Scum Down Heavy: The Melvins interviewed

How much does King Buzzo hate where he grew up? THIS much!

With Sonic Youth gone, The Melvins are just about the last band standing from the Eighties heyday of wild twists on the punk formula. But becoming a legend means more than just survival. It’s about keeping a creative cutting-edge, a visible striving for new potential and fresh avenues to create musical impact. The Melvins have careered forward with seven EPs and albums pouring out in just the last couple of years, and with a major tour documentary catching their 51 day slalom-ride through 51 dates in 50 U.S. states (plus Washington DC) – the Melvins haven’t gone the route of break-up and reformation, descent into irrelevance or commerce-seeking sell-out.

Catching them before their show at the Electric Ballroom in Camden earlier this month, Buzz Osborne and Dale Crover proved charming hosts, unwilling to compromise their views for anyone – happy to tackle any topic laid before them with no apologies and no crowd-pleasing attempts to soft-soap. The interview took in their origins in the smallest of small town environments in the isolated far North-West of America (several hours ride even to the small college town of Olympia) all the way through to their upcoming moves and desire to do this until they drop which, as Buzz points out might come at any moment.

W&G: I went through Aberdeen back in 2013. I must have picked a good day, blue skies and prettiness… August.

Buzz Osborne: Jesus. You went there?

Dale Crover: It can be nice then. For a little bit, then it starts to rain… It’s only gotten worse and worse. I haven’t been there in a while but going back there is always just… It is different – it’s more levelled. Flat.

Buzz: And it was bad when we were there. What did you think? Would you buy property and move there? Hell no! It’s just sad. I’d rather live in Hull – there’s more going on. We moved to California – I’ve lived in Los Angeles for more than 20 years. We’ve done 99.9% of our work since we left Washington State. I never liked it. I would never have liked it even at its most vibrant. There’s nothing nice about Aberdeen. I hated the people who lived there, I hated the people when I lived there – the people hated me when I lived there. I have no good memories of the place, in fact I think I was worse off growing up there than I would have been in a much more urban environment. No question.

There’s no question you guys were a definite minority – that people didn’t like what you were doing…

Buzz: I was. They didn’t like ME either. That was definite. When I met Crover even the people who knew Crover didn’t like me. I rubbed them all the wrong way. It’s the way I am, they couldn’t deal with it. They are like sheep. Redneck sheep.

Dale: Have you seen Easy Rider? You know the line where he says people think they’re free but when “they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare them.”

Buzz: And if you tell them they’re not free they’ll start “killing and maiming to prove to you that they are.” It scares them. It doesn’t just make them scared, it makes them dangerous. That’s exactly what they were. People have this idea that you look back on the good old days – there was nothing good about it, any of that.

Dale: Plus, it’s mythologized because of Kurt Cobain. He didn’t like it either. Actually one of our last conversations was “Yeah, I kinda like going there now,” and I just thought “God, what a fucking asshole…” But I think he got along with his mum a lot better then, he had a little sister he liked a lot too.

Buzz: But he didn’t do anything in that town.

Dale: There’s nothing to-do-there. He meant it was OK to go back and visit for a couple of hours and then leave, y’know? I can understand that. When we go up there, I don’t really have anybody that lives there now – Olympia’s the closest, my mum lives there, and I can go there a while and hang out. Then I don’t have to stay. It certainly wasn’t a great place for the band to be. There are no shows there or anything like that.

Buzz: No, there were a bunch of dumbass heavy metal bands that were playing cover songs – and they certainly didn’t like us. There was a band called Metal Church, a couple of those guys were friendly to us – I don’t know if they liked us – but a couple of the guys in that band were total assholes and I could not stand them. So there was no mutual admiration society going with us and other musicians from that area. Even to this day those people are confused why anything ever happened for us.

Dale: Any of the other musicians there were guys that were playing Scorpions covers, Van Halen songs, trying to play guitar like Eddie Van Halen.

Buzz: Which is fine, but how many Eddie Van Halens do we need?

Dale: But there was more than a couple of bands that came out of there that got famous.

Buzz: Yeah, that’s weird. The lynchpin in all that stuff is me. Without me none of that would have happened. Those guys – including you (addressing Dale) – would have been on a much different path. Because there’s no reason why they wouldn’t have.

I was genuinely going to ask no Nirvana questions because I think you guys must get sick to death of it all.

Buzz: I understand, it doesn’t bother me. People don’t necessarily like the answers I give but I have no problem talking about it.

Dale: It’s part of our history.

OK, well, I wrote a piece called “No Melvins = No Nirvana,” because you’re responsible for Cobain finding punk, his first roadie experience, his first live performance, his first band recordings, getting his first studio session with Nirvana…

Buzz: Absolutely. Him and Krist Novoselic both found punk through me. The first shows Cobain ever went to! Both of those guys. Novoselic first. We were friends with Kurt first but Krist got into the music stuff before Kurt did. In the grand scheme of things, considering their ages, they got into it relatively late.

Dale: Cobain was 16-17, he was still in high school. That’s when I met him. You guys (nods to Buzz) had met him because you’d ridden the bus with him then you told me “Oh, there’s this friend of ours that goes to your school!” Then I met him the next day because of that.

Melvins is already go before you (Dale) join?

Buzz: Yeah. It was much different from anything going on around there. Not much different to anything that was going on out in the real world, but different for there. I’d already given up on that place. I’d probably given up on it when I was twelve years old. Music had become an escape for me when I was really young. I didn’t have any older brothers or cool people that I knew who turned me on to music – I just found it all by myself. In hindsight it’s taken me a long time, years and years and years, to finaly realise how odd it was in that area to be in Eighth Grade listening to the Heroes album by David Bowie.

Dale: And Buzz is from an even smaller town – Montesano – which was… There’s no record stores there.

Buzz: No, I had to buy all my stuff mail order and at that point the U.S. Government postal service took months to deliver anything. I would give my mum money, she would write me a cheque to whoever the mail order place was, I would send it – and months later I’d get the record. It wasn’t like now when people get stuff next day. Which I love! I’m not against that at all. I don’t know if you can tell but I’m not a ‘good old days’ type of guy, not at all. I enjoyed leaving there and I enjoyed lived in San Francisco a great deal – the bohemian nature of it. I became friends and friendly with a lot of weirdoes in San Francisco that I look back fondly on. Everyone from ex-mafia guys from Oakland to transvestites both post- and pre-op. I wasn’t running across that where I lived and grew up – people weren’t even talking about things of that nature. I found it quite impressive, that I could go to City Lights Books and walk around the North Beach area where all that stuff happened. I liked that I could walk by some shitty hotel that Jack London might have stayed in – that was a big deal for me! And then moving to LA, the same thing, I love LA – I don’t want to live anywhere else, I’ll never move away from there. I am LA to the backbone! I love it because I can hide there in a massive metropolis…

Coming from where we came from, they’re like Shangri-Las. I went there and I felt that I could breathe – that as weird as I am there were like-minded people. And learning I didn’t get on with people in the small towns but that it wasn’t me who was fucked up, it was them! It’s the whole world! It’s no different here in England – if anything it’s worse. The caste system here is beyond anything we have in the United States. It’s difficult to adjust out of those – then you’re considered uppity if you’re lower class trying to do better for yourself. Even the way you talk will never be accepted unless you change it – a la My Fair Lady. We find that alien where we live because the rags to riches story couldn’t be more American. No money to new money is a big deal in America!

There’s a British thing to sneer at Americans, but you have a level of freedom that’s bizarre to us. We don’t vote for our leader – he’s chosen by the party. We don’t vote for any local judicial authorities, no law enforcement figures, very few mayors – we don’t have any of that.

Dale: A friend of mine just looked out her back door and saw there was a black bear in the pool. I said “You know what you should do? You should get a gun.” She’s like “Yeah…I think you’re right…” It’s right there in her swimming pool. And that’s in LA.

Buzz: That’s one reason there. I’m not publically a political person but this is what irritates me about that stuff; you have politicians here and in America who advocate anti-gun stuff – here they did it to the point that you can’t own a gun. But they themselves are protected, and their families, by people with guns. But they want to make sure you can’t protect your family. That’s bullshit. The queen is surrounded by people with guns – and not that she sets policy – but no one thinks that’s weird? Fuck that. I deserve the exact same treatment as our president and as our politicians. As the mayor of LA who can sit there talking about taking guns away while him and his family are protected by guns. As soon as they’re not protected by guns, then they can talk to me about not being protected by guns.

On your initial demos from ’83 there’s more that sounds like a hardcore band – then you switch. What made you decide to change?

Buzz: We switched relatively quickly. And it’s maybe because I decided I wanted to do something that would get us a little more attention and how much more could you do with hardcore? We have elements of that sort of thing but I just never wanted to limit myself to being like The Ramones. There were plenty of hardcore bands, certainly in Seattle, those bands did well there.

Dale: Certainly, I liked the fact that we were different – not trying to sound like one thing. These are all underground bands playing in small clubs though.

Buzz: Soundgarden, us, Green River – nobody gave a shit. Certainly not when we lived there – not in any significant way. Not even a club of this size (indicates the stage area of the Electric Ballroom) – this would have been absurd to even imagine one of those bands opening somewhere like this. Maybe opening for a much bigger band. That’s the only time, when we lived in Seattle, that we played somewhere like this. We were not afraid of heavy metal unlike a lot of our contemporaries. But if I had to be quite honest, I think a band we had more in common with, that was similar to what we were doing aesthetically, it’d be the Pixies. It wouldn’t be a metal band that’s for sure – Pixies would be the band I felt more akin with, though I’d never want to be like them. But if you wanted to take two bands who were similar in nature – they’re the one. They don’t want to belong to any club that would have them as a member, the Groucho-Marxism – neither would I.

I got that thing you did with Lustmord – great record. But you guys are so open to collaboration but Lustmord’s about as beyond the rock sphere you’ve gone. Is there a reason?

Buzz: We’ve just never done it. We knew he would take our music and do something we’d have never thought of. And he did.

Is there anyone you’d like to work with?

Dale: Yes, but they’re all dead. There are people that we’d like to do stuff with who we haven’t gotten around to doing stuff with – that have said yes, so it’s just a matter of time. It will in time – things present themselves all the time.

Buzz: I’m not afraid of any of that stuff. I’m not super into improv, usually it sounds like a train wreck to me. Our work is very well thought out.

Dale: We’ve done some, a little, but it’s been a few years now. We did this thing where we played along to a movie that an artist friend of ours – Cameron Jamie – did. He also had a guy from Japan, Keiji Haino, do some crazy guitar stuff and we had him sit in with us on one of the movies. That was cool. We just let him do his thing – usually if we’re going to do a collaboration, we’ll sit down and work it out with the person.

If you do something for as long as you guys have done, how do you keep it interesting and what keeps you motivated to get up and create more, play more?

Buzz: You’re only comparing us to people who barely work. I heard Nick Cave describe it: “most bands only have to come up with eight songs every three years, how hard can that be?” I agree. I am not afraid of hard work, at all.

Dale: Musicians are the laziest people on the planet. A lot of bands, I’d say the majority, don’t work hard. I get bored sitting around after a while. This is what we do.

Buzz: I take it very seriously. I do my job.

I’ve spoken to Adam Harding who, Dale, you’ve played with in Dumb Numbers, then the pair of you have collaborated with them on an EP release that’s coming out on Joyful Noise – how’d you get hooked up with them?

Dale: He hired me to play drums on his record – I’m not a member in the band. I do a lot of session work. That’s fine, I met him through Lou Barlow – he asked me to play on some stuff and he gave me money! Plus he’s friends with David Lynch. Evidently he played David the Freak Puke record top-to-bottom and at the end David got up and announced “Ladies and gentlemen…Freak Puke!” It’s as good an endorsement as you’re going to get. That turned into doing a split with him.

And I saw you doing something with Le Butcherettes. Is there more stuff coming soon?

Buzz: We have a 10” EP that’s just come out – then we have another one that’s going to come out. Then we’re going to do a record we started working on sixteen years ago with this guy that’s coming out in April, then an album we’re working on with a variety of bass players to come out sometime next year. The release with Mike Dillard was all new stuff, we did a whole new album with him – with Dale playing bass – called Tres Cabrones. The EP is all new songs – people think we’re recording things we did in ’83, no! We did these new.

And may I ask what’s really inspiring you at the moment?

Dale: We just did a big tour with Le Butcherettes. They’re a great live band and Teri (Gender Bender), you can’t take your eyes off her. It’s like Elvis was like or Iggy Pop was like where you don’t know what she’s going to do – she puts the danger back into rock.

Buzz: We like Le Butcherettes a lot. She’s very intimidating without being tough.

Going to do this until you drop?

Buzz: Might be sooner than you think. (Both chuckle)

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About Nick Soulsby (46 Articles)
Nick is the author of 'I Found My Friends: the Oral History of Nirvana' (St Martins Griffin) and 'Cobain On Cobain: Interviews and Encounters' (Chicago Review Press - February 2016). He lives in Bristol.
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