All the Buzz
Buzz Osborne is the founder, guitarist and vocalist of the Melvins, one of the great cult rock bands of the last 30 years. The prolific and eclectic band has been around since 1985, and they’re coming to The Underground, 555 E. Fourth St., on Tuesday, Sept. 21.
Let’s talk about the new album, The Bride Screamed Murder.
One song that jumps out at me is the cover of [The Who’s] “My Generation.”
Why’d you choose to do that song?
We thought it was a good song, number one, and that we would do a good cover of it.
People often think that a good cover is faithful to the original, but I feel like the best covers are the ones that approach a song from a completely different angle.
Yeah. That’s what we were thinking.
So if you’re going to do a song that everybody knows, you might as do it for eight minutes …
Yeah. Well, they do a similar version of it on the Kids Are Alright movie—kind of, not exactly. I thought it came out great.
What’s your process for choosing songs to cover?
I love playing cover songs, first off. We’ve done a shit load of ’em. I don’t know. It has to be something we think is good or silly or something. One way or another, something we could do a good job of.
Something you could bring something new to?
Sometimes, or we just think a cover like that that was relatively safe or like the original would fit in good with what we’re doing, and maybe even be a bit unexpected.
So is The Who an influence on what you’re doing now?
The Who? Oh, yeah. I’ve always loved The Who. I’ve loved The Who since I was 12. But not that many people do covers of The Who.
Why do you think that is?
I’m not 100 percent sure. Maybe it’s because they’re an odd band. Not very many people do covers of our songs either.
There is that tribute album out …
I haven’t even heard it. We were supposed to get some amount of money for that, from publishing, and the guy had money and just never paid us. Such is life.
I really like the opener on the new album, “The Water Glass.” I really love those call-and-response vocals.
Me, too. I’ve been wanting to do that for a while, and I thought that came out great. I thought the call-and-response thing with the military cadence was a good idea, nobody’s ever done anything quite like that. I thought it came out great. It worked really well.
For the last three or four years, you’ve had the [Seattle duo] Big Business guys in the band.
We’ve had them in the band since 2006.
That includes the two-drummer lineup. What are the advantages of that setup?
More is always better. Bigger is always better. More is more. We’re sick of the “less is more.” That’s bullshit. We want “more is more.”
What can you do with two drummers that you can’t do with just one drummer?
One of ’em can not play and we’ll be all right. [Laughs.] It’s a little insurance policy onstage.
So in a lot of the traditional wisdom about you guys, you’re often classified as one of the first “grunge” bands. Do you feel like that’s true? Is grunge a real genre or just a marketing term?
I don’t know what it is. We’re not part of that crap, you know? We’re not part of any scene. … We’re a punk rock band playing, you know, weird music. That’s where we fit in. That’s the way I look at it.
That’s wide open enough that you can do whatever you want, basically.
That was our plan from the beginning, because I’m a man of plans. I love plans.
What’s your current plan?
We’re going to finish this tour. Then, the majority of next year, play outside of the U.S. That’s our immediate plan. We’re going to continue working and we’re going to do a lot more hands-on art stuff, not unlike the 13-CD box set that we recently put out. It’s all handmade and hand letterpressed.
You were on Atlantic from ’93 to ’98, something like that, right?
Yes, we were on there for three albums.
And subsequently you’ve been on indie labels and are currently on Mike Patton’s label, Ipacec. What are the advantages of being on an indie label versus a major label?
Well, when we were on Atlantic. … First off, a lot of people have the idea that being on a major means you have to do things one way or the other. I always say, “Well, listen to the records we did.” That weren’t telling us to do anything, you know? Those albums came out exactly how we wanted them, with the covers done the way we wanted them, mastered and turned in and left alone. I didn’t have the experience of record company meddling. … Yes, there were a lot of dummies there, but there are a lot of dummies at indies, not unlike the guy with the compilation tribute record that never paid us anything. He saw fit to take that money, tell us he had it, and just never gave it to us. So, on the one hand, you have the evil big record companies, but on the other hand, you have the evil little record companies, you know?
There are dumbasses everywhere.
Right, and you can’t trust anyone. Fortunately, Atlantic did what they said they were going to do. The Ipacec people do what they say they’re going to do. Tom Hazelmyer from [Amphetamine Reptile] has always done what he said he was going to do. Tom [Flynn] from Boner Records has always done what he said he was going to do. So there’s enough good people out there, and Atlantic did what they said there going to do.
So it was a good experience.
I had a fine experience there, without any trouble. I made the kind of music I wanted, and I made three records I’m really proud of. That’s my legacy from being on a major. We honestly expected to do one and be done, and they wouldn’t want to do anymore. We were on an indie before that, and we figured that this wouldn’t stop us from doing whatever we wanted in the first place, and we walked out of that in a better position than when we walked in.
Can we talk about Kurt Cobain?
Yeah, whatever you want to know.
So you guys went to high school together, right?
[Affirmatively:] Mmm hmm.
I’ve heard at one point he tried out for the Melvins and didn’t make the cut. Is that a true story?
That’s not true.
That’s absolutely not true. We spent a lot of time jamming together and all kinds of things like that, but we’ve never had anybody audition for our band ever. That’s all hogwash.
I’m not making that rumor up though …
You’re not making that up. Lots of people make up all kinds of stuff. There are people out there who will believe that, no matter what I do or say or even if I bring a lot of charts and diagrams. They’re still not going to believe it.
He co-produced the Houdini record though, right?
Until we fired him. … We fired him for excessive drug use.
That’s all been well chronicled. He was in no shape to finish the record, so we went in and said to him that we wanted to change something, so we made it look like something other than what it was, but in actuality the real problem was that he couldn’t continue working. That’s it.
That’s a bummer.
Yeah. Of course it is. There’s no good side to this story. There’s no upside. There’s no happy times, no look-back-and-laugh type of scenario. It’s absolutely tragic and a total disaster. There’s not one good thing that comes out of it. Great music, whatever, but none of that matches the fact that, in the end, the man is dead. He left a legacy of a horrible wife and a fatherless child. There’s nothing good about any of that. There is no happy end to this. It’s a disaster. That’s the way I look at it, and that’s the way I’m always going to look at it.
That’s really well put. That’s really sobering.
I would rather him be absolutely unsuccessful, working at Kmart, and alive than have any of this stuff have happened. It’s the worst thing ever, and it’s not over.
Man … I was going to ask about [Mike Patton collaboration] Fantômas next. …
I’ll do it whenever Mike wants to. I don’t know what he’s got going on now.
He’s a busy guy, it seems like.
Yeah, it seems like. Whether it’s true or not is anybody’s guess. I don’t know … I don’t know what Mike Patton does on a daily basis. I’ve worked a lot with him for a long time, on a lot of different scenarios, but the last time Fantômas did anything of substance was 2005. The last time we were actually in the studio was 2003. You do the math.
Compared to the Melvins, which basically release a record a year.
Well, we try to. A year, every 18 months, something like that, as well as a lot of touring, and a lot of other things. We try to keep really busy.
Do you think it’s important to keep up that kind of work ethic?
Well, it’s important for me. I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t do it, you know? I mean, rock musicians by and large are whore-mongering drug addicts, and they’re lazy. Just because we work more than anyone else doesn’t mean we’re doing anything that’s way out of the ordinary, you know? When you take into account the whore-mongering drug addicts who are lazy, then it’s remarkable. In the grand scheme of things, how hard people really work in their lives to stay afloat, it’s really something unremarkable. … Compared to somebody who’s pushing between 40 and 60 a week, a regular job, we’re not working any harder than they are, and a lot of times less.
What can people expect at the Reno show?
Expect absolutely nothing, and be pleasantly surprised. … We played there with this lineup a couple years ago … it was great. We had a great time. Reno’s one of those weird towns that seems like there’s a lot bubbling under the surface, but there’s still some quiet desperation there. We have a long history with Reno. The first time we played there was in 1985, believe it or not. We played somebody’s basement. I believe the guy whose basement we played, I can’t remember his name, but I believe he died of AIDS. … When we go back there now, it seems like things have moved along nicely. There was a lot more people at the last show we did than at any of the other ones we did there. Reno’s not really that far out of that way. It’s not that far from Sacramento and San Francisco.
It should be on everyone’s route really, I think, but I’m biased.
The problem with a place like Reno is that there’s no place that’s open all the time that people can play. That’s the problem. Music scenes generally build up around a club, or something like that, that’s been there for a while that people can count on. A music scene builds around that. If that’s not happening, the music scene can not survive.
We go through boom-bust cycles here. It’s largely dependent on the venues, but there are more options here venue-wise then a couple of years ago, but the scene’s still on a down spell.
If you have one good club … A place like Athens, Georgia, for instance—it’s a relatively small town, but they have a club there called the 40 Watt that’s been operating for over 20 years doing alternative music. Everybody can count on it—that amps up the culture. And they’re fair. They’re not a rip-off, number one, and, number two, they’re willing to book all kinds of crazy bands. So that brings in an influx of culture. … Local bands benefit from the club being there for doing their own shows, and the music scene just grows from that. They have a really thriving music scene there that’s better than the one in Atlanta.
Athens itself isn’t that interesting, but it’s interesting that they’ve been able to make something like that last that long, and they’re really great people. We’ve been playing there since 1990, the same club! 20 years. If you have something like that, even a weird little out-of-the-way place like that, it can work. If you’d had a thriving music club there in Reno for the last 20 years, where people know about it, and it’s established, and it’s on the map for touring bands, and they go back time and time again, then the music scene would build around it.
What have you been listening to lately? Do your listening habits affect how you write?
Well, they certainly do. I’ve been listening to a lot of … What did I listen to today? I listened to Bitches Brew by Miles Davis. … That’s what I listened to today. Yesterday, I listened to Smokey Robinson.
Cool. Not what I would expect, but awesome.
My influences are vast, and a lot of times are surprising to people.
That’s good. You obviously a listen to a lot of different kinds of music. I think it’s nice when you can tell a band doesn’t just listen to the kind of music they make.
No. We make music from all the stuff we listen to. That’s what it is. That’s why our records come out they way that they do, is because of the vast influences and the not being afraid aspect of what we do … I am not worried. I have no fear. We’re moving forward, doing what we want. My advice to young bands is to be as peculiar as you can. It’s always worked for me.
We’re looking forward to our show in Reno. Thanks to everyone, we appreciate every single person who’s going to be there.