Buzz Osborne Untangles the Eccentricities Behind King Buzzo’s ‘Gift of Sacrifice’
The ever prolific and enigmatic Buzz Osborne has released music consistently for over thirty years, always keeping listeners guessing with his bold artistic whims and fanciful detours. As frontman of the Melvins, he has anticipated and surpassed sensibilities that came and went, paving the way for a generation of bands, and outliving them with his camp idiosyncrasy. Osborne’s last release was the Melvin’s 2018 “Pinkus Abortion Technician,” a wild ride with such stunts as two simultaneous bass players. Along with the 45 Melvins albums to date, Osborne has worked with Mike Patton-led experimental supergroup Fantômas, and released a previous solo record under his King Buzzo alias, 2014’s “This Machine Kills Artists.” His latest project, “Gift of Sacrifice” is his second solo effort, although one that finds him also reuniting with another Fantômas member, Trevor Dunn.
Like it’s predecessor, the album is a largely acoustic affair, worlds away from the heavy onslaught that Osborne is best known for. This time around, however, the unplugged instrumentation comes with upright bass, courtesy of Dunn, whose instincts and mastery of craft add a new dimension. Moreover, the vague folk forays are balanced by an indulgence in modular synths. Organic sounds are interspersed with mind-bending, ambient pieces, making for a strikingly original sound altogether. Originally slated for a May 15 release date, the album was held back three months due to the Covid chaos stagnating the industry. As someone who turns out music at a feverish pace, Osborne is relieved to have it finally see the light of day. He spoke with Entertainment Voice about the sonic template behind the new album, his relationship with Trevor Dunn, his songwriting quirks and inspirations, and what the future holds.
“Gift of Sacrifice” finds you embracing a more acoustic-centered sound, but with twists and turns that overturn any standard notions of genres. Songs like “I’m Glad I Could Help Out” stand out with ghoulish, theatrical vocals that seem to compensate for the mellowness elsewhere. What exactly did you have in mind with this mix of sounds?
Well, the whole record is an acoustic record, and it really is. There’s no electronic instruments other than the synth stuff. Acoustic guitars, no amps, the bass is all standup bass, there’s no bass amp. The whole thing is acoustic bass from the beginning. With that one, I had that cool riff idea, and I just kind of let Trevor do whatever he wanted on it, and then added the vocals.
It’s essentially an acoustic album by me, the second one. We’ve got a brand new Melvins record done, with the original drummer, and Dale playing bass. That’s more of normal instrumentation, to some degree anyway. It’ll come out soon. We never wait too long for anything. There’s always new music every single year. This year, we put out probably five limited edition EPs, but we’ve always done that kind of stuff, so it’s nothing new, just carrying on the grand tradition of overdoing it.
As you mentioned, the album is released in collaboration with Trevor Dunn, known for his work with Mr. Bungle and Fantômas, particularly as a bassist. You’ve expressed an admiration for bass players, with “Pinkus Abortion Technician” featuring two at once throughout the album. What is it about the bass, and about Dunn specifically, that inspired this release?
Well, originally — this is well over a year ago — when I was finishing the record, I was planning out the tour I was going to do, which would have started last May, a full year before the record would come out. And I thought maybe I should talk to Trevor because we had done a record with Trevor for the Melvins (Lite). He plays standup bass on that, and we had a great time with that. I was like, “Well, maybe I should talk to Trevor about when I do the tour for this record.” He should come out and do some solo acoustic bass as an opener, and then maybe we could play a couple songs together and chill. And if we’re going to go that far, he should come out early, and we’ll track some songs together and we’ll put together a little EP that we can sell on the tour, like four songs or something.
He said, “Oh, that’s great, ok.” So he comes out to L.A. and we start recording, and I go, “Well, maybe you should try putting bass on one of the songs that’s going to be on the album. We could put that on the EP and do it a little different than the way it is on the record.” So then he lays down bass on it, and I was like, “Oh my god, that sounds so good. Just try another one.” And then I was just like, “You know what? I want you to play on this whole record. I’d really like you to,” so we just kept doing it until he had pretty much put bass on 80% of the stuff. I’m not stupid enough to see something that’s that good and let it go. It really, really added something to the songs. It gives it a haunted quality I hadn’t quite ever heard before. My wife Mackie said we had really created something she had never heard — with the combination of standup bass, modular synth, acoustic guitar and vocals. Really, I’m such a big fan of [Dunn’s], and we are such good friends that it was a pleasure from the beginning.
I think it came out so good with Trevor Dunn that I really want to do another one with him. I can’t wait. I’d love to do it right away. I would really like to write an album with him. This came out better than I could have imagined. I’ve often said Trevor is the best thing I got out of Fantômas, my relationship with him, and it will be an ongoing thing.
You really take liberties, embracing freeform avant-garde textures on tracks like the intro “Mental Vomit,” the centerpiece “Junkie Jesus,” and the outro “Acoustic Junkie.” Having always exhibited a penchant for the experimental, what led you to take this route on this particular record?
I haven’t heard anyone do anything like that with an acoustic record before. Originally, the idea was that I was going to do an acoustic record, with modular synth as well. That’s what it was. There’s lots of modular stuff all over the record. And then I added the bass, so it was quite interesting.
The synths certainly give the album a distinct feel, not quite like any of your other work. Have you long been interested in modular synths?
Yeah, long time. And not only those, but all kinds of noise making devices. We’ve been heavily into bands like Throbbing Gristle and all those kinds of things for a long time. We’ve incorporated their kind of stuff into what we were doing for decades. We’ve done all kinds of experimental, electronic noise songs for a long time, before we had anything like a modular synth. We did a record a few years ago called “A Walk WIth Love & Death,” where one record was a normal Melvins record, and the other record was a soundtrack for a movie that didn’t exist, but we made the soundtrack the way we would like it to sound like, and it has a lot of that kind of thing all over it.
Campfire aesthetics running through the album seem to reach a climax on the strikingly titled “Science In Modern America.” What did you set out to portray in this song, and how do the sonics fit in with the message?
Oh, I thought the title was great. I’m a list maker. I made a list of all kinds of things that I hear. I don’t remember exactly where I heard it, but I have massive amounts of that kind of stuff. It wasn’t until recently that I lost a lot of that stuff, so I was kind of starting over with that, but a lot of it is found. I can use that kind of stuff, if I want, in a lyric or a song title or maybe a record title. There’s lots of things that will pop up in my life that I don’t want to forget. Maybe it’ll be useful for me later — 99% of which doesn’t ever get used, but the process of doing all that is what makes it possible for you to find the tiny little gems that make it all worthwhile.
I’m not one to get too direct with the lyrics. I’m not a topical songwriter. I’d rather leave that open to interpretation, as far as I’m concerned. You know, all art is communication in one form or another, whether you can totally understand exactly what’s going on or not. Sometimes, what you read into is oftentimes better than what is actually there. I’ve had people ask me if their interpretation of lyrics was correct, and they were wrong, but I liked what they told me so much, I used some of those ideas and changed the songs live (Laughs).
You have often played with time signatures, and with properties of music at large. On “Brid Animal,” a rustic refrain gives way to an acoustic riff that extends and stops short unpredictably, keeping listeners guessing. What was the reasoning behind a gesture like this?
That’s one of the only songs Trevor doesn’t play on. I don’t read music. I don’t know how to count music. And so, when I write stuff, it’s always out of my own weird sensibilities. I kind of think if I learned how to do all that stuff correctly, I would lose my ability to write so far outside the box, so I’ve never done it. The guys around me, Dale and Trevor, they all read music. I write the majority of it, so they’ll ask me, “Well, where do you hear the one?” I’ll tell them, and they’ll go, “That’s not the one. That’s not where it is.” But that’s where it is for me, so they go, “Don’t change it. Just leave it. We can deal with it.” That’s kind of where that’s at. I, at this point, can’t see changing the direction of my traveling musically, along those lines. I don’t think it would help me. I’d rather just experiment around with alternative tunings or learn other kinds of techniques on the guitar.
What is in store for Buzz Osborne and the Melvins? You had to postpone this release, in light of current circumstances, and it seems like Covid is putting everything is up in the air. For an artist so prolific, what’s on the horizon, in terms of releases, touring, and general inspiration?
Obviously, this record just came out, which I’m very happy about. We have some reissues of old vinyl that will be coming out, including “Hostile Ambient Takeover” and “Gluey Porch Treatments.” We have B Sides of “Hostile Ambient Takeover,” coming out of the EP, in probably the next few weeks. Also, we’re reissuing the “Bride Screamed Murder” vinyl and the “Senile Animal” vinyl. That’s all coming out at some point too, with new artwork. So there’s lots and lots on the horizon for me. I’m working on a book as well. I have a photography book that’s going to come out at some point, all sorts of things. Keep writing music, probably a new album. I’ve got a big thing planned for the Melvins. It’s probably going to be four albums in length, but I’m not going to tell you exactly what it is — not yet, not until we get it done.
Tell us a little about these book projects you’re working on.
I’ve a photography book that’s basically finished. I have an Instagram account, @RealKingBuzzo. You can check it out there. It’s all pictures I’ve taken. None of the pictures that are on there are in my book, but you’ll get an idea. I’m behind the camera, I’m not in front of it. The book is an autobiography, a lot of area to cover. It’s taking me awhile to do, and I’m doing the whole thing myself. I’m not hiring somebody to write it for me.
“Gift of Sacrifice” is available Aug. 14 on Apple Music.