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The best of times? Mark Yarm’s oral history of grunge

Courtney Love at a press conference in Seattle for Bumbershoot 2010. She played a show there that weekend. Robyn Hanson photo.

Interview—Mark Yarm, author of Everybody Loves Our Town

Mark Yarm‘s new book Everybody Loves Our Town follows the rise and fall of grunge, and how it affected its sleepy seaside town of origin. Yes, there is Candlebox.

Everybody Loves Our Town is a compelling, weighty tome (over 500 pages). It documents the Seattle music scene through nearly two decades. The book has heroes and villains, big names and small, humour and tragedy. And, of course, sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.

The book started with Yarm’s experience writing an oral history of the Seattle indie label Sub Pop for Blender. For a time, he worked as senior editor at the irreverent music magazine. The magazine folded in 2008, which left Yarm a severance package and the time to work on Everybody Loves Our Town.

Seattleites, anyone old enough to have lived through grunge or even those just discovering Nirvana, Mudhoney or even Tad, is better for it.

Shawn Conner: Have you ever had an interview that’s gone completely off the rails?

Mark Yarm: Obviously, Courtney Love is predictably unpredictable. You ask her a question and it can be an hour before she actually gets to the matter at hand. But it will definitely be an entertaining detour.

I remember a last-minute interview with Eugene Hutz [of Gogol Bordello], where I was asking typically irreverent Blender-type questions and he just wasn’t having any of it. These long sighs… there were questions about Lindsay Lohan, and he’s like “Who is Lindsay Lohan?”, like it was completely out of his gypsy-punk world.

But most people know the game. You get an ornery person every once in awhile. Most of the people interviewed for the book were considerate and very giving of their time. I talked to more than 250 people, and pretty much everyone was well-behaved.

Everybody Loves Our Town by Mark Yarm book cover

SC: So were these phone interviews or in-person?

MY: A mix between phone and in-person. I went out to Seattle a few times during the making of the book. In-person is always better. Some interviews were here in New York. There were no email interviews, though. That was a very hard rule. If this was going to be an oral history, I wanted to capture people’s voices as much as possible. Maybe one person turned it down because they only wanted to do it by e-mail.

SC: What didn’t make it into the book?

MY: Not all the good stuff could make it in; either something was off-topic, or there were a few things that would’ve caused litigation, or were so left-field. It actually flew through the legal vetting. Having worked at a magazine before, I kind of know what’s what.

In cases like Courtney Love accusing Buzz Osborne of trying to give Kurt Cobain a near-fatal shot of heroin. Buzz Osborne was willing to go on the record about that, there was some of that going back and forth between people. But once somebody talks about something and it’s on the record, it’s all fair game.

SC: It was interesting reading the interview you did for the Chuck Pahlaniuk website, where the interviewer mentioned how much he came away loathing Courtney Love much more after reading the book. To me she’s just like a force of nature – you know, King Buzzo hates her, but he’s no Prince Charming himself.

MY: I think those two are, certainly in my mind, the two most polar opposite as you an get, and the two most outspoken and assured-of-themselves people in the book.

You know, I feel like in presenting what I presented of her – basically, whatever your opinion of Courtney is going into the book, it’s going to be that. Either you think she’s a strong-willed woman who’s been wronged and scorned unfairly, that’s the way you’re going to come out of the book. If you think she’s the whore of Babylon, that’s what you’re going to come out thinking at the end. I think it presented her fairly.

SC: What preconceptions did you have that were shattered?

MY: A lot of people asked me why is Candlebox is in the book – that they sucked, they were riding the coattails of grunge – this is other people’s opinions – that they were riding the coattails of grunge. This is the band that, of all the bands, the one that was most abused.

It seemed like there would be an interesting story behind them, and it turned out to be more interesting than I imagined. They were on Madonna‘s label, the interaction and flirtations with Madonna you might say – their history and how it intertwined in some ways with Alice in Chains‘s history, and the history of the other bands coming out. And just how they were shat upon. I mean, I knew they had been shat upon. But anybody who had a complaint about later grunge bands that were capitalizing, Candlebox would come up all the time.

That’s not terribly surprising, but it was just good to hear from them, because it’s not something anybody’s ever asked them. I don’t think anyone’s taken time to explore their history which in some people’s mind is not important, but they’re a textbook example of a band actually from Seattle that was badmouthed for supposedly capitalizing on the sound.

SC: The last days of [Alice in Chains lead singer] Layne Staley seemed especially sad.

MY: There tends to be a lot of romanticizing of the junkie lifestyle. Some of the things I heard, hearing about people’s experiences with drugs, especially heroin, it’s really harrowing, just the descent. The blood and the gore. It’s not a pretty drug. There was obviously heroin chic back then, but once you’re really in it it’s kind of filthy and disgusting.

There were times I had late night interviews with people and they’d be talking about that, and it was hard to get to sleep after that.

SC: The whole story of the Seattle scene is kind of bookmarked by tragedy – first [Mother Love Bone singer] Andrew Wood‘s drug overdose and then [The Gits’ lead singer] Mia Zapata‘s murder.

MY: A lot of people described her death as certainly the end of, it sounds so cliche, the innocence. Once somebody goes out and is raped and murdered, and at that time they didn’t know who did it and there was suspicion within the music scene – it turned out to be a totally random guy from out of town, which wasn’t discovered for another decade – it can’t help but rip apart the fabric of the community.

But at the same time, bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden and even Hootie and the Blowfish played benefits to help pay for the investigation. In a way it was kind of unifying, in the way that tragedies often are. I think it was Matt [Dresdner] from The Gits points out, with Andrew Wood and Stefanie Sargent [of 7 Year Bitch] and Kurt [Cobain], these were things they brought upon themselves, whereas Mia Zapata was a totally random thing, an outside force swooped in.

SC: Is there a great unsung grunge album you came across while working on the book?

MY: I think The U-Men as a whole. There’s a compilation album, Solid Action, of everything they’ve done. Which I don’t think, from the way people have described their performances, even begins to capture the insanity and craziness. But they were the reigning underground band for a number of years, and the band that a lot of these more successful grunge acts looked up to. The book begins with them, lighting the moat on fire at Bumbershoot.

SC: While writing this book did you ever have any desire to be in a band and tour? That maybe you missed out?

MY: That’s another thing that gets romanticized. From what I’ve gathered from every band I’ve talked to, it’s fun when you’re 18, 19, 20. But the appeal wanes. It’s not for everyone.

People romanticize it, you have great adventures and you meet great people, but there’s a lot of tedium.

SC: And so what’s next for you?

MY: I’d like to get a job. Maybe something non-music.

Tons of people write about music, but it’s hard to write about it well. A band comes out with an album and you read ten profiles of them and they’re all pretty similar. Part of it has to do with the access you can get to bands these days, especially with young bands. They don’t really have much to say yet.

That’s the nice thing about dealing with a lot of these grunge bands, they’ve been through the whole arc, from obscure club to in some cases really dizzying heights of fame and then in some cases to basically losing it all or getting dropped or any other number of hardships. They’re not like some band that’s just formed and released a couple of songs to the Internet.

SC: When you’ve lived and loved like Tad Doyle, talk to me then.

MY: Yeah. Or any number of these people.

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