Catching up with the grunge standard-bearers’ frontman Mark Arm before their show at The Basement East
Photo: Niffer Calderwood
An MTV reporter once asked Angus Young what differentiates any one AC/DC album from another. “The cover art,” the guitarist responded. In some ways, the same could be said for Seattle grunge lifers Mudhoney, who play The Basement East on Saturday.
When frontman Mark Arm, guitarist Steve Turner, bassist Matt Lukin and drummer Dan Peters came together in 1988, George Michael’s Faith was the top-selling album in the U.S., and Reagan was finishing out his last year in office. Seattle was a rough-and-tumble port town — neither Microsoft nor Nirvana were the cultural touchstones they are today. Back then, Arm tells the Scene with a laugh: “We were just reveling in dirt.”
The group’s recordings sound better these days, and their playing is more proficient — natural growth for most bands. Lukin left in 1999, replaced by Guy Maddison. But the fundamentals of Mudhoney have changed relatively little between 1988’s Superfuzz Bigmuff, its first EP for a then-nascent Sub Pop label, and this year’s Morning in America, its latest (catalog number SP-1325).
“We’ve never let go of the core influences that made us start a band,” says Arm, who’s now 57. He’s speaking from the Sub Pop warehouse in Seattle’s Georgetown district, which he’s managed since 2005. “Even when we were the hot new thing [in the ’90s], we weren’t interested in the hot new thing. We were like ‘We dig Blue Cheer, The Stooges, the MC5 … as well as punk rock.’ ”
With three-fourths of its original lineup intact, a loyal Gen-X fanbase, a staunch punk ethos and a lack of intra-band drama, Mudhoney has been able to subsist independent of any “hot new thing.” But it has proved impossible to keep the current political landscape from influencing the songwriting. “It’s way more messed-up than it’s ever been,” says Arm.
On last year’s Digital Garbage full-length and its aforementioned 2019 companion EP Morning in America, the band takes stock of the situation, and they’re disgusted by what they see. In “Nerve Attack,” Arm sings about feeling so consumed by it all that he can’t breathe — and that’s just the first track of Garbage.
Each of the album’s 11 songs tackles a different societal ill, including mass shootings (“Please Mr. Gunman”), wealth inequality (“Prosperity Gospel”), climate change (“Next Mass Extinction”) and far-right propaganda (“Paranoid Core”). Morning in America’s title track subverts Reagan’s ’84 ad campaign, personifying the country as sick, depressed and struggling to get out of bed. On “Messiah’s Lament,” from Garbage, Arm assumes the voice of Jesus Christ: “Look what they’re doing in my name,” he grumbles. “Kill Yourself Live” appears on the LP and is reprised on the EP (as “Let’s Kill Yourself Live Again”). It satirizes social media’s glorification of the depraved, per the album track: “When I killed myself live / I got so many ‘likes.’ ”
Bleak sounds for bleak times, yes, but the band’s trademark loose-and-loud approach and Arm’s vocal delivery — as always, somewhere between a smirk and a snarl — ensure the material never comes off strident or heavy-handed. You don’t buy a Mudhoney record for its aural complexity, melodic beauty or deep intellect. You come for the scuzzy, bruising riffs, punchy drumming and sarcasm that verges on the poetic, which both Digital Garbage and Morning in America deliver in spades.
In the years since Mudhoney’s previous record, 2013’s Vanishing Point, the band has stayed busy touring — primarily across the Atlantic, where, like a lot of bands of their generation, they’ve always drawn well. (A stopgap live album culled from a 2016 Euro tour, L.i.E., came out in early 2018.) Additionally, Arm and Turner’s short-lived but much-loved side project The Monkeywrench (also featuring Tim Kerr of legendary Austin, Texas, punks The Big Boys) played some reunion shows in 2016.
Asked if he thinks Mudhoney’s recent spate of new output lends any credence to the notion that bad times politically make for good punk rock, Arm responds without hesitation: “It’s not worth it.”
“I think musically we’d be coming up with similar riffs,” he says. “The lyrics would just be a little different if everything was peaches-and-cream and terrible shit wasn’t happening all over the place. For some reason, I’ve always just had sort of a dark sense of humor, even in the best of times. I don’t know what it is. Something’s broken in my psyche, I suppose.”