Mudhoney and the Rock

A prime Seattle band prepares to go home for good.

CONTRARY TO POPULAR belief, the musical movement of the late 1980s and early '90s known as "grunge" never existed. It was a label the mainstream media foisted upon a slew of bands that had absolutely nothing in common besides the fact that they all hailed from the same region--the Pacific Northwest, particularly the Seattle area--and shared friends in other area bands. Musically, though, anyone with a tinnitus-soiled eardrum could tell you that bands like Soundgarden, Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Mudhoney--all referred to as grunge bands at the time--couldn't sound more different from each other.

The story goes something like this, according to Steve Turner, guitarist for Mudhoney, one of the few bands from that era that has continued to weather the storm of media hype: "It kind of grew out of the hardcore scene of the early '80s. Most of us had been going to the punk and hardcore shows, and got to know each other through that. There were never a lot of places to play or anything, so pretty much whenever there was a party in town or a band playing, we would all be there. We were all basically the audience for each other's bands--early Soundgarden, Green River, Bundle of Piss, the Melvins.

"And starting in '84 the Butthole Surfers came through town a lot, and that was a pretty big influence on most of us. And also all of the SST bands that came out of the punk thing--Black Flag, Husker Du, Meat Puppets--they came through regularly, and they were all sort of changing away from the hardcore thing, and we were all definitely more on that tip, too, not being hardcore anymore."

The majority of kids who attended those shows ended up in bands by the mid- to late-'80s--Mudhoney officially formed in January of '88--and by that summer, a burgeoning scene had developed.

"It happened really fast," says Turner, "but by that summer things around here were really big. The shows got really big, and we started getting (at least) underground national attention."

Two of the scene's biggest supporters, Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt, were so excited by what they heard that they decided the bands needed a record label to spread the word beyond Seattle. Enter Sub Pop, the label that ultimately became known as the home of grunge. With the support of Sub Pop--and the championing of the scene by Sonic Youth, arguably the foremost tastemakers of the period--area bands became well known enough to begin touring outside of the area. (Mudhoney's first tour came courtesy of Sonic Youth handpicking it to open the band's dates on a European tour in 1989.)

Mudhoney, taking its name from a Russ Meyer flick, produced a sound that was appropriately sleazy, alternately fast and garage-y, slow and grinding. Beefed-up pedals upped the distortion ante and a haphazard, trashy blues undercurrent provided by Turner, bassist Matt Lukin and drummer Dan Peters provided the perfect backing for Mark Arm's strained howl of a voice. It all made tunes like "Touch Me, I'm Sick," "Sweet Young Thing Ain't Sweet No More" and "You Got It (Keep It Outta My Face)" instant sludgy classics.

Mudhoney, along with the lion's share of bands in Seattle at the time, started garnering both national and international attention, and because Sub Pop was in the midst of a financial crisis, many of the bands on the company's roster started fleeing for other labels. Mudhoney settled on Reprise, a division of Warner Brothers, because, in Turner's words, "We'd been friends with Bruce and Jonathan for a long time, and we thought it could all go south in a hurry, so we just wanted to get out of there before we hated them. It was kind of like: If they go under and owe us $100,000 in back royalties, we're gonna be really mad. But then Nirvana saved 'em, so it was cool."

Seemingly overnight, Seattle was the toast of the mainstream music industry when Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam surpassed everyone's sales expectations. Mudhoney, though, continued to be more of a cult favorite, never attracting the sales figures of its higher-profile peers. Turner remembers, "In my mind, by the time Nirvana hit, we had already been through it all. We didn't think it was going to get any bigger or weirder, but obviously it jumped several levels when those guys hit number one. After that it was insanity, but no so much for us. We were kind of the observers. We were asked to comment on it a lot," he laughs.

"(Our popularity) didn't grow any more after that. It was great to see our friends doing well. We thought we managed it well; we were making more money than most people I knew. And watching the bad effects of it all ... I never dreamed of being a rock star or anything when I was a kid, and watching the reality of it up close made me really realize that I didn't want to be one. We actively shied away from it; I mean, if you listen to our records it was pretty obvious that we weren't going to be on the pop charts."

Reprise finally realized the same, eventually dropping Mudhoney from the label.

As for the mainstream glomming onto the scene and calling anything that came out of the Pacific Northwest "grunge," Turner says, "That was all just media. I mean, the whole fashion thing was just funny, just ridiculous. But it never really offended us. It was just a word. I can understand why some of the bands didn't like being lumped in with us as grunge when they were actually trying to make good, thoughtful music, as relative as those terms may be. Pearl Jam certainly didn't want to be called 'grunge.' What really offended me was the whole flannel shirt thing. I never owned a flannel shirt in my life, so that whole personal style thing was the only thing that offended me," he laughs.

Fast-forward to 2000: Mudhoney is on hiatus, and Turner and Arm occupy their time with the Monkeywrench, a side project that began eight years prior as a one-off album. The band, which also includes Tim Kerr (Lord High Fixers), Tom Price (Gas Huffer) and Martin Bland (Bloodloss), released a second full-length album, Electric Children, on Estrus, and toured extensively for the first time. During the same year, Mudhoney released two collections of material from the archives, a two-disc best-of and rarities collection, March to Fuzz (Sub Pop), and Here Comes Sickness: The Best of the BBC Sessions (Fuel), which culls recordings made for the BBC from '85, '89 and'95. With the Monkeywrench back in action, and Mudhoney's only releases being archival, rumors began circulating that Mudhoney had broken up. It hasn't, but the players do find themselves in a pretty precarious position these days.

"Matt (Lukin, bassist) quit this time around. He's retiring; he just doesn't want to play music anymore. He's not officially in the band anymore, but he's going to be with us on this trip. We wanted to come back and play some shows, and the four of us have a tax debt that we share, so it was, 'Well, you can either play some shows with us or deal with your quarter of the expenses on your own.'

"Obviously we'd rather play with him than anyone else. We've always identified Mudhoney as the four of us, and never wanted to have to replace somebody. After these few shows with Matt, we're gonna go down to Brazil with a friend playing bass, and it kind of makes sense that we're trying it out on a different continent, as far away from home as possible. So we'll see how it feels; if it feels right and fun, and not like a lame try at something then ... I mean, we definitely want to write more songs and record, but we'll just have to see if it feels like we should call it Mudhoney or not. But even after this trip, though, we won't be touring much because Dan just had a baby girl, so we won't have a lot of time to go out on the road now. All sorts of things get in the way. Life gets in the way."

A Tucson show is the last scheduled date on the actual tour, which means that we will be treated to a little slice of history this week. The second-to-last Mudhoney show ever with all four original members will take place on our home turf, to be followed only by a show in Seattle four days later. If you've ever witnessed the band live, you'll be there. If you haven't, now's your chance to get it while the gettin's good.

Mudhoney appears at 9 p.m. on Tuesday, January 16, at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St., along with openers Fireballs of Freedom and Black Sun Ensemble. Advance tickets are available for $7.50 at the front desk of Hotel Congress; they'll be $10 on the day of the show. For more information call 622-8848.