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Monkey Wrench | Electric Children | interview | Mark Arm | Steve Turner | rock | Lollipop
The Monkey Wrench
Electric Children (Estrus!)
An interview with Mark Arm and Steve Turner
by Jon Sarre
Ugh. Technical difficulties. My attempt at a phone interview with MonkeyWrench/Mudhoney/Bloodloss/Thrown Ups/GreenRiver frontman, Mark Arm turned into apologies bein' hurled around like bottles in a bar brawl as the fuckin' phonetap kept feedin' back in a barrage of ear-screech white noise (hmm, sorta like the final track on the new 'Wrench record, Electric Children, available on Estrus Records and Tapes -- CDs, too, bejeezus). I couldn't hear Mark and he couldn't hear me, thus makin' the line, "I musta looked like a dork" offa the Minutemen's "Political Song For Michael Jackson to Sing" pop into my head, 'specially since I was talkin' to a guy I once viewed as a candidate for Potential Savior of Rock'n'Roll (Mudhoney's debut is one of the few great records of the '90s).
Suffice to say, I couldn't get much outta Mr. Arm re this MonkeyWrench thing with fellow Mudhoneyer/Thrown Uper/GreenRiverer Steve Turner, Big Boy/Poison 13/Lord High Fixer garage demi-god Tim Kerr, Auzzie-scuzz-rocker Martin Bland (of Lubricated Goat/Bloodloss fame) and Gas Huffer's Tom Price. Luckily enough, the MonkeyWrench Gang (to steal the title from an Edward Abbey novel about eco-terrorists) was gonna be in my town, Portland, the very next day (I didn't initially wanna do a sit-down cuz I was supposed to get drunk with/"interview" the openers, Fireballs of Freedom -- first thing happened, second didn't). Anyhow, as the fates decreed, I showed up after soundcheck and was able to chat with Mark and Steve as they enjoyed the hospitality of EJ's (in)famous Hellfire Kitchen.
Since none of that [yesterday] came out, why don't we start from the beginning... When did the first MonkeyWrench record come out?
Mark: It was in '92.
Steve: I'm pretty sure it was late '91, .
So you got back together with Tim and Martin and Tom -- what was the impulse?
Steve: It started makin' sense, schedule-wise, you know, people were just like "You should do another one." It seemed to make sense about a year ago, like I dunno... "I don't think Mudhoney is goin' anywhere, as far as tours..." I knew Gas Huffer wasn't doin' much and Tim was comin' up all the time anyway [to produce records]... We started takin' it more seriously and Tim said we could play Garage Shock [Estrus Records' annual trashrock festival in Bellingham, WA]. I guess that's it.
When you guys got together, was that before Mudhoney's "hiatus"?
Mark: It was before Matt [Lukin, ex-bassplayer] officially retired.
Steve: We were done touring. I didn't see how we could tour anymore on that record [Tomorrow Hit Today].
Mark: Our shows were gettin' smaller and smaller... By the day, practically. Kinda Spinal Tap-esque.
Steve: Maybe not that extreme, but it was just like "We're not gonna go on the road and lose money," and we were just barely breaking even. On the last tour we were like, "Fuck it, we're not goin' anywhere."
Mark: All that overhead, too: the stage set-up, carrying that stuff around, the light show... the dancers...
The giant inflatable robot musta required a truck just by itself....
Steve: As soon as we were done touring, Matt decided that was it. It was comin' for a while...
Are you guys both people who need to have some kinda project goin' on? You guys were both in the Thrown Ups together... That was actually pre-Mudhoney, right?
Steve: Yeah, I quit GreenRiver to join the Thrown Ups. I didn't know it at the time...
Mark: Y'know, there's, like, down periods. I've always liked playin' with Martin and the other guys in Bloodloss, and there was a time I was doin' both at the same time. It seemed like things kinda came in waves: when Mudhoney wasn't really doin' anything, Bloodloss was doin' stuff...
A good way to keep busy...
Mark: It's not just keepin' busy. I never really think of any band I'm in as a "side project." It's just what I'm doin' at the time.
Do you guys break up the songwriting? I noticed [Mark] wrote some songs with Tim and some songs with [Steve].
Mark: Well, basically my name's on every song cuz I write the words. So basically, the first name is Tim or Steve cuz they came up with the idea for the song. They tend to get arranged by the whole band.
So you're more on the lyrical angle.
Mark: [deadpan] That's my job. I'm the singer. I have no choice. I was beggin' people too! I knew we were goin' into the studio, and I was like "Fuck, man, how am I gonna come up with words for a whole record?"
So you don't write songs just hangin' around the house or walkin' down the street?
Mark: Oh yeah, that happens.
But you don't write a full-on song and say, "This would be a great Mudhoney song" or "This would be a great Bloodloss song"?
Mark: Nah. See, I'm like a shhhham-eeee-leon. I'm on when Mudhoney's goin' really strong, and I'll come up with somethin' that'll work really great with the music of the band.
Do they ever say to you, "That's stupid. That's gay, we're not gonna let you sing that"?
Mark: Not really gay.
Steve: We're all about that.
Mark: We celebrate diversity.
I read in Rocket [Seattle/Portland music freebie] that one of you guys said "Irony has had it's day, but sarcasm hasn't."
Mark: I don't know if "irony" is really the correct word to be used the way music journalists seem to use it. It's like a literary device, y'know? It seems really strange to me.
There's a high degree of sarcasm in your lyrics, but there's also some dark stuff...
Mark: Yeah, I'd like to think there's a certain amount of truth in there -- sarcasm can be a roundabout way of getting at something... I used to have a handle on what the truth was, up until...
Steve: I've no idea anymore.
Mark: I was much more sure of the truth when I was like six and going to Bible Camp.
On the new MonkeyWrench record, there's a song -- I'm not sure what it's called -- "I'm so tired, I can't believe I'm still alive..."
Mark: "Thirteen Nights."
That's like "When Tomorrow Hits" from the first Mudhoney LP. Then that dark stuff is always tempered by, for want of a better word, a more playful side.
Mark: My humor is very black. It's black with black flashes.
Steve: It's so black, it isn't even funny.
Mark: It's gotten to the point where my wife doesn't even know when I'm kidding around.
It's all in the delivery...
Mark: I guess so. You gotta do the "nudge, nudge, wink, wink."
So how's this workin' out after the rock star trappings of Mudhoney?
Steve: This is the last place we played. I don't see so much goddamn change in perspective. This was the last show we did and it was really fuckin' fun.
Mark: Dan [Peters, Mudhoney's drummer] played on mushrooms, so his idea of space and timing had shifted.
You guys didn't know it was the last Mudhoney show, did you?
Steve: Matt mighta known... It was ridiculously chaotic and fucked up, so it was perfect.
What do you think after the whole "Seattle Thing" has come and gone. How do you feel... You don't have any connection with Warner Bros. anymore, do you?
Steve: I still talk to our old A&R guy. He just got fired. Well, after working there nine years and not having one hit, signing us and, like, the Boredoms. I'd gladly be a victim of the collapse of the Alternative Nation if they'd just kill the bad bands too.
Are people bitter up there about the whole...
Mark: People are bitter no matter where you go.
Steve: Talk to any mid-'30s rock musician and they turn a corner and they don't know what to do.
Time to get a real job... Well, like I told Mark yesterday, it's a real honor to talk to two guys who played [in GreenRiver] with two guys from Pearl Jam.
Mark: Yeah, that's the first thing he fuckin' said! Then, "What are they like?" Well... they're great guys.
Sarcastic start-of-interview question...
Mark: Those guys fuckin' sold out, man!
Is that a true story? The "Eddie Vedder was out shooting hoops with Jack Irons formerly of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jack gave him this tape of this real cool band called Pearl Jam and then Eddie went surfing and wrote all the lyrics to the Ten record" story?
Steve: I've never heard that. I think Jeff actually sent him a tape on the recommendation of Jack.
I've heard conspiracy theories to the effect that they were just put together by the Epic A&R department.
Steve: Nah, pretty organic...
Mark: I can't believe you're defending those sods! Pearl Jam's been very good to us. And we're playing with them in London. The MonkeyWrench! So we'll bum out a few thousand people over there.
Steve: So our silence has been bought. I know nothing. Jack Irons? Who's that?
Mark: Every once in a while they'll throw us a bone.
What brought you guys together? You two've been playin' together for a while.
Mark: This friend of ours knew both Steve and myself...
Mark: [laughing] This friend of ours, Alex, introduced us as being "fellow straight-edgers...." At the time, I considered myself straight-edge cuz I didn't drink or smoke pot, but I was still taking acid.
Steve: So when he introduced us as fellow straight-edgers, we both kinda rolled our eyes. We were in bands together before GreenRiver.
What did you guys listen to? Obviously a lotta Blue Cheer...
Steve: Proto-metal, '60s rock stuff. Seattle's legacy is having the Sonics, then hardcore punk.
Mark: I grew up listening to radio, basically the Top 40 radio.
When was this?
Mark: [sarcastically] In the late '50s, early '60s. No, when I was a little kid in the early '70s. I remember sneakin' out to the car to listen to the radio cuz rock'n'roll was banned in my household. So I kinda gravitated to the more rockin' songs on the Top 40, y'know, like Aerosmith. Then I discovered FM radio and saw this... thing on late night television about punk and I was like, "This is freaky, I hope this stuff doesn't come over here!" Then they played... the Damned. I was like, "Fuck! This is like Kiss, but better and faster!" Then I started learning about Roxy Music and the Velvet Underground, the Stooges and the New York Dolls. At the same time, I was goin' to these arena shows. But what tilted me full-on was seeing Devo in 1980.
Steve: That was my first concert.
Mark: After seeing a couple really boring arena rock shows, you didn't feel like you were a part of anything. What's kinda weird about that is that later on, bein' a grunge band after ten years, playin' in places smaller than this [EJ's House of Rock, capacity: 350], then opening for Nirvana and Pearl Jam in an arena, I thought, "Those kids must be kinda bored out there, no matter how good the music is."