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Steve Turner

Mudhoney (Steve Turner on the left)

“For me punk and folk… they’re the same thing to me, one’s just louder than the other.”

Steve Turner, lead guitarist for Seattle scuzz-rockers Mudhoney turned folky singer-songwriter, scratches his fuzzy new beard and reflects. It’s late May and we’re sitting in a booth at Glasgow music bar Stereo, shortly after Turner’s excellent acoustic solo show. Odd as it may seem, his Mudhoney bandmates are all settled down with kids. 38 years old and still skating, Turner doesn’t have such commitments.

“They all want to live vicariously through me. They’re like: ‘C’mon do something exciting and tell us about it!'”
Does he have any exciting tales to bring back?
“Nah, we’re too old for any eventful happenings on tour.”

Despite having lain down some of the filthiest guitar sludge known to man, Turner is said to be the most reserved member of Mudhoney, a keen landscaper in his time off. Good-humoured, with a slight air of boyish nervous energy, he comes across as a classic cool geek.

He’s been staying in Glasgow with Eugene Kelly, who’s been sitting watching the show from his barstool, sporting a natty white dinner jacket. During the show Kelly called out in jest for Mudhoney’s classic ‘Touch Me I’m Sick’. “Security!” Turner responded, “We’ve got a live one.”

Steve recorded his solo album, Searching For A Melody, about a year ago. “I like it, but it’s a first record,” Turner says with customary self-effacement. “I sing it all better, to me, now, but I kinda like the amateur feel of it.”
Produced by Johnny Sangster of 90s power-poppers The Posies and featuring Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard on bass and Dan Peters of Mudhoney on drums, Searching for a Melody came together almost by accident.

“Stone’s got this real nice studio in Seattle – Studio Litho – Bruce Dickinson from Iron Maiden recorded his solo record there. He let us record there for free so that’s pretty much why I made the record. Stone’s like: ‘You can record here for free any time’. So I thought: ‘Sounds alright'”. If only you could have heard the way Turner said alright. It was something else.

Back in the mid-80s, Turner and Mudhoney singer Mark Arm were in Green River with Gossard and future members of Pearl Jam. It had always seemed an unlikely musical partnership. In Our Band Could Be Your Life, Michael Azzerad’s history of the US indie underground, there’s a story about Arm and Turner being disgusted by the rest of the band’s tourbus listening fodder. Aerosmith’s Permanent Vacation and Whitesnake, for example.
“Me and Mark were the noise and punk rock dudes. Those guys had ambitions, y’know. We didn’t. But we all remain good friends. Musical differences are just a small thing to argue about.”

“Back in Green River it was like: ‘fuck, I’m not helping these guys, I hate the music they’re playing, I’m just playing against them.’ Once I quit Green River they got much better, put out a good record, but they couldn’t have done it with me. Heh heh,” he chuckles through his whiskers.

Realising it wasn’t working out, Arm and Turner left to form Mudhoney. The single ‘Touch Me I’m Sick’ and debut album Superfuzz Bigmuff (named after the band’s favourite distortion pedals) helped put Seattle’s Sub Pop Records on the indie rock map, paving the way for some band called Nirvana.

Mudhoney continued to release strong albums long after the demise of grunge, and following a major label holiday, the band returned to a revitalised Sub Pop for last year’s Since We Became Translucent, a horn-blastin’, jam-kickin’ career high.

It’s odd to think of this past master of rabid rock’n’roll as a folkie, but Turner’s love of folk music goes back to his childhood.

“I grew up on folk music. I never really liked rock music when I was a kid, ’til I heard punk rock.”
Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs provided the way in to folk. From there, Turner began scouring thrift shops for any folky looking records on labels like Elektra and Vanguard. “It’s really cheap. It’s not collectable music,” he points out.

Other folky favourites include Bert Jansch, (“He’s Sco ttish!” Turner offers) and country folk genius Townes Van Zandt.

Some of his newer songs have a country feel, but Turner is reluctant to be dragged into the alt. country cluster fuck.

“I am from Texas so I feel I can do it, but I don’t like people pretending they have a country accent. I’d rather play folk… that said, I keep writing fucking country songs!”

“I love a lot of country music,” he adds with enthusiasm. “Waylon Jennings is one of my all time favourite singers. People like Charlie Rich, Mickey Newberry; they’re not trying to be dumb.”

Punk purists shouldn’t despair, however: Turner still loves his Crass, Death Church and the splendidly named Rudimentary Peni.

Mudhoney recorded a Van Zandt cover with Texan singer-songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore in 1995, and Turner saw him play several times in the early nineties.

“Last time I saw him was about a year before he died. It was horrible, so sad, he was so fucked up. I knew that was the last time I was going to see him.”

Van Zandt died in 1997, wasted by booze and drugs. Turner met him once, and he lived up to his reputation.
“He came over to our drummer Dan’s house in Seattle with us after a show. It was a Sunday night in Seattle and he wanted vodka and the bar he was playing only had beer. He was sitting in Dan’s living room singing songs for us, just getting all fucked up, drinking vodka, smoking pot. We were like: ‘should we be doing this to him?'” Turner sighs. “It’s his choice, y’know.”

Turner’s solo project doesn’t mean Mudhoney have called it a day. New songs are being written, and US shows are planned for August. Sadly, there’s little chance of catching them over here.

“That’s one of the reasons I started to think about the solo stuff” Turner explains. “We can’t really tour very much any more. Our drummer’s a dad; he’s got one kid and a child on the way. He takes care of the kids during the day, his wife’s a lawyer – he can’t leave. Our bass player Guy Maddison’s a nurse.”

Turner is happy with the arrangement, seeing no reason to break up.

“We’re perfectly happy being hobby rock at this point – we write songs, we can record them, we can put out a record ‘cos we’ve got enough reputation, somebody will put it out. When we can we’ll do some shows on weekends but we can’t be full time any more.”

However, Monkeywrench – Turner and Arm’s garage-rocking side-project – have another record coming out, and may well make it over here.

Meanwhile, Turner plans to start work on a second solo record. Hopefully, he’ll be able to record it at Jack White’s beloved Toe Rag studios.

“Now it’s all famous ‘cos of fucking White Stripes!” Turner says, raising his hands skywards in mock indignation. “I’ve wanted to record there for eight years, and I’ve known Liam [Watson, studio owner and producer] for a long time. Now that I finally can record there, he’s booked solid. It’s like: ‘fuck!'”

For all the frustrations, Turner remains phlegmatic: “We’ll figure it out. I hung out with [Liam] the other day, went over to the studio. He’s gonna give me the British sound, as he says. Bring it on! I want the British sound on a few songs.”

The British Sound, gardening, folk and punk rock – a fine combination indeed. Who knows what else Turner will find on his search for melody?

Steve Turner
Sub Pop
Toe Rag

Interview originally featured in ‘Beard’ fanzine