These days Turner (shown here still proudly touting his anarcho-punk roots with a vintage Crass T-shirt)
is mostly seen with one of his late-’60s Guild Starfire IVs. Photo by Tim Bugbee
Did that make you guys work harder and kind of focus you?
Arm: I guess it kind of focused me lyrically. But, ideally, it’s not the record I wanted to make, if that makes any sense.
Steve Turner: Every day that he brought in another song with lyrics was pretty mind-blowing to us. We were like, whoa! For example, “Please Mr. Gunman”—I swear that was two days after the church shooting in [Sutherland Springs] Texas. Some Fox News commentator, I think, said, “Well, at least they died in church.” Mark had those lyrics done by the next practice.
So, in an alternate reality these same riffs would have completely different lyrics?
Arm: Oh yeah. Although a song like “Night and Fog” [which hints at the horrors of a nighttime ICE raid] probably wouldn't have been written at all. I guess that’s a good or a bad thing, depending on how you view that song.
How does the writing process typically go for you guys—and has it changed much over the decades? Like, since Steve lives in Portland now, do you send each other song ideas?
Turner: No. I thought we would start to do that a little bit more, but there tends to be an order of how we work.
Arm: We tend to do things in person. Generally we come up [to Seattle] for practice once a week, if we’re on a roll. When we were writing [for Digital Garbage], Steve would sometimes come up and stay for two practices in a row, which is really helpful, so you don’t forget what you just did the night before.
Turner: Mark really likes to be in the room and jam out together, which I understand. He wants it to be a group collaborative kind of thing. I think he feels weird bringing in a whole finished song. We love it when he does—it happens occasionally. He’ll have something totally put together and we’ll bend or morph it into something else. But, generally, someone has an idea or two for a verse. And then we have this little digital recorder down in the basement that Mark’s got a lot better at recording on…
Arm: We have a digital recording device now, so we’re almost current in technology! [Laughs.] We’ve got this 2005 Korg with a hard drive and a CD burner. To get the music out of there, you’ve got to burn it onto a CD and bring it up to my computer.
Turner: Usually we just throw some riffs together and jam on them for a while … put them in some sort of order so that Mark has them to listen to and try to put some lyrics and melody to.
A lot of influential bands that have been around as long as you guys have end up struggling to evolve their sound—and often fail pretty miserably. Yet, with each new album, you guys manage to sound instantly identifiable but also genuinely fresh and inspired.
Arm: Oh, that’s a great compliment. I don’t feel like we’re looking for a new sound. We are who we are, but we’re not afraid to … as much as I love, like, the Ramones and Motörhead and AC/DC, we’re not just throwing out the same kind of riffs every time.
How do you pull that off—is it just a matter of being comfortable in your own skins and not giving a shit what anyone thinks?
Arm: I think probably just not giving a shit what other people think. Obviously we take great care in what we do, and we love writing songs and recording and playing. But we’re also not too precious about it. When we go in to record, we don’t spend weeks on just one song. We record pretty quickly. Usually everything is pretty well worked out, except for maybe some weird overdubs. Over the years we’ve learned that usually the first idea is the best.
Turner: We have a small wheelhouse. It’s the four of us, and we do what we do. We’re not trying to keep up with anything—or even pay attention to anything—but we do expand. There’s always something that each one of us is super turned-on by recently. With Mark’s lyrics, it’s the world. And there are always weird musical elements that will pop in—like, Guy [Maddison, bass] is totally into synthesizers right now. That showed up on this record, which was great. And Dan [Peters, drums] is playing a lot of guitar lately, so we kind of told him that he had to bring in a song for us, which he did. There’s always a little twist.
Let’s discuss some of those “twists.” “Messiah's Lament” is somehow both kind of raucous and laid-back, with kind of a Neil Young vibe.
Arm: That was the song that was brought in pretty much top-to-bottom by Dan. It kind of reminds me of that song “Round & Round” on [Young’s second 1969 LP] Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.
Turner: It’s a very different style of guitar playing. I think it’s pretty amazing when drummers start writing songs on the guitar. They always have really good rhythm, so they’re already one step ahead of most guitar players.
Arm: Dan’s spent probably the last 10 years—ever since he was a stay-at-home dad taking his kids to school—really learning guitar on acoustic. He knows chords that I don’t know!
Did Dan play on the album version?
Arm: He showed Steve the riff, and Steve played it. Then Dan had a bunch of 12-string overdub ideas, I think.
Turner: His take on rhythm was totally different from mine. It was kind of a challenge to learn how to play.
“Kill Yourself Live” has some really interesting country-ish slide riffs.
Arm: When we started jamming on that, the way Steve was playing the guitar chords—sort of open-chord picking but strumming at the same time—kind of reminded me of “Gut Feeling” by Devo.So we decided to construct an intro that pays homage to that. Before we practiced it with organ, I played slide guitar to do something that would fit but sound different. I think it’s the only slide guitar on the whole record.
The jam at the end of “Prosperity Gospel” is pretty glorious. And, considering how fired-up the lyrics are, it’s surprisingly lovely and melodic, too.
Turner: If anything inspired that, it’s the guitar playing from “Eight Miles High” by the Byrds.I think [Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn] was trying to be like [jazz-sax great] Pharaoh Sanders for some of that really crazy 12-string stuff he did. I tried to do it on a 12-string, but I couldn’t get anything happening.
What did you end up using instead?
Turner: My regular Guild Starfire IV. I have two red ones, a ’67 and a ’68. I believe it’s the ’68 that’s better to me. It’s a little heavier, it’s got better tuning pegs, and it’s got a slightly bigger neck.I have a Starfire 12-string, but I just couldn’t get the soloing sound I wanted at all on it.