History | 29 September 2015Mudhoney: Over 25 Years of Sweet, Sweet Grunge Share article facebook twitter google pinterest Before Nirvana, there was Mudhoney. Vanguards of the Seattle underground music scene in the 80s and still rocking 25 years later, Mudhoney was the Pacific Northwest’s quintessential gateway grunge band. But how come many rock fans are not familiar with Mudhoney? Why does Mudhoney sometimes get left off the roster of famous grunge bands? Author Keith Cameron captures the qualities that set the band apart from its contemporaries in Mudhoney: The Sound and the Fury from Seattle. No smoke and no mirrors: Mark Arm, Steve Turner, Matt Lukin (later replaced by Guy Maddison) and Dan Peters never intended to make a career of music. This “come what may” attitude about rock ‘n’ roll made Mudhoney impervious to commercial persuasions while decreasing the likelihood of the band “breaking up” over qualms about money or creative direction. The band’s philosophy allowed them to stay focused on why they formed Mudhoney in the first place: to have some fun getting noisy and weird on stage. Read on for an introduction to one of Seattle’s best kept footnotes. Mudhoney in Seattle, 1993, circa Five Dollar Bob’s Mock Cooter Stew: (from left) Steve turner, Matt lukin, Dan Peters, Mark Arm. © IDOLS/PHOTOSHOT Seattle in the Mid-to-Late Eighties In 1985, the notion that, only five years later, Seattle might enjoy international status for its insurgent rock’n’roll scene would have seemed ludicrous. For sure, the city and its hinterland was steeped in musical history, with Seattle producing or nurturing some of twentieth-century popular music’s most important figures. But few people beyond the Pacific Northwest thought of Jimi Hendrix, who attended the Central District’s landmark Garfield High School, as a Seattle musician. The same could be said of another Garfield student, Quincy Jones, who as a teenager played with Florida emigré Ray Charles on the city’s vibrant jazz scene. In today’s marketing parlance, Seattle suffered from “poor brand recognition.” Increasingly, Seattle was off the map for many touring bands, who either couldn’t justify the expense of traveling there or were deterred by the city’s peculiarly restrictive attitude towards youth entertainment. Shortly before Green River embarked on their 1985 tour, the Seattle city authorities introduced the Teen Dance Ordinance, which effectively made all-ages rock shows illegal. Gorilla Gardens became one of the first casualties, losing its licence following a Hüsker Dü gig on October 26, at which a number of people quite likely still in their teens were observed to dance (or an approximation thereof). Clark Humphrey’s history of the Seattle underground notes that the building’s landlord shut the doors after the authorities told him he was leasing the space to a “known teen dance promoter.” Historically, the Pacific Northwest has witnessed persistent conflicts between the liberal imperative of its outlaw heritage and the conservative strictures of local politicians. When it came to enacting Prohibition legislation, Washington state got there in 1916, several years ahead of the rest of the U.S. Prospects of Seattle emerging as a countercultural hub to rival New York or San Francisco in the Sixties were inhibited by the city’s licensing restrictions on “teen dances.” In 1985, the Teen Dance Ordinance was rushed through the city council as a compromise to a proposed curfew on minors amid an atmosphere of moral panic about violence, sexual activity, and drug use at two all-ages discos, Skoochies and The Monastery. The legislation placed unfeasibly onerous demands on the licensing of live music events open to anyone under the age of 21. It seemed that the combination of alcohol and loud music could whip Seattle’s city fathers into an unholy sweat: if the liquor board didn’t prevail, then the police would turn up randomly with volume meters and shut down gigs that breached noise restrictions. Pernicious legislation though it may have been, Mark Arm has argued that the Teen Dance Ordinance had a positive side effect in compelling bands to find new venues, places like The Ditto Tavern and The Vogue in Belltown, the slightly tatty northern adjunct to downtown Seattle that was crucial in fostering the nascent underground scene. Meanwhile, the bigger all-ages shows went to other towns beyond the city’s jurisdiction, such as Tacoma. Seattle’s isolation, whether it be geographical or psychological, had fostered do-it-yourself attitudes born out of a classic fatalism: if you have nothing, you have nothing to lose. Moreover, Green River’s debut U.S. tour had proved beyond doubt that being a sizeable cheese in Seattle meant little beyond the Pacific Northwest. Enter Mudhoney: Early Years “[As a kid] I decided I had to look for what I wanted to hear, instead of accepting what was given to me. I had this sound in my head that was a lot louder and a lot noisier than anything I’d ever heard . . . Mudhoney is the closest anyone has yet come to that sound.” — Mark Arm Peters, turner, lukin, and Arm mud up in homage to The Slits Cut album sleeve, spring 1989. © Charles Peterson When Mark Arm and Steve Turner conceived Mudhoney, they wanted a wild yet compacted rock’n’roll band shorn of all egotistical flourishes. Guitar solos would resemble impressionistic spasms rather than any coherent route to gratification. Whereas Green River were guilty of flamboyance for its own sake, this new group dealt a hard-rock meld that owed its lack of inhibition to the pre-punk era, yet was hardened by the spartan purity of hardcore. “It was all about getting stuff down to its essence,” says Arm. “And I don’t know that we ever completely attained that goal. Though we do have a couple of very, very simple songs.” They would arguably write better material, but few bands can claim to have evoked their essence with such perfection as Mudhoney did with “Touch Me I’m Sick.” The fact that they delivered a definitive hand with their debut single is more remarkable still; moreover, it was recorded before the band had ever played live. For some bands this might have been the result of a carefully rehearsed set of plans, but as the quartet had practiced only once a month over the three months prior to recording, it was more a case of instinctive harmony among the four players. As individuals, they all enjoyed a certain renown on the local scene. When Pavitt and Poneman told Jack Endino that their new band comprised the original guitarist and singer from Green River, the bassist from The Melvins and the drummer from Bundle of Hiss, his sincere response had been: “Seattle supergroup!” But it was by no means certain that players of such pedigree would work well together. “They really seemed like a ‘group’ in the best sense,” says Endino. “There was a chemistry there, that was obvious. Everyone totally respected everyone else, yet there was no pussyfooting around with opinions either. They meant business, but they were there to have fun too.” Mudhoney’s first summer, 1988: (top) the Central tavern, Seattle and (bottom) the i-Beam, San Francisco. “it was tight and loose,” says Sub Pop’s Jonathan Poneman. “Menacing yet playful . . . with these amazing songs. They were instant classics. every single song: it was like, this is fucking great.” © Charles Peterson Beating The Rock ‘n’ Roll Frontman Cliché That the details of Mark Arm’s heroin use didn’t emerge until many years later must be at least partly due to his refusal to become defined by the drug. He was certainly aided by his bandmates’ disavowal of the junkie lifestyle, but also by fear of being revealed as what he later termed, “a total cliché—[I was] a rock guy, strung out on heroin and actually for a while was going out with a stripper.”* Then there were the residual ties of family. For all the generational angst of his upbringing, Mark loved his parents and was terrified at the prospect of them finding out. “He was very good at hiding it—he didn’t need his drug problem to become public knowledge,” says Charles Peterson. “And it wouldn’t have served the band at all, it wouldn’t have served him as a musician. Unlike some others, I’d say Layne Staley or Kurt Cobain—heroin almost served to fuel their myth, their personality.” It all caught up with Mark Arm on New Year’s Eve 1992. With his girlfriend no longer part of the picture, he’d managed to stay clear of drugs since returning from the UK tour, but that night he overdosed in Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love’s room at The Inn at the Market, an expensive hotel in downtown Seattle. “I think one of the reasons I OD’d that night was because I hadn’t been doing heroin,” he says. “I didn’t have any tolerance. Also, I was drinking. It was New Year’s Eve. I was pretty drunk. And then someone says, ‘Hey, d’you wanna come over and do some drugs?’ ‘Sure!’ That was not a series of good decisions. It was a series of poor decisions. And I did a shot of heroin and I was like, ‘I’d like to get higher.’ And so I went and got more. I wasn’t satisfied. I guess I wanted complete obliteration.” Mark Arm and Steve Turner compare weaponry, Seattle, 1992. © Charles Peterson In the account of Ron Heathman, the guitarist with The Supersuckers who had accompanied Mark to the Cobains’ room, Arm began turning blue.* On previous occasions when he had overdosed, there had always been someone present and sufficiently compos mentis to call the emergency services. This time, while Cobain and Heathman attempted to resuscitate him, Love’s first instinct was apparently not to call 911. “I don’t know why,” says Arm. “Because she didn’t want the publicity?” Accounts vary as to who she did call—Heathman and Courtney herself suggest Jonathan Poneman; “Absolutely not true,” says Poneman—but eventually the paramedics arrived and Arm was taken to Harborview Hospital. To be revived from an overdose for possibly the fourth or fifth (but definitely the last) time. “It was after that, I thought, ‘I don’t think I can hang around Kurt and Courtney anymore,’” says Mark. Mudhoney was on tour when the news broke on April 8, 1994, that Kurt Cobain was dead. In the Washington, D.C. hotel room he was sharing with Matt Lukin, Dan Peters woke to the sound of the telephone. It was his wife: “She said, ‘Have you seen the news? You should turn it on.’ So I did. Matt was in the shower when I saw it: ‘Aw, Jeez.’ So I waited for Matt to come out of the shower and told him what had happened. Everybody was in a daze.” After Kurt Cobain Come October, Mudhoney were ready and loaded their gear downstairs at The Storeroom Tavern in Eastlake, which had a very basic basement space known as The Ranch. They also brought Jack Endino with them and a rented 24-track recording machine. With delicious contrariness, just as the media were declaring grunge dead in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, the band that originally synthesized its component parts were reuniting with the form’s sonic architect. It was the first time they had worked with Endino since 1989. “Right from the get-go it was clear some things had changed,” he says. “The band’s whole vibe had improved, for specific reasons that are best explained by Mark himself. The band wanted to experiment a bit with sounds and instrumentation. And of course, by then I had six more years of experience under my belt.” The recording session was happy and productive, in spite (or because) of taking place beneath a pub. A typical day’s work would end upstairs at the bar, plying dollars into the Store Room’s legendary jukebox— where Western swing king Bob Wills shared needle-time with Fear, Nick Cave, and The Crucifucks. With the tavern a mere half-mile down Capitol Hill from his house, Steve Turner could simply ride his bike there each morning and wobble home at night. “We were having a good time,” he testifies. “Mark was cleaned up and doing great. I think being in Bloodloss was a big influence on his guitar playing. We were all just more together.” The team spirit was sufficiently robust to withstand both guest musicians and guest instruments. Dan Peters dragged his newly purchased marimba into the studio and wielded the mallets in tribute to The Flesh Eaters’ DJ Bonebrake. John Wahl from Clawhammer, a California band that Bob Whittaker was also managing, blew some harmonica, while Ren added tenor sax to “1995,” an apocalyptic rumination upon The Stooges’ “1969.” With the band fully engaged with each other and their music, the creative climate was a marked contrast to the inertia that clouded Piece of Cake. “I was definitely more involved and trying to make a good record,” says Arm. “I was more confident in what the band was doing.” When David Katznelson heard the rough mixes of the album, he was stunned not just by how sharp the material sounded, but the specific content of the songs. Although telephone conversations had proved to him how Mark Arm was refocused (“he was like a different person, someone you could have a normal conversation with”), what took the Warners A&R man’s breath away was the pointed clarity of these new lyrics. “What happened?” he reflects. “Well, Kurt died. And Mudhoney, being a fabulously reactive punk band, wrote a rock opera—although if they ever heard me say that I’d probably lose my testicles—about the impact Nirvana’s fame had on both Kurt and the Seattle movement in general. They sent me the demo and I was just floored. Truly amazed.” One song in particular, a vituperative spasm of rage at the madness that had befallen Seattle, proved to be Mudhoney’s very own “Sonic Reducer.” The song was called “Into Yer Shtik,” and even before it was released it would land Mudhoney in trouble. Buy from an Online Retailer US: The complete story of the band that many consider to have been the inventors of “grunge,” produced with their full cooperation and released on their 25th anniversary. Before everybody fell in love with the “Seattle sound”, Mudhoney was just an unlikely quartet of Seattle-music-scene knockabouts–two college dropouts, a carpenter, and the best drummer in town. In 1988, the band’s debut single, “Touch Me, I’m Sick,” and subsequent EP, Superfuzz Bigmuff, turned the world of indie-rock world on its ear, litghting the way for the grunge movement that would put Seattle on the map. In Mudhoney: The Sound and the Fury from Seattle, veteran music journalist Keith Cameron recounts stories from founding members Mark Arm, Steve Turner, Dan Peters, and Matt Lukin, as well as bassist Guy Maddison. Cameron interviews a large cast of other witnesses to the Mudhoney story, offering insight from Sub Pop label founders Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman, former manager Bob Whittaker, producers Jack Endino and Conrad Uno, and members of contemporary bands like Nirvana, Sonic Youth, and Pearl Jam, among many others. What emerges is an entertaining account of the band that arguably launched grunge, but never sold out. Cameron explores the childhoods and musical influences of each member and offers frank narratives of the Seattle music scene at its frenzied peak, record-business tomfoolery, tour shenanigans, Arm’s 1990s drug use, and more. Most of all, readers will learn how Mudhoney outlasted their more financially successful peers by forging ahead purely on their camaraderie and shared love/vision for the band’s music. Illustrated with a selection of photos from throughoutthe full span of Mudhoney’s history, this is the story of one of the most irreverent–yet most reverently adored–bands of the post-punk, pre-indie-rock era. Share article facebook twitter google pinterest If you have any comments on this article please contact us or get in touch via social media.