A Conversation With The Melvins

The Melvins just finished a lengthy U.S. tour in support of Bad Mood Rising, their first LP on Amphetamine Reptile in 25 years. MAGNET caught up with Buzz Osborne, Dale Crover and Steve McDonald as the tour wrapped up (the Melvins played more than 100 shows this year) to talk about the new album, cover songs and, of course, Kiss.

What do you listen to when you’re on tour?
Buzz Osborne: It depends on what kind of mood I’m in. On the last tour, we were going through an Amy Winehouse phase. Me and the road manager were traveling together, and we got heavily into it. I had never really listened to it before. I’m certainly glad that I expanded my musical tastes into another artist who I wouldn’t have otherwise. That stuff is really fucking good. I would say, in the two records she did, there’s probably seven songs that are really, really good. 

Tom Waits. I love the Blue Valentine record. That’s my favorite, I love that stuff. I love Judy Garland’s At Carnegie Hall. That’s one of my all-time favorite records. Top 10, I would say. Easily. I will never tire of that record. I think it’s an unbelievably great record. Then, I can listen to Mott The Hoople.

We played with this band on the last tour called Taipei Houston, who are these brothers. They’re fucking great. They’re my favorite new band. They were really good. I loved it. We did probably 15 shows with them and they’re exactly what I want to hear. Not commercial, but ferocious in a way that’s musically impressive. They’re good players, and they have good sensibilities about what they’re doing. I just thought it was awesome. I hope nothing but big things happen to those guys.

What’s your ideal-capacity venue for a live show?
Dale Crover: Cobo Hall (a now-defunct Detroit venue).
Steve McDonald: Have you ever played Cobo Hall, Dale Crover?
Crover: No, I have not. Have you?
McDonald: No. Aren’t there a few rooms at Cobo? I’m always confused by what Cobo Hall actually is.
Crover: Well, we know what it is. It’s where Kiss recorded Alive!
McDonald: It’s not like a sports arena, right? It’s not that classic, 18,000-seat bowl that would have a hockey rink in the middle or whatever. 

Not anymore, but the Pistons used to play there. 
McDonald: OK, so that picture on the back cover of Alive!, with the two dudes holding the Kiss banner, that could very well be Cobo Hall. 

I always thought that it was. 
McDonald: I can’t tell what’s real and what’s not anymore. Those kids—are they at a Foghat concert, or is that a Kiss concert? What’s going on? I’m sorry. We’ve gone on a digression.

I’m happy to talk about Kiss. That was the first concert I ever went to.
McDonald: Me, too. You’re younger than me, so I’m gonna guess which tour you went to. I’m gonna say that you went to maybe Creatures Of The Night, but most likely it was more mid-‘80s. Crazy Nights, maybe?

No. It was the reunion in 1996. I was nine. 
Crover: Which show were you at?

I saw them at Tiger Stadium. 
Crover: We played with them pretty much right after that. We were on that tour, I think maybe a week after the Tiger Stadium show. 
McDonald: I think it would have been really funny if you were critical of their show. [Sarcastically] “Yeah, it was good. I think the drums were probably triggered, and I don’t know what was up with Ace, but it was cool.”

What did you think of your first Kiss show, Steve?
McDonald: I saw the first Alive! tour. It changed my life. I was permanently stamped as a lifer.
Crover: My first concert was also Kiss.
McDonald: We are all the same. We should start some kind of club of our own since all of our first concerts were Kiss.
Crover: The First Kiss Club.

Buzz, are you a part of the First Kiss Club?
Osborne: My first concert was Three Dog Night. I saw Kiss in ‘79 the first time.

You’re not a part of the club.
Osborne: Well, I’ll have to somehow live without it.

Which is your favorite Kiss live album?
Osborne: Alive! is the best live album, definitely. The best record they did overall was Destroyer, but I really like the broodishness of Hotter Than Hell.
McDonald: Hotter Than Hell sounds so weird. It sounds like there’s packing blankets over the speakers.
Crover: My favorite’s Alive!.
McDonald: I think that record stacks up against any classic-rock record. I love Kiss. There’s a lot to make fun of while simultaneously loving it. That first live album is just good. There’s not really much to make fun of. From my ears, the way that live album sounds is fully realized. It actually congeals, and it’s perfect on the live album. Regardless of whether some of it’s played over or whatever. I would argue with someone who would say that the drums weren’t from the actual area show. I think that the rhythm section is probably the actual show, and then yeah, they probably fixed a bunch of guitar flubs and some out-of-tune vocals here and there. It’s great. I love it. 
Osborne: They can do whatever they want. It’s Kiss. They’re fun. They had good songs. I mean, there’s really no more to it than that. People go, “Oh, it’s not serious!” Music isn’t serious! It’s art, which is extra in your life after you’re done doing the things that make it possible for you to make a living. It takes you out of your everyday existence and puts you into something else, which is what art is supposed to do. That’s all it’s supposed to do. People want to tack on social commentary and political stuff like that, fine, but I don’t see it that way. Although, nothing has moved me, artistically, more than music. So with Kiss, it’s like, just let them do what they want. It doesn’t matter to me. When people say it’s not serious, you know what? You need to lighten up.

That’s the ethos of rock ‘n’ roll. 
I would say. And we’ve tried to carry on that tradition as much as possible. I think it’s mission accomplished as far as that’s concerned. I mean a lot of people, like hipsters, might have a problem with what we’re doing. That’s nothing new to me after 40 years. I’ve dealt with that for a long time. There’s nothing along those lines as far as a critique goes that I haven’t seen or dealt with. I’m not afraid of any of that stuff. Bring it on! There’s nothing you can say to me that’s worse than what’s already been said.

Let’s make a left turn.
Crover: And maybe talk about our new record? [Laughs]

Yeah. If that’s OK.
Crover: Yeah, sure.

This is your first official album with Amphetamine Reptile in more than 20 years.
More or less. I mean, we’ve done things—a lot of things—with Tom (Hazelmyer) over the years. As far as an official “new record,” yeah, it’s been a while. We’ll do at least one, two, three things with him a year that are special releases. We’ve never really stopped working with him. It’s been a while since we’ve done a full release with him. 
McDonald: Usually those releases are available only at the shows. All the artwork is hand-created. This is the first time something’s been sent off to the Czech Republic, printed on a larger scale and put in some record stores. 
Osborne: We’re very much into the limited-edition stuff, because I understand the collecting. I like vinyl for that kind of thing. We really go the extra mile when it comes to that kind of stuff. All the stuff we did with Hazelmyer up until this record has not been available in stores. Unless you bought it from us or you bought it online, you weren’t getting it unless someone sold it to a record store second hand. Not that we wouldn’t sell them to record stores, but no record stores are asking to buy them. I’m not going to go looking for them to do it. I think that they’re silly for not doing that, but they seem to know best. If I owned a record store, I would get a hold of Hazelmyer and say, “I’d like to buy 10 copies of whatever you guys put out.” But record stores don’t do that because people are begging them to buy stuff, and I’m not into the whole “begging” idea. 

We still do stuff with Ipecac. We’d just done an album (2021’s Working With God) and a four-album acoustic set (Five Legged Dog, also from 2021) with them. It’s a lot to ask one label to do all of that, and we’re in a position that we can work with both labels, so we figured, “Why not?” It’s nothing to do with us having a problem with Ipecac at all. We have a really great relationship with them and have for a long time. Mike (Patton) and Greg (Werckman) there are really great. We have absolutely no problem with them whatsoever. There will be more stuff with them in the future, of course, but we’re a left-of-center band. We don’t do normal stuff, so people shouldn’t expect us to do normal stuff. We’re weirdos.

That’s a good thing.
Osborne: I think so. I never varied from that. Even when it was not necessarily the smartest business idea, I figured that I would weather it. Thankfully, I was right about all of it.

Like when?
Osborne: In the early ‘90s, when we were on Boner Records, Caroline was a manufacturer/distributor and had a record label. They told Tom (Flynn), the guy at Boner, that “our stupid name and stupid record covers” was never going to work and it was a “big, massive mistake” that we were doing this. They couldn’t understand what the hell was going on. Why were we being so “dumb”? Which was interesting, considering once we got major-label interest, they were one of the first people to offer us a contract as well. I am a maverick when it comes to that kind of stuff. Don’t tell me what I can or can’t do. It doesn’t work. I do what I want to, and I behave in a way, band-wise, that I would appreciate as a fan of music.

Right. A Melvins show is an authentic experience, and that can only be done without making compromises. 
Osborne: Yes. We’re not big enough to play in some arena. I understand that. Even if we were, especially if money wasn’t an issue—which it isn’t for a lot of these bands—I would only ever play places where I wanted to go to a show. And if it was too small of a place, then I would do more shows. I like doing what I’m doing. More shows don’t bother me at all. I understand why bands don’t do it, by and large. They’re very lazy and they want to get as much out of it as they can in the shortest amount of time. It’s more precious than that to me. I learned those lessons from punk rock early on. As much as I liked Kiss or Van Halen in bigger places, I liked the intimate experience much more. There’s nothing like it, and that’s what I want to do. I’ve seen great shows in 1,500- or 3,000-capacity theaters, which I think is much better than a 25,000-capacity arena. If I go to a hockey arena, I want to see fuckin’ hockey. Theaters are much better for music or a play. If I was in a huge band that was playing 14,000 seaters, I’d rather find a venue in the city that has 5,000 seats or 3,000 seats and do as many shows as I needed to. 

Once in a while, I like a band that are at an arena level, but I just wouldn’t go (to the show). I don’t like that many people, the audience scares me. I don’t like the parking experience. I don’t like anything about it. If I was 16 years old and I was on acid, it would be great, but I’m not. I’m definitely not 16, and I’m certainly not on acid. 

We care very much about what we’re doing. I am very, very precious about the band, and I move forward with that in mind. If we have people who stand in our way or have other opinions, they are the fucking enemy as far as I’m concerned. I have a memory like an elephant. I don’t forget. I will not be swayed one way or another. I have thought about our band more than any person on the face of the planet. I know what’s best. It’s a war of attrition, and we have outlasted every fucking asshole who has stood in our way. That’s going to be the case until I drop dead or I don’t feel like doing this anymore.

How did Bad Mood Rising come to fruition? Where is your studio? How did you come up with songs?
Osborne: We recorded it, gosh, more than a year ago. I have tons and tons of material that will probably never get recorded. I sift through it and find things that I think would be good, that I have from the past. I think it’s probably true that I could not write a new riff and make 10 albums out of stuff that I already have cataloged. Not all of it’s done, but the ideas are there. If I record something, it’s usually because I think it has something that I think is pretty cool, whatever that may be. Then I go through and try to figure out how I might be able to use it, and sometimes they turn into songs that are on records. This record wasn’t much different than that. 

Me and Steven did extensive demos of everything. That’s the first time I’ve ever done demos with anybody else in the band, so that was a little weird, but it worked out good. We recorded Dale’s parts pretty quickly because he was in the middle of transitioning his family out of Los Angeles, so we had to get his parts done. Steven and I basically finished it all up.

Crover: We hadn’t really done demos since probably (1996’s) Stag. Usually because, when we do a demo it’s like, “We might as well just be recording the record. This sounds fine.” Steve and Buzz got together, went over some songs and recorded stuff on Steve’s laptop. We decided from there that we could just work off of those demos.

Why isn’t there a cover on this album?
McDonald: When I first heard the new album—I guess it was the digital master—it had a bunch of other things on it that we put out as EPs and stuff. So, I thought it was gonna have “Spoonman” on it, and I thought it was gonna have “Misty Mountain Urge” on it. Those were kind of done in similar time frames. They technically could have been on the record. You could kind of think of them as an extension, if you wanted to make a playlist. If you wanted covers on this record, you can make your own playlist and just slip those right in there and know that they band actually listened to it that way at one point.

Osborne: With vinyl, you’re talking 40 minutes max. So, people are getting less music now on records than they have for the past 25 years. Which is kind of strange. Records were traditionally 35 minutes for a reason because, once you [exceed] that point, it sounds like crap. I can’t fathom that we’ve moved out of the CD world and more into the album world. I mean, fine, I don’t really care how people listen to my music. But, CDs got to the point where they were roughly 45 to 55 or 60 minutes long. 

I grew up with records when that was the only way to listen to music other than cassettes, which sounded really bad. When our first record came out there was no such thing as CDs, and when I (eventually) heard our first record on CD, I heard what it sounded like when we recorded it in the studio. Which was like, “Oh my god!” There’s so much stuff there that I forgot, soundwise. I never forgot that lesson.

One of the first CDs I ever heard was Led Zeppelin II, with the song “Whole Lotta Love.” When I heard the guitar intro, without the crackling and popping, I realized that’s what it’s supposed to sound like. That’s how they recorded it. I was converted to CDs immediately. I was instantly devoted to that format, and I remain that way. I mean, I understand collecting vinyl. I collect all kinds of stuff, but until they stop making CDs, that’s how I’m going to catalog my music.

I was surprised to see your cover of a “Spoonman” by Soundgarden on Lord Of The Flies (an EP from this year).
McDonald: That one is a little bit of a surprising cover, to me. It’s a big ‘90s hit from a peer group.
Crover: A lot of people wouldn’t do that. We have in the past, for sure, but most people wouldn’t do that.
McDonald: We played that song at the Chris Cornell memorial.
Crover: Soundgarden liked it. Also, Matt Cameron plays drums on our version.

How do you decide on a song to cover?
Osborne: Oh, I don’t know. There’s ones that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. We’ve always played covers. Ever since we first started. That’s nothing new, as far as that’s concerned. We did an album of all covers, (2013’s) Everybody Loves Sausages, basically to clue people in on bands that were a big influence on us, that maybe they hadn’t thought of, like Bowie or Roxy Music or the Fugs. It didn’t really accomplish that. I don’t think people got what we were doing, even though I explained it. I don’t think people realized that Everybody Loves Sausages was kind of a history lesson for people. But, that’s OK. I think the record came out really good. It was really fun. We’ve done tons and tons of covers. On Working With God, there is “I Fuck Around,” our take on the Beach Boys’ “I Get Around.” I thought it was really great. We worked really hard on that, and it was really tough. I thought more people would think it was funny, but oh well.

What was hard about that cover?
Osborne: Beach Boys are a tricky band to cover. Lots of singing that has to be right, if you want to do it right. The singing was the hard part. Getting the vocals right was tough. It took a while. We wanted it to be right. We wanted it to sound like a version of the original, which I think is kind of lost on people. We have the capability of doing that. Steven and Dale are extremely talented musicians. I feel nothing but admiration and gratitude to have those guys play with me in the Melvins. I feel privileged and honored to have that be the case. If you give me, Steven and Dale any equipment, put us in the studio, we can make it work. You give us any equipment live, it’s not going to be exactly the same, but we can make it work, because it’s in us. It’s in the fingers, it’s in the hands, it’s in the head, it’s in the heart.

What’s coming next?
Osborne: Well, we just got done doing 108 shows in the U.S., so we’re kind of done with that for the moment. We’ll get rolling next year. We’re working on a new album, but we’re kind of always working on new music. When that will come out, I don’t know.

—Jacob Paul Nielsen