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Mudhoney: 30 Years On Top Of The Heap With Digital Garbage

24 August 2018

“Actually, it’s been pretty easy and we’re also very lucky,” laughed Mudhoney guitarist Steve Turner in response to the group’s enduring career. Thirty years ago, singer Mark Arm and Turner rose from the ashes of Seattle’s Green River to form Mudhoney. Widely acclaimed as the Puget Sound’s bastardized garage punk brethren, the group successfully merged both genres with Turner’s trademark Blues howls, scratching away underneath his trademark fuzz tones. Singer Mark Arm’s caterwaul recalled Iggy Pop in his prime but his bluesy sexual innuendo provided the key to Mudhoney’s diversity.

Mudhoney will ring in their anniversary with Digital Garbage, their newest effort released via Sub Pop. For Turner, the record will stand as a continuation of what Mudhoney is all about: raucous guitar riffs drenched in the group’s trademark tones. He doesn’t remain analytical of the process nor feels the group is poised to make some grand political statement.

“I’ve never been the guy to say the newest record is the best. With Digital Garbage, I’m very happy with it because there has been some new dynamics. Dan (Peters) wrote a track and Guy (Maddison) added some synth. I know there might be a political statement or two in Mark’s lyrics but I don’t consider us a political band,” said Turner.

With Trump’s surprising election it were to seem that bands would have more than enough ammunition to ultimately direct their anger, perhaps reminiscent of Punk during the Reagan era but Mudhoney’s social commentary remains more tongue in cheek yet more direct with each record. Arm retains his evolving lyrical vehemence within new tracks such as Kill Yourself Live and Next Mass Extinction but Turner was happier to reflect on Mudhoney’s transcendence of trends and media hype. In retrospect, Turner is still surprised Mudhoney was playing European festivals within their first year, a far cry from Arm and Turner’s former group, Green River. Long considered a Seattle super group, thanks to former members Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament moving on to form Pearl Jam, Turner’s recollection of Sub Pop and the grunge explosion remains as calm as ever.

“We were always supportive of every one’s band because honestly, things were small enough at that time, before the whole ‘Seattle scene’ or whatever that there wasn’t much to fight over. I’m forever grateful for all the support we had in England because things were just fun and crazy there from the beginning.”

Turner expanded on his pre-Mudhoney career, offering further explanation of Green River’s demise.

“As far as playing out before Mudhoney, we were all into hardcore but that became a dead end because there was only so much you could do with that. With Green River, it was evident on the last record that they were going for a glammy, rock swagger sound while I got more into garage rock and The Replacements,” he recalled.

There is no irony lost that the group whom seemed the most indifferent to the grunge moniker has an undeniable place in its creation. Mudhoney’s longevity appears unrivaled by any of their peers and despite their indifference to the ‘Seattle sound’ and the international media explosion that followed, Turner remains adamant that the group was not really impacted. Even after Nirvana’s Nevermind broke and Mudhoney took a leap from their underground roots with Sub Pop to Reprise Records the group retained their hallmark sounds, yet to this day are not credited with a single radio hit despite a 30 year legacy. Turner recalled how even in Sub Pop’s heyday the label had a dubious reputation for owing everyone money and how Mudhoney deemed a major label a better fit, at the time.

“When we first left Sub Pop things were tough. They owed everyone money and even during the whole explosion or whatever, I felt that it was best we stop working with each other before we would begin hating each other. We talked to a lot of labels and things just got weird, At Caroline, who distributed Sub Pop they pressured us to sweeten our guitar sounds! At Reprise, they were supportive of us still recording on 8 track so that was fine with all of us. Honestly, we don’t have any horror stories working with them,” reflected Turner.

As Seattle became home to industry reps hoping to sign the next big thing it did not appear that the proverbial bubble would burst, until it did. Much like Punk’s first wave, labels happily signed groups and boasted they had the next hot, controversial act but much like then, the industry did not have a long term plan for its signings. Mudhoney earned mainstream press and gladly contributed their snotty response to the ‘grunge scene’ for the Singles movie soundtrack, but the group only released two full length records before Reprise dropped them following ‘98’s Tomorrow Hit Today.

“I feel that whole thing never really affected us badly. I know there was a long lapse between records and we call that life getting in the way. With Tomorrow Hit Today, we still really like that record but Reprise didn’t know what to do with us. Before we started recording, we were offered a big advance and we felt why not spend a little more on production? So, we brought in Jim Dickinson to record and kept the rest, using it for investments,” laughed Turner.

In retrospect, following the international acclaim of Nirvana’s Nevermind with a paint by numbers ‘grunge’ record would have been the safe bet for Mudhoney’s Reprise debut but they chose to follow their own convictions and ’92’s Piece Of Cake was ultimately panned. Mark Arm and Steve Turner faced no shortage of creativity and quietly explored their passion for the blues with longtime Poison 13 vet, Tim Kerr. Mudhoney seemed to care less about earning media accolades so Turner and Arm busied themselves researching obscure blues tracks while Turner honed his bass skills. The collaboration with Kerr resulted in Monkeywrench, whom ultimately released two full records with Martin Bland and Tom Price. Their ’92 Sub Pop debut Clean As A Broke Dick Dog rightfully earned underground press acclaim. Perhaps never intended for mainstream consumption, the super group capitalized on its versatility.

“Tim is an awesome guy and we always had nothing but respect for him and loved his group, Poison 13. We researched a lot of obscure Blues songs and put our own spin on them and I think it worked out well,” said Turner.

Emerging unscathed from the media explosion, being dropped from Reprise, and even losing bassist Matt Lukin, Mudhoney outlasted many of their peers and has recorded more consistently, even as Turner reminded me that it’s already been 5 years since Vanishing Point. Additionally, he reminded fans that Lukin’s departure after Tomorrow Hit Today left Mudhoney at the proverbial crossroads as Arm and Turner discussed how to regroup.

“We never wanted people to be replaceable. For a while, we talked about resuming as like a studio trio but I know I’m not creative enough to write bass and guitar parts,” he laughed. He added that bassist Guy Maddison coming aboard back in 2001 continues to have great impact on the group.

In retrospect, it may be easy for Turner to believe that Mudhoney’s longevity is due to luck but the group’s successful ability to merge diverse styles has them transcending trends, on their terms. Their reconciliation with Sub Pop back in 2002 has resulted in more consistent records, capturing their hallmark tones with blatant disregard for the digital age, which makes Digital Garbage an aptly titled record. It seems Seattle returned to normalcy years after being the international darling for ‘the next big thing’, though you’ll never catch Turner speaking fondly of the good ol’ days of grunge, even if Seattle’s first ‘grunge super group’ recently reunited.

“We still support each other because nothing has changed. We try to catch shows because it’s just what we know, what we do. The Green River reunion shows were fun because I think that was the first time all of us were onstage together at the same time playing those songs. As for a new record, who knows? It’s something we always talked about but there are upcoming reissues of the Green River records that I’m excited to hear. As for Mudhoney, we have some leftover songs from Digital Garbage that will probably come out as 7 inches,” concluded Turner.

photo credit: Emily Rieman