Published Apr 04, 2013As if Mudhoney's legacy wasn't already cemented through their rep as the original grunge band, a string of recent releases, including Mudhoney – Live: Berlin 1988 and Ryan Short's I'm Now documentary on the band look to reinforce the Seattle garage rockers' position as one of the most wildly exciting and uncompromising bands of the past 25 years. Mudhoney add to that legacy this month with the release of Vanishing Point, their first album of new material in five years.
So Vanishing Point was recorded last spring over a couple of long weekends?
Mark Arm: We did one long weekend in April and then we did another long weekend, I think it was in September, and then we mixed it after that.
When you record an album in that manner, is there a lot of rehearsal and prep involved?
Well, we don't write in the studio. We try to hone the songs to a certain degree. What actually happened with the first session last April, we started playing a couple of those songs on the European tour we did after. They shifted enough that we thought we better go re-record these. Also we didn't have enough songs for an album at that point anyways. We had about six songs. The idea was that we would come back from this tour in June and at least record the songs we wanted to re-record, but the way our schedules played out, we couldn't find a weekend where we didn't already have a show scheduled until September.
Do you find that your songs tend to change once you go out and play them live?
Little bits. It's not like we're basing things on improvisation. Usually a song is pretty structured. But the second half of "Slipping Away," we had more of a thing after playing it live for a while and a way to go into it better. Things like that.
How do the four of you decide when it's time to start work on a new album?
I'm not quite sure how we get to that point. We didn't envision it taking five years.
I guess this is my roundabout way of asking what took so long?
Yeah. Our practices are fairly limited since Steve [Turner, guitarist] moved down to Portland. If we're getting shit in shape for a tour we don't really have time to work on new material. We have to consciously tell our booking agent we're not going to do any shows in this period here so we can work on new shit. That's why it took so long I guess.
You've mentioned that you ran into some writer's block when it came time to write lyrics.
I don't know if I would call it writer's block. It wasn't like I was sitting down trying to write. Nothing was jumping out, and that's the way it usually is. Once I hear the music I start thinking about things that might fit that particular piece of music instead of the other way around, writing a bunch of lyrics and then trying to shoehorn them into whatever song we have. We amassed a whole bunch of ideas on our little digital recorder in our practice space and I didn't have any lyrics for a long time. At that point I actually had to sit down and listen to the stuff and get things going and once things started going things came really, really quickly.
Do you remember which song it was that got things going?
There were a couple songs that we had, like "Slipping Away" was one of the early ones. We even had that as an idea with lyrics two years before we recorded it. But it wasn't fleshed out and we weren't playing it live. But that didn't knock down a wall and start a cavalcade of words. The weirdest one was "The Final Course," where I had the first line and I didn't know what it meant. Once I finished the song I had to re-write the first line to make it fit the song. But it was just like, "Oh, this is going here." It was this weird little story that came together pretty quickly. A story in rhyme.
The time the band spends together these days is mostly on the road playing live. Do you still enjoy working in the studio?
Oh yeah, yeah. There's a difference between playing live and recording obviously. There's the immediacy of a live show, the immediate feedback of the audience, especially if the show's going great. Nothing really tops that. But there's also something pretty amazing about watching the germ of an idea become a full thing. And the interplay and the ideas that bounce around between all four of us.
When Guy Maddison joined did it affect that interplay.
Yeah, it did. Positively. He has a lot of great ideas and he's really involved with wanting to make something be as good as it can be. Unfortunately, the last couple years that Matt [Lukin, former bass player] was in the band, he was completely disengaged and didn't want to be around [the studio] anymore. He wasn't contributing anything and there were some super uncomfortable practices.
In the documentary I'm Now, all four of you seem a lot more comfortable with yourselves in general and the position Mudhoney are in these days.
I think we're in a really good place, and a really good position. There's no pressure on the band. And it isn't like we look to the band to survive in the world, so we don't have to make any concessions. Not that we would, or have when it was a full-time thing. But I think we're pretty stubborn with the way we do things. We live in our own little world and we like it. I'd hate to be like, "Well, we really need to sell more records because I've got a kid to put through school." There's other means of doing that.
How did I'm Now come about. Ryan Short, the director had previously made a documentary about Tad?
Yeah. He'd interviewed me for the Tad documentary. At one point he was like "I'd like to do a Mudhoney thing at some point," but he wasn't quite sure what that was. There was some talk of doing like a DVD compilation of all the videos, but that fell by the wayside with YouTube. When he first talked about the idea of doing a documentary, I thought, well there isn't really any story there. There hasn't been any tragedy in the band, we're all friends. There's no ego and infighting and conflict. So I was kind of like, "Why would you want to do that?" But I guess that ends up being the story.
Did it take much convincing to get you involved?
We were open to it. We were like, "Sure if you want to try doing this. You have to raise the money."
Were you happy with how it turned out?
Yeah, I think they did a good job.
Do you like talking about your past?
I don't like to dwell on it, and there are questions that I feel like I've been asked a million times or at least a couple hundred thousand. You know, that always seems to come up.
You did a recent interview where you recalled the excitement of holding the very first Mr. Epp single in your hand. Do you still get that jolt of excitement?
Yeah, when the test pressing came through. It's different stages now. I don't remember seeing a test pressing for [the Mr. Epp single], but it was like, "I've got this thing in my hand, this is crazy! It's real! It's not some made up flyer for some made up show that we used to do, post those around town. In Mr. Epp, not Mudhoney. But I work here at Sub Pop, and I can go to the art department and get involved with the cover coming together, which is an easy thing. So there isn't the surprise of having the finished package come out of nowhere.
Who picked the cover for Vanishing Point?
The photo? We picked it. Those are all photos that my wife took in Syria. She ended up going there four months before shit went haywire. She had a fantastic time. She went to Jordan and a couple of other places too. Popped into Lebanon real quick. She tends to do shit like that when I'm on tour. "Oh, you're going to be gone? I'll take a cool trip." There was something about the photos of Apamea — the sky, the lighting in those photos. I remember thinking, "That could be something cool for a record cover at some point." When it came time, I showed them to everyone in the band we narrowed it down to two photos and one ended up on the front and one ended up being on the back.
Is your wife a photographer by trade?
Yes. And then Jeff [Kleinsmith] the art director here, he came up with the other stuff that's around the photo like the weird black circle thing that you're looking through. And he made the cover look aged which I thought was cool… cause we are!
!K7 just released the DVD Mudhoney – Live: Berlin 1988, featuring your first performance overseas. How involved was the band with the release?
Someone approached us and asked are we up for this coming out, and we said sure. They actually had someone come out and interview me as a bonus thing for the DVD.
Europe really grabbed onto Mudhoney and other Seattle bands early. What was it they got that eluded North America for so long?
I don't know. That show was before anyone grabbed on to anything. We only had one single out and that hall was a large hall and there were not enough people in it, which you can kind of tell, but there aren't any audience shots in it. But the people who were there — it was sort of a NXNE or CMJ sort of thing. There were people involved in the biz over there, like promoters from different countries. We played that show and the people in the audience ended up being the people that we worked with, like our Dutch, French and English booking agents. All these people just ended up being there and watching us instead of just being someplace else. I guess that was the whole point of that show, little did we know or understand at the time.
Something clicked in the UK first, and there's a weird thing, especially in the pre-internet days with the British weeklies: Sounds, which doesn't exist anymore; Melody Maker, which I'm not sure exists anymore and the NME, those reflected out into the rest of the music culture in Europe and the States and Australia. Those weeklies were disseminated internationally. Probably an undue amount of importance was put upon them. But those weeklies had been around since the '60s. They went from covering really important cultural music touchstones like the Beatles and the Stones and punk rock to building up and tearing down bands every other week. And we just happened to be the new fresh thing at the time in the late '80s. At the time there was this idea of something being rockist, like it's too rock. Like you're equating being into rock'n'roll with being sexist or racists. That was how they viewed stuff. I think they were probably thinking of '70s stadium rock, dunderheaded shit with long guitar solos. But we, by looking back into history and applying some of our favourite things at that time, it seemed new to them. Like maybe a fresh take on being a rock band.