A History You Want to KnowInterview by Kasey Carpenter
This is a history you want to know even if you were never a fan of the genre. Even if you weren’t part of the Nirvana vs. Pearl Jam debate (Nirvana, for the record). Even if you didn’t need another reason to loathe Courtney Love. Even if you didn’t know a pre-Microsoft/Starbucks Seattle. Even if you have no clue as to what The La’s “There She Goes”, GnR’s “Mr. Brownstone” and Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” have in common.
But, if like me, this music was in your wheelhouse for a better part of your teens and early twenties, then you’ll no doubt eat through this meticulous (567 pages worth) collection of quotes, woven into an entertaining and revealing oral history in which a series of smaller stories are all sewn into the greater quilt of the work. One of the funniest aspects of this book is the style of contradictory narrative in which one person from a band says X happened and then a manager/roadie/ex-girlfriend/ex-band mate comes immediately afterwards and refutes the previous statement. Given the copious amounts of drug/alcohol usage of the time that is unflinchingly attested to within Everyone Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge, one can understand why some details, some twenty, thirty years later might not mean the same thing to all people.
The most important aspect of this work, as with any work that chronicles the lives of our beloved and tortured musicians, is the overtone of humanity. Not only are the “players” represented in this book, but a great many of the former band-mates who walked away before the word “grunge” became a household name and a way to sell flannel at three times the going rate.
Enter Mark Yarm, a freshly laid-off senior editor at Blender magazine, who at the behest of a friend and literary agent, set out on a two year journey to write the definitive oral history of grunge.
KC: This reads like a ten year project.
MY: Well, really two years total, but it was a full-time two years. When Blender folded in 2008, I found myself without a job, which if I’m honest, was the reason this book emerged at all. I had written a twenty year history of Sub Pop in three thousand words. When Blender folded, I still had a ton of useful information. I had always had this idea of something like 'Everyone Loves Our Town' (ELOT), but it was the confluence of Blender folding, getting a severance from them, and P.J. Mark contacting me that made any of this possible.
KC: Who spurred you to undertake this?
MY: The guy who became my agent, P. J. Mark, initially contacted me about doing this. I feel a little guilty when compared to most beginning writers as this opportunity fell in my lap. But then, non-fiction is a lot different from fiction.
KC: To me, this reads like a LOT more work than fiction…
MY: (laughs) Does it?
KC: Yeah, well I don’t know, but to me, the sheer volume of information you present here, and the chronological and more impressive, logical representation of it all - that couldn’t have been easy.
MY: True, that was a definite challenge.
KC: At least three writer’s I’ve interviewed have indicated to me that one of their proudest accomplishments with their first book was buying out the time it took to write it, whether it was holding down the night job to write during the day, or as in your case, just seizing an opportunity, pitching it, and jumping in with both feet.
MY: It was scary. I figured that I would have had to quit Blender at some point to focus on the book, but they made that decision for me (laughs) – and that is always better, being forced into it, you can’t talk yourself out if that way. And of course the severance. That’s important.
KC: So are you doing any other freelance stuff right now?
MY: A little bit here and there, but mainly, focusing on the book, and the freelance work was mostly grunge-related stuff, you know, kind of sweetening the deal for interviews down the road. I’ll probably get back into it more seriously, but right now, I’m just glad to have finished this book. And of course all the lead-up to the book, the blog, doing press, and taking a breather. The writing was intense.
KC: I was surprised it was only a couple of years, honestly.
MY: Yeah, well I did cram a lot. But I was really motivated by fear. (Laughs) I understand most people when they get their deadline they’re like “okay, I’ve got some time to rest now” but I always had that deadline over my head, and this whole thing was pegged to Nevermind’s twentieth anniversary, so I knew this had to be done by September of 2011, no matter what.
KC: That’s the part where a lot of non-fiction is scarier than fiction because you have these outside forces like album anniversaries, and how the book will tie into the conscious and “well, it’s gotta be this date or else”.
MY: Yeah, when I was shopping it around I was looking on the calendar and was like “oh, the twentieth anniversary of Nevermind is coming up in a couple of years” without really knowing it would be as big of a deal as it has become.
KC: So you basically set that timetable?
MY: Yeah, I was the fool who basically set my own deadline on that.
KC: So had you always envisioned this book in this format, as an oral history devoid of any authorial voice? I mean, you get some inference of your questions solely based on the answers given, but otherwise you, the author, are very much absent from the narrative.
MY: Yeah, well, some oral histories have this interstitial aspect to kind of move the plot along, like “in 1992 Nirvana did this” - I didn’t want that. I wanted everyone to say it in their own words, so I had to frame my questions to they would advance the plotline organically.
KC: So were you a fan of the genre or were you just really covering this as more of an assignment?
MY: No, I was, am a fan. I’m 41, so I came of age listening to a lot of this music. Some of it might not be my first choice, I’m more of an indie rock guy, and indie and grunge both fall under the heading of alternative rock, so… The unfortunate thing about writing a book about grunge is that listening to it becomes like work and you start to enjoy it less.
KC: I found myself doing the same thing, listening to stuff I never really cared for, and then some stuff I used to love, I had to take a break from it after finishing your book.
MY: Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy it, but it was an unfortunate side effect of the book. [It] becomes loaded with all sorts of unfortunate associations of deadlines and interviews, but now that the book is done, I can just listen to it for its own sake.
KC: Pearl Jam or Nirvana?
MY: Nirvana, of course.
KC: Of course.
How open were your subjects to this project? I imagine some took a bit of cajoling to get them to spill.
MY: Some were incredibly open, some less so. I’ve basically read every grunge book and article ever written, so I went for new ground, things that were never spoken of before. It was pretty varied, some were happy to talk, some were “just the facts.” I was surprised overall, there would be subject matter I would just dread talking about, like when a band member had died, which unfortunately seemed to happen quite a bit.
KC: Yeah, one obvious lesson learned is that, when in the shooting gallery, one’s partner must be of the constitution and legal indemnity so as to call 911 in the event of your overdose.
MY: Yeah, (laughs) if you’re gonna, I think Mark Arm said this, ‘if you’re going to do this stuff, do it with someone who is prepared to make that call.’ But I was surprised that people were pretty open to talking about these painful things. And the heroin usage, I know it became so closely associated with grunge music, but it was really only a handful of people, high profile people, who died from it. I talked to a ton of people who were totally unaware of the usage levels. Some people were open about it, others would rather not talk about it. We have the benefit of twenty years, and most of the people I spoke to are clean now. What I really found out was that there were gallons and gallons of alcohol being consumed.
KC: Pick a music genre that doesn’t have that issue…
MY: (Laughs) Yeah pretty much all of them, with the exception of straight edge I guess. Pretty much every profession is ruled by alcohol. I mean look at journalists.
KC: I heard there was a bar in DC that had a happy hour for journalists. They did amazingly well.
MY: Journalists are known for their hard drinking ways.
KC: It seems like there were a lot of factors that contributed to the success of “grunge” – speaking specifically of Seattle, it seems to me like the geographical/social climate at the time was ripe for this movement, musically. Could it have happened anywhere else?
MY: I doubt it could happen anywhere else, maybe in Portland, another geographically isolated place in the 80’s. Seattle had this geographic isolation, they had to entertain themselves. Some credit the weather; some say that’s bogus –
KC: Seems to me it is more the geographical isolation, from a touring standpoint, where bands can’t really put together a cost-effective four-state tour when the only city of note is Seattle, I mean you probably weren’t looking to book two nights in Boise.
MY: Exactly. So these kids had to create their own fun.
KC: Do you think we will see anything like it again, or are those days forever gone with the Internet and how quickly we can produce and share music?
MY: I doubt it, what with the Internet and the ability to share music instantly and globally. I think regional scenes can still pop up, but I think the Internet – I don’t want to say ruined it – but there are bands that have barely even played a show and they’re on Pitchfork.
KC: You almost lose that incubation thing, right? Where grunge was like this little indigenous tribe that was influenced in a very narrow yet strong way.
MY: Incubation and the cross-pollination of members between bands. But I doubt we will ever see anything like that again.
"Mark Yarm has assembled the gospels of Grunge music. Here is a warts-and-elbows refresher course for those of us who still find our memories of the era a little hazy."
KC: Courtney Love.
MY: (Laughs) Is that your question?
KC: Do we need any more reasons to loathe Courtney Love? I know part of the collective disdain has to be attributed to her merely being a target of opportunity, but she really seems to go out of her way to paint herself as poorly as possible. Is there some showmanship/publicity genius to her method? Am I just buying into the whole “let’s hate Courtney” thing? I mean there are a couple of instances in there where I was like, “Oh, there’s a redeeming quality” but it seems like she just can’t help herself in word and deed where she paints herself almost as bad as people perceive her.
MY: Well, again, I try to be careful and want to be fair…
KC: You did that because it was strictly her own words, right?
MY: Yeah, it’s easy to villain-ize her…
KC: I wanted to stay away from that, I know she’s the low-hanging fruit in all of this, but again, as I read it I was like “ugh, she just can’t seem to help herself.”
MY: She’s obviously the most polarizing figure in that scene…
KC: Well, when you have to have two different wakes for Kurt, I can’t see it getting more polarizing than that.
MY: (Laughs) Yeah. She’s polarizing and she knows it. There are people who love, love, love her and there are people who despise her and accuse her of killing her husband, which by the way I do not believe. I pretty much avoided that whole rabbit hole. There are plenty of books and websites devoted to that line of thinking. I think Courtney is… complicated. As Eric, her once band-mate, who has his issues with her and her continued use of Hole, pointed out: just because you’ve seen one episode of behind the music you think you know someone. You don’t. She was always the first person people asked about when they heard I was writing a book about grunge, she holds this utter fascination with people.
KC: I had never heard of a band playing to the mentally ill. That was a new one for me.
MY: Yeah, the Screaming Trees, I think, they wanted to play to an insane asylum, but played to these kids at a school. They thought it’d be cool for the kids, plus they wanted to kind of emulate their heroes, The Cramps. And you gotta remember these guys were in their twenties when these decisions were made.
KC: I think myself, like so many others on the outside of the business of music looking in, are taken aback when someone can play Lollapalooza, be on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, and only make $200 that week.
MY: Right, right. Festivals like that, venues, can take a chunk out of your merch sales. I think Lollapalooza, from what I gather, wasn’t a cheap venue to play. Then there’s having to pay for a tour bus, etc… There are a ton of misunderstandings on the public’s part as to how money is made. In the grunge movement, there were only a few that became millionaires. Most of these guys have day jobs now, it’s not like they could retire off their royalty checks.
KC: How ironic is it that the break room of Muzak turned out to be the nerve center of Sub Pop and the whole grunge movement?
MY: Yeah it was the ultimate irony, the founders of Sub Pop and a few musicians all became this testing ground for new bands, their real reason to go to work was to listen to the latest demo tape.
KC: As you know, we have a few writers on our site. Give us a day in the life.
MY: Well. Towards the beginning “a day in the life” was waking later than I should have. I’ve always been jealous of those who can wake up at five or six in the morning and have several pages done by lunchtime. But that never happened for me. (Laughs) I set the alarm for early but it never quite worked out. I was really unstructured in the beginning, my wife was hiking the Appalachian trail so I was sort of in my own little pseudo-bachelor world, so I just would wake up, maybe so some interviews, maybe not. That wasn’t good for me so I eventually found a writer’s space, and if you are going to pursue writing full time, I highly recommend it: it saved my sanity. I found this place that was a ten minute bike ride from home. So it varied a lot, and there was a lot of unstructured time – but like I said I was so driven by fear that I was really devoted to the project. It was a lot of fun, and not to sound like a whiner, but there was a lot of pain too. Some compare it to childbirth, where you experience this immense pain, and then gradually your forget the pain as you become enamored with your new baby. I already feel that fading process, “it’s not so bad.” I spent more time worrying about this book than I actually did…
KC: Writing it?
KC: Well, you should be proud of your new baby.
MY: Thank you. I’m pretty excited about it.
You can buy EVERYBODY LOVES OUR TOWN here.
Mark Yarm maintains a blog devoted to grunge at:
and can be Faced at http://facebook.com/everybodylovesourtown