Mudhoney circa 2018 (left to right): Vocalist/guitarist Mark Arm, drummer Dan Peters,
guitarist Steve Turner, and bassist Guy Maddison. Photo by Emily Rieman
“We’re not exactly, like, GIT kind of guitar players.”
The man is Mark Arm. The question he’s answering: How is it that, over the course of his and co-guitarist Steve Turner’s 30 years in legendary Seattle garage-rock revivalist outfit Mudhoney, they’ve been interviewed by a guitar publication exactly once … 27 years ago?
Think about that. This is a band that didn’t just help lay the groundwork for the Pacific Northwest’s “grunge” scene as it shared bills both stateside and abroad with movement heavyweights like Soundgarden, Nirvana, and Tad. No, this is a quartet that the founder of the now-iconic Sub Pop label, Bruce Pavitt—who signed Mudhoney in 1988, as well as all of the aforementioned bands—touted as the label’s “flagship” band. In a 2012 interview with Paper, Pavitt even admitted that, before Nirvana became a household name, Cobain and company were like Mudhoney’s “little brother.” Asked what he thought the first time he saw frontman Arm, Turner, drummer Dan Peters, and original bassist Matt Lukin play one of their notoriously ferocious live shows, Pavitt replied, “I thought they were one of the greatest bands in the history of rock ’n’ roll!”
And yet, when PG dials up Arm and Turner to talk about Digital Garbage, Mudhoney’s 10th LP since their explosive ’88 debut EP, Superfuzz Bigmuff—an album that literally wears its gear proclivities on its sleeve—neither seems to hold a grudge about the three-decade snub. While the former briefly quips about the contrast between the Mudhoney 6-string way and those at the ’80s shred temple formerly known as Guitar Institute of Technology (today’s Musicians Institute), the latter hardly seems to have noticed.
But anyone who knows Mudhoney knows that’s simply their way. They’ve weathered 30 years in a messy business without any breakups or artistically dubious reunions precisely because they don’t give a shit, much less two, what anyone thinks. And that’s not because they’re dicks—although Arm in particular is known for silly antics (in the between-song banter on live tracks from the deluxe edition of Superfuzz, for example, he bids Berliners “howdy,” mimics JFK’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” line, and tells the crowd to “pull down your pants if you like us”). The simple fact is they’re just a bunch of low-key, practical friends having a good time doing what they love. They know what they like, and that’s what they do. Hell, even when they’re being complimented for the huge influence their raging Mustangs and Hagstroms have had for the last 30 years, they’ll demure with some anecdote about how, when people toss around the L word—“legends”—it’s merely code for “not dead yet.”
Even so, a closer look at both Mudhoney’s music and the things they say and do reveals a lot more nuance and, yes, growth. The passing years and fads have, thankfully, never inspired embarrassing stylistic jumps like the ones that cause Arm to wince on behalf of former heroes Aerosmith. “Fuck—‘Janie’s Got a Gun’ … Armageddon [“I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” recorded for the 1998 Michael Bay movie]?! I’m glad they’re all still alive, but if they’d just kind of broken up when they originally fell apart, it would’ve been much better,” Arm says. But Turner, who now resides in Portland, and Arm, also aren’t interested in putting out the same album over and over again. As their catalog of 10 LPs, five EPs, and six live albums attests, Mudhoney has evolved the way a stable, well-adjusted friend might grow over time: New experiences, knowledge, and circumstances leave their inevitable marks, yet they never succumb to insecurity and lose what made you love them in the first place.
And, frankly, that’s because, well, the guys are great friends. Their time together doesn’t just go back to ’88. Turner and Arm have been pals since the end of high school, when they played together in a band called Mr. Epp and the Calculations. Two years after that, in 1984, they formed Green River with guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament, both of whom would go on to worldwide fame in Pearl Jam. And even though Lukin (who, prior to joining Mudhoney, co-founded Melvins with Buzz Osborne in 1983) eventually left in 2001, replacement bassist Guy Maddison has been aboard going on 18 years now.
2018's Digital Garbage showcases Mark Arm's wickedly sharp tongue that has been wielded not just for laughs but also to draw blood on some pretty heavy social and political issues.
Arm, Turner, Peters, and Maddison, also take time out for other friends and projects without letting it bug each other. And as they’ve matured in years, the subject matter of Mudhoney songs has gotten more thoughtful, too. Arm’s penchant for a good time remains, but as the 21st century has progressed, his wickedly sharp tongue has been wielded not just for laughs but also to draw blood on some pretty heavy social and political issues—as evidenced by the 11 unflinching tracks on Digital Garbage.
Here, Arm and Turner discuss a host of subjects, from how their latest effort was scrapped and overhauled after the events of November 8, 2016, to how Arm, 56, keeps his voice sounding like it did 30 years ago, and whether, in the age of boutique fuzzes, Super-Fuzzes and Big Muffs still rate No. 1.
Let’s start off talking about the new album: Between the title, Digital Garbage, and song names like “Next Mass Extinction,” “Prosperity Gospel,” “21st Century Pharisees,” and “Kill Yourself Live,” is it fair to say it was more motivated by the state of the world than some past efforts?
Mark Arm: You know, what’s going on in the world has always been in the background, but I think the situation became so acute that I just couldn’t write about girls and cars or whatever [laughs]. I grew up in punk rock, and hardcore in particular, and some of my favorite bands at the time were super political—like Crass, Discharge, the Dead Kennedys, and Really Red. For a while there I thought, oh, we don’t need to play “F.D.K. (Fearless Doctor Killers)” [from the 1995 album, My Brother the Cow] anymore, because you don’t really hear about abortion clinic bombings. It kind of comes and goes in waves.
Politically, things are obviously quite different from when your last album, Vanishing Point, came out in 2013. Did that end up being more of a motivator to make these lyrical statements than it had been in the past?
Arm: Well, we had been working on stuff earlier, but we went back and listened to what we’d done and decided it didn’t really live up to the standards, musically. We had three or four songs we’d written around 2015, 2016. We were going to start working on a record in 2016, but Steve and I got sidetracked doing a bunch of stuff with Monkeywrench [a bluesy project with Poison 13 guitarist Tim Kerr]. In a way, I was going, man, I can’t wait for all this [2016 U.S. general election] campaigning crap to be over so I can concentrate on writing a normal record.
Assuming things would turn out different from how they did….
Arm: Yeah! It would just be the usual kind of inter-party bickering. Hillary Clinton would win and the Republicans would do “Benghazi! Benghazi! Benghazi!” or whatever … same old shit. But things obviously took a step—in my mind anyways—in an insane direction.