[Q&A] Melvins' King Buzzo on getting in the van, Peter Gabriel being lazy, and how it's all "just music" / tonight @ the Paradise

A career in rock is basically like any other trade, in the sense that some people get lucky and can live off of the riches of a few seasons in the sun, and most eke by due a combination of hard work and persistence (and talent doesn't hurt). When I caught up last year with Roger "King Buzzo" osbourne, guitarist and lead mouthpiece for MELVINS, he schooled me on the way that changes in the music industry are making all bands work harder for limited rewards; or, as he eloquently put it then, "We're fucked!"

However, if you are a fan of the Melvins and their three-decade-long quest for the ultimate amalgamation of punk, metal, hard rock and avant-garde weirdness, the fucked-ness of the biz has meant-- well, seeing a lot more of them, as the band has become road hogs par excellence. Which hasn't impeded their recorded output at all either-- going on two decades since their mid-90s drop from Atlantic, they are releasing records at an insane clip, with three releases by the band this year alone, each with a different lineup and on a different label (The Bulls and The Bees, a promotional release through Scion A/V, has the two-drum lineup that has recorded the band's last three long-players; 1983 [Amphetamine Reptile] is new music recorded by the band's 1983 pre-Dale Crover lineup; and their most recent Freak Puke [Ipecac] sees the band scaled down to a trio, with Trevor Dunn (x-Mr. Bungle) on acoustic standup bass).

The band's newest workhorse challenge has been to tour all 50 of America's states in 50 consecutive days (well, actually 51 "states" in 51 days, because they are counting the District of Columbia as a state) -- and tonight's show at the Paradise is stop number 27. They are ostensibly attempting to get in the Guinness Book of World Records with this stunt, but honestly I can't imagine that the quest to get in the book really means much to the band. If anything, it smacks of just an excuse to log miles on the road-- because Melvins love to play, despite/because of the fact that, as Buzzo put it, "it's just music."  It's just music!  Perfect.  I caught up with Buzz a few weeks ago, between stop eight and nine, and got the scoop on what it's like to work like a fiend thirty years in.

Where are you guys at right now?

We’re driving between Denver and Lawrence, Kansas, so we’re in the middle of nowhere.

How has the tour been going so far?

Fine so far, about to do our ninth show.

Have you guys been playing a lot of places that, due to the conceit of the tour, you wouldn’t normally play?

Oh yeah-- we just played Cheyenne, Wyoming, we’ve never played there, we played Anchorage, we’d never played there before. Some other towns, like Missoula and Boise, we’d played before but it’s been a while. So you know, it’s not just New York City, you know?

What’s the difference, for you guys, in playing a remote place?

Well, I mean, sometimes those shows are good, but you know, you never know. Sometimes you can play a show in the middle of nowhere and it’s great, other times you’re playing to a couple of cowboys going “What’s this shit?”

Is this at all similar for you to Melvins’ early days of touring?

No no no, in our early days of touring, we’d have never been able to get a show in Cheyenne, they’d have just told us to stick it and that would have been the end of that, so that would never have happened. This time was great, we had a great show, a lot of enthusiastic people, and it only took us thirty years to get to this point.

Do you think people, now, romanticize this 80s DIY early days of punk touring Black Flag world? You know, “There was this awesome punk network of cool underground bands all working with each other”-- did that actually exist?

I never found that to be the case at all. I think it’s easier to be a band now than it was before.

It must have been just throwing darts to play out-of-town shows thirty years ago.

Thirty years ago, we did one tour in ‘86 and vowed that we’d never tour again, you know, it was so bad. I mean, we weren’t in a position to lose a bunch of clams on the road, playing to a bunch of skinheads who want to kick our ass. That was the community that was around back then. We would play the South and believe me, none of those people were interested in our long-haired shit. No way.

Where was the tipping point, when playing live and touring became something that was more fulfilling for you?

Well, I mean a long time ago, it was hard to even get shows. So originally, we just wanted to play some shows, the idea of doing a record was ridiculous. And then that happened, and we moved on from there. But when we did our first tour, we thought it was ridiculous, and we didn’t want to do that again. And we didn’t do it again until after the Ozma record came out, and we had a booking agent who convinced us that there might be some people out in the world who were interested in seeing us live. But before that, we weren’t one of these bands who did slogs across the U.S. for dog food. And I still to this day think that’s a ridiculous thing to do-- it’s completely stupid and doesn’t work. I mean, jsut play locally, and if you’re good, things can go from there. I mean, good bands, there aren’t that many of them, and so they’ll tend to stand out in a field of garbage! So taking your band out on the road and playing some shithole in East Texas isn’t gonna make you feel better, it’s gonna make you feel worse about the whole thing. If you can’t do well within a six-hour drive from your house, what makes you think you’re gonna do well six days from your house?

Is it a pernicious myth propagated on young bands that they have to “get in the van”?

Well, people like Henry Rollins could get in the van, because those guys had places they could play for people, they had an audience that would go see them everywhere. They probably had some shitty shows in Mobile, Alabama or some hellhole, who knows? But by and large, I saw Black Flag play in Seattle and they always played to big crowds. That’s not hard to do! That’s not discouraging to go to somewhere in the U.S. and play to a large audience, in punk rock terms. They were above the average. Most bands can’t do that, so it’s very discouraging.

You guys may have found that discouraging, but you’ve now done a zillion tours, and also put out more records than anyone can fathom. What got you past that discouragement, did you channel it into your career?

Well, you know, I guess as time went on we had more and more encouraging things happen. We still have our share of discouraging things happen, even now. But I dunno, if you’re band’s no good, it doesn’t matter what you do. I mean, crappy bands get big, but that’s the exception to the rule. I dunno, I really don’t know. I mean, when it became obvious that we could do something like that and not be a waste of ours or somebody else’s money, that’s when it materialized on the horizon that we might be able to make something like that work. But until then, I think it’s a terrible idea to take a bunch of somebody’s money and lose it all, there’s nothing good about that. You might make some money for a while but ultimately it’s a disaster, really.

What was the impetus for this Guinness World Record tour that you’re doing now?

Well, you know, we could do this and turn it into Guinness and they could still not accept it. But we’re gonna do the tour nonetheless.

But you planned on doing this even if the record didn’t happen?

We really just wanted to do something big and stupid, that’s the whole thing. A publicity stunt to see if we could do it. Like there’s no reason to climb Mount Everest, but idiots do it every year, I don’t know why.

Because it’s there?

Yeah, definitely. To see if we can do it. I don’t feel like we’ll have a problem playing the shows, the only thing that might be a problem is getting there, if something goes wrong. But playing the shows, I have no doubt that those will be fine. None whatsoever. We’re all professional musicians, it’s what we do for a living. I could play a show every night. I mean, I guess I could break an arm or develop walking pneumonia, though. Anything could happen.

Don’t say that, Buzz-- you’re focusing on the negatives, that shit isn’t gonna happen.

No dude, I told you, I think we can do it, no problem.

So okay, you’re only nine shows in, but do you get something out of going across America, specifically? Do you get some kind of perspective from doing this that you wouldn’t get from “normal” tours?

Well, you know, I’ve been across the United States a lot of times, a tremendous amount of times. Matter of fact, this trip will be my third trip across America this year. So I have a really good idea of how it works out in the world, as far as that goes. Give me a state and I have a pretty good visual picture. But I dunno, I like playing the U.S. more than anywhere else in the world, in terms of my being comfortable doing it. Europe’s a big pain in the ass, but the shows are usually pretty good; but I mean, you stand on stage in Berlin or New York City or Cheyenne, Wyoming and it’s the same show, I played the same as I’d play anywhere. The Cheyenne crowd got the same show that we’re gonna play in New York City. I don’t think that one is more special or better than the other.

So you’re not “country-ing” it up in Wyoming?

Not at all. No, we’re just as big weirdos no matter where we play.

I guess I’m just curious if even someone who’s a big musician, they go to a few big cities and play shows and they think they know what America’s all about; but playing all 50 states in a row must give you a more fine-grained perspective.

Well, um, maybe. That’s possible. I hadn’t thought about it before in quite those terms. But we did a tour in the U.S. a few years ago where we did 73 shows, so we pretty much played every wide spot in the road; the only states we hadn’t played were New Hampshire, Hawaii and Alaska, and now we’ve played Alaska. Now, I’ve been to all those states except Hawaii and Alaska a number of times so, you know. And we just did a tour across Canada before this, just as warm-up.

For a working band, whatever that means, there’s a certain concept of a work ethos. For you guys, is it just “time to make the donuts”, or if you had a zillion bucks would you still be doing zany tours and putting out multiple albums a year?

Um, I dunno. Honestly, I think that millionaires should probably work harder than anyone else; they have the ability to do it, and generally speaking, it translates into nothing. I mean, you gotta remember, we’re gonna play our ninth show in a row tonight. No bands ever do that. We’ve already surpassed-- I mean, do you think on the White Zombie/Marilyn Manson tour they do more than two shows in a row? Those guys aren’t working four days a week, so we’ve already surpassed all that. And lots of other bands don’t do that either. So tonight we’re playing our ninth show in a row, that’s like literally asking most rock bands to drop to their knees and slit their wrists. “What do you expect me to do?”

Well, be fair, Buzz; Rob Zombie’s got to protect his voice there.

Oh yeah! Sure. He really has to protect it when he’s running that tape. I don’t know how he handles it! Fortunately, in this day and age, you actually have to give props to bands who literally play their instruments. That’s how fucked up everything is. Totally weird. I mean, seventy-year-old Paul McCartney can get onstage and play with a real band; 45 year old Rob Zombie can’t do it. That’s just stupid.

On the other hand, you’re comparing Rob Zombie to Paul McCartney.

But if Paul McCartney can do it, everyone should be able to do it, and that certainly isn’t the case, by no means. You’d be surprised how many bands don’t play their instruments live. They’re all like Milli Vanilli, 100%. But whatever-- who am I to say people are stupid who want to go and see a band jump around to a tape. If that’s what people want, who am I to call them an idiot?

This tour is being billed as “Melvins Lite”-- is it “Melvins Lite”? Are people that used to the two-drum four-piece Melvins that this requires special billing?

Well, the “Lite” really stems from us playing with a stand-up bass, and my big fear was that people were gonna go “It’s not really the same, I expected this and that”. We wanted people to know that this is something different than normal. Because look: people are stupid, you have to spell it out in big thick letters that you can read from a hundred miles off, and there are still people who aren’t gonna get it. but by and large, everyone’s been very cool and accepting of this; people like the record, it’s all good.

Yeah-- Freak Puke is awesome.

Thank you.

No, really. It’s interesting: I feel like after your major label thing ended, you guys got really experimental, but then when you did the four-piece thing for a few albums, those records seemed less weird and oddball; Freak Puke seems like you are back to being really weird again.

I don’t feel like that at all. You should re-listen to those records, they’re pretty weird records. I don’t think you’re listening hard enough. I mean, The Bride Screams Murder, listen to the first track. I dunno, I’ve heard other people say that sort of thing and-- I dunno, it’s difficult for me to say.

Don’t listen to me. I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about.

Nobody does.

But was there a certain tact you took with Freak Puke, was there a difference in approach in working as a trio?

Well, four people, three people, it doesn’t matter. What matters is whatever music you’re making. Ten people, it doesn’t make any difference. What we wanted to do was focus on the idea that we had a stand-up bass, that he could play it with a bow, that he could play it with his fingers. We wanted to make sure that it stood out and there was a reason why we were doing it. And that was it, that was our main goal, to make music that amplified that aspect of this record.

Was that a challenge compared to the two-drum attack sound that you had developed for a few albums?

I dunno, you can mix two drum sounds any way you want to on a record, you can make them quiet or loud, it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference. I mean, when I’m listening to the Allman Brothers’ first record, I don’t think “Oh, listen to the two drummers playing!” I’m just listening to the songs. That’s it. People will be like “Oh, it’s better this way” or “It’s better that way”, and I stopped taking those kinds of criticisms a long time ago. I know what I like doing, and that’s both things. I think that there’s plenty of room for everything.

It seems like a lot of times you are going for something that is unhinged, but in an intentional way.

Yes. 100%. What’s the quote? If you do something right, no one will notice that you’ve done it. I mean, that stuff’s not easy to play, and I think it’s really weird, you know? I do, personally.

Do you feel like you challenge yourself a lot? As a listener, it sounds like you do. You could make Melvins albums much easier, I would think.

Yeah, definitely.

Because people, when they describe the Melvins, tend to describe them wrong.

Yeah, pretty much almost exclusively wrong.

They’re usually describing something a lot simpler.

Well, you know, sometimes that's good, but I don’t know. I mean, I have a pretty thick skin and I don’t really listen to that sort of thing, but I guess sometimes people are right. But at some point, you realize that people are absurd idiots and there’s nothing you can do about it and I’ll leave it at that. Those aren’t the people I’m playing for, by and large. Sometimes they come around-- there’s some records that I’ve hated at first and then eventually thought were amazing. I don’t know why, sometimes that happens. But by and large, we get a positive response to what we’re doing. If we don’t, if I read a bad review we’ve gotten, all I have to do is go and look at other reviews the guy or girl has done and you look at what they like and you go “Oh, no wonder they don’t like us, I don’t like anything they like.” So that doesn’t surprise me at all. Usually. Not always.

Do you find, as times go on, current things that inspire you-- or are you more inspired by the past?

I don’t know, there are probably about as many bands that I like now as I ever did. It’s not a whole lot, you know? I mean, look, good music is good, whether it’s new or old. And once in a while that happens, generally new music either already sounds like something from a long time ago, or it sounds like hip hop which I have no interest in. None at all, it’s just not my thing. I might like listening to a little of it but for the most part it’s just elevator music for young people, to me. It’s just not for me, I don’t have any interest in that, and employing those sorts of elements into what we’re doing just sounds absolutely horrible, I wouldn’t do it. It’s something I wouldn’t do. But if you take something you like from a long time ago and try to make it sound contemporary, I don’t see anything wrong with that. I think we’re 100% contemporary.

It seems like, with Melvins, you’ve taken a few decades to slowly but surely change your band’s sound, your band’s aesthetic. Maybe it’s how you’ve stayed “contemporary”, as you put it, but over a long time there’s been these gradual shifts where you look back and you guys have really moved a long way since you started out, a little bit with each record.

No, we try to do that, always. You know, some things are better than others. I mean, it’s only music. It’s not like it’s a big deal to write music, you just go out there and try. If you don’t try, you can’t do anything, so I don’t really think it’s a bad idea to push limits to some degree, whatever they may be. But sometimes you may work on something that sounds similar or has a similar vibe to something you did before, and that’s okay. That’s fine. But moving forward is fine too. It’s just music. Go out there and make it happen. And take that idea that “It’s just music” and approach it as seriously as brain surgery and you’ll be alright.

A lot of people in bands would have a lot of trouble saying “It’s just music” about their own music.

Of course they would. But there you have it.

Last year you did a tour where you did five of your older albums over two nights; are you glad that that’s done so you can focus on new stuff? It always seems weird when bands do those “play the whole album” things, it sometimes feels like the fans have forced bands to do that sort of thing.

Oh no, no, fans never forced us to do anything. I thought it was fun! Most bands do one album, we did five albums over the course of two nights. We might do it again in Europe next year. But we haven’t lost focus on new stuff as a result of that. I mean, this year alone we did a five-song ep for Scion with the Big Business guys, the Freak Puke record, and the 1983 ep with our original drummer. So we’ve put out three different records with three different lineups. So I’m not worried about any of that stuff getting in the way, not at all.

It’s interesting-- this might seem like an odd comparison, but I recently talked to Peter Gabriel, who is doing a tour where he’s playing his entire So album, and he was, at first, a little reticent to go back and do a whole album. He definitely had to be convinced, it was definitely not his idea.

Right. For me, nobody tells me what to do. No one. Not like that. I’m always the idea man when it comes to those sorts of things. I mean, Peter Gabriel-- why does he have to do anything? If he’s gonna complain, if he doesn’t like it, then back it up with another tour. We did a tour of the U.S. with the Big Business guys already this year, so we accomplished both things in the same year. I think he could do that, why doesn’t he do this: he could simply do two shows in each city, you know? Play venues small enough so he could do it. But of course he’s not gonna do that, because he doesn’t care that much. If he literally cared, that’s what he’d do.

When people talk about how awful the music industry is, do you think a lot of artists don’t try hard enough or care enough?

Well, the industry’s certainly changing. I don’t know if it’s for the better or the worse, but people had better come up with something that works. Now, a guy like Peter Gabriel, what should he do: nobody cares about records anymore, not in the traditional sense; and concerts, everybody has the idea that “We’re not making enough money so let’s go out on the road.” So a guy like him needs to do is provide people with something they’re not gonna normally get. But is he gonna do that? It remains to be seen. What people like him normally do is play a giant arena, when they should do something different like play a whole bunch of shows in a smaller venue. But of course a guy like him isn’t gonna do that, because that would require work, you know? You have to provide people with things that they’re not gonna get normally. So instead of him doing something interesting, he’ll do the equivalent of playing at Wal-Mart, you know? That’s what he’ll give his fans. And I think that kind of thing is ridiculous, there’s all kinds of ideas out there, you just do it. You go to a place like New York City, play Irving Plaza, or Webster Hall, do ten shows there, and do a wide variety of things, including his solo album. Why not? No one’s got a gun to his head, he’s not gonna do it because it’s too much fucking work. That’s it. He’s lazy! That is the way it is with all these people. So I really, you know, don’t have any sympathy for any of it. None. And he could do that and go “I’m going to play Irving Plaza and charge a lot of money because this is a really cool thing” and people will pay it because they would appreciate it. But are they gonna do it? No, because they are lazy. That’s it.

Is it the artist, or is it the whole infrastructure that’s “lazy”?

Well, if he’s taking orders from his handlers, then he’s a jackass. You know? They work for him, he’s the boss, he can do whatever he wants. That’s the truth. You don’t like those people? Fire ‘em all! Start over. But he’s not gonna do that, he wants to use that as an excuse. “Oh, I can’t do whatever I want.” Look, a guy like him doesn’t have to do anything. He can just walk away from this whole thing any time he wants. We aren’t talking about something that’s logical, we’re talking about something that’s illogical. He gets something out of it that has nothing to do with money: he wants to walk out into a big arena and act like a big superstar, that’s what he wants. It certainly isn’t about money, because he doesn’t need it.

Well, at the same time, any popular artist wants to walk out into a crowd and get that response? Even when you come out to the crowd at the Paradise you’ll come out to a crowd of Melvins fans, so it’s the same thing, right?

It’s not the same thing at all. He’s playing a place designed for sporting events. I got interested in punk rock as a result of the intimacy of it. There’s a difference, I believe. If people don’t see the difference between playing Madison Square Garden and a 1,000 capacity club, then I can’t convince them. I see the difference! If I was him, I would only play shows that I would want to go to as a fan. Don’t play a place designed for basketball.

And you’ve played all different sized places, so you know what it’s all about.

Yeah, definitely.

Do you, yourself, get anything out of seeing enormously large shows, or is it a thing that doesn’t have any future as a musical setting?

It’s fine I guess, I’m just not interested in it. Zero. I don’t like big festival shows either. But I’m in a different position than he is: he has more money than God, whereas if I got offered a festival gig for money that was decent I’d do it. Not because I’d like it but I’d do it because I need the money.

Well, maybe Peter Gabriel is a bad example; he was fine with doing this tour, for example, and he’s perfectly creatively involved in everything he does, and his tours are always interesting and have the fan in mind and all.

No, no, I think he’s a good example, because I actually saw him a few years ago at the Staples Center and it was just awful. I was bored out of my mind, I thought it was completely ridiculous, I just don’t like that environment.

Are you a fan of Gabriel-era Genesis?

No, but I saw him on his first solo tour at the Paramount Theater in Seattle, a much smaller place, and it was really good. So I had that to compare it to.

Right, I get that. I love his early solo stuff.

Oh yeah, that stuff is really good, definitely. But I did not like him at the Staples Center, it was horrible. But that’s just me, you know?

But you know, he’s older since then, maybe he’s moved on from the weirdness of the early 80s.

Maybe. Who knows. I have no idea what motivates a person like that. No idea.

With you, everything you do is so direct and immediate; I feel like it’s not a bunch of phases that represent you. As you said, it’s just music and you do it.

You do it with a very serious attitude, but it still only really is music. It means a lot but it’s not like, you know, worrying about nuclear war or anything. It’s not serious like a heart attack.

Sorry to keep harping on this, but that is a really fascinating concept; I’ve talked to a lot of bands and artists and no one has ever told me in all that time that the work that they do is “just music.”

It’s entertainment. But you have to be serious about it, because if no one believes me then no one’s going to care. And I’m not kidding, you know? I’m not kidding at all. We’re very serious and we want to be very good and we’re very into it and I love it and it’s my passion. It changes people’s lives in the way that entertainment and music and movies always do, you know? Some people want a different kind of thing and that’s what we’re trying to provide. That’s what I like. We approach our stuff the way we would as fans, that’s what I would appreciate. In the end, it really doesn’t make much difference, it’s not gonna stop the world. But that’s okay, I feel the same way about other bands.

MELVINS LITE: The latest incarnation with King Buzzo, Dale Crover, and Trevor Dunn + TWEAK BIRD | Paradise Rock Club, 967 Comm Ave, Boston | October 1 @ 7 pm | 18+ | $18 | 617.562.8800 or

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