The Last Laugh

How Mudhoney survived 10 years in the major-label wilderness and a shifting lineup to produce their best album yet. Getting down in the basement with rock's clown princes.

  • Monday, October 9, 2006 12:00am
  • Music

Doggie style: Mudhoney and Arm's pooch, ready for their close-up.

Something strange is happening in Mark Arm’s living room: A transformation, of sorts.

At the behest of the Weekly, Mudhoney and El Vez, the Mexican Elvis, have gotten together to mug it up for the camera. Things go smoothly and professionally, for a time. Then, somewhere around the middle of the shoot, this peculiar gathering starts to yield bizarre results.

Chalk it up to four pencil-thin mustaches and a dollop of macho: Mudhoney suddenly become Los Mudhoney.

El Vez, armed with a Sharpie, administers their new facial hair with a deft hand, and the four members are immediately transformed. Twisting their faces up, arching curlicues with their eyebrows, they’ve turned into Latin lovers, lotharios, strutting cocksmen.

Dan Peters swaggers about comically: “Oh yeah, I feel manly. I feel . . . like slapping someone around.”

Arm takes the gag one step further, posing for a portrait with his front tooth blackened out, before settling into a lotus position on the floor.

Meanwhile, Steve Turner and Guy Maddison have shown up for the photo shoot dressed in identical outfits: Leather vests and denim, California cowboy attire. “I’ve been listening to The Notorious Byrd Brothers,” explains Turner. “I look for every opportunity to wear this vest since I got it.” Indeed, with the mustaches they’re a mutant hybrid: Roger McGuinn meets Xavier Cugat.

They all gather around and compare the size of their belt buckles. El Vez pulls out the winner, a gaudy jewel-encrusted number that looks like it was lifted from one of the King’s jumpsuits.

“Well,” says Arm, “that’s good, but . . . ” He lifts his shirt, revealing a brass buckle upon which is emblazoned, in bold lettering, “DICK.”

A thousand years ago, in 1991, this was the sort of earthy, unaffected humanity that made so-called grunge rock feel like a cool breeze on a hot day. Without haystack hairdos or fey synth arrangements, with just a few cheap instruments and a shitload of amp wattage, a band like Mudhoney could make records for major labels. And—think back, we’re telling the truth about this—the labels would just release the noisy things.

Fellow hype survivors Pearl Jam are perhaps the only other group to emerge from that scene, a decade later, with their unique personality intact—and this in the face of a success that would irreparably warp most other bands. But while Pearl Jam rocked with a heart and a conscience, Mudhoney rocked with a full tank, a six of domestic rolling around in the backseat, and an undeniable sense of the absurd.

Of course, as Arm has often noted, Mudhoney eventually got dropped from Reprise for the only reason that ever matters; they didn’t make the label any money.

“In fact,” Turner will later observe, “we’re making less money than we ever did before. And we’re playing more now than we did five years ago.”

As the bizarre I-got-that-belt-buckle-beat competition unfolds, it’s easy to peg Mudhoney’s cockeyed sense of humor as the key to their staying power. As populist a band as Pearl Jam is, it’s hard to ever imagine standing in Eddie Vedder’s living room witnessing a similar scene.

But then there’s the Mudhoney sound, one they’ve worked at and developed and grown into for nearly 15 years. So maybe there’s some kind of alchemical effect that emerges when the clowning meets the volume. Maybe that’s why they’ve lasted, despite the knocks and changes, despite the way a scene has fallen down and risen back up around them. Maybe it’s why, after a decade in major label purgatory, they’re back on Sub Pop. And happy to be there.

A few days earlier in the same living room, there’s very little activity, save for Arm’s dog crashing around after his cat.

Mudhoney, meanwhile, are spread around the room: Peters dozes on a davenport; Turner reads at a piano bench; Maddison in a corner munches on a convenience store burrito. As Arm sifts through some mail—his Showgirls DVD has finally arrived—he tries to rally the others to go downstairs and make some noise.

It wasn’t always like this. A year ago, making noise was at the bottom of the band’s agenda. “We were deliberately keeping quiet,” Arm says. “We had a pretty good idea how everything was going to work out, but we weren’t a hundred percent sure.”

Today Mark Arm can finally come clean about all the hedging he did in early 2001, when the band went tear-assing through a frenzied six-city tour, playing their final shows with founding bassist Matt Lukin. Back then, when asked about Mudhoney’s future, Arm would hem-haw about the upcoming Brazilian tour already on the books. Steve Dukich, a longtime associate, had been tapped to play bass on that two-week jaunt. Following that, went the official line, the fate of one of Seattle’s hardiest bands was up in the air.

If Mudhoney thought of ending things, however, they rethought their options fairly quickly. Months after the band’s return from South America, Guy Maddison, a native of Perth, Australia, who’d played with Arm in a variety of settings, stepped officially into the bass slot.

The newness was exciting—Maddison was a friend as well as a hell of a bassist—and Arm, Turner, and Peters had amassed some new music in the interim. But for a long stretch, even before their first performances with Maddison, Mudhoney’s live shows drew exclusively from their extant recorded songbook, which had closed to public ears with 1998’s Tomorrow Hit Today.

“Lukin refused to learn the new songs,” Arm chuckles in the exasperated tones of a long-suffering friendship, “so there was a weird period where we weren’t doing anything but old music. Then Steve [Dukich] had to learn those old songs, and then Guy had to learn them. We kept feeling like, ‘God, we just did this.’ We were in limbo. We weren’t really moving forward, even though we were playing regularly.

“It was only about a year ago—finally— that we started throwing out riffs at each other.”

A steep flight of stairs leads down into the band’s rehearsal space: A cramped 10-by-20 basement room, cluttered and cozy, filled with all manner of rock ‘n’ roll bric-a-brac. The image of Texas tunesmith Townes Van Zandt stares from the wall; an Elmore James bobble-head jiggles atop a speaker; Mudhoney posters and handbills are tacked up everywhere.

A pair of song lists are pinned onto a board, which the band consults carefully. They have much to work out in a short time. Turner and Arm will be off to Europe for a week to do some overseas promotion. When they return, they’ll have only a handful of rehearsals before their CD release show, most of which will focus on practicing with a horn section.

Between sips from a Tecate, Turner tunes up a black-and-white Danelectro. Arm straps on his silver-sparkled Gretsch, while Peters and Maddison tweak their gear. Finally, they settle in.

“Hit it, Turner,” admonishes Peters from behind the kit. With that, the band is off.

They begin with a couple passes at Hawkwind’s early 1970s nugget, “Urban Guerilla.” Arm eyes a printed lyric sheet in front of him; the clean letters belie the tune’s messy, anarchic spirit: “Let’s not talk of love or flowers,” he sings, “or things that don’t explode.” The band burns through the song, a deadly blues, with toxic glee.

Then it’s onto creepy, convincing versions of “Into the Drink” and “Tomorrow Hit Today,” the title track off their last album.

They also run through several songs from Since We’ve Become Translucent, their first new record for Sub Pop in over a decade. Hearing it unfold live, the album’s reach sounds even more revelatory.

The formative idea for the record, in a way, was Steve Turner’s. The guitarist had always wanted to try recording an album with a hit-and-run approach: Focus intensely on two or three songs at a time, rehearse and record those songs, then forget ’em and move on to the next bunch.

In essence, that’s how Since We’ve Become Translucent came together. Recorded over a series of weekends at three studios—”working on little deadlines,” as Turner puts it—the album careens through an accomplished range of styles, from brisk garage rockers to more expansive, almost jazzy workouts.

Laden with horns, shot through with some of Arm’s smartest lyrics, Translucent is an album Mudhoney simply couldn’t have made 10, even five years ago. Not that it sounds radically removed from the spirit of their previous work; it’s only that the band’s chops are more assured, their music more intricate and interesting.

Part of the album’s complexity comes from the diverse spaces in which it was recorded: a weekend at Gravelvoice with Scott Colburn, then three days with Johnny Sangster at Egg Studios, later, a mammoth session with horns at Jupiter, under the direction of Martin Feveyear.

All these sessions were devilish fun, Arm effuses, all of the producers and engineers uniformly stellar. (“Have I said anything bad about these guys yet?” Arm asks. “I keep meaning to. ‘His constant ass-picking was really unpleasant,’ or something.”)

Studio booking was done weeks in advance, regardless of whether the band had material they felt was ready to put down. The rolling deadlines kept Mudhoney writing, and the sessions tight and intuitive.

“We wanted to work with all these guys,” says Arm, “but if we’d done a full album with each, it would have taken years. And we also figured this would add some sonic variety to the record.”

“We didn’t have any choice but to make all the songs sound different,” elaborates Turner. “Like, Scott Colburn at Gravelvoice doesn’t record a lot of, quote, rock music, so the levels didn’t sound like predictable rock levels.”

“Sonic Infusion”—the final song on the album, an eight-minute hard-rock bloodletting—was the first song recorded with the new lineup. “Crooked and Wide” and “In the Winner’s Circle” quickly followed. “And if you listen to the drums on those tracks, they’re buried, really murky, as opposed to the stuff we recorded at Jupiter, which was the most high-tech studio we recorded in. But they sound great, in both places. It works, song for song.

“But to me,” Turner says, “the new record sounds simpler than Tomorrow Hit Today. We recorded so many songs for that one, we were constantly flying weird places, we were bringing in a lot of people from outside. . . . I listen to it now, and I wish I’d had more time to think about the music.”

By contrast, the band had less time and fewer resources at their disposal this go-round.

“We put a lot of creative touches into it, for sure,” Turner says, “even though we banged it out in a very short time. My theory is, if you can’t write a record in a few months, you should hang it up. You’re thinking about it too hard, or you’re . . . useless,” he laughs. “If everything’s going right, it should be easy. And this one was easy.”

Alone among the songs on Since We’ve Become Translucent, the ferocious “Inside Job” was recorded without Guy Maddison. The track comes from an April 2000 session for a since-tanked Internet music company, and the bass is provided by an original guitar hero: Wayne Kramer, legendary member of the MC5, one of the most devastatingly loud bands in the history of rock—and therefore a blood brother.

“I came to their rehearsal,” says Kramer from his California office, “and there’s a bass leaning up against a wall, but no bass player. I asked them what the deal was, and they said, ‘Oh, our bassist quit.’ So I asked if I could try it out.”

As Kramer tells the story it sounds like a setup, something which Mudhoney are perfectly capable of trying to get away with.

“Yeah, these are intelligent, literate guys,” observes Kramer. “They’ve got this rare, free-ranging intellectual curiosity. When you apply that to music, some really amazing things can happen. They’ve learned how to play their own blues.”

“It’s not like we wanted every song to sound radically different,” Arm offers, when asked about the album’s eclectic texture. “We couldn’t pull that off, either. We’ve got our own sound that’s pretty distinct by this point, so we weren’t too worried about the record sounding a little inconsistent.”

“Actually,” Arm says suddenly, almost as an afterthought, “the record does have consistency. It’s us. The consistency is us.”

It’s record release day at Casa Mudhoney. Sub Pop has sent along vinyl copies of Translucent. During a break in rehearsal, Arm passes out half a dozen to each member.

“This is my first gatefold,” beams Maddison, inspecting the elaborate package.

Being back on Sub Pop seems like a natural progression for Mudhoney. “It kind of adds a nice roundness to the story,” says Turner. “They did such a great job with the compilation [2000’s March to Fuzz: Best of and Rarities] that we thought, well, why go to all the trouble of finding someone, when there’s someone good right here?”

(Sub Pop director Jon Poneman agrees: “I think both parties have learned so much in the years between that it makes doing business even more exciting. Of course we’re happy to be working with them again, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that the album is so strong. They’re really stretching in a lot of new directions.”)

Sliding the record from its sleeve, Peters holds up a clear-colored platter—translucent, to match the title. “It doesn’t have that smell,” he says, after taking a long sniff at the disc.

“You know if Lukin was here, the first thing he’d do would be to smell the record,” says Turner, chuckling, “Lukin.”

“God rest his soul,” deadpans Arm, making the sign of the cross in mock seriousness.

For 10 years, Matt Lukin was the heart(burn) of Mudhoney, its resident maybe-it’s-gas grin. Fabled in story (he once considered strapping a milking stool to his ass during live shows, so he could sit down whenever he got tired) and song (Pearl Jam’s “Lukin,” natch), Matt was an integral part of Mudhoney’s sound—so much so that the band unanimously fixes its birth date as Jan. 1, 1988, the day Lukin first drove in from Aberdeen to practice with the others.

As the other half of the rhythm section, Dan Peters formed an especially tight friendship with Lukin.

“With Matt, it was like having another guitar player in the band,” he says. “He was a riff player, which created a really textured sound. To be honest, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to keep doing this without him.”

Even prior to Lukin’s departure, Peters’ own continued involvement in Mudhoney was hardly a sure thing. His wife had passed the bar exam after several years of attendant pain and suffering (“I cooked a lot of meals,” deadpans Peters, a born comedian, “and slid them under the door”), and their first child was born at roughly the same time.

“It was getting harder to travel, harder to commit to a lot of things,” says Peters. “Lukin had it easy: He went right back to woodworking. He’d been a carpenter before the band. We were all jealous, because he actually had a job waiting for him when he walked away. The rest of us had been wasting our time for 10 years, getting older and more un-hirable. And Lukin just said, ‘Fuck it,’ and sauntered off and picked up a hammer.”

But by the time the recording schedule was nailed down, there wasn’t any question of Peters’ signing on for Translucent—and maybe there was never any question anyway.

“Come January we’ll have been together for 15 years,” he says. “That’s a laaawng time. I think you can hear us beginning to turn this corner as far back as [1995’s] My Brother the Cow, but this record feels like a stronger batch of songs. Whenever we’ve recorded an album, I’ve thought about certain songs, ‘Well, there’s one we’ll never play live.’ But we’ve been playing all of these.

“Of course,” he adds quickly, “we’ve never been smart about stopping or starting. ‘Sonic Infusion’ is going to be the first single. Oh, yeah. We edited it down to four minutes, but still; we can always dig ourselves a deeper hole. Like starting and ending the record with the two longest, jammiest songs: ‘Let’s bore the shit out of ’em, so they fall asleep before song number two!'” He laughs.

“The first song is an endurance test,” says Turner, wickedly: “How much do you really like us?”

“But what those folks’ll never know,” Peters intones dramatically, “is the second song is the best song on the whole album.”

Track two on Translucent is a celebration of youthful shit-stirring called “The Straight Life.”

Mudhoney’s members might be pushing—or in Arm’s case, pulling—40, but they’ve never sounded livelier.

Midway through practice—immediately after “The Straight Life,” as it happens—Mudhoney hits a rough patch.

All of them grow sluggish as the hours lengthen. Understandably so: These days, rehearsals have to be planned around families and jobs. Fingering his bass, Guy Maddison looks especially ragged, even slightly pained.

Maddison comes to practice directly from a 12-hour shift in the cardiac ICU, where he works as a nurse tech. He hasn’t even had time to change out of his hospital togs. He makes passing mention of how it’s been a long day. In his business, that’s a fairly grim statement.

“I don’t talk about my musical leanings at work,” he says later, “and vice versa. Mortality is a fairly constant companion on the unit. Most people are pretty grossed out by the physicality of illness.”

Maddison had been a friend, even a musical partner, for nearly a decade by the time he accepted Mudhoney’s formal invitation to join. As a fan in Australia—”I loved the Superfuzz Bigmuff EP long before I’d met Mark or Steve”—he crossed paths with the Seattle crowd whenever their respective bands toured across the waters. While pulling time in Monroe’s Fur, Lubricated Goat, and (alongside Mark Arm) Bloodloss, Maddison’s twisting career path finally brought him to Seattle on a loosely permanent basis. When it came time to shop around for a bassist, Guy seemed an obvious choice.

“I sort of had an idea it was coming,” he says now—and in fact, the band had approached him for the Brazil tour, but it came in the middle of his winter school session. So Steve Dukich, who didn’t want to commit past that tour, “got that little tidbit,” as Maddison puts it. But soon thereafter, Guy was in.

It turned out to be a baptism by fire; Mudhoney booked a summer tour almost immediately.

“They’ve got so much material,” says Maddison, “a working repertoire of about 30 or so songs to draw from in performance. It was kind of a drag for them, because they’d just done the same thing with Steve [Dukich] for the Brazil tour. And I’m not a person who picks things up immediately. I could see Dan’s eyes rolling up when I asked to do ‘In ‘n’ out of Grace’ again.

“Guy moves around a lot on the bass,” says Peters today. “He’s very melodic—it’s like apples and oranges to compare Guy and Matt, but Guy’s just as amazing.”

Mudhoney’s members are such merry pranksters, in fact, that it’s hard to gauge whether Maddison realizes the high esteem in which he’s held. Whatever the case, their opinion is summarized in an offhand comment by Dan Peters: “Guy was the right person. If it wasn’t for Guy, I don’t know how I’d feel about continuing.”

Indeed, Maddison enjoyed an equal hand in writing the songs for the album, beginning with the leadoff track—the last song to be recorded—a thundering sound bomb called “Baby, Can You Dig the Light?”

“Mark had heard a drumbeat that impressed him on this old 1970s anthropological television series,” recalls Maddison. “One day I was over there and he sat down at the drums and said, ‘Here, come and try to play something to this.’ I played bass over it, and we gave it to the other guys.”

The result is an expansive soundscape that emerges slowly from the barest drum intro, at once precise and roomy—as near to jazz- flavored improv as Mudhoney have ever come, and a dizzying performance to boot.

“I think the albums have been getting better recently,” Maddison says. “I thought Tomorrow Hit Today was their best in a long time. Even on My Brother the Cow there was some movement toward that jammy, loose, rolling feel.

“Maybe that’s what happens to you as you get older,” he considers. “You get less intimidated about doing things you suspected would be cool. You go ahead and try the things you never thought you’d get away with.”

Back in Mark Arm’s basement a second wind sweeps through the room, as Mudhoney close their rehearsal with a screaming cover of the Dicks’ “Hate the Police.” Gripping the mike, Arm is rail thin, a tight ball of sinew—Iggy incarnate in fleeting moments.

Interestingly, this same song regularly closed the band’s final shows with Matt Lukin, over a year ago. At the end of one of those nights, in a damp, dank shit- hole somewhere in the southwest, Mark Arm announced, “This is by the Dicks. We hope it doesn’t apply to the police in your town.”

The crowd, most of whom could guess what was coming, cheered aggressively. Then Steve Turner chimed in merrily: “It doesn’t apply to the cops in Seattle. Seattle cops are pretty cool.”

An arrhythmic skip jolted the room. Caught up in the banter, the crowd wanted badly to cheer again; you could hear it in the puzzled, half-formed croaks around the venue. But if we yell, said their worried faces as they looked to each other, are we cheering the police? All at once, 500 punks were flummoxed.

Precisely on cue, when the befuddled silence reached its ebb, Mudhoney— grinning like idiots—ripped into “Hate the Police” at an ear-shattering volume. The room exploded. It sounded like the end of the world.

But it wasn’t. Tonight, in the basement, Arm unstraps his guitar and grabs the mike again, neck muscles bulging and straining.

You better get out of my waaay!” he screams—though by this time Mudhoney’s sheer endurance, and the simple power of the music, have kicked most of their pathway clear. Still he sings it, over and over, as if they had anything left to prove, as if the sound might not rise up joyfully around them, like it’s always done before. Without tricks, without poses, without a heavily labored sense of gravitas, Mudhoney’s survival is, improbably, starting to look like the surest bet in rock ‘n’ roll.

What a racket. What a bunch of jokers. What a beautiful goddamn noise.

Mudhoney’s CD release is scheduled for 9 p.m. at the Showbox, Thurs., Aug. 29, with Nebula and DJ Larrywood. All ages. $15/$12 adv.