Interview: Mark Arm (Mudhoney)

by - 4/07/2023

Mudhoney's Mark Arm talks about the band's new album, "Plastic Eternity", singing with Chris Cornell and Layne Staley, little (and big) dogs and more... Photo credit: Emily Rieman 

This interview with Mudhoney singer Mark Arm was originally published on Urge!, in Portuguese. Below you can read it in its original form. The band's 11th album, Plastic Eternity, is out today (April 7th, 2023). You can listen to it here.

Tell me about the making of the new album, Plastic Eternity. I talked to Steve a few months before you guys got together to start working on it and he said he believed the process would be pretty quick, since you weren't able to play for a long time, because of the pandemic, and you guys had lots of ideas. Was that the case or not so much?

It was pretty much the case. We had some riffs from before the pandemic, and we were at a deadline, because Guy [Maddison, Mudhoney’s bass player] was going to move [to Australia]. We thought it was going to be in October 2021, but Australia was still shut down, so they decided just to stay in Seattle through the school year. So they didn't move until June of 2022, what made us push back the recording sessions that we had booked a couple of months, and that gave us a little more time to come up with more music and some lyrics. We only had four or five songs that were fully arranged, so a lot of it we threw together in the studio. Some of them didn't have words yet, we just recorded thinking they would be instrumentals. Like ‘Little Dogs’: we thought it was just going to be an instrumental. So that has a different structure, not like a verse chorus verse kind of structure.

To me, the lyrics are some of the highlights on this album. Digital Garbage and Morning in America both came out during the Trump years, so it was expected that you’d be a little more political, I think, and you had a lot of criticism towards technology, economy, environmental issues, society in general and so on. But I feel that you're still a little bit angry on this one — especially on songs like ‘Human Stock Capital’ and ‘Plasticity’. Can you please comment on what inspires you to write these days and how do you feel about the world and our future on this planet? Are you hopeful that things might get better someday or do you think we’re doomed at this point?

I don't have a strong opinion on whether we're doomed or not. We might be. Hopefully we're not. Hopefully we can get our shit together. I guess addressing those issues is just like, one more little voice trying to motivate people to move things in a good direction for humanity. I know it's a drop in the ocean, my voice. And I wouldn't say that some of those songs are angry, I think the root of it is frustration.

Yeah, I mean, you’re pissed off a little. 

Yeah. Do you know the story behind ‘Human Stock Capital’? Did you have the concept, during the lockdown, of essential workers in Brazil? People who had to continue to go to work in dangerous conditions, just so that the middle class and the upper class could keep going. One of the things that the Trump Administration did during the lockdown was making sure the meat packing industry stayed open, and that industry… The workers are largely what they call ‘illegal immigrants’, you know? People without papers, people who are afraid to speak up for themselves, because they're afraid of getting deported. And they work, in normal times, in very dangerous conditions. They're side by side, in a small space, each person has a very sharp knife. People lose fingers and stuff in those jobs all the time. Some of the pork I have might have a little bit of finger in it. And to reassure the country, that economic advisor in the Trump Administration, Kevin Hassett, got on TV and said: ‘Our human capital stock is strong’. And I was like: ‘Who the fuck refers to workers as capital stock, you know?’. That's just so dehumanizing and disgusting that I made note of that. When Dan [Peters, Mudhoney’s drummer] showed us this riff, that was like basically a Southern California Punk song from the early 80s or whatever, I was like: ‘I have words for that’.

I feel like your lyrics are written as observations about the world, almost as a standup comedian who makes a lot of observations about current events and fill it with sarcastic remarks. Does that make sense to you? Do you get inspiration from comedians and people in other areas besides music?

That very much makes sense. Listen to George Carlin. There are some observations there that I've actually gone back and watched some of his stand up, where he's basically, like… ‘Save the Planet’. The planet's gonna be fine. I don't think I saw those George Carlin stand ups back when they came out, because I didn't have HBO. So it was kind of interesting to me, that the similar thought — that I was unaware of —, he'd already made that point. But I guess I was sort of ripping him off unintentionally.

You were borrowing a little bit, maybe. 

I mean, there's borrowing in art that's basically… All art is really borrowing, and then trying to put your own point of view on it, I think. 

And the sad thing is that his comedy doesn't get old. We're still having the same issues. 

One of my favorite punk rock hardcore records of all time is Teaching you the Fear, by Really Red. That's a very smart, political record. Those guys were a little bit older than your average hardcore kid, at that point. I talked to Ronnie Bond [Really Red’s singer] years later, and MC5 came to Houston in the early 70s, and they hung out with them. So they're obviously politically aware, if they were hanging out with the MC5, and a lot of those themes, like police brutality and even supply chain issues, they're still existent, you know? It’s terrible. The fear you have when you make a record is it's gonna be dated. That's kind of what I fear about Digital Garbage, you know? Based on the lyrics, ‘oh, this is just going to be defined by the Trump years’. But I kind of feel some of those things have been going on beforehand. Some of them are newer, like all this stuff with social media, but that will continue on, unfortunately, I think.

Do you ever write lyrics before writing the music? For example, the song ‘Flush the Fascists’. I wouldn't say it's a spoken word piece, but it does feel to me that the music was made to accommodate the lyrics, almost as a soundtrack to what you are saying, rather than a more traditional song, with the metrics and everything. How was that one written?

I mean, usually the music comes first. With ‘Flush the Fascists’, there was just the beat. That rhythm [shakes his head]. I started thinking about that on a commute to work, and recorded it on my phone. I just put down a very basic thing, and then tried to think of what could be built up from there. So then there’s just that two note bass line — which is played by a synthesizer — and then I put up lyrics, and I tried to come up with a guitar part for it. In terms of songs, that's my one real contribution to the record. Luckily, everyone else… [laughs] …was willing to work with that. 

But the other guys also had a lot of riffs and stuff. 

Yeah. Dan wrote most of the music for ‘Human Stock Capital’, front to back. Also ‘Little Dogs’ and ‘One or Two’. He is always playing his acoustic guitar. He always does an open C tuning. 

Yes, I was going to ask you specifically about this song, because it's not the usual Mudhoney sound. It's got a more clean, atmospheric vibe on the guitars. So it’s a Dan song? 

Yeah, that's a Dan song. And I remember when he brought it to us, because he basically plays acoustic guitar. And he does more complicated chords than we do, when we play electric guitar. Like bar chords and whatnot. He does augmented chords and all that shit. Which kind of brings out better on an acoustic guitar, or a clean guitar. And we were thinking, ‘well, that kind of sounds like something like’... — I think Guy pointed out that it sounded a little like ‘Fearless’, the song on that Pink Floyd album Meddle, or maybe something off of Led Zeppelin III. Since that we established amongst ourselves that it was like a Pink Floyd's song, from that era. I tried to bring in that slide guitar from ‘One of These Days’. That's the third section of it. It's an homage to Pink Floyd before Dark Side of the Moon.

Cool. So, when I heard ‘Little Dogs’, I remembered a scene in the documentary movie Hype! where you and Steve are talking, and you say something like: ‘You sing about dogs, you sing about being sick, you get a shtick, it'll take you to the top’. I think it was Bruce Pavitt who said this to you originally, about how to make it as a grunge band. And now you are literally singing about dogs on the final track of this album. What's the story behind the song? 

But not about being sick! It was supposed to be an instrumental [shows a picture of his dog Russell, on his cell phone].

That's Russell! 

Yeah, that's Russell. We thought it was gonna be an instrumental, because it was such a busy guitar part. I was, like, ‘how do you even fucking sing over it?’. It wasn't, like, you're holding an E chord for a long time, and you could come up with a vocal melody over it. It's got its own melody to it. Listening to what we'd already recorded, some of the stuff had words and some of it didn't. And I had another recording session down the road, where vocals and overdubs are going to be added. And I was listening to that in the car, also, on my commute from work. And I guess I must have been thinking about Russell greeting me at the door when I got home, so I just started coming up with goofy things. I had to edit quite a lot, because initially it was sort of comparing little dogs to big dogs, but I'm fine with big dogs too. I threw out all this stuff, like, ‘oh, their poops are easier to pick up’ [laughs].

And is that a Farfisa that we can hear in the track? Is it the same one you used on Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge?

I don’t know if it is. It’s the one that's at Johnny's studio. He got a lot of stuff from Egg Studios. He has the board that used to be at Stax. He inherited a fair amount of equipment from Conrad [Uno, Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge producer and owner of Egg Studios], once Conrad closed his studio and moved to Arizona. I also want to point out the fact that my little fluffy white dog is a rescue. It's not like we went out and paid hundreds or thousands of dollars for a fluffy little dog. And we would never do that. He was taken out of an apartment where he lived with 44 other animals. My wife volunteers at the Seattle Animal Shelter.

Now, moving on to a few questions about your career in general, not only the new record, if you don’t mind: In 1992, Alice in Chains released the Sap EP, with the song ‘Right Turn’, in which you sing along with Layne Staley, Jerry Cantrell and Chris Cornell. What do you remember about the making of this song and the recordings? How was that experience for you?

I remember Jerry reaching out and asking if I wanted to do this. My first thought was: ‘whyyyy?’. Technically, both Layne and Chris Cornell are like superior singers. They have bigger range, they're probably better at hitting their notes than I am. But I guess they were happy enough to just let me do what I do on it. They didn't erase it!

Come on, it's a great song. So, in 2015 you performed in a Stooges tribute band with Duff McKagan, Mike McCready and Barrett Martin. Whose idea was that? Did you rehearse a lot or was it done like, in the moment?

I think that was Mike's idea. They wanted to do a fundraiser for KEXP [Seattle radio station], although I'm not sure how you raise funds with a free show. But it was a really cool event. We only played like six or seven songs. There's a lot of prep that went into it, they had to get permits to close down the streets, and get permission to do this thing on the roof of the Pike Place Market. Someone did a lot of work.

It sounds like you were really having fun doing it.

Oh yeah, it was great. I think we practiced for about two weeks. I can't remember how many rehearsals we had, but everyone was very familiar with the material. 

Recently I had the chance to interview Evan Dando, who is actually living in Brazil now. And he mentioned a tour that you guys did together in 89, and how he never wanted to play after Mudhoney because your shows were very intense and crazy... He actually compared you guys to James Brown. Do you have any memories from this tour with The Lemonheads?

It was a couple of shows on the West Coast. I don't remember them clearly, because that was 1989, so that's 34 years ago. I don't know how it would be like James Brown. I didn't have a cape.

Well, he said it was like a mess, and it was crazy, and so good and amazing. He just had nice things to say about you guys. 

That's awfully nice to hear. What brings him to Brazil? 

Well, he's actually dating a Brazilian lady, and he's doing some kind of dental treatment here, because it's a lot cheaper. And he just says he loves it here, and he wants to move here now. 

Yeah, I mean, Brazil is great. It's an awesome place. Did he go storm the capital? [laughs]

No, I hope not. So, Steve [Turner, Mudhoney’s guitarist] is about to release a new memoir. Have you read it yet?


How do you feel about these rock stars books? Is there a chance that you write one someday?

I would have to make up a lot of shit, almost more of a fantasy book, to make my life interesting to other people. But I enjoy a good rock memoir. Crazy from the Heat, by David Lee Roth, is fantastic. I think that dates me a little bit. [laughs]

Didn’t you read the one by Mark Lanegan?

I did not, because I kind of heard it just sounded a little too depressing. I didn't understand why all these years later he would still harbor any kind of grudge to any former band member in the Screaming Trees. That just didn't make sense to me. 

I heard that they made amends before his passing.

Yeah, but I mean… That isn't in fucking public. And that book is going to be there forever, or at least until it goes out of print. I don't think that's gonna make up for it.

So you have no plans in that regard? 

No. Dan listened to the audiobook version of Lanegan’s book. The news afterwards was like: ‘I'm happy to report that he doesn't say anything bad about either of us’ [laughs]. You know, because Dan was in the Screaming Trees for a while.

Mudhoney has just reached its 35th year as a band. Do you have any regrets?

As far as the band's concerned, I don't think I have any regrets. Well, when we submitted ‘Run Shithead Run’ for the movie With Honors, we had an instrumental, and they said, ‘no, we want something with words’. And the placeholder song they put in the scene — the song that they really wanted — was EMF’s ‘Unbelievable’. And I'm like, ‘well, if you want something like EMF’s “Unbelievable”, just fucking get EMF’s “Unbelievable”’. Maybe that was too expensive, I don't know. But we had sort of this surfy instrumental, that was pretty cool. We submitted that, and they said, ‘no, we want words’. So I wrote ‘Run Shithead Run’, because it was a scene where the main character was running through the snow, figuring that they would just automatically choose the instrumental over a song called ‘Run Shithead Run’. But they used it, and they kind of buried it in the movie. The music supervisor who put that record together, who we'd worked with on a couple of previous albums, was like: ‘Well, that's it. I'm never working with Mudhoney again’. If there's any regret, it's that. But I think the story alone is kind of worth the regret.

What are your plans for the future as a band?

We plan to keep going. We only envision things a year ahead of time. I'm not someone who's planned well for retirement, or anything like that. So, you know, play shows here and there. More like do tours here and there, because we can't just do a show real quickly, with Guy being where he is.

What about Guy? He’s living in Australia now and I saw that you guys are starting the tour there next month. How do you think this will impact the future of the band?

Well, it makes things a little more difficult logistically, you know? Before any tour, we have to get together to rehearse. We're all flying down about a week before the tour, and we're gonna rehearse. By the time we land, that's two days lost, flying to Australia, just because of the time zone change and whatnot. I’m just sort of obsessed with this, because I had to finally buy the tickets. It was so expensive, and I kept putting it off, hoping they would go down, and they didn't go down. And before the US tour, Guy is gonna fly here and stay with friends for a week beforehand, and we're gonna rehearse and then embark on our tour.

Last one: Steve also told me that you guys would be back in Brazil when we got a new president. We already took care of that. So, when you guys coming? 

Do you know André Barcinski? He's been in contact and trying to get us to Brazil at some point. It's just a matter of finding a time slot that works for all of us. It would be fantastic to get back to Brazil, because the audiences are always fucking incredible. I love the food and the shows are super fun.

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