Friday, July 6, 2012

Interview: Mark Yarm, Everybody Loves Our Town

I start movies I never finish watching. I pick up a book and read half of it before I give up. But I am a black hole for music: I am all consuming. I am insatiable. When I picked up 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die my intent was to discover MORE. And thank God I keep notes, because I've heard so much new, amazing music I can't keep track of it all.

The first thing I did when I bought the book was to figure out how many of the recordings I had already heard: I happily added checkmarks next to Nirvana's Nevermind, Pearl Jam's Ten, Soundgarden's Superunknown, Alice in Chains' Dirt. Tom Moon didn't have to tell me these were essential recordings because those bands made up the core of my music collection in my formative years. Grunge: check. Or so I thought.

When I picked up Mark Yarm's Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge, which Time Magazine named one of its best books of 2011, I first noticed how long it was. I'm an incredibly slow reader, one step up from moving my lips while I read, and I thought it would take me forever to finish. But the book, filled with quotes from players in Seattle's grunge explosion; musicians, producers, friends, managers and more; was compelling in its portrait of a scene I thought I knew something about. The arrangement of the quotes, many contradicting each other in enlightening and humorous ways, pushes the reader forward as if reading a thriller. It was easily the best book I read in 2011, and the best non-fiction book I've had the pleasure of reading since Moon's.

I expected to read about the bands I mentioned above, and maybe the Melvins, who I had heard of in that Kurt Cobain considered them influential, but I was stunned by the number of other important bands I had never even heard of. I felt like I had been punched in the gut. Grunge is the foundation of my musical education, and Yarm showed me there was so much more to that world than I knew about.

Mr. Yarm recently took the time to chat with me about his book, grunge, and music in general. His interview kicks off a six part series I'm writing on the Seattle area grunge bands included in the 1000 Recordings (Mother Love Bone's Apple, Nirvana's Nevermind, Pearl Jam's Ten, Alice in Chains' Dirt, Soundgarden's Superunknown, and Screaming Trees' Dust).

What do you think about the six albums that are included? Do you think those are the six you would have included?

I don’t know if those are the six I would include. I mean, I agree with some. Obviously you can't, I think, be a contemporary music fan without having heard Nevermind, and I think by the same extension Pearl Jam's Ten. Those were kind of the twin pillars of the grunge explosion, so I think that those two are necessary.  

You know, Soundgarden, Superunknown was the album that made them into a pop band. Actually, reading the description [Moon] wrote for the 1000 Recordings, he didn’t even mention "Black Hole Sun," which was their mega hit, which made them transcend grunge. It's this Beatle-esque pop song, so they became sort of a pop group at that point in some ways. For my money, I think Badmotorfinger, which came out around the same time as Nevermind and was kind of eclipsed by Nevermind in many ways, is to me the height of Soundgarden. A song like "Jesus Christ Pose" which is just insane; I think their best song from beginning to end. I mean, I can see Superunknown being on the list.

I do agree with Alice in Chains' Dirt. That’s just a brutal, brutal album and really captures a lot about their mental state and the drug scene and kind of the metal element that Alice in Chains brought to grunge. That's just a great album. I was never a huge Alice in Chains fan. When I started writing this book I really did start getting into them.

Screaming Trees; Dust is a good album. I would probably pick Sweet Oblivion, which was [its] predecessor, which was more, I'd say, the grunge era.

Mother Love Bone: there were a bunch of other bands... there should be Mudhoney on this list if anything if it's a grunge list. Mudhoney or Green River. Mudhoney Superfuzz Bigmuff and early singles and that need to be on a list of essential grunge recordings or just essential indie or punk rock recordings. Of all the albums that could be classified as grunge, I think the one I've listened to the most over the last three to four years during the process of writing this book, and even after, is Superfuzz Bigmuff. And you know, that says a lot because after writing about grunge sometimes that is the last thing you want to listen to.

[Nirvana's] Bleach is another album that I think should be on the list. Obviously they're probably only going to include one Nirvana album. Bleach turned 23 today and that still holds up very well. Songs like "Negative Creep" or even "About a Girl," which was the signal that this is a band that had a Beatle-esque side to it as well. I think Bleach should be on there.

Bands like Mudhoney and Tad, and even Green River and Mother Love Bone, I had never really been introduced to before. Was part of your idea to open up that scene beyond just Ten and Nevermind and Dirt?

Yeah, I mean the idea was always there were the big four grunge bands; you've got Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains. And the scene was so much broader than that and so, also, incestuous. As you're reading the book you realize that [all these bands] grew up together, knew each other, played together, toured together, did drugs together, whatever. There were so many links between these bands and it's a real disservice to limit it to four or five of them.

If you look on the bookshelves there's been so many books written about Nirvana, so it was never my goal to write a Nirvana book, but obviously you can't tell this story without Nirvana. So in some ways I was kind of more psyched to get the U-Men: they're considered a proto-grunge, but the book opens up with a scene of them lighting the moat on fire at the Mural Ampitheater in Seattle. I talked to all eight members of the U-Men, which for most people will probably not really register. But I thought it was quite an accomplishment to have hunted everyone down and gotten their take on this band that not many people know too much about but were extremely influential on most everyone in that scene who saw them in the '80s.

So yeah, it was important to me to not only get the Nirvanas and the Pearl Jams but the U-Men, the Tads and the Malfunkshuns and any number of smaller bands.

I've heard it described that this was a scene that was one of a kind and probably won't happen again. If you could choose another genre or scene to write about, not necessarily considering whether it would sell or not what would you most enjoy writing about?

To the first part of your question, Seattle is so geographically isolated; that first success in the '80s, it was something that [the Seattle bands] could only dream of if they even gave it a thought. [Playing] was more for fun. Seattle was way out there in the corner of the country and so some touring bands would skip it, so people would have to make their own fun. Plus they had a lot of time to hone their sound and it was such a small scene they also all very much influenced each other and sort of cross pollinated .

Today a band puts out their mp3 on the internet, and maybe they've had a couple of practices, and they can have their music heard all over the world if theyre lucky, without any time to get really get their chops or to establish a real identity and sound and hone that. So I don't really foresee another Seattle happening. I mean, I could be proven wrong but it seems that the internet and the availability of music has sort of blurred those geographic lines to many degrees.

As far as another [genre], I think hair metal would be fun to write about, but there's been plenty done on that. The Dirt, the Mötley Crüe book, if people haven't read that, after they read my book they should definitely read The Dirt, because that's just like totally depraved, Sunset Strip stuff and it's really great. But I do find it fascinating. We just had [the] Rock of Ages movie come out so theres always this fascination with that scene and it certainly was debauched and full of interesting players.

Severely underrepresented on the list I believe. 

I bet. Also, that music never really gained any critical acceptance. I interviewed Bret Michaels for the book, from Poison, and he's an articulate guy, he knows whats going on, and his argument was "It's all rock and roll." He took Alice in Chains out on tour early on. He recognized something in them. He liked Nirvana.

That is kind of like a myth, that somehow grunge killed hair metal when in fact hair metal was already a genre on decline at that point. It was kind of doing itself in already, so there was just a vacuum [where] we were ready for new stuff. And obviously there were hair metal bands like Poison and Bon Jovi and Def Leppard that survived. I think a lot of the smaller bands really suffered with that tide shift.

What would you include on a list of 1000 recordings someone should hear before you die? 

Other than grunge? The first album that came to mind is My Bloody Valentine, Loveless. Certainly some R.E.M. albums. I'm a big fan of the Afghan Whigs; I just saw them on their reunion tour here. I'd probably pick Gentlemen, in that regard. Against Me, New Wave, is one of my favorite albums. There are a lot of them. This could take all day. Some Replacements albums. A couple of the grunge albums I mentioned earlier. Sigur Rós albums. Galaxie 500 albums. A lot of stuff. A lot of stuff.

As we were chatting at the end of the interview Mark said something that really sums up how I feel about his book and why I think it shares a kindred spirit with Moon's: 

I get a lot of messages from people [after they read the book] that say "I haven't listened to Pearl Jam in 20 years, but here I am listening to them." Or "This introduced me to bands I've never heard," just like you’re saying, that are definitely worthwhile hearing. I was always hoping the book would have that effect on people; that people would say "This is a band I didn't know anything about or maybe thought I didn't like or wouldn't like, but you know they have an interesting backstory and let me give them a chance." Especially now when you can just click on Spotify and listen to them or find their music pretty easily online or take out your old CDs and listen to them. There's so many side projects and one offs and singles, so you can certainly keep busy after reading this book.

There's certainly a lot to listen to and I'm glad that people are going beyond Nevermind or Ten or some of the standard bearers and looking for Melvins albums or Mudhoney albums or Tad albums or 7 Year Bitch albums or any of the various lesser known groups that are in the book.

Hear more from Mark Yarm at his Twitter feed, Tumblr, and Facebook page where he keeps up a steady stream of news and information about all things grunge. And I highly recommend picking up his book.

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    1. Very interesting! Makes me want to read the book now!

    2. Great interview, Mike! It also makes me want to read the book as well. I'm a few years older than you, and I was just coming out of high school when all this stuff started to break. I recognize a lot of these names, but there are still some that I don't. Great post!