On the cusp of their 30th anniversary, the Godfathers of Grunge are too busy for nostalgia trips
Inside Atlanta’s The Loft—a barely lit, industrial concrete rectangle of a rock club—the Melvins strut onstage to dramatic fanfare. A wash of horn blasts gives way to the Blazing Saddles theme. Then, as if unleashed by an army of Norse thunder gods, torrents of guttural guitar squall fill the sweltering room, careening forward on the crests of rumbling soundwaves as they explode violently from the drums.
It’s so loud you can feel the music swelling inside your chest cavity, vibrating your body from toes to skull. The club’s PA—which would be more than ample in most situations—seems paralyzed under the spine-contorting weight of The Melvins’ sludgy riffs, speakers crackling as if they might blow at any second. It’s April, but the third-floor venue’s A/C is off and it feels more like August, the red stage lights and wafting pot smoke only adding to the sensation.
The band is two weeks into a tour with its Big Business lineup, the mirror-image drum attack of Dale Crover and more recent addition Coady Willis front-and-center on stage. Singer/guitarist Buzz Osborne is tucked away to the left, his grey coils of hair sprawling like springs from a broken cuckoo clock, while bassist Jared Warren holds down the opposite flank, looking like a younger, bearded, more hulking version of Buzz. As promised during our post-soundcheck interview, there are no lulls between songs.
“We never really like dead space in our set,” Dale says. “It just seems to bring things down.”
“A normal rock band plays songs,” Buzz says. “But I don’t think in terms of songs. I think in terms of 70 minutes—the whole thing. Every second is important. ... Really, what we’ve always done is performance art. We’re not the Allman Brothers, you know?”
Before they go on tour, the Melvins painstakingly work out their set list, and then play the same songs in the same order every night. “People have a problem with that,” Buzz says, “but they’re wrong. ... I want to play without thinking about it. People get a much better show that way. There’s nothing boring about what I’m doing on stage. I’m never bored on stage—if I start thinking about other shit while I’m playing, it’s time to quit.”
Nearly three decades in, the Melvins haven’t hung it up yet. As the band barrels, nonplussed, toward its 30th anniversary, it’s been as busy as ever, recording a new album (as Melvins Lite) with Buzz’s Fantômas bandmate Trevor Dunn; releasing a series of live split 12-inches with handpicked artists such as U-Men, Cows and Mudhoney; making its network-TV debut on Last Call with Carson Daly and touring clubs and small theaters behind their gratis, Scion-sponsored EP, The Bulls & The Bees.
“I don’t feel comfortable in most normal rock ’n’ roll settings,” says Buzz, lounging backstage in cargo shorts and a black T-shirt. “We’ve opened for a lot of [arena] bands, and I’m forever unimpressed. Big rock shows, if the venue is designed for a sporting event—at this point in my life, the only way you could get me to go is if you give me a $100 bill every 20 minutes and pull me around in an air-conditioned rickshaw. I don’t want to go to a hockey place. I just find it distracting. ... [Where] we’re playing tonight—this is about as big as I like to go. Maybe 1500 people. You can see from everywhere; you don’t feel like you’re in some airplane hangar. There’s a reason I liked punk rock to begin with. I haven’t forgotten that.”
ROCK STARS AND FREE WILL
Ever since the Melvins formed in Montesano, Wash., in 1983, they’ve embodied the DIY aesthetic as much as any band, and have been hugely influential in the process. They’re often credited as the originators and spiritual leaders of what, in the ’90s, became ubiquitous as grunge, and in more recent years they’ve have had a similar impact on the stoner-metal subgenre.
“I think it’s great [all these bands have been] influenced by us,” Buzz says. “There’s a lot worse bands you can be influenced by, and I’m glad they acknowledge it. I always thought we should sell millions of records, it just never happened. The general public doesn’t agree. I didn’t try to not do it. They’re just not interested in what we’re doing on a grand scale. ... We’re a weird band playing weird music. If you want to like the Melvins, you have to have found us.”
One who did find them, early on, was Kurt Cobain. The Melvins’ most famous acolyte, Kurt cut his teeth as a roadie for the band before starting Nirvana (the term “roadie” used loosely since, according to a smirking Dale, “he was a small guy, and couldn’t lift very much”). But while many of their musical descendants chased the limelight when punk started breaking, the Melvins themselves were not particularly interested in fame, nor were they sympathetic to their followers’ struggles with stardom. When asked whether the group benefitted from being able to evolve slowly and quietly—without the pressure and scrutiny faced by so many of their contemporaries—Buzz launches into a tirade.
“They put themselves in that spotlight on purpose,” he says. “They wanted to be big stars, and they got exactly what they wanted. To complain about it later… you’re just an idiot. It’s easy to get away from that. All you have to do is give away all of your money and never make music again. And go back to being a carpenter schlub or whatever it is. But that’s never gonna happen. Never listen to that kind of complaining. They wanted to make music everybody would love, and now they’ve done it. It’s not the kind of sob story I want to hear. ... The whole, ‘I’m a rock star, I don’t like it, wha-wha-wha”—well then do something about it. Change it. Or [at least] do something cool!
“[The truth is], those people can do whatever they want. They’re not puppets; they’re the puppet masters, and they’re allowing all this shit to happen. Why? They must like it. They like getting their asses kissed like big rock stars. It has nothing to do with anything else. Any time you hear about, ‘I can’t do this or that,’ it’s bullshit. You can do whatever you want—anything. And what do they do? Nothing. At least nothing surprising.
“Look,” he continues, “these stupid bands that are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—whatever they’re doing is wrong. Anybody who doesn’t see that needs to really rethink why they’re interested in music in the first place. If I was in their position, I would have nothing to do with any of that stuff. I would write my own ticket. ... If I had that much money, I would do my own shows that I was in total control of, from the very beginning, and everybody else could kiss my ass.”
So does Buzz think that people are corrupted by success?
“No,” he says without the slightest hesitation. “They are corrupt themselves. We were on Atlantic [Records] for three albums. They never told us what to do. All I saw were bands willing to do whatever it took to be big rock stars asking how to make that happen—whether through management or labels or whatever. It was not my experience that the label was going to come in and try to make me do one thing or another. ... If you’re allowing it to happen, it’s your fault. You want that to happen. And I don’t want to hear any bitching about it.”
Beyond their uncompromising approach, the Melvins have been known for their musical curiosity, constant stylistic mutation and refusal to rest on past achievements.
“I’m very much the kind of person that’s, ‘What have you done lately?” Buzz says. “Not, ‘Oh, that’s great, you made a record in ’85. ... I don’t remember all the songs on [our] records because by the time the record comes out, I’m done with it. I’ve moved on. ... I turn it over, and just walk away to the next thing.”
THE NEXT THING
When I arrive at the venue, I have to walk through smaller club Vinyl before heading up to The Loft. Onstage at the former, some god-awful cover band is cranking through Starship’s “We Built This City” without a hint of irony. The lead singer has on way too much makeup and a plastic smile plastered on her face. It’s such a bizarre contrast to what’s about to go down upstairs. When Buzz greets me, I recount the unsettling scene. He shudders. “I could go the rest of my life without hearing that,” he says.
While I’m getting levels to record our interview, Buzz and Dale are busy goofing off, kicking at each other’s feet like kid brothers. “Even when we’re not making music,” Dale says later, “[Buzz and I] still do stuff together. Not all the time, but we’ll go to baseball games or movies or golf. Stuff like that. With a lot of bands, like The Ramones, you could tell all those guys kind of hated each other. But we’ve got a great relationship. We don’t ever fight or anything like that.”
In recent years, when the Melvins’ core duo hasn’t been collaborating with Jared and Coady of Big Business, they’ve been playing as the (semi) ironically monikered Melvins Lite, anchored by former Mr. Bungle bassist Trevor Dunn. Buzz and Trevor became close friends while playing in Mike Patton’s handpicked supergroup, Fantômas, so when Melvins bassist Kevin Rutmanis split in 2005, Trevor began sporadically filling in.
“I’ve been a Melvins fan since Ozma came out,” Trevor says. “That was a record that really blew my mind when I was listening to metal in the ’80s. One of the things I’ve always liked about the Melvins is that they were always incredibly musical and creative, but it was different every time.”
The band’s latest, Freak Puke, is no exception. The album finds the normally walloping Dale finessing a tiny, early-’50s Gretsch jazz kit, even using brushes on a few songs. Trevor, meanwhile, plays unamplified acoustic bass, mining a wide variety of tones while coming through with ample attack and low-end heaviness wherever needed. And Buzz sticks to his sweet spot, riffing away like a madman, though in this new context, it sounds as fresh as ever.
The seed for this new album took root a year-and-a-half ago, when Buzz saw Trevor play a show on upright with Wilco guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Yuko Araki at Los Angeles club Largo. “I was just sitting there watching and thinking, ‘We can do this,’” Buzz says. “‘We can make something like this work.’”
As usual, the Melvins’ goal with Freak Puke was to make a record unlike anything they’d done before; to take what they’d witnessed with Trevor at Largo and run with it. But they also didn’t want it to sound like “snobby jazz crap.”
“And,” Buzz says, “we had to pull if off so that the people who like us would understand we’re able to completely reinvent what we’re doing in a way that’s not totally alien. That’s what we’ve always done, whether people understand it or not.”
Reflecting on what they’ve already accomplished in the first half of 2012—recording The Bulls & the Bees back-to-back with Freak Puke and, in between, reinventing the band yet again—The Melvins seem genuinely satisfied. “It all makes sense,” Buzz promises. “It all fits together.”
Continuing down this path, with the band’s 30th anniversary in mind, I ask them if, in hindsight, they’d do anything differently. “I regret nothing, I apologize for nothing,” Buzz says, looking me straight in the eyes. “I think I’ve made the right decision every step of the way. For everything.”