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 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 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!
“ 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 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.”
Were you ever tempted to do a Pixies, take a decade-long gap and reap the rewards later down the line?
“Well, it’s too late to do that now, right?”
Well, I don’t know, Coachella 2023?
“I don’t think anyone would care! We didn’t know any of that was going to happen. I was excited by some of those reunions; I was stoked to see Dinosaur Jr. playing again. It’s weird now. It didn’t work so well when people from the first generation of rock and roll came back with a ‘modern sensibility‘ or whatever. Even when The Byrds came back with the original five of them and did a record in 1973, trying to sound all modern, it sucked. People just keep going now, there’s no line in the sand where youth culture stops and you’re now and adult. I think about my life and I think about what’s important to me, and besides family and stuff like that, I still consider myself a skateboarder and a punk rocker. And how retarded is that, I’m 48, right?! But why can’t I enjoy it still? No reason not to! I look back and think about the amount of things my Dad liked when he was 20 that he stopped doing when he was 24, things he felt he should no longer do. I think we’ve got a better mind frame on it than previous generations. I don’t think we’re trying to act like kids, but we can just keep doing it. It’s a different time now. But I don’t think anyone would be giving us any big guarantees for a festival after we’d been broken up for 10 years. Maybe… who knows?”
Is it more having the right mindset that allows you to do it with the same amount of conviction, as opposed to being physically young?
“Yeah. We’re not still these young crazy guys; we’re these middle aged crazy guys. People just get weirder as they get older I think. I think the youth thing in rock and roll changed with Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground. It didn’t have to be teenybopper stuff after them. I wish the Rolling Stones hadn’t tried to be so contemporary throughout all these years. I wish they’d realised at some point that they had aged. I think Jagger wasn’t on board with that, he was always trying to sound contemporary. We never tried to sound contemporary. We were out of time when we started!”
You’ve spoken of how critical interest in Mudhoney seemed to wane towards the end of the Nineties. Why do you think that was?
“I think what really interrupted it, honestly, was Kurt’s suicide. That was a line in the sand, people were just over it. In a lot of people’s minds it was this great time in music, and it ended poorly, right there. We made a record in 1995 [My Brother The Cow], and Cobain’s suicide was definitely a death knell for it in terms of people’s interest. The new punk that came in was this “Epitaph punk”, if you will – The Offspring, Green Day, Bad Religion, all going huge. There was this new generation of kids five years younger who hated what had happened, as they should, and who were saying they had their “new thing”, even though the “new thing” had people our age making it! Well, except Green Day, they were young. In Seattle people were so sick of it, and with the tragedy of Kurt, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the popular bands that came out of the city after were The Presidents of the United States of America, and what was the band that had that ‘Flagpole Sitta’ song? It was a big hit in the ‘States Harvey Danger, and it’s now the theme to Peep Show]… but poppier, happier bands, essentially. I think people were just trying to shake some of the gloom off.”
Was all the attention placed on Seattle in the early days of Sub Pop a wholly positive thing?
“There were two different waves of it. There was the 1989 underground wave, which was UK inspired – we had Superfuzz Bigmuff out and it was going crazy over there – but it was still an underground thing, something in the punk world, if you will. Then when Nevermind hit, and Pearl Jam, all of it just started rolling over itself – that was the mainstream explosion. In our minds, it had already exploded – we were over it by the time Nevermind came out. But then it just went even more ballistic. It just got humorous to us. Most of the bands that hit were already pretty established. Even though Pearl Jam was a new band, they were all established musicians and had working relationships with each other and their management already, so it didn’t seem like they were a new band necessarily. But we had our shit together. When we signed to Warner Bros. we were still such a little independent machine of our own; we toured a lot, which was where we made most of our money, and we knew how we wanted records to sound, so Warner Bros. left us alone to do what we wanted. I never felt any pressure, I felt the opposite of pressure. Freedom!”
Were things markedly different for Mudhoney when you left Sub Pop and went to Warner Bros.?
“No, no. Really, nothing changed. We had our buddy become our manager, Bob Whittaker, and he was the liaison between us and the label. But we had our ducks in a row. We handed Warner Bros. a master tape whenever we needed to, and that was it. Then they got control of the market again, and in the Nineties there were so many shake ups, they had new presidents who thought they had the magic ear for a hit and were wondering what the hell we were still doing there. We had one that was in love with Courtney Love, and they were mad at us for doing that song that was about – that they perceived to be about – Courtney (‘Into Yer Shtick’)… it was things like that that were just stupid to us. By the time we left Warner Bros. I was ready to leave Warner Bros., but there’s no nightmare story. We never thought we were about to have this huge hit or anything. We didn’t know what to do with them, and they didn’t know what to do with us in the end.”
It’s been 25 years since the first Mudhoney record, and 25 years since Sub Pop started too – do such milestones mean anything to you?
“It’s a good hook to get people to notice it a bit more I guess. You can’t help but think, ‘wow, 25 years, that’s long time’. I certainly wouldn’t have imagined being in Mudhoney for 25 years. We literally thought it was going to last about a year when we started. I made a promise to my parents I would be back in college within the year.”
How do you think your career would have differed if it wasn’t for the involvement of Sub Pop?
“They’ve been super instrumental to us. In the beginning, we were feeding off each other. It was great, in the early days, but they were chaotic – that’s why we left. But we’re pretty wrapped up together so that’s why it’s a perfect place for us to come back to. That’s why we’ve stuck with each other. That, and, Mark works there – that’s why they can’t drop us! I guess the rest of us could say we’d like to go someplace else, but that would be really weird for Mark! He’d be pretty uncomfortable at work, probably. So, they’re stuck with us. But I’m happy they are.”
Do you ever see things winding down for Mudhoney? Or can you just see things keeping going, so long as you get to dictate the pace?
“Well, we like doing it still. We’re having a great time right now, so there wouldn’t be any point in stopping unless things change. Things change in life, you never know. We had a great time making this record, we’re excited about coming and playing shows and touring again for a while this year… I feel like we’re on a roll right now, I wouldn’t want to stop. I want to record more. I want to write more songs, quicker! I wish we had more.”
Vanishing Point is available now via Sub Pop.