Music: I Am (Not) Legend

Mudhoney's Mark Arm downplays his band's vast influence

May 28, 2008 at 2:06 pm
Shawn Brackbill

Working for a living: Mudhoney

A musician's definition of success must differ from the rest of the world's inhabitants. One might define success as the ability to achieve supreme greatness for an evanescent moment, like Icarus trying to ascend to heaven on stolen wings. It could also be the ability to maintain a level of greatness over an extended period of time, as seen in The Rolling Stones' inability to stop touring (Keith Richards may have some blood-drenched, Faustian parchment lying around). Or could success be the ability to produce great things for yourself while simultaneously making it possible for another to incorporate your work into their own greatness? Does true greatness transcend?

Travel back to 1994. Kurt Cobain has just swallowed a shotgun shell in the attic of his home. The iconoclast that ostensibly epitomized the "Grunge" culture and put the final nail in '80s Metal's coffin had unceremoniously quit his throne. Thousands of flannel-clad Generation X-ers mourn alongside a baleful Courtney Love and infant Frances Bean Cobain via MTV News and Rolling Stone. Why did we care so much?

While that answer could potentially stretch the length of Love's rap sheet, no one would have cared near as much about Cobain's passing if Nirvana hadn't been preceded by Mudhoney, the band that helped make his legacy possible.

Mudhoney has the distinction of being one of the most influential bands ever, having begat "Grunge," the raw, sleazy, often fucked up, barely held together variety of Rock that surfaced in Seattle in the late '80s. They were to Grunge what The Ramones were the American Punk. Having just released their eighth studio album, The Lucky Ones (Sub Pop), Mudhoney are celebrating roughly 20 years as a band.

So why does singer Mark Arm have a day job?

"Because I need to eat," he jokes. "When (playing music is) not your primary source of income it's super easy."

Arm is the warehouse manager for Sub Pop Records. Ironically, the guy who stores many of Sub Pop's records probably is a reason many of them exist. Arm essentially helped redefine Rock music in the late '80s and early '90s.

Arm's day job at Sub Pop isn't the only thing that has changed throughout Mudhoney's prolific and often tumultuous timeline.

"I'm definitely more settled now," says Arm. "When you're in your early 20s, you don't think twice of quitting a job and taking off for long periods of time and coming back and living on somebody's floor or couch. That is not the case anymore."

One of the reasons Mudhoney continues to be relevant in the Rock idiom is not only because of their lasting influence, but because they also have a preternatural ability to adapt gracefully to changing tastes without having to drastically disrupt their sonic raiment.

The band's dynamic today isn't considerably different from when it began. "The whole getting together and playing and writing songs is pretty similar," says Arm.

Mudhoney also knows how to make the most of their down time. During the lull between albums, Arm toured with the remaining members of MC5.

The experience was the antecedent to the band's new direction. Drummer Dan Peters suggested that Arm not play guitar for an album, which Arm agreed to during the production of The Lucky Ones. The album is slightly more raw and younger-sounding than the band's previous recording, Under a Billion Suns, but their signature is still scribbled across the record.

But how does one go on a guitar hiatus after 20 years of shredding? "You put the guitar down," jokes Arm. "I thought I'd concentrate on coming up with vocal lines and melodies" instead of fretting with an instrument, a concept that is sometimes puzzling, even to him.

"There's parts in the new songs where," Arm explains, "there's long lead guitar parts or some bass and drum break and I'll be, sort of, just standing there."

However, since Arm ostensibly spent three years standing around in Green River, the band he fronted before Mudhoney, it isn't that unfamiliar.

"It's a new thing for Mudhoney, but an old thing for me."

Arm is an aggressively humble musician. While Rock historians often ascribe the bulk of the Grunge movement to Mudhoney, Arm sees things completely different.

"It's seems weird to me, because I don't think of our band as being that," he says. "I just sort of assume that if a band sounds somewhat similar to us, it's not because of us, but it's because they're kind of plugged into similar influences."

Arm seems reticent to admit that some of Grunge's success is inextricably tied to Mudhoney, the proof positive being that bands directly influenced by artists such as Nirvana and Alice and Chains helped usher in a new era of commercial music that didn't involve egregious amounts of asinine lyrics about fucking, Jack Daniels and Aquanet.

"It's just seems kind of egotistical and maybe beyond reason to assume we're some hugely influential thing," Arm says.

Arm says that his predecessors, The Melvins (and even his former band, Green River), were around before Mudhoney and probably contributed more to the advent of the Grunge movement. He seems bound and determined to shrug off the mantel of Rock saint.

But there are other reasons beyond ego as to why Arm wants to remain influentially neutral. His concern is not that he has helped foster great artists, but that perhaps he helped create the dregs of commercial radio hell.

"If you're blaming us for the existence of a band like Bush or a Stone Temple Pilots, I would gladly not exist if those bands wouldn't," he jokes ©

MUDHONEY plays the Southgate House Sunday. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.