Buzz Osborne of the Melvins
Greg Prato (Songfacts)
Who has the best hair in rock n' roll? Slash? Damian Marley? A Flock of Seagulls? My personal selection would be the Melvins' Buzz Osborne, who has a hairstyle that in my book, Grunge is Dead
, a gentleman described as "Something out of Sideshow Bob." And in addition to his impressive 'do, Mr. Osborne is a master riff-maker, something he specializes in as the growler/guitarist of the Melvins.
Buzz formed The Melvins in Montesano, Washington in 1983. They have seen countless bassists come and go over the years, but have been set on drums since Dale Crover joined in 1984. A favorite of Kurt Cobain (he was a longtime friend of the band and is listed as a co-producer on their best album, 1993's Houdini
), the Melvins issued their 19th studio release in 2013, Tres Cabrones
, which saw Crover momentarily move over to bass so the group's original drummer, Mike Dillard, could join in on the fun.
In addition to his full-time duties with the Melvins (a band that rarely goes a year without some musical output), Osborne has also found the time to be a member of the on-again/off-again (currently off) Mike Patton-led Fantômas, and in 2014, he did his first-ever solo acoustic tour. Always a talkative chap, Osborne chatted about the recent tinkering of the Melvins lineup, the balance between artistry and technical proficiency, and the stories behind some of the Melvins' best tunes.
: Let's talk about the new album. From what I understand the original Melvins drummer is back on this album, right?
: Yes. His name's Mike Dillard. And Dale, our regular drummer - well, one of our regular drummers - plays bass.
: How was it looking across and not seeing Dale on drums?
: It was not a big problem. We knew what we were doing as far as that's concerned, and we wrote songs accordingly.
: If I remember correctly, wasn't this an idea that's been kicking around for some time?
: Well, last year we did a four-song EP with Mike that came out on Amphetamine Reptile [titled 1983
]. It was just a vinyl release, so four of those songs are included on this. Then we just fleshed it out into an album. But he lives in Washington, so we don't get a whole lot of time to play with him.
But we do this thing where the Melvins 1983 opened for the Melvins. So when we were practicing for that on this run of shows - seven shows or something like that in the US - right after that we said, "We should do a record like this." So it grew out of that.
: Something else - and I mean this as a complete compliment - I love how the Melvins still put out good albums, compared to some bands that have been around for as long that suck.
: Oh, you're so nice.
: Why do you think some bands lose it, and some bands can still tell when a good song is written and put out a good album?
: I have no idea. It has something to do with the fact that we're not afraid to do lots of different kinds of stuff. I also don't feel like we're constrained into one type of thing. It hasn't gotten harder.
: Does it perhaps have something to do with you guys having a pretty good relationship with the label Ipecac?
: I don't know that the label has anything to do with it. We like working with those guys, but I don't know that my relationship creatively would be any different with any label. They certainly don't tell us what to do, but even when we were on Atlantic they didn't tell us what to do - I wasn't particularly open to the idea of having somebody tell me what was right or wrong with what I was doing.
: As far as approaching songwriting, how do you usually write your best songs? Do you usually just sit down at the guitar and play whatever comes off the top of your head or does it come as a melody?
: It comes from guitar playing. Sometimes I come up with an idea that I want to use. On The Bride Screamed Murder
album we had a song called "The Water Glass," which has a bunch of military cadences on it. I can't remember exactly how I came up with that idea, but it was like, "Oh, man, we've got to do a song with military cadences." So that was more of an idea thing.
And then with this album, one thing for sure is the drummer, Dillard, isn't Keith Moon by any means, and Dale isn't John Entwistle by any means. So I had to write songs with that in mind. I wrote songs that those guys could play, essentially.
So that was different than with the regular Melvins. They're all really good players, so there's not much I could come up with that they can't do. So I kind of pared it down. My wife actually says that this might be her favorite Melvins record because it's simpler. [Laughing]
: Has there ever been a song that you didn't write first on guitar, that you wrote on some other instrument?
: Nothing comes to mind. There's a lot of songs I'll write on guitar that might end up not having guitar on it. But that's just part of the process.
But I think songwriting is all that there is, really. There's nothing else. If you're not doing that, anything else is pointless, to me. I don't particularly think that being a fantastic guitar player or a fantastic drummer is worth a shit if you're playing crap music. Who cares?
I mean, people can say what they will about certain musicians, but the fact of the matter is, if they can put chords or lyrics together in a way that's good - even if it's simple - that's really all that matters. That's it. Not to say that the people that I play with aren't top-notch musicians. Almost everybody I've ever played with in the Melvins has been a top-notch, world-class musician, and that's important, certainly. But without songwriting, it doesn't make any difference.
There are kids who are in Guitar Center as we speak who are fantastic musicians, who will never make a dime playing music. Why? They're not good songwriters.
: What I love so much about the bands from Seattle in the '90s is that it brought a focus back to the importance of songwriting, which brings it back to the Beatles and things like that. But over the last few years, people have forgotten the importance of songwriting and now you're back to that horrible heavy metal guitar shredding, playing as-fast-as-you-can solos without memorable songwriting.
Best Of The Bunch:
Houdini : Co-produced by the band and Kurt Cobain, this just may be the band's finest hour (and features a toe-tapping cover of Kiss' "Goin' Blind," to boot).
Ozma : The band's second full-length album contains such classics as "Vile" and "Kool Legged," as well as another killer cover - the Cars' "Candy-O" - as a bonus track on the CD version.
Nude with Boots : As with their previous album, 2006's (A) Senile Animal, Nude with Boots sees Buzz and Dale expand the Melvins lineup to include the two chaps from Big Business: Jared Warren (bass) and Coady Willis (drums... yes TWO drummers).
Tres Cabrones : The Melvins' 19th (!) release overall shows that even though it's getting late in their career, the lads are still capable of delivering delightful ditties.
: Well, you know, you could have good songwriting with that, as well. It just depends. I didn't like all the grunge stuff. As a matter of fact, I like about as much of that stuff as I liked of any genre of music, which wasn't a tremendous amount of it.
But what I think was good about it was that songwriting-wise, if you take a band like Nirvana, their biggest hits are structurally the same as even a hair metal band's biggest hits. The structure's not different - the attitude was different. Except it really wasn't. It seemed a little more human.
What attracted me to punk rock in the first place was the human element of it all, even if that's not where they ended up. I think that touched on people. I don't know if this is a good comparison, but if you look at a band like CCR, who had amazing songs, they came along at a perfect time. We were coming out of Woodstock, Hendrix, all that kind of stuff, then there they are. They brought it back to "songwriting is important," and I think that the world was ready for a band like that at that moment. And Nirvana, the world was ready for that kind of stuff.
: I'm just hoping that there's going to be at some point people that turn back to the importance of songwriting.
: Maybe. Who knows. It just depends. I like about the same percentage of music that I ever liked. My record collection has only expanded because of the percentages. There's going to be a certain percentage of music that I like every year, and that has not changed. I think I'll like less than one percent of the entire amount of music that comes out in one year I'll probably end up buying.
: I was even speaking the other day to a friend of mine and I caught myself saying how bad music is now. But I was thinking every era has bad music and good music. It's not like this is just the first era ever that had bad music.
: Every era is the same. There's no golden era.
: Never. And I remember, that's what kind of inspired me to do what I do. Bad music can inspire you to do good stuff, as well. For me, anyway. I never cared about the same kinds of things that a lot of other people cared about as far as that was concerned. When we first started our band, the big thing that we wanted to do was play on a stage: "Maybe we could play real shows." The initial expectations of the band that we had to begin with, we surpassed those relatively quickly.
So then you move on. We're not models by any means, so we're going to have to do something that's relying more on songcraft than anything else. That's the important thing. Like I said, that's all there is, at least to me.
: Who would you say are some of your favorite songwriters?
: Songwriters? Oh, man. Well, I think John Fogerty's probably one of the greatest rock songwriters, American ones, by far. His stuff was great. I loved the Beatles' stuff structurally, especially in the later records, how they weren't afraid to screw around with the Chuck Berry style verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/verse/chorus/chorus/end. They weren't afraid to do that. That stuff is structurally weird even now, a lot of it.
If you look at a record like the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers
, that record to me is almost perfect. You look at that record and see how amazing it is, and then not that much longer after that, they were done pretty much. Just a few more years, they never put out another good record.
: It does seem hard to make a great record later in your career.
: It's fascinating. Once in a while, though, you'll have something like that. The newest Tom Waits record [Bad as Me
] is to me one of his best records. At least as good as anything he's done.
: With the Stones, I wonder if their drug use helped fuel that album.
: I never think that creativity comes from an outside source. I always think it comes from within. In my life and my experience and certainly my experience with other musicians, I've only seen drug abuse and alcohol as a hindrance, not a help. If those guys were good, they were good before they were addicted to drugs.
A lot of it comes down to, and I'm sure you know this, just instinctively, musicians are lazy. They are some of the laziest people in the world. You'll find guys that are multi millionaire musicians who don't work 60 days a year. I don't understand any of that. Seems like millionaires should work harder than anybody else, since they have the time to do it. "Now, I want to do something else." Well, generally, that revolves around video games, getting hammered or chasing tail at some strip joint. Who cares. You want to be an innovator and you want to earn real wealth and respect, it takes more than 40 a week to do that. That's always been the way I look at it.
: Let's discuss some of your songs. If you want to start with "Dr. Mule" off Tres Cabrones
: I wrote that in my living room when we were recording that with Mike. Mike was staying at my house, and every morning we would get up and we'd go through a big pile of my riffs. That one was influenced by another riff that I had - I wrote it on guitar in my living room, and I kept it in my head. I recorded a little version over my iPhone, and we went straight to the practice place. Me and him worked it out before Dale even got there. That took almost no time at all. Once in a while that happens.
Then usually with that kind of stuff we'll record the basic tracks and then I'll sit and listen to them either in my car or at home. Then I'll come up with the vocals and do those later. So I'll try out a whole bunch of different things on my own vocally at home and then come upon exactly how I want to do it. Then I'll think about that and record the vocals, which is backwards from the way most people do it. We'll record the vocals and then add a lot of guitar over that, after the vocals are already on it.
: And then going back a way, what do you remember about the writing of "Hooch"?
: I wrote that in San Francisco. And believe it or not, those are actually lyrics, even though it sounds like nonsense. I'd left the lyrics at home and I couldn't for the life of me remember exactly what they said. I remember that day I was recording the vocal, I had to drive all the way back to my house and get them. [Laughing] I thought that was pretty funny. "Just a second, guys, I'm not ready."
But I knew that the riff in and of itself wasn't that interesting. I liked the way it turned around. But the drums - the dynamics of the drums - really make that song.
: Something I've always wondered about the song "Set Me Straight," why did it take so long for that to be on an official album [1993's Houdini
]? Wasn't it kicking around for years before?
: I don't know. I mean, we had it sitting around for a long time, and we'd recorded it before. But I always liked it and I thought it fit in really nice on there. I wrote that when I still lived in Washington State, so I don't remember the circumstances. Probably at my house. It's a simple little kind of a hammer-on off of an A chord.
I was really new at playing guitar and that was one of the first songs I ever wrote. Almost immediately I realized that playing cover songs wasn't going to get me anywhere. Even though we play a lot of cover songs, you have to write songs. That came out good. I still like it, weirdly enough. I might have been playing guitar for a couple of years when I wrote that.
: One of my favorite Melvins albums has always been Ozma
- that was the first one I ever bought. I don't think it gets the credit that it deserves. What do you remember about the recording of that album?
: We recorded it really quickly in San Francisco, and I'm not particularly happy with the way it came out as far as the recording goes. But that's how it goes. I'm a little too close to it. It was basically a live record mostly. There's a few overdubs and I think I might have doubled guitar here and there and did some double vocals, but by and large it's pretty much a live record.
record at this point now sounds flogged to me. I would never spend that much time rehearsing now at this point. We spent a lot of time rehearsing for that record, and it sounds like the songs are not fresh. It's overdone. Like you cooked the cake too long.
But it's an opinion. I would never do that now. Even on our most worked-out stuff, we don't spend 7 or 8 months practicing for an album. I honestly think that that just makes it worse. It doesn't help.
And I'm certainly not in that space now. "Dr. Mule" is a great song, I love that song, and I love the fact that it germinates as an idea, and a couple of days later you've got it done. I love that. But a lot of that stuff are ideas and riffs that I've had for a long time and they sift around in there. And then all of a sudden, boom, you're working on it as a song. And then there are other ones that we work out where we'll have about half of it done, and we jam on the other half of it. Then all of a sudden you can finish it for whatever reason.
There's a song on Nude with Boots
 called "Suicide in Progress." That song had been sitting around since the mid-'90s, and I could never finish it. We actually recorded that song when we did (A) Senile Animal
, but the record was too long. So that was the one we thought we could take off the record and save it for the next one, so it waited even longer. The recording was actually from the session before.
I don't like records that are 58 minutes long. It's just too long. My attention span is not there. I prefer EPs, but nobody likes EPs.
So you never know. Some of those ideas were just like, "Yeah, we wrote it one day." Well, sometimes that can be the case, but sometimes that riff has been there for a long time, and then it turns into something else. We've got a lot of stuff that we haven't finished that we recorded for the Freak Puke
record that we just couldn't finish. A lot of basic tracks that are done that will eventually see the light of day as new songs, which they will be.
We have almost nothing that we haven't put out. When you consider how much stuff we have, almost every single thing that we record eventually comes out in one form or another. I don't even know how many songs I've done. No idea.
Fantômas is (was?) an all-star band, comprised of Osborne, Faith No More/Mr. Bungle vocalist Mike Patton, Mr. Bungle bassist Trevor Dunn, and ex-Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo. The band was known for unconventional song structures and their love of noise, as evidenced by their four albums: Fantômas
(1999), The Director's Cut
(2001), Delìrium Còrdia
(2004), and Suspended Animation
Despite their challenging material, the band has had a few brushes with the mainstream: they opened for Tool in 2001, and Delìrium Còrdia
and Suspended Animation
both cracked the US album chart, making #183 and #153, respectively. They also have a celebrity fan in Danny DeVito, who appears on an "audio commentary" for the Fantômas/Melvins Big Band 2008 DVD, Kentish Town Forum - London
. Perhaps it is telling that DeVito is on the cover of Esquire
's "Celebration of Weird Men" issue.
: Are there any updates regarding the future of Fantômas?
: You know, I have no idea. I mean, it's Mike's deal. Fortunately for me I have my own shit going on. The last time we actually did a show was in 2008. The last time we were in the studio was in 2003. I'm well beyond holding my breath.
March 13, 2014. For more Melvins, visit themelvins.net and facebook.com/melvinsarmy.