The Melvins: Godfathers Of Grunge Still Going Strong

When Nirvana Hit It Big In 1991, The Melvins‘ fate, for better or for worse, was up with their suddenly world-famous neighbors. But laboring ever since as “the other band from Aberdeen” doesn’t seem to have engendered much bitterness in the band. Rockstar status, stadium shows, big money— they’ll admit that it all sounds good. “I’d like to get a blow job from Raquel Welch, too, but it’s not going to happen,” says singer/guitarist Buzz Osborne.

“We’re ugly, weird-looking guys. Cobain had that wounded junkie look, which, for some unknown reason, women and MTV think is really cool. All those guys do. Bowie. Jagger. Skinny, wounded junkie look. We were too weird, too big. If Kurt Cobain had been the size of Rose Greer, and the same color, nobody would have given a shit.”

So the Melvins—who don’t look much like either Cobain or Greer, but who are, true enough, unlikely poster boys—have traveled rock’s other road, flirting occasionally with wider recognition, pulling briefly into the peripheral limelight of Cobain’s stardom and flameout, playing to small but fervent crowds, and touring Econo, to borrow their spiritual brother Mike Watt’s phrase.

“When you decide that you’re going to do this, and you know that the powers that be—MTV, TV in general, or radio—are not going to be there for you, you have figure out plan B,” Buzz says, adding as he laughs, “whatever that is.” The Melvins earn their rent on tour, gain their popularity by word of mouth, and live a more common but no less appreciated version of the rock and roll dream. And they have survived. They are, if we insist on setting them up in opposition to the Men Who Made Aberdeen Famous, the tortoise to Nirvana’s strung-out and deeply conflicted hare. They were around before Nirvana—Cobain in fact was a big fan and an occasional roadie—and they’re still here, long after Nirvana has gone.

“Guys I talk to say, ‘Aren’t you tired of doing the rock thing? Don’t you ever want to do something else?’” says Buzz. “Well, no. And do what? A&R? No thanks. I’ll keep going.”

When the dust settles, as it rarely does for the Melvins, they come into focus as a duo: drummer Dale Crover and Buzz have become the steady core of the band, anchoring the weirdness since Dale joined in the mid-eighties. Songwriting falls almost exclusively to Buzz, but Dale has enjoyed, over the years, critical praise bordering on worship for his drumming—his “astonishing,” “daring,” “pick your positive adjective” drumming.

“We’re ugly, weird-looking guys. Cobain had that wounded junkie look, which, for some unknown reason, women and MTV think is really cool. All those guys do. Bowie. Jagger. Skinny, wounded junkie look. We were too weird, too big. If Kurt Cobain had been the size of Rose Greer, and the same color, nobody would have given a shit.”

They’re no-nonsense guys; they’ve been around the block and around the world; they’ve played your town. They like playing the Birminghams and the Pocatellos of the circuit. “No one plays those places, so when you come to town, the people get so hyped,” says Dale. “Things get weird.”

They’re from the grassroots side of rock: don’t ask for handouts, don’t whine, and don’t sell out. Buzz can sound almost libertarian, showing his roots as an old-school, get-in-the-van artist. “Socialism is fascism,” he says. “Somebody’s taking your money and giving it to someone else. You would never stand for that in any other area of your life. I’m not into it. I’m into true liberalism, which means you mind your own goddamn business; you take care of yourself.” (It occurs to me at this point that my father might really like Buzz Osborne.) There’s a pragmatism that shows through in most of their opinions. “The internet downloading—people need to get over it,” says Buzz. “Is it stealing? Sure, yeah—but it doesn’t matter. It’s over. Things have changed. We have to move on.”

When something comes their way—like a recording contract from Atlantic during the who’s-the-next-Nirvana sweepstakes of 1991/1992—they’ll grab hold and enjoy, but they won’t forget who they are. “That was a great contract,” says Buzz. “I’d sign that contract again today.” Atlantic didn’t seem to know quite what they had on their hands. They didn’t try to force anything out of the Melvins that was against their nature, but they seemed baffled by what they received—the albums Houdini, Stoner Witch, and Stag—and they refused to release one of the Melvins’ more idiosyncratic offerings, Prick. (Prick was released on Amphetamine Reptile.) All of the Melvins’ suggestions for marketing were ignored. “You can’t market us like you would the Foo Fighters—it won’t work,” says Dale. “We had plenty of ideas, but…”

Still, they remain skeptical of artists that blame too much on major labels. “Bands talk about their labels making them sell out. No, they didn’t,” says Buzz. “Nobody made you do anything. Nobody had a gun to your head. You wanted to be a big rock star. That’s what you wanted.” Dale adds, “Even the Nirvana guys, with their ‘corporate rock sucks’ T-shirts—they wanted to sell millions of records, no doubt about it.”

Questions of ‘selling out’ have long since moved into irrelevance for the Melvins; they’re not at all conflicted. They’re in the game, but they make their own music. Fans scratched their heads over their willingness to design a pair of Nikes, but why? “If somebody wants to take what we’re doing and apply it to Nike, I’m all over it! Like, Coca-Cola – if they want to use one of our songs, you better believe it! Absolutely! We’re the right people to be involved in all those things!” says Buzz.

(On first glance, it does seem an unlikely collaboration: Nike usually picks the clear winners, those with measurable achievements, and the Melvins seem more Earl ‘The Goat’ Manigault than Michael Jordan. That particular comparison falters in a crucial way, though: there’s nothing tragic, self-defeating, or sloppy about the Melvins. In the music industry, the story is often backwards. The tragic ones hit the limelight, sell millions, and die, and the workers keep working. It’s one of the only arenas where self-destructive tendencies build your resume; they make a killer promo-sheet back-story. Your music is fantastic but you’re responsible? And…kind of lumpy-looking? Hmmm. Who’s your blonde friend there with the needle hanging out of his arm? We like him.)

So, armed with a healthy sense of humor, a sharp business sense, and a tremendous work ethic, the Melvins have soldiered on. Are they radio-friendly? Well, not so much early on; they had nothing like those “More than A Feeling”/“Smells Like Teen Spirit” hooks. (Note: that’s the same hook. There s nothing wrong with stealing ideas, and Cobain himself admitted it was a clichéd riff, but still Boston? How cool can Nirvana ever be when you hear the traces of Boston so clearly in their huge hit?)

What the Melvins had was the basic framework for grunge/sludge: slow metal. “They were the first band I saw with space in their songs,” says longtime fan and current member Coady Willis. “They were weird and diabolical. It was just much more badass than a million notes a minute.” In the simplest sense, that’s what the Melvins have meant to popular music: they gargled back some Black Sabbath and spit out a series of riff-heavy albums and shows to appreciative fans in (of course) flannel shirts. Eventually (let’s not give them sole credit) grunge happened, and the ultimate consequence, in a roundabout way, might be that you’re drinking Starbucks coffee while you read this.

What they’re famous for, aside from their Nirvana connections and their sludge-hammer sound, is a bizarre sense of humor and a willingness to experiment that has been, probably, their biggest impediment to wider commercial success. They have gone so far out at times—with albums like the goofy pastiche of Prick or the wall of noise on The Colossus of Destiny—that they’ve been accused of intentionally alienating audiences, which they deny. But it’s true that just about every Melvins album has something you definitely want to hear and something that you could most likely live without. They’ve always been a touch too difficult—too much sand in the Vaseline—to write what their fans feel is their due, always puncturing their virtuoso musicianship with outright oddness to no discernible purpose. And so they’ve been labeled perverse. But they’ve also never burned out, shot themselves, or stagnated and faded away. So who’s perverse? And as for intentionally alienating, Buzz says, “No, that means they really don’t have any idea what we do then. No concept. You make music out of the influences you have, whatever they may be. If people don’t think that’s what we’re doing, they’re missing the boat.”
They’ve shed yet another bass player (Kevin Rutmanis), “for a wide variety of reasons, none of which are very complimentary,” says Buzz. “The usual rock and roll shit,” adds Dale. To fill that slot, because nothing about the Melvins is simple or predictable, they brought in an entire second band, melding with rhythm duo Big Business to become a double-drum, bass, and lead guitar four-piece. Their first product in this form, 2006’s (A) Senile Animal, was a truly unusual thing: a late career critical success.

“Everyone always says, ‘It’s our best album yet’—but I think it is,” says Buzz. In this case, the band is not alone; the general word on (A) Senile Animal was positive, with re-birth, resurgence, and revitalization being the words of the day. The collaboration has been viewed as a bizarre triumph—bizarre because it’s a doubledrum (and sometimes double-vocal) attack and triumphant because it works and is great fun. “And I like [our new] one even better. It’s weirder,” says Buzz, speaking of their upcoming release, Nude with Boots.

What they have on the new record, that often is forgotten amidst their shuffling lineups, their irreverent attitude, and their experimentation, is rock: fun, loud, skillful rock. Nude with Boots (after enough exposure to the Melvins, you don’t even blink at the title) is not simple, but it is easy to like. It doesn’t sound like classic rock, but it has riffs—real, immediate, long hair, Wayne’s World riffs—that do sound classic. And they’re not wasting those double-drums; they’re clearly enjoying having them in the arsenal.

The Melvins get the words “challenging” and “experimental” thrown at them more often than anyone since Matthew Barney, so it’s a quick jolt to hear the opening notes of “The Kicking Machine” and have it feel more like head nodding than brow furrowing. They may not land that Coca-Cola endorsement, but it’s easy to imagine a track like “The Smiling Cobra” finding its way onto a Fast and the Furious Pt. 8 soundtrack. But don’t take my word for it. Take theirs: “Our records are great. They’re better than most. Most bands don’t make records that are anywhere near as good as ours. That’s what I think or I wouldn’t be doing it. They’re all top notch, A-number-one—all American cool groovy. The kids should love it. It should be required listening…for the whole world.”

“Our records are great…They’re all top-notch, A-number one, all-American cool, groovy. The kids should love it. It should be required listening…for the whole world.”

The world is coming around. With the passage of time, their Atlantic-era albums, in particular Houdini, have gained recognition as underrated classics of the grunge era. Most casual fans know the Melvins for one of these three records, which are only a tiny slice of their wide-ranging, ever-growing oeuvre. The sheer number of albums at this point is impressive (16? 17? Plus a coffee-table book!) Steady output is something they value: Buzz, a self-professed film geek, admires directors who were not only good but could keep cranking it out: “Fassbinder, what did he make? Forty films? And before he turned forty? That’s impressive. I’ve never had writer’s block; I’ve never understood the idea that people can’t come up with stuff. There’s usually something else going on. They’re lazy, or they’re drinking vodka and doing blow. One of those two things usually stands in the way. I mean, Jesus Christ, if John Huston pushing seventy can make a goddamn movie in a wheelchair with a breathing machine, then I can make a goddamn record at forty. It’s not that hard,” he laughs.

The Melvins have morphed themselves gradually, finally, album by album, from trivia tidbit to granddaddies of rock history. Maybe. Or maybe what they’ve done is less grandiose; they’ve just kept working. “People say, ‘How is it possible after all these years that you’re making such good music?’ I don’t know,” shrugs Buzz. “I still give a shit.” The truth is that when a band/artist has held this position for this long—name-checked by others but rarely the story themselves—we want them to succeed. We want Hasil Adkins, Jonathan Richman, and the Melvins to emerge triumphant from a long, dark time of obscurity. They eventually graduate from any suspicions of ‘sell-out,’ and we just want a little recognition for the work. We want them to join forces with a band like Big Business and release two of the best albums of their career, and then we want people to pay attention. But the lesson the band has for us is always the same zen knowledge from their side of the stage: they’re in it for the music. The rest is silliness.

– Tom Vale