Interview: Catching up with King Buzzo of The Melvins
The Melvins began in the Pacific Northwest.
In the 80’s and 90’s, Melvins were on the fringes of and friends with many of Seattle’s grunge scene. They introduced Dave Grohl and Kurt Cobain who would later share fame as Nirvana. They practiced guitar techniques with members of Soundgarden. Ongoing, they have collaborated with the likes of Tool, a supergroup side project The Crystal Fairy and a slew of other artists and musicians.
But even with their buzz-worthy friends filling the airwaves and selling multitudes of CD’s, The Melvins have remained distinct in the underground, and unrelenting. Over the years they released album after album of creative whims and crazed ideas in an artistic frenzied manner.
Sometimes it’s a kind of “quiet-loud” rock. A soothing yet violent sludge of slow tempos, heavy bass, and distortion. Or maybe it’s a weird hilarious punk rant if they feel like it. Each of their many albums share elements of percussive and rhythmic interludes, and show no fear to lash out into new experimental vagaries.
Their latest works include a double-album connected to short film A Walk With Love And Death, and Pinkus Abortion Technique, a play on works between the Melvins and Jeff Pinkus of The Butthole Surfers. They are now touring as a four piece with two bassists on stage.
So what’s it like for the Melvins these days?
We talked to Buzz Osborne (AKA King Buzzo ), about how the band has changed (or hasn’t changed) over the decades, trusting yourself as an artist, the importance of ‘ rise and shine’, and how movie quotes can truly define a sentiment.
11: I hear you’re home before going out on tour again. Are you getting some rest?
Buzz Osborne: I’m very busy. I’m usually up at the crack of dawn, at around 4am.
Buzz: I get up very early when I’m at home. I usually see the sunrise every single morning. Waking up with the sun already up is like walking into a full room when you’re not expecting it.
There’s something very therapeutic when the rest of the world is asleep and you’re awake. I don’t like staying up while everyone else falls asleep. I like to be awake before they’re up. That way I’m getting as much out of the day as I can possibly get out of it.
11: I wish I could get up that early. You seem to have an energy level like a madman.
Buzz: It’s different when I’m on tour because I go to bed so late. But I’m usually still up well before 9am most days. We don’t really stay up extremely late.
11: But you guys just documented some of your power tour, where you played a city a day in 51 days?
Buzz: We did it! All 50 states plus DC in 51 days.
11: How did you manage that?
Buzz: A lot of planning. Also-I don’t think it’s that odd to get up early. I don’t even set an alarm I just do it. The thing is- if you make yourself get up early, you’ll go to bed early, and that’s just how it works. I never stay up past midnight, and I’m usually up before the sun comes up. And I love it. I love to watch the sunrise. Nothing cleans out the cobwebs of everything like sunlight does.
And musicians are people of the great indoors. But I relish the idea that the sun is my friend.
I don’t mean I go tanning or anything like that. I wear sunscreen. I just mean the energy of everything that we can do is going during the day. I hear people say “Well I get more done at night”. Well that’s bullshit. I challenge that. We’ll see who gets more done. But well, I guess if it works for some people I don’t care.
11: I guess part of that is in music it’s all centered around nightlife.
Buzz: Yeah, well I’m not about drinking culture unless I’m at a bar being paid to be there. It’s just not for me. I don’t find any rest, I have no interest in loquacious clever chit-chat from a bunch of drunks. I don’t have any interest in listening to them prattle on half in the bag. It does nothing for me. I don’t think it’s anything more than a hindrance to me. And it’s fine, I mean if you want to get drunk, get drunk. But drunks are only fun if you’re drunk. When people are drunk they talk about the same things over and over. And after I’ve said yes to the same question eight times I’m ready to leave.
11: What do you think they could do that would be more substantial?
Buzz: I don’t have any answers along those lines. It’s sort of like Howard Beale from that movie Network where he says “I don’t know what the answer is, all I know is you’ve gotta get mad. You’ve got to say I’m a human being god dammit, and my life has value”.
And that’s it. That’s the thing and that’s the genius of that. I don’t have the answers. I don’t know where you find them.
11: I heard you and your wife work together mutually on each others projects?
Buzz: I found Mrs. Right 25 years ago. And the kind of woman who is willing to put up with me and my line of work and my eccentric nature does not grow on trees. So I’m not going to screw this up. She’s a graphic designer and does art for some of the albums.
11: So you’re originally from Montesano, Washington. The Pacific Northwest?
Buzz: Well yes, originally. But we moved away in 1986-87. We did one album there and one 7 inch. 99.9 percent of everything else we have done in California. The Northwest that I left doesn’t exist anymore.
11: How do you think it has changed? How do you think the scene has changed?
Buzz: Its all new people, for one thing. What I needed to do at the time was make a break and prove to myself that I could do it from the beginning all over again. I knew I needed to get out and do my own thing and spread my own wings. And it worked really well for us really quickly once we got out of that environment.
I’ve often wondered how people can stay in their little tiny worlds without expanding it outwards, at least a little bit. Everything that is good in my life came to me as the result of music. Everything. I don’t forget that. It came as the result of me being able to springboard myself into a wide variety of very dangerous situations, like career-wise as well as emotionally and mentally. All of those things. I’ve never been afraid of doing that sort of thing, fearlessly walking through the fire.
11: Your music is very fearless. Around 30 albums, all very consistent, working through all kinds of crazy whims and ideas and collaborations. Experimenting.
Buzz: Everybody can do that. But some won’t because they are afraid of risk. I don’t know why that is.
11: You’re credited with inspiring and helping and collaborating with some of the most well known bands of the 90’s. Many coming out of the Seattle/PNW region. Nirvana, Soundgarden, there’s quite a list.
Buzz: Oh yes of course. I would say that our musical ideas and the things that we had completely changed the entire scope of music at the time. As a direct result of what we were thinking and doing. That came from my steadfast and stubborn ideas and knowing that I wasn’t wrong. Even though I was facing a lot of people saying “you are wrong.”
Dennis Hopper says something in Apocalypse Now that I always loved. “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you”. When you can do that you’ve really achieved something. But it is difficult. We didn’t have a lot of people on our side when we were making decisions. But I always knew that I had good taste and if I just made music that I liked and that I believed in and did it as hard as I could, that there would be other people out there that also liked it. And as it turned out those are the people that changed the face of music. It’s not really about music and it’s not about fame. It’s almost about a spiritual idea of how it should work, and sticking to it.
11: Some of those same people, have come and gone, or changed. Yet The Melvins remain.
Buzz: Yes. Some are working minimally, or finished. Or in the grave. We are still standing. We are working musicians. That’s what we do. Bob Dylan said something I love: “I work as hard as I do because that’s the deal I made.”
That’s what I do. We have actually had criticism where people say we put out records too fast. Like we need to work on them more. And I’m like get out of my way, let me do my work. It’s music, it’s not vastly important in the grand scheme of things. It’s art, it’s extra in your life and so in your life of leisure when you want to enjoy music- how can someone complain that there’s too much of it?
11: In contrast to the other bands you collaborated with or were friends with, the Melvins have remained largely underground. Do you prefer to stay that way? To frequent the smaller stages?
Buzz: I don’t prefer anything. It’s just reality. I’m not beavering away trying not to sell records or be successful.
11: But you’re successful either way.
Buzz: I don’t judge myself along the lines of what other people are doing. ‘Cause then what happens is you can have all the money in the bank, and still not be happy because things aren’t exactly how you wanted.
I love movies, I am obviously always quoting movies. So here’s a line from my very favorite move called The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre. One of the characters, the oldest prospector says to another, “ It might be wise not to put things strictly on a money basis”, and I think that’s right. I’ve never forgotten that.
11: Sierra Madre is directed by John Huston, who also directed Wise Blood, which was based on a novel written by one of my favorite authors, Flannery O’Connor. I’m from Tennessee and some of her work is so dark and has always resonated with me.
Buzz: Wise Blood is set in a fictitious town in Tennessee called Talkingham. She’s from Georgia, from Milledgeville, GA. That’s where she grew up and where she died. She died of Lupus at 39 years old. I went to tour her house there, where she wrote all of that stuff. They have the refrigerator that she bought with her first royalty check from Wise Blood. She wrote that story before she was even 21 years old. Where does that all come from?
11: The south at that time, and still, can be a dark place.
Buzz: It was a dark place and she was a Catholic. Not a happy experience for Catholics in the South in the 40’s and 50’s. I share a birthday with her, actually. March 25th, along with David Lean, the director of another one of my all time favorite movies, Lawrence of Arabia. Yes, Movies are a big deal to me. They are a really big deal. I live them, I live through them, I bury myself in them. I am consumed by movies.
11: Don’t you have a short film about to be released?
Buzz: It’s a 33 minute short film, A Walk With Love and Death, directed by Jesse Nieminen. It’s going to be out right away.
(note: I forgot to ask about the relevance to the 1969 film of the same name, also directed by John Huston and starring his young daughter, Anjelica.)
11: It looks to be super creepy and dark.
Buzz: It’s very weird.
11: You did this kind of double release album as part of the soundtrack?
Buzz: We already put out the double album out last year. One side is the film soundtrack and the other side is a normal record. Now we’re putting out the soundtrack with the movie, but edited so that the music is the exact same length as the film. So the soundtrack is more like a regular soundtrack that you would buy with songs, but the new thing is the whole thing edited together as one new piece.
11: So your most recent album, Pinkus Abortion Technician, is somewhere in the 30th album range of your career. Once again you are working with members of The Butthole Surfers, like Jeff Pinkus.
Buzz: The Butthole Surfers are one of my favorites. It’s a very weird thing for me to playing with a band now with the bass player from Red Cross, and the bass player from Butthole Surfers. We’ve had two drum sets before, but now two bass players. I was always a fan, and if you told me 30 years ago that someday that you would be playing with these guys, I would have never believed it. It’s beyond anything that I could of comprehended or even wished for.
That’s also a result of music and sticking it out which I’m going to continue to do.
11: There’s a track on the new album called “Stop Moving to Florida”. Why should people stop moving to Florida?
Buzz: You would have to ask the Butthole Surfers, because it’s their song. So actually for this album that is two songs. It’s a song called “Stop”, and the Butthole Surfers song called “Moving to Florida”, and we ended up putting them together into one song.
I suggest “Don’t Forget To Breathe”, from Pinkus Abortion Technician:
11: Just curious from a fashion standpoint, who makes your awesome stage wear? The sweaters and tunics with psychedelic patterns, geometrics, and eyeballs?
Buzz: The mumus? They are made by a girl named Rebecca Sevrin from Montreal. I knew her from a band called Frightwig, and she had worked as a costume designer in Hollywood. She wanted to make me some mumus. She does really good work.
11: Any new artists that are standing out to you these days?
Buzz: John Spencer has a new self-titled thing that I’m really interested in. Also a band called We Are The Asteroid, and Mod Pod, who will be joining us on tour.
11: Ah yes, Mod Pod will be with you on your Portland stop.
Buzz: Yeah, we usually visit Portland every year. This year we’re playing the Wonder Ballroom. We have a great time there.
11: Going way, way back to your beginnings as a band. It’s rumored that you named the band after a particularly loathsome co-worker named Melvin, while you worked one of many jobs at a Thriftway grocery store.
Buzz: Yes that’s true.
11: Whats your advice for dealing with day-to-day Melvins?
Buzz: Ummmm. Well sometimes it’s necessary, but avoid them as much as possible.
The Melvins return to Portland to play The Wonder Ballroom with Mod Pod on July, 20th.