“I didn’t play with a Big Muff for a long time and felt like a fraud”: Mudhoney’s Steve Turner and Mark Arm like to lose control, but without straying too far from their comfort zone

Mudhoney
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Dating back to their 1988 debut record, Superfuzz Bigmuff, Mudhoney guitar duo Steve Turner and Mark Arm have made a habit of bludgeoning the listener over the head with a mega combination of Big Muff-inspired riffs and DOD-driven solos.

They might not have been belles of the ball, but Mudhoney sure did matter. One listen to Mudhoney (1989), Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge (1991) and Piece of Cake (1995) will remind you of their importance – even if acts like Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Soundgarden captured the lion’s share of the attention.

Mudhoney have never been about compromise; instead, they lean on their hardcore roots and remain comfortable with being uncomfortable – commercially and sonically. For their fans, that’s just fine – each record Turner and Arm have crafted together has been a guitar tour de force.

“For solos, I like to get lost,” Turner tells Guitar World. “I don’t plan them out, save for a few songs over the years. I like to surprise myself when we’re in the studio and while playing live. Sometimes, I go off the rails while getting lost, but I like getting lost.

“I like getting crazy with leads, which stems from my influences like The Stooges and the Meat Puppets. I admired how they went off the rails when it was time for a solo.”

“And Greg Ginn with Black Flag,” Arm adds. “He’s more mapped out than people think. He sounds like he’s not, but he is. That’s the genius of a guy like that.”

Arm elaborates: “I map things out sometimes, but not all the time. When we’re recording and I put words to the music, sometimes I’ll say, ‘Oh, this would sound good right about here,’ and I’ll figure out what would be good for a solo. Maybe it’s a little fake punk thing or a totally different solo.

“Sometimes in the studio, things are surprisingly difficult to get things to my satisfaction. That’s been how it is for Mudhoney and me since the beginning.”

What does your joint writing process look like these days?

Mark Arm: “Someone generally comes up with a riff or two, and then Steve and I work together on that, and I come up with lyrics.”

Steve Turner: “Things haven’t changed much over the years. Someone will have an idea or a riff, and we’ll just pound into it, and then we’ll record it, and Mark will or will not find lyrics for it. We rarely have something where we come in going, ‘Here’s something finished from top to bottom.’”

Arm: “But the last record, Plastic Eternity, was a little different because drummer Dan [Peters] came in with some fully formed demos and ideas for songs.”

Turner: “And we didn’t have the luxury of being able to pound things out in Mark’s basement as much – we hadn’t seen each other for like a year and a half because of the pandemic. So we wrote things on the fly with the last album, which was fun.”

Plastic Eternity still has that classic Mudhoney sound. What’s the secret to your tones?

Turner: “Gear isn’t as important to me as it is for some people. But I always play through a Fender Hot Rod Deville amp, and there’s always an EHX Big Muff involved.

“We’ve been playing guitar for a long time, and the two of us do certain things that are part of our styles now. Mark is more into changing his gear up, and fuzz boxes, than I am.”

Arm: “Over the pandemic I was like, ‘Fuck, I’m bored; I’m gonna get more pedals!’ But my board will always have an MXR Distortion M104, a DOD Overdrive 250 preamp and a few others. For a long time, I only had a few pedals until EarthQuaker Devices reached out, and I got to use some new stuff for my board.”

But the classic pedals still define your sound most, right?

Arm: “Yeah. The MXR and the DOD stuff check a lot of boxes for me. I see many people with these giant pedalboards and it’s not necessary. I’m so sick of people with these big, huge pedalboards – you can’t even tell what they’re doing.”

Wikipedia would have us believe that Steve is the lead and Mark is the rhythm. It’s not so clear-cut, is it?

Turner: “I think of myself as a rhythm guitarist who also does leads. And Mark is more of a painter in that he fills the spaces between the riffs. That’s really what Mark is so good at.

“I’ve tried to get better at guitar by doing more than just mirroring what Mark does or what the guys on bass did. I try to come up with a counterpoint. Otherwise, there’s no point in having two guitarists.”

Arm: “I try to sneak around and give the song what I think it needs, and my parts flow through that approach – especially my leads. But I guess there have been times when I’ve planned out. There’s a song like that on the new record called Human Stock Capital that I can’t replicate now.”

Can you pick a song from Plastic Eternity that best represents who you’ve evolved into as guitarists? 

Turner: “Let me see if I can remember the song titles! I think Plastic Eternity is a fairly diverse record. We’re not like the Ramones where it’s repetitive, but there are things that we don’t want to get too far away from.

“I enjoyed Little Dogs because that was one of Dan’s songs, and trying to get in his head and play guitar was a fun and unique challenge.”

Arm: “I also need to look at the song titles! Tom Herman’s Hermits is pretty cool. I play this little floating feedback thing for a bit, and then while doing it, the verse has this rhythmic thing toward the end of the song. And then everyone jumps in for the chorus, and we’re all playing together.”

Turner: “I like that one too. I’m playing totally fuzzed-out guitar on one string for the whole song, which is very on-brand! It’s a loud song that keeps getting louder, distorted, and fuzzier – as it should!”

Do you each have a favorite song to play live?

Turner: ”A favorite of mine is Suck You Dry, and I love playing Touch Me I’m Sick. I’m happy with the old classics, and during the last tour, we had a great group of songs to play. There are songs from the old days that we need to play unless we’re sick of them, which happens occasionally.”

Arm: “Maybe In ’n Out of Grace, because we get to go nuts during the solo. It doesn’t matter what I play there – I can get lost. Not too lost, just lost enough where we can keep it on track. But still as lost as possible.”

Which of Mudhoney’s records would you choose as a high point?

Turner: “As far as guitars go, I’d say all of them! But it’s not up to me to judge. I don’t know if our music is important. But as a harmless historian, I’d go with Superfuzz Bigmuff as a high point. And I like the new record, too.

“Overall, all our records are good. There might be weaker moments, and I often rate them differently, but I’m happy with our first and love our latest record.”

How have your rigs changed during the 36 years between Superfuzz Bigmuff and Plastic Eternity?

Turner: “I still play through my Fender amp and use a Big Muff. But my guitars have changed; I no longer play Fender Mustangs like the old days. I started using Guild Starfires about 20 years ago, and when I tried the Mustang again, it felt so tiny. It was like my fingers somehow got fatter!”

Arm: “I’ve been playing a Gretsch Duo Jet for a while, maybe since the ‘90s. But back then, I had this baby blue Hagstrom and used Ampeg amps with this accordion input. It was an Ampeg Rocket, and it was giant-sounding.

“And it’s funny: I didn’t play with a Big Muff for a long time and felt like a fraud. But I got one recently – like, [one of] the older ones – and it's great.”

Mudhoney are overlooked compared to other grunge-era bands, but there’s no denying your importance. How do you look back on that?

Turner: “I think of us as an ‘80s band! We started in the ‘80s and were influenced by the underground ‘80s sounds more than anything in the ‘90s. Even those ‘90s bands were affected by the hardcore punk scene.”

Arm: “Dinosaur Jr. are a good example – they were admirers of hardcore. A lot of Seattle bands like Soundgarden and Nirvana were too. At one point, even the Melvins were the tightest hardcore band on the scene, before they slowed down.”

Turner: “But the thing about the term ‘hardcore’ is that the new generation sees it differently.”

Arm: “I work with a guy at Sub Pop who is about 20 years younger than me, and he was talking about hardcore and naming a bunch of bands. In my head I was like, ‘That’s not what hardcore is at all!’

“I go back to the early days of hardcore in ’81, ’82 or '83, like Minor Threat – but it’s a broader stroke now. Words tend to lose their meaning. What does ‘Mark’ even mean anymore?”

Now that Plastic Eternity and its supporting tour are in your rearview mirror, what’s next for Mudhoney?

Arm: “We’re going to Europe in the fall of ’24. If we’re lucky, we do a one-month-long tour twice a year. But in ’24 it’ll only be one month. And Guy Maddison, our bassist, moved back to Australia two years ago, making planning slightly different.”

Turner: “We have to start writing songs again too. The Melvins keep threatening to have us do more recordings with them, which we’d love to do. We did the White Lazy Boy EP with them a few years ago, just before the pandemic shutdown. 

”Mark and I went down there, and it was super fun. So hopefully, maybe, we can find a way to do more of that.”

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Andrew Daly

Andrew Daly is an iced-coffee-addicted, oddball Telecaster-playing, alfredo pasta-loving journalist from Long Island, NY, who, in addition to being a contributing writer for Guitar World, scribes for Rock Candy, Bass Player, Total Guitar, and Classic Rock History. Andrew has interviewed favorites like Ace Frehley, Johnny Marr, Vito Bratta, Bruce Kulick, Joe Perry, Brad Whitford, Rich Robinson, and Paul Stanley, while his all-time favorite (rhythm player), Keith Richards, continues to elude him.