The Melvins' Buzz Osborne: The Cream Interview

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Grunge patriarch and Melvins singer Buzz Osborne knows that when the music industry gambles, the house always wins. But that hasn't kept him from letting major labels, arena-rock headliners and now car companies roll the dice with his sludge-punk band. Though Atlantic Records didn't succeed in marketing Melvins to the masses during the '90s, the Scion Motor Co. is undaunted. In its branding efforts to market compacts and coupes to Gen Y-ers. Scion bankrolled the latest Melvins effort, the braying The Bulls and the Bees EP, and released it digitally as a free download for fans. In an interview with the Scene, Osborne sounds off about that and more in preparation for his band's return to Nashville.

As you'll see, King Buzzo is a candid, eccentric jokester. He has no problem pulling legs, shit-talking Tool fans and disregarding criticism. He also digs Nashville. He recounts a memory of once passing out onstage during a Music City show held at an Indian restaurant. Anyone else know this story? WERE ANY OF YOU OLD TIMERS ACTUALLY THERE?! If so, do tell.

Tonight's Melvins show at Exit/In (with a reunited Unsane opening!) is sold out. But it'll probably be pretty loud, so ticketless poor-planners among you can go down to Elliston, listen in on the show from outside the club and still git yer socks rocked sidewalk style, or whatever the kids call it these days. Anyway ...

Nashville Cream: Were you guys at all hesitant to get involved with a company like Scion?

Buzz Osborne: Well, you've gotta remember, in 1992 we signed with one of the biggest record labels in the entire world. I would venture to guess that they have more fingers in more pies than Scion does, and we clearly had no problem with that, doing three albums with them.

NC: But in those days, just as there would be a backlash from signing with a major label, there would also be a backlash from doing a deal with a car company, right?

BO: I guess. You know, I'm not sure. I've listened to criticism my entire career. Listened, rarely reacted. To me, if Scion wants to give us money and then give the record to everybody for free, I see absolutely nothing wrong with that. Unless somebody could show me that we're doing something wrong, and even then I'm sure they could have plenty of arguments about whatever it is you come up with.

NC: Did that ever have any effect on the band's creative process?

BO: I've had people ask me that in the past 20 years. "It must be good to be off a major label where you don't have them telling you what to do" and all the stuff like that. My response is always, "Did you listen to the records we did for them?" [Laughs] If that's record company meddling, then good on them. Our first record we did for Atlantic had a nine-minute drum solo at the end of the record, and I promise you there wasn't one person down there that told us that was a good idea. Not one.

NC: They didn't try to pull the reins back and talk you out of that?

BO: Not in the least. The thing about it is, we've operated our entire career with the idea that we were going to do whatever we wanted to. It's never not been the case; it's always been the case. We've always done exactly what we've wanted to and made the exact records we wanted to — that's it. And nonetheless, people get really weird about all this stuff. I was surprised at how so few people were actually impressed with the idea they were getting this for free. It was weird to me, but whatever. There are people out there that feel as if they're entitled to things. If they feel like they're entitled to it, then they'll get it for free one way or another. Then there's other people out there can see the difference between being giving something and taking it. Unfortunately, in this entitlement world, you don't get a lot of that other side of it. “Wow! It's really cool that we got this for free!” Because they're used to getting it for free [laughs]. You can't win no matter what you do. I could give it away and have people not notice.

NC: Your last record, The Bride Screamed Murder, actually cracked the Billboard Top 200. Did it outsell the records that came before it? Or have record sales declined to the point where you guys are in the average as far as rock artists go?

BO: I believe it sold about 30,000 the first week. That cracked the Top 200. The Bride Screamed Murder is not even close to being the biggest-selling record we ever did. That just shows you how far down the music industry has come. If you have a record today that sells 3,000 in one week you'll be in the Top 200. We used to give away more records than that as promos when we were with Atlantic. I know Houdini sold well over 100,000 copies and we didn't even come close to the Top 200. We probably didn't come close to the Top 500 at that point. People don't buy records — that's it.

NC: Does that affect how you make records when it feels like you're producing them in a time when people don't buy records? Does it have any psychological effect on the process?

BO: Well we never had massive sales to begin with. If you make an album with the idea that you're not doing it for no reason, if [people] listen to it, it’s going to somehow further your musical career in some way, whatever it may be. There's a difference between people who do it as a hobby and people who do it for a living. I make my living playing music — that's what I do and that's what I want to do. Therefore, I approach it differently than somebody that just is a weekend warrior, has his day job and plays music, obviously. There's a big difference there. So we always make records with the idea that we're going to sell them somehow or make money on the other end or something. If you can't do that, then what you have to do is craft the way that you do it all in order to make that happen in one form or another. When there's no more money to be made making music, no one will make music.

NC: Right. But I know a lot of people who keep making music as a sort of form of masochism against their own bank accounts.

BO: Well everybody does that. All businesses start with an initial investment in one form or another. I promise you none of those people out there are saying, “I want to make this record, and I want to lose a lot of money.” That's not what they're doing. And they can make a record and hope that they'll break even, and that's fine, I don't have any problem with that. I also don't fault anyone who makes music for fun, that's fine with me too. That doesn't bother me in the least. Most bands don't make anything playing music. If you want to make money playing music, it's very difficult to do. And it's certainly going to be more and more difficult as time goes on when there's less and less people underwriting what you're doing.

NC: Well you talked about making your living making music, and you've had a pretty long career. Has most of the living you made been from record sales, or has most of it been from touring, merch and every other ancillaries?

BO: It's a combo; not all just one thing. It's all part of the whole deal.

NC: I was looking at your history of tour dates, and you guys have hit the road fairly extensively just about every year for the past 20-plus years in some form or fashion. In that time, you guys have been an opening act on a large handful of big arena tours with Nine Inch Nails or KISS or Rush or Tool or White Zombie. I remember when I was in high school hearing these live recordings of you guys musically berating unruly audiences. Which band's crowd was the worst to play for?

BO: Well they have all their moments, you know? I don't know which was worse. Fantomas did a bunch of shows with Tool that were pretty bad.

NC: How so?

BO: Their audiences had no interest in the type of jive that Fantomas is selling. No interest, they had no interest in listening to any of our crap. They wanted Maynard and the boys as soon as possible. I don't care if people like our band; I don't give a shit one way or another. They don't have to like us. I'm making music that I enjoy, the fans hearing that I have good taste; therefore, other people will like what I'm doing. Now, whether they like it or not is not my business. What's always interesting to me in that department is that Tool specifically selects the bands they want to play with. And then to have their audience be so stupid that they don't appreciate that in any way really reflects badly on the audience. What they don't understand is that Tool privately — I know because I'm friends with those guys — privately sit back and think that they're audience are a bunch of fucking idiots.

NC: That's funny, because I actually interviewed Maynard recently and he wouldn't go there.

BO: He doesn't have to go there. I will. I will happily, that's not my audience.

NC: [Laughs] Well I guess the reason I think it's so ironic is that, with them, their audience thinks they're smart for liking Tool.

BO: Well great! I'm sure they think they're smart for doing all kinds of stuff. That has been the case pretty much as long as my career has went on in music, where you have bands that like certain things, and their audience has no concept of where the band is coming from. Oh well, that's life. Life's not fair, I don't care. I'm just saying. I don't have any answers; I don't have any answers for anybody along those lines. I can't tell you, “This is what you should do.” I don't give a shit. That's way too complicated of a question for me to answer whether their audience should be into what they are into or not. I'm into weird music because I'm a weird guy. I'm an eccentric weird; I understand that better than anyone. I'm know I'm not normal. Once in a while, me and the general public out there agree that something that sells millions of records is good, but not often. And that's always been the case. There's not enough good enough music out there in the world for me to be that picky. I can't go, “I hate this band because they're on a major label,” or, “I hate them because they're popular.” That's not me, I've never felt that way. I'm a music fan; I don't care how much it sells. The bottom line for me is not sales as far as the quality of the music goes. If that was the case, then I couldn't listen to The Beatles, which I love The Beatles. I love The Beatles, The Stones, Jimi Hendrix. I'm not going to like that stuff because it's popular? There's no way. I'm not that perverse. I'm not just trying to be weird. “Now that everybody likes this it's not going to be a part of my exclusive club anymore, therefore I think it sucks.” Fuck that, who has time for that? If that's what you're into then you're not into music.

NC: Was there ever a point when you were on a major label and opening big tours where you thought that you do might connect with the mainstream?

BO: No, not for even a millisecond. I always knew that was never going to work. The only people that didn't think it would work were me, [Melvins drummer] Dale [Crover] and the general public. Everybody else thought it was a great idea, and so we went along for the ride. Sure, why not? Look, I think our music should sell millions and millions and millions and millions of records — that's what I think. It doesn't, why? Because the world's not a great place. I understand that. I'm fine with that, and you move on. I think our music belongs on Atlantic Records alongside Led Zeppelin and Aretha Franklin and The Rolling Stones. Now the general public doesn't agree. So there you go, what am I going to do? I understand it's weird; I think weird music should sell. Why didn't Captain Beefheart sell millions and millions of records? Why not? It's not because the music's not good. It's some of the most genius music ever made; no one knows who he is! That's how it works. So if you're a fan of The Melvins, you had to go out and look for us. That means you're halfway there already — you already understand weird music. Our audience can handle anything we do, no problem. Tool's audience can't handle anything they do, they can't. Millions and millions and millions of people don't know about weird music, they just don't know. They’re uneducated or they just have no interest. Fine with me. I couldn't be bothered trying to educate them.

NC: As far as going along for the ride in the major label period, was that a good decision in hindsight? Did that get you a lot of by proxy exposure? Do you get fans coming up to you today saying that they first heard about your band or first saw your band when you opened for White Zombie?

BO: No, those people are too old now. This is how it works: we lose about 20% of our audience every year and gain about 20% more people, and those are younger people. The target audience for music in general is between the teenage years of about 15 to about 35. When people get to be about 35 they move on in their lives and do other things. They may enjoy music and listen to it, but they're not the same kind of fans that would go and see bands. So the White Zombie people were coming to our shows, who were interested in The Melvins as a result of White Zombie, around 2000 and 2001. I'd see White Zombie shirts at our shows, a testament to the fact that they had to have seen us when we played with White Zombie. Those people have now moved on in their lives, they're a foreman at an auto factory with a mortgage now and kids. They don't have time to go to some bullshit rock 'n' roll show. They've moved on with their lives. Now we have the same younger people who are just as enthusiastic, but probably the vast majority of them didn't see us until the early 2000s. That's fine; I mean I understand. When I was a teenager I was too young to see a lot of the early punk bands that I loved, but that doesn't mean I wasn't a fan of that stuff.

NC: Is that one of the reasons you guys did the nostalgia-trip thing of playing records in their entirety on tour, as you've done the last couple years?

BO: We did that because it was fun and people were excited about it, that was it. It's not something I would normally do. We'll probably do some more of that stuff at some point. I'm always into doing some weird things, whatever it may be. I like that kind of crap. I like doing things that are left of center. We’ve got a bunch of stuff coming up this year that I can't talk about yet. In conjunction with the Freak Puke record that's pretty cool. But understand that we have both these bands, we have the Big Business band and we have the Melvins Lite band, and at some point we will definitely be all together in one form or another.

NC: And the show you're doing in Nashville, will it be as the three-piece lineup?

BO: No, that record doesn't come out until June. We'll tour that record after. This four-week tour is for the Scion thing. We're going to play the whole Scion EP in its entirety in the middle.

NC: And then what else would we expect to see here?

BO: Stuff from all of our records, a few things we've never played before — with this lineup anyway. We're going to play about a 70- or 80-minute set, and that's about as long as we need. I personally prefer 40 minutes to go see a band [laughs]. People would get a better show if they'd let us to do that, but oh well, whatever. So we'll play and write a variety of things in that time as we can, but we put our sets together before we leave. We make something that fits together nicely and sounds good together, and there's an ebb and flow to it and it all makes sense.

NC: Do you play the same set every night on tour?

BO: Each tour, yeah. We might change it up a little bit if things aren't working, but I prefer to look it as more of a performance art as opposed to, “Here's another little song for ya. Here's another little song for ya,” I've never looked at it that way, and I never have. If we're going to play for 70 minutes, there's a reason why every song is right where it is, and we worked that all out in rehearsal. As a matter of fact, I'm going to rehearsal later today. We're working on all that right now. I don't look at it like we're playing 13 songs, I look at it [in terms of] however many minutes we're onstage. Every minute is important. So when we have ups and downs and ebbs and flows, there's always a reason for that. And I've seen the other side of it — I've watched bands and done it myself. They change it up every single night, and some nights are just fucking horrible because they haven't thought of things. Pacing is wrong and the show suffers. I'd much rather see a band get up there and play a really great set. People argue that all day long, but I'm not taking constructive criticism from people. I don't want to hear any of those sentences. “I like your show, but ...” I just stop them; I don't want to hear it. I'm not going to stand here and listen to you criticize me. I don't care.

NC: What about compliments? Does it work the same way?

BO: Compliments are great! That's always fine with me. You gotta remember, the words, “Yeah, but ...” — that is the mating call of the asshole. “Your show was good. Yeah, but ...” Fuck you, I don't want to hear it, ever. “Yeah, but ...” is awful, unless it's “Yeah, but you were great,” but that doesn't happen. By and large, people like what we’re doing. They're at our shows; they like what we're doing. If somebody decides that they need to tell me something, I don't need to hear it and I don't think I should be expected to stand there and listen to it. I would never do that. I might do it — if you're really good friends with somebody, you could say, “You know what, the guitar was really out of tune,” or something. You have license to do that because you're friends, but if I don't know somebody? Are you fucking kidding? I'm way too polite to say anything bad.

NC: Would you ever criticize and audience onstage and say, “You guys are cheering loud, but too many people took a piss break,” or something?

BO: No no, unless they're fucking with me I don't care what they're doing.

NC: Unless they're Tool fans.

BO: Well then they're not our audience. And even then it's just like — those sorts of things happen once in a while, but not often. I got sick a long time ago of trying to sell our band like that — it doesn't work. It may work for somebody, but in the end, it's [mostly] a waste of time. White Zombie was the worst tour for that kind of thing because they paid us relatively well to be there and then saw to it that we had one of the worst experiences touring you could possibly have.

NC: How so?

BO: They would do things like go way over time late and then give us no sound check and have us start our set as doors are opening to nobody. Perfect. Just one thing like that after another, and just being obsessive rock star idiots. I don't need that. We did enough of that stuff to realize that that's not for me. I'm not a big arena rock guy — it's not my thing. I always do it for the money because I don't have the money to turn down big money offers. But if I had tons of money — a mountain full of “fuck you” money — I would never play a place designed for a sporting event. I would never play a place that I didn't want to go see a show myself, not ever. I don't think that's unreasonable.

NC: Does the same go for festivals too? Because I remember seeing you guys at Bonnaroo a couple years ago.

BO: I'm not particularly a big fan of those shows, but I'm not about to turn down the money.

NC: Although that is where you get to play a 40-minute set.

BO: I think we played an hour. That was good, that was fine. It's not the ultimate thing, but the Bonnaroo people were really nice to us. And I'm not pissing all over that kind of thing; I don't care about that and understand why bands do it. I'm just saying if I had millions of dollars in the bank, I wouldn't do it. I have nothing bad to say about Bonnaroo — Bonnaroo did nothing to us. We don't generally get to do a lot of those kinds of festivals. We get offers sometimes — like we're doing one in Spain — but a lot of bands will book a year up and do the whole festival thing. People have no interest in us doing that. I don't know why, it's weird.

NC: Well, you guys seemed to go over really well at Bonnaroo.

BO: It went over fine. Tennessee is the music state, that's it. You got two major cities that are all about music. They're music fans from the get go, and Tennessee — Nashville especially — has always been a place that's really liked us.

NC: Do you have any specific anecdotes or memories of performing in Nashville or spending time here that come to mind?

BO: Well, we did a show one time where I — I used to have a really hard time in hot clubs passing out — I passed out dead from heat exhaustion in Nashville.

NC: Was that at 328 or Exit/In or somewhere?

BO: No, it was at — I can't remember the name of the place — it was like an Indian restaurant. It was packed, and that was before I started using — now I have a fan onstage because when I sing, I obviously don't breathe enough, and then I would just pass out. That happened five or six times. In the Nashville one, the last thing I remember is being onstage going up to the microphone to sing, and then I didn't wake up until I was outside. I don't know how long, 20 minutes later or whatever. I was completely out and got carried out. That was in Nashville. I have a fan so I have some air circulating onstage no matter what, and it's back by my amp. When I go back to tune I can kind of cool off a little bit and I'm more careful. But it gets really hot in the clubs. I have to be extremely careful or I'll just pass out. It's about breathing. I could be standing there nude and it would not make any difference, it wouldn't be cool enough.

NC: Well you could be cooler in the other way.

BO: Yeah, well clearly.

NC: How glad are you that over all this time your hairline has not receded?

BO: I have implants, that's it.

NC: You do not.

BO: Oh yeah. I paid $50,000 for implants.

NC: You did? Or Scion and Atlantic did?

BO: Scion paid for it. They had implants put in so I didn't look weird [laughs].

NC: That makes sense. You get free hair, the fans get a free tunes.

BO: Free hair! That seals the deal.

NC: [Laughs] Last thing I'll ask you about, as I'm pretty sure you were kidding a minute ago, I saw this backstage interview from Bonnaroo a couple years ago where you mentioned that you had to stick around Nashville because of some court date you had or some legal troubles. We actually looked into it to see if you have any charges pending but we didn't find anything. So was there something to find?

BO: Well I must have paid off the right people. If you float enough money in the right direction, things can happen. That's why America's so great.

NC: Well now that it's “expunged” from the record …

BO: I don't know what you're talking about [laughs].

NC: [Laughs] I was just wondering if you've ever faced criminal charges in Nashville or Tennessee.

BO: Have I ever been convicted of a felony? Never convicted [laughs]. How about that? I'm like a Boy Scout at home and I let the weirdness come out in my music. I'm all about music, that's it. We're huge music fans, we make music all the time, I love making music, playing music because I'm a huge music fan.

NC: You guys have been around for almost 30 years and you haven't gotten soft. If anything, the music has become more abrasive. What inspires you to keep the music so menacing?

BO: If you look at Tom Waits' new record, that is as abrasive and as weird as anything he's ever done. That's what he likes. He's all over the map, and if that guy can do it, there's no reason why I can't.

NC: So you can still be a Boy Scout at home, and if that's what you like aesthetically, you can conjure the menace.

BO: Yes, you can if you want to. And it depends, am I menacing compared to some crazy heavy mental band? Probably not. Am I menacing compared to what you normal people listen to? Absolutely. There's always the projection of how you're looking at it too. I don't think it's menacing; I think it sounds great. I love it. That's assuming that I think menacing is bad. I don't

NC: I don't think menacing is bad at all.

BO: Yeah not at all, no. There's room for all that stuff.

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