The year is 1988. A modest crowd has gathered at the Metropol in Berlin, one of the host venues for the Independent Days festival. It’s a thoroughly international celebration of independently-produced music, with performances from the likes of former Buzzcock Steve Diggle and madcap Teutonic eclecticists Kastrierte Philosophen. The four Seattle long-hairs who suddenly take the stage, however, have just one 7” single to their name – a crunching, goofball howl called ‘Touch Me I’m Sick’. Even the band themselves seem uncertain as to why they’re here, but their playful demeanour tells us they’re determined to have a good time.
“Hi, we’re Mudhoney! How you doin’?” beams the singer. The audience cheer politely. “We’re from America! Howdy…!”
What followed may not have gone down in history in the same way as the Sex Pistols at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall, but nonetheless it set the tone for the next decade of American rock music. The term ‘grunge’ had not yet been applied to ‘If I Think’s hardcore-informed caterwauling, nor the sludgified psych-blues of ‘Mudride’, but it would come to define the sounds coming out of the band’s hometown, and despite the humble attendance, this show created ripples of interest amongst European promoters and journalists alike. The following year, Melody Maker critic Everett True returned from a Stateside trip to pen an energised report on Mudhoney and their label Sub Pop. Grunge had arrived.
The set was filmed by the German production company Studio !K7, and following owner Horst Weidenmüller’s recent rediscovery of the footage, a DVD release has been lined up - “a crucial rock’n’roll document that had to be shared with the world”, according to !K7. So what better time to catch up with Mudhoney frontman Mark Arm?
“It was a long time ago,” he sighs. “It was something we’d kind of forgotten about until we started putting together the deluxe edition of [debut mini-LP] ‘Superfuzz Bigmuff’.”
Did the trip raise your expectations of the band?
“It didn’t feel like we’d made it! It was just weird. Like, ‘how did this happen?’”
Why do you think you, of all bands, were selected to be flown to Europe?
“My best guess - there was a German label called Glitterhouse that Sub Pop was working with at the time, and they contacted Sub Pop about releasing [Arm and guitarist Steve Turner’s former band] Green River over there. That was the initial thing.”
“Berlin Independent Days was kind of like CMJ or SXSW or whatever - for some reason we got chosen. I’m sure Bruce and Jonathan [Sub Pop founders – Pavitt and Poneman,respectively] probably did some fast talking to Glitterhouse, saying ‘oh these guys are amazing live!’ Hahahaha…”
You couldn’t have foreseen that things would pan out this way when ‘Touch Me I’m Sick’ was released…
“We didn’t know how long the band would be together, you know? We’d all been in bands that formed and broke up, and some of them had put out records, so we were like, ‘this band exists, this is where we’re at right now’. I mean, we had no idea that 24 years later we’d still be around.”
You wore your Sub Pop ‘Loser’ t-shirt – was there any sense that you were representing your scene, or your town, or anything beyond Mudhoney?
“For sure – we definitely felt we were representing Sub Pop. Bruce and Jonathan came out with us!”
How did you feel when you stepped out onstage at the Metropol?
“Oh, Jesus Christ, hahahaha! I have no idea any more!”
So you haven’t remembered it as a defining moment in your career then?
“No, no. Y’know, I’m sure we were just, like ‘there’s not a whole lot of people here but we’ve gotta do our thing’. We weren’t used to playing to a ton of people at that point, and we weren’t used to playing in a big room either.”
Have you enjoyed watching it years later?
“Ummm, well, you know, I haven’t spent a whole lot of time watching it…! It is what it is. It documents this weird thing that happened, and even if it was awful, it wouldn’t be worth trying to bury it or anything. I think my proudest moment is when I humped the monitor!”
I imagine it’s not unlike being shown your own baby pictures.
“Yeah, y’know, I have better things to do with my time than watch myself 25 years ago. I’m not quite… oh, what is that movie… the old female movie star who just watches her old silent movies [Mark’s referring to ‘Sunset Boulevard’]… I’m not at that point yet. Hopefully I never will be.”
By now, we’re starting to get a handle on the warm, self-deprecating persona of Mark Arm. Barely a sentence goes by without his boyish laugh cutting through – he still seems amused that anyone would regard his band as important in any way.
Four years after the events captured in Berlin, grunge would reach its cultural zenith when former Sub Poppers Nirvana played their zeitgeist-defining set at the Reading festival. The band’s frontman Kurt Cobain entered the stage in a wheelchair, pushed by the aforementioned True, as a means of lampooning the British press’ concerns that his untimely end was imminent. The joke turned sour in 1994 when Cobain took his own life, consumed and ultimately destroyed by depression, heroin and whatever tragic demons can drive a person to such depths.
Bandmate Steve Turner once explained to indie rock biographer Michael Azerrad that this signalled the end of the British media’s affection towards Mudhoney. “There was such a backlash to after Kurt killed himself,” he recalled. “The English press were so angry that we were still around.” Mark, however, has a different take.
“We were surprised that people were as kind to us as they were for as long as they were. It was inevitable.”
It was worlds away from punk zines like Forced Exposure and Maximumrocknroll, but our hero quickly grew to understand the basics of the UK music weeklies.
“How do you keep people buying a new music paper every week?” he muses. “You’ve gotta find something new to build up and tear down; it’s the only way you’re gonna keep a readership, and I think it’s kind of detrimental to music.”
“It also makes people think that they are great really early on,” he continues, warming to his theme, “and they might not be. That was the good thing about what was happening in Seattle at that point: nobody was paying attention. We had a chance to find ourselves and figure out what we wanted to do. There was no thought, at least from most people I knew, that anything would come of this.”
Right now, the crucial point is that Mudhoney remain a going concern, despite the loss of original bassist Matt Lukin (he left amicably in 2001, to be replaced by the band’s friend Guy Maddison). It’s remarkable for any band to stay together for a quarter of a century, especially one that’s endured its share of label woes, critical backlash and perhaps inevitably drug abuse (heroin was rife in the grunge era and Mark began using in 1987). What has kept the band going for so long?
“Uhh, I don’t know if I could put my finger on one particular thing. The obvious thing would be that we like playing together. And we all like each other, we all get along.”
Have there been times where things have been more difficult? Some bands seem to stay together despite their obvious hatred for one another.
“That seems weird to me. I guess some bands get into a position where it’s their livelihood, so if they hate each other they can’t really walk away. That’s not the case with us.”
“Have you seen that Ramones documentary ‘End Of The Century’? It’s great. You’ll find out Johnny and Joey stopped talking to each other just a couple of years in, because Johnny took Joey’s girlfriend. I can’t even imagine touring in a van like that!”
How does the band feel now?
“I think we’re in a really good place. When Mudhoney first started Steve and I had known each other since ‘83, and we kind of knew Matt but we’d never played in a band with him, and sorta knew Dan [Peters, drummer] from parties and shows. Now, Steve, Dan, Guy and I are super-close.”
On the subject of the band’s future, Mark is reluctant to consider anything beyond the short term.
“Well, that remains to be seen! We have a record out in the spring and we’ll probably do a bit of touring. That’s all I can tell you.”
Are Mudhoney one of those bands who’ll play together for the rest of their lives?
“I don’t even know how that would be physically possible. I guess at some point we could play these songs sitting down in our wheelchairs, heheheh.”
Maybe Everett True could wheel them out onstage, I suggest.
“Goddammit, I can wheel myself out!”
Words by Will Fitzpatrick
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'Live In Berlin, 1988' is out now.