Mark Arm talks with Rock and Roll Globe about Mudhoney’s current tour and the impending anniversary of their first outing with Reprise Records in 1992
Across a Zoom screen, Mark Arm rightfully fucks with me when I ask him if technology has affected the way his band—Mudhoney—creates and releases music.
“We have a couple TikTok-ready hits, I believe, on the new record.” He says it deadpan, staring straight into the camera from the Seattle Sub Pop office where he’s talking. Arm manages the label’s warehouse—he says he focuses on international orders and record store shipments—and has taken a break to talk about the band’s upcoming tour, an eventual new album and the 30th anniversary of Piece of Cake, Mudhoney’s Reprise Records debut that saw them on a major label for the first time and admirably sticking to their indie-guns on where and what they recorded.
I fumble for words.
“It’s not for me, you know?” He kindly digs me out of the interview-hole I dug and fell into. “You know music should change, and the culture is always going to change, and you know, I’m 60—at this point, what the kids are doing now isn’t supposed to speak to me. I mean, it’s great if it does—I’m stoked if it does—but you know, it’s not made for me.”
Split the music that leaked into the mainstream from Seattle during the late 1980s and early 1990s into two distinct arteries—the metal-influenced and the punk-kissed—and you will find a shared wellspring in Green River. Formed in 1984, the band included Arm and Mudhoney’s guitarist—Steve Turner—as well as eventual founding members of Pearl Jam Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard. In the 2012 documentary, I’m Now, Ament identifies a 1987 opening slot with Jane’s Addiction as the fork.
According to Ament in the film, that was Green River’s collective first glimpse of the gutter-witch glam of early Jane’s Addiction. Arm vocalized his distaste for the act to Ament and Gossard who both stood impressed by the performance, Ament said. Green River shortly disbanded. Their disparate views on L.A. rock didn’t cause the split—they just illustrated it. Gossard and Ament moved on to work with vocalist Andrew Wood in Mother Love Bone that same year and later, after Wood’s death in 1990, formed Pearl Jam. Arm and Turner created Mudhoney in 1988.
Slapped with the dubious honor of being grunge’s greatest mystery (why didn’t Mudhoney achieve the same commercial success as Nirvana?), the band’s history can almost be seen as a microcosm of the genre’s journey. Except, in Mudhoney’s case, there’s no sad Candlebox ending. Never diluted, they simply returned from their wanderings out into the great big world of corporate rock with a permanent case of the no-thank-yous and signed back with their mother label, Sub Pop.
That major label interlude yielded three records, the first of which—Piece of Cake—was released on October 13, 1992. Thirty years ago, Reprise Records dished out an advance to Arm and company (at the time comprised of Matt Lukin on bass, Dan Peters on drums and Turner on guitar)—and they did exactly what they had always done: they recorded a loud, dark, energetic and clever album.
“The major label had really nothing to do with the recording that we recorded, and we made a point of recording in the same studio where we recorded the previous record—Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge (1991, Sub Pop)—which is in the basement of Conrad Uno’s house. We got a recording advance and part of that actually went to Conrad who ended up buying a 16-track machine and kind of upgrading from his 8-track, and I think we might have done better to stick with the 8-track. I think Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge has just a superior kind of sonic quality to it. Piece of Cake just sounds maybe a hair thin to me,” Arm says.
If the album registers thin in places, it only supports the lo-fi punk crunch that dominates its songs. Divided by four untitled, half-minute instrumental tracks—snippets, Arm calls them—Piece of Cake still plays fresh and delivers 13 full-fledged, unmistakably Mudhoney songs. For the sake of convenience, this humble writer has made up names for the “snippets” and will address the songs that comprise the album in acts, which said writer has also made up.
(“Untitled I: Techno”) “No End In Sight,” “Make It Now,” “When In Rome”
From jump, the drums drive “No End In Sight.” Peters moves this opening cut while the strings keep up throughout. The second song, “Make It Now,” gives listeners a taste of the psychedelic side of Turner’s guitar while Lukin’s bass melodically runs beneath it. In the bridge, Arm’s vocals wax almost prayerful—a hint of church incense breathes through his cadence as he sings, “…no more darkness, no room for light.” “When In Rome” begins with an organ run from Arm that drips Pink Floyd before it builds into an anthemic tune that asks a question possibly more relevant now than when it was written: “When it all burns down, what you gonna do?”
(“Untitled 2: I’m So Sad I’m Gonna Scream Now”) “Suck You Dry,” “Blinding Sun,” “Thirteenth Floor Opening,” “Youth Body Expression Explosion,” “I’m Spun”
Act II contains some of the strongest cuts off the record. The guitars on “Suck You Dry” groove and buzz while Arm snarls out lyrics that read like the confessions of everyone’s worst ex. The quick pace and full, melodic sound of “Blinding Sun” throughout the verse allow the drawn-out screams of Arm’s chorus refrain—“…whaat haave Iii dooone…”—to hit just right. It’s pure anguish set to music. “Thirteenth Floor Opening” sludges and dooms and slithers from start to finish (rumor has it, if you play the track backwards while burning nag champa, The Black Angels will appear). The two-minute instrumental “Youth Body Expression Explosion” comes in semi-frantically next. It feels like the music that might play while fighting the boss in a Mudhoney video game. “I’m Spun,” the act’s closer, blisters and channels Page-esque guitar sex in its main riff.
VIDEO: Mudhoney “Suck You Dry”
(“Untitled 3: Giddy-up”) “Take Me There,” “Living Wreck,” “Let Me Let You Down”
Section opener “Take Me There” proves that marimbas aren’t always cheerful. Darkness oozes from the track in both music and lyrics, and Peters’ drums make the whole thing slink along. On “Living Wreck,” Mudhoney’s punk roots show in the bouncy rhythm and hint of surf twang in the guitars. The sarcastic refrain—”shoot for the stars, my my how lucky you are”—makes one wonder who Arm is singing about. The dirty funk of “Let Me Let You Down” is punctuated with tambourine hits and just enough organ. Any more and it would be overkill, but they strike the necessary balance that allows it to complement the song rather than dominate it.
(“Untitled 4: Armpit or Mouth?”) “Ritzville,” “Acetone”
The vocal delivery on two-and-one-half minute “Ritzville” carries echoes of The Dead Milkmen.
The energetic blitz showcases all the fun and deep-fuzz distortion that the band is known for, which makes the album’s closer—“Acetone”—stand out even more than it already would. Acoustic, dismal and oddly sweet, Arm tone-sets with the very first words: “Good morning, dear, I think I’m losing it…”
On my screen, Arm chuckles slightly, “We actually got an anti-fan letter from someone—back in the days of letters—that said, ‘I used to like you guys until I heard “Acetone.”’ I guess it was too clean or something.”
“Acetone” and all, a translucent green vinyl reissue of Piece of Cake comes out through Music On Vinyl on May 6. Arm says the band is working with Rhino Records, as well, on a box set that will cover all of Mudhoney’s Reprise releases.
These days—anchored by Sub Pop, band members settled into lives with children or work or partners—Arm says there is no rush involved in anything Mudhoney does. The band—now Arm, Turner, Peters and Guy Maddison on bass (Lukin left the band and returned to carpentry in 2001 under no circumstances other than he was just done)—has been recording but there’s no release date set yet for the new album.
“We’re pretty much done except for mixing, and we’ll do that after we get back from tour. Nothing can be scheduled at Sub Pop until you turn in a master,” he says. “So no urgency. There’s no need to strike while the iron is hot—there’s no hot iron anywhere here involved.”
Today’s Mark Arm vibes much like he did during Mudhoney’s heyday; he’s smart, smiling and never takes himself too seriously.
The tour—which has sold out several of its stops already—kicked off on April 29 in Portland, Oregon and winds its way east and south all through May before it rounds back up to Washington in early June. The band will take the summer off, Arm says, before heading to Europe for 28 dates starting in September.
I tell him it sounds grueling.
“That’s how we generally tour. Usually with maybe one day off a week. I mean, Mike Watt tours without taking any days off—I don’t know how he does it. This tour has a fair amount of long drives, so it’s going to be, I think, fairly brutal.”
Most of the venues, he says, are on the smaller side—anywhere from 200 to 900 capacity rooms.
“Chicago was the first to sell out on the tour,” Arm says, “because it was such a small place, and I think they actually reduced capacity due to Covid … We have a unique perspective on it for a touring band, because our bass player is a nurse, right? And Guy was at the forefront of dealing with Covid when it first erupted. And it first erupted here in the Pacific Northwest. One thing that we have with all our venues that we’re playing is they have to agree to—and I think this is the safest thing for everyone involved—to make vaccines a requirement for entry. No testing loophole. That way, if Covid is floating around, everyone there has the best chance of survival … I think as long as cases are relatively low and hospitalizations are pretty low, then I think people do need a break from wearing masks all the time. But if you gather indoors with a bunch of people in poor ventilation, you should probably wear a mask … I’m not willing to get fucking stabbed over it, right? I feel so bad for some of those poor people who were working at dollar stores or whatever and got beat up or murdered because they were trying to enforce it. People are fucking nuts.”
At one point, I ask him if he ever thinks about the poetry of Mudhoney’s return to Sub Pop and his day job in the warehouse.
“It’s a great place for me to work. I have some old, old really good friends who work here and some newer ones, so that’s awesome. It’s a good atmosphere for me. I obviously don’t have to dress up or anything like that. I don’t have to present myself in a manner that’s acceptable to whatever corporation I’m working with. I can just be myself,” he says.
I ask him if he thinks about those years much, the ones that led up to Piece of Cake.
“I don’t really. I don’t really think about it unless I’m being asked about it. It’s not something I dwell on. It’s not something like, ‘Man, that was so fucking awesome. I wish it could be like that now.’ I would be a sad person, just clinging to the past. That’s a recipe for unhappiness,” he says.
Mark Arm might be the nicest, most well-adjusted rockstar on the planet.
THU, May 5 Off Broadway, St Louis, MO
FRI, May 6 Empty Bottle, Chicago, IL
SAT, May 7 Magic Bag, Ferndale, MI
SUN, May 8 Southgate House, Newport, KY
TUE, May 10 Outside at Gifford’s Bacon, Nashville , TN
WED, May 11 House of Blues (LA), New Orleans, LA
THU, May 12 Heights Theater, Houston, TX (W/ Meat Puppets Co-Headlin)
FRI, May 13 Kessler Theater, Dallas, TX (W/ Meat Puppets Co-Headline)
SAT, May 14 Antone’s, Austin, TX (W/ Meat Puppets Co-Headline)
SUN, May 15 Antone’s, Austin, TX (W/ Meat Puppets Co-Headline)
TUE, May 17 Tumbleroot Brewery, Santa Fe, NM (W/ Meat Puppets Co-Headline)
WED, May 18 191 Toole, Tuscon, AZ (W/ Meat Puppets Co-Headline)
THU, May 19 Soda Bar, San Diego, CA (W/ Meat Puppets Co-Headline)
FRI, May 20 Regent Theater, Los Angeles, CA (W/ Meat Puppets Co-Headline)
SAT, May 21 Great American Music Hall, San Francisco, CA (W/ Meat Puppets Co-Headline)
SUN, May 22 Great American Music Hall, San Francisco, CA (W/ Meat Puppets Co-Headline)
SUN, Jun 5 Wild Buffalo , Bellingham, WA (w Machine Animal) Tickets
WED, Sep 7 O2 – The Ritz, Manchester, United Kingdom
THU, Sep 8 SWG3 , Glasgow, United Kingdom
FRI, Sep 9 Rock City, Nottingham, United Kingdom
SAT, Sep 10 Electric Ballroom, London, United Kingdom
SUN, Sep 11O2 Academy Bristol , Bristol, United Kingdom
MON, Sep 12 Concorde 2, Brighton, United Kingdom
THU, Sep 15 Razzmatazz, Barcelona, Spain
FRI, Sep 16 Visor Festival , Murcia, Spain
SAT, Sep 17 Alhambra Monkey Day, Sevilla, Spain
SUN, Sep 18 Mon Live, Madrid, Spain
TUE, Sep 20 Paloma, Nîmes, France
WED, Sep 21 La Cooperative de Mai, Clermont-Ferrand, France
THU, Sep 22 Rock School Barbey, Bordeaux, France
FRI, Sep 23 Temps Machine , Tours, France
SAT, Sep 24 Festival Détonation, Besancom , France
SUN, Sep 25 La Maroquinerie, Paris, France
TUE, Sep 27 Zakk , Düsseldorf, Germany
THU, Sep 29 Vega, Copenhagen, Denmark
THU, Sep 29 Gleis 22, Münster, Germany
FRI, Sep 30 Hole 44, Berlin, Germany
SAT, Oct 1 Paradiso North, Tolhuistuin , Netherlands
SUN, Oct 2 UT Connewitz, Leipzig, Germany
TUE, Oct 4 Lucerna Music Bar (LMB), Prague, Czech Republic
WED, Oct 5 Kino Ebensee, Ebensee, Austria
THU, Oct 6 Teatro Polivalente Occupato, Bologna, Italy
FRI, Oct 7 Fri-Son, Fribourg, Switzerland
SAT, Oct 8 Het Depot, Leuven, Belgium
SUN, Oct 9 Doornroosje, Nijmegen, Netherlands