Gig Economy: Mark Arm

The Mudhoney frontman talks pulling double duty for Sub Pop.

Gig Economy is a Talkhouse series in which artists tell us about their work histories, from part-time pasts to the present tense, in order to demystify the many different paths that can lead to a career as a working musician. Here, Mudhoney frontman Mark Arm discusses the merits (and necessity) of keeping your day job.
—Annie Fell, Associate Editor, Talkhouse

My first job was at McDonald’s when I was 16. They started me on shakes and fries. Fries were terrible, because the salt would get under your fingernails. I didn’t last long; They got rid of me after about six weeks. My shifts came less and less, and they eventually just said I was “not McDonald’s material”—which at the time I took as an insult, because I was 16 and I’d just recently become an Eagle Scout. What do you mean, I’m not McDonald’s material? Later on, I realized it was a compliment. But at that point, I wasn’t going to the local high school. I went to a private Christian high school a couple of towns over. I didn’t know anyone, so I was just kind of quiet and really reserved, and I didn’t talk to anyone. So that probably had something to do with it—I wasn’t really part of the team.

There were a series of high school-ish sort of jobs after that. One of them only lasted, thankfully, one weekend: It was at a plastic bucket factory. Those big buckets—like how at McDonald’s, the pickles would come in these giant, two-gallon buckets. That kind of thing. I can’t even imagine there’s a factory like that anymore in Bellevue. Anyway, the thing that saved me was I went skateboarding and broke my ankle, so I spent most of the summer in a cast. But at least I didn’t have to work in a plastic bucket factory. I also worked for a real estate agent, where my job was to clip out “For Sale By Owner” advertisements from the local newspaper, then real estate agents would hound these people trying to get them to let them sell their house. At the time, I don’t think I really understood what I was doing. There was actually one for a while that I enjoyed, at a family-run consignment sporting goods shop that sold skiing gear, among other things. I was really into skiing when I was in high school. It was also called McDonald’s, weirdly enough. McDonald’s Sporting Goods. Something like that.

Later on, I went to college and worked part-time at the library coffee shop, and also at Kinko’s. Then I got a job at a place called Seattle FilmWorks, which was this local company that used its own brand of film. The only place that you could take this film to be developed was back to Seattle FilmWorks, so they had this built-in developing thing. The main thing I did was quality control—consistency, making sure everything matched up with the negatives. Sometimes, really weird shit would come through, and people would take prints for their own amusement. So you had to make sure that everything was there.

I worked there with Bruce Fairweather, who was also in Green River, and Kim Thayil, who was in Soundgarden, and a couple of other local metal musicians who played in a band called Mistrust. At lunch, those guys would give Kim, Bruce, and I shit for playing the kind of music we did. They’d started this band with the singer from Culprit who was sort of on par with Queensryche, before Queensryche really got big. “We got Jeff L’Heureux on vocals, man! In a couple months our record will be coming out and we’ll be touring the world. Later to this place!” Of course, Mistrust never went anywhere. By the early ’90s they were in a band called My Sister’s Machine, which was basically a fake Alice In Chains/Soundgarden band. Anyway, I was at Seattle FilmWorks for about a year. I had to quit to go on tour with Green River, because I couldn’t get enough leave of absence.

My next place of employment was at Muzak. I was in the most entry-level position, which was in what they called the cart room. It was a tiny room where they recycled the cartridges, which looked like 8-track tapes. I was in there with Tad Doyle and Grant Eckman, Chris Pugh from Swallow. Grant was in The Walkabouts; Tad was in Tad. Or actually, Tad (the band) wasn’t happening at that point. I think he was still in H-Hour and the later stages of Bundle Of Hiss. He recorded his first single while I worked with him there. People from Love Battery worked there. Sub Pop’s founders, Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman, worked there. I think I got the job through Bruce. Anyway, it was noisy because we used these sanders to clean off the labels and the dirt. We sprayed this stuff we called “spooge” on them to help—just some pink stuff in a spray bottle. No one knew where it came from, or who made it, or what it was made of. I’m sure it was somewhat toxic. This is a job you can get with no skills.

Muzak ended with me going on tour. I quit for the first Mudhoney tour and I didn’t work for 10 years.  It wasn’t, like, high living or anything. After that first tour, I came back and moved in with my girlfriend and her mom, which was kind of fucking humiliating. I did that for a couple months until we got a place. We didn’t rake in the money on that first tour—or even the second. I remember on that first tour, the second half was with Sonic Youth. Their booking agent asked us how much we wanted a night for show, and thinking back to the Green River days, I said that $100 a night would be fucking great. He kindly upped it to $200.

Then we went to Europe in the spring of ’89, and enough money was made and our records were selling, so we were getting actually paid from Sub Pop. When we signed to Reprise, we didn’t go for a big deal. We didn’t want to get into a bidding war. We wanted to get a more favorable contract, so we were just looking for the highest numbers. We had this part of the contract where, for the first two records, at least, whatever we didn’t use of the recording budget, we got to keep. We got to keep the back end, so we recorded Piece Of Cake and My Brother The Cow really cheaply. We went to the same studio for Piece Of Cake where we recorded Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge, in the basement of Conrad Uno’s house. I think that maybe cost us $30,000 after we spent a month there. We had, I think, probably $120,000 to split up after that. It seemed like an incredible amount of money. We were used to hand-to-mouth, minimum wage. There was also an advance that allowed us all to put down payments on homes, which was probably the smartest thing I did at the time. For a few years there, up until about ’93, I was hemorrhaging money on a drug habit. It wasn’t like I was looking for advice on how to wisely spend my money. At the time, I just assumed this will go on for a while. Why not? I don’t think I had that much forethought about whether it would last the rest of my life. The rest of my life? That’s a long time. But, I didn’t have any Plan B or anything.

Somewhere around ’98, ’99, I started working at Fantagraphics. It just seemed like things were petering out a bit. Our style of music was well out of fashion. There was the so-called “grunge” thing, and then the ’90s punk revival happened, and then there was this wave of electronica, where magazines were saying things like, “Rock & roll is dead”—those kinds of fashion-y magazines, especially the UK weeklies like Melody Maker and NME. That lasted until The White Stripes and The Strokes. I remember after Tomorrow Hit Today, we did two consecutive U.S. tours, and it definitely seemed after the first one that interest dropped off dramatically in some spots. We flew to the UK for one show in London. We didn’t even do a European tour at that time. Just one show to kind of test the water; there was no press or anything. It was, I think, the first time that we noticed, Oh my God, there’s this group of mini-Kurt Cobains running around. It was kind of weird.

I came back from tour and my wife told me to get a job. She was working for the school district and various things. She was like, “You need to start contributing more.” “Ohhhhh, come on!” Some friends of mine worked at Fantagraphics: Tom Price, who had been in The U-Men and Gas Huffer, and Martin Bland, who I had played with in Bloodloss. Dave Holmes, who’s in The Fallouts. I sent comics to people from the mailroom—mostly really creepy porn comics.  It was a soul-sucking job. But I was used to that kind of work. And it wasn’t like I was going, I’m Mark Arm! What am I doing here? I was making money. We needed some money.

When I started working at Sub Pop, I learned that Kim Salmon from The Scientists was in the warehouse of our distributor in Australia. You know, that’s kind of the reality of it. Some people can make it work. To be Henry Rollins, I guess that works for Henry—he busts his butt doing acting, publishing, and whatnot. I actually prefer having a steady gig and not having to hustle. I’m not good at—or super comfortable with—selling myself. Plus at that point, Guy Maddison had joined Mudhoney, and he was just finishing up nursing school. He had a real, real job, at a major trauma hospital. His schedule was stricter, and his vacation time was limited. I think all of us realized it was more important for us to play with Guy than to get out on the road more.

Fantagraphics lasted until about 2005. Then another friend of mine said there was a warehouse job opening at Sub Pop. I went in for a job interview, and it was for a management position—which, at that time, the warehouse was so small, it was one person. I was managing myself. It was just a title. Somehow I’ve managed to keep that title, despite the fact that a lot more people work at the warehouse now. Luckily, when Sub Pop started, it was an all-hands-on-deck sort of situation, where we would just come in and stuff singles—not just for our own band, but for other bands, too. I think Megan Jasper remembered that, even in my fucked-up state at that time, I was a good worker, and conscientious about that kind of thing. I think that helped my cause.

I do ship out a lot of my own music. I did a whole lot of that last week. It’s cool to see it go around the country. But every once in a while, a store doesn’t order the records. I’m just like, what the fuck’s wrong with these guys? But it’s a real grounding experience, because I have no delusion of how well our records sell. If you’re not in the warehouse watching them go out—or not go out—then you might have the impression that we have a record on this label that’s well-known and that people love. You think you’ve got it made. And it’s like, not really.

Obviously the bigger acts like Beach House and Father John Misty don’t have day jobs. Josh Tillman seems like a pretty wily person; I think he’ll be able to manage for a good long time. But if I were talking to a group of young musicians, I guess I would say something along the lines of: The most important thing is to be in a band with your friends, and to play music that you love. If something happens, that’s great, but don’t expect it. I mean, I think it’s a really weird fluke that Mudhoney just happened to happen when we did and with the support of this label, which was just starting out at the same time. That was the kind of fluke I don’t think most bands get to experience.

When I was going to college, I had, I guess, literary aspirations. But even then, I got a major in short-story writing. I didn’t even have the wherewithal to think in terms of a novel. My real focus, even when I was going to university, was music. I was playing in bands and spending more time going to clubs and seeing bands than actually studying. One of the things that might have damaged me was there was a writing professor I had who said, “Look, if you really, really want to be a writer”—because I was contemplating journalism—“you don’t want that to be your day job. You’d be better off working at a gas station and just writing at night, when you have time.” I don’t know if that’s true or not, because there are plenty of journalists who write good books. A lot of famous writers seem to be of a certain class where they can just stay at home and write all day. But doing the band while also having day jobs allows us just to focus on the music and not think about any kind of financial constraints—which, for a while, definitely crept into the band in the mid-to-late ’90s. “How do we keep this thing going? I don’t want to work a day job.” Yeah, well—until reality hit.

As told to Sean O’Neal

Mark Arm has been at the sardonic heart of Seattle’s music scene ever since forming Green River in 1984, a band that—as with Mudhoney, the group that rose from Green River’s ashes—is widely regarded as a pioneering the “grunge” sound that dominated culture for most of the ’90s. But Mudhoney has long transcended such passing fads: Its tenth album, Digital Garbage, arrived Sept. 28, offering another furious blast of timelessly sharp, skuzzy garage-punk that affirms why it’s survived while so many contemporaries imploded. Mudhoney embarks this November for a 19-date European tour, for which Arm will have to take some time off from running the warehouse at Sub Pop, the label he helped to build.