The First Great Seattle Band of the '80s Has the Last Laugh in the '90s
By Daina Darzin
"It causes Alzheimer's," Mudhoney bassist Matt Lukin announces cheerfully as he proffers a do-it-yourself bong made out of a strategically punctured and dented Heineken can. Inhaling the aluminum, apparently, is what gets to you. "You gonna write that you go stoned with us?" asks drummer Dan Peters. to Mudhoney, that would be the honest thing to do. Because Lukin, Peters, guitarist Steve Turner and vocalist Mark Arm subscribe to the old-school ethics of punk rock: Make music; have fun; spend most of your money on obscure import records, pot and beer. And they define the enemy as anyone who is phony, glossy self-important or career obsessed. Which doesn't mean that they're adverse to a enjoying a good payday. At the moment, the members of Mudhoney are hanging out at the Roosevelt Hotel, in the heart of Hollywood, having just taped an appearance on Daisy and Chess, a pilot for a Fox sitcom set in a CBGB-type bar - kind of a Cheers for the flannel-and-baggy-shorts set. "We're the steppingstone for other bands to make their mark," deadpans Arm. "We're probably the most important band to be on sitcom TV." Besides, the band notes, Royal Trux turned down the gig. It's easy to see why, too, as Lukin reads part of the script aloud" "It's beginning to get pretty packed. There's a lot of black clothes, plaid shirts, combat boots, pierced body parts.... This is a bunch who is serious about its music." The irony of appearing on a TV spoof on the current alternative rock scene is not lost on Mudhoney. Arguably the most under-hyped band to have emerged from the Puget Sound grunge wars of the early '90s, Mudhoney are relatively new to the big-time media game. Back in 1988, their debut single on Sub Pop, the rip-snorting "Touch Me I'm Sick," was the nascent Seattle scene's song du jour, and Mudhoney's good buddies Nirvana were just an underground band. After firing off several other critically beloved garage-punk torpedoes on Sub Pop (including the 1988 EP Superfuzz Bigmuff and the '91 album Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge), Mudhoney finally signed to a major label, Reprise, and were among the last of the first-generation Seattle bands to make the corporate leap. Mudhoney have just issued the full-length follow-up to 1992's Piece of Cake, a potent blast of attitude and noise called My Brother the Cow, which was co-produced by the band and local studio guru Jack Endino.
But while Mudhoney sell a respectable number of records by press-darling standards, they're not in any immediate danger of becoming overnight stars. Which is fine, they claim. Fame, says Arm with a laugh, "is not really a concern. I don't think we're in any danger of it happening to us."
"We've gotten the same line of questioning for years: 'What will you do if you get famous?'" says Turner. "And we keep saying it ain't gonna happen."
"We understand ourselves," Arm insists, "and the world around us. We're not dillusional."
Actually, as potential mega-stars go, Mudhoney are more like accidental tourists. In the early days, says Turner, "we never sent out demos. It would never occur to me to do that."
Mudhoney didn't have to. The band initially made its reputation as much on the strength of its pedigree than on its manic, engaging, fuzz-box-laden sound. Turner and Arm were in the seminal Seattle group Green River (along with Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament of Pearl Jam). Lukin was in the proto-grunge outfit the Melvins. Peters once drummed with Nirvana. They christened themselves Mudhoney after a Russ Meyer film. Peters says the band members first really felt successful "once we didn't have to have 'real' jobs."
Having completed their sitcom assignment in L.A., Mudhoney are now back in Seattle, settled into the more familiar, comfy pleasures of Ivar's Salmon house - American Indian art and microbrewed beer. Outside, sea gulls and Canadian geese hover closely above some cops eating french fries by Lake Union.
"I've been here since childhood," says Turner. "I was 7 or 8. They gave us paper Indian masks and crayons."
The band members' personal histories are - considering the twisted intensity of their music and the usual line about broken homes and miserable adolescence in most punk-group interviews - remarkably lacking in trauma. Their parents were Boeing workers, classical-music bugs, business people. Mark Arm's mother was an opera singer. Peter's mom sang with a lounge band for a while ("Total 70's Captain and Tennille," he says, laughing).
As youngsters, the guys in Mudhoney all discovered punk rock at a formative age and went on to devote their lives to it. Turner, who was into the geek-and-fuckin'-proud of it look long before the Offspring popularized it, was an obsessive skateboarded whose parent wouldn't let him go to what would have been his first big punk concert. Their worst fears were realized when the show, featuring Black Flag and the Subhumans, turned into a violent fracas, complete with a visit from the riot squad. Turner has since gotten over the disappointment. In addition to being in Mudhoney, he runs his own indie punk record label, Super-Electro.
As adults, Mudhoney are now a band caught in that hard place between passion and career. Recorded in a no-bullshit two weeks at the Ranch - really the basement of the Store Room Tavern on Seat Lake, in Seattle - My Brother the Cow is at once pissed off in its attitude and commercial in its attack. There is a fresh pop sensibility at work amid the cynical fury. "F.D.K. (Fearless Doctor Killers)" is a vicious slam at anti-abortion zealots: "I'm all for life...till the bastard's born/After that, he's on his own/And if he does crime trying to survive/I'll make damn sure he's electrified!" "Orange Ball-Peen Hammer" is based on a real incident in which Arm and Mudhoney manager Bob Whittaker were accosted by home-improvement-tool-wielding rednecks in Florida. Throughout the album, big, fat guitars buffer righteous indignation in a musically adventurous, surprisingly popish shimmer.
Today is the first anniversary of Kurt Cobain's death. Over in Madrona Park, near the Cobain home, forlorn black-clad fans are holding a vigil, bearing flowers and little candles. During the past year, Arm rarely spoke about his friend's suicide. Now, over his beer and salmon, he seems to deal with it through morbid humor. When told about the vigil, Arm - who's side group, Bloodloss, are playing a local club this evening - cracks, "Oh, good. Maybe that'll keep them away from the show tonight."
Arm's vitriolic wit is even sharper on the new album, in particular the song "Into Yer shtik," which is widely rumored to be about Courtney Love: "You're so tormented.... Why don't you blow your brains out, too? ... You make me sick/You're so into your shtik." According to Arm, "Magazines like [Rolling Stone]" inspired the searing "Generation Spokesmodel," which is about "a bunch of out-of-touch kids believing it all and a bunch of out-of-touch rock stars willing to say, 'OK, that's me.'"
In Europe, Mudhoney claims a typical band interview question is "What's it like in Seattle now that grunge has died?"
Arm laughs - bitterly. "We tell them that after Kurt died," he says, "everyone just packed their wagons and moved south to sunnier climes because they figured they'd end up the same way. 'That grunge is evil! It's got bad voodoo! Better get away before I kill myself!'"
What he hates about the selling of Seattle, Arm insists, "has nothing to do with Seattle but more to do with knowing more about what goes on in the music industry. 'Into Yer shtik' could apply to people in corporate offices kissin' ass and shit."
The conversation shifts to other topics - like why Counting Crows suck. "Adult alternative," Arm says with a snort.
"A dull alternative," counters Lukin.
Also, why Aerosmith should stop, in Arm's words, "trying to appeal to 16-year-olds with a face lift. You can age in rock & roll. You can do whatever you want. Aerosmith are trying to pretend they're not as old as they are. That's what bugs me - and they're writing terrible songs."
There are the unwelcome changes that have altered the Seattle skyline. "Woolworth's I s closed," Turner says sadly. "I think its going to be a Planet Hollywood now."
Then there's the matter of the new album's title, My Brother the Cow. The story goes that Renestair E.J., the saxophonist in Arm's band Bloodloss, was easing the pain of his strife-ridden romance with his girlfriend by, as Peter's puts it, "anesthetizing himself with heavy amount of bourbon."
"So we stop at a drive-through," Peters continues, "and he's in the back of the car, passed out. We asked him if he wanted anything, and he kinda came to enough to say, 'I will not eat anything of my brother the cow.' And he passed out again." Now you know.
The talk also turns, one last time, to celebrity. The members of Mudhoney say they don't give a shit about it. But what would they do if it were thrust at them, dropped right in their laps like a baby cousin at a Thanksgiving dinner? Could they handle it if fans started mobbing them at the corner grocery store?
"But, see, if you went to that stone every day, they wouldn't care anymore," Arm argues. "Familiarity breeds..."
"Contempt," Lukin jumps in, finishing the sentence with a laugh. "They're pissed off when you come into their store. 'That guy never has the extra penny! He always takes the extra penny from the penny jar. I thought they had millions!'"