Mudhoney’s fine recent LP Vanishing Point is a milestone not only for the band, but their label Sub Pop too – it represents the 25th anniversary of a pairing that has yielded some of the best guitar music arguably since punk rock’s first wave fizzled out in the early Eighties (or earlier, depending on how puritanical you’re feeling).
As this discussion with Mudhoney guitarist Steve Turner proves, neither are showing any signs of slowing down. Turner – the man perhaps most responsible for defining the band’s gritty, visceral sound – explains how he’s never usually a huge fan of their records immediately after completion, yet has this time retained a desire to get straight out on the road and bash the hell out of the new songs. The only thing preferable would be to write and record a bunch of even fresher ones, immediately. He’s nearly 50. Here, he discusses everything from the band’s early days as Sub Pop’s flagship band, via their mid Nineties stint on a major label and the deaths of much beloved contemporaries, to what seems to be the most exciting bit – whatever comes next.
It’s been five years since the last Mudhoney record, which is the longest gap in your back catalogue. What took you guys longer this time?
“That’s weird, because it seems like we’ve been doing it [Mudhoney] constantly, with all the shows and stuff. I honestly thought it was four years, which tells you something. Recording for us generally goes quickly. It was basically two weekends last year; one was in April, one in September. Then we finished up overdubbing and putting some fairy dust on it in December. We cut the basic tracks pretty quickly, but this time (singer/guitarist) Mark [Arm] messed around with more things after the fact. I was in Portland, so I skipped some of the overdubbing days where the synthesiser was put on and things like that. None of us are really particularly engineer minded or too interested in the knob twiddling itself, but of course, we have a pretty good idea of what we want.”
What with having known each other as friends and musicians for so long, do you have to make an effort not to fall in to familiar grooves? Or are they the things that make Mudhoney distinct?
“This one to me was more relaxed, we just let it flow. Especially after The Lucky Ones, which was a definite departure for us in that Mark didn’t play any guitar on it – it stands out to me as a different sounding record because of that. We did it very quickly; it was raw, kind of a punk rock mid life crisis! I love that record though. I was happier with that record than most. There are always songs where I think, “oh, that’s not quite fleshed out all the way”, or songs I just don’t like. I’m never totally pleased with any record. But The Lucky Ones came closer to pleasing me than the ones previous. With Vanishing Point, I tried not to even really value judge it whilst we were doing it, just to let it go. We kept it pretty loose, but we knew we weren’t just going to make a screaming punk rock record again. Actually, what it kept reminding me of was something that we can all relate to from our youth, which was the SST catalogue, post Black Flag’s My War, where they threw the rulebook out. They were throwing a lot of weird bands at us – some of them didn’t work, some did, but it was all a U.S. underground version of post punk. Husker Du, Minutemen, Black Flag, Meat Puppets, Sonic Youth – the only thing they had in common was that they were coming out of punk rock and searching for other places to go. To me, Vanishing Point sounds like that stuff. In my mind there was that same theme of ‘what do you do after punk rock?’”
How long does it take you to get some distance on a record, to be able to judge it as good or bad, or know where it sits in your catalogue? Can you do that the minute you press ‘stop’?
“I’m never in love with the thing we just recorded. A lot of people just get excited because it’s the newest thing, I’ve never thought that. I defer to friends, and more people across the board people seem to be saying good things about this record, which is interesting.”
What makes Vanishing Point different from The Lucky Ones, or indeed anything you’ve done previously?
“I think we were paying attention to each other more. We didn’t know what we were trying to do, so it seems like we were playing off each other better and with less preconceived ideas. There’s an eleventh song we recorded that didn’t make it on the record. It was just a little too far out there. Mark didn’t think it fit on the record – which is fine, we got ourselves a seven inch – but that was even weirder, the guitar was all flanged and super affected which we don’t usually do.”
The chorus of children coming in really made me laugh.
“We thought that was funny too! That’s a perfect Mudhoney joke to us, it’s a song called ‘I Like It Small’, and there we are just adding more and more crap to the end. We think that’s really funny and clever. It’s pretty obvious though, right? We’re not very subtle! We’re pretty obvious.”
You mentioned a lot of SST bands, and of course it’s Sub Pop’s 25th anniversary this year too. It occurred to me that you’re probably the only ones still going from around that time. You’ve even outlived Sonic Youth!
“[Laughs] They’ve got more years on us though, they started earlier than we did! But that’s kinda true I guess, huh.”
Why do you think you survived when your contemporaries are no longer with us for one reason or another?
“It’s our relaxed attitude. If we didn’t want to do it for a while, we didn’t do it for a while. I mean, how many times have people thought we broke up? We never actually said we broke up, but it’s assumed that we broke up when Matt [Lukin, original bassist] quit, or it’s assumed that we broke up when I went back to college in 1990. We always just said, why break up? If we don’t want to do it, we don’t do it. But that said, after Matt quit we took a solid year off, and once we started doing it again we realised we liked doing it. We realised it wasn’t our job anymore, and that we didn’t owe anybody anything with it. It’s harder to schedule in now, but it’s important to us, so whatever we can do, we do. We don’t get on anybody’s back – if one of us can’t do something, we all have to say no.”