Steve Turner – The Gardener takes a chance
During the summer of 1991 Steve Turner played guitar in the best band in the world. He’s still a member in good standing of Mudhoney, but the band at whom the word grunge was first thrown ceased to be critic’s darlings long ago, and never mind that they released their finest album just last year, Since We’ve Become Translucent.
“It’s middle-aged rock now,” says Turner. “Hobby rock. We can only do the weekend thing now.”
Anyone who has seen Mudhoney on one of their good nights will be certain that it meant — and means rather more than that, even to Seattle’s masters of irony. Truly one of the men who loves music, over the years Turner has stepped in to play bass with one of his favorite bands, the Fallouts (and in the two-off side project Monkeywrench), and operated the Super-Electro label until the easy money ran out. So it’s slightly surprising that he’s only just gotten around to releasing his debut solo album, Searching For Melody (Roslyn Recordings in the U.S., Loose Music in most of Europe, Houston Party in Spain and Portugal).
“Christmas 2001 I spent by myself,” Turner explains. “It was a beautiful day. I went skateboarding in the morning, did some gardening in the day, and then I was looking for something else to do, and I decided I was going to learn how to sing and play guitar at the same time. Because I’d never really done that.
“So I sat down with my guitar and worked on a couple songs. Then I started doing it more and more, and three months later I went in and recorded a thirteen-song demo. Two months later we did the record.”
Sure enough, Turner sings and plays guitar at the same time. Occasional drums are played, quite delicately, by Mudhoney’s Dan Peters. Bass duties are shared between Stone Gossard (yeah, the guy from Pearl Jam; he lent his studio to the project as well) and producer Johnny Sangster, who also added keyboards.
While Turner’s guitar work is a more subtle reflection of the succinct phrases he spun through Mudhoney’s best singles, his vocals and songwriting prove unexpectedly revealing. Turner’s spent too many years in punk rock to go all sensitive singer-songwriter on us, but his vocals have a quietly brave openness, unafraid to hew to the line of his own melody, incautious about revealing himself.
As with so many pop albums, there appears to be a breakup at the center of things (one of the background singers is now his ex-girlfriend, he says, somewhat reluctantly), with “The Idiot Blues”, “I Want You In My Arms” and “Take Care” providing the introduction, body, and conclusion of the album.
“I was actually trying not to care what it sounded like,” he says, then rephrases slightly. “I tried to catch myself if I had any of my idols creeping into it too much. I think I did all right with keeping it so I couldn’t identify readily who I was trying to sound like. But, you know, I’ve listened to folky stuff for all my life, so…”
The lone exception would be the album’s coda, an a cappella rendition of Dave Van Ronk’s “Last Call”. “That was a first take,” he chuckles. “I just decided to do it because Dave Van Ronk had just died a couple months earlier, and I’d just seen him a month before he died, playing in Seattle.”
It’s the perfect ending: “Here’s to the heart that’s wise enough/To know when it’s better off broken,” Turner finishes the song, his voice finally breaking on the last phrase. “It kind of freaked out Johnny when I did it, because I was yelling so loud,” he laughs.
It took almost a year to find a label for Searching For Melody, during which time Turner has written (and played in public) songs for a follow-up. Having been signed (with Mudhoney) to Warner Bros., toured as the opening act for Pearl Jam, and profited from a couple of soundtrack cuts, Turner is sanguine about his future prospects.
“I know I’m never going to make very much money playing music anymore,” he says, without evident rancor, “so I’m just trying to figure out a way that I can exist and still be a middle-aged starving artist and not have to work full-time.
“The thing about Seattle, everyone gave up and took jobs. I’m really lucky. I ran out of money two years too late to get the cushy computer jobs, which would have ruined my life. So I feel really glad that I dodged the bullet, kind of.”
Hence the occasional status of his principal band. Turner works as a landscaper, lead singer Mark Arm holds down a desk at comic book publisher Fantagraphics, new bassist Guy Maddison is a recently anointed nurse, and drummer Dan Peters is a stay-at-home dad.
“The ’90s weren’t good for anything that I can tell,” Turner sums up, as if to prove he’s not sheathed his sardonic wit just yet. “I thought the music in the ’80s sucked, [but] looking back at the ’90s, it was even bleaker. Even the stuff that was considered good pretty much blows, near as I can tell.”