“We’re set in our ways, but this record got us out of it” Mudhoney on breaking the mould eleven albums in
The grunge legends return with new album Plastic Eternity, which sees Mark Arm and Steve Turner dive into punk, grunge, psych-folk and much more besides.
Image: Emily Rieman
Knotty, metallic riffs peel open Plastic Eternity, Mudhoney’s eleventh album. A wheedling guitar, straining to make itself clear through hazy reverb, snakes into Almost Everything. Threaded throughout are the sardonic, bleakly humorous stories of men who have survived the Seattle grunge scene and its messy legacy.
Mark Arm, Steve Turner, Guy Maddison and Dan Peters could have gone their solo paths and turned producers or songwriters for 18-year-old grunge wannabes who can barely spell flannel, let alone know what it is. Instead, they’ve built an album that riffs against the righteous, sends whiplash chords echoing into the ether and sweeps up the detritus of modern superficiality into an eclectic, gnarly, snarly ode to garage, grunge and trippy desert jams.
“This is the first interview we’ve done for this album,” singer and guitarist Arm explains, “so I don’t have any ready-made answers.”
A question about the emotions fuelling this album has floored him, and he seems apologetic that he hasn’t got a well-practiced soundbite.
“I’m not very good at talking about my emotions,” he admits. “The main motivation is that we like each other, and we like the music we come up with when we play together.”
Duck and cover
When Mudhoney began, Arm was in his late 20s, Peters was 21, and both Turner and Maddison were in their mid-20s. Steve Turner’s first band The Ducky Boys, alongside soon-to-be Pearl Jam founder Stone Gossard, split in 1983. He joined Mark Arm in a couple of bands, including Green River, before the two recruited bassist Matt Lukin (The Melvins) and drummer Dan Peters in 1988. Inspired by the tormented, heavy metal wailing rhythm-meets-swampy garage punk of The Stooges, Mudhoney’s debut EP Superfuzz Bigmuff – named not coincidentally for two iconic dirt pedals – dropped in 1988. Released on legendary indie record label Sub Pop, it concentrated the Seattle grunge sound into an early blueprint for the peak 90s grunge era that would follow years later. Unsurprisingly, When Rolling Stone compiled its 50 Greatest Grunge Albums in 2019, five featured Mark Arm and Steve Turner (three by Green River, two by Mudhoney).
Now 60, Arm reflects on the band’s mutual respect as the key to their longevity.
“When you’re younger you can let little things irritate you easier, in your first bands or whatever – stupid shit like ‘you like the Beatles, but I like the Stones!’ or whatever the fuck that people draw these lines in the sand over meaninglessness. It was a happy accident when we started the band that we decided to split equally: publishing credits, songwriting… every contribution is crucial, even something goofy I did on my guitar.”
There has been a shift in the band dynamics so far as Peters has been increasingly bringing in fully formed songs, including lyrics, which is evidence of the sense of equality and inclusiveness that underlies their creative strategy. His Little Dogs is a highlight of Plastic Eternity and one of his favourites on the album, Turner admits, though he initially struggled to discern the guitar parts that had been written by a drummer.
Light and shade
It is a lighter, spirited ending to an album that treads through some dark terrain. The album title captures the underlying theme of humanity’s ridiculous, reckless depths of wastefulness. was inspired by a momentary, but profound experience Arm had while on a surfing trip.
“My wife and I and some friends went on a surf trip to Morocco in October of 2021 and from the coast back to Marrakech was a fairly long drive through really barren landscapes. There was no population anywhere, it’s rocky, and it looked pretty uninhabitable. Miles away from any population, we were going down the road and I saw a plastic bag wrapped into a lone, weird tree and that image seared itself into my brain,” Arm laughs reluctantly. “So far away from anyone, this plastic bag just made me realise ‘Fuck, it’s everywhere!’”
That experience sowed the seeds for the blistering and mordantly funny opening track Souvenir of My Trip (“What’s left of me, what’s left of me? A souvenir of my trip.”)
Plastic Eternity is classic Mudhoney, from the twangy, desert-dusted Cascades of Crap, Iron Maiden tidal storms of distorted power chords and pounding drums, or the snarly, droning, art-school-punk of Flush the Fascists. Human Stock Capital is a savage indictment upon the capitalist nightmare of current society. Move Under hollers with the same harrowing urgency of the band’s 1996 hit Touch Me I’m Sick.
They know what works, so throwing new manoeuvres into the recording process isn’t done purely for the sake of novelty. Still, like so many artists, the pandemic forced their schedule into hyperdrive.
Turner accedes, “We’re set in our ways [but] this record got us out of ways because we had to just get it done. We like to bash it out together, the four of us in the basement. It’s rare that one of us comes up with a full, finished song.”
Arm nods along, adding, “Normally when we go in to record, we’re well-rehearsed, we know the songs really well, but we didn’t have the time to do that because we were up against knowing that Guy was leaving [to live in Melbourne, Australia] and we had a tour. We normally just record over a long weekend, but this time we blocked out nine straight days, so we didn’t have to waste time setting up the drum kit and getting everything mic’d. It was a more relaxing time in the studio, and we haven’t had an experience like that since the 90s. We had some half-baked and fully-baked ideas that we worked out in the studio.”
Turner says there were some tweaks to their formula, including new equipment and unexpected gifts.
“I was using a Strymon echo and vibrato pedal [we think he’s referring to the Flint – Ed] that I borrowed from our recording engineer Johnny [Sangster]. I ended up buying one because it’s such a good reverb pedal. I normally don’t randomly grab other guitars, but I borrowed a Gretsch semi hollow body with the Bigsby whammy bar and a Telecaster, so that was fun too. I’ve never really played a Telecaster before, but that came out on Flush The Fascists. I thought it would be really good – stinging, you know.”
Arm adds, “I used the same Telecaster for the slide work on the album, but I mostly played my Gretsch black Duo Jet. My new pedals included a Sabbra Cadabra [overdrive] pedal which doesn’t quite make you sound like Tony Iommi, but it’s pretty fucking close, and a delay pedal based on an Echoplex. I don’t generally play through that much delay, but once in a while it’s fun.”
About six years ago, a representative from Gretsch’s parent company Fender reached out to say that they knew Arm already played a Gretsch, so would want to try one of their Duo Jets?
“I wrote back that I wasn’t in the market for a new guitar,” Arm recalls. “He said, ‘I’m offering to give you one’. That was weird, it had never happened before! It’s better than the ’91 reissue that I have, because that’s a full-on solid body, but this newer one is chambered around the pickups, and it feeds back very, very nicely. It sounds better, it’s got really good resonance.”
When Arm bought his current Seattle home in 1993, he transformed the basement into a studio and practice space, which is where the band have convened and rocked out ever since. They’d begun jamming and coming up with the early material for Plastic Eternity prior to the pandemic, and once the intensive studio recordings began in November last year, it didn’t take long to wind up with 20 songs.
“We’d been recording ideas in our practice space in my basement in Seattle, so we actually had a fair amount of stuff recorded that we were able to pull up, listen to, and kind of arrange as soon as we’d completed our first round of vaccinations in June 2021,” Arm explains.
“In a year or so, there’ll be EP for everyone who wants to hear every single thing. Much like the Morning In America EP , which came after Digital Garbage.”
Plastic Eternity has been tightly curated and the ordering of tracks is deliberate, taking us on a gnarly adventure through guitar rock in all its rich variations, so if there’s more of this, bring it on.
It’s a sentiment that clearly resonates within the band, with Turner declaring “It’s the best thing we’ve ever done.” Arm shoots back, “I don’t know why we wasted 35 years getting to this point!”
Ultimately, the challenge will not be getting Mudhoney fans to listen to Plastic Eternity, but to convince an audience who grew up with grunge and got over it that this isn’t an exercise in nostalgia.
“I don’t really think about that [typecasting],” Arm shrugs. “When we started out, we were into various things: we went to hardcore shows together, that’s how we met, and there’s certain shit like that baked into our essence. The [Seattle grunge] world we entered into, and the milieu we were surrounded by, shaped us, but I don’t think it defines us.”
Plastic Eternity is out 7 April on Sub Pop.
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