Having formed in 1988 from the ashes of prototype grunge band Green River, Mudhoney can lay claim to creating the Sub Pop sound that gave birth to the likes of Soundgarden, Nirvana, and L7. Their first seven-inch 'Touch Me I'm Sick/Sweet Young Thing Ain't Sweet No More' released the same year is now heralded as one of the finest debut singles of all time. Since then, they've put out nine albums - three for a subsidiary of major label Warner Brothers - and retained pretty much the same line-up throughout their twenty-eight-year existence bar bass player Matt Lukin, who quit at the end of the 1990s.
Currently on the UK leg of a European tour that will take them into the early part of August. DiS caught up with singer/guitarist Mark Arm and fellow guitar player Steve Turner prior to their recent sold out show at Nottingham's Rescue Rooms.
DiS: You've been playing around Europe on and off for the past couple of months. How's the tour been so far? Are the shows still as vibrant as they were 25 years ago?
Mark Arm: Yeah. There's still a lot of energy. But then there always has been. Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge came out 25 years ago so I guess we were pretty popular back then. Maybe even earlier than that? Which is probably hard to imagine at this point, but then we were just excited to be playing somewhere new. Like, oh my God, we're playing outside of the Pacific North West. Then going to Europe and the UK for the first time. That was really exciting at the time, doing new things and seeing new places. Whereas now, I wouldn't say it's old hat as the shows themselves are still fun, even though we're older and don't fling ourselves about as much. It's been a long time since I got into a crowd!
I remember first seeing you in 1990, at Nottingham Trent Polytechnic as it was called back then.
MA: I remember that show too. That was the show where they had a queue for stage divers, right?
MA: Because MTV hadn't really shown that sort of thing and no one knew what the protocol was. So it was really funny to see the Nottingham interpretation of that.
The reaction of the stewards at the front was interesting too, as they seemed more bewildered by what was happening than everyone else in the room.
MA: Their reaction was priceless too! There was a queue until everyone politely jumped off the stage, which was actually super sweet. I thought it was really nice. It was only later where the whole stage diving thing became violent. I remember playing Woodstock in '94 or whatever festival it was, and there was a bunch of jocks beating the shit out of one another, trying to rape girls and stuff. It all became quite unpleasant very quickly.
Which went against what people like yourselves and most of the original Sub Pop/Seattle bands were rallying against both in interviews and some of your lyrics. Did you notice that kind of behaviour becoming more prevalent in the punk scene around that time?
MA: There was a thing within the American hardcore punk movement around the early 1980s. LA had quite a reputation for having a violent scene. Parts of New York too. New Jersey was pretty tough too, and the skinheads from New York would come down and try to beat the shit out of people. Seattle, where we lived, was a very small town comparatively. The Independent Media Center hadn't been built yet and there was no Amazon either. All we really had was Boeing which had a working class community of mainly mechanics and engineers. Almost everyone within the environment I grew up had at least one parent or relative working for Boeing. So the punk scene in Seattle was very small. It wasn't as if there was a massive amount of people who were into one thing that wanted to fight against this other group of people that were into another thing; it was quite all inclusive. Any weirdo who wanted to show up would be accepted. It was frustrating in the sense there were hardly any venues you could play at, but then in another sense I think that actually helped shape the music. There wasn't any notion of being discovered so people just played whatever the fuck they wanted to for each other. People had bands that broke up then reformed under different mixes of people; it was kinda cool. Unless you live in some place that has no internet access and is really remote it would be difficult to recreate nowadays.
You seemed to have a close affinity with certain UK bands from the outset. Bands like Spacemen 3, My Bloody Valentine, and Loop for instance. How did that come about?
MA: The first UK band I had an affinity with were Discharge. I absolutely love them. We were also big fans of all the Crass bands. Rudimentary Peni was a favourite. But by the time we first came to the UK in 1989 a lot of that stuff wasn't going on any more, so we were getting into these newer bands, Spacemen 3 in particular.
You ended up covering their 'Revolution' while they ended up recording a version of your 'When Tomorrow Hits', which Pete Kember still plays with his band Spectrum today.
MA: His version is really great too. I guess you could say it was Sonic Youth that turned us on to a lot of those bands. Our old band Green River played with them a few times - pretty much every show they played in Seattle until Green River broke up. Us and Sonic Youth had a legitimate connection so I think it was Jonathan (Poneman) from Sub Pop that reached out to Spacemen 3 on our behalf. It was probably done through letters too!
Mudhoney have always struck me as being real music fans with a broad church of influences and ideas. Although there are distinctive elements in some places - your vocals and the guitar sound for example - every album is different to the last one, which makes it difficult to pigeonhole the band as predominantly grunge, punk, psych rock, or shoegaze. It's mostly a combination of each. Is that deliberate?
MA: I think that's the highest compliment we can get. That we actually have our own sound where you can pick out bits and pieces that totally define it.
You mentioned earlier about it being the 25th anniversary of Mudhoney's second album Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge. If you could pick one album or era as being your favourite or most definitive, which would it be and why?
MA: I don't know if I could do that, mainly because I don't listen to our records unless there's a song we're thinking of bringing into the set we haven't played for a while. We did have this theory for a while that every other Mudhoney record was a good record. Superfuzz Bigmuff is better than Mudhoney, then Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge lifts things back up before Piece Of Cake lets things down a wee bit, then My Brother The Cow is a good record. Everything else after that we felt was also of a good standard. I guess whenever you make a new record it feels like your finest to begin with. It's the freshest one with the newest material. At this point, we've been playing some records for more than 25 years, so it takes a while for things to balance out in our minds. I don't think we're the best judges of ourselves.
With so much material to choose from, how do you decide what to include in your setlists? Are there any songs that won't feature in your live set for the foreseeable future?
MA: Whenever we have a new record out we'll always play a fair amount of songs off it. Then after a while, some of those songs will drop off and be forgotten whereas others will stay; in some cases for 28, 29 years. Some songs go because we get bored of playing them. others because they just don't work live. For example, 'In This Rubber Tomb' from Vanishing Point. It's one of my favourite songs off the record and kinda reminds me of Pere Ubu or Hawkwind or Chrome, yet for some reason it just never worked live. It seemed whenever we played it, the energy just went down. Dan's (Peters) drum part which was so tom orientated and cool on the record would kinda get lost to the point where you wouldn't be able to hear it on stage. So that song dropped off the setlist pretty quickly even though the record is one of my favourites.
One thing that always impresses me is when you play an older song, like 'In And Out Of Grace' or 'Sweet Young Thing Ain't Sweet No More', the response from fans both old and new is sensational...and that your fanbase has such a wide demographic. Is that something you're particularly aware of?
MA: I think we're lucky in that we might be a heritage act to some, but as far as others are concerned we're pretty new.
Steve Turner: They're just discovering us through the obvious Nirvana portal. Or Soundgarden. There was a kid dressed just like Kurt Cobain at the Brighton show yesterday, whereas I've never come across one dressed like Chris Cornell!
MA: In Seattle, young kids like Soundgarden too.
ST: It's kind of the same way we got into punk rock in Seattle when we were kids. We had The Sonics and the whole history of the North West punk set too. I'd probably credit Scott McCaughey from The Young Fresh Fellows for that as he worked in a record store and put those records in the punk section!
MA: I'd also credit Mick Farren. He was a journalist that worked for Trouser Press and he put a review of the Here Are The Sonics and Boom reissues in his magazine. I remember thinking it weird to discover a band from our own backyard by reading a review written by an English writer in an Anglophilic magazine.
ST: I didn't read that magazine!
You're the longest surviving band from that initial wave of Sub Pop bands dating back to the 1980s. Is it something you're conscious of?
ST: Not really. We can't help but be aware of it, but it's not something that affects us.
What's the secret of your longevity?
ST: We don't do it all the time for one.
MT: We never took the whole music business aspect seriously. We never thought we'd be pop stars, and we were pretty realistic when we started. Based on our own record collections, and the stuff that we gravitated towards, I would say 99% of them were just also-rans. In terms of how music critics perceived them anyway for whatever reason.
ST: I think we're still around because we like playing music together. We don't have to all the time, but we feel lucky when we do, like in Brighton last night; I had such a good time. There's been several phases of the band. There's the first one when we were young, eager, and full of vigor. That lasted two or three years before we signed with Warner Brothers and we reached a certain level beyond anything I thought we would. But it was also a bit of a trudge for a few years in a certain way; it became too big and as a result, wasn't as much fun to me. Then there's the second phase which is the post-Cobain years where we lost most of our audience, got dropped by Warners, and our original bass player Matt Lukin quit the band. The third phase started when we decided to do it again, and this time we dealt with it at arm's length rather than full on. Me and Mark were also doing Monkeywrench at the time, and we got back to it with Guy Maddison joining the band on bass. It was quite reinvigorating and also, we realised it wasn't our job anymore; we had other jobs and Dan had started to have a family. We knew our lives were changing and the band wasn't the main focus. Also, when we started doing it again we realised it was still important to us, and we've made it work since without compromising the things we can't do for one reason or another. Some of us have had kids and stuff, but we've managed to fit it in. And I like it. We still put a lot of effort into doing it, whereas towards the end first time around we weren't putting as much effort in and it became a little stale.
Matt Lukin quit the band soon after your fifth album Tomorrow Hits Today and hasn't been involved in music since. Was there ever a point where you thought about quitting and turning your backs on music too?
MA: Matt did actually play with The Sonics in his pants once after quitting the band! Because we'd played with The Sonics before, and none of us were in town, they saw him at their show and introduced him as Matt from Mudhoney to the crowd. I don't think they realised he was no longer in the band at that point!
ST: The ironic thing is, when it stopped being our job we ended up making more music.
MA: It gave us more freedom. We were never ones to try and change with the times anyway. I remember when David Bowie tried to do jungle and alienated most of his audience in the process; we couldn't see the point in doing anything like that. Instead, we decided to make music we believed would appeal to our fans. And also music we liked to play and listen to as well. After all, we helped invent that sound.
It goes back to what we were saying earlier in that your sound has evolved, consciously or otherwise.
ST: We all have pretty diverse record collections.
MA: We've never been one trick ponies.
ST: We have at least three tricks!
MA: But like Steve was saying, we all have pretty diverse musical tastes, and there are places where they intersect.
ST: We've also been playing together for 28 years, Mark and I even longer than that.
MA: Guy - although he didn't know it - came from a similar sort of scene to us only starting in Perth at the same time.
Do you think the scene started to fracture a little when Soundgarden, Nirvana, and yourselves all got signed to major labels?
MA: We were all on tour a lot; we weren't sitting around the same dive bar talking about music together so much anymore. I remember when we were in town and going to shows and not really recognising anyone, which was odd because for the eight years previous to that we'd see the same people at the same shows every week.
ST: We wouldn't necessarily know their names but we'd recognise their faces.
MA: A lot of the venues that had sprung up disappeared or changed owners and became something else. The most important venues probably only lasted about a year and a half or two years. Places like The Metropolis.
ST: I guess time changes things too. As you get older, you don't have as much. People settle down a little bit. So I think that's part of the story too.
MA: There was a regular core of about 200 people - not always at every show - that we used to see out and about. And I think when the audience got broader they just fell into something else or left. It wasn't their cool thing any more. I guess to them it got watered down, particularly when people from fraternities started showing up.
ST: Which I guess on a lesser scale would have been like during the hardcore punk days when we showed up. Some of the older, artier punks just stopped going to shows. The music changed and became a little harder so we lost interest too. Things evolve, people change.
Did you notice the demographic of your audience change when you were signed to a major label?
MA: Not really. We didn't break through enough to the point where the real disgusting element of humanity showed up at our shows, you know what I mean?
ST: I think if people stick around long enough you tend to notice these things. If anything, our fanbase became more normal, more mainstream for a while. I never expected them to be long term fans, but some of them ended up staying and are still there now. It did get bigger; all of a sudden we were playing to a thousand people, which kind of felt weird.
Did you feel under any undue pressure on a major having to write a hit record?
MA: We didn't feel under any pressure at all.
ST: They left us alone. Our A&R guy was great. But at the same time, it did feel like they wanted us to deliver something we couldn't do.
MA: Warner Brothers had a reputation of being a very honest and friendly label, and we saw the last of those years while we were there. I didn't want to do the last record we did with Warners, I wanted to leave and just do it ourselves. It wouldn't have been the same record if that had happened, and if we hadn't spent so much money on it.
ST: That ended up being our most expensive record, but they didn't promote it at all. I had a small record label at the time - this was 1998, when no one gave a crap about vinyl, and I sold over 4000 copies. On vinyl. And they told us it didn't even sell 10,000 CDs! It was ridiculous; I could have easily sold twice that amount, but they didn't do anything with it. Maybe we were the last tax write off or something? I don't know what they were trying to do.
Do you think the UK media had pretty much dismissed the band as being irrelevant by this point?
ST: Definitely. The shows got really small for a while, but then it just came back on its own.
MA: The last time we came to the UK during before that record was probably in 1995, and then we played Highbury Garage in 1998. Before that, we'd done an East Coast tour with Pearl Jam, so I guess the London show was a way of testing our toes in the water to see what things were like over here. And the show was small, but it was packed. There was no mention in the press about the show either before or after. It felt like we were some kind of hangover. Definitely yesterday's news.
ST: We got a couple of good reviews over here for My Brother The Cow when it came out in 1995, but some were very dismissive. I can understand the backlash in a certain way; Kurt Cobain's death was a huge hit, a huge trauma. I don't think it's any coincidence that the next popular bands from Seattle were The Presidents Of The USA and Harvey Danger, both of whom made really sunshine pop records. They're both fine bands, but also polar opposites to the scene we came from.
MA: Some terrible shit happened with grunge, like Layne Staley's story. Mark Lanegan was in a bad way at that time as well. It was a dark period.
It's been three years since your last album Vanishing Point came out. Are there any plans to release a new one?
ST: Yes. We were hoping to have it written already. It's not. We keep getting delayed.
MA: We'd hoped to have it ready when we came over to Europe, but then all the planning and practicing for the Monkeywrench show took a good three months. Steve lives in Portland which is three hours away, so every time he comes to practice, that makes it a six-hour round trip, which means he effectively loses a day. Realistically, he could only do that once a week and we needed to get Monkeywrench together.
ST: It had been a long time since we did that. About fifteen years or so.
MA: So for us to prepare all that for the All Tomorrow's Parties show which never happened was a waste of three months because we didn't plan any other shows around that time. Initially, that was the time we'd set aside for writing new material and it got hijacked. And it's being hijacked again because we're in Australia during October and November. Martin Bland, who plays drums in Monkeywrench, is originally from Adelaide and said he wanted to play there again before he died. Not that he's planning on dying any time soon, but he hasn't played there in twenty years. And Tim Kerr, the other guitarist in Monkeywrench, has never even been to Australia before, so we're going to play some shows in Australia.
Will there be any new Monkeywrench material?
MA: No, I don't think so.
ST: There's no plans for that right now. I'd like to get a Mudhoney record together more than a Monkeywrench one at this moment in time.
Are there any new Mudhoney songs ready? Will any feature on this tour?
MA: We have four songs that are complete but we don't know them well enough to play live yet.
ST: We have tonnes of riffs and ideas.
MA: But we haven't worked on them since February.
Have you set yourselves a rough timescale, or is it on the back burner until all the live shows are finished?
ST: We did have, but we lost that. It'll get done when it gets done. Realistically, it's looking like next year now.
You're on tour in various parts of the world for the rest of the year.
MA: We get back from this European tour on 8th August or something like that. Then we go down to California and Las Vegas for a couple of shows and I'm staying an extra week after.
ST: I'm driving down with my son for a couple of days to go skateboarding.
MA: Whereas I intend to go surfing in warmer water!
Do you feel that your legacy has influenced the music scene in Seattle? Even some of the newer bands on Sub Pop like Pissed Jeans or So Pitted for example?
ST: I haven't heard So Pitted so I should probably check them out.
MA: I don't know. Maybe we're just another link in the chain? Our influences are obvious and people will always be drawn to that stuff.
ST: I feel like a big brother with Pissed Jeans. We love playing with them and vice versa.
MA: There's no band that makes me laugh out loud as much as Pissed Jeans! They're so fun and funny and fucked up. Heavy and weird and stupid. I find myself watching them and going what the fuck..?!!? That's the highest compliment I can give a band. They're amazing.
Are there any new bands you'd recommend to Drowned In Sound and its readers?
ST: There's this great punk band called Life Murder. They've only put out a couple of seven-inch singles which are awesome. They're worth checking out.
MA: I saw Heron Oblivion a couple of weeks ago and they were amazing. They're on Sub Pop too. It's two of the guys from Comets On Fire, and they have this incredible drummer Meg Baird that sings as well. She has a crystal clear voice and they make this really crazy noise together. The record's pretty good, but live they're something else.
What advice would you give to new bands just starting out?
MA: I think the easiest piece of advice would be: "Don't give a shit!"
ST: Play with your friends and don't make plans. Spinal Tap gave the best advice: Have a good time, all the time!
For more information on Mudhoney visit their official website.
Photo by Shaun Gordon