Abby Normal: The Melvins, July 18 at RIBCO Print
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Wednesday, 10 July 2013 05:33

The Melvins

Buzz Osborne said that some concepts for the Melvins’ 30th-anniversary tour – which stops at RIBCO on July 18 – got nixed.

“My idea at first was 30 songs in 30 minutes for 30 bucks,” the guitarist/singer/bandleader said in a phone interview last month. “That didn’t fly. Or one 30-year-long set.”

Those sound like jokes, but if you’re at all familiar with the highly influential and forcefully odd band, you’ll recognize that Osborne might have at least entertained them as real possibilities. Because – major-label or car-company deals be damned – the Melvins have done things their way for three decades.

On the other hand, Osborne and the Melvins are also known for their senses of humor. One example comes from the band’s new album, Everybody Loves Sausages – a covers record charting influences ranging from relatively obscure bands such as the Scientists to household names such as David Bowie, Queen, and Roxy Music.

One track is “Heathen Earth,” credited to industrial pioneer Throbbing Gristle. “It has nothing to do with them,” Osborne said. “I just said it did, and everybody goes along with it. It’s definitely influenced by Throbbing Gristle – sounds like something they would have done. ... I’ve read reviews where people said, ‘It’s my favorite song of theirs.’ Yeah, it sure is – the best song they never wrote.” (The song title comes from a Throbbing Gristle album title.)

Along with that consistent playfulness, a defining characteristic of the Melvins is experimentation that hasn’t waned after 30 years. In an e-mail, Osborne said that “I’ve pushed a lot of musical boundaries. This is obvious. We don’t have no brother bands in this regard and no one that I can point to that’s forged this path for us. ... I make music and behave the way I would like other bands to behave.”

But that’s at least partly a function of necessity. Osborne is the first to admit that he makes weird music. And given the Melvins’ limited commercial prospects, the band can’t afford to repeat itself or stand still.

“I’m just happy that I can make a living doing it,” he said. “That’s my main goal. In order to make that kind of thing happen, I have to turn out something that’s good, interesting, that has a quality about it that’s not normal – that’s not going to be normally found out there in the main music world. There’s plenty of bands that are willing to do that. I don’t think people should look to us for that. That’s my job – to keep it interesting. I’ll take that challenge every single time.”

So there’s the music itself, and then there’s something beyond it – such as last year’s 50-states-and-DC-in-51-days tour.

“My idea,” Osborne said, adding that he thought “it would be a really great PR stunt, and it certainly was. Ultimately, we don’t particularly give a shit about playing that many shows in a row. But it’s akin to: Did Evel Knievel want to jump the Grand Canyon? No. He did it anyway. [Author’s note: He never did.] It was a good idea. It was a good thing for him to do. I view it as the same kind of stupidity. It’s a big stunt.”

His booking agent was initially cool to the idea, then enthusiastic, and it allowed the Melvins to play in four new states: Delaware, New Hampshire, Hawaii, and Alaska. “If I go, ‘Look, I want you to set us up $5 shows in coffee shops, capacity of 50,’ they’ll do their best,” Osborne said. “They don’t argue with me. They like the weird shit. They love the idea that they were involved in something stupid.”

We’re Easily Accessible to the People Who Want to Find Us”

Buzz OsborneNo less than The Atlantic called the Melvins “perhaps the only band that manages to be both an indie-rock institution and metal royalty.”

As TheVinylDistrict.com summarized in reviewing Everybody Loves Sausages: “The fact that the group have proven so influential upon the nexus of sludge, doom, and stoner metal can perhaps cloud the reality of just how unusual of a band the Melvins once were. While their initial forays into recording could be traced back to the precedent of early Black Sabbath and later-period Black Flag, it’s important to note just how different a record like 1992’s Melvins (a.k.a. Lysol) sounded at the time of its release.

“Reliably mentioned as a major antecedent for the grunge explosion, the Melvins’ music never really fit in with that style, although it’s always been pretty clear how the band’s extension of hard-rock sensibilities did influence that movement.

“And these days a person can blow a week’s pay on records shaped by guitarist Buzz Osborne, drummer Dale Crover, and their long string of bassists and still barely scratch the surface of the group’s impact, but again, in the early ’90s there was almost nobody else around that sounded like these guys.”

It should be said that Osborne doesn’t see the Melvins’ influence as a necessarily good thing.

There are some links Osborne should be happy to claim. The band’s founding bassist, Matt Lukin, was also a founding member of Mudhoney. The Melvins were championed by Kurt Cobain, and it’s unlikely the world would have Nirvana without Osborne’s band. The Melvins have toured with Helmet and Tool – partnerships that started with mutual admiration. Osborne has worked with Mike Patton in the band Fantômas, and Patton’s Ipecac imprint has released nearly all the Melvins’ post-major-label albums. The line from the Melvins to Helmet and several of Patton’s bands is clear and heavy.

But beyond those folks, you don’t see Osborne praising much in the way of commercially popular hard music from the past 20 years. “We have this big joke with me and [Faith No More’s] Mike Patton and [Helmet’s] Page Hamilton where I was like, ‘I’ll take grunge [but] you guys [are] gonna have the hip-hop-oriented heavy metal,’” he told MetalSucks.net in 2010. “I’ll take the blame for grunge. Faith No More and Helmet can take the blame for the rest of this shit.”

Yet noting the band’s iconic status and its impact on other bands and the development of other styles robs it of another essential characteristic: The Melvins remain vital, fresh, and interesting after more than 20 studio albums, a handful of live albums, and a load of singles and EPs. If you keep in mind grunge and various slowed-down metal subgenres and listen to Sausages or last year’s Freak Puke, the connections might be elusive.

The eclectic Sausages traces the band’s punk roots but also includes a warmly cheesy and faithful take on Queen’s “You’re My Best Friend” alongside the gently creeping menace of “Heathen Earth,” an 11-minute-plus version of Bowie’s “Station to Station,” and John Waters’ “Female Trouble” seemingly through Tom Waits’ growl.

Osborne said that although some of the influences might seem “slightly skewed or not quite what people would imagine,” the relationships are obvious to him. Queen, he said, can easily be heard on Stag’s “Black Bock”: “That influence has been there forever. Nobody put two and two together.”

But, Osborne conceded, things that are apparent to him might escape the notice of others: “My wife has always told me that one of my main problems is my failure is to see the weaknesses in others. I assume we’re always on the same page. I miss that not everybody is in tune with all this stuff.”

So in a sense, Sausages represents a gentle push to work backward from the Melvins – although Osborne has been adamant that he doesn’t much care how ignorant people choose to be.

“It’s always interested me where the stuff comes from, how it works, why it is what it is, but that’s not a big interest for a lot of people,” he said. “If you look at a band like us, where we come out of, we’re easily accessible to the people who want to find us. But we’re not public spectacles, as much as we wish we were. We don’t do big festivals – not that we wouldn’t. We aren’t in Coca-Cola commercials, but we certainly would be. We’re not on the radio. We’re certainly not on television ... .

“In order for somebody to find us, they need to have looked at least a little bit and know a little bit about music that’s not standard fare. When you think of it in those little terms, I automatically assume that that also means they’re interested in music in other ways – other weird bands. That certainly isn’t the case.”

He said he’s sometimes been told by fans that they don’t understand the appeal of Iggy Pop. “How do you answer that ... ?” he said. “You just stare at them. ‘That’s right. You don’t understand. And I’m not here to educate you.’ If they really don’t get that, then there’s really not much I can do. If they really don’t understand the significance of what he has meant to music in general – write him off – then there’s not much I can do about it. I think it’s absurd. But that’s just me.”

Osborne said his first exposure to “weird” music was Bowie and Creem. “Creem magazine had pictures of all kinds of weird-looking bands in there,” he said. “Then I would mail-order them from the back of the magazine ... – because there certainly were no record stores where I lived [Montesano, Washington] – and I would wait months and months, and get things in the mail. David Bowie Heroes. ... There’s nobody in that town that listens to that now. ...

“I was just curious about it. ... I just thought it had to be cool.”

He discovered the Sex Pistols and from there found the Stooges, he said: “I was in a vacuum, operating by myself with no cool older brother or hip scene or record store for me to find all this stuff. Just stumbling around through the darkness. ... I did the best I could. ...

“I think it was detrimental to me. I operated for a long time in a situation where I felt like I was all alone. That wasn’t healthy or good at all. I did not have fun in that situation – when you feel like you’re the only person in the world that likes this stuff. You know that’s not true. The big revelation to me was when I found out all these punk bands I was listening to were playing in Seattle just about 150 miles from where I lived.”

Washington was where the Melvins cut their teeth in 1980s, and where they helped lay the groundwork for grunge. But while many important bands sow their seeds and then die creatively, the Melvins continue to evolve. As the All Music Guide wrote: “Like most Melvins albums, Freak Puke is something you haven’t heard before and, also like most Melvins albums, it’s probably something you should.” You’ll find few if any other bands about whom that can be said nearly 30 years into their careers.

The Melvins

Regular Re-Invention

Freak Puke traded in the ultra-heavy two-drummer lineup the Melvins have been using since 2006 for one drummer and bassist/double-bassist Trevor Dunn – an incarnation dubbed the Melvins Lite that injects some serious dread into many of the songs with the upright bass.

“We basically reinvented the band from the ground up with the Melvins Lite,” Osborne wrote. “Stand-up bass, smaller amps, and a small drum kit, and it still works. No one seems to see this, but that’s nothing new. There’s a lot of things no one sees. ... Trevor’s a really great player, and we made sure to feature him as much as possible. ... I think Freak Puke is one of our best.”

That’s essentially two reinventions in band’s third decade.

The introduction of a second drummer (when the Melvins incorporated the duo Big Business into the band instead of merely replacing a bass player) was just something to try, Osborne said via e-mail: “We figured: Why not have two drummers? ... Songwriting changed a bit because I started looking for things that two drummers could do, but by and large there’s nothing that we can’t play from our huge catalog of songs. Both Dale and Coady [Willis] are drumming dynamos and a pleasure to behold, so it’s fun to sometimes just sit back and let it happen. Live, it’s like sitting in front of a freight train.”

Throughout its career, the band has been open to arrangements that might appear to make strange bedfellows. Sitar opens Stag, and, as previously mentioned, the Melvins’ signature thickness on the record is broken up by that Queen-y, wholly unthreatening pop, complete with whistling and pleasant burbling.

And from a business perspective, the Melvins have done things that another willfully weird and independent band might reject on principle.

Take the band’s deal with Atlantic, which produced 1993’s Houdini, 1994’s Stone Witch, and 1996’s Stag. “I always knew that was never going to work” in terms of making the Melvins famous, Osborne told Nashville Scene last year. “The only people that didn’t think it would work were me, Dale, and the general public. Everybody else thought it was a great idea, and so we went along for the ride. Sure, why not? Look, I think our music should sell millions and millions and millions and millions of records – that’s what I think. It doesn’t. Why? Because the world’s not a great place. I understand that. I’m fine with that, and you move on. I think our music belongs on Atlantic Records alongside Led Zeppelin and Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones. Now the general public doesn’t agree. So there you go. What am I going to do? I understand it’s weird; I think weird music should sell. Why didn’t Captain Beefheart sell millions and millions of records? Why not? It’s not because the music’s not good. It’s some of the most genius music ever made; no one knows who he is! That’s how it works.”

In an e-mail, Osborne bristled at the suggestion that the Melvins on Atlantic was a poor pairing: “I think the Melvins were a great choice to be on Atlantic. Major labels have lost a whole lot more money on dumber bands than us. Of course we had total creative control or I never would have done it. I never had faith in their system being able to deal with us, but I also never thought we didn’t belong there. We did three really great albums on Atlantic, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat under the same circumstances.”

Describing the absence of label interference, he told Nashville Scene: “Our first record we did for Atlantic had a nine-minute drum solo at the end of the record, and I promise you there wasn’t one person down there [at Atlantic] that told us that was a good idea. Not one. ... We’ve always done exactly what we’ve wanted to and made the exact records we wanted to.”

Then there’s last year’s Scion-backed EP The Bulls & the Bees. “If Scion wants to give us money and then give the record to everybody for free, I see absolutely nothing wrong with that,” Osborne told Nashville Scene.

In an e-mail, he added: “I get the feeling some people would have a harder time with us taking money from someone like the Coca-Cola corporation than they would seeing us get completely ripped off by a ‘cool’ indie label. I’ve never understood this.”

Both arrangements gave the Melvins a platform to be heard by new ears that might never have been exposed to the band otherwise.

And they make sense in that way, as Osborne told one interviewer that “I strive to make music that inspires other people to make music.”

In an e-mail, he elaborated: “When I see a band live that I think is great or hear a record I like, it makes me want to run home and get my guitar. I’m not sure why, but that’s always been the case. Music is magic, and everyone likes music in one form or another. It’s universal and almost as old as man himself. I write and perform songs for a living so I expect my work to be of the highest quality; the only problem is my quality benchmark is different than most of the general public. I can’t be worried about that too much because it’s difficult to second-guess what the world wants. I don’t know what the world wants.”

The Melvins will perform on Thursday, July 18, at RIBCO (1815 Second Avenue, Rock Island; RIBCO.com). The show starts at 8:30 p.m. and also features Honky. Tickets are $18.

For more information on the Melvins, visit TheMelvins.net.


Sidebar: Buzz Osborne’s Stupid Questions for Buzz Osborne

The Melvins’ Buzz Osborne recently interviewed Mudhoney’s Mark Arm (and vice versa) for the British publication The Skinny. I asked Osborne some of the stupid questions he asked Arm.

Have you ever envisioned your own death? “As I’m driving, or in a plane crash.”

Have you ever envisioned someone else's death? “I want to kill about five people every time I go out of the house. I could kill all kinds of people.”

Have any of you ever thought about kicking yourself out of the Melvins for the greater good? “I’ve envisioned quitting so many different times that then I realize that really, instead of quitting, I want to kick out one of the guys we’re playing with. Problem solved! So it wasn’t so much me.”