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Flowering From Grunge Roots

PAGE 2 / MORE ART NEWS, REVIEWS AND THINGS TO DO

Pop music Unlike other Seattle-movement bands, Mudhoney is stylish, stable and has tunes that run rather than plod.

December 11, 1998|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A chunk of the credit, or blame, for grunge rock falls to Mark Arm, singer-guitarist of Seattle heavy-rock band Mudhoney.

Arm was in Green River, the most influential founding band of the grunge movement; two other members, Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard, went on to form Pearl Jam.

Reached by phone Tuesday in a Tucson, Ariz., hotel room, on a tour that brings Mudhoney to the Galaxy Concert Theatre tonight, Arm was asked how he pleaded to charges of helping instigate grunge, one of the decade's most pervasive, but also most self-absorbed and cliche-ridden, pop movements.

He chuckled one of the "heh-heh-hehs" that regularly grease his conversation, and launched into an enthusiastic reminiscence on the rise of grunge, and his bemusement with the whole phenomenon.

Style, attitude, stability and degree of success all set Mudhoney apart from the grunge royalty that includes Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden.

Like the big-name grunge bands, Mudhoney favors a thick, distorted guitar sound (courtesy of Arm and Steve Turner, who started out as teenagers together in hard-core punk bands, graduating to Green River, which was formed in 1984).

But its tempos--guided by band jester Matt Lukin on bass and Dan Peters, an active, resourceful drummer--are more prone to gallop than plod. Mudhoney's approach is more psychedelic and bluesy than grunge, and its music celebrates rock forms predating the '70s heavy metal that was a springboard for most of the big Seattle bands.

Its repertoire sometimes casts it as a '60s garage band with bigger amplifiers, or as a country or folk band that has pumped itself with volume and distortion, a la Neil Young & Crazy Horse.

Arm, 36, is more apt to sing from his sinus cavity, like Ozzy Osbourne and Tom Petty, than from his chest or by wailing at the top of his lungs, like Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder and Chris Cornell.

He cites Young, the Stooges and heavy-rock icons Blue Cheer and MC5 as key influences, along with two obscure '80s Australian bands, the Scientists and Feedtime, that he valued for their experimentation with heavy rock tinged with blues and psychedelic strains.

As for stability, the four Mudhoney members have been together without a lineup change since their first rehearsal on New Year's Day, 1988. So far, Mudhoney has put out six albums and five EPs.

Arm attributes the band's longevity, and its lack of major stardom and mass commercial success, to a "lack of frothing ambition."

"We know full well the kind of music we play and its chances in the commercial marketplace, which are nil," he said. "Even when grunge was commercially huge, we weren't surprised we weren't being played on the radio. We never felt, 'We should get our due.' The bands we've modeled ourselves after never cracked the Top 40. It just seemed weird to me that [huge success] happened to our friends."

Arm said he can't fathom why the grunge bands that hit it big found the experience so souring--an attitude that contributed a lot to grunge's dreariness.

In 1993, he said, "we went on tour with Nirvana and it was just ugly, [expletive] ugly," he said. "No one was having a good time. Somebody [in Nirvana's road crew] was getting fired every other day, the tour manager was a [jerk].

"I don't know what it was, they were trying so hard to keep some sort of punk-rock attitude," he continued. "Everyone was trying to second-guess what Kurt [Cobain] wanted, but Kurt wasn't a vocal person. The [band members] weren't hanging around together at all.

"After that tour we go . . . 'In a couple of weeks we're going to do the same thing with Pearl Jam. If Nirvana's this bad, think how bad Pearl Jam is going to be.'

"I'd played with Jeff and Stoney in Green River, and I thought, 'If anyone's going to have big rock-star attitudes, it's going to be Pearl Jam.' But we got there and they'd surrounded themselves with good people, and everyone had their feet on the ground," he said. "The difference between the two was incredible."

Since then, Mudhoney has had several return engagements touring with Pearl Jam as opening act; Pearl Jam's "No Code" album includes a frenzied song called "Lukin," in honor of Mudhoney's bassist.

Arm said that the cresting wave of grunge did propel Mudhoney to its biggest-selling album, "Piece of Cake," in 1992-93 (he said sales totaled about 150,000 in the U.S.). But it's the one he's least satisfied with.

"We kind of did a little coattail-riding when that one came out," Arm said. "Unfortunately, I think that's our weakest record."

He thinks Mudhoney's new album, "Tomorrow Hits Today," "is really strong. I haven't gotten sick of it yet. I like how the whole record flows. It goes from beginning to end, like it should."

The songs sympathize with losers and underdogs and try, in the blues spirit, to look into an abyss of gloom and disaster while keeping a toehold in the firm ground of humor.

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