At the height of his fame, Steve Turner remembers walking into a grocery store and having some longhaired grunge kid bow down before him.
It was the early ’90s and a brave new world of music was just beginning to seep out of Seattle, Washington, setting angst-ridden teens ablaze with excitement. The music was called grunge, and Turner and his band, Mudhoney, were an integral part of its rise.
Before Nirvana hit, Mudhoney began clearing the way for the new genre that wasn’t quite punk, wasn’t quite garage rock, wasn’t quite classic rock, but was somehow all three at once. And, though they would not reach the heights of fame of their Seattle-based peers, they were at least partially responsible for the groundswell that made Kurt Cobain an era-defining icon.
Now, 20 years after their first recording, Mudhoney is back with a new album, The Lucky Ones. Glide caught up with Turner to talk about his career, the new album, and just what the hell happened in Seattle all those years ago.
The new album was recorded in three and a half days, which seems very quick. How did that happen?
The way we generally record is we do it on weekends, so you’ve got three days on the weekend. We just managed to get it done really fast. We thought we were going to write some more songs and record a couple more times and all that kind of stuff, and we just got it all done. We just kept blasting through all the songs, and things were coming really fast. We went out for lunch, left Mark there to do the singing, and when we came back from lunch, he was almost done with the singing.
Were the songs written that quickly?
The songs were written pretty quick too because we had the reduced lineup of just the one guitar. Mark was kind of, as we were coming up with riffs, he was trying to figure out ways to sing it even if he didn’t have lyrics or anything. Songs were written really fast – that was kind of the point of it, of trying it without him playing guitar, just to see if we could get it written really quickly, and it worked.
Do you find that the process of writing and the end product is changed from working that quickly?
Sure. Recording gets to be less fun pretty quick in the studio. Everyone starts freaking out about little details. We just kept blasting through the stuff, so we didn’t have time to freak out about any of the small mistakes. Dan [Peters], being the drummer in particular, his job is huge in the studio, and he can start to fret about little things pretty quick, but we just kept moving on to the next song before he had time to. And if there was a bass mess up, we’d fix that or if there was a guitar mistake, we could fix that, but you can’t really fix the drums. Luckily we just kept getting through it so fast, he didn’t have time to worry about it. And Tucker [Martine], the producer, was really great about that too. He’s also a drummer, Tucker. He got into the spirit of it being good enough. If it’s a good, energetic, killer take and there are some small mess-ups, it doesn’t really matter.
A lot of bands still record on tape because they feel that computers suck the soul out of it. Are you really particular about the way the albums sound in that sense?
Sure. We still record analog. We make sure we get people we really trust and respect to help us record our records. And then, it’s making sure that the microphone is picking up the sound as pure as possible. That’s why it’s really just a pure live setup because that’s what I’m hearing in the practice room and it sounds as good as I think it’s going to sound. I always bring some other guitars and other boxes in and I always just end up using what I use live, generally. Occasionally for overdubs, I use other stuff.
Everything’s going to get digitized eventually. I guess you just try to hold it off until the last possible point. This one was digitized after the studio. Even at this point, for vinyl, you can’t get a record mastered from tape anymore, I think. The technology changes every time we make a record. At least it’s not DAT anymore. I think DAT was the low point.
I wanted to ask about a few of the new songs in particular. “And the Shimmering Light” is a very interestingly orchestrated song, with the tempo changes and everything. How did that one come about?
I think that was from the bass line. That was Guy Maddison’s bass line. I love strumming really simple barre chords, kind of a Velvet Underground-y thing. That one got put together really fast, and then listening to it, I realized it was almost a remake of “Good Enough” from one of our earlier records. It has the exact same kind of strumming and the exact same kind of slow down middle bit.
So you influenced yourself.
Yeah, we totally ripped ourselves off (laughs).
What about “Tales of Terror?” That song is so intense.
Mark didn’t play any of the guitar on the record, but he still wrote some of the songs on guitar. That was something he brought in. While we were doing it, we were thinking about the band Tales of Terror a little bit, and I think it just kind of blended together into, like, it started sounding like Tales of Terror, and Mark decided to call it “Tales of Terror” as well.
Just make it obvious.
Yeah, we were making it real obvious. That was a huge influence on me and Mark. Tales of Terror managed to come up to Seattle a few times and they were just one of the most shambolic messes of punk rock energy. They were huge to us at the time. I think we were just trying to find that kind of energy with some of the stuff. It was stripped down and it started sounding more like punk rock and more simple, and that one was a fairly complicated song in a way, but it really sounded like mid-80s insane hard-core stuff.
On the new album, especially on songs like “I’m Now” or “What’s This Thing?” occasionally there will be a riff that is really more of a blues riff than punk or grunge or whatever they call it. How do those influences come out?
They just kind of come out. One of the biggest influences on me still is ’60s garage R&B kind of stuff, the post Rolling Stones kind of sound of the teenage American garages. And there are plenty of little blues licks in that kind of stuff. By this point we are all well versed in listening to plenty of blues and folk and all sorts of other stuff, too. Collectively as a band, there is not any kind of 20th century music at least a couple of us don’t like. That just kind of comes out. It’s all based on the blues, right?
Were there any particular guitar players you emulated growing up?
Dick Taylor of The Pretty Things was a total guitar hero of mine. Neil Young – once I heard him, that was really huge. What got me there was the Meat Puppets’ second record. That one kept being compared to Neil Young’s Zuma, so that was the first Neil Young I heard because I had to go out and get it. So Neil Young was huge, that kind of looseness. Black Flag, Greg Gin. There’s a lot of Greg Gin on this record, I think. The really discordant solo bits here and there is totally trying to get the Gin going (laughs).
So you feel like these people still influence you in your style?
Sure. Lightnin’ Hopkins is one of my favorite guitar players. Always has been since I was a kid.
If only you could get away with calling yourself “Lightnin’” these days.
Yeah, no kidding (laughs).
You’ve been playing with Mark for a quarter of a century now.
Yeah, it’s 25 years.
When you know someone that well and have played with them for that long, how does that affect the new music you make?
It helps because it’s a really comfortable fit, but it can also kind of hinder it because you can get stuck in the same mode, even if you don’t want to. I think that’s why changing things up a little bit on this record, as far as writing it without him playing guitar really helped get things going a little faster again. I think one of the main things that really gelled us together was when we played in the Thrownups together, because he was the drummer and I was the guitar player in that, and we just made stuff up on the spot, live and in the studio, so we really got to understand each other’s things. The most basic difference between us is that I’m faster in terms of what tempo we want. I always want things to be faster and shorter (laughs).
I wanted to ask about a story in Mudhoney lore that might be apocryphal. I’ve heard from many sources that originally you didn’t expect the band to last more than six months.
Not that short, but I had made a deal with my parents pretty much. I dropped out of college again, and I said, OK, I promise I’ll go back to college in a year. Because really, everybody was in other bands already, so we were looking at it as more of a project than a band. We were like, Hey man, we can record some stuff and play some shows and we’ve got labels that will gladly put it out. It just worked out that SubPop was in our back yard.
Did you expect to be around 20 years later?
Of course not. I don’t think anyone expects a rock band to last 20 years.
How do you feel about that?
Obviously we still really like it or we wouldn’t be doing it. It’s not our job, it’s a career. We take it less for granted now than we did 10 years ago. I’m not so sure bands should be around this long, either. Rock ‘n’ roll is generally young kids coming together and creating something really fast and time moves on. But we’re still around. It’s kind of the equivalent of when I was a kid seeing people in their 40s still playing in bar bands, except the only difference is the bar bands weren’t writing their own stuff. I think this is better and more creative because we are still actively involved in it all, not just playing for fun every Tuesday night or something. Artistically it’s still what we do, but it doesn’t mean anyone even has to listen to it anymore. I’m surprised we still get as much notice as we do.
I wanted to ask kind of a retrospective question – when you look back at the whole grunge scene that grew out of Seattle and kind of took the nation by storm, what do you feel about that whole experience now, roughly two decades later?
There’s not any one particular thing I feel about it. There were so many different stages of it for us. There was 1988, just locally, when crowds starting showing up. That was really exciting to us. We were suddenly like, Wow, we were used to 50 people down at Squid Row or something and now a 300 or 400 people wanted to come to see us when we only had the first single out. So that was really exciting, that first initial thing. Then the ’89-90 vintage of it where the UK press was going ape shit for it. Then it gets amped up so much with Nirvana and Pearl Jam right on the heels of that. That was such a different thing. We were already so involved in our own things. The main thing about that was it was kind of cool and exciting to see your friends become huge rock stars. It got so overblown after that, it got kind of irritating for a while.
Did you ever want that for yourself?
No, I never had any kind of childhood dreams or ambitions to be a rock star as such. I was happy for my friends, but could also see that it was a big headache for them as well. It got so ridiculous. Even just I’d go to the grocery store and there’d be some longhaired grunge kid bowing down on the floor at me or something – you’re like, “I’m just at the grocery store. And I’m not in Pearl Jam.” It got kind of silly, but it was great for a lot of people. It was great for us – we made our living playing music for a long time. It was bittersweet. People died, but people die from sad circumstances all the time. After that, we kind of became a little bit more insular and just did what we did anyway. We were operating under a huge backlash for a while. You just have to kind of ignore it all and keep doing what you do.
It seems to have worked out, or to still be working out.
Sure, we’re all quite pleased. We love the new record. We’re still around, for better or worse.