Mark Arm doth speaketh!
By Danny R. Phillips
“I did stupid things in my youth, all the same things my friends did. I survived, they didn’t, it’s dumb luck.” — Mark Arm
The music world is lucky the Mudhoney frontman was able to dodge the proverbial bullet. Of singers to emerge from the dirty 1980s and ‘90s of the Northwest, Arm (born Mark McLaughlin) deserves to be mentioned in the same rarified breath as Cobain, Staley, Cornell, Vedder and Wood. Whether singing with Mr. Epp and the Calculations, the much-underrated Green River (a band that featured Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, later of Pearl Jam) or (naturally) Mudhoney, Arm has been in the shit, neck deep on the front line, spitting and screaming at the birth of the grunge “movement.”
A time that, for Arm, was strange. “Our song ‘Overblown’ says it all. It was a feeding frenzy. People descending on our town, snatching everyone up.” Since the beginnings of his first band in 1981, Arm has seen many changes in the music business, changes he really does not pay much attention to. “For me, the ‘business’ part of music is beside the point; I try to ignore it as much as possible. There are things you have to deal with, like making sure you get paid and stuff like that but how the biz works, the ins and outs of strategizing and selling records, that bullshit, is supremely uninteresting to me.”
Formed in 1988 following the collapse of Green River, Mudhoney was an aberration, an antidote to the pop garbage taking over America in the ‘80s. Combining elements of noise rock, garage and punk, the band (named for a Russ Meyer movie) would go on to influence such standouts as Nirvana, The Fastbacks, The Gits and Tad, having a major hand in creating what is today considered to be alternative rock.
The idea of Dan Peters (drums), Steve Turner (guitar), Matt Lukin (bass; since replaced by Guy Maddison of Perth, Australia) and Arm coming together to make anything was a bolt of lightning from the rock Gods. “The fact that Mudhoney became a band that was able to tour and make money was a weird quirk of fate; it wasn’t anything we were aiming to do necessarily. We were happy to have that happen of course but we didn’t plan it.”
What bands did Mark Arm idealize, immolate and fetishize you may ask? “It depends what age you’re talking about” he says with a chuckle. “At one point, it would’ve been Three Dog Night, and then it was The Sweet, just various things over time. One of the musical events that spun my head around was going to see Devo at The Showbox in Seattle after going to a handful of arena shows and realizing it was so much better in a club.”
He continues, “Man, I went from sitting in seats far away or being on the floor far away with the barricade and the stage being so high to being one person away from the front of the stage at the club, so close I grabbed Bob One’s guitar neck and he hit me over the head. I just thought, this is amazing! It never crossed my mind that I could be messing up the show.”
In the middle of our conversation, there was something I couldn’t help but ask. On the latest record Vanishing Point (released last year via Sub Pop), one of my favorite songs is “Douchebags on Parade.” Is it a comment on the overwhelming trend of douchebags and bros being the norm today or an observation on the decline of western civilization as a whole?” When Arm finished laughing (clocked at a minute and a half) he replied, “Take your pick! Juiceheads and bros walking around everywhere and it’s a worldwide phenomenon. Jersey Shore types by the tons in Brisbane, Australia and Manchester, UK. Shit man, that’s a gray, rainy town and they got these spray tans. That’s one kind of douchebag. Then there’s also the suave douchebags, it’s weird man.”
One thing that has changed for Arm and the boys over the years is touring. “In Green River it was very difficult. We would try to set up our own tours, no booking agent and with the first tour in ’85, shows fell through. We all saved up like $700 each; we basically took a vacation together where we tried to play shows.”
Of all the cool things that a band like Mudhoney has done, the highest that didn’t involve narcotics would be recording an album on the world famous Seattle landmark, The Space Needle. However, Mudhoney cannot claim responsibility for that: it was Sub Pop’s idea. “I had a hard time wrapping my head around the idea when it was first floated. We went up there to look at it and the big part of the roof slopes a bit; they were going to build a stage and I had a nightmare scenario where the stage would start sliding down this slope and we all die. Luckily, above the slope there is a flat spot where the needle comes out that’s 20-25 ft. in diameter with a railing around it. To document the whole thing, KEXP (the local independent rock radio station) did a simulcast and recorded it. So we put it out.”
Times have changed for music fans. In the days of my youth and Arm’s, we had to know someone that had cool music so we could get a dubbed cassette. Now, kids get it in .0005 seconds thanks to the internet. Does the lack of “the Hunt” make them lazy and less interested in the music that they find? “You know, I don’t know. It’s hard for me to judge, I can’t get in the heads of the young kids. There is something pretty great about having instant access to stuff, I take advantage of that and, sometimes I get a little greedy and download a bunch of crap. Back in the day, when you first got into records, you only had a couple so you did deep, heavy listening and really got into those records. As your collection grows, you don’t go that deep. I don’t think kids now have a chance to get deep into a record and that’s too bad.”
The obligatory question arises: where does Mudhoney stand in the Grunge history? “We were a band from Seattle that happened to be around at that time. We were lumped in with bands that got much more famous than us. You know, we were all lumped together but we didn’t sound the same. ‘Grunge’ is just an easy, offhand way to talk about a time and a place, sort of like punk is except there are so many different kinds of punk: ’77 punk, hardcore, crappy pop punk. Now, when someone says punk, you don’t know if they are talking about Void or Green Day. When someone says ‘grunge’ it’s easier to nail down”
Looking at the charts and seeing what is popular now, does Arm think music fans are doomed? “No. People that buy stuff on the charts are probably doomed but the people that seek stuff out will be fine. It’s always been like that. Generally, shit on the pop charts is shit. There have been times when rock n roll and pop shared it the charts; in the ‘50s, you had ‘How Much is that Doggie in the Window?’ and Elvis side by side, but mostly shit on the pop charts is shit. The point for us now, as a band, is to make music not because we think it will sell or chart, we make music that we enjoy and that our fans will enjoy.”
Mudhoney doesn’t crank out pop shit and furthermore, contrary to grunge lore, Mark Arm was not the first guy to stage dive. Mudhoney is one and only one thing: They are simply who they are and for that, they are legendary.
Mudhoney will be doing selected dates each month, including this weekend in Asheville, NC (Aug. 29) as part of the Harvest Records’ Transfigurations II festival and at the Muddy Roots Festival (Aug. 30) in Cookeville, TN. After that comes Kansas City, MO, venue the Riot Room (on Sept. 13) and the Riot Fest in Chicago (Sept. 14). Details HERE.