Mudhoney's Mark Arm on Pot Brownies, Working for Muzak and Lowered Expectations
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?
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.
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.
It was a pot brownie?
It was a little green, yeah.
So what you're telling us is, the best way to represent GG Allin's poop is with a pot brownie?
Absolutely. The thing about pot brownies, you can get them anywhere now in Washington. It's insane. There's no law anymore.
Is it forced on you? Are you getting stoned whether you want to or not?
No, no, it's not mandatory. Not yet.
Pardon my ignorance. I haven't been to the Pacific Northwest in a few years, and my pot-smoking years are mostly behind me.
Mine too, that's why I choose brownies. [Laughs.]
You know what I loved about the GG Allin poop joke in your "I Like It Small" video? It's kind of a litmus test for coolness. That joke isn't funny unless you've seen a few GG Allin videos on YouTube and then lost sleep because you couldn't get those horrible images out of your head.
Yeah, that's very true.
Were you a GG fan, back in the day?
Oh god no. No, absolutely not. I remember when his earliest singles popped up, back in the very early '80s. My friend and I had a fanzine, and we would get his singles. This was in the middle of hardcore, and his singles at that time were kind of pop-punk songs, but with really retarded lyrics like "Girls, girls, girls, gimme gimme gimme some heeeeeeead!" Or like, "I'm gonna RAPE you." Compared to bands like Void or the Necros or Negative Approach or even Minor Threat, who were like good guys, GG's stuff just sounded so weak and impotent. Which, you know, once you see GG Allin with his pants down, you realize what his fucking problem was.
His death was unfortunate, but kinda necessary. Can you imagine a 56 year-old GG Allin in 2013, still touring, playing "I Kill Everything I Fuck" for college kids?
I don't believe that's true. I don't think he did that.
You don't think he really died?
No, no, I'm pretty sure he's dead. I don't think he killed everything he fucked.
You suspect he was exaggerating?
Yeah. I don't think he could back that up. I think he fucked a few people who were like, "Eh, whatever," and then they just left.
That's another way that GG Allin and Mudhoney were very different.
[Laughs.] We don't pretend to kill people with intercourse?
Your songs, unlike GG's, are all about honesty. I mean, look at the new album. You got a song called "Chardonnay," which is just about how you don't like chardonnay.
That shit is true.
"Get the fuck out of my backstage/ I hate you chardonnay." I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that's based on a real experience.
Well, it started with a riff, and we were like, "Oh fuck, we have a hardcore song." But how do you write a hardcore song when you're in your 50s? I can't sing about how I hate my parents or school sucks. You know? But what really bothers me these days? It's when the bookers don't fucking pay attention to the fucking riders and we get chardonnay. I seriously do fucking hate chardonnay.
I know you've been compared to Iggy Pop before, but as you get older, you're starting to look more and more like him.
[Laughs.] Oh come on.
I mean that in a good way. You've got the same interesting face wrinkles as Iggy.
Well okay. I'll take that as a compliment.
Are you going to continue to follow in his footsteps? Will you be the 65-year-old grizzled and shirtless rock god?
I highly doubt that. Iggy's always gone shirtless, and I never have. I don't have the body to pull that off.
Does old age suit you? Not that you're old.
Yeah, I know what you mean. I actually do like being older. The bummer part is you're closer to the end, and you're more aware of it. But I'm definitely happier than when I was in my 20s and most of my 30s.
Did your expectations just get lower?
I think I'm just more comfortable in my own skin. And my expectations, well ... [Laughs.] They didn't get lower, they've been lowered. But I've never had great expectations anyway.
You didn't think Mudhoney could become your day job?
We came up through hardcore, and the bands we listened to in 1981, there was no possibility of playing to more than a couple hundred people at a time. If you went to California and got a gig in LA, maybe 1200 kids would show up, but that was the exception. Even the biggest hardcore bands at the time, like Dead Kennedys and Black Flag, there were still a ceiling to how big they were going to get. No one was going to become a millionaire playing punk rock.
But when you're younger, you still anticipate the possibilities. If you're 20 and you're the warehouse manager for Sub Pop, there's a part of your brain that goes, "This is just some bullshit job to pay the bills until something better comes along."
Yeah, I guess. When I was in my 20s, I had lots of shitty jobs. I worked for Seattle FilmWorks, a film processing company which doesn't exist anymore because nobody uses film in their cameras. And I worked for Muzak, which I'm not sure if it exists anymore.
Muzak as in elevator music?
Yeah. A lot of people from Sub Pop worked there. It was like a job where scumbags could get work, duplicating tapes of Muzak and stuff for restaurants and elevators and department stores.
How do you mean duplicating?
We had one master tape of all the music and a table of eight recording decks. You just loaded in the blank tapes and they would duplicate in real time.
Wow. I understand what you're saying, but try to explain that to somebody in their late teens or early 20s. It'd be like explaining how you had to hand-crank a Model T engine.
Yeah, you're probably right. I remember they had this recycling program. Not for ecological reasons, but because the manager was so fucking cheap and he was like, "Let's have the cartridges sent back and we'll recycle them and sell them again." The cartridges looked like 8-tracks -- they were a different shape but it was essentially the same idea -- and we'd get them back and clean them with this spray stuff called spooge.
I'm sorry, spooge?
Yeah. I swear that was the actual chemical name. You'd basically open up these cartridges and rub them down with spooge and throw out the parts that were broken. We worked in a tiny, noisy, awful-smelling dirty room. But my co-workers were all guys with bands. I worked with people like Tad Doyle from TAD and Grant Eckman from the Walkabouts.
When did you finally quit?
When Mudhoney went on our first tour. I was very tempted, on the way out, to pour sugar in the manager's gas tank. I didn't, because I'm a nice enough guy. But it wasn't a job I was going to miss.
Did you quit because you thought Mudhoney might be a dependable source of income?
I don't think so. I mean, I wasn't deluded. After I came back from the tour, I moved right in with my girlfriend and her mom. I gave up my apartment. It was not a prime situation.
And now here you are, in your 50s, working at the Sub Pop warehouse.
I think I did okay.
I want to imagine that the Sub Pop warehouse is like that warehouse in the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. There are secrets hidden somewhere in there. Like a "Touch Me I'm Sick" 7-inch that's recorded entirely in Spanish.
[Long pause.] No.
[We both burst into laughter.]
Sorry if I'm bursting your bubble. It's pretty well organized in there. There aren't any weird warehouse finds. There are some records from the olden days that we still have a few copies of, like old singles and stuff. But anything that's worth anything is long gone.
Do you still get residuals for old Mudhoney records?
Oh yeah, all the time.
What's your biggest paycheck? Is it the Singles soundtrack?
That's probably the biggest, at least for an individual album. But I'm not sure if it's for the movie or the soundtrack. It could be a combination of both. But even then, the money isn't huge.
What's a typical check amount?
Maybe $150 on the high end. We get bigger checks from ASCAP, which handles all our publishing. But it's not like you can survive on that. Maybe twice a year there'll be a check for $1500 or something. And you get to split that four ways.
But it's still money, 20-plus years after you recorded most of those songs. Not a lot of bands can say that.
You're right, that's true. There are two trajectories for a band that was big 20 years ago. A handful of them will go on to some sort of legendary status or whatever and their records will keep selling. But most of them kind of get forgotten, even if they were really super popular for the years that they were around.
Do you see that a lot? Is there anybody on the Sub Pop label who was forgotten that you think should still be relevant?
Zen Guerrilla. During the '90s, I thought they were gonna be around forever. I loved that band. But no one buys their records anymore. We have a handful that've just sort of been sitting there in the warehouse. It's kind of a shame, but you can't make people buy music.
There are already too many options out there.
There really are. There are a million other new bands putting out music right now. No one's gonna listen to an old guy saying, "Hey, you should check out Zen Guerrilla! They were really, really, really good." It just makes me sad. The good stuff, sometimes the great stuff, ends up getting forgotten.
Mudhoney's new album, Vanishing Point, is out now on Sub Pop.