IN CONVERSATION WITH (THE) MELVINS: THE SUB-POP THICKENS

Kyle Harcott interviews Buzz Osborne, Dale Crover and Steven McDonald in Vancouver, July 2017

Nearly thirty-five years into their career as sludge-metal progenitors, (The) Melvins have a well-known salty reputation with rock journalists that precedes them. Being masters of sardonic wit and not suffering fools gladly, an interview with them can either come out entirely hilarious, or entirely a journalist’s nightmare, depending on whether or not the interviewer bothered to do their homework first. On the day of their Vancouver show that I am to sit down with them, I am invited into the club and am introduced first to Buzz Osborne, King Buzzo. I shake his hand and thank him for his time, and deadpan, always deadpan, he replies, “Let’s wait until after the interview, and see if you’re still thanking me then.” Fair warning!


And as I’m led up the stairs to the venue’s backstage, where the other two Melvins, erstwhile-drum-god Dale Crover and not-so-new-guy-bassist-of-Redd-Kross-fame Steven McDonald are relaxing and watching the Dodgers trounce the Marlins 6-4, there’s the briefest moment of reporterly trepidation as introductions are made, and Buzzo asks me if I’m a baseball fan. As I respond honestly—that I’m not—he fixes me with a mock-steely stare and says, “WELL, WHY NOT?”

Ulp.

When the Melvins start riffing, you let them

But in spite of that beginning, it all went more than okay. Because when the Melvins start riffing, either on tape in the studio or in an interview, YOU LET THEM.

I start off asking about how the band seem to be getting much more prolific with their recorded output in recent years, and it’s because they now have their own home studio to use at leisure. “We talked about having our own studio for a long time,” Dale opines, “We started looking at spaces with our producer, Toshi [Kasai], and finally found the right space.” I ask if this ever conflicts with Toshi’s tenure as a member of Big Business, and Dale tells me “No, he’s not a member [of Big Biz] anymore. Toshi wanted to stay home and make records more than he wanted to go on the road. Which works in our favor.”

Recently, the band found themselves as an opening act for Tool’s recent all-day show at San Bernardino’s Glen Helen Amphitheater alongside Primus, Clutch, Fantomas, and The Crystal Method, with audience attendance breaking 40,000 people. I ask if translating their live set to a show of that magnitude offers any kind of a challenge, to which Buzz responds, “Well, first off, you have to understand that it was definitely not ’40,000 people’ when WE played [laughs],” to which Dale jumps in, “it was maybe four thousand, but [asking Buzz], does anything change, really?”

“I don’t prefer those kinds of shows,” replies Buzz, “but at this point it’s difficult for us to turn down a decent amount of money for a show.”

Dale appends, “Really the only difference is that Steven has more stage room to run around on! Because he’s told me he’s ‘made for the big stage’!”

Steven: “Well, they’ve [pointing to his bandmates] always told me, ‘You seem like you’re built for a big stage!’”

“You’re not built for low ceilings, though,” reminds Buzz.

McDonald joined the Melvins in 2016, and is clearly a welcome input to the band’s long roster of four-stringers—both onstage where he is a vital complement to his counterparts, rocking out with reckless abandon, and in the arena of songwriting, where his contributions to the new Melvins album, A Walk With Love And Death, are readily discernible—such as the Redd-Kross-esque “What’s Wrong With You?” and the swingin’-60s hellscape of “Give It To Me.” I ask McDonald if the former was written with the Melvins in mind: “No, it just started by myself, with a riff. I didn’t know who I was writing it for when I wrote it. Buzz just said…”

“Whaddaya got?” interjects Osborne.

“They wanted me to participate in the writing of the album,” continues McDonald, “so I started writing, and sending them stuff, and that one kinda stuck.”

Buzz: “There were a few that could have fit the record, and probably will on the next one, unless you decide to use them for something else, but you can always write us new songs.”


As for the Laugh-In-of-the-damned chaos of “Give It To Me,” I ask McDonald if it was his intent to take the Melvins back to the 1960s in the song, to which he rejoinders, “Buzz thought of that idea!” [laughs]

“That was YOUR idea!” snaps back Osborne, joining in the laughter.

“I know, I thought it’d be funnier if I said it was yours.” Steven jibes, “That song was just kind of a jam. Dale was playing this little cocktail kit at the time, and I mean, that kind of style is pretty much my general influence, you know, like, ‘session cat, 1968’.” [starts singing and drumming a slinky, Peter-Gunn-type groove]

Buzzo asks McDonald, “What was that whole scene you were talking about recently, the one that the Pandoras came out of?”

“The Cavern Club!”

“Yes, the Cavern Club scene! Tell us about that whole scene!”

McDonald: “That was more of a whole… boogaloo thing. [To me] See, the Cavern Club was this club I went to in the ‘80s, and it was like a revival of this ‘60s club called the same name. The ‘80s club used to be in this old dance studio, it was this crappy little space at Hollywood Boulevard and… Cahuenga, maybe? Right there in the tenderloin of Hollywood.”

Osborne can’t resist, “You mean the tendergroin! Right there by the Capitol Records building!”

“Yes, the tendergroin,” confirms McDonald, ”not far from Capitol. Just a stone’s throw from what is now the building owned by the Scientologists!”

Buzzo: “Ah yes, in that part of Hollywood, the one thing you can guarantee is that all of the walls are painted at least three feet high with piss.”

McDonald: “Yeah, they’re whitewashed with piss, like a Huck-Finn-styled whitewash – it’s called a ‘Hollywood Whitewash!’ [laughs]

Osborne: “Yes, so remember that the next time you’re cruising through that area, these walls painted three feet high with piss— the Hollywood Whitewash!”

I suggest to the band—and stand by my premise—that it would make a fantastic name for a Melvins album.

We get lots offers for stuff that doesn’t pay, of course. Those are the easiest offers to get…

The current Melvins album, A Walk With Love And Death, is a wonderful strange animal consisting of two parts, the first, Death, is a straight-up blood-guts-and-thunder Melvins album, crushingly heavy per the norm. While part two, Love, is an experimental soundtrack to an experimental film, which the Melvins are currently producing (or in Crover’s case, “executive producing”) for release in the near future. It seems kinda absurd to me that this is the first time the Melvins are providing exclusive soundtrack work to a film, seeing as their back catalog is filled with some pretty dramatic music. I ask Dale if this is something they’d been approached to do before: “Well, a little bit. I mean, there was this art film about fifteen years ago, a kind of ­shot-on-Super-8 kind of deal where the filmmaker edited his film to the song ‘Lysol’.”

Buzzo chimes in, “But we didn’t write the song to the movie for that, whereas with this one, we did. But no, no big Hollywood production has ever called us up for soundtrack work. We’re not very good at looking for that kind of thing, either.”

I reply that I’d think movie soundtrack work would just kind of find them.

“Well, you’d like to think that.”

Dale: “There’s occasionally people who want to use our music for their films. But no one’s ever approached us to score their film.”

Osborne adds, “We get lots offers for stuff that doesn’t pay, of course. Those are the easiest offers to get. It’s just like gigs you don’t get paid for. We could play those every day of the week! Every single day!”

Sticking with the subject of movies, I would be entirely remiss in my journalistic duties if I were in a room with a McDonald brother and didn’t bring up 1990’s cult comedy classic, The Spirit of ’76—which prominently features the acting chops of Steven and his brother Jeff alongside a Hollywood Who’s Who of cameos, including ‘70s teen heartthrobs David Cassidy and Leif Garrett. I tell Steven I’m a big fan of the movie and ask why he and Jeff didn’t pursue other roles after that movie. He laughs, “We had such a promising career too!” I remind him the two of them were the best part of the film. “That’s not saying much, though,” he quips.

But Crover is quick to defend their acting. “It IS saying much, you guys WERE really good in that film. I’m surprised someone didn’t see you guys and approach you for more roles.”

McDonald: “I don’t know, I was definitely open to it, but we never really pursued it.”

In jumps Buzz, right on cue: “Did you guys get to shoot heroin with Leif Garrett?”

“Oh yes, we did lots of heroin with Leif,” McDonald confirms, “‘cos you know he’s a method actor.”

Buzz can’t help himself: “You mean a methadone actor!” The room erupts in laughter.

Crover ventures, “Did David Cassidy understand your Partridge Family obsession?”

“No,” McDonald replies, “David Cassidy was very humorless…”

Dale: “He was humorless on the TV show, too, though.”

McDonald: “Yeah, Keith Partridge was kinda uptight. I always said, ‘David Cassidy’s cool, but he’s no Keith Partridge’.”

Swinging back around to the topic of the album, Melvins have reintroduced “Euthanasia” into their live set and rerecorded it for the new record, and the updated version is a behemoth in comparison to the version originally pressed on AmRep’s Dope-Guns’-N-Fucking In The Streets Volume 5 compilation. I ask the band why the time was right to re-record it now. Buzz tells me, “It was never on an album of ours before, and I thought we could do a much better job of recording it now, as we’ve been playing it in the set live for a while now.”

Going back to the topic of their renewed prolificity of late, I know the band has already completed their next record, but when I press for details, the three of them are shtum. Can’t they tell me anything?

“Yep. It’s good,” says Buzz.

“Nothing,” offers Dale.

“We don’t want to say anything just yet,” proffers Buzz, “because there are things about it that we don’t want to give away just yet. But it came out great and there are a few surprises on it. There’s an angle we haven’t quite used in the way we’re using it next.”

So—should people expect another Prick?

“No, I mean—it could be, to some people, I suppose. But that’s like when someone asks the merch guy ‘How come you don’t have any girl’s sizes?’ and he responds, ‘Well, depends on the girl!’”

There’s no stopping this train

My time with the band is starting to wind down, and I don’t want to press my luck—but there is one final burning question I need to tackle. Last week, Variety magazine reported on a new production the Seattle Repertory Theater is currently in pre-production for, a new musical set in the grunge scene of 1990s Seattle. I, of course, have to know if the Melvins (a) knew about it, and (b) were approached to be included.

Buzzo, of course, is sardonically elated: “Wow! I can’t wait! HOW COME NO ONE’S CONTACTED ME?!”

The Melvins were not approached to contribute, I venture?

“No. As usual.”

Crover lights up the room, “I can hear the songs now! [sings] ‘Heroin, heroin, heroin, herrrrrr-o-iiiiin!’” He starts drumming a jouncy beat, and his bandmates jump in with their own takes on possible songs.

Buzz: [sings] “I went to Seattle to score, and I ended up with a rec-ord deal, went to Seattle to score, AND I ENDED UP WITH A RECORD DEAL!”

McDonald chimes in: “Wait, it’s a musical? Well, he [points to Buzz] LOVES musicals! That’s a little known fact!”

This is all a huge revelation to your humble reporter, so I ask Osborne what his favorites are.

“I like the classics, like, the most classic ones you can think of.”

Crover: “He loves ‘Singin’ In The Rain’.”

My mind is blown at all of this, but it seems a most obvious match made in heaven for King Buzzo to be involved in this production.

“Ha!” he shoots back, “I could probably go to their parking lots and slit my wrists and they still wouldn’t let me be a part of it.”

But McDonald isn’t so sure. “I don’t know about that! Now that I know about it, I’M going to reach out to them! Is it a jukebox musical where they just play grunge songs, or are they writing all new original songs for it?”

Alas, I don’t have details at hand but I promise to pass along what little I know to the band via social media; literally all I know at this point is this theater is putting together a musical about grunge.

“…And they’re gonna call it, (THEY’RE) ALMOST DEAD!” cackles Osborne.

MELVINS: The Musical

Crover breaks into character, “’Have you heard this music? What is it? I don’t know… it sounds kind of…

GRUNGEY!’”

McDonald gets in on the act: “When I listen to it, I feel like I haven’t taken a bath… in days!”

“Which I haven’t!” Buzz, right on cue.

We’re all in stitches now.

Crover: [sings] “Whaaat is this magical music I’m hearing now?”

McDonald joins in. “I feeeel a chill, can you throw me that flannel?”

Crover: “That voice is pleasing and gruff at the same time.”

Buzzo jumps in. “And also twenty percent drugs, alcohol and heroin! And really bad weather!”

There’s no stopping this train now.

Crover: “ I think we can make a buck! I see dollar signs!”

All three begin to riff on We can make a buck!

Buzzo, “I can sell out to Warner Brothers! And walk away and lose all of my money in fifteen years!”

Crover, as he does so often with his legendary drum licks, gets the last word:

“And the subplot… ‘Sub Pop! A subplot! Sub Pop! A subplot!’”

A wise interviewer knows when there is nowhere better he can steer the interview after having all three Melvins making up their own musical-theater songs and singing them to him, so I wipe the tears of laughter from my eyes, shake hands, and take my leave.

That night at Vancouver’s Venue club, the Melvins storm the stage at 9PM sharp and lay waste to a packed club. It’s my fourth time seeing them since 1994, and in all honesty, this was probably the best I’ve ever seen them. They packed an hour-long set with some heavy hitters like Flipper’s “Sacrifice,” “Queen” from Stoner Witch, the aforementioned “Euthanasia” and, most explosively, their own Melvinized-thunder take on the Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” Buzzo and Dale own the stage, of course, but McDonald gets his chance to shine too, rocking out and posing out with his Ibanez Destroyer bass like the pro he’s been since forming Redd Kross when he was eleven.

The three of them gel fantastically, both onstage and off, and it feels like the Melvins are a three-piece again, and not just Buzz, Dale, and [insert bassist here]. The set may have been short and sweet, but no one was complaining. Because with the Melvins, you may or may not always get what you want—but you get what you deserve.

www.themelvins.net
www.facebook.com/melvinsarmy
twitter.com/melvinsdotnet

Kyle Harcott

Curmudgeonly freelance-hack shit-talker of all things metal | Drums for (theonetrue) DEVICE.