2023 was the FORTIETH year of the Melvins. They've released 30+ albums. They've played thousands of shows. They've changed the landscape of rock music itself.
And yet, in the year 40 A.M., the band, instead of running around saying "We're 40! We're the best! Give us praise!", they decided to put out a TON of new releases and played a special tour. But, just before the band was set to jump off and play their iconic album Bullhead in full on the road, drummer Dale Crover had to have emergency back surgery. how could the tour go on without their crucial, illustrious drummer?! And yet, the Melvins, ever the artists and workmen, smashed forward through the tour and through the hurdles and through the year.
Punknews' John Gentile spoke with Melvins Buzz Osborne and Steven McDonald and some of the band's compatriots about the band's 40th year… and their place in history. You can read that below.
The Melvins at the end of their 40th Year
It has been forty years since the Melvins spawned from the grey, wet, slimy, primordial forest of Morton, Washington. It has been forty years since Melvins founder, Buzz Osborne got the idea to create a band that pulled from the soul of classic rock, the power of heavy metal, and the bite of the still young punk scene. It has been forty years since the creature known as the Melvins first roared.
And in that time, the Melvins have created a genre, or genres, while remaining genre-less. And in that time, the band has released umpteen albums, Eps, singles, live records, and compilations, some which defined the band’s inimitable cannon and some which deliberately struck against said cannon. And in the time, they’ve released punk music, metal music, rock music, folk music, electronic music, soundtracks, noise records, and yes, even Christmas carols. And in that time, they’ve toured six continents and even played 50 states and DC in 51 days, thereby creating a Guiness book of World Record all the while refusing to pay the fee to get into the book thereby proving they did it for the accomplishment, not the accolades. And in that time, they’ve collaborated with the likes of Jello Biafra, Flipper, David Yow, Teri Gender Bender, Mike Patton, JG Thirwell, Krist Novaselic, Paul Leary, Matt Cameron, Clem Burke, Mark Arm, and yes, even Leif Garrett. And in that time, they’ve been through more bassists than you can count. And in that time, they've cranked out slow, low, lumbering riffs that can make your ears bleed. And in that time, they’ve smashed out super-fast, circle pit moshing, shredding solos that would melt your face. And in that time, with all of their incarnations, with all of their targeted projects with all of their random diversions, with all of their thousands and thousands of shows, with all of their no-one-seems-to-be-able-to-quite-get-it-totally existence, they have always been THEM, and that’s THEM uniquely.
Forty years of riffs. Forty years of raw power. Forty years of electric thunder. Forty years of freaky shit. Forty years of high brow artiness. Forty years of pop-trash. Forty years of cacophony. Forty years of euphony. Forty years of what-the-hell-is-this? Forty years of sonic damage. Forty years of Noise! Noise!! NOISE!! !!!NOISE!!! NOISENOISENOISENOISE!!!!!!!!!
It has been FORTY frikkin years of THE MELVINS.
…and Osborne doesn’t care.
…well, okay, maybe he cares a little bit. “I guessssss it’s kind of a big deal,” he says. “But, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. I’m much more of a ‘what have you done lately’ kind of person. It is cool that we’ve lasted this long. We are not a legacy act. We’re not relying on our last few albums. We have new stuff all the time. I think we’re the best we have ever been.”
“The Melvins are the most important band in the history of music… at least that’s what their bio says,,” says Greg Werckman, who runs Ipecac Records, one of the Melvins two main record labels (the other being Thomas Hazelmyer’s Amphetamine Reptile Records). Werckman continues, “They have truly inspired more musicians than any active band. They defy genres yet they created several. They always have been and always will be. It does not matter when they play, where they play or how many are watching them play. It does not matter what the media says about them or how the crowd reacts to them. It does not matter what is hip or cool or successful at any given time. They are the Melvins.”
Indeed, even though this was Melvins year XL, there was no huge “40th anniversary tour” or Merch Drop that said something like “Melvins- since 1983.” (They did play one of their classic albums entirely on tour, but that almost seemed like the idea was brought to them-more on that later). What they did do, instead of beating their chests and screaming “look at what we did,” was crank out a BUNCH of new stuff.
New Melvs material released this year: A Throbbing gristle covers album recorded with Void Manes that actually had original, non TG songs on it; a 10-inch that had them re-recording their first release; a new EP recorded with Helms Alee; an EP of Melvins-inspired material recorded with Matt Cameron of Pearl Jam.
Most bands put out something about once every two years. Melvins are at FOUR releases this year so far… and there are still a few hours left.
Oh wait- they also reissued a bunch of stuff this year, too: Their 2005 live album wherein they covered the iconic Houdini album; Their Bulls and the Bees compilation that stitches together one of their sonic-attack sound-chaos albums and one of their most beloved Eps; Tres Cabrones the album where they got back together with their original drummer Mike Dillard… also, they also reissued about 20-30 other albums presented in a hyper limited CD and vinyl editions that the band literally makes themselves in an antique printing press (along with artist Mackie Osborne- Buzz’s wife). That’s right, the band has 30+ albums available at their fingertips to REISSUE. By contrast, Mick and Keith, now 60 years as a band, and maybe the greatest rock band of all time (tied with the Melvins, of course) only have a paltry 25 platters.
So, you’d think Osborne would be running around saluting his great achievement or at least toasting himself. James Brown always talked about how great he was. So did Little Richard. But, Osborne seems almost annoyed that I want to talk to him about it. When I thank him at the beginning of an interview for doing the interview he draws out his reply, “noooooooo problem…”
In a way, you can’t blame his lean. Over the past ten years or so, Osborne has been doing a TON of interviews and he has fielded A LOT of the same questions. “What was Kurt like?” “Isn’t Kiss awesome?” “What was it like playing music in Seattle during the grunge era?” “What was Kurt like?”
“Most of the interviews I do are pretty much the same questions,” Osborne says. “Basically, I live a pretty conservative lifestyle and wildness comes out in the music.”
To that end, it seems that the Melvins-Interview open door policy might be closing a little. What’s interesting, is that for all the hundreds of interviews Osborne has done, we’re only marginally closer to understanding him than we were in say, 2005… or maybe not at all. He often gives short, direct answers, but they’re so intense that they don’t open up room for discussion. Or sometimes, like Jello Biafra or Rob Halford or Lemmy, he’ll load a pre-saved answer to a question he’s been asked 37 times before. And sometimes, you get lucky and he goes off on to an interesting topic, like the one time he mused on the idea that there’s no scientific reason why people can’t be brought back from the dead. But even then, he doesn’t really provide much context for what he’s actually feeling or thinking internally. “I don’t mind people trying to dissect my thought process,” Osborne mentions. “I’m glad to get asked questions I haven’t been asked before.”
But listen, we’re just never going to know what makes Buzz be Buzz. Many, many writers have tried to get the definitive Dr. Freud interview with Buzz and all have failed. I’ve failed three times myself. Buzz Osborne is the walnut that will not crack. He is what he is and as he tells me, somewhat firmly, he does draw a line between revealing what goes on in his music life and his personal life.
He says, “People don’t need to know everything. Revealing that kind of information is not going to do me any good. I am very selective about what I talk about. The Internet is like a giant National Enquirer, except it’s bigger than that, even. People get infuriated by a lot of things and they are usually wrong, so I don’t want to open myself up to that. I don’t want people to look at what I’m doing and think anything about it. I’m not afraid of ANYTHING and it’s NONE of your business.”
If all you knew of Osborne was built from his interviews, you won’t get the full picture though. In his interviews, Osborne comes across as intelligent and thoughtful, but also direct, maybe blunt, and maybe kinda, sorta perennially annoyed. But the thing is, that everyone that actually does know him, says he’s a nice, warm, friendly guy!
“Buzz and Dale are some of the nicest people I know,” says collaborator pal Void Manes. “They are humble and kind. They are good people that I can trust with anything.”
Werckman adds, “Buzz is how I would imagine Mr. Rogers would be in person. He is kind, loving, well groomed and always teaching life lessons to those willing to learn.”
“Buzz has a high IQ and I know that because he’s told me,” laughs Melvins bassist Steven McDonald- the guy from Redd Kross and also formerly of Off! And Sparks. “When you talk with Buzz, you can see the wheels turning. He’s taking full advantage of those IQ points. He’s a little bruised, a little scuffed up, like the rest of us. That one thing I relate to him. We’re emotional alley cats.”
McDonald holds an interesting position in the band. He’s been with them for over a decade, but from the outside looking in, it seems that even such a tenure isn’t permanent. The Melvins have had five “permanent bassists,” each which were either let go from or quit the band, due to the usual rock n roll issues- I don’t want to get sued for defamation but you can figure out what they are. Since the departure of Kevin Rutmanis in 2005, the band has had four additional bassists, including Trevor Dunn, Jared Warren (during the period where the Melvins incorporated the entire Big Business band into their own lineup), Jeff Pinkus, and now McDonald who currently is the longest serving Melvins bassist even though fans still often consider him “the new guy.” Since Rutmanis, the band has stated in multiple interviews that they never want to have a permanent bassist again because it has caused so many problems in the past- only people that collaborate with the band.
Osborne says, “Some of the bass players, you find that you are in a situation that isn’t going to work. There have been situations were some members have had extracurricular activities where you can try to continue and you give them every chance and it still doesn’t work and you just have to walk away. You hope for the best because what you really want to see is for them to get it to together. With the bass players, the issues are arrogance and inability to see things for what they are.”
“We’ve never had a sit down discussion about the band relationship,” McDonald explains. “Buzz has been somewhat guarded. I understand that as a band leader or co-leader myself. We’ve never had a ‘so what is this?’ discussion. It works and feels good, so why question it?”
McDonald’s existence as a Melvin shocked many long-term fans at first. The Melvins are known for making heavy, mean, loud music whereas Redd Kross, is something of a malleable power-pop, neo-psyche, glam, self-aware AM radio kind of thing. But, to Osborne’s credit, he could see what others could not and the addition of McDonald shifted the band towards a snappier, rocking territory.
“Performance is probably why they wanted me in the band. I am as big of a ham as they are,” McDonald says. “Buzz and Dale, as much as musicians as they are, they are performers. The other very common thread between the three of us, is similar music taste- Kiss was a very foundational band for us. As much as I love those early Kiss records, it was the Kiss performance that pulled me in. I think that’s something Buzz and Dale like- the ability to entertain as well as create a good musical statement.”
Osborne adds, “I was already a big fan of Steve long before he was in the band, since the late ‘80s or so. Playing in a band with him is a big deal. I despise anyone who doesn’t like Redd Kross. Those people are out of their minds! He’s an amazing talent and an eccentric weirdo like the rest of us! You have to understand that the most creative people in the world are like that because the other aspects of their life have fallen away. You’re not going to find an amazing painter like Francis Bacon and then find out that person is standard and well-rounded! The most talented people I have ever dealt with are awkward in other situations- any good musician is, otherwise I don’t know what they are doing.”
But whereas the exit for Melvins bassists is usually rocky, it was McDonald’s entrance into the band that was a bit bumpy. When McDonald joined the band, he was part of Off!, the Keith Morris fronted act that shifted Morris from being an on-the-oldies-circuit act to a vital piece of the contemporary punk rock landscape. For a time, McDonald switched between Off! and the Melvins (where at first he was just a guest on tour and even switched in and out with Pinkus). But then, Off! came crashing down and imploded. Off! resurrected for the excellent Free LSD LP… which didn’t include McDonald or original drummer Mario Rubalcaba. With Off! Shattered, McDonald appeared to make the Melvins his main squeeze.
“The transition from Off! to Melvins was not easy,” McDonald says. “I was trying to keep Off! happy and they wanted more from me. I was keeping all the balls in the air. In their opinion, I dropped one. I thought I didn’t. it’s a bummer because it ended not the way I wanted it to end… But, recently Keith did an interview for our Redd Kross documentary, so there is some love there. I’m proud of what I did with them. I tried to keep everyone happy and they wanted more… so that’s that. It does get difficult doing things the way I do them- saying ‘yes’ as much as possible and worrying how to get it done later rather than being a closed system. I try to be open to possibilities. What can I say? People are complicated.”
So, one does wonder, even with a ten year Melvin chip in his pocket, does McDonald worry about the band drifting on to a new bassist, or maybe having no bassist at all?
McDonald says, “At times, it has been challenging to step into an organization that is so established, that has such a dedicated following… and I try not to read any chatboards! I am sure earlier on there was a lot of skepticism about me. But, I am one of these people that gets into things and you basically have to kick me out. That’s the same with Buzz. You have dump him or just keep going. There are not big conversations to be had and it keeps working and it keeps getting better. I’m trying to not get too much into expectations and layout the plans. I cooperate! I don’t have the answers to what the future holds.”
Ironically, the future had some devious plans for the Melvins. 2023 was supposed to be the band’s 40th year victory lap, even though to a degree, it felt like they were down playing the event. Early in the year, Japanese metalers Boris (who took their name from the famed Melvins tune) had the idea to go on a full USA tour with the Melvins. On top of that, Boris was going to play all of their Heavy Rocks album while Melvins were going to play all of the iconic Bullhead album, one of the two or three albums that may very well have created the concept of drone metal.
Interestingly, Osborne insisted that the Melvins play BEFORE Boris. Most bands like to beat their chest and play last as the top-dawg headliners. But Osborne, ever the counter-ist, wanted to play before Boris. His stated reason was pragmatic- he’d rather get done earlier in the day.
But, just before the band was ready to launch their victory ship, Crover had to have an emergency back surgery. For most bands, that would put the kibosh on a tour and any future plans. We’ll never know how Osborne truly felt at the time- defeated? Angry at the world? Mildly annoyed? But, instead of folding, he quickly drew Big Business (and former Melvins drummer) Cody Willis back into the band for the tour and with about three practices, they were on the road.
The Bullhead shows were great, but a little odd- the band rumbled and smashed and did justice to the titanic record. As Osborne was up there thrashing in his Mumu, his grey, corkscrew hair flying around wildly, it did seem like he was having a good time. I’ll also add that over the past few years, Osborne has developed a certain stage presentation, as suggested by McDonald, where he leans over his guitar and scowls, and then lumbers around the stage like a stomping giant, almost like he is looking for little Jack and the singing harp. Really, it’s a lot of fun to see and even more fun to hear.
“Buzz loves that ‘Take on Me’ song by A-Ha, so it opened the Bullhead shows,” McDonald says. “When it came out, I hated it with all my heart! They played it constantly at my first job out of high school, which was a sketchy telemarking job. So, at the show, I would come out and do a new wave dance like in a John Hughes film… then I tried to get Buzz to do it with me. ‘You really want to surprise people?! Show ‘em how weird you are? Do a fucking new wave dance with me!’ I think it might be unobtainable, though.”
But, while the shows rocked, it was a little odd that it was Willis behind the kit, not Crover. Not that Willis is a bad drummer- he’s probably the only guy that even attempt to fill Crover’s stool. But still, just when the band was getting ready to celebrate a monumental four decades by playing one of their most renown LPs (which is reknown in part due to Crover's heavy-as-hell drumming), fate wrapped its fingers around Crover’s vertebrae and twisted. Ironic and cruel, no?
Osborne says, “We plan things sometimes two years in advance. But, like the pandemic, you often have to adapt. When the pandemic happened, I didn’t sit there and cry about it. That’s just the way things are. So, we adapted and moved forward.”
Osborne continues, “Dale is my brother, my friend, my co-worker, my bandmate, my working associate, all of those things. All of that combined in any given day. He has his family with kids and all the things that go along with that. I don’t have kids but I have my wife and own home life. We are around each other the whole time nearly half the year. We didn’t see each other that much during the pandemic.”
Werckman comments on Crover, “You know the cliche of the egotistical, spoiled, drug addled, and preening rock star? Dale is the opposite of that. He smells great too.”
As much as an enigma as Osborne can be, at times it seems that Crover is even more alien. He always comes across as friendly. He always seems calm. But every so often, those blonde eyebrows will twitch and Crover will say the darkest, most warped joke or comment, throwing it out there with little delivery until you think about just how dark and twisted that comment was five hours after it lands.
“Dale is a soft-spoken baritone. He does have a very subtle sense of humor,” McDonald says.” I am bit hearing challenged and I had to get hearing device based on his recommendation because I forced him to be too deliberate when speaking to me. It was kind of killing his comedic timing which was subtle. He is of another era, a country western singer, if you will. He’s no bullshit and he makes perfect sense playing in the Melvins. He might not have been writing lyrics or singing the songs but he is the perfect drummer for the Melvins. He has a fucking dry wit, and you have to be sharp to keep up with him. Both Dale and Buzz come from humble backgrounds and they are not pretentious in any way. But, they are also not dummies.”
It’s interesting that McDonald voluntarily mentions the Melvins’ humble background without any prompting. Both Buzz and Dale come from rural Washington state, and while post-grunge people like to romanticize the cold, wet north, both members, Buzz especially, seems kick against those notions. In fact, they both moved to San Francisco fairly early in the band before permanently relocating down to So-Cal. In fact, Crover has now moved into the desert, the least Washingtonian place there is.
Well never truly know just how much of a mark those rural, early years left on the band, in part because even though Buzz will answer pretty much any question you ask him, he’s quite good at withholding details that may have import, all while pushing the conversation forward. But, allow me to speculate.
Osborne admittedly didn’t like high school at all. There wasn’t a ton of money to go around. He didn’t have many friends. He says, “I don’t have a lot of close friends. I know a lot of people. I’m pretty intense person when it comes to that sort of thing. I do things to the limit. Whatever I am involved in, I’m massively into it. So that can drive some people away. I don’t spend a lot of time vegging out. I don’t drink or do drugs, I haven’t in a long time.”
But, here’s what might be most telling. Osborne time and time again, has talked about how he doesn’t like parties, and despite the fact that he moved to LA, schmooze-and-network capital of the world, he hates to schmooze and network.
“Partying or going to the Rainbow or whatever?” he asks. “I hate bullshit like that. I don’t do things like that. I don’t go to parties where I would see rock n rollers. I don’t go to any parties anywhere. If I got to a bar I’m getting paid to be there because I’m working. I wouldn’t go to a Grammy party or an Oscars party… it’s not that I don’t think those things shouldn’t exist, I just don’t… feel comfortable at them. People have asked me to do those kinds of things and I’ve always said, ‘no.’ If that what it takes to rub elbows with the big boys and make it, I’m not cut out for it!”
I asked Buzz why he doesn’t feel comfortable at parties, and he offers this for an answer, that I feel, reveals as much about buzz Osborne as will be revealed; “I’m not intimated by anyone! Not at all! Most of them infuriate me! The business, the music business or the movie business aren’t something I want to be a big part of. I don’t want that to be the case. I’ve steered clear of it for most of my adult music life!”
Indeed, as mentioned before, instead of doing the usual music biz thing and pimping out a 40th anniversary brand for as many income streams as possible, the Melvins released a bunch of new material and went on tour, playing BEFORE another band and kicking out one of their best LPs, albeit, sadly without Crover. So, the Bullhead tour came and went and even the Melvins didn’t seem to make a huge deal out of it- they didn’t have a special reissue of the album at the merch table (though the did have dozens of other handmade reissues). They didn’t sell Bullhead t-shirts. There wasn’t even a big 40th anniversary hoedown show or tour/ And now that their 40th anniversary year is wrapping up, they’ve posted a few social media pictures recapping what they released this year, but if anything, it seems like they are more eager to move on to the next mountain instead of resting on their laurels.
The good news is that Dale has seemingly recovered and is working on a new solo LP. Osborne has already mentioned off hand that there’s an entire NEW Melvins album already completed. There are unconfirmed rumblings of more King Dunn material (Osborne and Trevor Dunn) and there are also rumors of new Redd Kross. In some ways, it almost feels like the band was just trying to get their 40th anniversary out of the way so they could move on to all brand-new stuff.
Osborne says, “We’re working for a living. We’re not a nostalgia act. This is fun, but it’s also a job and not every day is going to be fun. Some days it’s going to be Tuesday in Tallahassee and you are expected to get on stage and play like it is New York City on a Friday. You are a professional and you’re expected to act like a professional. We’re all out here to make a living. We’re not here to rest on our laurels.”
Hazelmyer reflects on the band’s unrelenting work ethic, “The Melvins have a working class professionalism that this is their trade. Touring, recording, all of it, is all taken more seriously than most bands tend to which allows the creative process for a lot of bands to become a burden distracting from their other ‘pursuits.’ Buzz has mentioned other aspects, like touring isn't ‘hard’ if you're not hung over EVERY DAY!… Or comparing the life of a musician to that of his fathers in a sawmill. Considering what the alternatives are for those of us lucky enough to have made a living in the 'biz,' all go a long way to keeping it professional when those alternatives are not discounted or forgotten.”
“I don’t even know what weekend is,” Osborne says. “That makes no sense! 9 to 5 makes no sense! I don’t understand what a vacation is. I don’t know what a holiday is. I’ll work when I fucking want to work. I don’t like people telling me I’m off the clock! If you want to wallow in that kind of thing, weekends off, paid vacations off, then you will wind up in hideous mediocrity for the rest of your life! If that is the dream someone has given you, it’s like they put an anchor to your leg. I will work as hard and as long as I can as I fucking want! If I sat there with a 9 to 5 mentality, I’d have nothing! Stop thinking like a worker bee and start thinking like a champion!”
It is interesting that even when expounding on his own mentality and work ethic, Osborne, without prompting seems to be attacking and arguing with a ghost- a ghost that pops up by Osborne’s own summoning and, like Jacob Marley, wags its finger at Buzz and tells him to stop working. Are there really that many people that go around telling people to work less? That you should only pursue goals from 9 to 5 on weekdays, only? Osborne seems to suggest that this ghost emanates from particular group of people, but I speculate that it’s really the combinate of a select group of people that Buzz encountered in his youth. Yet, interestingly, Buzz still barks at this ghost, or concept, with such vitriol that as much as he doesn’t want to admit, it seems to scare him…
McDonald’s perspective may offer some clarity: “The thing with all the bands I’ve worked with- none of us are mainstream pop bands with one big song that everyone remembers you by, that you are forced to play at whatever casino… not that there is anything wrong with that. I’m sure it’s great if you have that song because the audience is bigger. But in a weird sort of way, it puts us in a forever hopeful up-and-coming position. It feels vital. It definitely keeps me looking to what’s next? What can I prove? I think this job attracts a certain mental profile that is perhaps fragile. Buzz Osborne for instance, you speculated that he is sensitive. He seems grumpy and he doesn’t take shit from anybody and he calls it the way he sees it always… but everything I’m expressing, maybe he identifies with it in some way…”
Void Manes adds an additional way to view the Melvins as moving forward from 40 years of accomplishment: “We should consider the vast range they have covered musically over the past 40 years – so many records that are completely different. They do what they want, and it’s always good and interesting. Most of the best rock bands have had maybe two good albums in them. Melvins probably have at least twenty more good albums still to come on top of what they have already put out. They have a willingness to do weird things. They thrive on that.”
Werckman adds, “They Melvins have lasted forty years they don't pay attention to anyone else. They just concentrate on what they do. They are content to be exactly who they are and where they are.”
Osborne pauses (a rare event) when he ponders the next era of the Melvins and the Melvins legacy, something he is adamant that he doesn’t consider often. He says, “We’ve achieved a lot. I don’t have a lot of other lofty goals. I just want to continue working. I… I… don’t know. I’m very grateful for what I’ve achieved and what I have. I don’t take it for granted. I don’t spend a lot time thinking about what I should have. I think about what I get. I find you’ll be a much happier person that way.”
He continues, “I don’t have an idea the we will sell millions of records or have hot records or have the respect of platinum stars or that they will take us under their wings and sell bazillion for records. I’m very happy with what we have and what we can do. If that’s as good as it gets, I’m happy with that. I don’t have an end plan for the band. I hear professional skateboarders retire when they don’t want to do it anymore or they can’t or no one cares. So far, we haven’t reached that point.”