Interview with Mark Arm

Mark Arm matched wits with yours truly in the long, hot spring of 2008 and, of course, emerged with an easy win. This is definitely one of my favorite interviews of my illustrious career, and I sincerely appreciate Mr. Arm’s time.

One lyric from your new album is, “The open mind is an empty mind. So I’ll keep mine closed.” What does that mean? Is that sarcastic?
No, I think you can be so open-minded that you’re completely vacuous. You gotta take a stand somewhere.

So you’re against open-mindedness?
(laughs) Ah, not entirely, but if you take anything to its furthest degree, people don’t have any sense of self.

Was that line inspired by anything in particular?

(laughs) It’s a couple different things. In the year 2007, my wife declared that it would be The Year of the Closed Mind for her. She just got sick of people being like, “You gotta be open-minded about this” and telling her she had to give people she could tell were full of shit a fair chance.
She was like, “I’m done with this.”
You know, some people are pretty easy to read and you don’t need to be totally open-minded and give whatever shit they’re spewing a chance. The phrase “The open mind is an empty mind” is one of the many little catch-phrases that my friends and I came up with and I remembered it and wrote a song around it.

It seems like it relates to the idea of suffering fools – when you’re talking to someone and you’re just kind of humoring them.

Why does “The past make no sense”? [another new lyric]
It’s hard to process stuff. Things just can be weird. Everything doesn’t fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.
Nothing’s really clear, black and white and easy.
I’m speaking more globally than just stuff about Mudhoney.

Your new single, “I’m Now,” has been called “more Stooges than the Stooges new album.” Do you think that’s true? I noticed that it even has a single-note keyboard part like the Stooges’ “Now I Wanna Be Your Dog.”
I don’t know if it’s more Stooges than the Stooges. It has more words than Stooges songs (laughs).

Do you like the new Stooges album?
I don’t really want to get into that (laughs hard). I love the Stooges, let’s just leave it at that.

I actually wanted to tell you that I was at a party a few weeks ago and I was like, “Oh man, this is cool – I’ve never heard this Mudhoney song before.” And a few minutes later, I realized it was a Stooges song I’d never heard before. I guess that must have been a goal of yours from the beginning – to write songs that were really similar to Stooges songs.
You know, when we started, the Stooges were severely underground and when I discovered them in 1980, their records, except like “Raw Power,” weren’t even available. The impression that band made on me at a young age is severe and deep. But that’s true of a couple of other bands, too.

Which are those other bands?
The Sonics, MC5, Captain Beefheart, the Wipers, Black Flag – I could go on and list a fair percentage of my record collection.

I actually saw you play the Black Cat with the MC5 and it was awesome. I loved it.
It was so much fun to do that tour and meet those guys. It was really weird and cool.

Would you say it’s a highlight of your musical career?
Yeah. There were some weird things that happened in the late ’90s.
I wrote some songs with [Stooges’ guitarist] Ron Asheton. That came out of the blue. I never thought I’d meet Ron Asheton, much less write songs with him.
And then I was asked to go on tour with the remaining members of the MC5.
And [the MC5’s] Wayne Kramer came and recorded “Inside Job” with us. I never thought I’d meet Wayne Kramer, much less have him play on one of our songs.
And Mudhoney’s opened for the Stooges twice – I never thought I’d even see the Stooges.

Do you have any favorite memories or stories about touring with the MC5?
Oh, there wasn’t any rock ’n’ roll debauchery going on or anything (laughs).

I did like the horns a lot on the last couple of records, but this record seems to me a “back to basics” record. Of course, you’re not even playing guitar on it and just singing – just like you were in Green River. Did you see it as a back to basics record?
Yeah, that’s what it is. The reason for that was that after playing with the MC5 in Seattle, [Mudhoney drummer] Dan [Peters] was like, “It would be great if we wrote some songs where you don’t play guitar and you just get to hop around like you do on “Hate the Police.”
And, of course, the next record was “Under a Billion Suns,” which has more [guitar] stuff on it than any of our previous records.
But when we started working on this record, we just thought, maybe if we set some parameters on it, it’ll mix things up. How we’ve always written songs is: We’ll jam on riffs and the vocals come later.
This time around, I figured I’d start without the guitar and without concentrating on the guitar parts – just listening to the music and having the vocals react to that and think in those terms.
It freed me up in a sense – I didn’t have to think, “Oh, this riff goes into that riff and I’ll place the vocals right there.” It let me focus on the phrasing more.
… At the end of “Inside Out Over You,” I do kinda wish I was playing guitar at that point, rather than standing there for two minutes. The intention wasn’t necessarily to make a record where I didn’t play guitar [at all], but the songs didn’t really need another guitar part. The songs weren’t crying out for more, except for a couple of really minimal keyboard bits like on the chorus of “I’m Now.”

Which is just one note, right?
Yeah: E.

(laughs) The song “The Lucky Ones” seems as angst-filled as anything you’ve written. Do you agree? And what are you saying in that song?
Well, it’s from the point-of-view of a character and it’s nothing but angst, yeah.

So it’s not written from your perspective?
There’s a lot of songs that we do that aren’t from my perspective. “Touch Me I’m Sick” isn’t from my perspective. “Sweet Young Thing” isn’t from my perspective. A lot of the songs, I’ll come up with a character or a goofy little plot and go from there. It’s not who I am (laughs).
You know, this isn’t confessional singer-songwriter shit. Who really cares about that? I don’t care if someone’s been dumped. Who hasn’t? (laughs)

What’s “Touch Me I’m Sick” about?
At this point I’m not even really sure (laughs). I guess it’s wallowing in creepiness.

Does it have anything to do with AIDS?
I don’t know specifically, but at the time there was a lot of fear about contagiousness and people weren’t all that educated AIDS – and even herpes (laughs).

Tell me about the song “Tales of Terror.” It’s one of my favorites on the new record. I wasn’t sure if it was a cover or a tribute to another band.

Tales of Terror is a band from Sacramento that came through Seattle in early ’84. No one knew who they were, but they just played the local all-ages club and they were astounding.
They were a punk rock hardcore band, but they were moving out of the confines of hardcore, and they were totally wild live. The singer would do flips while the rest of the band was lying down. By the end of the night, everyone was wrapped up in guitar cords, and it didn’t seem preconceived. It was just the natural flow of this really fucked up band who also happened to be great.
And a friend of mine had gotten a turntable hooked up to his computer and was like, “Hey, do you have any records that you want digitized?”
And I immediately went and got the Tales of Terror record. So, I’d been listening to that a lot.
You know, you go through phases where you remember this record from 20 years ago and you’re like, “Hey, that was a really good record, maybe I should listen to it again” – but you don’t. Once I put it on iTunes at work, I was listening to it constantly.
And that song, the riffs and stuff are in the style of Terrors of Terror.
I was kind of stuck for a name – the title I had I wasn’t really digging.
[Mudhoney guitarist] Steve [Turner] finally said, “Why don’t we just call it ‘Tales of Terror’?” And that kinda fit the lyrics, too.

Has there been any response from the guys in that band to that song?
I haven’t heard anything. I don’t think they have a Myspace page or anything (laughs). I know two of those guys are dead at this point.

It’s cool that in 2008 you’re able to expose people to this band that you really liked from the early ’80s. I’m sure people will pursue Tales of Terror now.
I’m hoping that record gets reissued (laughs).

It’s interesting that you’re playing at the Rock and Roll Hotel in D.C. Everyone is surprised that you’re not playing at a larger venue like the Black Cat or the 9:30 Club. Why are you playing at the Rock Hotel?

I have no idea. I’ve never been there. I don’t know anything about it (laughs).

That’s kinda what I figured. It’s maybe half the size of the Black Cat.

The Black Cat’s pretty huge. It could seem like an empty room if 200 people show up.

What size crowds have you been drawing on this tour?
We’ve done two shows so far (laughs). Chicago I think 300 or something. And last night there were 300 people or something in Louisville. Tonight we’re playing Newport, Kentucky. That’s kinda the test of the draw of a band.

I know that you’re a fan of Minor Threat. Do you have other favorite D.C. bands?
Void, Void, Void, Void, Void (laughs). Someone from that band lives in Seattle now. We covered [their song] “Dehumanized” in the early ’90s and this guy came up to me like, “Hey man, you played one of our songs!” I’ve been in touch with him ever since. It was really funny.

I read the essay that you wrote about going to the White House with Pearl Jam and in that, and in other things I’ve seen, you’ve always been pretty open about your pot use. How do you think that impacts your creativity?
“Pot use” (laughs). I don’t smoke pot all that much. I did get stoned last night, though (laughs) – after the show.

Do you think that has any impact on your creativity?
Like I said before, I don’t smoke pot all that much. I’m not opposed smoking pot or to people smoking pot. Every now and again I smoke a joint, but I don’t get stoned and come up with creative ideas. I usually get paralyzed on the couch.

Because Mudhoney’s music is so strongly rooted in the past, do you think that makes it fundamentally conservative?

(laughs hard) We’re not pushing the bounds of music, by any means, but I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean, “fundamentally conservative.”

It’s exactly that – by not pushing the boundaries, does that make the band conservative, rather than progressive?
That’s not up to me to decide. If you want to paint us that way, or someone else wants to paint us that way, that’s your choice.

I’m not gonna paint you that way, but I was just
Oh, I know. But people have leveled charges along those lines at us. But if “progressive” means embracing jungle music when it was happening – like David Bowie did – then, two years later, it sounds totally dated.
We just want to play the music that we enjoy, in the style of the music that does the most for us. We don’t really think about it too much. We do what comes naturally and easily to us. None of us are really schooled, technical musicians, you know?

Right. I’m sure you’ve just naturally gotten much better at your instruments just by playing for such a long time.
Sure. You know, I don’t have to look at my hands all the time now (laughs).

Is it true that you coined the “term” grunge to refer to a style of music?
I’ve been getting that question an awful lot on this stretch of interviews. Is that somewhere in the bio or something? (laughs)

I think it’s on Wikipedia.

Oh (sighs). You know, wikipedia’s all lies. People can just make anything up and put it in there. You know, I doubt it (laughs).
Bruce Pavitt, for a description of a Green River record, wrote something like “Grunge that destroyed the morals of a generation.” And that got picked up, I think, by Everett True when he was flown out by the Melody Maker to write about Sub Pop. And somehow that lazy shorthand became the term for a whole new thing, which was actually an old thing. You know, it was largely based on music of the past. It was fundamentally conservative music (laughs hard).
It seemed fresh at the time, because everything had become so glossy – even on the hard rock and metal end of things. It was so glossy and slick. And the college rock that was happening at the time – a lot of those bands, like the Smiths, were effete people wallowing in self-pity. I think it was refreshing for people to see people get up there and rock and have fun.

The liner notes for the reissue of “Superfuzz Bigmuff” say that Mudhoney “combines the best of the ’60s with early ’80s hardcore.” Do you think that’s true?
It depends what you think is the “best of the ’60s.”

Is Dan Peters the richest guy in Mudhoney from playing drums on Nirvana’s recording of “Sliver”?
[laughs] I guess he gets more royalties than anybody else. That doesn’t make him rich, by any means. I like to think that we’re all rich, with the lives that we lead and the music that we play which touched the hearts of millions [laughs]. You realize that’s a joke, right?

Hundreds of thousands.


[laughs] In another interview you said that you “weren’t dazzled by the brass ring and never bothered to reach for it.” And I know that you’ve said many times that you have no regrets about how your career’s gone, but I just wonder: Wouldn’t it be better to be playing music for a living now rather than working in a warehouse?
I do both. It’s not an either/or proposition. I had a 10 year run of not having a day job, which was something that I never anticipated before that.
Of course, as that was ending, it was a little difficult to come to terms with at first – you know, having my wife go, “Maybe it’s time you looked for a job.”
But I’d much rather just play music the way I want to play it and not concern myself with how to keep our audience or expand our appeal or anything like that and just do what we do because we love to do it.
I kind of hate it when people say this, but it’s true: To me, music is an art. It’s not commerce. Although we do sell our records (laughs).

With the decline of the recording industry, a lot of bands make their living touring. But with three members of Mudhoney having kids, that puts you in a position where it’s much harder to sell records now, but it’s also much harder for you to tour.
Right. And there’s nothing we can really do about either of those things.

I want to ask you about the new Tad documentary, because you’re interviewed in it a bunch, and I think a quote in it really applies to Mudhoney, too. Someone says that “Tad is the story of what could have been, rather than what was.” But I really do feel like that’s a dumb way to look at a band that toured Europe, was nationally-known and people are still interested in.

Who said that, was that Charles Cross?

I think it was, yeah.

You know, Charles is a really nice guy, but he wasn’t there.
He was in Seattle at the time, he ran a music magazine called the Rocket, but, you know, he wrote that book on Nirvana and I don’t think he ever saw Nirvana. If he did, it wasn’t until like the “In Utero” tour.
He was not a person who was going out to shows and seeing the local bands that played original underground rock.
Somehow he’s become this weird spokesman for the era because he wrote that Nirvana book and had some success with it, but it’s kind of baffling to me when he says [in the Tad documentary] something like, “When people were talking about Kurt’s new band, they weren’t talking about Kurt Cobain.”
What the fuck does he even know about that?
Of course no one had an idea who Kurt Cobain was in 1988.
And conversely, no one really knew who Kurt Danielson was in 1988 either. It wasn’t like there was some rumbling on the street in 1988 that Kurt Danielson had a new band.
That’s just a weird, bullshit way of looking at the whole thing.
And also saying that “What Tad had most in common with was Sonic Youth” — you’d have to be a total ‘tard to think that (laughs).
You know, he had a Bruce Springsteen fanzine. He was totally obsessed with Bruce Springsteen.
And up until the point that Seattle bands were getting national attention, the Rocket was more likely to put someone like Bryan Adams on the cover, you know?
I remember there was this one cover that was Ron from Route 9, Carla from the Walkabouts and myself from Green River.
And that was like the once-a-year local cover shot and they couldn’t even devote it to one band.
So, his perspective on that whole thing is as skewed as the quote you were talking about.
I mean, he’s coming at this whole thing from a Billboard point-of-view.

Did you like that book he wrote?

I didn’t read it. Why would I? Why would I read any book about Nirvana?

As I recall, you’re quoted in there a lot, or they talk about you a lot. I think you’re portrayed very positively.
That’s plausible (laughs).

I’m sure you’re sick of being asked about Nirvana, so I’ll just ask one question. What do you think Kurt Cobain would think about the new Converse line of shoes dedicated to him?
How should I know? (laughs)

From reading that book, it seemed like you knew him well.

No. You know, we hung out. We played shows together. We even did drugs together. But the dude barely talked.

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