“We never have been, so we were never has-beens”
“I’m never surprised,” says Melvins frontman Buzz Osborne, a.k.a. King Buzzo, sitting across from long-time drummer Dale Crover. “Almost never.” As the pair relaxes backstage, hours away from the penultimate show of their European tour, an impressive musical legacy looms. The band’s 32-year history covers over 20 studio albums, as well as individual members rubbing shoulders with the likes of Nirvana and Butthole Surfers and Slayer, to name a few. Clearly I was not going to surprise either of them.
Regarding their lengthy career, a stretch of time in which most bands complete the burn out, fade away rock and roll narrative, Melvins offer some advice.
“Never have massive success”, Buzz half-jokes, with Dale adding that “we never have been, so we were never has-beens.” They seem like the fulfilment of a romantic vision of punk, the escapist teenage fantasy most famously embodied by Melvins fan and occasional producer Kurt Cobain. They were never big enough to sell out, but never a critical or commercial failure. Somewhere along the line, the band found a happy balance between paying the bills and making music on their own terms.
“People who like our band are probably into weird bands,” Dale adds, keenly aware of the Melvins’ cult status: “We’re not the easiest band to like.” Certainly, the Melvins’ music has a kind of off-kilter, abrasive quality, generally found somewhere between Bleach-esque grunge and weirder types of metal. They’ve influenced Japanese avant-metallers Boris, who take their name from a song off Bullhead, as well as Sunn O))), and Mastodon. And yet, all these name-drops and comparisons scarcely do enough to convey that Melvins sound.
They trace this unique sound back to their childhoods in Washington state, Buzz in Montesano, Dale in Aberdeen. Buzz in particular paints the image of a lifelong outsider, growing up in a town without a record store where everybody hated him. He utters the word “rednecks” with an unusually contemptuous tone, mentioning how his love of now-fairly mainstream artists like David Bowie led to him being ostracised. This all changed, however, when Buzz was able to drive, and the legendary Seattle scene was made accessible to him.
“I realised that the world I was inhabiting was not the world I wanted to be in,” Buzz laments, “I do not look back fondly on any of that.”
When Dale joined the band in 1984, replacing original drummer Mike Dillard, the Melvins moved towards a slower and heavier form of hardcore punk that would become the stylistic basis for grunge. Growing up in a similar isolated environment to Osborne, with only Monkees, Beatles, and Osmond records available via the grocery store, it’s easy to see how the two found a kindred spirit within one another. Their joint love of “weird heavy metal music that nobody knew about” endures to this day, such as in Dale’s roles in sludge and doom outfits Men of Porn and Shrinebuilder, or Buzz taking on lead guitar duties in Fantŏmas.
The conversation moves towards the current affairs of the band, including their recent studio album Hold It In, as well as Buzz’s acoustic album This Machine Kills Artists, both released in 2014. Regarding the latter, the pair pass some amusing judgement on the “Nashville Skyline” direction that so many acoustic albums go in.
“You know the one thing that every one of these guys does… they get up there with an acoustic guitar and they wear fucking cowboy boots!”
Dale is referring to a particular Foo Fighters guitarist, but as neither he nor Buzz can remember his name, I’m saved from being completely embarrassed for the perpetrator in question. Dale and Buzz are right, mind. There is something deeply sinister about the idea of 90s alternative rock associates doing acoustic sets of countrified Otis Redding covers in brand spanking new cowboy boots. Safe to say, they promised that nothing of the sort will feature in the Melvins’ future.
On one hand, this humour provides a welcome diversion from the band’s somewhat sombre recollection of their youth. However, it also mirrors that righteous strand of bizarre comedy that comes through in the Melvins’ music, the kind of stuff only lifelong anti-redneck punks could come up with. For a brief moment, I feel welcomed into the kind of space they make music in, that irreverent and alternative vibe that anyone who has ever bought a Goo or Nirvana t-shirt can relate to. It’s nice to see that it’s all survived.
And then, unsurprisingly, I’m baffled once more. As I get ready to leave, the band, alongside Coady Willis of support band Big Business, begin a rendition of Kiss’s ‘Beth’. Whatever the hell the Melvins are, I hope they never stop. Hail Dale. Hail Buzzo.