[Photo Credit: Mariexxme]
It was 1993, and I, fifteen years old, woke up hungover in Ferndale, Michigan, on a stained beige living room carpet. While the night before had been, uh…how do you say…eventful? It was just another among a string of many. A late night out at some club in Hamtramck with Smokehouse (a local band managed by my best friend’s sister) turned valuable lesson in what happens when we down one too many pitchers of Bud Light. My apologies to whoever cleaned the ladies room—it couldn’t have been pretty.
After the show, we went back to Smokehouse headquarters, where the guys entertained me in other ways. They stripped nude, save for tube socks and strategic tucks, and danced around their flat like little girls. Then they played video games and chatted with each other as if I weren’t watching. I sat there, perched on an old brown couch, and smoked a pack of Camel Wides. “You guys!” laughed their manager, “You’re going to corrupt her, she’s only fifteen!” Everything stopped. “Are you really fifteen?” they asked. “Yeah.” I nodded, taking in a slow, disaffected drag. Like cockroaches scatter when a light’s flipped on, “We’re all going to jail!” they screamed and disappeared into early morning. I’m not sure how I made it onto the floor, but that’s definitely where I woke up.
Daylight broke upon death-level sleep state. My eyes sealed shut with mortar made from stale smoke and alcohol. I smelled a cigarette burning—not my brand—and pried my eyelids open. Blurred vision became something recognizable; I saw a poster hanging on the wall. It showed a cartoon boy and girl on their hands and knees playing ball with a two-headed puppy. In bold red letters across the top, it said “MELVINS,” and across the bottom “HOUDINI.” The Melvins? I thought. Who are the Melvins? Smokehouse’s drummer, just a few feet away, placed a twelve inch on an empty turntable—it was his cigarette I smelled. Marlboro—seconds later, I found myself inundated by a sound so immense, I felt like I’d been kicked in the gut with my own steel-toed boot, but in the most miraculous way. Its crushing riffs, piercing beats, and abstract roaring vocals rushed straight to my soul. Wait, what? What IS this? My most vital, animalistic self instantly unleashed. I was listening to the Melvins. One hit and I was hooked.
Little did I know, the Melvins would provide a personal soundtrack for several sordid decades to come. A parasite turned beloved pet—their music always seemed to find me. Now more than thirty years into an iconic career (one which most would never have the vision or balls to fathom), I wanted to go straight to the source and ask how the hell they pulled it off?
So then, without further ado, Veronika Sprinkel Ink. proudly presents a conversation with Buzz Osborne, founding member of groundbreaking band, the Melvins.
Veronika: For those who aren’t already familiar, who are the Melvins?
Buzz: We play weird rock music. We’ve been doing it for over three decades. It’s what I do. I’m a professional musician, and I do whatever it takes to continue making the kind of music that we make without having to compromise anything. I never would. We’re certainly not Top of the Pops or anything like that.
Veronika: Labels like punk, metal, and rock are used to describe your sound. Are these terms at all accurate?
Buzz: Well I guess it’s OK, but you know, I never felt that we had any brother bands—you know, at all. Even through all the 90s stuff, I never felt like we had a whole lot in common with any other bands. I mean, lots of those kinds of people like us, but I would say that we’re a punk rock band in the truest sense of the word without looking like we come from Hot Topic. Does Hot Topic still exist?
Veronika: I stay far away from malls, so I honestly couldn’t tell you.
Buzz: I don’t know. Something like mall-rock or Warped Tour kind of stuff.
Veronika: Without getting wrapped up in semantics, how do you define “punk”?
Buzz: When I came into this, my big heroes were bands like the Sex Pistols and Johnny Rotten. I think that Johnny Rotten (John Lydon) has conducted himself very well, and handled his fame very well. I would say that he’s as close to a role model how he thinks than anyone else as far as I’m concerned. I look at a band like the Sex Pistols—Johnny Rotten went almost immediately from that to starting Public Image Ltd. That is a completely different kind of thing, a lesson I never forgot. We’re heavily influenced by all those things, certainly the first Public Image record and Flowers of Romance are huge, HUGE influences still to this day. I don’t know if people pick up on that. The Warped Tour bands might do well to listen to those records, especially Flowers of Romance.
Veronika: I’ll be sure to print that. Hopefully they’ll read it.
Buzz: I won’t hold my breath. Why would they pay attention to me?
Veronika: Well, maybe not me either. But we’ll try.
Veronika: The Melvins are currently three people: yourself, Dale Crover on drums, and Steve McDonald on bass. That’s how you’re rolling this summer, but your lineup rotates?
Buzz: A little over ten years ago, we had a lot of trouble with the bass player we had. I was a very discouraged guy at that point, and I came to the conclusion that I never wanted to be in that position again. I never wanted to be depending on any one person for what I did. And so, I decided that whatever me and Dale did was the Melvins. Whatever it is. And I have a lot of opportunities, we have a lot of things that we can do, and I never have to worry about that. Now, the flip side of that is that you’re constantly reinventing what you’re doing, which is good, but it’s a lot of work. Like in this last year, we played with Jeff Pinkus, and then we played with the Big Business guys with the two drummers, and then we did a show with Trevor Dunn, which is the Melvins Lite, and then we went back to Jeff Pinkus and went to Japan, and then we did this tour with Steve McDonald that’s just now been a year. All those things in that one year. It’s not necessarily something you plan out from the beginning, but I think it works fine and I can’t see changing. It’s extraordinary actually.
Veronika: You sing, play guitar, and you’re also the primary songwriter for the group?
Buzz: I play other instruments as well. I play bass and all kinds of other things on Melvins’ records. I do a lot of the electronic stuff but I would never claim to be a keyboard player.
Veronika: To date, the Melvins have recorded some twenty-five studio albums, fourteen EPs, twelve live albums, and ten compilation records. Does that sound about right?
Buzz: That could be right. I don’t know. It depends on what people define as an album. Honestly, I haven’t checked. I don’t count them. We have a lot of records. I don’t expect people to keep up with all of them—although, I secretly hate them if they don’t.
Veronika: Well, it’s not a secret anymore because you just told me.
Buzz: No, I’m kidding.
Veronika: So, what’s it like being a Melvin for thirty-three years?
Buzz: I think everything that’s good in my life right now is a result of music, so I feel blessed as far as I’m concerned.
But I’ve also had to realize that I’m not wrong on what I think and how I operate. And I was right the whole time even though I didn’t have a lot of people that believed in what I was doing from the beginning. I was not wrong.
You know, it’s not the easiest row to hoe when you decide to chart new territory. It’s a lonely road out there. Lots of bands prefer to sound exactly like some other band and they do well with that, but that’s not me. I just can’t make myself do that sort of thing.
Veronika: You guys gained notoriety during what’s now considered an iconic time in American music history—somewhere between West Coast punk and Seattle grunge. Were you aware of what was happening while it was happening?
Buzz: Well you know, I got into punk rock and I lived in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t get to see a punk rock show immediately, so I listened to lots of the records. It was difficult to get records back then. I would wait weeks for a mail-order album. I waited weeks to get them. The standard delivery procedure in the 70s was “Allow six to eight weeks for delivery.” I don’t think people quite understand what that means, especially now. I would order a record from New York City, it would take two months to get to my house.
Veronika: In Washington?
Buzz: Yeah. I would sit there, and wait for records for months, and finally get them. And then, I finally saw a live show—FINALLY—when I was old enough to get to someplace like Seattle where all these bands were playing. There was certainly no one playing where I lived, and at that point when you’re a teenager, one hundred miles might as well be one hundred million miles. Once I saw that, I realized how small the world I’d been living in really was. I realized there was a big world out there that had a lot of people who thought the way I did.
Then early on, about ’82/’83, I met Mark Arm. Mark was really smart. Mark knew a lot about music. We became friends then, and we’ve remained friends since those early days. I think his view of music is really great, and I learned a lot from him. I learned a lot about bands I never would have, and that was all really cool. I think that Mark’s one of my favorite people from the Northwest.
Veronika: You were in the right place at an advantageous time?
Buzz: There’s that, but I also left there in ’86/’87. I left the Northwest. So, long before that stuff took off. I saw no future for myself in Seattle. I wanted out of there. We left nothing. We had no one interested in doing our records in Seattle. I think the most we made playing a show in Seattle before we left was a hundred and sixty bucks.
It wasn’t like I was leaving some big amazing motherland where everyone was taking care of me, or really watching out for me, or we were all part of a big scene. I felt like we were something different. I moved to San Francisco at a time when I didn’t even own a car. I had six hundred dollars in my pocket from working at a pizza place in Aberdeen, and I never looked back. It was the right decision, and I feel like I’ve made the best music since I’ve lived in California.
Veronika: Some say the Melvins provided early influence for Nirvana, particularly on their Bleach album. What do you think?
Buzz: I think we were an influence on Nirvana, no question. There’s no doubt about it. I believe that without us that whole thing is different, it doesn’t happen. Regardless of what my relationship with the surviving members is now, they know that’s true. And I don’t expect anything from that. It’s not like I’m looking for anything other than that’s just how it is.
Veronika: What drew you to music in the first place anyway?
Buzz: I have a rebellious nature. I think the first rock song that I really identified with was Deep Purple, Smoke on the Water. There was just something about it, a primal energy that was really nice. I don’t know, I was in seventh, eighth, ninth grade, listening to weird records. I’m not sure what it was, something spoke to me. But I was on my own with that stuff. There was nobody listening to the Hunky Dory album when I was in seventh grade at my school. It was all REO Speedwagon and Foreigner, which I could never get my head around. Being in the seventh, eighth grade in the middle of nowhere, listening to a song like Quicksand by David Bowie, that was a big deal to me.
Veronika: Fast forward three-plus decades, or maybe even longer. Has your relationship with music changed?
Buzz: I still love the same things I liked then, as well as a lot more. The only reason my record collection has gotten bigger is because time has passed. I don’t think there’s ever been a golden era where I liked everything that was coming out. I think there’s about as many good bands now as there’s ever been at any given time, and once I find something like that, it’s rare for me to change my mind about it. So the things I liked when I was twelve years old I still like, as well as a lot more stuff.
I wasn’t wrong when I was twelve. David Bowie was good.
Veronika: In the trailer for your documentary Colossus of Destiny, we hear you say, “I’m trying to make a living doing this and remain true to what I believed in from the beginning, and mission accomplished.” What exactly have you believed in from the beginning, and what exactly do you feel you’ve accomplished?
Buzz: Our initial expectations for our band were surpassed within the first few months of being in a band. Our initial expectation was it’d be great to play a show, it’d be great to play on stage—that’s it. The idea of making a record, that was absurd. We didn’t even consider that until later. I believe in utilizing whatever tools are in front of you, thoughts always being in motion, and constantly trying to think of new ways to do whatever it is you’re doing.
Colossus of Destiny is really going to show people that we’re not like other bands. We’re not like any other band. There’s no band that does anything in the way that we do. Nothing. I don’t know who it would be. I’m a firm believer in, “I didn’t even know I didn’t want to do that until you wanted me to.”
Veronika: Do you ever doubt yourself?
Buzz: I’ve had self-doubt about whether I thought stuff was good or not. You know like, “Is this song good? I don’t know.” You know? And I’ll change my mind about stuff as we’re recording it, or all sorts of things like that. But honestly, I don’t care who thinks it’s good. If I like it, that’s as far as I’ll go with it. I figure that other people will like it if I like it. You know, it won’t be millions of people, but it’ll be enough.
Veronika: When working on something and uncertain as to whether or not you like it, is there someone you defer to as a second set of ears?
Buzz: Sometimes I do that with my wife. We’ve been married twenty-two years, coming up on twenty-three, and we pretty much agree on lots of stuff along those lines. She understands what I’m doing and understood that kind of music before we ever met. She’s brutally honest, to the point where sometimes I wish she wasn’t. I like that about her. Beyond that, the guys I’m playing with maybe to some degree, but usually they trust my vision. It’s refreshing.
Veronika: As far as songwriting goes, where do your ideas come from? What sorts of things inform and inspire you?
Buzz: Well, it’s impossible to know really. Sometimes it just comes out of thin air, sometimes you are inspired by something you’re listening to, movie soundtracks, books. We really have left it wide open to do whatever we want, for better or worse.
Veronika: Both your lyrics and vocals are very distinctive. Sometimes, it sounds like you’re making up your own language?
Buzz: I’ve done that a few times, but I’ve written lyrics in a wide variety of ways. I’ll think of a really good short story I like, and I’ll try to describe the story without using the words that are in the book. That’s happened a number of times. I’m not trying to fool people, I’m just trying to make it interesting. I’m not one to be that direct. I mean, if you look at a song like, Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone—what is that about? It’s not about anything really. It’s not that direct. None of his songs are that direct. That’s kind of the power of them.
Veronika: OK, so what about humor? You seem to have quite an interesting sense of humor?
Buzz: Oh yeah.
Veronika: How might you describe it?
Buzz: Eighth grade bordering on mostly toilet humor and dirty jokes. Non-PC, very dark. We’re big fans of things like John Waters’ films. Mad Magazine played a big part in my growing up. I understand that sense of humor as very sarcastic—the best of them have sarcasm. I mean, we’re called the Melvins, how serious can we be?
Veronika: Has it always been that way?
Buzz: Since about fourth grade.
Veronika: Why is music such a powerful thing?
Buzz: I think it speaks to the primal nature of people. I mean music, in one form or another, has been here probably since the dawn of man, whether it’s drumming or whatever it may be. As the matter of fact, music moves me more than any other art form ever has. I get an emotional response from music much more than I would from looking at a painting or a sculpture. Although, I have gotten emotional responses looking at a giant, amazing bridge, or an amazing piece of architecture—but not as much as music. No art has ever moved me as much as say, The Stooges Funhouse record—not even close on that level. There is something to be said for going and enjoying something live, but the same goes for listening to it on my own. If I have headphones on, or I’m listening to it in my house, or even in the car driving, I can have an emotional response that I’m not going to get from a painting. It moves me much more. One thing that’s always irritated me is, for a lot of people, it’s not considered a fine art—unless it’s classical music or something like that. I disagree. I think it’s one of the highest forms of art. I love film, I love painters, painting, those are all big influences on me, all that stuff. But music, it’s sometimes ghettoized by big MOMA types of museums. It’s so weird. That’s a whole other—that’s an article you should write: The insider trading quackery going on in the art world. Oh my God, they make the music world look positively noble.
Veronika: OK, so music speaks to our most primal parts?
Buzz: I think so.
Veronika: Would it be fair to take that idea one step further, and say that we’re all just a bunch of modern day cavemen living in a seemingly civilized world?
Buzz: Look at the way children are born. Children are born as barbarians, and they have to be civilized. I mean, it’s Lord of the Flies if there are no adults around. We have to be taught how to be nice. We’re not inherently nice. When you look at a four-year-old or a five-year-old, they are cavemen.
Veronika: And when we grow up, are we still cavemen?
Buzz: I think it gets beaten out of you, then you get to enjoy it in other ways. I’ve always laughed that I live a relatively conservative life, and I let my craziness come out in my work. I don’t waste it offstage.
Veronika: Nice. I think that’s a great place to end.
Buzz: Great. Thanks for writing about us.
Veronika: Buzz, thank you so much.