Back when Sub Pop was fledgling, flannel was a clothing pattern design rather than a music sub-genre, and Nirvana was just another college band, Mudhoney released the monster debut single Touch Me I’m Sick, and that song set the template for the preferable, high-energy end of what became annoyingly over-known as “grunge.” (The song recently got another grave dig-up via the inFAMOUS Second Son video game.) In fact, gather ’round a bar full of ol’ Sub Pop Singles Club members, and they’ll tell you they all thought Touch Me I’m Sick was going to be THE grunge flashpoint, as it came out when Nirvana was still figuring out its drummer situation.
But Mudhoney was never easily wedged into that famed ‘90s explosion, more genetically in line with the northwest’s excellent tradition of grimy fuzz riffage like the Sonics, scuzz-corers Solger and Frantix, and their own pre-Mudhoney bunch, Green River. Arguably the best live band of that whole alternative rock thing, Mudhoney has soldiered on through their early ’90s days of effortlessly burping up dirtbag slop-metal anthems, then moving into a ’60s garage-leaning shuffle, and back and forth and back again, officially breaking up once, and now still out there dishing up a ever-vigorous live show. So it must feel weird to them—as they just released another fine album, Vanishing Point (Sub Pop), last year—that they’re already getting the book biography treatment. But there you go, and it’s a good one!
Mudhoney: The Sound And The Fury From Seattle (Voyageur Press) is an in-depth look into the band’s whole long life, featuring interviews with all five band members, label folks, and members of Sonic Youth, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and more. It’s a story that goes beyond just the band, but then “just” Mudhoney went pretty beyond itself. Author Keith Cameron is a longtime British rock journalist who’s chatted up loads of biggies for NME, Sounds, Mojo, the Guardian and more, and was down with all that flannel action from the get-go.
So if you want get the salacious scoop, enter our contest to win a copy of the book and a way-cool poster too! Just fill out the form below, and we’ll pick a random winner. The contest ends on Tuesday, April 22 at 5pm. Enter the contest and check out the interview with Cameron after the jump.
You start the book with a good story about seeing a particularly insane Mudhoney show in London in 1989. You said something to the effect that after that show, it felt like something changed, or something special had happened. Can you elaborate? And did you end up at another bar that night just kind of marveling for awhile?
That would be the so-called “friendly riot” at the School of Oriental and African Studies on May 12, which was actually their biggest headlining show in the U.K. thus far. They had opened for Sonic Youth at the end of March, but this time Soundgarden opened for Mudhoney. It was, I guess, what we might now recognize as a “tipping point.” The audience experienced some sort of collective confirmation that this band was special and that this broad strain of music (call it “grunge,” call it what you will) had real potency. Believe me, the crowd’s behaviour at that show was out of the ordinary. Certainly it one of those points where a critical mass of factors occurs, in terms of the key taste arbiters: Sub Pop was being hyped in the music press, this music was being championed by John Peel, etc. etc. But you can’t underestimate the part that Mudhoney specifically played in what happened that night. It couldn’t just have been any band that did that. I don’t think the audience would have rushed the stage had Soundgarden been headlining, for instance. Also, Mudhoney set the bar high for any band thereafter purporting to “rock.” Going to see another bunch of sub-Jesus And Mary Chain herberts staring at their foot pedals or some young twee and single indie merchants just wasn’t going to cut it after you’d heard Touch Me I’m Sick screamed by 800 people.
I assume your music writing career through the ’90s had you becoming a bit of a grunge chronicler? But what was the music you listened to through your teens, getting into music?
Like most kids of my era, I grew up watching Top Of The Pops, the U.K.’s weekly TV window onto the charts. The first single I ever bought was Tiger Feet by Mud, in 1973, from Boots in Inverness (a pharmacy that for some reason had a small record section), duly sowing the seeds of edgy-but-tuneful in my seven-year old brain. I also found a taste for melancholic songs with big production values: Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water album was in the house, and I loved that. The first album I ever bought for myself was ELO’s A New World Record. But then in the summer of 1977 I saw the Sex Pistols performing Pretty Vacant on TOTP, and that was pretty much it for me. A couple of years later I decided to stop spending my weekly pocket money on a football magazine and started buying a music paper instead. Then I began listening to John Peel’s late night BBC radio show, thereby opening a gate to the post-punk jungle, as well as reggae and all manner of esoteric music that you didn’t need to understand to be excited by. My first gig was the Stranglers at Glasgow Apollo, February 24, 1981, and was just mindblowing.
For the book, did you get to speak to each member of Mudhoney, past and present?
All the band members were happy to talk to me. Matt Lukin was a little more elusive than the others, which was understandable—one reason he quit the band was the extraneous stuff, like interviews, which wore away his love of playing music. But he was happy to meet for a chat when I went to Seattle in June, 2012. With me being based in London, I knew that the bulk of my interviews would have to be done over the phone or Skype, but I was very keen to use my small advance to make at least one research trip to Seattle, and it coincided with the premiere of I’m Now, the brilliant Mudhoney documentary, so they were all in town. Over a weekend, Mark Arm, Guy Maddison, Dan Peters and Steve Turner all drove me round the neighbourhoods where they grew up. It was a great way of getting them to talk about the formative years of their lives. I’ve been lucky enough to know the band for a long time, and I knew that one of the key reasons for their durability as a band was the personal characteristics of the individual members. I was keen to get a sense of what had made them the people they are.
It seems like you got to interview all the main people involved in the band and Sub Pop. Was there anyone who didn’t want to be interviewed?
I interviewed almost everyone I really wanted to talk to. The only major strike-outs were Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, whose perspective would certainly have been valuable, particularly on the period when Dan Peters was briefly a member of Nirvana.
Was it strange to the Mudhoney guys asking them about their history when they are still a working band? It’s rare to see a band get their definitive biography when all the members are still alive and the band’s working.
I’m sure it might have felt a little odd to them, given that a biography can feel like the drawing of a veil on a story which in their case is very much ongoing. But then again, there’s every indication that Mudhoney will still be an active band in 10 years time, and I wanted to write the story while people are still capable of remembering stuff that happened back in their gilded youth. From my point of view, the only problem was knowing where to stop. That’s easy with with a band that no longer exists, less so in Mudhoney’s case. I took the release of Vanishing Point and the band’s 25th anniversary as a logical end. My one regret was that due to my UK publisher’s deadline, I wasn’t able to cover them playing on top of the Space Needle. That would have made a great ending.
In the early days, everyone thought of Touch Me I’m Sick as THE grunge anthem. Perhaps this is too wide of a question to get into, but what do you think the reason is a song like Smells Like Teen Spirit becomes huge, while Touch Me got a bit forgotten?
You could write a book about that, but I’m sure the short answer is: Kurt Cobain + Dave Grohl + Krist Novoselic x big production + major label promo budget + LUCK = “Anthem for a Generation.” Mudhoney weren’t looking to storm the barricades of the mainstream. Nirvana, although they might claim (or even believe) otherwise, most definitely were. But my view is, take Touch Me I’m Sick out of the rock DNA, and Smells Like Teen Spirit either disappears or else comes out sounding totally different. Without Mudhoney poking a hole in the wall, I’m certain that Nirvana’s impact would not have been what it was.
You’re British, born and raised, right? What would you say were any problems about trying to understand and explain the story and inspirations of such a quintessentially American band? And conversely, do you think there is something about being apart from that Seattle scene that gives you some interesting perspective?
Yep, born and raised in the Scottish Highlands. Which I believe actually gave me an affinity with the Seattle mentality. It’s frontier country, blessed by outstanding natural beauty but cursed by isolation and a kind of low-level depression. It also rains a lot. I first met these people in 1989, and recognised their attitudes: a certain fatalism, self-deprecation, a spirit of independence. I first visited Seattle in 1990 and loved the place. Jonathan Poneman from Sub Pop encouraged me to think of moving there, and it was certainly something I considered. But if I’d done that, I’m not sure I would been able to document the tumultuous events of the ‘90s with sufficient objectivity. Clearly, I’m sure my perspective on that whole scene is coloured by the wonder that any outsider feels upon witnessing something remarkable where one isn’t immersed in the day-by-day unfurling of events.
I seem to remember there being an early, big NME article about grunge, maybe in 1990 or ’91, that seemed to really glorify the kind of “backwoods” apsect of most of the Northwest/Sub Pop bands, almost to a condescending manner. And the singer of Tad responded saying something like, “Hey, if they think we’re all stupid lumberjacks who live in the hills drinking moonshine, and if that helps sell records, fine.” Do you think the British press helped shape grunge as a kind of dunderheaded movement?
British people’s general inclination is to be reserved and cautious. In their approach to music, the Seattle bands were neither reserved or cautious. Essentially, therein lay the attraction. Sub Pop correctly sensed that playing up the outlandish aspects of their bands’ music and/or personalities would lead to coverage by the UK weekly music press, where a culture of glibness and condescension was ingrained. Like any myth-making process, I think it was a mixed blessing for all concerned.
It’s quite easy for musicians to become bitter. Did you find any of the Mudhoney members still retained a chip on their shoulder about them being “the band that should have been huge?”
My sense is that they are all incredibly philosophical about the way things have turned out. These are smart people. I’m sure there were times, especially amid the long struggle with the IRS, when some if not all wished things had been otherwise. And I’m sure that Dan has the occasional pang of regret, not least because his brief tenure in Nirvana offered him a pretty dramatic counterfactual vision of history. But as Dan himself has said many times, Mudhoney are his band—and how many bands who become huge are able to combine hugeness with happiness?
Do you see Mudhoney ever stopping?
The way things are for them right now, no. They enjoy many of the benefits of the rock’n’roll life without its harmful side effects. So long as Guy (a registered nurse) can get them fast-tracked into ICU, I see no reason why they won’t continue like this indefinitely. My son will be eight this year. I look forward to taking him to see Mudhoney celebrate their 30th anniverary, whether he likes it not not!