Mark Arm Speaks!
By Sean Moriarity
The typical UW English major may find it difficult to believe that he or she will ever amount to anything remotely important or worthwhile, assuming the inevitable doom of a largely uninteresting and wholly unfulfilling career as a well-read copy editor or fact checker. although only a few chosen elite will ever be able to become the next Michael Crichton or Ellery Queen, many English students fail to consider the lucrative, groupie-saturated path of rock stardom.
Mark Arm, lead singer and guitarist for the Seattle grunge supergroup Mudhoney, graduated from UW in March 1985 - earning an English degree with an emphasis in creative writing. In keeping with true punk rock fashion, Arm did not attend the graduation ceremony.
"You only get a tube, right?" Arm asked. "You don't even get your diploma until afterwards, in the mail. What's the point in that?"
"I did the whole cap and gown thing in high school. The only reason to attend those things is so that you make your parents happy - I think they were happy enough that I graduated from college."
Coincidentally, Arm's father called during my lengthy telephone conversation with him. After returning from the other line, Arm mentioned that he didn't want to tell his dad that he was doing an interview - lest his dad mistakenly believe that he was engaged in "an interview for a real job."
Outside of a two-year stint at Muzak - a Seattle company that produces light instrumental versions of modern hits for use in elevators and shopping malls - Mudhoney is the only real job Arm has ever had. "I'm pretty unskilled," he laughed. "I've got nothing."
"I'm kind of mad at Steve (Turner)," Arm said of Mudhoney's black-haired, bespectacled guitarist. "At least he has a two-year degree in woodworking. In lean times, he has something to fall back on."
Mudhoney, which formed in 1988, just recently celebrated their tenth anniversary. Since their conception, Mudhoney have retained all of their original members - a somewhat rare occurrence in the music industry. "It's been such a great job," said Arm, "nobody's wanted to leave."
Characterized by fuzzy distortion and noisy, restless solos, Mudhoney helped propel Seattle music to the foreground in the late '80s and early '90s. Their latest album, Tomorrow Hit Today, was released a few months ago to critical acclaim. After a brief December tour in California and Arizona, Mudhoney toured Australia to rock in the blazing January sun.
On the subject of his university training, Arm admitted that he was "painted into a corner between philosophy and creative writing." although eventually gravitating towards writing, Arm did once share a philosophy class with a fellow Seattle rock veteran - Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil.
"Kim would show up for class an absolute minimum of 10 minutes late, and most of the time, it was closer to 20."
"And up until the time he showed up," Arm laughed, "the class would be engaged in an average, level-headed discussion. But as soon as Kim walked in, he would jump right in and argue about everything - even if what he said went against his own personal beliefs! The poor professor ... he would wince when he saw Kim."
Arm also commented on the occasionally oppressive atmosphere of 1985 UW. "That was also a different time. If you had really short, dyed hair, and you weren't obviously a jock or a member of the rowing crew, you could be the victim of harassment."
"It's different now. Now everybody has piercings and metal rods in their bodies. But there was a time at school in which you could have been beaten up for your beliefs, just because you didn't look the same as everybody else."
Arm writes 99 percent of Mudhoney's lyrics, although he did not take any poetry writing classes at UW. He instead concentrated on short story writing, studying works by John Cheever and Raymond Carver.
"At first I wasn't really into that type of writing. I was more interested in Kafka and Faulkner - things with more of a fantastical quality. But I eventually began to appreciate the way in which those other authors were able to take everyday life and illustrate it in an appealing and interesting way."
To this day, Arm continues to read fine literature. His current recommendation is Victor Gutierrez's latest tell-all, Michael Jackson Was My Lover.
"There's some really amazing shit in here," Arm attested. "If even 2 percent of what [Gutierrez] says is true, then Michael Jackson is the most evil person in the world."
Arm began to read aloud choice excerpts from the borderline-libelous volume (currently unavailable in the United States) commenting on the occasional misspellings and improper grammatical constructions found within.
"The poor grammar and frequent misspellings only add to the book's charm," he says.
Arm's real last name is actually the decidedly uncool "McLaughlin," a name which he still uses for such mundane trivialities such as "applying for credit card loans" and "renting videos."
He explained the story behind his punk alias: "Everybody in a hardcore act from the early '80s had a made-up name," Arm said. "Real 'tough-guy' sounding names like 'Bob Noxious' or 'Joey Shithead.' Usually, the member would change his last name to match the name of the band - 'The Fartz' had everybody with the last name 'Fartz'. The drummer was 'Loud Fartz,' not a far cry from his real name 'Lloyd.'"
Arm traces his own last name back to his first band, Mr. Epp and the Calculations. When Mark McLaughlin and bandmate Jeff Smith decided to change their names to fit the punk rock scene, Smith settled on "Joe Smitty" and McLaughlin chose "Mark Arm."
"Joe Smitty!" Arm exclaimed. "I asked him, 'why even bother changing your name in the first place?' It just seemed pointless. But we really enjoyed non-sequitur humor, stupid wordplay. Like Arm for instance ... what's that supposed to mean? It just made us laugh. I could have just as easily been Mark Foot."
The mysterious, comedic sample found at the beginning of the early classic "In 'N' Out of Grace" is taken from the 1966 biker movie Wild Angels, starring Peter Fonda. When asked if this was a B-movie of some sort, Arm hastily interjects: "It's an 'A' movie to me!"
"It's a great movie, and it features a terrific soundtrack by Davy Allen and the Arrows. They did work on a lot of hot-rod movies, and their sound was characterized as a mixture of surf music with fuzzy guitar."
Not coincidentally, the name "Mudhoney" was taken from the title of a 1965 B-movie of the same name. Russ Meyer, the movie's director, is notorious renowned for his two-fisted action extravaganzas.
Arm elaborated upon the "Mudhoney curse" that plagues their albums, causing their quality to alternate between either "being good," or "sucking."
"Superfuzz Bigmuff (the band's first release, an EP) was definitely a statement. Mudhoney, as the first album, seemed kind of a copy. Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge was a departure, although I'm sure some people thought it was more of the same. Piece of Cake wasn't really well-prepared ... some of the songs were half-assed going into the studio."
My Brother the Cow, and the current release, Tomorrow Hit Today, are both considered to be "good" Mudhoney albums. When talking about the new album, the cover art of which depicts Aurora's old Close Inn, Arm was optimistic. "I've had people tell me that this is our best album ever, and it's definitely one of my favorites."
Arm's favorite guitar -- a dazzling, highly-reflective silver Gretsch reissue -- is actually a second-hand Soundgarden throwaway.
"I saved up my money to buy it from American Music, but when I finally had enough, it was gone.
"But a year later, it was back, and I was told that Chris Cornell had returned it. I guess he wanted gold - you can see him playing it in the (Soundgarden) video for 'Black Hole Sun.'
"Essentially, I am now playing Chris Cornell's reject guitar."
When asked if he had a special message for the students of the University of Washington, Arm replied, "I just want to tell everybody to go read Michael Jackson Was My Lover, and give it to all your friends.
"It makes a perfect stocking-stuffer."