Marching To Superfuzz: Mudhoney Interviewed

Grunge forefathers Mudhoney recently released a DVD of their seminal 1988 show in Berlin, which saw them debuting some of their now-classic early material; Paul Tucker talked to the band's Mark Arm about the band then and now

Like most young bands, Mudhoney came together from various other local groups to record some songs, play a few gigs and see what might happen – if anything at all. By October 1988, the band had released only one single (‘only’ perhaps being an understated word to associate with a song like ‘Touch Me I’m Sick’) and played just the one show outside of Seattle. And then, out of the blue, came the call: they were going to West Berlin.

There was no tour, there were no other European dates at all in fact, just one show that would see the band flown in to the then-isolated city, where they would perform at the Independence Days festival. At some point amid four nights of drinking and, in the words of guitarist Steve Turner, of acting “like fools”, the band stepped onstage at the city’s Metropol theatre and played some songs.

After Berlin everything that would grow out of the Seattle scene over the next few years kicked into motion. Returning home from Berlin, Mudhoney toured the US with Sonic Youth before coming back to Europe for a full tour the following year. At the same time, bands that their Seattle friends had started began to attract attention as well. The rest of it – the early press coverage, the rise of grunge as a subculture, its explosion into a cultural phenomenon and finally its transformation into a bloated cash cow, stumbling sluggishly towards its last breath – has been recounted so many times before that it doesn’t need repeating in detail here. But before any of that was even a vague possibility, Mark Arm – with the word ‘Loser’ emblazoned on his t-shirt in big, black lettering – stood on a stage in West Berlin shouting “PULL DOWN YOUR PANTS IF YOU LIKE US!” at a crowd of baffled (and non-committal) German rock fans. And that, in a way, was more what ‘grunge’ was about than most of what followed.

These days the Mudhoney frontman doubles as the warehouse manager at Sub Pop, part-fulfilling the tongue-in-cheek wish made in an old interview that he could one day work at the label after his band broke up (which they of course haven’t done). Before I speak to Arm, I somewhat naively imagine him filling a sort of honorary position at Sub Pop, the veteran-pro kept about the place. The reality – obviously – is more mundane. “It’s good, they understand I need to take off for a while to go on tour”, Arm tells me, which is all there really seems to say on the matter. Instead of focusing on Arm’s day job, we talk about the Berlin show, footage of which features on a DVD released this month, Mudhoney: Live In Berlin, 1988, a DVD that should be, but isn’t, called Pull Down Your Pants If You Like Us.

Do you remember how the Berlin gig came about in the first place?

Mark Arm: Not super clearly, I just remember it being very odd. Green River had a couple of failed attempts at touring in the States, and Mudhoney had played only in the Northwest at that point – we’d played in Seattle and I think one show in Portland. So to be flown to Berlin seemed really absurd to us, but it’s not like we were gonna turn that down.

I think we were there for four days and never adjusted to the time difference. We just stayed up all night and slept all day and Berlin was the kind of place at the time where there would be some place open all night. Berlin at the time was like a kind of island city. It was still in East Germany and kind of had its own set of rules. It was pretty wild and super fun and we drank a whole lot of beer.

Do you remember much about the gig itself?

MA: Well, my memory of it is really from watching the DVD at this point. Like “Oh, I humped a monitor! That’s funny!”

It’s quite a significant release with regards to the proximity to everything that followed. I wondered if it’s quite refreshing watching it as a pure document of yourselves pre-everything else that happened over the next few years?

MA: I don’t know if it was refreshing, it was just kind of funny, you know, we’ve been going quite some time. At this point I’m fifty fucking years old, I can’t quite move the same, you know? It’s like “oh wow, that’s a strong young lad!”

As well as the DVD, the band have also recently been the subject of a documentary [Adam Pease and Ryan Short’s I’m Now, which screened in the US earlier this year]. How do you feel about the nostalgia that surrounds such releases?

MA: Well I think with any band that’s been as active for as long as we have there will be questions about the early days and curiosity about it, and you can’t blame people for that. I was the same way when I met Iggy Pop for the first time, I was just unloading a barrage of questions about The Stooges on him. Hopefully people aren’t only interested in what we did 25 years ago, they hopefully dig what we keep doing. But there’s nothing we can do about that, all that we can do is put stuff out there. After you’ve done that, you just wash your hands and walk away.

You say you can’t worry about how your music is received; in fact you’ve managed to keep a fairly sustained level of interest in the band throughout the past twenty five years.

MA: There was certainly a period where interest waned. The late 90’s were fairly brutal. In ’95 we played Reading, and in the programme for the festival we were the only band that got a shitty preview, something like “the time has passed for these guys, I’m not even sure why they’re here”. It’s like “fuck it, dude, you booked us!” But then we didn’t go to the UK, or even Europe really, at all [after September 1995, the band stayed away from Europe for the best part of three years]. Then we came out to the Garage in London in ’98 and there was no press coverage, but the show had sold out. There was this whole group of kids that looked like Kurt Cobain there, and it was like “this is weird”, you know? Clearly for some people it was time to move on, but for other people, it was trying to latch onto something they’d maybe missed. But then, when did we came back again? I think it was 2002 or 2003. From that point on it’s been great.

I read an interview from around 1995 where you said that you sensed people were angry with you because you were still there.

MA: [laughs] That was Steve’s line. People invested a lot in this idea that [grunge] was this alternative, underground music or whatever that came up organically and knocked out what people perceived as being manufactured music. But then, I mean what about Michael Jackson? He’s seen as manufactured, but he came up through Motown. It’s all just a matter of perception. Motley Crue were a gross hair metal band, but their first record’s pretty good and when they put that out they were just a bunch scrappy kids – except for Mick Mars, who was probably a hundred years old even then.

I was thinking actually that the whole thing does feel as if it’s gone full circle. It seems to be that people are able to look back on it now with a bit more perspective.

MA: Too much fuckin’ perspective, as they say in Spinal Tap!

What’s your motivation now, when you come to start an album, is it the same as it was when you started the recording process 20 or 25 years ago?

MA: I don’t know if it’s exactly the same. I do it because I love playing with the guys in the band. We live in our own little weird world and we get to keep doing it somehow. First and foremost it’s just to put out music that we like. When the band started, we were trying to make music that we didn’t really hear enough, stuff that was influenced by The Stooges and The Wipers and Blue Cheer and Captain Beefheart, all these bands that were sort of lost by time at that point. We were trying to take those influences and put them into our own context. Although we probably weren’t thinking that clearly at the time; we were just fuelled by beer and doing what felt instinctive.

I read something that Roy Wilkinson wrote about Mudhoney in 1989. He said that you “teeter between a parody of barbarian musical codes and a celebration of primal rock”. It seems to me that there’s still no one that sounds quite like Mudhoney, even though what you do isn’t necessarily… well, it’s maybe not the most thought-out thing?

MA: It may not be good, but it still sounds like us, is that what you’re saying? [laughs]

No! I think that word primal is key to it.

MA: Yeah, I mean there’s a certain amount of thought that goes into stuff, but that was all thought a long time ago and when we write songs nowadays we just sort of bounce off each other. I can’t really even explain it, I think the more you explain it, the more you kill it. You’d hope that as time gets on, it gets even more natural, rather than the first time that four guys get in a room and play together.

But the fact that you still want to get in that room together…

MA: Oh yeah. Some people play poker, we just like to get together and make noise.

You and Steve agreed in an interview back in 1989 that the life cycle of a good band is three years. How does that sound now?

MA: I think we were kind of looking at things from a punk rock perspective. With a lot of American punk rock and hardcore there would be bands that would be good for a while and then they would get signed to a major label, like Hüsker Dü or The Replacements and then they would just put out these really watered-down records. That seemed to happen even faster in the mid ‘80s with British bands. I remember really enjoying the first couple of Crazyhead and Folk Devils 7”s and then, when they produced their first LP’s, they were just over-produced… shit. It’s like, “these guys don’t even know what’s good about themselves”. By the time they’d started I was already twenty-six, so I was very conscious not to lose sight of that. At least, that’s what I thought made us good. But clearly the majority of the population the world over disagrees with that [laughs].

Do you still actively hunt for new music?

MA: Not anything like in the way that I used to 25 years ago. I can’t be that reckless with my money anymore. My friends will put me onto stuff and some of it I think is cooler than others. I don’t go out to shows very much either at this point – it just feels like going to work without the benefit of playing. And I get really discouraged by watching a band that I don’t like. A mediocre band is so appalling to me and I’ve seen so many mediocre bands over the years that I just can’t fucking stand to see one more. [Sometimes] I’ll miss something that I’m really into. Like I missed Swans because my wife and I were going to the coast to surf that weekend. I think that new Swans record is fucking phenomenal, but I actually think at this point I would get more enjoyment sitting out off the Washington coastline.

Our conversation at this point turns back to the Berlin show in 1988, just before the point when the world’s attention would begin to be drawn to what was going on in the Seattle music scene. For Arm, the whole thing was as surprising as being jetted off unexpectedly for that gig in Berlin.

MA: Seattle at that point was Nowheresville, a lot of bands didn’t bother coming here. Sometimes people would end up here just because it was the stop between San Francisco and Vancouver. Some bands would go from Minneapolis down to San Francisco, they wouldn’t come here. So there was a long time of me and my friends just doing what we wanted to do, despite what was going on in the rest of the world and mainly to entertain ourselves and each other. So when things actually started getting bigger and a weird opportunity like going to Berlin came up, it was like “this is really, really strange, this is not something I ever conceived of”. I remember when the band first started, just saying “I just want to go tour Europe once”, you know?

You’ve got to be pretty happy with how things have turned out?

MA: Oh yeah, it’s kind of remarkable, who would have thought? We certainly didn’t think that at the beginning. We [just] wanted to put out a 7” to document the fact that this band existed. And we knew that Bruce [Pavitt] and Jonathan [Poneman] who were just starting Sub Pop and had worked with Green River. And we knew Tom Hazelmyer, who was starting up Amphetamine Reptile, they put out a couple of Thrown Ups singles at that point and that was it. We didn’t think very far into the future, we didn’t have any grand plans of world domination or anything like that.

I suppose if you’re in a band that does have grand plans for world domination you’re probably in trouble aren’t you?

MA: Well, you’re probably an insane person.

Mudhoney Live: Berlin, 1988 is available now on K7.

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