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Mark Arm of Mudhoney

They weren't "radio friendly unit shifters" like some other Seattle acts, but Mudhoney gave us many of grunge's all-time classics - "Touch Me, I'm Sick," "Sweet Young Thing Ain't Sweet No More," and "In and Out of Grace" among them - which left a roadmap for others to follow.

Best known for their gnarly guitar tones - created through used guitars and obscure stomp boxes - Mark Arm's unmistakable vocals and biting lyrics are front and center in the Mudhoney sound. Signed to Sub Pop Records in 1988, the band - Mark, guitarist Steve Turner, drummer Dan Peters and bass player Matt Lukin (later replaced by Guy Maddison) - released their debut album Superfuzz Bigmuff, named after two kinds of distortion pedals, that same year. After a stint with Reprise Records in the mid-'90s, Mudhoney returned to Sub Pop, where their ninth studio album, Vanishing Point, was released in 2013.

Having interviewed Arm several times over the years (including several lengthy chats for my 2009 book, Grunge is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music), I can confirm that the Mudhoney front man knows his rock history, and has some unique insights on the grunge movement he was a part of.

In this chat, Arm talks about writing some of those grunge anthems, discusses the new Mudhoney documentary I'm Now, and lets us in on the pros and cons of '80s hair metal.

Greg Prato (Songfacts): We should start by discussing the new Mudhoney album, Vanishing Point.

Mark Arm: Well, we wanted to get going on a new record, but with our limited amount of time, it seems like if we're even together to practice, it's either working on something new or getting stuff together for tour. It just seemed like we kept getting something a little bit down of new shit, but then we would have to rehearse for an upcoming tour. So we never really got any momentum going.

We really started compiling riffs and song ideas and recording them in our practice space in 2011. We amassed a whole bunch of ideas, like over 30. And that's the easy part, coming up with cool music that we like. And then I just sift through them all and try to come up with words. [Laughs] Which, I'm very happy with the way that all turned out.

But once the wheels are turning, it seems like some of the lyrics come quickly and easily. But just getting the thing moving in my head for whatever reason, like switching gears, the first couple, it was a pain to process.

Songfacts: I also saw the new Mudhoney documentary DVD, I'm Now, which is great. What made the band decide to do a documentary at this point?

Tad was the name of a band... and is also a man. One of grunge's more underrated acts, Tad was led by larger-than-life growler/guitarist Tad Doyle, who penned some of the heaviest music to ever come from the genre. The band seemed destined for greatness - on the strength of a co-headlining European tour with Nirvana, and the buzz from such early recordings as God's Balls and 8-Way Santa. However, record company snafus and just plain bad luck prevented Tad from breaking through, resulting in their split in 1999.
Mark: We didn't decide to. The filmmakers, Ryan Short and Adam Pease, approached us. They did a documentary on Tad [Busted Circuits and Ringing Ears], and I was in that one. So they came up with the idea of doing one on us. And at first we were like, "Are you sure you want to do this on us?" The usual band documentary trajectory is a Behind the Music sort of thing. And we don't really have that kind of inner band tension and turmoil and difficulty. We're still together and we're happy. Where's the story? But I think they did a good job.

Songfacts: There's an interesting story in the documentary about how back in the '90s, Mudhoney was asked to contribute to movie soundtracks, and what the band would do is record cheaply and just pocket the rest of the money.

Mark: Yeah. We've always recorded pretty cheaply. Even when we were on a major label, we would have a recording budget of, I don't know, $120,000 or more. And we would record for $20 or $30,000, which is much more than we record for nowadays, and then just keep the rest. We got to keep the back end.

We got asked to do a couple of songs for a couple of movies, like Singles and With Honors. They would give us like $20,000 to record one song. And we were just like, "What? This is crazy!" But then you realize your average major label at the time, it was like a $200,000 record. That was probably on the cheap side for some of the bands that were on the soundtracks. So if a record has 10 songs, and you record it for $200,000, one song is $20,000, right?

So we recorded the Singles soundtrack song ["Overblown"] for about $164, and just kept the rest of the money. We did a similar thing with virtually every soundtrack song, unless it was a song that we'd already recorded.

Songfacts: Looking back, how would you say your songwriting has changed over the years?

Mark: Oh crap, not incredibly. A song usually starts with a killer riff and goes from there. And then we try to arrange it. I think one of the big things that really has helped us out in the later years is having a little recording device. We've had that since the mid-'90s. But early on, whether it was a four track cassette recorder or a little digital thing that we have now, we could put ideas down and revisit them, instead of trying to remember what we did last week, which was how it worked in the early days.

And what we've found works for us is usually the first idea we come up with. If someone brings in a riff and then the rest of the band has to try to figure out what to do with it, usually the initial gut reaction, the first thing that you come up with, tends to be the best thing. You can walk around the block and end up at the same place and go, "Oh, man, that first idea was definitely the best." That's how we end up recording usually, too. We don't dwell on stuff and try to make things perfect or over-think anything. That just ends up wasting a lot of time in the studio and more often than not getting crappy results.

I watched that Metallica documentary, Some Kind of Monster, for the second time the other night. Some friends of mine came over, they hadn't seen it before. I just can't even imagine a process of making a record [St. Anger] like that. For one thing, it doesn't seem fun at all.

Songfacts: It seems like that's something a lot of people have forgotten. That's what I liked so much about the early '90s with bands like Mudhoney and Nirvana. It was the sound of a real band in a room. Now, for some reason, people have completely forgotten that, which I really don't understand why.

Mark: You're talking about pop bands?

Songfacts: Yeah. Stuff on the radio.

Mark: I have no idea about any of that stuff, really. I've ignored that stuff for the most part, except the occasional thing that you just can't help but hear everywhere. But that kind of music has never really interested me since I was a kid listening to Top 40 radio.

Songfacts: Sometimes on Sirius I'll listen to '70s music, and I don't know if it's just me, but '70s pop I think was just so much better than the pop now. Because back then it was real people playing and there were more of the artists writing their own songs. And it was real singing - no Auto-Tune.

Mark: But, you know, some of those real people playing were real people playing "Muskrat Love."

Songfacts: Who are your favorite songwriters?

Mark: I don't usually think in terms of just a songwriter. I usually think in terms of bands and I'm not quite sure how the inner workings of a band works. But I guess in terms of actual song crafting people, I would say Townes Van Zandt is one of my favorites. Neil Young. But I probably listen to Discharge more than either of those guys. I don't know what the song craft involved with [1982 Discharge album] Hear Nothing, See Nothing, Say Nothing is. There's definitely a weirdness and a uniqueness to that record. It's the weird haiku lyrics over this pounding monster-sounding music.

Songfacts: And while we're on the topic of songwriting, let's discuss a few classic Mudhoney songs. Let's start with "Touch Me, I'm Sick."

Mark: The main riff of that song could be traced back to the Yardbirds' "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago" - that riff also got appropriated by The Stooges in "I'm Sick of You." There was a local band called the Nights and Days, and I remember Steve [Turner] was saying that that main riff was kind of like this song that they had. I mean, the roots of that go back a ways. I remember before we actually got together as a band, Steve and I got together in my apartment a couple of times and he'd play his Mustang and I'd play my Hagstrom without being plugged in, and try to show each other riffs and stuff, so we had something ready to go when we did get together with Dan [Peters] for the first time, and then later on when Matt [Lukin] joined up.

As far as the lyrics go, the line, "Touch me, I'm sick" really struck me as being a funny thing to say, and we built verses around that.

Songfacts: And what about "In and Out of Grace"?

Mark: "In and Out of Grace," the main riff of that came from Matt. And then either Steve or I - I'm not sure who - floated the idea of throwing in a bass and drum break, with a crazy double guitar solo, like something off the first Blue Cheer record [Vincebus Eruptum].

When a rock genre takes hold, a gaggle of copycat acts won't be far behind, along with massive media coverage and commercial co-opting. Grunge was no different. Once the first wave of grunge acts hit big, a movie set in Seattle (not the one with Tom Hanks) was inevitable.

Cameron Crowe's Singles was filmed before Nevermind broke big but released into the Seattle saturation of 1992. Bands that obviously studied their Nirvana records (Bush, Silverchair) took off, as did grunge fashion, which inflated the prices of flannel shirts and corduroy jackets. In 1993, Time magazine made grunge (and the perceived angry young men who listened to it) their cover story. The poster boy was Eddie Vedder, the headline: "All The Rage."

Songfacts: Before, we talked about the Singles soundtrack. What about the song "Overblown"?

Mark: Well, we knew this thing was going to go on the soundtrack for Singles, which was a movie about - as far as we knew at that time - the Seattle scene. Which it really wasn't, that was just the backdrop. The attention on Seattle was pretty big, I thought, a couple of years before all these bands blew up. But that was more on an underground sort of fanzine level. Melody Maker and papers like that were talking about it in '89 or whatever. Then when everything blew up really big, some of the bands actually got hugely popular. And then, all of a sudden, it moved from music magazines to Time magazine. Which was like, "Why are they talking about this?"

So it seemed like the attention wasn't necessarily warranted. And there was a certain amount of frustration in terms of the changes that had happened locally to shows in the '80s. There was a small group of people, maybe a couple hundred, that went to shows and you maybe didn't know everyone, but you knew them by sight. And all of a sudden, you'd go to a show and none of those people were around anymore. All you saw was this new group of people who got turned on to local music by MTV or something. It was really weird.

So it was just a reaction to that. I was trying to keep it funny and light as well. I wasn't really going to move out of town. [Laughs]

Songfacts: And what about the song "Hard-On for War"?

Mark: That was written in the run up to Gulf War II. I think the two best anti-war songs out there are Bob Dylan's "Masters of War" and "Sacrifice" by Flipper. Those two songs say it all in terms of real terms. Like laying out the psychology of the war, the people who drum up war. I mean, you could feel this thing was coming for a year before the invasion happened. There was that drumbeat to war and it was like, "This seems inevitable; I've got to say something about it." So I started to try to get the idea of who are these people that want to go to war so bad, and what would their motivations be? And it seems like the people who are most behind it were older men.

So my idea was: they're in it for the chicks, and they can't get chicks without getting rid of the younger men, and what better way to get rid of the younger generation of men than to send them off to war? It was a horrible thing, but there's humor in even the darkest situations, I think.

Songfacts: I remember George Carlin used to do a standup routine where he would say there's no topic that you can't find some kind of humor in.

Mark: Yeah. You can. But some of it's really tricky. Like Daniel Tosh's rape joke. I think Daniel Tosh is brilliant, but I guess there are a lot of people out there who are less forgiving to comedians than I am.

Songfacts: Two other classic anti-war rock songs that come to mind are "War Pigs" by Black Sabbath and "Fortunate Son" by CCR.

Mark: Those are two good ones, too. I still stand by the Flipper song and the Bob Dylan song being the two best.

Songfacts: Something I don't think I've ever had the opportunity to ask you is what did you think of the book Grunge is Dead that I wrote and that I interviewed you for?

Mark: I thought it was really good.

Songfacts: I appreciate that. That definitely means a lot coming from you, since you're a big part of it. And then something else I'm curious to get your feedback on - for the past, say, five or ten years, all these '80s hair metal bands have become popular again. Do you think there's ever going to come a point where the same thing is going to happen to all the grunge bands of the '90s?

Mark: I don't know. I don't really care. I mean, I'm not quite sure what you're talking about. Like Rock of Love or something like that?

Songfacts: When you watch VH1 Classic, there are all these '80s heavy metal shows and they play blocks of hair metal videos. There are these cruises and festivals with all these '80s hair metal bands.

Mark: Have you ever watched that VH1 eleven part documentary on metal?

Songfacts: No, I didn't.

Mark: There were some poignant parts, especially in the glam metal thing, like George Lynch talking about how he regretted the choices he made. In that documentary they go to these different festivals in Europe. There's sort of a new crop of "power metal," they kept making up weird new genres. Power metal, I guess like Dio and Manowar, and also like German drinking songs, that seems to be more of the European thing. They'll have these giant festivals, and the festivals span the ages. And there are a lot of young people there. Even if, say, an older band like Slayer is playing, there are still a lot of young people that go see Slayer.

But then they talked about touring - like Ratt touring with whatever hair metal band - and it's mostly people in their forties and then maybe a couple of them bring their kids along. What's the drummer for Poison? Ricky...

Songfacts: Rikki Rockett.

Mark: He was saying, "Basically, we're a nostalgia act. We're not writing new songs, we're just playing the old hits and we're playing to people our age." So I think there isn't a huge interest in that kind of shit from younger people. It's just like going to a museum. I'm not necessarily the hugest Slayer fan, but they have their roots more in the underground, and they influenced so many bands who are still going. Whereas I don't think the glam metal bands really influenced a younger generation of bands. There's the occasional thing, like The Darkness or something that comes along, but it's not like a real thing.

I guess there's Steel Panther. But those guys all in that band, they're veterans of those years. They all played in LA Guns or something at one point. They cycled through all these bands. They're just smart enough to have a sense of humor about it, instead of being bitter, like Jani Lane or something. Why do I know so much about these people?

Songfacts: It just struck me one day that there was such a second wave of all of these horrible hair metals bands from the '80s that I was hoping that maybe at some point there will be a wave of bands that I was actually a fan of, so that's what I was hoping about the Seattle bands and grunge bands and all that.

Mark: I don't know. Soundgarden's back and touring. Alice in Chains is back with a new singer.

Songfacts: You guys never stopped.

Mark: We never stopped.

Songfacts: The Melvins.

Mark: The Melvins have never stopped. But it's almost weird that us and The Melvins sort of fit in with that thing. Because we never got beyond a certain level of popularity and didn't aim to, and obviously, neither did The Melvins.

Songfacts: I've always looked at Mudhoney and The Melvins as similar to the Ramones or The Stooges. Both are bands that as the years go on, more and more people discover and realize their contribution and influence on others.

Mark: That would be great. That would be an honorary place to fit into the whole rock canon. I'm not quite sure if we qualify.

March 28, 2013
Greg Prato first spoke with Mark for the book Grunge is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music
Mudhoney's website is mudhoneyonline.com
Info about the I'm Now documentary is at mudhoneymovie.com
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