“I find the word ‘grunge’ amusing more than anything else these days,” says Mudhoney singer-guitarist Mark Arm. “Although I still don’t know exactly what it’s really supposed to mean. When the word first started being used, as far as I understood it, it was being used an adjective for something like ‘dirty-sounding guitars.’ And then the popular, fashion thing turned it into a word that seemed to apply to dirty-looking people, rather than dirty-sounding guitars. But whatever it is, people still use it to describe us since we came out of Seattle and we were there in the early ’90s, which makes it pretty unavoidable.”
That’s actually an understatement on Arm’s part, given Mudhoney’s flannel-powered Pacific Northwest pedigree. After playing together in a variety of forgotten regional bands through the early ’80s, Arm and guitarist Steve Turner founded Green River in 1984. When that band disintegrated three years later, Turner and Arm launched Mudhoney with bassist Matt Lukins (formerly of the Melvins) and drummer Dan Peters (ex-Screaming Trees and an early member of Nirvana). Meanwhile, the other half of Green River went on to form Mother Love Bone and, later still, a little band they dubbed Pearl Jam.
While Nirvana and Pearl Jam may have been the first Seattle bands to score big nationally, Mudhoney actually beat their neighbors onto vinyl, laying down the seminal SubPop releases ‘Touch Me, I’m Sick” and Superfuzz Bigmuff twelve months before Cobain and company delivered Bleach and a full three years before Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten brought grunge’s nasty guitars to the masses. “The funny thing is that Nirvana’s Nevermind is actually a pretty clean sounding record,” observes Arm during a recent phone interview. “But to the critics who wrote for, like, Time magazine or whatever, it sounded really raunchy ’cause they were used to dealing with Paula Abdul and Janet Jackson and other people like that who didn’t even have guitars in their songs.”
There were guitars aplenty in Seattle, however, and many of them had been deployed throughout the ’80s in the development of a unique, homegrown style. “The U-Men and Ten Minute Warning were pretty much the gods that walked the face of Seattle back then,” Arm recalls. “The U-Men were sort of a Birthday Party-meets-the-Sonics kind of a band, with a weird ’60s garage R&B thing going. Ten Minute Warning, on the other hand, were a spin-off of the nastiest hardcore band in the area, but they started to slow things down and do, like, 10-minute covers of Pink Floyd’s ‘Nile Song’ and a pretty amazing version of the Stooges’ ‘Dirt’. Then the Melvins went from being the fastest band in the area to the slowest, so it was just sort of like this weird evolution the area went through. And I think that the area’s isolation might have had something to do with it, as nobody really subscribed to the whole ‘faster is better’ kinda thing; people just got bored with all of the copycat hardcore that was big in the day.”
Mudhoney’s early SubPop catalog reflects what some would consider to be the pinnacle of that isolated community’s creative arc, preserving as it does many of the turning points and defining moments of the Pacific Northwest’s guitar-fueled subculture. Arm is quick to note, however, that neither talent nor prescience had much to do with the group’s initial success. “The only reason that Mudhoney exists today is because we were very, very lucky in the beginning,” Arm states emphatically. “When Mudhoney started, our only objective was to put out a single. At that point we knew Tom Hazelmeyer from Amphetamine Reptile Records and Bruce Pavitt from SubPop and they were both just starting up their labels. So I was working with Bruce one day and I played him a tape of this boom-box recording we had done where you couldn’t hear anything and he said ‘Well, why don’t you go into the studio with [producer] Jack Endino this weekend and record something. We’ll put in a few hundred dollars or whatever and you can just record whatever you’ve got.’ So that became out first single. And I just don’t think most bands are that lucky.”
Mudhoney returned Pavitt’s early favor by sticking with SubPop until 1993. “We were, like, the last of the original bands to leave SubPop and we only left because we felt like we had to,” explains Arm. “Because at the time, SubPop was for all intents and purposes going under. So it was a matter of survival for us, plus we wanted to stay friends with all of those guys. We didn’t want to see Bruce for the rest of our lives and be going ‘That shithead owes us money!’ Of course, the stupid thing was that SubPop was offering us shares of the company to stay with them and we were like ‘Yeh, right, like you’re gonna be around a year from now. Sure.’ But then a couple of years later, after Nirvana got huge, part of the company got bought out for several million dollars . . . so we actually might have done okay if we’d had those chips to cash in at that point.”
While Mudhoney couldn’t cash out their stock options on Nirvana’s success, the better-known band did offer their home-town compatriots a series of high-profile opening slots during grunge’s commercial heyday, with Arm’s former band-mates in Pearl Jam later following suit. “When I think back to those times when the whole grunge think was huge, the picture I get in my head is of us opening for either Nirvana or Pearl Jam,” recalls Arm. “And we were just sort of there on the sidelines watching it spinning around us. It’s like we were there . . . but more as observers. And at that time, we found Nirvana’s crowds to be more receptive to what we were doing, ’cause with Pearl Jam, they had just become the biggest thing on the face of the earth but the only part of them that was big was Eddie. So throughout our sets there would be the constant chant of ‘Ed-die! Ed-die!’ and that would continue throughout their set as well. Now I think they’ve managed to weed that element out; we played with them recently and the audience was, at worst, just indifferent as opposed to openly hostile.”
Mudhoney will be headlining their own show Tuesday night at Valentine’s in support of their latest Reprise Records release Tomorrow Hits Today, begging the question as to why they’re playing mid-sized clubs ten years on while Pearl Jam gets to fight with Ticketmaster over arena shows and Nirvana have been accorded posthumous legend status. “A lot of people say that we’re not ambitious enough,” Arm answers. “But I’m not sure I know what they mean by that. Do people want us to tour harder? Do they want us to just buckle down and try to write pop songs? I certainly hope not, because that’s not what we’re all about. And the thing is that I know plenty of bands who are very ambitious, who have been breaking their backs, trying to get a foothold in the music industry, who have been dropped from label after label, but who are still hungry for the brass ring. And they’re just not getting anywhere while I’m having a much better time by just taking things the way they come. Plus, my whole band is still alive, and that’s got to count for something.”