In case you’ve just emerged from cryogenic suspension and are still catching up on popular music of the late 20th century, Mudhoney sprung from the same tree as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and the rest of the grunge gang. In fact, they may have planted the seed; Nirvana actually opened for Mudhoney in both band’s early days, and Mudhoney’s two guitarists played in Green River with future members of Pearl Jam. As part of the original Sub Pop roster, they helped define the “Seattle Sound” that still resonates in the bands that rule today’s airwaves.
Four records ago, they signed to Warner Reprise, and recently played Atlanta in support of their latest release, Tomorrow Hit Today . The record is a little softer and a little more thoughtful than the screaming fuzz fest of “Touch Me I’m Sick” or some of their other early songs, but by no means are they mellowing with age. Tomorrow Hit… (which got a four-star review in Rolling Stone , for what that’s worth) may be a bit more subdued, thanks to Jim Dickinson (legendary Memphis producer with credits including the Rolling Stones and the Replacements), but it only serves to highlight the maturity of their songwriting without draining the energy of their riff-driven garage rock approach. He might have taken some of the edge off, but the band still uses five fuzzboxes between two guitarists on stage, so you can guess they’re not often accused of going soft.
I spoke with Mark Arm (vocals, guitar) and Steve Turner (lead guitar) over dinner before their show at the Echo Lounge:
Thanks for inviting me along, I hope I’m not intruding on your dinner.
Mark Arm : Our time is not our own anymore, it’s OK. Being a celebrity is rough, but you just come to expect the paparazzi and the press.
Steve Turner : And stalkers!
Do you have stalkers?
Mark : We actually stalk ourselves. We stalk each other in the van.
It must be tough to keep up with your victims when you’re traveling.
Steve : I actually stalk our fans.
Mark : We have this list by the T-shirts where people can sign up to be in the fan club, and we get a lot of phone numbers and addresses and names.
The last time you were here, you played with Pearl Jam, then the 40 Watt Club in Athens the next night — which kind of show do you like better?
Steve : There’re widely different advantages to both of them. The big things with Pearl Jam are really great, because they pay us really well, and it’s really easy and really fun. They’re friends of ours — it’s a really great, fun time. Being on stage as an opening band, opening for Pearl Jam, is probably the least fun part of it.
Mark : It’s kind of like they pay us to hang around and be their friends. Which is totally great, you know, and I really enjoy doing those things, but the actual playing of the shows — that’s why we booked ourselves into the 40 Watt.
Steve : But then at the small places, playing is one of the highlights of the day, as opposed to all the other stuff. It’s a lot more fun.
Well, that sounds perfect — you get to do what you love in the clubs, and then you also play these big things with 30,000-40,000 people.
Mark : Those are the anomalies — that only happens every once in a while. The only band that’s ever interested in taking us out is Pearl Jam. I don’t think that anybody else who’s nearly that huge gives a shit about us.
Steve : And it’s great, because I can’t imagine a better band to go out on big shows than Pearl Jam, really. As far as the people they surround themselves with and all that, there’s no bullshit. It’s great — the organization is beyond reproach.
Mark : Like, the crew doesn’t look down on you for being the opening band. I’ve heard nightmare stories from people who’ve toured with other big bands…
Steve : We’ve had nightmare stories! The only other example was Nirvana, and that was just chaos.
Mark : I’m thinking more of people opening for Metallica or someone. It’s weird to me [that] a band will ask some band to open for them on tour, not even to give them the full power of the PA, or full lights. It’s like, good God, you’re this huge band who people are coming to see anyway, are you afraid this other band is going to blow you off the stage?
I think Pearl Jam realized we’re already crippled, by our music. There’s no way we’re going to come across to the majority of the people, playing the kind of stuff that we play.
Did things change for you when you started dealing with Reprise?
Mark : No. The only thing that changed was dealing with the bureaucracy as opposed to being on a record label that was run by our friends.
Steve : But in the beginning, the bureaucracy was actually easier than dealing with Sub Pop. At Sub Pop at that point, you couldn’t get a straight answer out of anybody, they were in such disarray.
It’s changed in the last couple of years, working with Reprise. Since this last record, there’s a big change — the majors wrestled control back pretty quickly of the airwaves after the whole Nirvana explosion and everything. So now there’s a lot more bureaucracy that bands like us have to go through in order to get a record out. It’s not an altogether pleasant experience, you know?
Mark : You’ve got a whole bunch of alternative-rock Fabians out there right now. Pat Boones.
Steve : The Pat Boones have taken over again. Actually, Pat Boone is more edgy than most of the shit on the radio these days. At least Pat Boone now. He seems kind of insane.
He put on a dog collar and pissed off all his religious buddies — they thought he was embracing Satanism. He’ll be very well positioned for the great 2010 grunge revival.
Steve : It’ll be sooner than that!
Mark : Actually, I’m predicting it happens this fall. I’m counting on it.
Tell me about the new record and working with Jim Dickinson in Memphis. Did you have any Elvis sightings?
Steve : The closest I got was when I went over to Sam Phillips Studio with Jim and recorded a few tracks with Roland James behind the board — that was really fun.
Jerry Lee’s guitarist?
Steve : Yeah, and he’s on tons of other stuff.
Did he have a lot of stories?
Steve : Not really, it was just kind of cool. He looked like a retired shop teacher — a perfect razor burr haircut, shortsleeved white shirt, really fat, polyester pants. I almost want to say he had Velcro shoes, but he was really nice. Totally gentlemanly and non-judgmental. I was making a lot of noise on his guitar tracks and he was perfectly happy with it, and he was asking me about Estrus Records, “Yeah, that Dave Crider out of Washington State sends a lot of bands my way lately, he seems like a very nice young man.”
I was looking at a Web site where some guy had catalogued alphabetically every gig you’ve ever played, and every song…
Mark : That would be young Peter Trahms from Berkeley, California. He’s trying to get set lists from every show we’ve ever played.
Steve : I have records from all the European tours, but the first four years of American tours, we never had tour booklets, so it’s lost to me. It would be great if they could figure it out.
It listed some of the bands you’ve gotten to play with, some really amazing people. How were the Urinals? (legendary early ’80s L.A. punks)
Steve : They’re one of my all-time faves — that was really great. The show we did up in Seattle was the first time we saw them — I never thought I’d see the Urinals, especially the Urinals as middle-aged businessmen or scientists or whatever they are now. Scientists.
Were they having fun, or just kind of schlepping it out?
Steve : They’re trying to keep it together. The guitar player bowed out after a couple of shows, he just wasn’t into it anymore. They’re all good friends still, at least two of them still carpool to work together.
What’s a great local opening band you guys have played with recently?
Mark : The first show of the tour, there was this band on the bill called Transformer Loot Bag that was pretty cool. That was in Madison, Wisconsin, and they sounded like all they’d been listening to was Hardcore Devo Volumes One and Two. That was a pleasant surprise.
You guys are on the tail end of five or six dates without a break, aren’t you?
Mark : More like eight, I think?
Steve : Tomorrow will be eight days in a row.
And you’re getting back to Memphis in a couple of days?
Steve : Yeah, we’ve only played there once, so we’re looking forward to that.
You didn’t get to do any of the tourist stuff there?
Steve : Not really, we were in the studio all day long, and we stayed right next to the studio in a house, and didn’t have a car or anything, so basically we had no way to go.
We did the Graceland tour once when we played there. We played Memphis with Pearl Jam and they trotted out some Elvis impersonator, and he claimed to be a cousin or something. He absolutely refused to believe that drugs had anything with Elvis’ death.
So what killed him, excessive reading?
Mark : Squinting really hard.
Sub Pop is now delivering songs on the Internet in MP3 format — are you up on that technology?
Steve : Sub Pop’s grasping at any straw they can right now.
To regain credibility?
Steve : Just get anybody to listen to their records.
Mark : They put out a couple of good ones recently.
Steve : Like last fall, the Mark Lanegan record, and the Murder City Devils. I haven’t heard the new Sebadoh record yet, but I heard it wasn’t very good.
Tell me about Super Electro (Steve’s record label)? You’ve been releasing the Mudhoney stuff on vinyl — it’s pretty cool that Reprise lets you do that.
Steve : Yeah, they don’t care at all.
Mark : They don’t care at all until you start talking about it.
Steve : The first single I did off My Brother the Cow , they seemed like I had to get permission for that one, and tell them about it. This time around, it was really easy — I had the single before the album came out. They weren’t even interested in knowing about it. The A & R guy wanted a few copies to give to some people, and that was about it.
That stuns me, for some reason. You guys have a pretty lean operation, do you make money touring?
Steve : We’re trying desperately to make money.
Mark : Unfortunately, we couldn’t bring our guitar tech with us this time around.
Steve : We’re not making money hand over fist on the road like we used to. Like we did opening for Pearl Jam.
Mark : In our early years, we didn’t do things quite by the book, so we ended up making money that we had to pay the IRS later. It was maybe our creative bookkeeping that led us to think we were making more money than we actually were.
You’re not the fist people that’s happened to, I’m sure.
Steve : But, we never toured on a bus, and we kept the overhead low in comparison to bands our size. Talking to other bands that were playing the same kinds of places as us, they were always amazed that we made money on the road; they were taking tour support while we were making good money. I wouldn’t go on the road if we weren’t making money — you’ve got to pay me to do this. [Mark laughs] If it’s longer than two weeks, you’ve got to pay me. I’ve never enjoyed the long tours.
Talking to L7 back in the day, they were losing so much money by being on a bus — that’s just stupid, that’s just foolish. How can you possibly justify losing money for six weeks?
Do you spend more time in the studio now than you used to?
Mark : Recording the last record took a greater period of time, but it was all split up over segments — two weeks here, two weeks there, two weeks to mix it. And the previous two records took four or five weeks, something like that. So it’s pretty much the same.
I read that you were better prepared, and really took the time to get the songs ready before you went into the studio this time?
Steve : Yeah, totally. And we had, at least for us, a glut of material.
How do you write songs? Do you all write together, or does one person come in with an idea?
Steve : Someone’s got to have the original riff. This record is pretty much a communal effort.
Mark : You can tell my songs because they’re the good ones.
Steve : Same with me. It’s a really good record!
[Don McLean’s “American Pie” comes on the radio]
Steve : We saw this guy on VH1 today!
They weren’t dissecting and explaining this song, were they?
Mark : No, it was a “where are they now” — he’s got a good comb-over going. It’s bushy.
Steve : He’s still got a fair amount of hair up there.
Mark : Yeah, but the part starts low. The week before Valentine’s Day they had Heart, Boy George, Jefferson Airplane (which was a really good one), and the Mamas and the Papas, which was a really good one.
Steve : I’ve got to see both of those.
Mark : Poor Marty Balin, the bitterest man in rock. “It was my band!”
You’re on the road with this for a while, aren’t you?
Steve : This is the tail end of it really, as far as we can tell. This is a three week thing, then we go home for a couple of weeks, then we got to Japan for two shows, then maybe we’ll go to Europe and do some shows and festivals and see what kind of offers come in.
How does that come about, that you go to Japan for just two shows?
Mark : That’s kind of all you can play — we’ll usually do two shows in Tokyo, one show in Nagoya, one show in Osaka, and that’s about the most you can do.
Is there anything you want to expound on, or any burning confessions you need to get off your chest?
Mark : I think we started off with those, except you promised not to print those.
Completely. I swear to God.
Steve : We still have some unfinished business in the basement up in Seattle.
I don’t want to know any more.
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