In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
The city of Seattle is celebrating two significant birthdays this year: the iconic record label Sub Pop and the legendary grunge act Mudhoney, both of which are turning 30 years old. The fact that the label and band have been interconnected for the majority of those years makes this whole thing a PR dream, but it is indeed a coincidence.
“It is frustratingly coincidental, this one,” admits Mudhoney guitarist Steve Turner. “We had written a bunch of songs about three years ago, so we thought we would be recording soon after that and have a record done long before this.”
Instead, it took Mudhoney two more to finish Digital Garbage, their 11th full-length and first in five years. With a half-decade separating their two previous albums, it seemed as though the band was always dropping something to coincide with both their label’s and their own anniversaries, but it just seems to take them that long these days.
“We thought we’d get a record out a lot quicker this time, because creatively we were on a roll. But it didn’t happen,” adds Turner. “[This way] it ends up working out really well, but we did not plan it.”
Considering the drastic changes the world has undergone since 2013’s Vanishing Point, Mudhoney felt it was time to get political with their music. Though they’ve flirted with such themes before [see 2006’s “Hard-On For War”], Turner says frontman Mark Arm couldn’t look away when writing lyrics for Digital Garbage.
“This time around he was very inspired to come up with lyrics,” Turner says. “Shit is just happening so fast in the world right now. Mark literally wrote the lyrics to ‘Please Mr. Gunman’ the day after the [Sutherland Springs] church shooting. We come from that hardcore world and [pre-Mudhoney band] Mr. Epp had tons of political songs. It was always in Mark’s thought process, but in the early Mudhoney days he wanted to stay out of it. But with Digital Garbage he was really energized.”
In honor of the band making it over the hill, Noisey asked Steve Turner to rank the band’s previous ten albums. He seemed quite happy to do it.
Noisey: Why is this your least favorite?
Steve Turner: Well, we don’t play much from this record these days. And I think it’s telling that we don’t play these songs, since it’s not a very old record. I think that it’s less successful in our minds. This sounds bad, but I think we were overambitious and there were maybe too many people involved. At the time, we were just recording on weekends. In my mind it felt like a good idea to have some variety, and record with a different person on those weekends. Like it would switch up some sounds, at least. But it got confusing. I liked the horns, but we didn’t need them that much. It was an interesting, experimental mode that we were in for those two albums: Since We’ve Become Translucent and Under A Billion Suns. I think of them as companion pieces.
Was working with three different producers—Phil Ek, Johnny Sangster, and Tucker Martine—always the plan?
That was the plan, to go into the studio and record with somebody on a weekend. That would break it up. We knew a lot of great producers and engineers, especially in Seattle. I had already worked with Tucker on a solo record, and he was great. We went on to do a whole record with him after this.
The self-titled album was all right. It didn’t really add anything new. To us, it was basically the same batch of songs as Superfuzz. At the time, I was like, “Fuck man, we’re just repeating ourselves here.”
From what I gather, this album was rush-released to capitalize on the international buzz the band had built.
Well, we had most of the songs already written. “By Her Own Hand” was possibly the first song we worked on together as Mudhoney, it just didn’t come out on Superfuzz. I just think it might have been the actual sound of it. Reciprocal [studio] had just moved to a 16-track machine instead of 8-track, from when Superfuzz was done, if I remember correctly. It was just too same-y. There wasn’t much sonic variety in there. It felt like a continuation and not quite as strong as Superfuzz.
The engineer Jack Endino said, “It’s almost too perfect a record, like they knew the songs too well,” because you guys had become such a tight band.
We had toured Europe for nine weeks before we recorded the album, so we were pretty tight. I think with the overall sound I felt we needed to either move forward or stop. I was always kind of reluctant in the early days. I went back to school after this record. I guess I was quick to get burnt out. This album made me really think. And there were other personal things happening. Mark was starting to get fucked up on drugs, which was kind of a bummer.
I remember reading reviews that said we were a one-trick pony. I couldn’t really disagree at the time either. But there are a lot of fan-favorites on this record that we still play live. I guess it’s a lot of what people think is our classic stuff. I just think we could have done a better job.
Touring this album, you learned that you needed glasses. But then you felt you had to cut your hair because you wouldn’t look cool?
I couldn’t figure out how to have long hair and glasses at the same time. My glasses were horn-rimmed and they looked weird with long hair. I tried to go for bangs, but that didn’t work out at all because my hair was too curly. I was going for the Brian Jones-style 60s helmet hair, but I couldn’t get it right. So I just said, “Fuck it” and cut my hair.
This record was a little spotty to us, which is ironic because it was the biggest selling album of ours. Mark was also pretty fucked up on drugs at that point and I think the rest of us took everything too casually. That said, it does have one of my favorite songs we’ve done, “Suck You Dry.” I wish we had made a better record at that point in our career though.
At this point you had left college to make a career out of music. And then you signed with Reprise. Was that something you wanted to do or felt you needed to do?
It was really neither. Sub Pop was having real financial difficulties. They did really well with Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge, but they had a hard time paying us and had to ask to borrow money from us to keep the label going. It was getting a little bit strained, and since we were friends with Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman for such a long time, the theory was that we should leave Sub Pop so we don’t all hate each other when it all went to shit. Because this was before Nirvana hit it big, which really saved Sub Pop’s ass. We sort of saved their ass for a little while.
We thought about staying on a larger indie, and even talked to Caroline, which was Sub Pop’s distributor at the time. So we thought about cutting out the middle, but talking to Caroline was awful. They were basically telling us that we had to sweeten up the guitar sound and tour for nine months out of the year if we wanted to hit big. And we were like, “No way.” So we felt that if this is what some of the other indies were saying we should just talk to the majors, because that was bullshit. And so we took some interviews with majors. It was obvious that Reprise was more grounded in where we were coming from. We told them we don’t tour that much, we recorded cheaply on an 8-track in a basement. And they thought that was totally fine. So they were very hands-off. We found a great A&R guy in David Katznelson too. He understood what our strengths were, so it was a really good fit right off the bat.
Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden were all becoming wildly successful at this point. However, Piece of Cake did not feel like your attempt to match them.
It’s just how the record turned out. We made the record that we made. We weren’t trying to make any kind of statement. We were pretty grungy and punky and we liked really shitty guitar sounds. People have always asked us if we were bummed because we didn’t become as big as those bands and it’s like, “Have you even listened to our records?” We never thought we would be a band on the radio. It was strange that we got as far as we did.
Mark had been using for a while at this point, but it sounds like his heroin problem was really getting in the way during this album. How bad was it?
It was hard to get him into the studio, and then he’d show up hours after he was supposed to be there. He was pretty fucked up at the time. I was pretty naïve about it too because I never did any drugs. I drank to excess but never did any drugs. So I didn’t know the extent of it. He was basically holed up in his apartment with his girlfriend. So the album was unfocused for that reason. But if I had to pick one song as an example of what Mudhoney is all about I’d pick “Suck You Dry.” That’s as satisfying a song as we came up with.
What did the label say about the idea of including four “untitled” tracks, one of which kicks off the album?
[Laughs] They were fine with it. And I still think it’s a hilarious opening to an album. There is plenty of humor in what Mudhoney does. You have to remember, they didn’t know why all of these bands were suddenly popular. It was really a confusing time for the major labels. They didn’t have a fucking clue. That’s why they hired people like David Katznelson, so they’d have young people to explain why people liked this music. The labels were really caught off guard. By the time our next record came out in 1995, they had it all figured out. For a second there, it was a very confusing time though. All sorts of stuff was being let in the door, and most of it didn’t last. It was an interesting, weird time.
Something’s gotta go at number seven, right? This is where it became weird because Matt [Lukin] had quit and Guy [Maddison] had come on board. It’s a little bit scatterbrained because we were trying to figure out what we were doing with Guy, and I guess the band in general. I really dig the first track, “Baby Can You Dig the Light?,” but I think it pissed off a lot of people because it’s eight minutes long and kinda rambles on. I like it because it made the case that we didn’t care what anybody thought of us. We all had jobs and Mudhoney was just this thing we did for fun.
What was it like recording a new album without Matt on bass?
Honestly, it felt different but it was easier and helped us be more creative. Matt had just lost interest by that point, and he didn’t care to be playing music anymore. He hasn’t since, and I think that says plenty about his decision. He was just over it. And you really shouldn’t play music if you don’t want to.
We were excited and also felt that we could do whatever we wanted. There was no pressure. The last thing we put out was the triple CD March To Fuzz, which capped the Lukin years. We felt that it was now a different time to see what could come out of us.
And you returned to Sub Pop. Was that an obvious decision?
Well, we had done March To Fuzz, and that was a great thing. But I don’t have any horror stories about getting dropped from Warner. I was ready to be dropped by them. It was great because Warner was an investor in Sub Pop. I think they both wanted to do a best-of compilation for the different years, and we just asked if they could do it together. And it was just lucky that Warner owned part of Sub Pop, so that it wasn’t a problem.
This is where it gets harder. This record came out at a real weird time. Kurt Cobain had killed himself and there was a real backlash against Seattle and grunge, especially in the UK press. It felt like we were hated when we were over there. I think it’s because we symbolized the whole grunge thing to people, who were just over it. There was a new generation that had just apparently discovered punk rock, and somehow we weren’t a part of it even though we were a punk rock band the whole time! That’s what we always thought we were. We had way deeper roots in punk rock than fucking Green Day or the Offspring. So we thought, “Fuck it. Let’s record a grunge record with Jack Endino.” We didn’t care if grunge was out of fashion. That’s just who we are.
There are some great songs on here too. Mark had cleaned up his act and he was pissed off. But it was the wrong record at the time. Well, we couldn’t have made a right record for the time because our time had already passed in the pop music world.
Your label rep David Katznelson called this a rock opera about the impact Nirvana’s fame had on the Seattle movement. How right was he?
There are definitely some songs in which Mark was referencing what was going on in Seattle and our lives. I wouldn’t say it’s a rock opera though. Maybe it is? To me it was just about being as grungy as we could get.
Courtney Love said the song “Into Yer Shtik” was gonna give her a nervous breakdown and as a result she would have to go back into therapy. What was the band’s reaction to hearing about her complaints?
I thought: If the shoe fits. But it’s not just about Courtney Love, and Mark has said that lots of times. There was just a lot of dumbassery going on at the time. I had a record label at the time and I was referencing the singer of Stone Temple Pilots with the cover art. On the back it had quotes from an article in Vogue about this personal assistant who had to find outfits for that dumbass. He needed a pink feather boa or something like that.
Wasn’t Courtney’s friend Danny Goldberg the head of your label, and after that he said he wanted nothing to do with Mudhoney?
Yeah, I mean, that song didn’t do us any favors. We shot ourselves in the foot a few times in our lifetime, but fuck that guy!
The album also had a 34-minute-long hidden track called “ woC eht rehtorB yM,” which was the entire album backwards.
[Laughs] And that actually made some people really mad! We were like, “You’re actually mad about that?” Let’s not forget that the vinyl came with the free seven-inch. I remember one person was so mad about it he sent it back to us. He was all excited about getting a free seven-inch and then heard it and was like, “Fuck this!” I mean, obviously we were taking the piss.
We all liked this one. It was the last thing we did with Warner Brothers and the first time we spent some money. The record label told us we should spend the money because we weren’t gonna get the money on the back end anyway. So we were like, “Okay! We’ll hire Jim Dickinson.” Before that, we would get modest advances from the labels. We didn’t want to be in debt. We’d get a $100,000 advance from the label, spend $30,000 on recording and put the rest back into our account. This time they said that wasn’t gonna happen. They encouraged us to get a big producer and actually put the money into the record. In our minds, we felt it was the last time a major label would be offering us money to record, so the theory was to get Jim, who wasn’t exactly known for making hit records. But David Katznelson had worked with him before, and I was a fan of his work, particularly the Alex Chilton stuff. We thought it could be cool because he wasn’t afraid of noise and the music being fucked up. It worked out great and I think the record turned out really well. It’s a shame the record label had lost interest at that point.
Was recording at Ardent in Memphis a big deal for you guys?
Not really. The plan was to record in Seattle at Litho, which is [Pearl Jam guitarist] Stone Gossard’s studio, where we’ve done a lot of recording at. But it was wintertime and snowing. Dickinson’s an old Southerner and he was like, “I can’t do this. This is awful.” So we went to Memphis and it was cool to do. We wouldn’t have been able to do it if we didn’t decide to spend some of Warner’s money.
Reprise seemed a lot more interested in this album, especially the song “Oblivion.” Did that make things any better with the label?
The new guy running the label got it into his head that the song was gonna be a hit. I can’t even remember his name. That was the problem—there was so much turnover at those labels. But whoever was the head really liked “Oblivion.” I mean, it’s a cool song, but he thought it would get on the radio.
And what happened with it?
[Laughs] It didn’t! But he was obsessed with it for a hot second. At the end of the day, they didn’t do much with this record. I got to put out the vinyl on my label, Super Electro Sound. This was before the vinyl resurgence, and I sold 4,000 copies on vinyl. Reprise only sold 10,000 CDs. Fuck, I could have sold more CDs on my label, just by getting them out to Get Hip and other distributors. But the relationship was over at this point. We made the record, they cut their losses and we were done.
I liked how sparse this record was. Mark didn’t play any guitar on it, and just concentrated on singing. I love how he plays guitar, but we wrote these songs fast and they just seemed like they didn’t need a second guitar. I know some people were bummed that Mark wasn’t playing guitar, but I thought it was pretty fun. I still like that part of the set when he takes off his guitar and starts jumping around. The idea partially came from seeing him sing in DKT/MC5 when he toured with them. I was like, “Damn! He rocks without the guitar!” It was a diversion in a weird way.
This album only took five days to record, correct?
Maybe. It went by really fast, so I think you’re right. We only had one guitar. We had one less instrument. Usually Mark has to redo his guitar, because we don’t know the songs very well and he has to lead us through the songs with his voice. It was stripped down.
You described this as “ kind of a punk rock mid-life crisis.” Was there anything that inspired that feeling?
I think we were just talking a lot about punk rock and hardcore. Like I said, we all come from that background. We have a song called “Tales of Terror” on here, and they were a huge band back in the Green River days. Green River covered their song “Ozzy” back in the 80s. The Lucky Ones isn’t a total punk record, I guess, but yeah, I think it’s pretty punk rock. [Laughs] It still has all of the usual influences, like 60s garage, proto-punk, the Stooges, obviously, ’77 punk, hardcore, and then that weird 80s post-hardcore scene with SST, Homestead, and Touch & Go.
Just after the release of this album you guys reformed Green River for Sub Pop’s 20th anniversary. What was that experience like?
That was really fun. We’d all stayed in touch. It was kind of weird when Green River broke up, because artistically where we were at was so wide. Mark and I started Mudhoney, and Jeff and Stone started Mother Love Bone, two very different aesthetics. By the time the reunion came around, I had always been close with Stone. We hung out quite a bit, and Mudhoney toured with Pearl Jam through the years. Jeff and I were super involved in skateboarding again. I guess in 2000 we reconnected through skateboarding, so we started doing that a lot. It was a good re-evaluation of what that was. We had Bruce [Fairweather], who was my replacement, was also in there, so it was all six members who were in the band there. It was really fun! We got to reassess what we did, realizing that some of those first songs on the 1984 demos were great. Mark is mortified by his vocals, but the songs are pretty solid.
I was surprised by how much people liked this record. I think it’s good, but I don’t think we were trying to do anything special. We had become relaxed with what we do and it blends it all really well. A lot of it’s great. Again, Mark sometimes didn’t play guitar.
You’ve said it was relaxed and that you just let if flow. Had you ever tried that before?
I think it just happened naturally. You can’t try to relax, it just has to feel easy and come together that way. But I couldn’t make heads or tails out of it while we were recording. I just went with it. There was some personal turmoil in my life at this time, and maybe I wasn’t as focused on it, but what we were doing was great. I think we learned how to write songs in an easier fashion with this record. It really helped us out.
Mark admitted to having writer’s block. Is that part of what delayed this album?
That had been that way for a while. He has a hard time with lyrics because he doesn’t want to repeat himself. Some of these songs are actually stories. I think he did great. It just takes a while, and sometimes that is the hold-up. Guy and I come up with the bulk of riffs at this point, but we can come up with ideas at every practice, no problem. So they get stacked up while waiting for lyrics.
This was your debut, which at first was a mini album. And then the next year you expanded it into full-length.
Yeah, and I put it so high because it’s the first stuff we did. I think, historically, most bands, if you’re any good, you come out of the gate pretty hot, right? You’re just putting shit together fast so you can get some shows. There is less thought put into it and you just bash it out. I think the four of us got lucky being together. It became really easy for us. Part of that is because Mark and I had played so much together. Even after I had left Green River we were doing the Thrown Ups together. I think that is such a huge piece of the puzzle as to why Mudhoney gelled so quickly. The day Green River broke up Mark called me up and asked if I wanted to start a band. We knew it would be this simplified, gnarly music.
How important were those two titular pedals to the sound of the record?
I think they were very important. We only named it that because it was a bad pun. But the pedals were a big deal. Me discovered the Fuzzbox was a big deal. Mark had already loved feedback and fuzz. At the time I was so into the Stooges, Blue Cheer, and some of Neil Young’s guitar sounds, not to mention the mid-80s post-hardcore stuff like ANTi-SEEN, Pussy Galore, and Drunks With Guns, which was some really ugly stuff. Those two pedals really were the basis for our sound: Mark on the Superfuzz and me on the Big Muff.
Why is this your favorite?
I think this was a redefinition of what we were. It’s got a lot of great songs on it. We were firing on all cylinders at the time, but also challenging what people thought we were. We changed directions a little here, adding Farfisa and going a little more garage-y. Plus it was more song-oriented than Fuzzbox oriented. We all really liked this record. I have really good memories of that particular era. We were on a roll back then. A short-lived roll, apparently.
I didn’t realize there were so many mnemonics for EGBDF.
Yeah, like Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, which I think was a Moody Blues album. But we didn’t know that at the time! We never looked anything up. Growing up I knew it as Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge though. This is how dumb we were about music though—we were trying to remember what the strings were tuned to, and one of us wrote it out. I think Mark was the only one of us who had piano lessons as a kid.
How concerned was the band that Sub Pop wouldn’t be able to release the album because of finances? At that point you were basically bankrolling the label.
Yeah, that was the problem. We were frustrated with them because we had lined up a tour and we needed the record out in order to tour. So there was a lot of handwringing. They got it sorted out but it was definitely problematic. It eventually sold really well, like 75,000 copies, which was a lot for something like that. I think we got lucky that they held on. Whatever lies they had to tell the pressing plant worked. But I think it was the right record at the right time. I think we were writing good songs, and obviously recording it at Egg with Conrad Uno made it sound different. We recorded it with an 8-track, so we had to really think about what would be on the track because we didn’t have any extra tracks to use. So we were really focused, but it was fun too.