Mudhoney abides: Steve Turner on the grunge backlash, Nirvana, Green River, vintage metal, and digital garbage

    1 of 10 2 of 10

      Mudhoney’s finest moment?

      American music critic Mark Prindle—whose retired record review site features a billion hilarious (and some insanely digressive and definitely not-PC) record reviews—sometimes posts surveys on his Facebook page for his followers to comment on. Often these take the form of “What are your thoughts on this music I’ve listened to lately;” but occasionally he also asks people to weigh in on their favourite and least favourite albums by this band or other.

       A couple of months ago, Prindle picked Mudhoney.

      As soon as I mention this to Steve Turnerreached by phone at home in Washington State—the Mudhoney (and Green River) guitarist and co-founder jumps in bemusedly. “I had to do one of those things!” Turner says. “I had to rate our records for Noisey.  [Prindle] might have been riffing off that, because I posted a little hand-styled list of how I had to rank the albums on my Facebook page. I think I said my favourite was Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge, with Superfuzz Bigmuff second.” (That was actually pretty much the consensus reached by the Prindle poll, too, it happens). “Some people totally disagreed with me, but I had to rate them, and I was like, fuck, I dunno! I think I’m fairly realistic with different faults and things on our records, but that aside, it wasn’t easy. I would have made it different, probably, any other time; I don’t think I would make the same list again.”

      So what about his least favourite? I cringe to ask, because—I tell Turner—most of Prindle’s geek-elite followers picked one of my favourite Mudhoney albums, the cohesive, political, and darkly brooding  Under a Billion Suns, from 2006, as their least fave. I’m hoping Turner will stick up for the album, but nope: “I put that on the bottom too! It’s not that I hate the record: it’s just that we don’t play any songs from it anymore, which I thought was kind of telling, somehow.” You can almost hear him shrug.  “Something had to go last.”

      It is harder to quibble with his placement for Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge,  however, right at the top of the list; that is one pretty amazing record, with both strong, punky singles, like “Into the Drink” and “Let It Slide,” and one of band’s best-ever epic dirges, “Broken Hands.” 

       It is also the album Mudhoney was touring that fateful year, 1991—later dubbed The Year Punk Brokewhen the grunge wave that had been building crested and crashed on North America, in the wake of Nirvana’s September 1991 release of Nevermind. It led to a slew of major label signings (Mudhoney got Reprise); a bunch of people developed rockstar-sized substance abuse problems; and there was a massive worldwide uptick in sales of plaid flannel and toques.

      Of Nevermind, Kurt and Courtney, and the “grunge backlash”

      When Nirvana played the Commodore on October 30, 1991  the month after Nevermind hit the shelves, the opening act was Mudhoney. They were touring Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge, and the present author was there. And he promises you, at least one deeply invested music fan that night came away grumbling that Mudhoney was way better than Nirvana, despite all the bubbling hype.

      Not only didn’t I like Nevermind very muchBleach was far betterbut I was so disgruntled to see my beloved underground suddenly turned traumatically aboveground that I (more or less) spent the rest of the 1990’s listening to free jazz and John Zorn, and ignored all post-1991 releases by Mudhoney, Nirvana, Hole, Soundgarden, TAD, and the Screaming Trees (all of whom I had loved previously) until well after the waters had subsided. It’s a phenomenon dubbed the “grunge backlash,” in the book Grunge is Dead, and I had a bad case of it. When you have investment in something being low profile (kinda like what Mudhoney sings about in their 2016 song “I Like It Small), it actually can ruin things for you to see it break big.

      “It’s totally understandable,” Turner says, absolving me. “I probably would have been over it, too, if I had not been involved in one of the bands, y’know? I get that.”

      Before we progress further, though, it makes sense to ask if he minds questions about this time period. Some of the figures from the Seattle scene, like Tad Doyle, whom I interviewed in 2016, emphatically do not want to discuss the 1990s. Turner is more philosophical. “No, I meanit’s part of our story, so of course it’s going to come up. We have a long history, and we’re very linked to that time, so there’s no getting around it. I do make note sometimes when we suddenly start getting lots of requests for interviews, and, y’know, we don’t have a new record outand ‘Ohh, it’s the anniversary of Cobain’s death’ or of Nevermind or something. I suddenly get weird requests from overseas, and I warn the guys: ‘okay, I think we’re gonna get inundated with Kurt Cobain questions, here!’” Turner laughs easily. “But, y’know… it’s gonna happen.”

      Did he like Nevermind? He pauses for a second before responding. “I did not love the way Nevermind sounded, when I first heard it, before it came out. They had done demos of a lot of the newer songs, maybe a year before that, which I thought were great, before they had [Dave] Grohl on drums even. So I’d lived with some of that stuff already.” Then he heard how it was going to sound on album: “it was a very commercial-sounding record, to my ears. It kinda still does [sound that way]; it has that gloss to it. It doesn’t diminish how great a band Nirvana was, but no, I did not love it. And when we were told that ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was the single, it was like – ‘that’s the single? Oh man! It’s too long, it’s…’” He trails off.

      Does he think the post-Nevermind grunge explosion was why Mudhoney got signed to Reprise? “We were kind of heading in that direction, independently, too. I don’t think it made that big of a difference to us; we were already fairly well-established and doing pretty well at that point. We were already making our living from the band, let me put it that way. I do think it brought a few more people to our shows. There was so much attention being paid to Seattle and the bands and such, being part of that storybut we were already chugging along pretty well, and doing pretty well on tour.”

      My memory of that night at the Commodore in 1991 was that even then, at the very outset of the Seattle explosion, Kurt Cobain seemed to be filled with inner conflict. The Commodore was packed, and people were loving the show, but Cobain did not seem to be having fun onstage, andif I recall correctly, during a fairly violent rendition of the hidden bonus track at the end of Nevermind, “Endless Nameless”his performance actually teetered on seeming self-destructive, self-hating, at the very least ambivalent about rockstar success, It was almost like he wished he could scare the audience away (speaking of which, I’m pretty sure it was Kurt who got dressed in a white sheet at the end of the show, like a ghost, and addressed us all with a deadpan “boo;” it was the day before Hallowe’en, after all).

      But maybe all of that is just in my head, and I’m reading things into my own scattered memories, because I know how the story ends…?

      “You know, I didn’t really know Kurt very well,” Turner replies. “He seemed fairly private and shy. We were friendly, and we did lots of shows together, but I don’t know if I ever had a meaningful conversation with him. The other guysGrohl evenI got to know pretty well, and Krist [Novoselic] we’d known through the years because he was always ‘that tall weird guy who hung out with the Melvins.’ He was always with the Melvins, from ‘84 on. So you know, we got to know him pretty well, even before Nirvana, and it was kind of exciting: ‘hey, the Melvins roadie-guy has a band! Cool!’ That’s what I thought of Nirvana at first. I never knew Kurt really wellwhat drove him, and what, ultimately he was fighting. It’s a sad, tragic tale all around; obviously he did not get the help he needed.”

      Turner did get to know Courtney Love a bit, from Mudhoney sharing bills with Hole. (He’s currently reading Hole drummer Patty Schemel’s memoir, Hit So Hard, he tells me at one point). Courtney “makes herself known pretty quickly,” Turner quips. “We met her years before she and Kurt got together. Hole and Mudhoney did a tour of the UK in 1991, I want to saymaybe it was 1990.”

      What does he make of the amount of hostility that is around her? How does he feel about people holding her responsible for Kurt Cobain’s suicide, or saying Hole’s early albums were Courtney riding on the coattails of more talented musicians, from Kurt Cobain to Pretty on the Inside producer Kim Gordon…?

      “I think the drugs pissed some people off, and what junkies do to each other, I think is a big part of why some people have a hard time with her, but I wasn’t involved in any of that stuff, so I don’t have any horror stories about her. I certainly don’t blame her for Kurt’s death. And she knew what she wanted to do musicallyit wasn’t all Kim Gordon. Kim Gordon recorded the record, and people like that record, but Hole was already a going thing before that. They knew what they were doing.”

      If we leave aside Nirvana and Hole, howeverarguably the two most over-exposed bands from that time period (and leaving aside Mudhoney, as an obvious conflict-of-interest) who were Turner’s favourite bands from the Seattle scene? Screaming Trees, for starters: “We listened to an awful lot of Buzz Factory in the tour van. That record was a pretty frickin’ great record, to me. I love Beat Happening. I really liked Bikini Kill, and I liked some of the local garagey stuff that popped up, like the Fall Outs: I mean, I joined the band, and I put out their record, so I must have liked them! But I thought there was some amazing stuff going on.”

      Green River and the roots of grunge

      At this point in the interview, we’ve thrown around the word “grunge” a few dozen times, but it becomes relevant to try to pin down the meaniing of the genre: the range between the shimmering, Stooges-worshipping, fuzzed-out garage grittiness of Mudhoney and the much slicker, more mainstream sounds of Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, or Pearl Jam seems pretty huge. Does Turner even acknowledge “grunge” as a genre? “At  a certain point, I think just jokingly, in 1995, Mudhoney decided to own the fucking term: okay, we’re fucking grunge. If anybody is, we are!” He laughs. “I think that was just funny, and a backlash to the backlash. The problem was, [the term grunge] was used more just to describe bands from Seattle [than a style of music]. It was just an easy label. I remember friends like Stone [Gossard] from Green River and Pearl Jam was kind of horrified with all of it being lumped in together. I don’t think any of the more successful bands really cared to be lumped in as ‘grunge.’ I would say that Nirvana was the only band that got really successful who was coming from that point of view. They were grungy!”

      Since Green River has come up, it seems worthwhile to mention the recent Jackpot reissue of Green River’s Come On Downa 1984 EP that, along with Slow’s Against the Glass, seems to make a good case for itself as one of the very first unarguably “grunge” records. Both Turner and Mudhoney vocalist Mark Arm were in the band, along with Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament (also later in Pearl Jam). Turner would leave the band soon after the EP was recorded; it seems fair game to ask how he feels about it now. “I like a couple songs on there. I think it’s half-good, and half struggling-to-figure-out what we were supposed to be doing. I like ‘Swallow My Pride,’ and ‘New God,’ I think is a cool tune.”

      Turner wrote the music for “Swallow My Pride,” right? “Pretty much, yeah. I think we all shared at that point, but it was definitely my riff.”

      He’s talking about the three chords that sound almost identical to the riff in the Blue Öyster  Cult’s “This Ain’t the Summer of Love,” right? “Right, well, that’s what we discovered! Kim Thayil, I think, from Soundgarden, is the one who told us about that. And we hadn’t heard that song before!” The band promptly listened to it, “and we went, ‘Okay, well, pretty much, that is that riff!’”  After Turner left, Green River re-recorded the song and added a more explicit, hat-tipping reference. “I think at some point Mark sang, ‘this ain’t the summer of love,’  so we kind of acknowledged it.”

      Turner re-joined Green River for reunion shows, going on 10 years ago, now. “We were a three guitar army, for those shows,” he says. “It was fun.”

      So why did he initially leave? “I wasn’t liking the music, it’s really that simple. They got better after I left. I really liked the EP after I left, Dry as a Bone; to me that was their best stuff. But I really did not like heavy metal, and they were pretty into some underground metal when I quit the band. And some of the songs were too complex, and it didn’t go the way I thought the band was going to go. I realized, after one show, that I was kind of being a dick, and I wasn’t helping anything, so I left. I suggested they get Bruce [Fairweather], and they did, and that really helped the band a lot. Everyone was kind of on the same page. And they kinda ditched the metal thing, too. They kind of went ‘classic rock,’ I guess, in a wayAerosmith and some glammy stuff. To me, they got better after I quit.”

      Turner had grown up as a punk, and in the early 80’s, pre-crossover, there was a certain amount of animosity between punks and headbangers; is that where his dislike of metal came from? “Not really. But it plays into that bigger picture. They way I view 1984-1985, a lot of us were coming out of the hardcore scene, and just trying to figure out where to go after hardcore. What do you do? I know hardcore still exists, and I have friends who are really into modern hardcore and stuffthere are plenty of different directions it went. But in 1984, hardcore to me seemed like a dead end.

      "There were so many bands, especially in America, that were trying to figure out what to do after hardcore. And some went super-metal, and that crossover stuff happened; and some went kind of towards college rock – Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, Meat Puppets to an extent. They started recording better, they wrote better, played better, and played different styles of songs, without going into an actual genre. I guess it’s sorta ‘proto-indy,’ or something. To me it was just part of that bigger picture, of what to do after hardcore. And Jackpot also reissued the first Green River demos, which is pretty telling. You can definitely tell we were coming out hardcore. Mark was still trying to sing like Henry Rollins!”

      Of Vancouver punk (and skateboarding)

      Ever since Justin Sullivan of the New Model Army told me that he lost his virginity in Vancouver, I make a point of asking everyone coming to town if they have any particular Vancouver stories or associations. With history having it that Kurt and Courtney met at a D.O.A. show, it seems more germaine than usual to ask Steve Turner about his own relationship to Vancouver rock: did he have any formative experiences relating to Vancouver bands?

      “Um, yeah! The early punk days in Seattle, the main Vancouver bands came down here a lot, so I saw D.O.A. a lot. And I love D.O.A.. And I love the SubhumansI only got to see them twice, I think. To me, out of those two bandsI think they were the two biggest Vancouver punk bandsI liked the Subhumans better than D.O.A., I have to say. But there’s amazing D.O.A. shit, too, and live they were great. I was a total punk collector guy, so I discovered the Braineaters, and I, Braineater, Jim Cummins. I really liked a lot of his stuff. I reissued the first Braineater 7” back in the 1990’s! A little bit later, I would mention Slow, as being a huge thing. They were really popular in Seattle, and they were definitely fellow travelers in that ‘trying to figure out what to do after hardcore.’ I felt like they were a grunge band!” (I hasten to point out a colleague who would agree).

      He knows that Slow reunited, right? “Yeah, I saw thatthat’s pretty rad. They were great live, too, man.” So does he ever come north to see these shows? “No, I have to say, In 1987, I lived in Bellingham, going to college; this was right before Mudhoney. So I came up to Vancouver record stores a lot! And there’s kind of a skateboard link for me, as well, with Skull Skates and some of the underground skateboard shit. There’s great skate parks, so I think of that. One of the first times I came to Vancouver, it was to go to one of the early skate parks.”

      Did he ever see the Randy Rampage skateboard, with the awesome Bev Davies photo of Randy with D.O.A. in Chicago? “Oh cool! I never saw that, that’s rad! Randy just died, right? That’s a shame.”

      Digital Garbage

      Mudhoney’s eleventh studio album, Digital Garbage, is set to drop on September 28, and the band will be playing a generous helping of it at the Rickshaw as part of the Westward Music Festival this weekend The album continues a sort of topical trend that kicked off with Under a Billion Suns, with singer Mark Arm (who also writes the lyrics) weighing in on everything from media figures that shamelessly exploit people’s fear in “Paranoid Core”,,,,,,, people live-streaming their suicides. 

       “Mark was definitely inspired lyrically by what’s happening in the world post-Trump. I let him kinda put the record together, so I think this one has some real cohesion to it. Mark is more engaged in the political process [lately], and he has been for the last 10 years. I think it’s just a process of where Mark’s at.”

      With songs like those, and a title like Digital Garbage, you might assume that Mudhoney is hostile to social media; perhaps the band is even anti-internet? “I hadn’t really thought of it that way,” Turner says, chuckling (the guitarist is on both Facebook and Instagram). “Funnily enough, I came up with the title for the record, because Mark didn’t have anything, and he liked it when I said it.” But more than critiquing the internet as a whole, “I think it’s just the modern world, poking fun at and noting how the internet has definitely had some negative impact, socially, lately, creating different tribes or accenting them. It’s easy to have your own echo chamber, online: look at the news media – in most people’s minds, there’s two different sets of facts coming out of the news.”

      That’s something Turner himself is complicit in, he admits: “I myself don’t look at Fox News; so I’m in my tribe.”

      How about as a way of disseminating music? Does Turner use streaming or downloading services? “I don’t download music, really. I’m still a vinyl records/ used thrift store records kind of guy. But I mean, I have a bandcamp page for my solo stuff, and I’ll link to the new Mudhoney things, or try to, when they pop up. I’m not anti-internet." And unlike some of the more vocal critics of digital downloading, like Pere Ubu’s David Thomas, he doesn’t feel that the internet has been a disaster for musicians.

      “I mean, we only get paid a very small fraction for what people stream or download, but my point used to be that anything that scares and takes power away from the major labels is good for music, even if the musicians aren’t exactly getting paid. Generally musicians on most levels make more money on the road, anyway. That’s kind of how it’s always been: you want to make some money and you’re a somewhat popular band, you go tour.”

      This echoes something Mike Watt used to say, that everything is “gigs and flyers”you make your money playing the gig, and everything else is just promotion. “I agree,” Turner laughs, adding that Mudhoney and Mike Watt have “been in the same trenches for a long time!”

      So what are the economics of Mudhoney? With years between albums and shows, does everyone have to do a dayjob to keep going? “Oh yeah. We work jobs. And we have since the turn of the century; by that year, we were all working, part-time, full time... It works out sometimes, but like I just said, you want to make money, you go on tour, and we don’t tour that much, because of other commitments. Three of us have kids, so we’ve been juggling other things for a long time. So it’s just part of the reality. We could a living from Mudhoney, probably, for awhile, if we toured a bunch. I don’t know if it would last, or if people would get sick of it, but we could. Bands that don’t sell a lot of records can make a fine living touring a lot. Look at the Melvins; they tour their asses off. We don’t do that! And I don’t think we’d last very long if we tried.”

      There’s still something to be said for the longevity of Mudhoney. Not many bands can last thirty years, especially without whopping financial rewards to fortify their commitment, and still put out such consistently strong albums.

      “Yeah, most bands don’t survive thirty years,” Turner admits. “It’s kind of a weird onethe world is weird now. But we like to do it, and it does contribute. I mean, if we go on tour for a month in Europe, we do come home with enough money to make it worthwhile, to pay for all the expenses of going on tour and being gone and paying for childcare and making sure all that’s covered. It works out, and we like to do it. And at this point, since we don’t do it very often, it’s kind of a special, fun thing we get to do.”

      Other new songs on the setlist for Saturday’s show include “Nerve Attack” and “Hey Neanderfuck,” Turner tells me. Hmm, is that last one about Trump, perchance?

      “I would say no. ‘Neanderfuck’ is a term that Mark has wanted to use in a song for years. It’s fromwhat are the 70’s stoner comedy albums that were really popular?” He pauses to jolt his memory while I guess Cheech and Chong and the Firesign Theatre. “National Lampoon! I think it’s from a National Lampoon album.”

      So what is a Neanderfuck, exactly?

      “It’s a really dumb asshole, I think.” He pauses a beat. “So maybe it is about Trump!”

      Mudhoney plays the Rickshaw on Saturday (September 15) as part of the Westward Music Festival.