever – your first record came out in 1988, and you’ve only really been on hiatus for a couple years around 2000, right?

Mark Arm: We’ve had two downtimes. The first was in about 1991: Steve said he was going back to college, and we didn’t do anything for about six months…but I don’t think he ever even returned to school. Then after Matt quit [in late 1999], we didn’t do anything for a year. Actually, Steve and I did [side project] Monkeywrench during both of those times, I think.

MPP: What makes you keep coming back to this project?

MA: Well, I wouldn’t think it’s a project… (laughs) I think it’s more how we identify ourselves. I mean Steve’s got a solo thing going, so I’d think he identifies himself…as himself. (laughs) But it just feels natural for us to play together. We don’t sit around analyzing why we do it or anything like that.

MPP: I’d like to talk about your new album – first of all, it’s great. It feels a lot more direct than your last one [2002’s Since We’ve Become Translucent], maybe a little less psychedelic –

MA: That would be the big, sprawling opening, right? [Translucent‘s “Baby Can You Dig the Light?”]

MPP: Yeah. There’s a lot less of that on here. Also, this seems like the most openly political work you’ve done yet.

MA: Well, there’s been a slight political element since “Hate the Police,” and that was one if the first songs we ever recorded. And there are other things, like “This is the Life” from Tomorrow Hit Today, “F.D.K.” from My Brother the CowEvery Good Boy Deserves Fudge we recorded as we were heading towards Gulf War number one, so there’s nothing direct there, but a few couched references. Also on our last record we had “Our Time is Now” and “Sonic Infusion” – those were a little more couched, too.

But I guess some of Under a Billion Suns just comes from frustration at the current situation, the way things have been in the last five years… I’m surprised more bands aren’t addressing this, to be honest. The sensitive indie rockers can’t see past their own broken hearts.

(Scowling about George Bush, perhaps? – photo by Steven Dewall)

MPP: I was thinking that Mudhoney’s really been a kind of bridge between the two Bush administrations –

MA: (sarcastically) Great! Yeah, we’re hoping to be a bridge to the third Bush, too. That’s gonna be Jeb.

MPP: Do you think the political situation now is the worst it’s ever been?

MA: Oh, yeah. The worst by far. I clearly remember living under Reagan, and I can vaguely remember Nixon – but I was pretty young at the time. Johnson I don’t remember at all. (laughs) But Reagan was just a bunch of bluster – he invaded Granada, and that was it. This guy – this current rat-fucker in office, George W. Bush – for one thing, I don’t think he understands anything about the rest of the world. And then he goes in and fucks things up.

MPP: Are you flabbergasted by how supportive of him this country has been?

MA: Yeah, well, the support is sort of eroding. He didn’t even win the first time, and last time he won by less than 1%. And I mean, not to get into the weird possibilities with electronic voting, but…yeah. That’s all I have to say about that, I think. (laughs)

MPP: How do you think the new record stacks up? Are you happy with it?

MA: I think most people after they record something new are pretty stoked on it, whether it’s a good record or not. I mean, I thought Piece of Cake was really great at the time, but also I was very high! (laughs)

Still, usually even on stronger records, I always feel like it would have been better if we just hadn’t put that one song on. Like for Translucent, “Crooked and Wide” goes on too long – a whole verse could have been cut. I guess I got attached to the lyrics, and at this point I wish I didn’t. But for Under a Billion Suns, it doesn’t feel to me right now that anything could have been changed. I’m satisfied.

MPP: I’m impressed that an album like this could come out twenty years into Mudhoney’s career…you guys are definitely not doing the elder statesman thing, it feels very vital.

MA: I guess I don’t quite understand what you mean by “elder statesman.”

MPP: (stammers a little, having just called Mark Arm old) Well, like, when the Rolling Stones were twenty years old, they were probably putting out the worst stuff in their careers.

MA: Well, they were probably doing a lot of coke. (laughs) Keith was doing a lot of heroin. They probably just didn’t care as much: it was like, put out another record, do another tour, make a bazillion dollars. With us it’s a different situation. Recording the album, releasing it and playing it live is a reward in and of itself.

MPP: Are there any plans for a tour this year?

MA: No, not really…we’re playing two Northwest shows in a few weeks, but after that Dan’s wife is giving birth to their third kid. So while she’s still on maternity leave, he’s gonna be a stay-at-home dad. Then in May we’re playing Europe for two weeks. We hope to do more in the fall, but Guy’s finishing up his Bachelor’s in nursing…basically, we just squeeze it in when we can.

(The picture that launched a thousand amateurish pratfalls – photo by Charles Peterson)

MPP: Why don’t we talk about the early years of the band? How did Mudhoney come together?

MA: Okay. Steve and I knew each other since about 1983; in the last six months of my first band [Mr. Epp & The Calculations], he joined up and played – it was a two-guitar line-up. And we’ve basically been playing in bands ever since. There were six months after we both quit Green River when we weren’t, but then I joined on drums with the Thrown Ups and we were together again. We’re almost like a married couple at this time; we no longer talk when we eat breakfast. (laughs) That’s a terrible analogy.

So anyway, before Green River Steve had started playing with Dan Peters, and the Thrown-Ups singer [Ed Fotheringham] was also singing with them. But he didn’t seem enthusiastic about playing in a real band who practiced (laughs)…he was mainly an illustrator. He did the covers for Piece of Cake and My Brother the Cow, and now he’s in almost every issue of The New Yorker. But when Green River broke up, I called Steve and said, “wanna start a band?” He was like, “well, I’ve been playing with Dan.” So I joined up with them, and we had a couple rehearsals.

Matt Lukin we’d heard got left behind by the Melvins – he didn’t want to move, so he’d stayed behind in Aberdeen. We’d known him since ’83 or ’84, so we asked him to join…and I don’t think he ever said whether he would or not. (laughs) New Year’s 1988 was the first practice with the four of us, and Matt had to drive out from Aberdeen to get there; those Melvins guys would drive to Seattle every weekend, and none of us had cars except Matt. So he had to drive for two and a half hours, pick all of us up, and then drive to the rehearsal space. (laughs)

MPP: So until Matt left, Mudhoney was you four. Isn’t it pretty unusual to last twelve years with such a stable line-up?

MA: There’s really one reason why we stayed stable for so long: because we split songwriting, publishing, everything financially four ways, even steven. We did that at the beginning, and I’m not even sure exactly why, but I think it’s the smartest thing we’ve ever done. It wipes out petty jealousies: there’s none of that, “well, I wrote the main riff for that song, so I should get more money.” And it works out better for the album. I remember Screaming Trees, when they figured out, “oh, you can make money off publishing,” every guy was writing songs and trying to push the songs onto the records. That will splinter the group. And a group of four, that’s a pretty fragile thing; it’s hard enough to keep together a marriage with two people, and four ways is exponentially harder – it’s not four times more difficult, but four hundred times.

But it was tough when Matt left, because Mudhoney isn’t a band that’s driven by one guy’s vision – it’s truly a democratic band. Everybody participates as much as they want, and they’re all encouraged to participate to the fullest extent. But in the last days with Matt, his enthusiasm had waned. In fact, I don’t think he even wanted to be there. (laughs) He felt really bad about quitting…he didn’t want to let anybody down. And I mean, early on we’d said that if one member quits, it wouldn’t be Mudhoney. So I came over to see him, and one thing he said was that if we wanted to keep playing as Mudhoney, he was okay with that.

MPP: You guys came back to Sub Pop after ten years away. How come?

MA: Basically, once we got dropped from our major label, we had to figure out where to put out the next album. We’d worked with Sub Pop on our singles comp, March to Fuzz, while we were still on reprieve, so it was a pretty easy transition. It was kind of like going back home, only with a whole bunch of different people working there.

(Ready for the big time? – photographer unknown)

MPP: When you started out, Sub Pop was at the cusp of something really huge. Did you expect Nirvana to be the first big band out of Seattle?

MA: Well, we kind of were the first band out of Seattle, and way more out of the independent or the underground. I mean we thought things had gotten out of control in like 1989! (laughs) We had no idea what insanity was going to come when Nirvana broke out.

MPP: Did it ever bother you that Nirvana were the ones to break out like that?

MA: (laughs) No, no, no, no, no. Enough rock’n’roll history had gone on in the past that we had no illusions we were going to be a mainstream band. The Stooges and the MC5, they probably thought they were going to be mainstream. They signed to a major label, what’s the next step? Get huge. The New York Dolls, they thought they were gonna be big. Big, big, big. But I guess people couldn’t handle a bunch of drugged-up drag queens in New York.

MPP: How do we explain something like Nirvana, then, who just seemed to come out of nowhere – or even something like the White Stripes, who have a marketable enough sound but are also an incredibly weird, eccentric band?

MA: The White Stripes are weird, especially since they were on Sympathy for the Record Industry. That’s a label I’ve had experience with, and Long Gone John does nothing for promotion. He puts out like one sheet with a few dozen album covers on it every year and he sends stuff out to radio, but that’s it. So for the White Stripes to have caught on, it’s a purely organic thing. The hype was purely from the underground, just genuine excitement.

MPP: Anyway, coming from that specific scene in Seattle, do you find that the more removed we get from the whole 1991 Sub Pop grunge explosion, the more people appreciate Mudhoney as something other than progenitors of Nirvana? Is that something you’d like to see happen?

MA: Who we are and where we’re from, I don’t even know that it’s worth bothering to transcend that. It’s like, okay, we came from Seattle. Check. (laughs) The grunge thing, I don’t know what that means or how much is even true. I don’t mind being seen as anything, as long as we’re being seen.

But it seemed like for a while – in the dark days of the late ’90s, around the time when rock and roll was supposed to be dead for the hundredth time, and everybody was looking to electronica as the new thing – we’d go out on tour and we’d attract a handful of old fans, but there would be these young kids with Nirvana T-shirts and flannel shirts there, too. It was weird. But when I was a kid, it was like that with the Doors. That book No One Here Gets Out Alive had just come out, and I’m sure that when the Grateful Dead came around on tour, a lot of kids saw them just because they came from sort of the same scene. So we’ll take them however we can. Hopefully they’ll start actually listening to us in the process, and not just going to see us because we knew Kurt Cobain.

MPP: When Mudhoney signed to a major label, was there any sort of backlash from the indie fans?

MA: Maybe a little bit, but not much. Obviously by that point Nirvana had already had their breakthrough…and also, when we did our first major label record, Piece of Cake, we recorded it at the same studio with the same guy who did Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge: it was Conrad Uno’s basement. So there wasn’t really a change in our sound.

But I remember in the ’80s, when bands like the Replacements and Husker Du signed to major labels, all the sudden their music got so much slicker. Actually I talked to the president of Warner Brothers at the time, and I asked him, “how come Husker Du and the Replacements sound so much worse?” (laughs) He said, “we didn’t tell them how to record. They had the budget and they did it of their own volition.” And I can see that being a temptation. But the one “professional” record we ever recorded was Tomorrow Hit Today, and I don’t think it’s a real slick record or anything. It sure didn’t cost much.

(So who else can tell this was taken in the ’90s? – photographer unknown)

MPP: A lot of people today say your years on Warner Brothers were a low point for the band. Would you agree with that?

MA: Well, the best record we made in that era was the last one: Tomorrow Hit Today. That came after about ten years of us being in a band. Piece of Cake, though – there were a couple of big songs on that, but it sounds pretty thin. I was pretty unfocused at that point, pretty fucked up on drugs…so to me, yeah, that’s probably the low point.

MPP: Do you have a record or a period for the band that’s your favorite?

MA: Oh god, I don’t know. That’s a really hard thing to say. I don’t think I could do justice to that question.

MPP: Okay, well, why don’t we talk about your shows with the MC5? How did that come about?

MA: It happened when Wayne Kramer was working on a compilation and producing bands; he came to Seattle to record us. After Matt quit the band, there was the whole dot-com boom, so there was this Internet music website throwing around stupid money – they offered us ten grand for one song on Wayne’s comp. So even though we weren’t doing much at that time, we were like, “Okay, let’s do a song.” (laughs) We did “Inside Job” with Wayne on bass. Then a couple years later, I was asked to join the band, DKT/MC5. That’s a mindblowing thing.

MPP: How did it feel, trying to fill Rob Tyner’s shoes?

MA: I had plenty of apprehension going into it. When I hear about something like that, with band member’s missing, I’m always pretty skeptical – and when it’s the singer who’s gone, then it’s like even more so. But Wayne said, “you’re not going to have to fill Rob Tyner’s shoes, we just want you to be you and sing these songs.” And that felt a lot better. I didn’t want to be like Ian Astbury fronting the Doors of the 21st Century, this kind of costume drama.

Still, I was pretty apprehensive: I didn’t know how good they would be together, they hadn’t played in so long. But I practiced with them, and within five minutes, any fears of where they were at went out the window. It took the whole project to get over my fears for myself. (laughs) Sometimes you’re aware of what people in the crowd must be thinking, like, is this gonna work or not? But it did – it worked out great. Especially in Europe: we had Lisa Kekaula from the BellRays, she just rips it up, and Nicke [Andersson] from the Hellacopters, who is very well-versed in Fred “Sonic” Smith. It’s like a reincarnation – amazing.

MPP: It’s really cool to see you fronting a band like the MC5; I always felt like Mudhoney had more in common with the sort of proto-punk bands than punk rock or even post-punk.

MA: I’m more into proto-anything; I think music is at its most interesting when it’s not a “thing” yet. The rules haven’t been set, there’s no formula – everybody’s just sort of jumping on. Any band that was around in like ’74 is usually more interesting to me than ’77: the Saints, Pere Ubu, the Dolls, the Stooges, the MC5, Velvet Underground, Television…all of them.

MPP: Are there are plans for you to do more with DKT/MC5?

MA: Actually, I’m going to have to talk to Wayne about that sometime. I really don’t know what the plans are.

MPP: Yeah, I missed you guys the last time you were in town; it’d be great to catch you next time. Actually, it’d be great to see Mudhoney, too.

MA: Yeah, it would! (laughs)

Mudhoney’s seventh album, Under a Billion Suns, comes out Tuesday, March 7. They will be co-curating England’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in May, featuring a diverse line-up of bands from Comets on Fire and the Scientists to Holly Golightly. For more information, visit the official All Tomorrow’s Parties website.

Interview by Zach Hoskins

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