Mudhoney’s Mark Arm doesn’t expect to see too many of his band’s old fans — the ones who populated concerts in the late-’80s and ’90s — when they play Memphis this weekend.
“Oh, most of those people are dead. They’re dead or had strokes or are in retirement homes,” jokes Arm. “If it was down to them showing up, we’d be screwed.”
The long-running Seattle band — featuring frontman Arm, guitarist Steve Turner, drummer Dan Peters and bassist Guy Maddison — is marking its silver anniversary this year. Twenty-five years on, the band is pitched between past and present: They have a new album out, Vanishing Point, and are also the subject of a new biography.
For the 51-year-old Arm, the passage of time isn’t reflected in the crowds that come to see the band. “Actually, what’s weird to me is that from the stage, the audience looks the same. They still look to me like they did in 1988. Then I go look in the [expletive] mirror and that’s what’s horrifying,” he says, laughing.
The last Mudhoney gig in Memphis took place at the now-defunct Barrister’s some
14 years ago. This week, the group will return to headline the multiday garage-rock concert event Gonerfest. It’s a fitting booking as Mudhoney played a crucial role in the late-’80s, pushing the genre into a new era with landmark releases like the Superfuzz Bigmuff EP and the “Touch Me, I’m Sick” single.
“Mudhoney helped recalibrate garage rock for a new generation,” says Keith Cameron, author of the book “Mudhoney: The Sound & The Fury from Seattle.” “In other words, they took a form of music that had been somewhat popular once, but which beyond stellar one-offs like the Cramps or the Gun Club had become something of a heritage niche industry, and made it seem vital and cool. They compacted gnarly ’60s punk with heavy ’70s riffage and refracted the mulch through a hard-core punk prism, and they did so in a manner that no one else came close to matching.”
While few bands that followed sounded exactly like Mudhoney, it’d be hard to imagine those bands would sound the same without them.
“They’re a critical element to the rock DNA of the last decade in the 20th century,” says Cameron. “Remove Mudhoney from that equation and you would still have had — for example — Nirvana, and doubtless the White Stripes too. But would those touchstone bands have sounded exactly as they did, or found such a receptive audience, without Mudhoney’s pioneer vision? I doubt it.”
These days, Mudhoney is largely a part-time concern for its members. Most of the band’s road work consists of one-off gigs or quick weekend jaunts. “We just played a handful of shows and now I’m back at work,” says Arm, who serves as the warehouse manager for Mudhoney’s longtime label, Sub Pop. “It’s all we can do, based on people’s work schedules and what’s going on with their families. I actually like being home. I also like playing shows. It’s just a matter of striking a balance.”
Achieving that balance has been the challenge over the past decade-plus. Following the departure of founding bassist Matt Lukin in 2001, the band looked like it might be over. Instead of breaking up, they launched into a second era, adding Australian Maddison to the band. The group put out a series of propulsive, expansive albums on Sub Pop: 2002’s Since We’ve Become Translucent, 2006’s Under a Billion Stars, and 2008’s The Lucky Ones. The records and attendant tours proved that the postmillennial version of Mudhoney was as potent as ever.
“Why they have endured owes to a happy confluence of different factors,” says Cameron, “but for the most part it’s down to the fact that they never lost sight of what was the most important aspect to the band: integrity, both in terms of the music and their relationships.”
But after the release of The Lucky Ones, a five-year recording gap would follow. “Well, five years ago, Steve [Turner] moved down to Portland,” says Arm. “So for us to get a practice going he needs to do a six-hour round trip. As a result, we don’t get together as frequently, or only get together right before shows. There’s less time to work on new stuff.”
“Look,” adds Arm chuckling, “I could make up all kinds of excuses: Steve moved; there was some really good stuff on TV that I just couldn’t miss.”
In 2011, the band began amassing riffs and musical motifs and recording them in their practice space. “We put down a lot of stuff on tape. Probably 30 different ideas, though nothing fully fleshed out. Some groups will have a primary songwriter who will bring a pretty much finished song to the band. We like a more collaborative thing, bouncing ideas around — which probably makes it a slower process.”
Recording at Seattle’s Avast! Recording Co. last year, the band crafted its ninth album, Vanishing Point. The record scales back the neo-psychedelic coloring of Translucent and Stars and instead focuses on the band’s signature combination of lyrical sarcasm and guitar scuzz.
Arm says the ability to take more time benefited the album; their current laid-back approach is a far cry from the band’s hectic late-’80s/early-’90s output. “Sometimes I think our stuff kinda suffered from that,” he says. “We put out a couple records that were a little spotty. That’s not the case with this one — though I’m not claiming that this record is the perfect record.”
Arguably, the most perfect album of the band’s career might’ve been the one they recorded in Memphis in 1998, Tomorrow Hit Today. The album — the band’s last with Lukin and last with major label Reprise — was done with late Bluff City producer Jim Dickinson. “What brought us to Memphis was Jim,” says Arm. Though the band had started making the album with Dickinson in Seattle, they completed the project at Midtown’s Ardent Studios. “We spent 10 days holed up at Ardent. We didn’t do things like go to Graceland. Most of the time we were in the studio.”
Mudhoney would play Memphis the following year in support of the album, but haven’t returned to town since. Zac Ives and Eric Friedl, co-owners of local label Goner Records, had been trying to bring the band in to play their Gonerfest event the last few years, leading to Mudhoney’s headlining appearance at the Hi-Tone on Friday. “If we were going to try and go after a bigger band, Mudhoney was the one we felt would fit in perfectly with what we’re trying to do,” says Ives. “We feel like they’re still relevant. They’re a rock and roll band similar to a lot of the stuff that we put out and that we love. They fit in great with everything else we have going on.”
Arm notes that a follow-up to Vanishing Point may not be that far off. The band has some “rough ideas” in progress that could develop into another album fairly soon — though, he adds, the band is in no rush. “It’s not like we’re in a situation where we gotta strike while the iron is hot,” says Arm. “Or that the band is even everyone’s first priority. We all have real lives. But we do love it, we do love this band.
“It’s clear that Mudhoney means more to them than it ever did before,” says Cameron. “That it’s sometimes a struggle to keep the band going makes them stronger ... and lends their new music heightened reserves of potency. Whether or not the fans realize any of this, of course, matters little: because ultimately there’s no other band that sounds like Mudhoney.”
Golden passes are sold out. Individual tickets to the Hi-Tone Café shows are $25. Murphy’s day show is $10; Buccaneer events are $5. Tickets are available at the door. For more information, go to goner-records.com.
The Buccaneer outdoors, 1368 Monroe Ave.; 3 p.m.
Gino & the Goons (St. Petersburg, Fla.)
Jackpot (Kalamazoo, Mich.)
Martin Savage Gang (Sweden)
The Hi-Tone, 412-414 N. Cleveland; doors 8 p.m.
Human Eye (Detroit)
Cheap Time (Nashville)
Viva L’American Death Ray Music (Brooklyn)
True Sons of Thunder (Memphis) with DJ Rema Rema (Portland, OR)
MC Ross Johnson
Murphy’s Outdoors, 1589 Madison Ave.; 1 p.m.
Wreckless Eric (U.K./N.J.)
Spray Paint (Austin, Texas)
Sugar Stems (Milwaukee)
Harlan T. Bobo (Memphis)
Buck Biloxi (New Orleans)
Digital Leather (Omaha)
C***z (Melbourne, Australia)
Heavy Lids (New Orleans)
Talbot Adams (Oxford, Miss.)
Cybelle Blood (Memphis/N.Y.)
The Hi-Tone; doors 8 p.m.
Cosmic Psychos (Australia)
Destruction Unit (Tempe, Ariz.)
Wizzard Sleeve (Mobile, Ala.)
CC Riders (Memphis)
Autodramatics (Iowa City, Iowa)
DJ Useless Eater (Kalamazoo, Mich.)
MC Gino (Gino & The Goons) (St. Petersburg Fla.)
Cooper Young Gazebo; 2:30 p.m.
Louis Bee King (New Orleans)
Leo Welch (Bruce, MS)
The Buccaneer; 9 p.m.