Mudhoney’s Mark Arm on Pot Brownies, Working for Muzak and Lowered Expectations

Mudhoney’s Mark Arm (left) drinking red wine with his band. Photo: Emile Raimen

Mudhoney frontman Mark Arm makes me sad for Kurt Cobain. Arm’s band was never as huge as Nirvana, but in the late ’80s and early ’90s, they were college radio darlings. (If you were youngish during that era and somebody made you a mixtape, “Touch Me I’m Sick” was likely on it.) Mudhoney was not just the first Seattle success story from Sub Pop — the legendary label celebrating their 25th anniversary this year (as is Mudhoney) — but Arm also supposedly invented the term “grunge.” (In 1981, he described his band at the time in a Seattle zine as “Pure grunge! Pure noise! Pure shit!”). Mudhoney got a lot of attention, made a few awesome videos, signed with a major label, were briefly everybody’s favorite band, and then got dropped by their label when grunge stopped being popular.

And what happened next? Mudhoney kept making records. They’re nowhere near as huge as they were 20 years ago. Ask most people who came of age in the ’90s if they remember Mudhoney and they’ll say, “Weren’t they on the Singles soundtrack?” But they’re still making music — they’ve released a new album last week, Vanishing Point, that will be enjoyed by a small but loyal audience. And they support themselves with day jobs. When not touring, Arm works as a warehouse manager for Sub Pop, the same label that made his band semi-famous. He packs boxes full of CDs and vinyl records and send them to record stores and sometimes customers who like getting their music in non-downloadable form. That’s what he does all day. The guy who made grunge music possible works with packing peanuts. And that’s just the way he likes it.

I called Arm to talk about the new album. It felt like catching up with an old friend you haven’t seen since college.

I’m listening to the lyrics to the first single, “I Like It Small.” You’re singing about preferring “minimum production” and “dingy basements.” Were you being genuine, or is that some of that famous Generation X irony?

Well, I’d rather not play dingy basements. But you know, we do like working on a small scale. So I guess it’s mostly true. If you’re talking about life philosophies, I feel like it’s about being Gladys Knight without the Pips.

You don’t need any Pips?

Nobody does. Gladys doesn’t need any backup singers. She’s fine.

The Pips could go and do their own thing.

Yeah! Each individual Pip could do their own thing. Be free and independent, Pips.

Is Mudhoney exactly as big as you want it to be?

It’s perfectly fine, yeah. I think we’re in a lucky place where we’re big enough that we can go to places around the world and people want to come and see us perform. I don’t really know what it’s like to be in a huge band. If your whole source of income is your music, it changes everything. It’s like, “Well, how will this effect our audience when we release it?” Those are questions you have to think about.

Whether they’ll like it or … ?

Whether they’ll buy it. Because you’re like, “I have a couple of kids, they need to go to college.” For us, those kinda things are taken care of with our other jobs. We’re not doing Mudhoney for the money.

Sammy Hager told me that when he toured with Van Halen, they had sex tents under the stage.

Sex what? What the fuck?

Sex tents.

What the fuck is a sex tent?

A tent under the stage so they could take a break during the show and go have sex with groupies. Does Mudhoney have anything like that?

That is fucking insane. “Oh man, I’m in the middle of this two and a half hour set, I don’t think I can make it all the way through without fucking somebody.”

I think that’s the general idea.

That is the most insane thing I’ve ever heard. “I can’t even wait until after the show. I’ve got a boner so hard right now, I’ve just got to fuck somebody. Get me a tent!” That’s so weird.

When you’re belting out “Jump” every night, sometimes you need a sex break.

Did Sammy Hager sing “Jump?”

Not the original, but he probably sang it on tour, right?

I don’t think so. Isn’t he the “Right Here Right Now” guy? Or am I thinking of Jesus Jones?

So if you don’t have sex tents, what are the Mudhoney touring perks? Any crazy stuff waiting for you in the backstage dressing rooms?

It’s usually a couple of snacks and some booze. On more recent tours, especially in Europe, I’ve come up with some nice general guidelines for a wine rider that hopefully people will pay attention to.

Are you asking for specific vintages or years?

In Europe it’s kind of easy to go by region. So if you’re in Italy, it would be, “We’d like something from Piedmont or Tuscany.” It’s very bourgie.

Not nearly as rock star sexy as sex tents.

I don’t think sex tents under your stage are sexy at all. It just sounds gross.

This coming from a man who sang about GG Allin while pretending to wipe poop on plexiglassin a music video.

It was a brownie.

The poop?

Yeah. Some of the people who helped us do the video, they said, “Oh, the best way to make fake poop is just get a brownie and wet it to your preferred consistency.” And since we shot it in Washington state, where marijuana is legal, you can only imagine what kind of brownie that was.

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