Why have one bass player when you can have two? Here’s Buzz Osborne of Melvins – proto-grunge pioneer and influencer of all your favourite bands – on room-shaking vibes, Throbbing Gristle and his turbulent history with Nirvana.
We catch up with vocalist and guitarist Buzz on a day off from the Melvins’ current Pinkus Abortion Technician tour schedule. The band is en route to their next gig in Germany and today’s soundtrack of choice for the road is Can and The Ramones. The day before, driving through the Netherlands, it was “Tom Waits, the Sex Pistols, Birthday Party, Venom and a lot of Miles Davis. A whole lot of Miles Davis. I like to defy people’s expectations,” says Buzz.
Defying people’s expectations is what Melvins are very good at.
Uncompromising, sometimes surreal and always heavy, they’ve been doing exactly that since 1983, when Buzz started the band, back in Washington state. The current album and tour Pinkus Abortion Technician features both ongoing Melvins’ bass player Steven McDonald and ex-Butthole Surfer Jeff Pinkus on bass, with Dale Crover on drums. To say it’s deep is an understatement. It’s really, really deep.
“Having two bass players is a very cool thing to do,” says Buzz. “I feel very fortunate that as a musician I get to play with people like those two and Dale, who I consider to be really, really talented professionals and these are the guys I get to play music with. That’s not lost on me, how important that is, it’s a big deal to me.”
With a sound and an experimental attitude that emerged from punk rock, Melvins are often called the inventors of grunge. Nirvana and the Seattle music scene that hit the big-time in the 1990s would probably never have existed without them and their influence stretches to everything from sludge to noise-rock, even grindcore.
You can hear echoes of their bass-heavy, punk-tinged sound in Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mr Bungle, Tool, Stone Temple Pilots… the list goes on. Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain famously roadied for the band and Krist Novoselic told Kerrang! that Nirvana’s members “were just disciples of the Melvins”, having been introduced in their rehearsal rooms.
Melvins have put out roughly an album a year since 1986, completed almost as many world tours and, joyously, Buzz is still refusing to sugarcoat his interviews, 35 years into this Melvins escapade.
“Journalists sometimes get upset with me,” he says, laughing. “I don’t always give them the answers they want to hear.”
He refers, of course, to the questions he’s routinely asked about his troubled relationship with the former members of Nirvana and the small-town upbringing that binds their stories together.
“I don’t really have anything good to say about living in a small town,” explains Buzz, who grew up in Montesano, Washington, which at the time had a population of 2,000. “You cannot get ahead there. These people know everything you’re doing, they’re up your ass about everything. I had to get out of there, it was not for me. I would park a bullet in my head if I had to move back there. Quickly.
“I hated growing up there, I found it a horrible, oppressive place and the story is a weird one for me because of how it ended.
“That [Kurt Cobain’s death] overshadows any chance of me having a fond look back on the whole thing. It’s a tragic story and, you know, the guys in Nirvana haven’t particularly been that nice since the whole thing, I just I don’t understand it. My wife says it’s because I knew where all the bodies are buried.
“They want me to fall in line and be a fan, and that’s just not me. I’m not a fan. I’m way beyond that. It’d be like me asking my wife to be a fan of my band. Now, they can buy cars with credit cards and they write me out the picture… okay, fine. Fine.
“There is nothing good about any of it. Nothing good. They will of course, blame me for all of that, blame me and my attitude. That’s just fucking wrong.
“But, they’re the ones with the pedigree so whenever I talk of things of that nature, people will just look at it like it’s petty jealousy and I’m like, well, I’m not jealous of anything
“If you honestly think that I would be jealous of heroin addiction and death, that would be A lot of times, journalists will get really upset with that line of talking.
“Nirvana surrounded themselves with people that I didn’t like, almost exclusively, and by the time the whole thing was over, there was no room for somebody with the opinions I had so they just basically wrote me out of history. That’s fine, I don’t need them. I was doing fine before them, it’s business as usual for me.”
Buzz doesn’t have anything good to say about his now-infamous high-school stint working at the local grocery store, either. But if you’re looking for a silver lining to this tale of small-town hell, a much-disliked co-worker did at least provide the Melvins’ name…
“There was a guy I didn’t really like, he was a jerk, but we wanted a name that was kind of like the Ramones, that didn’t really tell you what it was,” he says. “We just thought it was a good name. he doesn’t really have anything to do with it, he was just a fucking asshole.”
The Melvins’ approach is all about integrity, says Buzz.
“First and foremost, I’m a music fan,” he says. “So I will operate my band in the same way I would want people to operate in the other bands. So we tour, we make records and our attitudes are from a place that I would like to see somebody else do.
“We also appreciate all kinds of music that many people don’t expect us to be into, like Throbbing Gristle, and a whole lot of other influences.
“We did a covers album called Everybody Loves Sausages and there was nothing obvious on there – no Black Sabbath, no Black Flag. It was other weirder stuff, like The Fugs, Bowie, Roxy Music, The Scientists and Throbbing Gristle. All that stuff is honoured on that album. If people really want to know what we’re about, they can listen to our work – which is, I don’t even know how many albums, 30-plus albums – and they can also pick up that record that will introduce them to where we’re coming from.”
Where Melvins are definitely not coming from, is a place that panders to rock royalty.
“We did an OzzFest tour with Tool, in ‘98,” recalls Buzz, “and they [OzzFest treated us abysmally, the OzzFest people were fucking horrible. I saw what I saw, and I’ve commented on that online. People act like it’s jealousy. I’m not jealous, I’m just telling you what happened. If you want to pretend like it’s me being an asshole, there’s not really not much I can do about that. They stand for everything I hate about rock music. Everything. There was not one single thing that I could look at and go, I want to be a part of that. Nothing. Tt had nothing to do with music.”
That’s not to say that Buzz and the Melvins aren’t involved in some pretty impressive – and seriously heavy – musical collaborations.
In addition to Jeff Pinkus, who is doing the honours on one of those bass guitars on this current tour, Melvins have previously recorded an album with Jeff’s former band the Butthole Surfers.
Mike Patton of Faith No More fame and Buzz are long-time collaborators, both through Mike’s label and his side band, Fantamas, which occasionally features the likes of Buzz and former Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo.
And Buzz has played extensively with Napalm Death’s Shane Embury, both in the studio and as part of a side project for both musicians, called Venomous Concept.
“We’re still working on some kind of recording with Shane and, hopefully, we’ll do some more shows with Napalm [Death] in the future, that I’d really like to do. Venomous Concept, I don’t know if that’ll happen again or not.”
Musical integrity intact, collaborations like these and a passion for live performances heavy enough to make your innards quiver are what musical success looks like for Buzz and the Melvins.
“It’s so easy for people who aren’t involved in a creative endeavour to put value strictly on things that they can understand, like money,” says Buzz. “But we’ve been able to make a living playing music for decades… I haven’t had a job since 1988.
“Long before Nirvana was big, we were already making a living doing what we’re doing. Had Nirvana not got big, we would still be fine. We would still be doing what we’re doing.”
“If I measured my success against somebody like Dave Grohl and the Nirvana guys, it looks like a miserable failure,” he says. “But what if I measured success against the fact that I want for nothing? I literally do whatever I want to do. I work very hard, I play with musicians who are top-notch, unbelievable musicians and I’ve been married for 25 years to the strongest, greatest woman I’ve ever met.
“To me, the greatest success, the greatest, most amazing and perfect thing I’ve ever done is marry my wife. That’s the cornerstone of why my life is good. And that would be good, even if me and her were living under adverse conditions, freezing in the dark. We are self-sufficient, we do our own thing and we answer to no one.
“I’m not a nine-to-five guy, but I’m willing to work twice as hard in order to maintain that.
I tend to not forget any of that stuff.
“I know I can ruin all of this by looking at it through the eyes of the rest of the world. And I’m not going to do that. I don’t measure myself musically against any of those people and I’m certainly not going to start now.”
Order the Melvins’ latest studio album Pinkus Abortion Technician here.