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It’s not unusual to encounter a musician on premises owned by their record company. What’s somewhat rarer is to be chatting to them during a working day in the label’s warehouse. This is where Kerrang! meets Mark Arm, on a lunch break from the job he’s held down for the past 15 years as Sub Pop’s warehouse manager. It’s a situation which reflects the down-to-earth nature of the man and his band.
Even in a scene which felt like a reaction to the corporate nature of ‘80s rock, Mudhoney were the least starry of grunge’s prime movers. Mark had been in on the genre’s ground zero when he played in Green River with long-term musical partner Steve Turner, drummer Alex Vincent and future Pearl Jam pair Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard. When that band imploded, Mark and Steve recruited drummer Dan Peters and former Melvins bassist Matt Lukin to form Mudhoney. Signed to Sub Pop – the label that would define the Seattle scene of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s – they became grunge’s first big hitters, even bringing Nirvana to the UK for the first time as their support band. Three years before Smells Like Teen Spirit, Mudhoney’s debut single Touch Me I’m Sick was grunge’s first anthem; it would go on to be covered by both Sonic Youth and, preposterously, Take That’s Mark Owen.
As the ’90s wore on and the Seattle sound tended towards heavier vibes and lyrical angst, Mudhoney continued to play music inspired more by psychedelia, punk and ’60s garage rock than metal. Despite spending much of the decade on a major label, they opted out of competing with their arena-filling peers. But the 21st century has found them back on Sub Pop and delivering a series of albums that radiate a newly energised attitude. And by flying under the radar, they’ve survived three decades with only one line-up change and no fatalities, a state of affairs tragically rare amongst their contemporaries.
In person, Mark is engaging company, quick to laugh and meeting statements with which he agrees with an infectious “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!” The caustic wit for which he's known, and has been an ever-present factor in his lyrics, feels much gentler in the flesh...
What was your childhood like?
“It was the typical suburban U.S. upbringing that you’d have in the ’70s, except that my parents were probably two generations older than other parents at the time. And there was a cultural difference with my mother, who had grown up as a Hitler Youth [member] during World War II. I mean, if you were growing up as a kid in Germany in the ’30s, that was what you had to do. She was a classical music buff and thought that any other music was crap. And that included modern classical – like she thought Stravinsky was shit, just disgusting (laughs).”
What first turned you on to music?
“Just the idea of rock’n’roll. It sounded fascinating before I even knew or understood what it was. I remember singing [The Beatles’] ‘She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah’, without ever hearing the song, just having heard it from other kids. Pop music wasn’t allowed in the house, so I’d sneak out to the Volkswagen and listen to Top 40 radio as a young kid. And I would always get more excited by the louder, harder songs.”
So, presumably at some point you came across punk rock…
“I remember watching this TV show that showed these freakish-looking British people with safety pins in their faces. It talked about the way they looked and the gnarly things they did, and at the end they showed a band, which I later realised was The Damned because [singer] Dave Vanian is pretty memorable. I remember listening to that and thinking, ‘This music isn’t that bad!’ But before the band played, I’d been thinking, ‘Man, I hope that shit doesn’t come to the U.S., that shit’s freaky!’”
And it was only a couple of years after seeing that show that you started Mr Epp And The Calculations.
“Mr Epp was sort of a figment of my friend [Jo] Smitty’s imagination. Once we graduated from high school, we decided to actually buy instruments and make noise. Smitty bought an alto sax, and we went halves on a guitar and a tiny amp. It had this little gain button which would make things feed back and we had no idea how to even tune a guitar, but playing that thing I felt like Jimi Hendrix. Except I didn’t know how to play (laughs). But, I would hit it to make noise and think, ‘Fuck, this is magical!’”
What was the club scene in Seattle like back then in the early ’80s?
“For Mr Epp, there were no clubs, it was all rented halls. You’d get together with some other bands and put down, like, a $150 deposit, and hope that the punks who came to the show didn’t destroy the toilets, or steal meat out of the freezer, both of which happened. And of course, we always lost our damage deposits.”
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to look back and see that Green River were one of the first bands to play this new sound, but at the time did it feel like you were spearheading a new sound?
“No. With Green River, I felt like we were doing what a lot of bands were doing around 1984, especially bands that were rooted in hardcore, which was trying to figure out what to do next. And that ran the gamut from The Replacements, who were basically a straight-up rock’n’roll band, to the Butthole Surfers. We felt a kinship with both those bands. It was an amazing time in American rock. It was completely underground. No-one gave a shit, which I think is something that allowed it to flourish. It was weird when, a few years later, both those bands were on major labels.”
Is it true that when Green River supported Public Image Ltd in Seattle you trashed their dressing room?
“(Reluctantly) Yeeeah. (laughs)”
What was the beef?
“It just seemed like there was a bit too much of the rock star crap happening. To us, punk rock was like this anti-rock star, egalitarian thing, and it was weird to find out that someone who you looked up to, John Lydon, was a man who insisted on certain creature comforts, and was maybe somewhat pompous. But one thing was cool, [guitarist] John McGeoch was in the band, and I got to tell him I loved his work with Magazine and Siouxsie And The Banshees. He was sweet, and totally taken aback that some kid in a farflung place had any idea who he was. So, it wasn’t all terrible.”
The two lasting outfits that came out of Green River were Mudhoney and Pearl Jam, who are very different beasts. Does that explain why that band couldn’t work out in the long run?
“Yeah, I think if you take it back to the original split and look at Mother Love Bone and Mudhoney, that’s the starker contrast in a way. There are songs which have great rock riffs, and then I’m just shitting darkness over the top of it (laughs). It’s almost inappropriate. I can see why Jeff and Stone and [second drummer] Bruce [Fairweather] would want to work with [late Mother Love Bone singer] Andy Wood instead of me. It’s clear now. At the time it wasn’t.”
When Mudhoney started, you got a lot of attention in the British music press, and legendary radio DJ John Peel started playing your records. Why do you think the UK got into it so quickly?
“At the time, a lot of British independent stuff was gutless twee pop. There were some exceptions of course, most notably Spacemen 3, but I remember working at a college radio station, and there were so many Anglophiles who would play this stuff that I thought was dreck, and I thought, ‘There’s so much great stuff happening in the American underground, why are you playing this?’ It was sub-Smiths stuff. We were trying to kick the doors down for rock’n’roll, in particular for gnarly, ‘60s/’70s- influenced, simple and direct forms of it. We were obviously not a prog band or anything like that.”
When grunge became a thing, hair metal bands claimed that Nirvana, yourselves and the others ruined their careers. How did you feel about that?
“(Laughs for some time) Well, Mudhoney didn’t knock anybody off the charts. They were all safe. But it was a high time. A lot of that stuff was weak-ass shit. It didn’t affect the heavier bands like Metallica – The Black Album came out and was huge. It was just the wimpy, poodle-hair bands. And Guns N’ Roses were still huge. In a way they were the step between Poison and Nirvana. They had a grittier approach, but they still had some of that Hollywood swagger, and I think it paved the way for a band like Nirvana to be listened to with open ears by a large segment of the radio population.”
When grunge got so big that you were on the soundtrack of the 1992 movie Singles singing, ‘It’s all over and done’. Is that how you felt?
“Even in 1989 when we first came to the UK, we thought the hype about Seattle was excessive. You could put the words ‘Seattle’ or ‘Sub Pop’ on a poster and that would draw people and make a difference. That probably meant some really good bands who weren’t from the city or that scene fell through the cracks. But I guess that’s marketing.”
At the end of the ’90s, you’d left Reprise Records and Matt had left the band. Did it feel like things were winding down for Mudhoney at that point?
“It kind of did in a way, yeah. We didn’t even do a European tour off [1998 album] Tomorrow Hit Today. We played a show at The Garage in London and there was no press or anything, and it was in that era when rock’n’roll was apparently dead, for like, the billionth time. And I could see how people might want to turn their backs on grunge, because it was a depressing turn of events that led to Kurt Cobain’s death, and later [Alice In Chains’] Layne Staley’s death. Like, ‘If this is the end result, I don’t want any part of it.’ Luckily, I don’t think we’ve ever taken anything that seriously, including life itself. Like, if you look at Alice In Chains lyrics, a lot of them are actually about being a drug addict. Like, ‘Fuck, dude, it’s almost like you’re willing yourself to be this thing.’ Like, ‘That’s all there is to your life? That’s fucking sad.’ I mean, I had some songs that alluded to it too, but it wasn’t something that I ever wanted to be a consuming and defining thing in my life.
“Anyway, so we played The Garage in London and there seemed to be very little interest. The weird thing is, that was the very first show where we saw the mini-Cobains: kids who dressed like Kurt Cobain, with similar looking jumpers and the same haircut. I think that’s dissipated now, but for years there were always a couple of sad Cobains in the audience – people who thought the whole thing about him was that, (adopts downbeat tone) ‘He was a depressed guy, and high school’s tough for me.’ But honestly, more often than not, when I hung out with Kurt, he was a really funny guy and not just someone who would mope around.”
It seemed from the other side of the Atlantic, reading about Nirvana, even after Nevermind first came out, they could be fun and goofy…
“Yeah, like their appearance on Headbangers Ball when Kurt showed up in a ballgown. It wasn’t all about being mopey and depressed.”
Let’s get back to something positive. Shortly after Matt left, you found yourselves without a record deal, Guy Maddison joined the band on bass, then you went back to Sub Pop and put out 2002 album Since We’ve Become Translucent. Did that feel like a new beginning?
“Oh yeah, we had the wind in our sails then, and I think we all got a perverse pleasure out of starting the record with Baby, Can You Dig The Light?, which was basically an homage to Pink Floyd’s [1972 documentary] Live At Pompeii.”
And you covered Bob Dylan’s Masters Of War around the time of the first Gulf War. What inspired that?
“Er... the run-up to the Gulf War! But Mr Epp was actually kind of political. We had songs about the moral majority, and cops, although we had no experience of police brutality. I was pretty young, and inspired by Franz Kafka’s The Trial, although I’d never experienced the bureaucratic machinations of the legal system.”
In Michael Azerrad’s 2001 book Our Band Could Be Your Life, you approvingly quote Steve Turner as saying that Mudhoney would only be remembered as a footnote. Do you still think that’s the case?
“I don’t know. Maybe we’re just a very large footnote? It doesn’t matter. Guy is on a mission to get a GRAMMY, and I’m not sure how that’s going to work, but he keeps bringing it up. And maybe if we get one, the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame would be next. We’re not holding our breath, but we’re on the campaign.”
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