Yesterday and Today

Are Mudhoney Seattle's last gasp, or grunge's original sons ushering in a new era?

"If Mudhoney is still around in twenty years, I just hope it hasn't become a nostalgia act," says Mudhoney's lead singer Mark Arm in a conference room on the twenty-first floor of the Time-Warner building in New York.

"Iron Butterfly probably says the same thing too," wisecracks guitarist Steve Turner. Both men agree that a certain degree of denial might help if they do indeed become retro-cool instead of just cool. "I think we already are in somedenial," adds Arm, only half jokingly.

Not every band morbidly ponders its future, but Mudhoney are finally following up 1995's My Brother the Cow with their fifth full-length album, entitled (appropriately enough) Tomorrow Hit Today -- a direct reference to a song off their first album called "When Tomorrow Hits." It's been ten years since Mudhoney formed in Seattle, signed to Sub Pop Records, and helped spawn a genre many now describe with derision: grunge. Most of their friends from other Sub Pop bands have quit the scene or moved on: Nirvana and Soundgarden are the obvious casualties, but an army of lesser-knowns also sputtered to a stop years ago.

But Mudhoney flow on, albeit with humility. They are the perpetual rock underdogs, the boys who never made it real big. The band even played under the pseudonym "Beneath the Valley of the Underdog" for a while, evoking bothRuss Meyers films (like Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens) and the autobiography of Charles Mingus (Beneath the Underdog). Look at the cover of their new CD and you'll see a run-down, bleak hotel in Seattle. Why that cover? "It just evokes a feeling of failure," Arm and Turner reply in unison. "The songs are kind of a downer on the record."

Mudhoney songs have fiendishly focused on helplessness, sickness, deception, and desperation since the band's inception. Arm admits that while the opening song of the new CD, "A Thousand Forms of Mind," offers up "possibilities and potential, by the time you get to the last tune, all possibilities have been exhausted."

In between these two songs, however, Mudhoney deliver new variations on their own brand of punk blues. "Oblivion" and "Try to Be Kind" sound like excerpts from a cowboy flick -- trademark distortion-pedal power chord meets Western shuffle and twang. "Ghost" boasts a glam-rock chorus. And an unlisted bonus song ("Talking Randy Tate Specter Blues") has Mudhoney experimenting with a psychotic piano-based, blues tune. A diverse Mudhoney CD? You bet.

Some credit goes to producer Jim Dickinson, the man famous for his work with the Rolling Stones, the Replacements, Big Star and Ry Cooder. Dickinson brought the band down to Memphis to record, and contributed keyboards, but "he wouldn't play until everything was done," says Arm. "He didn't want to influence too much. He's not like an arranger/producer." Instead, Dickinson assumed the role of lunatic producer, squeezing the most inspired music out of a band too often plagued by musical ruts in the past.

Turner admits he needed the kick in the ass more than anyone: "I'm usually satisfied pretty fast [with my guitar solos]" he explains. "If it's first take and I like it, I won't do it again. [Dickinson] really liked it noisy; he liked it if I wasn't actually playing the guitar. I was doing leads and kicking the guitar around the floor of the studio and he was like, 'Yeah!' It was random noise. [But] he has this theory about the solo: Imagine it's a painting where you can fit anything inside the [frame]."

Arm can play it anyway you like. He's been busy in the last few years recording with various bands: Bloodloss, Monkeywrench and an alternative rock supergroup called the Wylde Ratttz who will provide the soundtrack to the upcoming Seventies-glam-in-London movie, Velvet Goldmine. How'd Arm get so lucky? "I got a phone call from Thurston Moore," says Arm. "He explained there's this movie that's taking place in early Seventies London. There's a fake Iggy type of character and they needed to write some fake Stooges type material for the movie. I think they were originally trying to get the original music, but they approached Bowie first and he denied them. I heard Ron Asheton was gonna be involved, too. So I got sent a tape of two of Ron's songs and I put words to them. And I came out for five days and had a blast. The band was Thurston, Steve Shelley on drums, Mike Watt's playing bass, Ron Asheton's on guitars, and I'm the happy monkey behind the mic."

So now Arm's Stooges salutes are helping usher in glam rock-instead of arena rock, Zeppelin riffs, or Black Sabbath memories. "Glam is definitely going to come back," believe Arm and Turner. "Two interviews in a row just asked us about this."

Not exactly the future of rock that anyone envisioned. But Mudhoney never claimed to predict the trends. Ask the band how they thought tomorrow would hit ten years ago and Arm mockingly describes the Pearl Jam experience:"Eating the crab, the prawns, flying through the air with our own private stewardesses. That's kinda what we pictured."