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    Categories: musicQ&A

Loud, Quiet. Hard, Soft. A Conversation with The Melvins’ Buzz Osborne

by Jeremy Morrison

The Melvins have been at it for a while now. For more than 30 years, the Washington state-birthed band has been doing its thing. Whatever that is.

“Loud, quiet. Hard, soft. All over the map,” Buzz Osborne, the band’s singer and guitarist attempted to described the group’s music recently. “We cover a wide variety of insanity.”

The Melvins — usually performing as a trio, with Osborne and drummer Dale Crover considered cornerstone members — play music that might be labeled, broadly speaking, as punk rock. But there’s a lot in there, everything from Flipper and Black Flag to Judy Garland and Grand Funk Railroad.

“All of them equally have a place in what we’re doing,” Osborne said after ticking off a list of musical influences and “heroes.”

The Melvins’ work itself is cited as being influential on the grunge sound that grew out of Washington in the late-1980s and early-1990s. Notably, the band’s early years were intertwined with those of Seattle’s biggest offering: soon-to-be Nirvana bassist (and then Taco Bell employee) Krist Novoselic introduced Osborne to Crover, who would later play drums on Nirvana’s “Bleach” album, before Osborne ultimately hooked up Novoselic and guitarist Kurt Cobain with drummer Dave Grohl.

These days, the Melvins are doing pretty much the same thing they always have. Playing music. And constantly creating new music.

Most recently, the band released a double album in July entitled “A Walk with Love & Death.” The work, taking its name from a 1969 John Huston film, is one-part standard-Melvins fare, and one-part movie soundtrack for an as-yet unfinished film Osborne is working on with Atlanta filmmaker Jesse Nieminen.

The Melvins are currently on the road touring, with a Sept. 14 date scheduled for Pensacola’s Vinyl Music Hall. After a soundcheck at a recent stop in Tucson, Ariz., Osborne took a few minutes to discuss the group’s work, as well as his reluctance to use his platform as a musician to discuss politics, his admiration for economist Thomas Sowell, the risks of then-approaching Hurricane Irma and the reasons he started playing music in the first place.

The Melvins (photo/ Chris Casella)

SANDS: You’re in Arizona?

BUZZ: Yeah, Tucson.

SANDS: Tucson. Nice. Is it hot out there right now?

BUZZ: Yeah, you better believe it. Hotter than a motherf*cker.

SANDS: Yeah, well, hey, it’s probably not gonna be much cooler when you make it to Florida.

BUZZ: Oh, you’re in Florida?

SANDS: Yeah, Pensacola.

BUZZ: You’re about to be destroyed?

SANDS: Well, um, hopefully it’s gonna spare us, but Miami’s, you know, freaking out.

BUZZ: Miami’s staring down the barrel of it?

SANDS: Exactly, yeah.

BUZZ: When’s it gonna hit Miami?

SANDS: Uh, Sunday morning I think. You know, the cone is still pretty big, so I don’t wanna say we’re out of the woods yet, but it looks like it’s gonna go a little west —

BUZZ: It could go anywhere.

SANDS: Exactly, yeah. All of Florida is freaking out.

BUZZ: It could go back out into the Atlantic, too.

SANDS: It could, it could tear up the whole eastern seaboard, I guess.

BUZZ: It could. I doubt it.

SANDS: Nah, I think —

BUZZ: They generally don’t go up that high north, you know.

SANDS: No. It’s suppose to go up the middle of Florida and then make it into, like, the Carolinas.

BUZZ: Yeah, as a full on hurricane?

SANDS: Nah, nah, it’ll turn into a, you know, tropical storm in, you know, Georgia.

BUZZ: It’ll dissipate once it hits land, to at least some degree.

SANDS: Yeah, yeah.

BUZZ: Usually. But I’m not meteorologist. I’m no entomologist.

SANDS: No? In Florida we’re all amateur meteorologists.

BUZZ: Yeah. I’d be running if I were you.

SANDS: Yeah. I dunno, if it’s not too bad it’s fun to play around in the wind. So —

BUZZ: Well, you have a very good attitude.

SANDS: You gotta stay positive, right?

BUZZ: It sounds f*cking dangerous to me.

SANDS: Yeah, it is. But at least you get a little time. It’s not like an earthquake or something, where the earth just opens up and you have no warning.

BUZZ: Yeah, no warning whatsoever, that’s where we live.

SANDS: Yeah.

BUZZ: That’s the way we like it, because we’re thrill seekers.

SANDS: Exactly. Well, cool man, let’s dive into this —

BUZZ: You guys have days before it hits. Where’s the fun in that?

SANDS: Right. Well, yeah, you get to run around to the stores and look at all the empty shelves and, you know, wonder if you’re gonna have enough gas to get out of there.

BUZZ: People panicking.

SANDS: Exactly, it’s —

BUZZ: I think that they say they’re bigger than they really are so that they can get people to leave. You know?

SANDS: Maybe. I think that’s Rush Limbaugh’s theory. He thinks that it’s a marketing ploy.

BUZZ: It could be.

SANDS: It could be. Could be, except they actually hit.

BUZZ: Yeah.

SANDS: So, hey man —

BUZZ: I don’t know, they don’t want people to get hurt so I’m sure they tell’em, “It’s gonna be huge! Get outta here!” You know?

SANDS: Right. Yeah, yeah —

BUZZ: It’s not that big of a deal to me. It doesn’t sound like that much of a conspiracy, you know?

SANDS: No. No, I don’t think it’s a conspiracy, you know, I “believe” in hurricanes.

BUZZ: Yes.

SANDS: Yeah. So, how’s it going out there on the road?

BUZZ: Great. No problems at all. Having fun.

SANDS: Tour going good?

BUZZ: Hopefully we can play there, without all of Florida being leveled to below sea level. As opposed to right at sea level.

SANDS: Yeah, yeah. I’m sure the show will go on.

BUZZ: One way or another, I hope.

SANDS: Yes.

BUZZ: I mean, you never know, if we get there and another one’s coming, we’re leaving.

SANDS: Have y’all ever played here before?

BUZZ: We’re not as sophisticated as you. What?

SANDS: Have ya’ll ever played here before?

BUZZ: In Florida?

SANDS: In Pensacola.

BUZZ: Oh yeah, we were there not even like a year and a half ago.
SANDS: Ok. I thought I remembered that.

BUZZ: We played Pensacola in ’86, believe it or not.

SANDS: Oh, wow, do you happen to remember where you played?

BUZZ: No. Nobody was there. Very few people were there.

SANDS: That’s a — the good, historic shows in Pensacola, usually the story is nobody was there.

BUZZ: Yeah, well, you know, we have pretty good shows there. We’re looking forward to it.

SANDS: Cool. What are y’all playing? Are you just playing, you know, everything from —

BUZZ: Oh yeah, yeah, we’re gonna do some stuff here and there, a little new, a little old.

SANDS: Are you playing anything off the album that y’all just made?

BUZZ: Yeah, we’re doing three songs off of that. That’ll be cool. Yep, we never fail.

SANDS: So, let’s take it back a little bit here: can you tell me why you started playing music.

BUZZ: Seemed like the cool thing to do. There’s that answer, and then the other one is: I got in it for the chicks.

SANDS: For the chicks? That’s why most people get in it, right?

BUZZ: Yeah, I got in it for the chicks. That’s the only reason I’m in it now.

SANDS: How’s that working out?

BUZZ: Sweet. Ended up married.

SANDS: Nice. Well, mission accomplished, I guess, right?

BUZZ: I married a women who’d never heard of our band.

SANDS: Oh? Well, was that the draw, or —

BUZZ: It didn’t hurt.

SANDS: Didn’t hurt?

BUZZ: No.

SANDS: She’s heard of you now though, right?

BUZZ: It was in the plus column. Oh, yeah, yeah, she’s well aware of us now. Barely comes to see us, you know? We do a lot of work together, art wise. So, she does all of our art , all of our graphic design.

SANDS: Oh, ok. Nice.

BUZZ: So, we have a great working relationship.

SANDS: That’s fun when you can, you know, be married to someone you can work with as well.

BUZZ: Yes. It’s all good.

SANDS: How do you feel about labels? Specifically, the label “punk rock,” and do you think that’s an accurate descriptive for The Melvins?

BUZZ: Sure. It’s better than “contemporary country” for us.

SANDS: Yeah. What does that mean anymore? Punk rock?

BUZZ: Well, you know, most of what passes for that, for me, at this point, sounds like a bad version of the Knack. So, I don’t know, if it sounds like a bad version of the Knack, it’s not necessarily punk rock to me.

SANDS: How would you describe y’all’s sound? If you could just sum it up simply.

BUZZ: Loud, quiet. Hard, soft. All over the map.

SANDS: All over the map?

BUZZ: We don’t just do one thing. We’re a — we cover a wide variety of insanity. That’s a good way to put it, you know.

(photo/The Melvins)

SANDS: Cool. You, uh — The Melvins are cited as influential on a number of bands — you know, everyone points to Nirvana, who was obviously inflUential themselves — who do you look back at —

BUZZ: Yes.

SANDS: — and say, you know, “They influenced me.”

BUZZ: Flipper. Black Flag. The Thugs. A wide variety of bands like that. MC5. The Thugs, heavily. Captain Beefheart. You know, Flipper, Black Flag, Gang of Four. Those are the ones that I’d be into, that I’d say were massive influences on us.

SANDS: Who do you listen to these days? What kind of music and what bands are you listening to?

BUZZ: Aw, man, name it. The Stones, Throbbing Gristle, Tom Waits, The Angels, from Australia, I was listening to today. The Birthday Party, from Australia, I was listening to today. A little bit of Sound Garden today. Judy Garland. Hendrix.

SANDS: Really, Judy Garland?

BUZZ: Yeah. Oh yeah.

SANDS: Running the gamut there.

BUZZ: Yep, that’s how it works. That’s what’s always attracted me, things of that nature.

SANDS: That’s always been the case, or would you say your musical taste have evolved and broadened?

BUZZ: Always been the case. No, it’s always been the case. I’ve always been into all kinds of weird stuff. All over the map, from Throbbing Gristle to Mark Farner and Grand Funk Railroad. You know? And all points in between. The Butthole Surfers, Blue Oyster Cult, you know?

SANDS: Yeah, and would you say that all of those things kind of feed into and come out in your own music?

BUZZ: Yes. All of them equally have a place in what we’re doing. As well as [inaudible] and a bunch of other stuff like that. You know, those are my heroes.

SANDS: I was reading, you cited Thomas Sowell, the economist Thomas Sowell [mispronunciation] —

BUZZ: What now?

SANDS: Thomas Sowell —

BUZZ: Sowell [correcting pronunciation].

SANDS: Sowell.

BUZZ: Thomas Sowell.

SANDS: Thomas Sowell. Tell me about him. And why do you cite him as an influence on your career? How is an economist or a philosopher influential on a musician?

BUZZ: Well, you’ll have to read some of his stuff.

SANDS: And I haven’t.

BUZZ: He’s written about 30 books. You’d have to read it. It just makes sense. It’s common sense to me, you know?

SANDS: Yeah? How does that come through in the music?

BUZZ: What now?

SANDS: How does his work come through in your work?

BUZZ: Well, he’s done a lot where he’s taught me how to live. You know, what was good and what was bad.

SANDS: Ok.

BUZZ: How to think. I guess that’s the best way to put it.

SANDS: Got it, got it.

BUZZ: You’d just have to read it. Most people don’t even know who he is.

SANDS: I didn’t know who he was.

BUZZ: It’s very unfortunate. Because I think he’s the greatest philosopher of our time.

SANDS: Where’d you hear about him? How’d you get turned on to him?

BUZZ: I dug him up years and years ago. A long time ago.

SANDS: Yeah?

BUZZ: I just started reading his stuff and I just thought he was right-on, you know? I just thought it was too good to be true. There’s a guy speaking my language. He’s recently retired from writing, so I am really upset. He’s 86 now, 87. When he dies it’ll be an unhappy day for me, very unhappy.

SANDS: Sounds like an interesting guy. I’m gonna give him a look-see.

BUZZ: I’d recommend him to anyone. If someone doesn’t like what he’s saying then you can pretty much rest assured that they’re a f*cking idiot.

SANDS: What would you start with? He’s written a lot of books, would you suggest one to start with?

BUZZ: Oh, uh, “The Thomas Sowell Reader,” that’s a good combination of his columns, that’s pretty good. That’s a good one. “Applied Economics” is a good one, that’s really good. But “The Thomas Sowell Reader” is a good place to start.

SANDS: Ok, cool, “The Thomas Sowell Reader.”

BUZZ: Yeah.

SANDS: So, I was reading that you kind of take the viewpoint of politics, or you know, political statements aren’t necessarily a thing for a musician to get into. Do you still feel that way?

BUZZ: It’s a what now?

SANDS: I was reading where you were saying that making political statements wasn’t really, you know, the position or the job of an artist. Do you still feel that way?

BUZZ: Mostly. I mean look, I’m willing to debate anyone about any political issue. And I can guarantee you I will knock their dick in the dirt regardless of what it is. But I’m not gonna do it in a public forum, you know? That’s a severe, career-limiting move. Because people can’t handle the kind of things I would say. You know?

SANDS: Yeah?

BUZZ: About basic economics and things of that nature. I’m more than willing to debate anyone about politics, just not here.

SANDS: Not on the stage, or as a performer?

BUZZ: Nope. Those things tend to come back to haunt you. You know?

SANDS: Got it.

BUZZ: And I don’t won’t to be misunderstood, you know?

SANDS: That’s probably —

BUZZ: I mean, the best I can say is that I’m a hardcore, classical liberal, you know? That’s what I am.

SANDS: And what does that mean? Hardcore, classical liberal?

BUZZ: You can look it up.

SANDS: Ok.

BUZZ: Look it up. That’s what the internet is for. Classical liberal, that’s what I am. But, a lot of people can’t handle that. True liberal.

SANDS: True liberal?

BUZZ: In the “truest” sense of the word.

SANDS: And would that be, like uh, you-do-your-thing-I’ll-do-mine? Is that the basic —

BUZZ: It borders on libertarianism.

SANDS: Borders on libertarianism? That’s kind of what it sounded like.

BUZZ: But there’s a lot about libertarianism that I don’t agree with. Mostly I think they’re pretty much on the right track.

SANDS: Ok.

BUZZ: People that I see that argue against it really have no concept of really what it is. So, it’s hard to argue with someone who makes stuff up. You know?

SANDS: Sure, right, yeah. Tell me a little bit about this new album, “A Walk with Love & Death,” what’s that about?

BUZZ: It’s a double album. One of the records is a soundtrack, the other record is a regular type of album for us. So, it’s a big project. The soundtrack goes along with a movie that’s not done yet, that I’m working on with a guy name Jessie Nieminen, from Atlanta. So, when that gets done we’ll put that out as well. They’re you go.

SANDS: Ok, and is —

BUZZ: That’s what it is.

SANDS: Is the movie, like, about something, or is it more of an art project?

BUZZ: Well, you know, all movies are about something.

SANDS: Yeah, I guess I just meant, like a, you know, a straight-ahead story.

BUZZ: It’s not a Disney movie, let me put it that way.

SANDS: It’s not a Disney movie. Ok.

BUZZ: Yeah.

SANDS: Does the soundtrack drive the movie or vice versa?

BUZZ: Yeah, the soundtrack came first.

SANDS: Like, before even a concept of the movie?

BUZZ: No. But, it came before the movie was finished. But a lot of soundtracks come before movies are finished. So, that’s nothing new.

SANDS: Is the soundtrack at all, you know, dictating the movie, or not so much.

BUZZ: Could be, you know. Not a 100 percent.

SANDS: Do you play the soundtrack live? Or do you not play that in shows?

BUZZ: No, we do a little bit of it. You’d have to hear it, it’s a little — it’s not really designed for that, you know? The other record is.

SANDS: The — are they separated? Like, one is “love” and one is “death?”

BUZZ: Well, could be, yeah. But there’s definitely a reason why there’s two. It’s not just more of the same, you know?

SANDS: Yeah.

BUZZ: You get two completely different records in this.

SANDS: Does it work as one piece as well?

BUZZ: Well, to me it does. But I don’t know what other people will think, no concept.

SANDS: And this is the same title as a movie, is it related or based on or anything to that movie?

BUZZ: The John Huston movie from the late 60s?

SANDS: Yeah.

BUZZ: No, it has nothing to do with it.

SANDS: Nothing to do with it?

BUZZ: No.

SANDS: What made you choose these themes —

BUZZ: It’s not a remake.

SANDS: A remake?

BUZZ: It’s not a remake.

SANDS: Not a remake, got it. What made you choose “love” and “death?” Those are like, you know, the biggest themes on Earth.

BUZZ: Well, it could’ve just’ve been, just as easily have been — I wanted to call a record after a John Huston movie. It could have just as easily have been “Reflections in a Golden Eye.”

SANDS: Ok.

BUZZ: But I thought that sounded too much like a James Bond movie.

SANDS: That does sound like a James Bond movie. “A Walk With Love and Death” may sound like a James Bond movie, too.

BUZZ: Yeah, he’d be driving though.

SANDS: What now?

BUZZ: He’d be driving though. He wouldn’t be walking, James Bond.

SANDS: True. Yeah, he’d be driving.

BUZZ: One of those really cool cars.

SANDS: Driving a really cool car, yeah. So, how — I’ll try to wrap this up in a minute here — how has y’all’s music, and the approach to making that music, evolved over the course of your career?

BUZZ: We saw to it that we did a wide variety of things. We’ve covered a lot of territory. That was the point. And as far as I’m concerned, mission accomplished. You know, we weren’t — I wasn’t as good as a player when we first started, and we all became better musicians and we just took advantage of all those kinds of things, that’s kind of where that’s at, and you know, more is more as far as we’re concerned.

SANDS: A lot of bands that have been around as long as y’all have would maybe be content to sit back and, you know, just play their old stuff, but y’all keep pumping out albums and new music. Why do you do that, and do you just continue doing that forever?

BUZZ: Well, we want to do it, so that’s why we do it. That’s it, there’s no other reason. I’m sure we — you know, I don’t have to make records, I don’t have to ever make records. I could easily survive on what we’ve done up to this point. Just tour, or whatever. Maybe re-release records. But, I don’t see any reason to do that, you know?

SANDS: You enjoy creating new music?

BUZZ: Yes, that’s what I do. That is my reason for living, you know?

SANDS: Got it. And can you just give us a real quick hint of what we can expect with your Pensacola performance?

BUZZ: Expect absolutely nothing, and then you will be pleasantly surprised.


The Melvins play Vinyl Music Hall in Pensacola, Fla., Sept. 14.

jeremy morrison :