Buzz Osborne on the Beatles, His Disdain For Critics and the Melvins’ Wild New Album ‘Pinkus Abortion Technician’
The Melvins are a hardcore band — in the true sense of the word. They’ve continuously thrown curveballs and pushed the envelope since day one. Once, record label technicalities prohibited them from using the name, “The Melvins,” so they responded by releasing an album with the name displayed in a mirror image. This action neatly encapsulates the approach they’ve always had; they’ve never played by the book. They grab the book, tear up the pages, and create a collage — and if you don’t like it, they couldn’t care less. Plenty people like it, needless to say, as they’ve persisted for three decades and are still going strong. They’ve assumed many forms over the years, being described as sludge, doom, experimental, along with other genre labels. Frontman Buzz Osborne doesn’t care for these labels, or any labels, for that matter. He simply makes music, and defies categorization of any sort. The “grunge” phenomenon, which largely defines the ‘90s, would simply not have existed if it weren’t for the Melvins. They paved the way for bands like Nirvana, who, in turn, changed the course of alternative rock history. The Melvins are the prophets, the unsung heroes — although “unsung” is hardly accurate, as anyone who has heard Buzz would testify.
Buzz Osborne and drummer Dale Crover are the founding members of the band, and the only consistent members over the years. The band has gone through constant lineup changes, at certain points featuring two drummers, two guitarists, and now — believe it or not — two bassists. Their latest album titled “Pinkus Abortion Technician” is a reference to one of the two bassists, Jeff Pinkus of the Butthole Surfers and their 2017 EP “Locust Abortion Technician.” Buzz spoke with Entertainment Voice about the new album, the band’s experience, a host of other topics, and his general perspective.
How did you get the idea of featuring two bass players on the new record?
Well, it seemed like a good idea. We played with both of these guys before in the past, and I’m always open to new, fun things to do, and they’re both exceptionally good players, and I knew that they would each add something to it that hadn’t actually happened. And it would be fun, and we hoped that when we did the record, we could take it on the road, and sure enough, that’s exactly what we’re doing. Two bass players playing live. It’ll be great, it’ll be really fun.
The conventional wisdom is that harmonies don’t really register well in such a low register as the bass, which is why people usually stick to lines with single notes. Do you think this is a myth? Or did you just embrace the discordance?
So let’s see, that means no one’s ever played a chord on a bass guitar? They certainly do. People should get out more. I mean look at a guy like John Entwistle. That’s pretty much what his whole entire trip was. The bass player from The Who, super amazing. And the other thing is I try to stay clear, if I can, of conventional anything, stay outside the box as much as possible. And if there’s one thing, one piece of advice that I give to musicians, it’s to remain, or try to remain, as peculiar as possible. If that’s the kind of thing that people have a problem with, I think they’ve just set up too many rules for themselves. They should relax. The thing is we’ve been doing this for a long time. We’re a very strange band. And people shouldn’t expect us to do anything other than that. And if they do, my advice to them is that there are plenty of other bands out there that will do things exactly as they would like. They should just look to them. I think they’d be a lot better off. They’d be much happier in their hideous mediocrity.
Your new album has a pretty wild cover of The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” The Beatles are always praised for their more experimental stuff, after they got weird with Sgt. Pepper, etc. but rather surprisingly, a lot of artists are particularly fond of their early work. Dave Longstreth of Dirty Projectors commented that he liked early Beatles because it reminded him, rather oddly, of Black Flag. Being a Black Flag fan, what do you think of this?
Uhhhhh, well, I don’t hear it. It reminds me of Chuck Berry. But Black Flag, if you listen to “Damage” and the “Jealous Again” record, it’s pretty much basic chord progressions. “TV Party” and “Six Pack,” their pop sensibilities in “Rise Above,” it’s verse, chorus, verse, chorus. It’s not like you’re listening to a fuckin Throbbing Gristle record, you know? It’s pretty standard when it comes down to it. Black Flag moved into things that were a little more experimental with their later stuff, but I liked all their stuff. My favorite record is probably “Jealous Again.” Who knows? I don’t know what the Dirty Projectors guy is hearing. Maybe he hears that in a way that makes that true. He could just be trying to be perverse too, which is probably more likely.
I’ve had people tell me, “Oh The Beatles, I don’t like The Beatles,” and I’m like, “Okay, you don’t like anything The Beatles ever did? Nothing? There’s not one song you can find by The Beatles that you like?” And then, I’ll go, “Okay,” and then I’ll pick out a song, like something off “The White Album” that I know they haven’t heard, like “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide,” and play it for them, and they’ll be like, “Oh wow, what’s this?” That’s just what I thought. Exactly!
In my long career, I have had a huge amount of contempt prior to investigation thrown my way, which I think is quite odd. You have people that make completely asinine statements, like, “I don’t like The Beatles,” because they’ve never listened to The Beatles. Or “I don’t like The Rolling Stones.” How could you not like The Rolling Stones? It’s so innocuous. It’s so easy to like. They’re so many different things they did. You can’t find anything, nothing at all? Okay, that’s amazing.
Do you have a favorite Beatles era?
“Revolver” is probably my favorite record. That’s pretty good. The original “Get Back” record, the way that was going to be, I thought that was pretty cool — but the original version of it. It’s heavily bootlegged. You can get a bootlegged version of it. But if they had put that record out, it’s beyond belief. It’s beyond crazy how good it is — really weird, really, really raw. Of course, they didn’t put that record out. I think it went to radio, and that’s why there are so many bootleg copies of it out there. A band like them, that long ago, was willing to take that kind of chance. Well, I don’t remember a whole lot of that chance-taking now. Most bands want to fit into some category, or belong to some genre, and I’ve just never really had any interest in that. I’m much more of the belief that if that many people are into it, there must be something wrong with it, generally speaking. But if you take a band like The Beatles, who were immensely popular, they took more chances than almost anybody, and it was okay for them to do it. It’s totally okay for them to put out crazy-sounding records where the guitar is way too loud. I really think its funny when we put out a record like, “Pinkus Abortion Technician,” and you see the reviews. Granted it’s funny, and it is odd, to some degree, but I don’t think it’s that odd, and they just lose their shit over it! It’s just like, gosh, what boring sheltered lives you all must lead. It’s amazing to me. You consider a band like us the enemy. Really? Who are your heroes? Because if it’s The Beatles, well, they took massive amounts of chances, and didn’t have any problem. No one ever questioned it. I’m sure some people liked certain versions of it, or didn’t like certain versions of it, but by and large, they were a pretty fuckin weird band, you know?
A lot of labels have been applied to the Melvins over the years: hardcore, sludge, grunge, doom, experimental, etc. Of course, it’s always a bit limiting to assign yourself to a label, but if you had control over the choice, and had to pick your own genre description, as it describes The Melvins in their current form, what would you say? Feel free to be as wordy and weird as you’d like.
Uhhhhh, loud, quiet, noisy, calm heavy metal country. How about that? That’s what we do. We don’t have any brother bands out there, you know? Nobody, nobody, I don’t know who. Nobody I know of, nobody I feel akin too. I don’t feel comfortable with any labels, really. People like to fit you into things of that nature. What I think is really hilarious is when they’ll do things like, “Oh you’re part of the grunge thing from the ‘90s, with all those grunge bands like Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Nirvana.” The only problem is they sold millions of records, but thank you for putting us in that box, you know?
Pearl Jam and Nirvana hardly had anything in common, other than Seattle, so “grunge” isn’t really even a very sensible label, is it?
Well, what label is? “Heavy metal” applies to the most hardcore death metal, and Slayer, and Judas Priest, you know? It doesn’t make any sense, but whatever. I just don’t feel comfortable with any of that kind of stuff, and I did my best to avoid it.
Wouldn’t you agree that your music shows that, and that’s why so many fans find it so exciting and engaging?
Yeah, well, we’re always happy to have people like what we’re doing, and we assume they will, but we know it probably won’t be millions, so we just leave it at that. That’s okay, it doesn’t matter to me. It’s funny, I’ve seen reviews for this record that are exactly like reviews I’ve seen for 30 years. It’s amazing. I remember one review was like, “In a few years, is ‘Pinkus Abortion Technician’ really going to be a record that you pick to listen to.” And I remember they said the same thing about “Stag” in 1996, like, “This record won’t last, blah blah blah.” Ok, now that’s considered a classic era of ours. Reviews are really hilarious. At this point, there isn’t anything anyone could say that isn’t old news to me. It’s hard to imagine. There was a massive amount of platitudes that we’ve covered musically, and they don’t think that we sit there and make music with all of those things in mind. It’s amazing — narrow-minded and stupid. There’s nothing new. I just wish they would surprise me. All I have to do, generally, is just wait, and maybe they’ll all go away. It’s a war of attrition that we’ve always won.
You’ve spoken before of the value of imperfections in art, and of how they are more appealing than mere technical proficiency. What’s a particular aspect or element of the new record in which you feel imperfections really enabled the band to shine?
Well, I think I said that I can accept people that aren’t massively skilled if they’re doing something interesting to me. That doesn’t mean that I always and only like things that are imperfect. And then, that also begs the question, “Is there imperfect?” That means there’s a perfect. If there’s an imperfect, there has to be a perfect. Things like technical ability, as nice as that is to have, don’t necessarily make you a better music writer. And there could be artists like Andy Warhol, that don’t have to be traditional, but could be the greatest.
Who are some current artists that you find exciting?
Oh, nothing comes to mind.
If you absolutely had to pick something, what would you say is the most punk thing happening in music right now?
Oh man, I don’t know. That’s a hard one. I don’t know if I can answer it. It wouldn’t be hip-hop, or the Warped Tour, or pop punk, or any of that nonsense. That to me is more of an attitude thing than a musical thing. The guy that was in our band, Kevin Rutmanis, before was in a band called Hepatitis, that has that kind of attitude that I appreciate. I’m always open to anything that I see that’s pretty cool, but about as much stuff comes past me now that I think is cool than ever did. I don’t think there was a golden era for music. I think that there were always mostly bad bands, and some bands that were really good — by and large.
The first song on “Pinkus Abortion Technician,” “Stop Moving to Florida” is a medley of two different cover songs. Also, on your 2003 Remix album, Chicken Switch, you let every remix artist draw from the whole body of work rather than limiting each to a single song. Do you feel like music needs more medleys and mashups, and if so, why?
I don’t mind medleys. You have to take into consideration we’ve recorded well over 400 songs. You have to look at what we’re doing through those glasses. We’ve probably done 30 albums or more. It’s not so much, “We’re just going to continue doing what we’re doing.” It’s more of a, “What are we going to do now?” type of thing. I need to make music that’s interesting to me. If it’s interesting to me, than other people will like it because I think I have good taste. If I solely go along the lines of what I would find interesting, then it will work. And that’s what we’ve always done. I’ve never felt like I was a slave to my audience, or a slave to anyone, along those lines, and it’s funny. It’s very satisfying. It’s kind of infuriating to some people, but that’s nothing new. You think that, but I don’t think that, so we’ll just take it from there. I’m not perverse; I’m not trying to be weird — although I think it’s good to be peculiar, as peculiar as possible, but that’s not that hard to do. I’m not just going, “I’m going to make this weird music. I know it’s weird, and I don’t even really like it.” That’s not the case. It’s never been the case. I’ve never done that, not once. I’ve only ever done stuff that I thought was good and interesting — ever.
The Melvins released their first record in 1985, and are still at it, an impressively long run. Having been on the scene for so many decades, how do you feel making music, performing, and touring feels different today than, say, in the ‘80s or the ‘90s?
We had a very difficult time touring in the ‘80s because our music was combative to people. People weren’t at all interested in it, and often times, had a violent reaction to it. And that’s completely changed. That’s completely changed. Things move on. I had an idea that this was how this should work, and this is how this should sound, and it wasn’t what was happening at the time, and I just had a vision, and it was the just the way that it should go. And bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden picked up on that, and did a much more commercialized version of what we were doing, but it’s essentially along the same lines, you know? So I wasn’t wrong, and that’s nice to know. My instincts were 100% right in what needed to be done, and it impacted music on a global level. So I’m very happy about that. But in order to stay positive along those lines, and to think that you’re right, is a difficult thing to do, you know? Most people are not interested in it, and they think that what you’re doing is crazy, and they have a violent reaction to it. One of my favorite bands, Butthole Surfers, they were always weird. They were really great musicians, they were always weird, and that worked really well for them! I learned my lessons well. You look at someone like Iggy Pop, he’s a total freak, or Jim Morrison, or Jerry Lee Lewis, or Little Richard. They’re freaks! I mean, Alice Cooper — that stuff wouldn’t have worked if he looked like Pat Boone. You take the weird way that they look, and combine it with weird music, and you can’t lose. That’s it. That’s what we have to do. I don’t need to look like G.I. Joe in order to do what I’m doing. I need to concentrate on not being conventional, and practicing my craft, and rehearsing, and playing live, and writing music, and putting out records a lot — that’s what I need to do. That is the job I have. That’s the deal I made, in order to be able to make a living doing it. I will do my end of this.
I actually read a review of this new record, where they were like, “Well, they put out records too fast. They should take a couple years and really work on a new album.” I mean, “a couple years?” What are you fucking talking about? This is what I do. You want me to take two years to put out a fuckin album? That’s insane. That’s what you do. That’s not what I do. I put out music, I tour a lot, and this is what I do. And you actually have a problem, because I’m working too hard, and you don’t think I’ve crafted this album enough for you? That’s just absolutely, stunningly stupid. You look at the level musicianship of the guys who are on this record: Jeff Pinkus, Dale Crover, and Steve McDonald. They are world-class players. There is no half-ass phonying on any of that stuff. For people to even think that, they’re not using their ears, you know? It’s just fucking crazy. It’s incredible to me. The same people that gave Miles Davis shit for putting out records like “On the Corner” or “Bitches Brew.” It’s like, “No you’re wrong., you’re just fucking wrong.” “Wrong” is the word that I would use.
The Melvins have always done their own thing, opting for creative freedom rather than broad commercial acceptance. As someone who quite openly embraces, say, weirdness, what’s one of the weirdest things you’ve ever done. Really try to shock us.
Oh I don’t know. I live a pretty conservative life, and I let my insanity come out in my music. I don’t want to waste it on something else. I’m very competitive. I love playing sports. I love things like exercise. That might be shocking to people. I like playing things like tennis and golf, but I hate the people that play golf and tennis. I don’t want to belong to any of those clubs or any of that bullshit. I’ll beat your ass all over the gold course. I’m a competitive golfer, but I can’t stand people that go to country clubs. I’m more of a municipal golfer, and I practice and practice, and I’m good. I play in tournaments — not celebrity tournaments, but real tournaments. I’m playing real golf with guys who are playing real golf, at a hyper-competitive level. That’s what I do. That would be shocking to people. People are like, “Oh golf, that’s so hoity toity.” No, it’s a singular sport. You’re out there by yourself. And I’m not part of any organization that would belong to an exclusive country club. Oh, I hate those people. I hate them as much as hate most pop 200 type of bands. I view it the same. That might be shocking to people, but golf is a very difficult sport to play, if you want to play it right, which I do. I’m a more than avid golfer, and I’m very serious about it. When I’m on something, I’m driven.
I also love to read. I read north of a hundred books a year.
What are you reading now?
Lately, I’ve been reading Ed Sanders’s “America: A History in Verse, Volumes 1 and 2,” and I’m reading “West of Rome” by John Fante. I’m also reading a book called “The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon.” Read the Fante. That’s the stuff.
You’ve gone through plenty lineup changes, and are always trying out something new. How is the upcoming tour going to be different from the others?
Well, it’s going to be different because we have 2 bass players — 2 really good bass players, which should be exciting. I’m looking forward to it.