You'd think that, after 20 years of hearing his band described as the quintessential grunge group, Mudhoney frontman Mark Arm might have succumbed to the inherent weight and common associations of the term.
Yet Arm (real name McLaughlin) disputes the word "grunge" as applied to his band, and he doesn't believe it carries the significance some might claim.
"The term grunge doesn't really bring a whole lot to my mind," Arm says over the phone from his home in Seattle. "Just distaste—nothing severe—but we just always thought of ourselves as a punk band."
Mudhoney performs with Record Hop and Melba Toast on Friday, September 5, at Granada Theater.
But shortly after Mudhoney formed in 1988, various Seattle fanzines described the band as a grunge act. Arm, once a journalist himself, traces the term to various Australian bands in the '70s, but insists such an etymology is dubious.
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"I really don't even know where the term originated," he says. "But it stuck to us and got tied to a whole lot of other bands."
Nirvana and Pearl Jam are the two most prominent bands that became immediately identifiable by the term. And although Mudhoney never reached the level of success of those bands, they were definitely among the originators of the Seattle sound of the early '90s. Arm just wishes that, since the movement has come and gone, another descriptor can take its place.
"Most of the time I just tell people we play rock and roll," says Arm. "When I really want to piss them off, I just say we are a punk band."
Still, punk may be the best way to describe a band like Mudhoney. Formed in the ashes of another great Seattle band, Green River, Mudhoney was always less rehearsed and less motivated than either Nirvana or Pearl Jam. Arm and guitarist Steve Turner had been playing together for nearly a decade prior to forming Mudhoney, and their shared love of garage rock and classic American punk helped the pair hatch the idea for a new band.
"Punk was such a great way to describe artists as different as The Butthole Surfers and The Replacements," says Arm. "We thought we could fit under that umbrella."
With the release of Super Fuzz Big Muff, the band's 1988 debut, Mudhoney quickly gained a reputation as one of Seattle's best bands, thanks to a sloppy punk/metal hybrid sound that depended on muscle, sweat and Arm's tortured wailing. Continuing with Green River's decadent subject matter (Arm's a big fan of Nick Cave), early singles such as "Touch Me I'm Sick " and "Sweet Young Thing Ain't Sweet No More" were patently offensive and downright repulsive, music that was a bastard stepchild of Black Flag and Black Sabbath. Which is to say: It was exactly what the band was aiming for.
"Now, when I say punk rock, the image I am trying to invoke is not The Offspring," Arm clarifies. "The punk rock I'm talking about is what every radio person called crappy back in 1980."
On this tour, in support of both The Lucky Ones (the band's recently released ninth LP) and the recently expanded, double-disc reissue of Super Fuzz, the set list gravitates between the two releases, with a few cuts thrown in from such seminal efforts as Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge and My Brother the Cow.
"When we play now, it's like dudes' night out," says Arm. "Some guys play cards, some do a line of blow. We play as many songs as we can as long as we can."
The critical knock on Mudhoney, though, is that the band hasn't really deviated from its signature sound of two decades ago, and that the relative softening around the edges that took place while the band was on a major label was simply different icing on the same cake. Arm, however, believes that the band's commitment to its garage/punk roots is one of the things that has helped the band maintain its loyal fan base. Plus, according to Arm, there's just a limit on how much experimenting a band like Mudhoney can do.
"What the fuck else are we going to do?" he says, almost defiantly. "It's hard for me to be objective about this band, but so many young bands think that they have to have some angle or image, and we're not like that."
Indeed, with each member now in their 40s, Mudhoney is unlike a lot of bands currently out on the road. The members, normally homebodies to a fault, prefer hanging out about town, playing the occasional show and recording a new CD every so often. In fact, Arm claims that simply planning a tour can prove intimidating.
"The band members' families take priority over going out on tour," says Arm. "[Bassist] Guy [Maddison] is a nurse, and his schedule has to be worked around in order to set up shows."
Yet Arm sounds happy to be out, doing what he loves to do. And he can't believe that's he's been able to do it for 20 years now.
"I never thought I would [be] with these guys for this long," he says "Punk rock bands came around for two or three years and then broke up. That was the norm."
Perhaps when Mudhoney returns to dry dock at the completion of this brief tour, Arm, much like Henry Rollins or Jello Biafra, former punk rockers just a few years older than him, could head out on a solo, spoken-word venture.
"A spoken-word performance by me would not be any good," Arm modestly admits. "That's not how I want to spend my time."
But Arm is underselling himself. Articulate, opinionated and excessively knowledgeable (especially when it comes to music history), Arm is kind of like the geek at the CD store whose band is actually worthwhile. Constantly recalling bands and records long forgotten ("I can't believe I'm taking this all out of my ass," Arm says when remembering that The Embarrassment was from Lawrence, Kansas), he takes pride in knowing about the cities in which his band performs. Arm even takes the time to comment about a once-burgeoning scene in our own fair city.
"Deep Ellum seemed to me to be a cool, odd place. A place where the frat boys met the skinheads," he says. "Is that place called Trees still there?"
After being brought up to speed on the decline and slight rebirth of that area, Arm talks about areas in almost any city where clubs have come and gone.
"Every city has these places, these areas where music just seems to flourish," he says. "I can remember playing Dallas, and all anyone could talk about was this area called Deep Ellum."
Kind of like with Mudhoney and grunge. Some things never change.
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