"Possibly the simplest thing Ritchie Blackmore ever did is the most popular thing he ever did," Buzz raves from the Los Angeles offices of Atlantic Records, which recently released the Melvin's latest LP, Stag. "Don't you think that's amazing? He wasted all this time playing wild guitar solos, only to have 500,000 kids play that riff in their garage. It's the ultimate rock riff: big, dumb, stupid-looking and totally beautiful. I can play wild guitar stuff as well, but let's not forget the simple end of it--that's what I'm good at."
In many ways, the Melvins parallel that ultimate rock riff: big, dumb, stupid-looking and totally beautiful. In 1984 the trio lumbered out of Aberdeen, Washington, part knee-jerk reaction to the harder-faster aesthetic coursing through the underground at the time, and part homage to 8-track arenasaurs like Black Sabbath and Kiss. Sucker-punching the budding Seattle scene by being the first kids on the block to play punk-tinged rock at a stoned crawl, the Melvins' seminal sludge has been claimed as an influence by fellow Aberdeen native Kurt Cobain and Soundgarden's Kim Thayil, leading some wags to anoint them the "Godfathers of Grunge."
"Don't blame me," Osborne cracks when asked about the "Godfathers" tag. "That's fine, I guess--I don't sit around thinking about it too much. People say, 'How do you feel about Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam selling all these records?' I can understand it; they're a lot more commercial-sounding than we are. I wasn't trying to write 'Black Hole Sun' or 'Smells Like Teen Spirit.' Those songs are fine and those bands have done well. I'm really happy for them, but none of that stuff concerns me in the least. If it did, we wouldn't be making the kind of records we make. It's our duty to push the limits."
The Melvins revel in testing boundaries: scuzzy guitar-noise sprees, Melvinized covers of anything from Kiss to the Cars, marathon drum solos and the occasional set consisting entirely of one note. Early Melvins releases like Gluey Porch Treatments and Ozma contained some of the most ponderous sloth-rock ever committed to tape, prompting pigeonholers to classify them as "the slowest band on Earth." While once deserving such a crown, the Melvins have diversified their sound over the years, with more recent releases like 1994's Stoner Witch equally likely to contain accessible mid-tempo anthems and bizarre experimental forays. That same year, the band released an infamous EP entitled Prick [Amphetamine Reptile], a ludicrously over-the-top noisefest that challenged even the boldest listener. "If it were solely up to me, we'd probably end up doing a lot more things like that," Buzz says. "And we'd probably be in a worse position than we're in as a result of it."
Launched by Buzz--with school buddy Dale Crover pummeling drums--the Melvins have hosted a cavalcade of bass players, including Matt Lukin, who later joined Mudhoney. The low-end position seems to have stabilized with the 1993 recruitment of London resident and former Texan Mark Deutrom, who doubles as the band's producer. While not quite a household name, the doggedly persistent Melvins have steadily built their notoriety and fan base over the years, with the occasional helping hand from friends like Nirvana, who once appeared on Saturday Night Live sporting Melvins T-shirts. But the latest Melvins boost came from an unlikely source: Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon.
"We were really surprised when we got a call from Sean," Buzz recalls. "He said, 'I'm a big fan of your band, and my morn likes your music too.' I'm like 'Oh, Jesus.'" Lennon invited the Melvins to play the L.A. date of IMA, his and Ono's group. Buzz and Dale eagerly accepted, joining IMA for two songs at the close of their sold-out Roxy show. They subsequently recorded one of those tunes with IMA, the Melvinesque "How Do You Feel." For Buzz, such acknowledgment is a vindication. "I'm glad I stuck to my guns, though I wish my bank account showed it. I'm not working at a regular job, but I'm not putting a down payment on that little dream house either. I can't really put a price tag on things like the IMA show. I'm just really happy that these things happen."
Buzz freely admits he's not the world's most technically adept guitarist, nor does he desire to be. "I can't read music at all. In fact, I can barely remember the names of the strings. People get hung up on that kind of stuff. It's the Guitar Center syndrome: You go in there and see 500 kids who could blow me away on guitar, but they're just going to sit in their morns and play the solo to 'Walk This Way.' So what? I don't want to have some guitar-off with any of those kids. That ain't what it's about to me. But I can hold my own. My guitar playing is better than it's ever been."
While drummer Crover and bassist Deutrom have been contributing more guitar work lately, Buzz is still their principal 5-string slinger. That's right, five. "I never use the high string," he explains, "so I never have to worry about breaking it. I use high strings on my guitars at home, but not when I play with the Melvins. I just realized I didn't need it." He often uses dropped-D tuning to get a heavier, Sabbath-like sound [see July's Soundgarden feature for Kim Thayil's testimonial to Buzz's dropped-D influence] and isn't afraid to experiment with alternate tunings in the studio. though onstage he tends to avoid weird tunings in the interest of expediency. "I like our shows to clip right along, so I play the same guitar and let the tuning be damned. A lot of times it'll get so far out of tune that I'll have to switch to the other guitar, but I don't really mind. It adds to the chaos."
It's rare to see Buzz live without one of his four trademark late-model black Les Paul Customs. "They're nice solid guitars that sound good and can take a lot of abuse--I have a totally ham-fisted guitar technique." His home stash includes a '69 Les Paul, a '60s Fender Mustang, a Silvertone, and Rickenbacker and Mosrite basses, all of which get played through "a little tiny Peavey Classic 20, because I don't like loud music when I'm at my house." Buzz recently revamped his live rig, firing up an SVT bass cab and two Hiwatt cabs with a pair of Carver 1200-watt power amps and a Sunn pre-amp. A Rat distortion pedal and MXR Blue Box handle clipping chores.
During the recording of Stag in Los Angeles, engineer Joe Barrisi, a consummate vintage collector, kept the Melvins awash in goodies like '70s Maestro effects and a '60s Supro amp. "I don't own a lot of effects, but I'm certainly willing to borrow them from other people," quips the man with a namesake pedal, the DOD Buzz Box, a massively distorted octave divider based on the MXR Blue Box Osborne often uses. Incidentally, Buzz says he hasn't used a Buzz Box since he destroyed the one DOD gave him on tour last year: "I'll be damned if I'm going to go out and buy my own goddamned box!" he laughs. "In the studio Joe was bringing in new stuff every day, and we'd just dive into it. I'll do anything in any fashion, through any kind of amp, if it gets the kind of sound I like. There could be 10 or 11 different effects on any given song, and I can't remember exactly which ones were which, because we tried so many different things."
Stag is quite a departure for the Melvins. While chock-full of the band's trademark blunderbuss riffage and inscrutable experimentation, the album tosses out a few left-field surprises, from trombone and keyboards to chiming pop songs with chipmunk vocals. Though aware that it's a bit cliche to say so, Buzz asserts that Stag is the best Melvins recording to date, due in part to generous four-track preproduction, weird sonic twists and a dynamic spectrum that sprawls from "extremely wimpy" to "obnoxiously hideous." He takes particular pride in a track called "Goggles." "I managed to record absolutely the most hideous vocal I've ever done," Buzz brags. "We ran my voice into a cassette deck and buried the record levels. Then we ran the output into the mixing board and abused it there as well. It doesn't even sound human. It's the most distorted loft vocal you could ever imagine. Now I've got to do something worse."
By Mike Rowell