They saved their label Sub Pop from going bust, inspired the Seattle sound, and with furious new album Digital Garbage, Mudhoney show that their filthy tones are as sweet as they ever were.
They saved Sub Pop from going bust, inspired the Seattle sound, and their filthy tones are as sweet as they ever were.
The heart of grunge. This is what Mudhoney are. This is what Mudhoney always have been. The heart of grunge. Whether the Pacific Northwest band are spitting liquefied anger on their latest album Digital Garbage – a howl of outrage, a scrimmage of disgust at the Trump administration and an out-of-control social network system that enables it – or inspiring a generation of rock fans to grow their hair long and freak out to their anthemic debut single, 1988’s Touch Me I’m Sick, Mudhoney have rocked the good rock.
“They’ve been solid since day one,” remarks Tom Hazelmyer, founder of Minneapolis hardcore label Amphetamine Reptile.
This is true. In a world where racist charlatans and blowhard bullies are given free rein to rule and ruin people’s lives, Mudhoney still abide.
In 1988, Mudhoney’s dirty, highly distorted rock (distorted mainly because the band couldn’t afford decent amplifiers) corrupted and determined the fate of countless musicians and fans. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Mogwai, Queens Of The Stone Age, anyone who ever attended an indie disco in the early 1990s… they all know what I’m talking about. Equal parts blues, 1960s garage rock and the attitude of US hardcore bands such as Black Flag. Laconic, sporadic, blistering. Music fuelled by a demonic drive and black humour.
Founder members Steve Turner (guitar) and Mark Arm (vocals/guitar) formed the band
"Fuzz-punk. Not grunge. 'Grunge' is such a broad term. Our roots are in US hardcore punk." Mark Arm
in 1988 out of the ashes of Seattle mainstays Green River, the group that also spawned Pearl Jam. Drummer Dan Peters once played with Nirvana; original bassist Matt Lukin, legendary for his drinking and for his drunken antics, came from grunge linchpins and major Kurt Cobain influence Melvins; ‘new’ bassist Guy Maddison (he’s been with the band 17 years but he’s still the new boy) was part of gritty Aussie rockers Lubricated Goat; and even ‘manager’
Bob Whittaker tour manages R.E.M.
Much as Soundgarden cast a long shadow over the nascent Seattle grunge scene of the late 1980s, Mudhoney cast an even longer one. Without them, it’s arguable that their seminal label Sub Pop wouldn’t have survived. The two are inextricably linked. Arm has even worked his day job in the Sub Pop warehouse, shifting boxes, since the early 2000s. When Sub Pop broke in the UK in 1989 and 1990 – thanks in no small part to the championing of Radio 1 DJ John Peel and the music press – it was on the back of Mudhoney and their incendiary live shows. America followed.
Arm’s laconic, brazen, wisecracking stage presence was a constant. “You guys can’t throw,” he taunted the audience at a mudsplattered 1992 Reading Festival. “You’re used to playing soccer and kicking balls with your feet. Just then, a sizeable lump of Berkshire hit him straight in the face. “That’ll learn me. Never taunt an armed audience,” he remarked afterwards.
“The streets of Seattle are paved with grunge,” he said to me on my first visit to the city in January 1989 – a remark that he later may have had cause to regret when MTV and Vogue picked up the description and ran with it, and countless hair- and suburban metal bands with little or no sympathy for the hardcore punk and garage that Mudhoney loved claimed it for their own. The term when Arm used it in ’89 was derogatory, in line with the band’s self-deprecating sense of humour – it was a burn on the Dick Whittington line “The streets are paved with gold”, grunge being the shittiest, dirtiest currency
available. No one cared about Seattle bands. That is until Melody Maker made Mudhoney cover stars. Overnight almost, it seemed that rock mattered once more.
"Fuzz-punk,” Arm remarks now. “Not grunge. We thought of ourselves from the same tradition as Scratch Acid, Sonic Youth, The Scientists – it was just underground rock. ‘Grunge’ is such a broad term. Our roots are in US hardcore punk. It was a very diverse bunch of bands, from straight-up rock like The Replacements to a bunch of weirdos like the Butthole Surfers.”
Mudhoney were brilliantly disregarding of the music industry. Right at the time when their mates were all getting signed up for multimillion-dollar deals, guitarist Turner went back to college – “It would be a waste not to finish it,” he remarked. One memorable single, Into Yer Shtik (from 1995’s um, raw My Brother The Cow album) features Arm screaming: ‘Why don’t you blow your brains out, too?’ over a basic two-chord thrash that could’ve been recorded by inspirations Billy Childish’s primal Thee Headcoats. Many felt the song was about Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love, which the band denied, citing instead an incident in which recording engineer and Scratch Acid member Steve Albini was approached by the band in Chicago, only for him to pointedly ignore them, too cool for his own good.
Much of 1988’s genre-defining EP Superfuzz Bigmuff (named after the band’s two favourite guitar distortion pedals) is concerned with sickness, festering moments of malingering fear. “The type of girl you see walking down the street but you know you should not touch,” is how Arm described the mighty fucking godhead of 1989 single Here Comes Sickness. Superfuzz is listed as one of Kurt Cobain’s 50 favourite albums, but in all honesty he should have listed two or three, given the influence Arm in particular had on him – Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit is pure Mudhoney in its structure.
Digital Garbage is a cross between these twin obsessions of rage and disease, focusing on Trump’s America and the sickness that afflicts the country in 2018. The band started writing the album in February 2017, right after Trump’s inauguration, and you can hear the disgrace of a nation on songs such as Hey Neanderfuck, Please Mr. Gunman and the searing 21st Century Pharisees: ‘Evangelical hypocrites, he doesn’t give a fuck about your Jesus/And it’s clear that you don’t either,’ sneers a shaking Arm, sounding like a demented cross between Johnny Rotten and Jello Biafra as guitar lines pluck molten fury.
“One of the best protest albums of the Trump era. Spits hot fire,” comments Sonic Youth biographer Stevie Chick, a sentiment that this writer endorses heartily.
“Things looked really, really dark initially,” Arm says. “I mean, they’re still dark and fucked up, but at that point we didn’t know how incompetent they’d be. The thought that people like Steve Bannon [former White House Chief Strategist under Trump] were in control and taking over, and the next thing would be these camps for Muslims and they’d do all these crazy things to illegal aliens, it made me think of my mother’s upbringing in Germany in the 1930s.
“If Donald Trump was a more competent leader, things would be much, much worse than they are,” Arm suggests. “Terrible things are happening: the dismantling of environmental protections… the only qualification to be a member of the cabinet seems to be that you have antipathy for the department, and some of these people are pretty good at tearing stuff apart. Fortunately, some of them are so
'Withour Mudhoney it is arguable that their seminal label Sub Pop wouldn't have survived. The two are inextricably linked.'
fucking corrupt and greedy that it cannot be overlooked,” he adds, laughing.
Mudhoney have released only a relative handful of albums – nine if you don’t include 1993’s major-label release the Five Dollar Bob’s Mock Cooter Stew EP on Reprise: “a dull, dopey mishmash of suburban-boy backwoodsiness”, according to Trouser Press. Tellingly, the band avoid playing songs from that album live these days. “That record has almost been entirely scrubbed from our collective conscious,” Arm says in a typically self-deprecating manner.
Five Dollar Bob is an anomaly. As Hazelmyer suggests, everything else the band have released apart from that brief major-label burnout is solid grunge, if not gold. Those nine albums
(Digital Garbage will be their tenth studio release) range from debut Mudhoney to its inspirational follow-up of 1991, Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge
(the album that saved Sub Pop from their debtors until Nirvana broke big) to their brilliant majorlabel debut Piece Of Cake.
After several years on Reprise Records, during which they never sold as much as they should have (Fudge sold ‘only’ 150,000 copies initially, but it was uncompromising in a way most of Mudhoney’s colleagues were not), the band returned to Sub
Pop at the start of the 2000s. This happy reunion served a dual purpose: it reinvigorated the label and helped cement its identity as the home of grunge, and resulted in a slew of classic Mudhoney releases, in particular the Iraq War-influenced Under A Billion Suns (2006) and the saturated superfuzz of Vanishing Point (2013).
One reason they made relatively few albums
– in comparison to, say, peers The Melvins, who have released more than 26 albums over the same period – is that a few decades ago Mudhoney realised that the band is a release, not a job. So for a month a year the four members go out on tour and play a few shows, perhaps supporting mates Pearl Jam at arenas. In the main, however, for Turner and Arm this is the equivalent of golf, or a poker night in, “except we get to travel to really cool places and play punk rock guitar”, guitarist Turner says, laughing.
“It’s a release valve,” confirms Arm.
“The last three records we’ve made I’ve been really happy with,” Turner says. “We’re on a roll! It’s really fun to travel occasionally with these guys.”
A"The last three records we've made I've been really happy with. We're on a roll!" Steve Turner
fter 30 years
(the band would hesitate to call it a ‘career’), Mudhoney are refreshingly upbeat and honest about their situation.
“Culturally, our generation doesn’t seem to age the same way our parents did,” says Turner, who has lived in neighbouring Portland for 10 years but gets together to practise with the others once a week. “I still dress the same way I did when I was sixteen, I still get stoked by the same things I did when I was sixteen – going skateboarding, playing punk rock guitar. You add things to the mix – you have kids, you get jobs – but if I was my dad right now, I would not be doing any of these things.”
According to Turner, highlights of being in Mudhoney include recording their debut single Touch Me I’m Sick (“I was so happy with the way that sounded”) and going on tour in the UK for the first time, supporting Sonic Youth (with whom they also released a split 12-inch single). The mudsplattered Reading Festival – “the mud one where Kurt was wheeled out” is how Turner remembers it – also merits a mention. There’s also “playing on top of the Space Needle [in Seattle] for the twentyfifth Sub Pop anniversary, being able to go to Australia for the first time…”
The guitarist also mentions a night at Newcastle Riverside as being a particular standout. “It was so funny and weird. Were you there?” he asks.
Yes. I was wearing a mod suit and pork pie hat and introduced the set, after which the idea was that I would stage-dive into the audience – an audience so densely packed that there was no chance of doing that – but when I tried to run off stage I found my way blocked by Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon. I tried to leap off five times only be to unceremoniously hurled back on to the stage each time before I was able to make my way to the exit.
So, Mudhoney, still going strong after being around for 300 years…
“Roughly,” Turner says with a chuckle. “It works because it works part-time.”
The grunge abides.
Mudhoney 2018: (l-r) DanPeters, Guy Maddison, Mark Arm, Steve Turner.
Kurt Cobain joins Mudhoney on stage at Castaic Lake Natural Amphitheater in California,September 26, 1992.Flooring it in ’88.
All smiles in 2008: (l-r) Arm,Maddison, Peters, Turner.