Mark Arm of Mudhoney on not taking things too seriously because, well, "It's only rock and roll"
Mudhoney formed around the same time as Sub Pop, the record label its sound became synonymous with; Mark Arm and Steve Turner had recently left Green River and teamed up with former Bundle of Hiss drummer Dan Peters and ex-Melvins bassist Matt Lukin. The band crafted an exhilarating and influential sound fueled by garage rock and late-'60s Detroit proto-punk bands the MC5 and the Stooges. Mudhoney's era-defining 1988 album Superfuzz Bigmuff became a bit of an instant classic, and the band's live shows became the stuff of legends.
While many of Mudhoney's peers in Seattle in the late '80s and early '90s became international superstars in the classic sense, Mudhoney never really enjoyed much commercial success. But that essentially fostered the longevity of a career in music in which the quartet could pretty much do whatever it wanted to.
Possessed of a well-developed sense of absurdist humor, Mudhoney also seems to have had fun with what's it's been doing the whole way. The group recently put out a record, Vanishing Point, on Sub Pop as a kind of marker for its quarter-century together and its affiliation with that label.
We recently spoke with the gracious and smartly humorous Mark Arm about Fluid, the mysterious quandary of Billy Preston's hit "Nothing From Nothing" and not taking yourself too seriously in art even as you take what you do seriously.
Westword: When you were growing up, how did you become more familiar with more non-mainstream music?
Mark Arm: It was kind of a gradual process. As a little kid, I gravitated toward the louder, more obnoxious stuff on Top 40 radio and then got into FM radio in the mid '70s. FM radio back then was a lot more wide open than rock stations now. Then I started hanging out with my friends at this used record shop.
The people who worked there were in local bands, and helped guide my friends and I a little bit. And they would also totally let us be free to make our own little mistakes. You know, like if we picked up a goofy record, they wouldn't laugh at us and say, "Ooh, what is that?" They were very encouraging people.
What bands were they in?
Some of them were in a band called the Color Plates. The owner and his wife were in a band called Student Nurse.
What kinds of places did you play live early on?
The very first show we ever did was at a place called UCT Hall opening for Student Nurse. They were that encouraging. They had no idea what we sounded like. They just said, "Oh, sure." A lot of shows at that point, you would rent a hall and put on a show. They weren't really rock venues. Bars were pretty hard to get into. At that time, they pretty much just wanted cover bands.
How and when did you become familiar with the Fluid?
I think through Sub Pop, if I remember correctly. This label Glitterhouse, which put out the first Fluid record, wanted to release a Green River record. So a swap, I guess, took place between the two labels, and that's how the Fluid came on the Sub Pop radar, as far as I can remember. They were definitely from out of town, but they felt like they were familial pretty quick. They felt like brothers in arms.
What was it about those guys that made them feel that way to you?
Well, they rocked. You know, they weren't just playing straight up hardcore. We'd all come through that, and those guys, too. We were about the same age and influenced by stuff that was happening in Detroit in the late '60s and early '70s. Also, I think maybe Michael Anderson and Linda Derschang, they moved here from Denver. That could have been a connection, too.
Michael was in that band that had that record Primal Rock Therapy -- Blood Circus. I guess Linda had a rock and roll fashion store with Holly, who at that time, was Ricky's wife or girlfriend. Linda came out here and opened a store on Capitol Hill called Basic, which sold Doc Martens. This was before you could get them in Nordstrom's. You could only get them in specialty stores.
Would you say they made an impact on you as a musician?
Oh yeah, they were a great band. We played with them as much as we could. The first time we played in Denver, we played with them. It was at a little bar.
You did vocals for that recent Melvins record for that Scientists song. Was that a band you were a fan of as well?
I was a fan, as well. Buzz was aware of that, so I guess they decided to record a couple of Scientists songs, and one of them made it on to the record. I went down to L.A. and recorded on "Set It on Fire" and "Swampland."
What was the significance of the Scientists for and how did you find out about them?
That was a band I had no idea about. I remember seeing the record in a local Tower Records. An import copy of Blood Red River and the EP with "Set It On Fire." The one with "Nitro." You could tell by the picture on Blood Red River that they might be interesting. They had longer hair and more sort of Southern California without looking L.A. [like some band in the Paisley Underground]. They just looked much more menacing than anyone in the Paisley Underground.
I remember Steve and I would cruise through the record bins and pull that record out and looked at, but it was an import and expensive. We looked at a long time before actually buying it, but I don't remember who bought it first. Then we bought the other EP and proceeded to get our hands on everything.
On your new album, you have a song called "The Only Son of the Widow From Nain," which references that Devo song. Which song was that?
Well, "Uncontrollable Urge." When I was starting to write the song, it was sort of the idea of someone who has risen from the dead, and I didn't want to just do Lazarus because that had already been done. And I had a vague recollection from my childhood, church-going days that Jesus raised up a couple other people from the dead besides Lazarus, but I couldn't remember who they were.
So of course I did a Google search, because I didn't want to read the Bible, and found that one of them was only known as "The only son of the widow from Nain." He didn't have a name or anything. That whole idea cracked me up, and I incorporated that into the song.
On the liner notes for the album, there's something that seems very funny, but maybe it is not intentionally funny. Dan Peters is credit with having played "tambourine" on some songs, and you are credited with playing "more guitar."
When we were doing the credits, I sent them around and Johnny Sangster, who recorded the record, was like, "What about tambourine? 'Dan plays tambourine'?" So I said, "Okay, I'll include that." For the most part, like our previous record, I didn't play guitar at all. There are six songs on this record on which I didn't play guitar, so I figured that on the songs on which I did play guitar could be like, "more guitar!" Like that would be a kind of funny way of putting it.
Why do you feel it's important to have some fun with yourself in that way?
You can't take this shit too seriously. I mean, we take what we do seriously. Everything that's around it, you can't. If you are, you're a pathetic person. It is only rock and roll. People should be serious about what they do but not take themselves seriously when it comes to what they do. A balance must be struck.
Why do you think Billy Preston would be able to untangle the problem of what to do with the neutral?
Well, you know, he wrote "Nothing From Nothing," which leaves nothing. I've always been kind of baffled by that, what exactly he was trying to say, since I was a kid. So maybe he would be able to help. Unfortunately he's passed on, so we can't really ask him exactly what he meant by that.
No, no, not in any conventional fashion.
I guess we could break out the Ouija board and hope he responds.
The title of the album Vanishing Point refers to the art term as well as to that movie with Barry Newman and Cleavon Little that takes place in Denver for part of it. Why was that a fitting title?
We had the album artwork first, and we were trying to think of something that would work with the artwork. The last couple of records had a line from one of the songs for the title. There was nothing that seemed very visual that worked with that image. Then we thought of "Vanishing Point" and that seems to work on the way image goes off into the horizon. Also, Vanishing Point is a great movie. It's probably my second favorite '70s car movie.
What's your first favorite?
Two Lane Blacktop. That didn't really work with the image. It would have been, "Huh? Two Lane Blacktop doesn't even make sense!" These are ruins from Syria.
What part of Syria are those from?
It's from a place called Apamea.
It seems like your band has had a fairly stable lineup over the years. What makes it still fun for you to play with Dan, Steve and Guy?
I've been playing in bands with Steve since 1983 and at this point we're kind of like a married couple that doesn't live together. We don't all like the exact same music, but we share similar reference points, and we all understand what we're talking about when we're talking about music. Over the years there's a language that is sort of shared. I think Dan, Guy and Steve are some of the coolest people on their instruments that I know. It's always just a great pleasure to play with them.