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[Q&A] King Buzzo of Melvins rants about the end of the music biz, the radness of writing endless awesome riffs and how dead Kurt Cobain still is
[Q&A] King Buzzo of Melvins rants about the end of the music biz, the radness of writing endless awesome riffs and how dead Kurt Cobain still is
Jun 03 2011, 01:02 PM
The current state of the music business has a lot of people in a state of agitation-- after all, when the walls of the temple are crumbling, there are quite a lot of people who either have some gold pieces invested in the place or have to move those fucking lit candles out of there stat. A band like The Melvins will of course persist through this current situation, because they've soldiered on cockroach-like through several decades of this shit already, from the "home taping is killing the record industry" 80s to the grunge hype balloon of the 90s to whatever it is that's going on now. In part it's because they are a ridiculously great band that never gets tired finding inventive ways to re-configure their signature sound-- but it's also because they are consummate workaholics, constantly keeping busy with new albums and new projects and new tours.
Lead Melvin Roger "King Buzzo" Osbourne brings the band to Boston tonight and tomorrow night for a two-night stand at the Paradise that sees them running through a whopping five of their albums front-to-back, three the first night, two the second.
We ran a feature in this week's paper where Buzzo opined on the band's legacy and his view of the current state of indie music.
But we thought it was worth showing the full conversation in its full glory, so you could see the flow of the talk, and how it went from a relatively polite chat about the band's art to a somewhat unhinged rant on the state of things. Anyone who is familiar with Buzz knows that he doesn't mince words, and he gloriously lets loose at a number of targets here, while oddly sticking up for the major label system that briefly invested in his band in the early-to-mid-90s. Say what you will, but the man calls it like he sees it, and it's refreshing hear an artist who isn't afraid to let the public know that it's hard work being a band nowadays and navigating the changing tides of the business.
What was the motivation for this particular tour?
Well, we did a residency here in LA, and we did that, and that pushed us to want to do the same in a few other cities.
For that residency, were you playing the same records?
It’s the same records, but we did them over four nights instead of two nights, so we’re doing more than an album a night instead of one album a night.
It must be weird, revisiting that much of your discography all at once like that.
A lot of it was stuff that we had never played live.
Does playing an old album in whole like that force you back to the circumstances that the record was made at all?
Umm.. no, it’s fun. I don’t know, we kind of approach our records like they’re merely suggestions, we don’t try to do carbon copies of them. So it’s all pretty wide open, you know? So it’s all good.
It’s interesting, to me, to see you guys playing your albums like this, if only because so much of the Melvins live experience, over the years, has been kind of confrontational: you guys have constantly tried to frustrate expectations, especially with the way you mix up your different musical styles.
Well, I don’t see what we do as being that perverse. You know? I really, honestly, do things the way I would want other bands that I was a fan of to do. That’s it. I mean, being weird for weird’s sake, or being contrary, I don’t have much interest in that.
Sure. But at the same time, have you felt a push and pull with what you want to do, and what you experience people wanting you to do-- and has that changed at all over the years?
Well, I mean, I have always assumed that I have good taste. So if I like it, other people will like it. That’s it. So as far as whether-- I dunno, really. I’m never viewed it as being confrontational, I’ve always viewed it as doing what we want to do, and if other people are into it, all the better. And if they aren’t, there isn’t a whole lot we can do about it.
Totally-- I’ve always gotten that from you guys. And you guys have always been about displaying your taste and aesthetic apologetically-- does that seem like an accurate description?
Well, yeah, I suppose so. We’ve never fit in too massively with the bright crazy pop crowd, you know? But, you know, I never wanted to be part of any club. It’s not hard to be outside that stuff. I mean, if you want to join up and be part of some type of experience, musically, that a lot of other people are interested in and into, go ahead, you know? It’s fine with me. I mean, that kind of “Join our inner club” stuff does nothing for me.
Most people seem to form bands in order to fit in with a scene and find their sound within that-- but you guys seem to have really gone against that, especially in the punk world you started in, on through the decades of rock that you have consistently positioned yourself on the outside of.
It’s still hard, really. There’s nowhere I really feel comfortable with.
I can see that-- and it seems like your musical weirdness is relatively organic. You don’t seem to be straining to be weird.
Yeah, I think our music is easy to like, personally. I don’t know, do people have a problem with it? There’s not much I can do. We have enough people out there who like what we do that I don’t need to deal with it. I never felt like we had to be part of any scene or anything; and that’s not because-- it’s just the way it was. You know? I didn’t set out to do that, I just set out to do music that I liked, as a band.
In the early 90s, you guys were definitely “in” a certain scene, or at least it seemed that way to the untrained eye, as you were lumped in with a lot of things going on. Was that a disorienting experience?
No, it was easy to get because all we had to do was play with one of these bands to see exactly how much we weren't’ lumped in with them. I mean, Nirvana’s audience, Soundgarden’s audience, those people had no interest in us, none of them. It’s true. That was reality. I mean, you put us on stage with any of those bands, even Mudhoney’s crowd, they don’t give a shit about us. Never did, you know? It’s nothing new, we were never universally accepted by any of that. To me, it was mostly lazy journalism: could you listen to any of those bands and somehow hear what we were doing? I never understood it.
But whatever, people are gonna do whatever it is they’re gonna do. But I never said we were a part of any of that. I never thought we were a part of it. But it was a long time ago, a lifetime ago. Cobain’s been dead a long time!
And it feels like it, definitely. And yet, you guys are still doing what you are doing, in 2011, even when most of those bands either aren’t around, or are dead, or have the occasional reunion or whatever.
Yes, I feel like we are completely contemporary. But we work a lot. So if we’re gonna do something like this, it’s not a big deal. It’s six cities, twelve shows, it’s not like we’re dedicating ourselves to playing nothing but old songs.
You mention that you guys work a lot-- and it’s true, a lot of your persistence is due to continued hard work. When you formed the band, did you envision the band having this work ethic, or was it something that formed over time?
Yeah, that’s what we wanted. At the beginning, it was hard to get any shows, so the idea of being a workaholic wasn’t really gonna happen. By the time the late 80s rolled around, we were able to make a living making music, barely. Then we saw that we could concentrate on having that be what we did all the time, and that made it a lot easier, thankfully.
The ascendancy of The Melvins happened at a really strange time for metal, and I feel like when you guys first started getting big, so many bands were really not upfront with being influenced by metal, or being metal. But you guys have always been unashamedly metal-influenced, while at the same time having a kind of subversive influence on metal itself. You love metal, yet you’ve always avoided a lot of metal tropes.
Yeah, we’re not a metal band anymore than we’re any other kind of band. We have lots of heavy metal influences in what we’re doing, but I never really saw much difference between any of that stuff and punk rock, to begin with. There’s lots of heavy metal that’s great, there’s lots of heavy metal that I don’t like at all. I’m interested in really good music, one way or another. Whether it’s heavy metal or what it is, it doesn’t make a hell of a lot of difference to me.
I always liked the energy of heavy metal, I always like the drumming, there are certainly a lot of elements of metal that I have no problem wanting to incorporate into what we’re doing at all, you know, a lot of that stuff is really cool. A lot of it is really horrible, but whatever, that’s okay.
You guys have played shows or tours where you were too metal, others where you were not metal enough, and I imagine that must be a strange position to be in.
Oh certainly. But not a big deal, you know? I mean, you go play a show with a stupid band like White Zombie, you get what you expect. Not a big surprise to me.
Sure-- but at the same time, you play a show like that, playing Ozzfest or opening for Nine Inch Nails or Tool or Primus or whomever, and you must be interested in finding out what the experience is going to be like of playing that show, right?
Yes, we were! And once we had those experiences, we were far less interested in them.
We’re not really concerned with selling our band that way anymore.
But you were at one point, right? Of playing big stadiums and all that?
Well, we thought we’d give it a shot. I’m not afraid of doing it, we’ll try, why not? Just for the weirdness factor alone, if nothing else.
Was it important for you guys, at a certain point, to try these bizarre situations out to see what would happen?
Uh, no, mostly because it worked out pretty much how I thought it would, not a whole lot different. It didn’t surprise me in the least. Uh, um, I didn’t expect a whole lot out of it, but I thought “Why not?” There’s still a big part of me that continually thinks “Why not?”
That seems like a big part of the Melvins’ M.O.: “Why not?”
Well, yeah, we do strange things I guess, but strange compared to what? I mean, that’s the way that we look at it. Strange compared to Throbbing Gristle? No.
It seems like humor is a big part of the whole Melvins deal, a part that people kind of overlook sometimes.
Yeah, I mean the band name, for instance.
It kind of seems like your general aesthetic is one of not taking the whole thing seriously.
Well, you have to be careful-- I always try to stay away from, like, the avant-garde art world, you know? There’s nothing I hate more than that crap.
Was that ever a worry?
Well, it was a worry in terms of, like, we’re definitely art-y, you know? But I never wanted to be-- I always thought those people were silly, by and large.
But I wanted to make sure that we had a band name that was weird and couldn’t be branded as one thing, and on and on from there. But I guess I was never too concerned with the details from there.
But at the same time, you take your music super seriously-- not just the work that goes into it, but the music itself is serious.
I am massively serious about it. Massively. I don’t know how else to put it.
With every album, you guys slowly shift your signature sound-- you have never been afraid to change who you are, musically. It must be odd going back to your old material for these shows when you are so constantly in the now with your new stuff.
Well, some of the songs, it’s like playing a cover song. But I don’t know, it’s-- I’m not really sure. I don’t know, David Lynch kind of put it best, he said he loses 20% of his audience with every movie he makes, but he also gains new people too. I would guess that that is the case with us too.
If one were to describe what you guys sound like to someone who had never heard your music, most people would say “Oh, Melvins, they’re really sludgy and heavy and slow,” even though a good 50, 60, 70% of your music has absolutely nothing to do with that sound.
Yeah-- once again, that’s really bad journalism. I mean, we’re interested in a wide variety of things, a wide variety of musical styles and experiences.
Do you think that part of your plan with The Melvins has been to slowly make people more ready and willing to accept the wide variety of musical styles that you want to make, to be a part of?
Um, well, I dunno. I know that I am interested in that. And once again, I figure that if I am, that other people will be as well. That’s about it, really, there’s not a whole lot to it than that.
You’ve had the four-person Melvins lineup for three albums now, and it’s been pretty stable.
What do you think works with this particular lineup?
Well, I really like it because it’s really different and challenging. That’s the main thing.
Challenging in what way?
Well, you know, you have two drummers to deal with, it opens up an endless array of things that you can and can’t do. I like having the two drummers, it’s odd and we can do things that are way more drum-oriented than we could before, which is great, really opens up the horizons a lot.
Have your songs in this line-up come about in a different way? Because correct me if I’m wrong, but you were always the prime songwriter--
Correct. Still am.
Ok-- so how have things changed with this lineup, do you come up with different types of things before you present them to two drummers?
Some of it; I write with two drummers in mind, and with a bass player/lead singer in mind as well. And I let them expand on it, to a degree. I try not to have things too figured out, because there are always things I hadn’t thought of. Thankfully.
As your band progressed, and especially once you had major label money, you were able to really expand your style from your early days. I think your singing, especially, went in a lot of more melodic places and has continued to.
Well, I mean I think that I’m a better singer now than I was to begin with, which I’m really happy with. But the whole major label thing, those guys never made us do one thing or another, you know? They let us write whatever songs we wanted, those would have been the songs I wrote, regardless.
But having a major label involved must have changed things, at least with the production budget?
More production, but it didn’t have to do with what songs I was writing. At all. Those would have been the songs on the record regardless, I wrote a lot of those songs before we were on a record. I mean, on
, there was a song “Set Me Straight” that was one the first songs we ever wrote. It certainly wasn’t affected at all by us being on a major label, especially at that point.
is definitely a pretty all-over-the-place record, it definitely doesn’t sound like, you know, “Here’s their major label debut!”...
Yeah. No, not at all. No meddling there. Not in the least.
It must be weird for you guys being involved in the music biz nowadays-- what with the demise of the industry, there is less of a gap beetween the big superstars and the so-called little bands, the weird bands. What do you think of all that?
Well, we all make way less money selling records. Is that a good thing? We have to figure out ways of making this work without the traditional way that it used to. And that takes time and effort. We pushed ourselves more towards limited edition kinds of stuff, but a lot of people don’t-- even something as simple as saying to someone “The price of a CD hasn’t changed in twenty years”. There’s no product out there that’s like that. People want to pay the same for an album that they did in the mid-80s. You aren’t paying the same for gas that you did in the mid-80s! People have a really skewed perspective on how things work.
CD’s are less money to make, as far as the CD itself goes. But you can’t sell ‘em, you know? Ipecac was telling us, they are selling 40% of what they did ten years ago. Now, nobody can tell me that that is good for anybody. Cuz what does that mean? It means that there’s nobody that will invest money in music, because there’s no money to be made. And when nobody is willing to invest money in music, what happens? Less music-- less good music gets made. That’s just how it works. The advent of home recording is all well and good, but there’s a reason that people record stuff in a studio with really good engineers and equipment and stuff.
Yeah-- music is in a weird place right now, kind of on the cusp of the death of the traditional album and whatnot--
That whole era is dead. Vinyl sells less than it ever has, I don’t care what anybody tells you! Vinyl sells less than it ever has.
We used to sell 10,000 singles. You think I can make 10,000 singles now? No way! No way. We used to sell 20,000 actual twelve-inch records. I’d need to have shit for brains to make 20,000 records now. You know? They’re wrong. They're wrong about everything. But the general public-- and I love to generalize-- the general public is wrong about almost every single thing.
If a little band wants to make an album, right, and you want to record it and put it onto vinyl, you’d better have the better part of $5,000 just to make a thousand of them. And how many bands out there are gonna have that? It’s not good. It’s over. People are just wrong. They have a highly-developed sense of entitlement and I don’t know where it comes from. I have to be really careful-- do you think I can go to a recording studio and spend $40,000 on a record?
Yeah! What planet? That whole thing is over. That whole thinking is over. It’s moved on!
What are bands supposed to do, then? What’s next?
We’re fucked! You know? And all these little smart-asses who want things to be new will have to deal with it in a way that’s new. And fine with me, I’m all for it. I’ll just move ahead, I’m not gonna bitch. I’m not one of these guys who complains about the good old days, those days had problems too. But it’s not gonna be the same.
You want to buy an album from me? It’s gonna be twenty to twenty-five bucks, minimum. That’s it. You don’t want to buy it, move on. Because the music’s free. You’re gonna hear it for free, because someone’s gonna put it on the Internet. There’s nothing I can do about that. So therefore if you want something tangible, that’s not just a bunch of zeros and ones, then you’re gonna have to pay for it. And that’s it. That’s reality. You have to deal with it, nothing I can do about it.
I’d guess that the people who we’re talking about, the fan who buys these records, it’s a different audience than the great unwashed that bought records before, right?
And I guess if you look back on previous eras, like the 80s and 90s, at the whole major label system and how wrong-headed it was--
The major label system--
It was? Why was it wrong-headed?
Well, just the way it took things that people were legitimately into and put its fingers in and warped everything and--
Look, let’s look at it this way. You have a major label that was willing to give a band like The Melvins $25,000 to make a record. They gave us that! What was wrong with that? Nothing! And will that ever happen again? No. So there’s nothing “wrong-headed” about any of that. I put out three albums on the same label as Aretha Franklin, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones. Those days are over. It will never happen again. The music industry isn’t going to be interested in anything of that nature ever again. We put out three albums on Atlantic Records, three really weird records. Those days are over. Over! You know? So, you can view that as them being heavily bloated and overblown and stupid, or you can view it as they actually had the good sense to give money to us. I mean, you gotta remember, the late 70s, the early 80s, a record label like Warner Brothers put out records by Gang Of Four, Public Image Ltd. There is a huge list of things that I think are unbelievable that came out on major labels, you know? And those days are over.
And all of those bands, Gang Of Four, Public Image Ltd., they would consider themselves uncommercial. They would say “Oh, what we were doing was not mainstream.” And yet it was major label music, it was available everywhere. It wasn’t mainstream, but my point is that there was someone out there willing to underwrite it. And that ain’t gonna happen again. You know? Do you think there’s a major label out there that would underwrite Solid Gold by Gang Of Four? No way! Not a chance. It’s over. And to the people out there who think it’s going to be better, I say “Maybe.” But there’s also going to be a downside. And I say “So be it.” I’ve moved on, I’ve moved on.
It seems like the future is going to be a different kind of patronage situation, where instead of labels it will be individual people with money, or something far weirder.
Well, what we’ve been doing is hyper-limited edition stuff, a box set edition of 200, letterpress, all things you can’t download. And all that stuff without going through a record store. And that’s how it’s going to work. It’s all high quality low number material. We might be able to do one more album in a traditional sense.
But you’ll still of course be able to write stuff, come up with music--
We’ll come up with endless things, it just might not be album form-ish. Ipecac maybe will survive one more album for us. That’s what I would imagine. Then it’s gonna be done. I mean, do you think that I’ll find a label out there that will be willing to put out a record for me? No way, that’ll never happen.
Well, that’s just records, though: the brand of the band, The Melvins, I’d imagine, will always mean something, to people, right?
We’ll survive. But, it’s not gonna be the same as it was. That’s it. So the people who want to complain about how things might be going now, that’s it’s not the same as the good old days-- tough shit. You have to roll with the punches. It’s not the end of the world. When someone complains that they’re gonna have to pay $25 to get one of our albums, it’s like, look: what do you want me to do about it?
You know? You get something that’s amazing, you get a hyper-limited edition really cool package, something that we made, more on the art end. The music’s free! What’s the most important thing? The most important thing is the music. That’s it. And you’re getting that for nothing. So fuck you!
Yeah-- I mean, to me, I hear you, and I’m thinking about how you guys have survived so much already--
--and when you guys were done with the major label thing, that whole thing is barely a blip on your discography.
We didn’t miss a beat. I didn’t sit around with a pity party going “Oh no, what are we gonna do?” I never expected the major label thing to work in the first place. So big fucking deal! Move on! You know?
[tonight] Love Inks @ O'Brien's Pub :: UPDATE: show canceled
[on a boat] Mellow Bravo + Viva Viva + Organ Beats on a Friday night booze cruise
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