The Grunge Era, As Told By The Musicians That Defined It (Interview with Author Mark Yarm)

The Grunge Era, As Told By The Musicians That Defined It (Interview with Author Mark Yarm)

In the years since the so-called “grunge” scene turned bands from and around Seattle into MTV darlings during the early 1990s, countless books examining the phenomenon have been written and released to the masses.

Few of them, though, touch on the scene as significantly and dynamically as Mark Yarm’s Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge, an exhaustively-researched and impressively complete oral history that was released in 2011.

Mark Yarm; Photo: Matthew Salacuse

Not content to publish merely another book discussing Nirvana, Kurt Cobain, and the like, Everybody Loves Our Town features in-depth discussions with musicians, label heads, industry figures, hangers-on, and others that were directly involved with the movement.

The result is one of the most complete, well-rounded depictions of the grunge movement in existence, told from the perspective of those that actually lived through it.

Rock Cellar Magazine spoke with author Mark Yarm about his book, its conception, and the essence of ‘grunge’ as viewed through the rear-view mirror.

Rock Cellar Magazine:  Your research is meticulous. What made you want to put together a book about grunge music? Had you been around it frequently in your career?

Mark Yarm: Well this actually came out of a piece I did of Sub Pop Records for Blender for the occasion of Sub Pop’s 20th anniversary.

sub pop records logoI talked with the founders of Sub Pop, Jonathan Poneman, Bruce Pavitt, a bunch of musicians, Chris Cornell, Mark Arm of Mudhoney – no relation – and Tad Doyle of the band Tad, people like that.

I wrote that around the summer of 2008, and I had a lot of material left over from those interviews, and my agent asked “Do you want to expand this?”

I wouldn’t have taken it upon myself to do it, but since I had all this extra material, he proposed the idea of expanding it to the oral history of grunge.

RCM: You said you had some leftover interviews. But you probably had to reach out and find certain individuals in order to speak with them for the book, right?

MY: Oh man, yeah. The Blender story was obviously focused on Sub Pop – specifically the grunge era – from the beginning to the current day at that time: the Shins, Fleet Foxes, Band of Horses, acts like that.  That was just the starting point.  I interviewed over 250 people for the book, and I went back to some of the people from my original piece.

Members of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden hanging out

RCM: I’m sure you don’t remember specifically, but how many hours of footage would you guess that you had to work with?

MY:  It was kind of an ongoing process. I started putting it together before I was done with the interviews, to be more efficient. Most interviews were an hour or two, some were epic, like five or six hours –

I talked to Courtney Love for six hours.

I could compute it all but I bet that’d be too sobering. You know, how much time I spent – I don’t know, maybe a thousand hours? I really don’t know, but it was a lot.

RCM: Your book was blessed as “A Time Magazine Best Book of the Year,” so I guess that answers the question: how has the book’s reception been since it was released? Was it received the way you’d hoped it would be?

MY: Yeah, it was received very well, from Time Magazine, NPR; you can read all the accolades on my website.  And the fans seemed to like it, as you would expect, since there is a hunger for books like this.  Not just from the people that were alive then, but there’s a new generation of people who weren’t even born when Kurt Cobain killed himself.  I kind of compare it to when I was in high school and people would carry around their copies of the Jim Morrison book, No One Here Gets Out Alive – and that was a whole generation before them.  I’ve interacted with a lot of younger grunge fans about the book.

RCM: You mentioned people that either weren’t alive yet or weren’t into that music when Kurt died. I was ten when Kurt killed himself, I wasn’t really into music until three years after that, so for the past five or six years I’ve been reading Everett True’s book, Michael Azerrad’s book, Charles Cross’s, all of those Nirvana books – because it’s such a fascinating era. That’s why a book like yours works. I totally understand what you mean when you say it resonates with people that didn’t experience it at the time.

Photo: Ed Sirrs

MY: As you just mentioned there, there are countless books on Nirvana – but very few that give the bigger picture. So many of those other books have become so entrenched in these myths surrounding Kurt, but I think this one knocks out a few of the conceptions people have had.

RCM: It seems like there have been so many alternative stories regarding how Kurt met Courtney Love.   Jennifer Finch of L7 has a story, Everett True has a story, and so on.  Would you say it’s fair to believe any of these stories?  Or are some of them revisionist history?

MY:  I don’t think they’re lying, per se – they’re remembering.  They don’t know outside of their own experience, which they might have thought was the first time the two had met, or whatever.  For a lot of people, if you repeat a story enough to yourself it might become your truth, and for a lot of them this was their truth, even if it might not be the “objective” truth.  It’d be impossible to find out, anyway.

Mark Arm of Mudhoney with his pal Kurt Cobain

RCM: There’s always so much controversy or disagreement over the word ‘grunge.’   Some say MTV caused it, others say things like “I said it in 1981, I coined the term.”   A couple people in your book distance themselves from it – Ben Shepherd from Soundgarden says that he hates the word, hates being associated with it.  Mark Arm (of Mudhoney) says that he might have started it, might have said it in the past before everyone else.  From all the people you’ve interviewed for this book and otherwise, what’s the overall consensus regarding the word?

MY:  I kind of talk about that in the introduction. There was some adverse reaction to it from some of the people I spoke with because it was seen as a media concoction.  People didn’t like getting lumped together, but over twenty years, some people have accepted it. Some have hated it;  I can say nobody likes to be labeled.  And the bands sounded so different – some were mostly instrumental, some were metal, some were punk, and some of the bands that would come around people wouldn’t even consider ‘grunge.’

7 Year Bitch

Were 7 Year Bitch grunge? Were they riot grrrl? Were they rock? Ultimately that doesn’t matter; it was all really a survey of the Seattle scene at the time.

RCM: Are there any particularly interesting stories that came out of your interviews that you weren’t able to include in the book? For legal reasons, or any bit of information that would have been too ‘sensitive’ to be put in there?

Alice in Chains

MY: I kind of set some ground rules, for legal and moral reasons.  Obviously, heroin was a sizable problem among a certain contingent of that scene.  I would only include parts about people who were on heroin or hard drugs if they were already on the record about it or if they would be willing to come out and talk.  I had to do it that way…especially since for some of them, they’re not all musicians anymore. But a lot of people were pretty open about it, and if they’re not, you have to respect their privacy, you know?  That being said, there’s no lack of heroin in the book – if that’s an attraction to you. (laughs)

RCM: To avoid talking about that would make it kind of a pointless book about that era, so –

MY: Yeah, I didn’t want to overwhelm it. Obviously, there’s a lot of sadness to it, but I tried to counter-balance it with the humor of the whole era.  Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley were, by all accounts, very funny individuals.

RCM: The balance is evident regarding how the book presents Andy Wood of Mother Love Bone. There are so many positive stories about how everybody loved him, and then there’s the sobering part about when he died, because his story was so tragic.

RCM (cont.): If you could pick one, who would you say was your favorite person to interview, in terms of what they said or because you had held them in high regard going into it? 6 hours with Courtney Love must have made for an entertaining chat.

Buzz Osborne (left), the Melvins, & a friend

MY:  It was pretty intense, yeah, and I think – for total opposites – she and Buzz Osborne of the Melvins were obviously very polarizing.  They both say it like it is,  or at least how they think it is.

There’s a section in the book where Courtney accuses Buzz Osborne of trying to give Kurt Cobain a shot of heroin, attempting to kill Kurt, and that kind of back and forth between Courtney and Buzz goes on throughout.

http://youtu.be/ObY9oZZ1WFo

MY (cont.): Buzz addresses that story, which was something Courtney had mentioned on the Internet ages ago.  Obviously they hate each other, and they were two of the stronger voices that stick out the most to me.

Cobain, Grohl and Novoselic

RCM: Dave Grohl has now become this sort of living rock icon – Foo Fighters, his Sound City movie, and the six new projects he seems to form every day.  Had you worked with him prior to this book, and out of all the figures from that era, does it make sense that he’s become as big as he has?

MY: Well I’ve only interviewed him once and he declined to interview for this;  I used archival stuff in the book.  There’s been that Foo Fighters documentary that came out a year or so ago, and now he’s doing his own documentary.  I presume he’ll be in the public eye for a long time to come.

RCM: With Grohl’s success, and the revival of Soundgarden, Alice in Chains with William DuVall, and how bands like Pearl Jam, the Melvins and Mudhoney have continued for more than twenty years – does all this continued success defy what people basically expected from grunge, which was that it would ‘die out’ after Kurt did?

Mudhoney today

MY: Well, the members of Mudhoney have said in the past that the life-span of a band back then was around 2-3 years.  These are bands that…I doubt that when they were teenagers or in their early twenties that they would have expected that sort of longevity.

Even when I started that Blender piece, the idea of Soundgarden getting back together was scoffed at because Chris Cornell was kind of a persona non grata in Seattle, as he was seen as kind of abandoning it.  They asked Soundgarden to reunite for that Sub Pop 20th anniversary event, and it was a no-go. I guess it happened a little more organically after that.  I don’t know if those things were necessarily foreseeable, but then again there have been so many reunions lately it seems almost rote by now.

RCM: Are there any new/current bands around that you would say capture the spirit of grunge? For example, bands such as Metz are garnering a lot of buzz (and they’re on Sub Pop, which helps).

MY:  I have to admit, I’m not super-familiar with Metz.  Now and again, a band will come across my radar -Wavves certainly have a pronounced Nirvana influence.  But, hey, we still have a lot of the old grunge bands around: Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, Mudhoney, the Melvins.  And of course, the collaboration between Paul McCartney and the ex-Nirvana members, which I don’t consider a “Nirvana reunion,” even though it’s been dubbed that.

(Below, watch McCartney’s segment from Grohl’s Sound City movie):

http://youtu.be/5-C4kNyN4Qk

RCM: Do you think the music business will ever experience another ‘iconic era’ of music such as grunge was in the early 1990s?

MY: It’s possible, but I doubt it would be a regional scene.  Grunge emerged from Seattle in part because the place was so isolated at the time; in the ’80s it was considered the hinterlands.  The bands had a lot of time to hone their sound and to cross-pollinate.  Now, of course, we have the Internet, and a brand-new band can have a song online minutes after it’s recorded.  Geography and scenes are far less important than they once were.

RCM: Was there anyone you would have wanted to speak with for the book but weren’t able to, for whatever reason?

MY: One that comes to mind is Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers, who had ties with the U-Men and later toured with Nirvana.

circa 1994, artist: Lee Bolton
Circa 1994, artist: Lee Bolton

Gibby actually lives in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, which is a fairly upscale, very stroller-friendly place – not where you’d expect him to reside, based on his drug-crazed reputation.

I used to see him a lot around the neighborhood, so I figured I’d approach him for an interview in person at some point.  One day I was actually in line behind him at the health-food store, but I just chickened out.  He doesn’t have an approachable vibe, and I figured I’d have other chances to introduce myself.

I didn’t see him in the neighborhood again until after the book came out, and my other efforts to get in touch with him went nowhere.  You need to seize these opportunities when they arise! Like when I snagged Ben Shepherd of Soundgarden for an interview after spotting him at a coffee shop in Seattle.  That was totally random.

RCM: Do you have any other projects in the pipeline? Another oral history, perhaps?

MY: Right now I’m freelancing, looking for magazine and editorial jobs, but no, no plans for another oral history.  Oral histories have a lot of moving parts.  They’re very complicated if done correctly, and they can really wear you out.  I have friends that have worked on them before and they swear they won’t do them anymore (laughs).  Reaching out to all these people, getting them on the phone can drive you crazy.  And I made the decision not to – besides the introduction – do any of my own…helping the text along.  It was all in everybody’s own words – I wanted to get it straight from them.

It’s a pretty massive undertaking, and it’s very exhausting, nerve-wracking, and exciting.

Black Nirvana shirt – Chris Cornell. Middle – Andy Wood of Mother Love Bone

RCM: Speaking with so many notable figures and musicians… do their people have to give the okay on publishing their words, or can you pretty much use whatever they say?

MY:  Well, they said it, so it’s on the record.  People are pretty frank in the book, but I think enough time has gone by…twenty or more years have passed, that people are able to put it in better perspective.  They’re adults now, they have the maturity and wisdom to look back in context.  After Kurt died, there was a sort of unspoken or maybe spoken rule that “you don’t talk about that,” but obviously over the years that has loosened a bit.

(Above – footage from Alice in Chains’ Unplugged album).

RCM: Are you looking forward to the Courtney Love-approved Kurt Cobain biopic that’s in the works?

MY:  Best I can tell, the Cobain biopic based on the book Heavier Than Heaven has stalled. I’d definitely go see it if it ever got made, of course, though rock biopics tend to be terrible. Even the spoof of musician biopics, Walk Hard, was pretty bad.  There’s another Kurt movie that Brett Morgen – the director who did the Rolling Stones documentary Crossfire Hurricane – is working on that will mix animation and live action.  It’s supposed to come out next year and I’m keeping an open mind about that one.

RCM: In closing – if anyone was interested in reading about the grunge movement, why should they read Everybody Loves Our Town rather than any of the others?

MY: Because of its comprehensiveness.

Having spoken with over 250 people, you won’t just read about Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden –  the “Big Four”, so to speak.  You’ll find out plenty about those bands, but you’ll also find out about Tad, Mudhoney, the Melvins, the U-Men, Skin Yard, and see how it all began, from Sub Pop all the way up to the major label signing frenzy and beyond.

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Stay in-tune with the latest happenings regarding Yarm and Everybody Loves Our Town at the book’s official site – and don’t forget to “like” the book’s Facebook pagefollow Yarm’s Twitter page, and buy your own copy over at Amazon.

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