It’s been 20 long years since the Seattle rock scene, the close-knit community of bands that ended up under the umbrella of “grunge,” turned the world on its ear and forever changed the fabric of popular music. But while Nirvana and Pearl Jam enjoyed the spoils of success, it was Mudhoney who were first out of the gate and who for many came to epitomize all that was good about that era. And rightfully so. Songs like “In ’n’ Out of Grace” and “Touch Me I’m Sick” combined hardcore’s ballistic energy with the sludgy cadence of metal and classic rock that the word “grunge” meant to denote.
In those two decades, while most of their contemporaries have splintered, Mudhoney has prevailed, but not without enduring uncertainty themselves. Original bassist Matt Lukin retired sometime around 2000, but the band eventually found a suitable replacement in Guy Maddison (formerly of Bloodloss). With Maddison on board, Mudhoney ventured into new territory, recording albums like Since We’ve Become Translucent and Under a Billion Suns that added sprawling bouts of psychedelia to the bedrock mix of Stooges, Sabbath and Sonics.
Longtime label home Sub Pop recently released The Lucky Ones, while at the same time issuing a deluxe edition of the band’s first EP from 1988, Superfuzz Bigmuff. The simultaneous releasing is particularly suitable, given that Lucky Ones’ 36 minutes of dryheated blasts in many ways resembles the band’s debut more than many that have come before. So it seemed like the perfect time to sit down with Mudhoney’s Mark Arm and Steve Turner, whose musical collaboration extends back even further to prior bands Green River and Mr. Epp.
Are you surprised to still be doing Mudhoney 20 years on?
Mark Arm: Not at this point! If you had asked our younger selves, we would have said, “No way!” but it’s been so gradual. It’s creeping normalcy. What would have once seemed outrageous seems normal. It happened at such a slow pace and over a long period of time...
Steve Turner: We started being asked about being broken up in 1991, when I went back to school and we took a few months off. So I’ve gotten used to saying that there really is no reason to ever break-up. We can just stop doing it for awhile and start doing it again later. We’ve never really felt the need to worry about it. We either do it or we don’t do it—and right now we are doing it.
So it sounds like you didn’t ever envision this sort of longevity.
ST: No, I didn’t think it would last more than two years.
MA: We all cut our teeth in the hardcore scene, where bands sometimes didn’t last more than six months.
ST: There was no thought of any sort of success so I always figured I’d have to go back to college.
MA: To become a successful anthropologist, and I would become a successful English major.
What was it about Mudhoney that it stuck, whereas the bands you were in before didn’t?
ST: Things had been building. Green River was putting out records and was fairly known. It was just kind of the next band, and we got a lucky combination of what we wanted to do and the people that joined up.
MA: And the record label, too.
ST: We had two tastemakers in our back pocket: AmRep and Sub Pop.
MA: In our back packet? In our front pocket! Yeah, we had an incredible amount of support.
ST: People were really excited that we were forming even before they heard us.
MA: If we were doing it in Missoula, Montana or something, we probably would’ve only lasted six months.
Yeah, could Mudhoney have sprung out of any other time or place?
ST: If we had been there maybe.
MA: That’s a pretty big hypothetical.
ST: Yeah, it sprung where it sprung. It was a pretty unique scene going on in Seattle at the time. It was very cloistered, and the same people had been in a bunch of bands in various line-ups for the last four or five years and influencing each other. I don’t think it could have happened anywhere else.
I’m sure it gets old being pegged as the survivors of that era...
MA: Of the post-hardcore era?
The “grunge” era...
MA: Oh, that era!
But obviously there’s a little truth in that. What is it about this band that has enabled you to stick around while so many of your contemporaries have fallen by the wayside?
ST: We never had an agenda or any clear goals. And we like doing it. It’s not really that thought out other than we have to spend so much time planning the simplest thing like when we can practice. There’s like 18 emails to figure out just one practice.
MA: Guy has a pretty crazy schedule at the hospital; Steve moved to Portland.
ST: Collectively, we have five children.
MA: Only between two of you!
ST: But we just like doing it and it’s very low pressure at this point. We do it when we can.
When you started out, was what you were doing at all reactionary to what was going on at the time?
ST: I don’t think it was reactionary. We were ignoring what was going on at the time. We were part of an underground thing. The things we were into were in Forced Exposure. Commercial radio never even entered into our minds.
MA: Or even college radio, which was like the Mighty Lemon Drops, the Smiths, the Cure. But it wasn’t in reaction to that, it was despite that, you know what I mean?
ST: I was a college deejay at the time, but I designed my show so I could play what I wanted. So I played obscure U.S. and U.K. punk and the weird underground stuff that I liked like Billy Childish, Scientists, Butthole Surfers. Something like Naked Raygun would be the most popular thing I would play because they were actually on the college charts.
MA: Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, Sonic Youth.
ST: We felt a kindred spirit with a lot of those people, but we didn’t rate in our minds. We probably still don’t!
Mark, on the new album you sing “The lucky ones have already gone.” Is that at all a cynical comment on the band’s longevity?
MA: It has nothing to do with the music scene. If you listen closely, it makes no sense in that context, except maybe the chorus.
So more about mortality?
MA: Yeah, it’s about mortalities. I had read Guns, Germs and Steel and then followed that with Collapse (both by Jared Diamond), and started thinking about the concept of global collapse and who would probably be around if all the resources dried up. And that would of course be the rich, who are able to drink the clean water and still get food. So I was writing from the point of view of someone still around at the time.
It seems like several of the songs deal with time, like “Running Out.”
MA: Yeah. This friend of ours, Bob Mack, pointed out years ago that a lot of the songs—this was around My Brother the Cow—that there’s an apocalyptic thing to them...
ST: It’s Discharge!
MA: Yeah that, and before that my upbringing of going to church since I was a kid and going to a Christian high school. And then full embrace of Discharge.
Not to dwell on the past too much...
MA: Why not? There’s nothing else!
With the success of Nirvana everyone thought that...
MA: Yeah, there was about a two-month period where anything could happen.
Yeah, Daniel Johnston was going to become a pop star.
MA: Yeah, the Pere Ubu boxset came out on Geffen; the Raincoats put out a record on DGC.
ST: Yeah, it was wide open for a very short while, but the majors got control real quick.
My question was if you guys were ever that optimistic about it.
ST: No. We already had our own thing going. We were a self-contained machine, putting out records and touring, when we signed to Warners.
MA: We didn’t have to take tour support or any of their money. We had built up enough of a following that we were self-sustaining.
ST: It was a move that worked fine for us for awhile and then stopped working fine and they dropped us. But no, I never thought we were going to be huge or that it was a glorious new day for American music. It was cool and exciting that friends of ours were suddenly huge stars.
MA: But all the “alternative” music that came after that was worse than before. It made college rock sound great.
ST: No one was even searching the underground for cool music because they thought it was being handed to them by the majors. People got lazy. That whole Epitaph generation was a real low point because they were just being spoonfed rebellion. But the next generation after that was like, “Fuck all of this” and started doing house parties and the underground became more interesting again. The kids are doing pretty good.
MA: “The kids will be alright.” “The kids will have their say.” “The kids are united...”
ST: “Kids don’t follow.”
We have this group of bands here that just got written up in SPIN under the banner of “shitgaze,” which started out as a joke for a description of Psychedelic Horseshit’s music on their Myspace page. It’s been interesting. NME did a piece.
MA: And now shitgaze is a new movement, right? And 20 years from now whoever put that on their Myspace page will get interview questions like “I hear you coined the term ‘shitgaze.’ Is that true?” I’ve been getting that with the “grunge” thing in so many fucking interviews. And I started asking these people, “I’ve been getting that question a lot, is that in the bio?” “No, it was in Wikipedia.” Oh, okay that’s the truth!
Does that word just make you cringe?
MA: Wikipedia? Yeah! No—you’re talking about “grunge”—it doesn’t make me cringe. It was originally an adjective describing dirty, scummy sounding shit. I think the people who cringe more are the bands that don’t sound dirty and scummy and grungy, but get called “grunge” anyway.
ST: Yeah, I don’t think Pearl Jam was ever to happy with it. Screaming Trees weren’t happy with it, and the Melvins really didn’t like it.
MA: And they’re the epitome of it!
ST: But I actually thought it was fairly apt. I never expected it to be a movement. It’s not like SS Decontrol, where we label ourselves “grunge” like “straightedge” and make a movement out of it.
MA: It was an adjective, not a noun. The use of it as a noun is just retarded. The Cheater Slicks are a grungy band, and no one would ever say they’re a “grunge” band, know what I mean?
It seemed like you were pretty serious about throwing in the towel when Matt quit.
MA: We didn’t know how to react to it at first.
ST: Yeah, we put it on the shelf. Dan was the most ready to not play as Mudhoney.
MA: Matt and Dan were best friends in the band. They were roommates on tour, and I remember Dan saying, “I can’t even imagine getting on stage and looking over to my right and not seeing him there.”
ST: So we decided to put it on the shelf for awhile and ignore it.
MA: Which is how I deal with most of my problems—until I get confronted by my wife!
ST: We had been wanting to do a Monkeywrench record anyway, and it had been hard for everyone to get the time.
MA: And Gas Huffer wasn’t really doing anything, so it was perfect. We spent a year and a half doing that.
ST: So after that year, we started toying with the idea. We needed to pay off some tax debt, and Matt actually came back and we did a quick two-week tour down the West Coast to pay that off. Then we got an offer to go to Brazil and decided to figure out how to do it.
MA: Matt was definitely done after that little West Coast thing. So we actually asked Guy, but he was in the middle of nursing school. He was like, “Why didn’t you ask me this a year ago?”
ST: But then we would have ruined his life because he would have dropped out of nursing school.
MA: Yeah, to hang onto his dream of making it big with Mudhoney!
ST: So we did him a favor.
MA: Our friend Steve Dukich wanted to go to Brazil...
ST: He wanted to go to Brazil more than he wanted to be in Mudhoney. So then we were “back.” At first we toyed with the idea of recording just the three of us, with me playing bass since I had just spent a year playing bass in Monkeywrench. And maybe even not calling it Mudhoney, which ended up seeming silly, like chopping off two letters or something—Mudhone, Mudhun.
MA: No, we’d have to chop off the first two, so it’s D’ Honey and farther removed when people are looking through record bins.
ST: So that was a very longwinded answer to the question of whether or not we ever thought about packing it in. The short answer is “no.”
Mark, you’ve been pegged as sort of a cynic. Do you think that’s accurate?
MA: Maybe at times. I’m fairly optimistic at other times. I’m totally happy with my life.
I was thinking lyrically.
MA: My humor is black and people may think of that as being cynical. I enjoy Dr. Strangelove more than Jerry Lewis movies, except the King of Comedy. And I’m dying to see the one with the clown in the concentration camp that never got released.
Is it hard to summon that sort of disdain or black humor for subsequent records?
ST: I wouldn’t think it would be hard, just look at the world. And everyone always says that it’s easier to write an angry or sad song than a happy song.
MA: It is for me.
It seems like there’s been a shift from the more personal to external things.
MA: There are some things that I’ve written over the years that are definitely personal, but a lot of the shit, like “Touch Me I’m Sick” or “Sweet Young Thing”—neither of those songs are personal.
The point of view is personal. You may not necessarily be talking about yourself, but you’re talking about a person versus something external.
MA: But even “Hard On For War,” which is a take on an anti-war song, is written from a person’s point of view, though clearly not mine.
I think people are going to be tempted to compare the new record to your older albums just because the songs are more succinct. Is there a reason for that outcome this time around?
ST: The easiest answer is because Mark didn’t play guitar. We weren’t jamming crazy, weird riffs.
MA: I sludge it up.
ST: To be honest, if there’s one main difference between us musically, it’s that I’m faster than he is.
MA: Also in the sack!
ST: It was an experiment to see if we could write songs fairly quickly. So we just had him singing when we were coming up with stuff, seeing if it led to songs getting done quickly. It led to songs getting done quickly and very succinctly. We got to the outcome right away so we kept doing that.
MA: If I’m not playing guitar, we’re not going to sprawl out too much because there will be time where I’m just standing there.
Was it strange not playing guitar?
MA: At first because I was so used to thinking of guitar parts, which I had been doing for 20 years. So just standing there, mic in hand, with no notebook of ideas and just spouting things off the top of my head, hoping they didn’t notice anything too embarrassing...
ST: But that’s a freeing way of coming up with things.
MA: Yeah, it was a totally freeing way, something just spews out and you follow it. Some songs were almost completely written in practice.
ST: Yeah, I thought that was really cool. The lyrics weren’t as labored, and the anger felt more emotional. We were happy with the record and recording it so fast. I like it as a fairly short record. I see no reason to make a sprawling 60-minute record.
MA: There’s no reason to fill up a CD. One thing I miss about the ’80s is that bands would do 12-inch EPs. They’d have five or six songs on them. Especially for introducing a band, it was perfect.
That’s what you guys did with Superfuzz.
ST: Yeah, we were just so used to bands doing that. You pretty much get all quality that way. People don’t do that so much now.
Does that record hold a special place for you? A lot of people think of it as the quintessential Mudhoney record.
MA: It was a great opening statement.
ST: We were young and we put a handful of what we thought were the best songs on it. I think it holds up. Plenty of our stuff holds up, maybe not everything. I think the next record we should do that treatment to is Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge, do that to release at the same time as the next record we put out. There’s a lot of stuff from that time.
What’s it like being on Sub Pop again? Do you feel any sort of comradery with the other bands?
MA: Well, with the people that work there for sure. It’s still like family, it’s just an extended, different part of the family.
And you’re doing a Green River reunion? You didn’t have any qualms about revisiting the past?
ST: No, it sounded like fun.
MA: There’s nothing at stake.
ST: We’ve had one practice so far...
MA: Two! You couldn’t make one. Before going into it Stone (Gossard) was like, “What if we just do four songs at the end of Mudhoney’s set?” I was like, “You know people are kind of hoping that we’d do a full set.” He was talking like that before the first practice, but then afterwards he sends this email throwing out all these other songs that he wants to do.
ST: We’re doing a few songs from the really early days of Green River.
MA: Yeah, like demo songs from when it was a four-piece.
Do you guys feel like Mudhoney has a legacy to live up to at all?
MA: A “Legacy of Brutality!”
ST: No, I don’t. We’re going to disappoint some people no matter what we do. There’s people who would have liked us to have disappeared a long, long time ago to keep us where they remember us. But you can’t please them all.
MA: I feel that way about Aerosmith.
ST: Aerosmith has been disappointing me for most of my life.
Are there things that you would have done differently if you knew then what you know now?
MA: Sadly, probably not. Sometimes you have to go through stupid shit and experience it for yourself.