Here's Mud in Your Ear
One day after the sad and grisly details of Kurt Cobain's suicide first spread across the nation like a rolling blackout, Mudhoney -- the legendary Seattle-based underground grunge band that gave neighboring Aberdeen's Nirvana its first opening slot in the soggy Emerald City -- found itself in the most unlikely of places: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C., where the band was being led around by a crew of Secret Service agents.
"They took us behind the ropes to the Situation Room, which is apparently hardly ever seen by non-government personnel," recalls 39-year-old guitarist/vocalist Mark Arm, a former Eagle Scout born Mark McLaughlin. "It was pretty cool. It was a lot smaller than I would have thought. It wasn't as big as the war room in, say, Dr. Strangelove.
"At the time, they had three TVs in there and two people monitoring the TVs all of the time. One channel was on CNN. They were flipping through international news channels to see if something was being sparked somewhere in the world."
Arm's excuse for being in the White House that early April afternoon in 1994, along with drummer Dan Peters, bassist Matt Lukin and lead guitarist Steve Turner, came from glomming onto Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder. Following a show the night before in Fairfax, Virginia -- a double bill featuring Pearl Jam and Mudhoney -- Vedder and his bandmates received word that Bill Clinton had asked to meet with them.
Mudhoney managed to ride Vedder's coattails into the executive homestead, where the group encountered, as Peters remembers, "a buncha people wantin' our autographs not knowing who the hell we were. They split the bands up, because Pearl Jam actually got to meet the president. They didn't want us longhairs stragglin' along -- a bunch of dirtbags all hung over from the night before."
"The most worrisome thing to me was sort of like, 'Here's the leader of the free world, and he's got time to meet with Pearl Jam?'" Arm says. "What the fuck are they gonna talk about?"
Arm's recollection of Vedder's insider account reveals less of a photo opportunity than a brief "tell-me-what-the-young-people-are-thinking" kind of bull session; Vedder would later confide with his pals that Clinton had asked, "Now, who are the Mudhoneys? Are they popular with the MTV?"
Considering how Clinton's aggressive campaign in 1992 included efforts to "Rock the Vote" through youth culture, the whirlwind visit gave Mudhoney a cynical glimpse of politics up close and personal, especially when corpulent tour organizer Craig Livingstone bared part of his soul to both bands. (As Clinton's former security personnel director, Livingstone would later resign during the Whitewater hearings, after revelations surfaced that his office had improperly obtained the FBI files of over 700 political opponents, including Linda Tripp.) "After we were all together, we went to lunch in some restaurant. And I remember [Livingstone] saying, 'You know, we lost one of our own, too,' referring to Vince Foster, right? Vince Foster's suicide? And he's saying, 'You gotta just keep talking about it; you can't keep this bottled up.' Just spewing all of these platitudes that I found really offensive."
Fast-forwarding some seven years from that bizarre afternoon, Mudhoney's members remain as wary of today's political machinery as they do of their own notoriety as founding fathers of the grunge phenomenon -- that short-lived, nihilistic outburst that combined the slower tempos of '70s heavy metal with the brutal intensity of Reagan-baiting hardcore from the '80s. Combining bashing drums, caustic screaming and a drudging bass throb, the music's most basic characteristic (besides an often-comical tendency toward exaggerated self-loathing) was its pure, ear-splitting volume. Grunge brought simplicity back to rock and roll. By daring to be thuggish and ugly (taking the torch from punk), it was another roundhouse slap in the face of MTV, another gleeful knee to the groin of FM radio. It was an excuse for bored, white slackers on MDA (Ecstasy's chemical cousin) to celebrate the utter banality of another overcast day at an underpaid job.
And goddamn if it didn't launch one of the biggest commercial juggernauts this side of Michael Jackson.
"It's always been for shits and giggles," Peters admits. "Just to get it back to that is a good thing."
Mudhoney's current outing -- sarcastically dubbed "the greatest-hits tour" by Peters -- culminates thirteen years' worth of sludge and fury from a bygone era. Featuring three of the original members (Lukin, now a full-time woodworker, has been replaced by Aussie bassist Guy Maddison, late of Bloodloss and Lubricated Goat), the band still grinds out music that doesn't depend on rainy-day nostalgia to be appreciated. Mudhoney's loose, fuzzy, head-through-the-windshield sound helped launch a signing frenzy in the Pacific Northwest, after all, back when there was grunge in them thar hills! They not only brought international credibility and brand loyalty to an obscure indie label called Sub Pop (founded by Bruce Pavitt and his partner Jonathan Poneman), but it paved the way for far more commercially successful groups, including Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and, especially, Nirvana.
"The fact that we've sold far less records than our comrades has nothing to do with what we started out doing," Peters says. "Which was just to play music and have a good time." (And, as Peter Fonda once elucidated in a cheesy biker flick called The Wild Angels, "to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man.")
The band first got together on New Year's Day, 1988. The scene in Latteland was an incestuous one, all right: "So small that you couldn't help but be influenced by your buddy's band," Peters says. The emerging "Seattle sound" was less of an anomaly to its regional participants than it would become for the rest of the world. All four Mudhoney members had previously tested the waters in various hard-rocking local outfits, some of which became more well known than others: Peters played in Bundle of Hiss, Feast, Screaming Trees and, briefly, with Nirvana (consult "Sliver" from Incesticide); Lukin got his start with the Melvins. After separate involvement in Doggs with Dreadloxx and Jack Klugman and the Ice Picks respectively, Turner and Arm hooked up for a stint in the Thrown Ups before forming Green River with Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, both of whom went on to prominence in Pearl Jam.
Liking the sound of its early practices, the newly born band embraced Arm's idea to name itself after Mudhoney, the 1964 bazongafest by B-movie director Russ Meyer; it seemed fitting, considering the movie's signature poster had trumpeted such low-rent exploitation as "passion debased by lust... Ribaldry and violence made from the juice of life! Too much for one town!!!"
Ironically, hype and ballyhoo are precisely what the group would soon inspire. Having developed a growing buzz in its hometown for performing explosive live shows (and for drinking unfathomable quantities of Rainier beer), Mudhoney issued its debut single, a blistering and bluesy Stooges-influenced dirge called "Sweet Young Thing Ain't Sweet No More." Pressed on limited-edition turd-brown vinyl, the first 800 copies sold out immediately. (Less than a year later, Nirvana would put out its own debut full-length, featuring "Negative Creep," a tougher-sounding tune with this chorus: "Daddy's little girl ain't a girl no more.") The flipside of "Sweet Young," "Touch Me I'm Sick," proved to be the more universally contagious of the two cuts; Arm still considers it to be Mudhoney's all-time highwater mark.
"There's something special about that first single," he admits. "We were never quite able to recapture that sound. I don't know if it was the guitars or the recording. It was just a really gnarly, gnarly guitar sound. We've gotten some since, but they've been a different kind. I think it had more to do with the actual electromagnetic chemistry of what was going through our amps that day. It was just a cool, fried-out sound."
Produced on the cheap by Jack Endino, the single impressed Sonic Youth, who offered to put out a split seven-inch with Mudhoney (the groups would cover one another's songs). The record also caught the ear of the New York press and beyond. A two-week tour of the U.K. with Thurston and the gang followed. So did glowing endorsements and heavy airplay of songs from Superfuzz Bigmuff -- Mudhoney's first EP, issued in 1988 -- by influential BBC DJ John Peel. Thus began Mudhoney's transatlantic love/hate relationship with the British press, something the band would marvel at for years to come.
"The British have this really weird idea of class, and it's deeply rooted," Arm says. "Like, if there's gonna be some sort of authentic rock revolution, it's gonna come from the streets. You know, if someone is really poor, chances are they're not gonna have equipment or be in a band. But, of course, the Sex Pistols were poor, and they stole equipment. So in a sense, they have a point. Nobody wants to remain a poor, downtrodden person."
Romanticized as uneducated lumberjacks who hailed from "the new Liverpool," the members of Mudhoney were portrayed as everything from blue-collar, chainsaw-wielding folk heroes to what Melody Maker backhandedly praised as "All-American guys" who "don't wash their clothes a great deal." As Arm recalls, "We never pretended to be what we weren't. But they kind of zeroed in on the fact that Dan [Peters] was white trash and that Matt [Lukin] came from Aberdeen. I grew up in the suburbs. My dad worked at Boeing. But they ignored all that."
"We weren't biker types," says Peters, who fled from his "evil stepdad" and a Camano Island trailer park, drum kit in tow, after the ninth grade. "It was just absurd. The fact that a few of us [Arm and Turner] went to college kind of ruined it for them. I remember reading somewhere that me and Matt make the band legitimate because we're working-class boys or whatever."
When the grunge darlings of the British music scene dared to chop off their trademark scraggly hair (shortly following their self-titled debut in 1989), they were suddenly panned as nerdy Poindexters rather than Sasquatchian storm troopers. Continual barbs from NME such as "If Mudhoney had been sent to Vietnam they would have all been Radar from M*A*S*H" smacked of pomp and ignorance (and not just because the show's setting was actually Korea).
Seattle, meanwhile, was crawling with major-label execs in addition to scads of transplant bands trying to strike it rich by simply growing out their hair and wearing shoddy thrift-store garb; Sub Pop's cocky promotional motto, "World Domination," practically begged for a comeuppance in the midst of all this grunge overkill. Mudhoney cleaned up its sound somewhat with Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge in 1991, a catchy batch of songs recorded by Conrad Uno of PopLlama Records. Sub Pop, bordering on bankruptcy from trying to keep up with advances that the majors were dangling in front of its best bands, lost Nirvana to Geffen that same year and may well have folded had Fudge not moved as many units as it did. But despite its successes, Mudhoney eventually parted ways with the indie kingpin over unpaid royalties.
On Warner/Reprise, the band issued four solid, though less critically lauded, full-length albums: Piece of Cake in 1992; Five Dollar Bob's Mock Cooter Stew in 1993; My Brother the Cow (which featured "Judgment, Rage, Retribution and Thyme," a blistering tune in the spirit of Simon & Grungefunkel) in 1995 and Tomorrow Hit Today in 1998. Eventually, the major released the band from its contract. "We fully expected Warner to drop us," Arm says. "We knew that we weren't making them any money. But that's not how I gauge success."
In a new book by Michael Azerrad called Our Band Could Be Your Life (Scenes From the American Indie Underground 1981-1991), Mudhoney's irrefutable impact on the grunge mania from a decade ago is rendered in great detail, though not always accurately in Arm's opinion. "There are some things in it that are glaringly wrong, but that's okay," he says. "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story. I did go to a Christian high school, but I was allowed to wear jeans, and I did watch TV."
Arm also splits hairs over Azerrad's retelling of an incident from 1985, when Green River opened for Public Image Limited at Seattle's Paramount Theatre. "We trashed [John Lydon's] dressing room before, not after they played. It had nothing to do with the fact that PiL had mistreated Mission of Burma or Hüsker Dü or the Minutemen or whatever, because we didn't know anything about that. They were just pricks! John Lydon was threatening to cancel the show because there wasn't a La-Z-Boy recliner in his dressing room. He had his own special bottles of wine, which Landru, the singer from Malfunkshun, drank down. So we started raiding their alcohol, and then it went from there. It wasn't like we were maliciously trying to trash their dressing room, but we did end up taking their deli tray and throwing it on the bus down below in the street, but, you know, like, one piece of lunch meat at a time." At the end of Green River's set, Arm apparently told the crowd, "If you want to see what happens to somebody who's completely sold out, just wait." The former Sex Pistol reciprocated by writing the semi-scathing PiL classic "Seattle."
Hijinx aside, Azerrad's chapter on Mudhoney paints a somewhat incomplete picture of the band, though the book's overall intention is to catalogue the ten years that laid the groundwork for the massive eruption and ripple effect of Nirvana's Nevermind. "The ending is kind of a letdown," Arm says. "It kind of puts everything in a reprieve in terms of commercial sales. It didn't have anything to do with the success of how an album was done. I tend to think that our last album, Tomorrow Hit Today, is probably our most complete album."
Azerrad's account of the 'honeys concludes with Arm paraphrasing his fellow guitarist: "Steve [Turner] likes to say that we're a footnote. And probably in the greater scheme of things, that's at best what we will be remembered as."
March to Fuzz, a thorough roundup of 52 hits and rarities (and a tremendous value under twenty bucks), came out last year on the very label that gave the band its start and nourished its livelihood in the first place; though Sub Pop's Pavitt has moved on, Poneman remains at the wheel. With plans to release new material soon, Mudhoney earns a partial living from its music, but spends the majority of its ten-and-a-half non-touring months working in Seattle. When he's not issuing music through his indie label, Super Electro, Turner does landscaping jobs with friends on a need-to basis. Peters, a proud new papa, is married to a lawyer and works the occasional photo shoot as a production assistant. (When asked if he ever thinks about being in the shoes of Dave Grohl -- the man Nirvana hired behind his back during a shuffling of drummers -- Peters is quick and to the point: "Not at all. Not at all. Wouldn't want to be in 'em. We'll leave it at that.") Arm plies his trade at an underground comic-book publisher called Santa Graphics, home of Ghost World, among others.
Any regrets the players may privately grapple with are likely on par with those of your average working-class Joe. "We didn't get to do it in the Lincoln bedroom," Arm says, sighing. "We don't have that kind of cash."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.