Buzz Osborne doesn’t give a shit what you think about the new Melvins record.
“Some people will be weirded out because it’s not what they expected,” he says. “But, Jesus Christ, after this long, isn’t that what you’ve come to expect?”
A Walk With Love and Death, an epic double-album out today on Ipecac Recordings, is, indeed, a departure for a band thrilled to depart from the tried and the true. Death, the opening record and a Melvins record proper, sees the new trio – Redd Kross bassist Steven McDonald is helping to hold down the bottom end now – exploring more ambitious, sometimes muted and often psych-rock-inflected terrain. Love, the soundtrack to a Jesse Nieminen-directed film titled, you guessed it, A Walk With Love and Death, echoes the group’s Colossus of Destiny, the fourth installment in its 1999 “trilogy” of releases, all nuanced sound experiments, triggers and playful noise.
(Read our review of the new record HERE.)
It makes sense that, this time out, King Buzzo, he of the Bride of Frankenstein by-way-of A-bomb mushroom-cloud hair, is telling Popdose he’s “very excited by the prospect of doing things we haven’t done.” It’s that kind of a release, that kind of a moment. And Osborne, for one, has earned it.
Arguably the most influential underground rock guitarist of his generation, Osborne has managed to shake off all of the “Kurt Cobain’s childhood friend” dressings and stake his claim as a purveyor of a sound that can’t quite be described but is instantly recognizable as his own – something, to paraphrase him, akin to Captain Beefheart playing Black Sabbath.
“You know how you can’t find anything to compare Black Sabbath or Beefheart to that existed before they did? That’s Buzz/Melvins,” said Tom Hazelmyer, the Minneapolis-based musician, print-maker and label owner whose Amphetamine Reptile Records has released full-length LPs and countless limited-run singles by the group dating back to 1989. “You do, however, hear them everywhere in influence terms after they break some new sound barrier. Only a handful of bands in my life have managed to sound almost completely new and different when I first heard them. No immediate comparison to draw on for the most part. That’s Melvins.”
Live, of course, the band remains a brutal force to be reckoned with, as Osborne, resplendent in custom muumuu, gallivants around the stage, his whole upper body in time with the crunch of a power chord or a crack on drummer Dale Crover’s kit. Seeing the band work through its catalog in real time is an experience that merits repetition; Melvins is launching a 12-week American tour this month.
It all started, though, some 34 years ago, when guitarist/vocalist Roger “Buzz” Osborne, bassist Matt Lukin and drummer Mike Dillard decided it was time to cut through the grim realities of living in Montesano, Washington, a mundane and morose post-logging depression, to form a punk rock band. When everybody started playing hardcore fast as lightning, Melvins cranked down the dial and played sludge like molasses in winter. The sound suited them.
After Crover replaced Dillard around 1984, the group shifted operations to nearby Aberdeen, Washington, and later moved to San Francisco, just in time to beat the early buzz about Seattle.
“I first became aware of Buzz by a chance reading of the Montesano High School newspaper. I attended Aberdeen High, and happened to be in Montesano, and, while thumbing through the paper, I read an interesting essay written by Buzz. He was advocating the Seattle punk rock music scene. And that was Buzz, proselytizing punk to whoever was willing to listen,” said Krist Novoselic, best known as bassist for Nirvana but also a current member of Giants In The Trees and chair of FairVote, a nonpartisan group advocating transformational politics. “He’s still that way—a true believer in the punk ideals of independence and challenging authority.”
“Kurt Cobain also drifted into the Melvins’ orbit,” said Krist, who guested on Melvins’ 2016 record Basses Loaded. “One influence on what was to become Nirvana is the Melvin’s work ethic. They were very serious about practicing and we took notice. Melvins left pretty early from Grays Harbor to San Francisco, but we always stayed in contact. In fact, it was on a visit to see Buzz that Kurt and I met Dave Grohl in the North Beach part of town.”
Novoselic also played with Osborne in the band The Stiff Woodies. Novoselic’s stage name? Phil Atio.
(Though never a “Seattle band,” Melvins did appear on the seminal Deep Six comp. on C/Z Records in 1986; but Osborne is quick to note that the ever-popular Sub Pop Records was never that into them. By 1991, when Nirvana’s Nevermind starting topping the charts, Melvins were so far into their own thing they seemed like they were on another planet relative to the Pearl Jams and Soundgardens of the Pacific Northwest.)
Osborne has made occasional trips back to the Grays Harbor region of Washington. (His parents now live in Olympia, the state capitol.) But he never stays long. There will be no statues of him mounted in his former hometown.
“My wife [graphic designer Mackie Osborne] said, ‘This is even worse than you described it. This is way worse. I don’t know how you survived it,’” Osborne said. “I’m not moving back to Grays Harbor – no way! I’d rather live in a fucking cardboard box than live in Grays Harbor.”
San Francisco was good to Melvins in the late 80s and early 90s. Featuring Lori Temple Black (a.k.a. Lorax) on bass, the trio started releasing records on local imprint Boner Records. Label-head Tom Flynn, a former member of the punk band Fang, even filled in live for Lorax during about 75 shows in 1990.
“Playing with both of them was pretty easy even with all the weird time signatures and stuff ‘cause they’re both such confident players that you can rely on them to always be on top of things,” Flynn told me. “Buzz claims he knows nothing about music, as far as notes, chords, scales, et cetera, go, but it seems like he knows more than he likes to admit, even if he never learned it all in any sort of formal setting.”
“[Being in Melvins] is the best job in the world,” drummer Dale Crover said. “Weird to think I’ve been in the same band since high school. We’re just happy people.”
It was during the band’s Boner years that members of Melvins, especially Osborne, refined their Gods of Thunder sound with epics like Ozma and Bullhead, voluminous exercises in grunge-punk-metal roars. Eggnog and the solo EPs, which imitated Kiss’ solo experiments in style if not in substance, drew praise, as did the long-form player Lysol (1992). (Flynn estimates each standard-issue release on the label has sold about 40,000 to 60,000 copies, not counting downloads. Reissues abound.)
By 1993, after a flurry of interest spurred, in part, by Kurt Cobain’s vocal love for the band, came their major label debut – Houdini, on Atlantic Records.
“[Atlantic] was just riding the grunge train and they probably hoped we’d be another Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden. They put 20 bucks on every spot on the roulette wheel.”
That’s Mark Deutrom, who played bass for Melvins during much of the Atlantic years, which ended with the release of Stag in 1996. 1997’s Honky, on which Deutrom also played, was released by Amphetamine Reptile Records.
“I’d like to think we pushed those boundaries,” said Deutrom, now in Bellringer. “It’s not like we sat around listening to sludge all of the time saying, ‘We’ve got to replicate that!’”
Band members stressed it’s important to note that, despite all of the preconceptions of the indie-rock “community,” nobody called the shots for the band during their major label years, telling them to sound more commercial or cut more singles, and that’s been the modus operandi in their post-Atlantic years at Mike Patton’s Ipecac Records, as well.
“Absolutely nobody is telling them what to do,” Deutrom said.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Osborne concurred. “I don’t do well with constructive criticism unless it’s from someone like my wife, Dale, someone close. There’s no way I’m going to listen to you tell me what’s wrong with my music.”
I guess that makes Toshi Kasai pretty close.
The Los Angeles-based producer has been recording Melvins since 2001 – he calls 2002’s Hostile Ambient Takeover “one of my best experiences” – and he said Osborne is infinitely easy to work with as a collaborator in the studio.
“He has his own style, for sure, and he doesn’t have anything like ‘I don’t know about that.’ It’s either ‘Yes’ or ‘No,’” Kasai said during a phone interview from his Sound of Sirens studio in Sound Valley, Cal. “Some people are like ‘Let’s sleep on it and come back and listen to it.’ He doesn’t have much of that. He’s really easy to work with.”
Kevin Rutmanis, the Cows alumnus and current Hepa/Titus “bandleader” who played bass in Melvins for the first decade-plus of the band’s Ipecac years, painted much the same picture of Osborne and Crover.
“They’re the most open-minded guys I’ve played it,” Rutmanis said. “It’s a matter of putting ego aside and not caring about what other people will think of you.”
That’s a complicated equation and Melvins, who have gone through more bassists than there have been U.S. presidents during their four-decade administration, rubbed at least Deutrom the wrong way. Lorax could not be reached for a comment.
“Our history is complicated,” said Deutrom, who produced Ozma and did live sound for the band in 1990 and 1991 before joining on the four-string around 1994. “I was personally never signed [to Atlantic]. It was always Buzz and Dale. I stopped asking for that because I came to the realization I was disposable after I asked for the fourth or fifth time and got shrugged off.”
“That is crazy – that’s all his shit,” Osborne retorted. “If he wants to look at it and think he’s disposable, that’s an easy way of not looking in the mirror. Disposable. Well, Kevin Rutmanis doesn’t look it at it that way …. As far as disposable goes, that’s insulting to the people we play with.”
Rutmanis, indeed, backed up the claim, saying, despite his firing, he has reestablished a good relationship with the band – and Osborne, in particular.
“I think it’s safe to say any of us who have worked with them have learned something – there’s no dead ends,” Rutmanis said. “Buzz and I really like each other; I don’t know how else to say it. I love those guys. I wish them nothing but the best.”
Osborne remains a highly intelligent and well-read man who shoots from the hip, much of his philosophy fueled by two seemingly disparate but surprisingly like-minded strands: the D.I.Y. punk methods and ethos of the 1980s underground, and the writings of contemporary philosopher and social thinker Thomas Sowell, who he calls “the greatest philosopher of our time.”
“[Sowell’s writings] spoke to me. It always has – he’s a huge influence on my life, both economically and philosophically,” Osborne said. “If you want to pretend this guy’s not important … I’ve got nothing to say to you.”
Sowell’s insights into personal freedom hit a particular heartstring for Osborne, who was schooled in a way of surviving the rock underground of his generation. And he despises those who posit support for personal freedom while laying down all sorts of rules and boundaries – thus the appearances on Fox News and his contempt for some on the political Left.
“It’s freedom of speech as long as it suits you,” he said, describing his perceptions of some American progressives.
But Osborne isn’t cutting his hair and running for office anytime soon.
“I’m certainly not a fan of the Left or the Right, the Republicans or the Democrats,” he said. “Nothing’s gonna change. You’re picking goat shit out of pepper.”
Osborne is equally passionate when talking about Kurt Cobain, whose 1994 suicide is constantly driving people to parse him for clues and information about the man they saw as an icon, the last Rock Star.
“I don’t have happy memories. He died in a horrific way and that’s not something that’s going to get easier – I’d rather have him alive and unsuccessful,” Osborne said. “He was our friend long before we were making any money playing music and he’s dead. I’ll never get over it.”
But, Osborne still is standing and, so long as he’s the one calling the shots, that’s the way it’ll be for the foreseeable future.
“John Lydon said it best,” he told me, “the second you dictate is the second I cease to function.”