Mudhoney frontman Mark Arm discusses his lasting career in rock
One of the earliest memories that Mark Arm has involving rock music dates back to when he was just a toddler and would go around singing the chorus from the Beatles’ hit single “She Loves You.” He doesn’t recall having heard the song in its entirety up to that point, but Arm said that when his family moved to the United States from Germany, where his father was stationed with the military, the song was just “something that was in the air amongst other 4-year-olds.”
Though the Beatles’ tune was a far cry from the audacious and grimy style he would later generate in the 1980s with bands like Green River and Mudhoney, it was a start. Arm’s journey to helping found the two aforementioned seminal bands of “grunge” — the sound that merged punk, metal and garage music in an angsty cocktail that would grip the nation through the early ’90s — didn’t happen overnight. It took the right combination of timing and geography, and a big nudge from the punk movement to get him there.
“I guess when I was growing up, it just kind of seemed like that would be a cool thing,” Arm said, of his adolescent desire to join a rock band. “Also, my mother was really into classical music and she thought rock ‘n’ roll was terrible, so that made it that much more attractive.”
Arm’s mother started him on piano lessons to push him towards her musical leanings when he was around 5 years old. When he eventually got old enough to tell her that he no longer wanted to pursue the piano, his musical journey nearly stopped there. But in 1980, when he was 18 years old, Arm started to take interest in another instrument.
After splitting the cost — and ownership — of his first guitar with his good friend Jo Smitty, Arm said his early experiences with the instrument amounted to “just kind of making noise.”
“When Smitty and I went in on a guitar together, we had no idea how to tune a guitar, or that (tuning) was even such a thing,” said Arm. “We didn’t know anything about chords. Basically, we just started plugging it in and getting feedback.”
Most often, Arm and Smitty would practice playing at the house of their buddy Darren Morey, who had a drum set in his bedroom. Inspired by the punk movement’s eruption in the late-1970s, the three would eventually form the first official band Arm would play in — Mr. Epp and the Calculations.
“(The punk movement) was hugely influential, because I had kind of grown up listening to the radio. In the ’70s, there was just this whole idea that to be in a band you had to be a good musician. There was kind of this conundrum, a catch-22,” said Arm. “Punk rock — and not just punk rock, but industrial music and post-punk stuff like PIL (Public Image Ltd) — just made everything seem just completely wide open.
“When I heard that first Flipper single, it was just like, ‘Oh, okay, I think we can do this,'” he added. “The idea was just that as long as there was a good drum beat, you can just do whatever you want on top of it. Luckily, Darren was a really good drummer.”
Another aspect of the punk and post-punk movements that appealed to Arm was how much more interactive those shows were. Unlike the “passive” realm of arena music, where fans would basically sit on the sidelines and watch a show, these concerts offered a much more interactive experience. One show in particular that Arm said left him “blown away” was when he went to see the new wave/post-punk band Devo play on the “Freedom of Choice” tour right before he went to college, in the late summer of 1980.
“Everyone in the venue was pogoing basically — it was a venue that had a sprung dance floor, and the whole place was just bouncing up and down,” Arm said. “I tried to get as close to the stage as I could, and I ended up with basically just one person between me and the stage. Then I got knocked in the head by Bob 1 (Mothersbaugh), who was in the middle of a guitar solo, because I reached up and grabbed the neck of his guitar.
“All of that was just something that would never happen at an arena show,” he added.
Eventually, Mr. Epp and the Calculations would dissolve, leaving Arm mostly bandless — but not for long.
During Mr. Epp’s run, the group enlisted the help of guitarist Steve Turner. When they broke up, Arm and Turner would go on to create Green River — a band that would also include future Pearl Jam founders Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, among others.
Green River was far from a commercial success, but left a huge fingerprint on the Northwest’s musical landscape. Despite being together for just four years, the band is widely regarded as one of the pioneering acts of “grunge,” with many considering the group’s “Come on Down” EP as the first truly grunge album.
After things drew to an end with Green River, Arm and Turner would then create their most enduring group in 1988 — Mudhoney — which still goes strong 31 years later.
The band, also including drummer Dan Peters and bassist Matt Lukin (Lukin was replaced by Guy Maddison in 1999), had an undeniable influence on the Seattle music scene that would later be catapulted into the mainstream following the commercial success of Nirvana’s “Nevermind.”
In a just world, Mudhoney would be the group that most people remember when they look back at that point in music history, and Arm and his bandmates would be sitting on mounds of cash. But such is life.
Today, the middle-aged rocker works as the the Warehouse Manager for Sub Pop Records — the same label that Mudhoney got its start with. But even with a day job, Arm has no plans of hanging up his guitar and microphone in the near future.
Mudhoney continues adding to its ever-growing discography, which now includes 10 full-length albums, five EPs and six live albums. Just last year, the band released its “Digital Garbage” record, and recently announced plans to put out a new EP named “Morning in America” on Sept. 20.
Soon, the group will be headed out on a new tour that will see them playing in Philadelphia (Oct. 6) and Pittsburgh (Oct. 17).
I recently caught up with Arm to discuss Mudhoney, touring and the legacy of grunge.
NS: Mudhoney always seems like a band that never takes itself too seriously. Why is that?
Arm: Being in a band is not, like, an important thing — it doesn’t make anyone important or anything. It should just totally be about fun. I mean, the music that we make, we take that pretty seriously. But all of the trappings of being in a band are pretty absurd.
NS: How would you say Mudhoney’s audience has evolved through the years?
Arm: The crowds have thankfully mellowed out since the early-’90s, when everybody was just trying to stage dive; and kicking people in the face and stuff like that. That is a welcome change. And, you know, of course our audience has grown older with us. But it always seems like there are younger people — I think probably because we are tied to this whole ‘grunge’ thing, new generations of kids keep learning about it, and they are grunge-curious and they want to come out and see what it’s all about.
NS: Does the ‘grunge’ label hold any significance for you?
Arm: It is a place-holder, it doesn’t mean anything to me. It is just kind of shorthand for a handful of bands from the Pacific Northwest at a certain era.
NS: How did it feel when you first started to see the Seattle music scene start to explode in the ’90s?
Arm: We thought it was happening in like ’89 — that was around the time that we first went to the UK and Europe, and stuff like that. Friends of ours were doing the same thing, and things were getting written about in fanzines and maybe even a little bit in the nationwide rock magazines. We had no idea what ’91 or ’92 would bring. Things just went beyond — bands were getting written about in Time Magazine; not us, other people.
NS: How did it feel when that scene faded out?
Arm: I mean, there was clearly a backlash to our thing following the death of Kurt Cobain. I think people were like “we’re tired of this bummer music,” which was weird to me because most of the people I know in these bands have very good senses of humor. Maybe it doesn’t come across in their presentation or in their music, but all of the dead people I knew were funny people.
NS: What were the biggest differences between recording with Sub Pop and recording with Reprise?
Arm: The first two records that we did on Reprise, it was kind of like recording with Sub Pop, except that maybe the budget was a little bigger — but we didn’t use the entire budget. It wasn’t until the third and final record — “Tomorrow Hit Today” — that there was any kind of, I don’t know if pressure is the right word, but we were almost dropped. There was a new President or something of Reprise, and this guy, I can’t remember his name, but he basically got the job because he produced the breakthrough Sugar Ray record. And, you know, the first thing someone does when they first get into a new position is that they kind of clean house a little bit and rearrange the deck chairs to kind of show people that they are the boss. So, our heads were on the chopping block, and in retrospect it might have been better to have just left at that point. But if we had, we wouldn’t have been able to record that record the way we had, because we wouldn’t have had the budget.
NS: Do you have a favorite Mudhoney album?
Arm: I think “Superfuzz” was a pretty good opening statement, and “Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge” I think was cool because it kind of went in more of a garage direction and away from the heavier rock stuff. It is hard for me to be objective about that.
NS: How do your family obligations affect touring these days?
Arm: There is that and jobs — those are the two biggest factors. Conversely, I don’t think any of us would want to be in a band that just tours constantly, and that is our sole support system. I think that would be a grind and kind of take the joy out of playing shows, if we just viewed touring as “this is our obligation and this is how we feed our families.” Right now, this is just our way of still getting kicks.
NS: What is your ideal venue to play?
Arm: It depends on the size of the crowd, right? It is terrible to play a bigger club when there is only like 75 people there; that is just dumb. I don’t really enjoy festival and arena shows that much, because it just seems like you are pretty far removed from the audience — there is always a huge barrier between the stage and the first row of people. Maybe we are just not the kind of band that projects to the back row of an arena that well. I prefer it to be a close, tight-knit and intimate setting.
NS: Why have you and Steve continued to play music together for so long?
Arm: I think it is (the chemistry). I mean, obviously, there is friendship; but there is definitely like this kind of chemistry that happens when we play together. I think that is definitely the case if you include Guy and Dan as well.
NS: Do you think the internet has helped or hindered the music industry?
Arm: It makes it easier for word to get around, I guess. I think it might also be a little bit distracting, because it’s like “here is this cool thing and now here is this other cool thing.” As opposed to the old days, when you had to read about something in the newspaper or in a fanzine, and just save up your money and go to the record store and buy a record or a couple of records. You didn’t have a whole bunch of music out there that you could just easily access, so you really kind of dug into the records that you had in front of you.
NS: What would you be doing today if your career in music hadn’t gone the way it did?
Arm: You mean besides working at the Sub Pop warehouse? I suppose I would have made more of an effort to have a career or something. I don’t know what, maybe a fireman or an astronaut.