Time flies when you’re getting your brain fried and your eardrums blown out by the Melvins- the loudest, most challenging, and absolutely super-charged (pre-) grunge band to ever tread the planet. Indeed, it’s hard to conceive that four decades have gone by since singer-guitarist Buzz Osborne and drummer Dale Crover (the core Melvins members) […]
Time flies when you’re getting your brain fried and your eardrums blown out by the Melvins- the loudest, most challenging, and absolutely super-charged (pre-) grunge band to ever tread the planet. Indeed, it’s hard to conceive that four decades have gone by since singer-guitarist Buzz Osborne and drummer Dale Crover (the core Melvins members) broke new ground with their first full-length, Gluey Porch Treatments. The record was so fierce it drew the attention of a young Kurt Cobain, who would serve as the band’s roadie before launching his own group (Nirvana).
Unlike many other Pacific Northwest bands that eventually imploded, the Melvins continue to churn out album after album (averaging at least one release every year) without a dip in quality. Moreover, Buzz and Crover are currently boasting not one, but two bass players, Steven McDonald (Redd Kross) and Jeff Pinkus (Butthole Surfers); the low-end rumble is something to behold, and to absorb. This particular bottom-heavy lineup has been documented on the Melvins’ latest release, Pinkus Abortion Technician– playing on the title of an infamously abrasive record by Pinkus’ former band (the Surfers) called Locust Abortion Technician.
“‘The Surfers’ were important to me,” says Osborne during a recent phone chat with VCM. “I saw them perform in the early ’80s, when they only had that first [eponymous] EP out, and I was in love with them from the get-go.”
Buzz insists he always keeps an ear out for something left of center. And he’s usually impressed when he crushes on a band that millions of other people also like (like, say, Led Zeppelin). He still can’t figure out why the Surfers didn’t sell millions of records. But he won’t go so far as to say his own band is any more successful or important than the Surfers in terms of the evolution of alternative music.
“To me,” he says, “in terms of legacy, the only difference between the Melvins and the Surfers is that we’re still doing stuff and they’re not.”
What the Melvins do is actually, at times, startlingly imaginative. For example, the band’s “Stop Moving to Florida” is a medley-cum-mashup of the James Gangs “Stop” and the Surfers’ “Moving to Florida” (which originally appeared on the Surfers’ Cream Corn EP in 1985). It’s surprisingly, if aggressively, accessible during a moment when most rock music sounds like polished plastic. Furthermore, “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, a savage cover of the iconic Beatles song, is frustrating if you ponder how it might have changed the direction of rock had it been had recorded and released in the ’90s-grunge heyday. The Melvins would’ve made boatloads of money and done us all a favor by pushing pap like Florida-grunge band Creed off the radio and the charts.
“I didn’t think to do it until now,” says Osborne, 54. “But I seriously doubt our take on it would’ve sold a ton of copies. I get to hear albums well before the general public does, and I can never pick out what anyone will end up liking. It’s not that I’m perverse, and we’re not just covering the Beatles to troll people. It’s probably the biggest misconception people have about the Melvins- that we only do stuff to get a rise out of people, to take the piss out of something. Everyone imagines themselves to be open-minded, except when it comes to us. Sometimes people get the wrong idea, that we’re satirists. Or ironists.”
The Melvins’ Beatles cover is especially good because the band zeroes in (or I should say, stagger-stresses) the chord changes within the verses (and between verse and chorus) in a way that really transforms the song. It presents something new, which is more satisfying than listening to, say, Weezer’s cover of Toto’s “Africa.”
“We were very inspired by the Moving Sidewalks  cover of that song,” says Osborne. “The Sidewalks were the very first band [ZZ Top guitarist] Billy Gibbons joined. We must have heard their cover a long time ago…more than 15 years ago…and we did a live version of it, or part of it, and we finally got around to recording it last year.”
Indeed, the Melvins have long enjoyed playing surprising covers, which have been a big part of the band’s set from the beginning. Osborne finds the challenge exciting, putting a new spin on an established, beloved song, all in the name of musical fun. Osborne also takes pleasure in playing songs written by other Melvins members. You’ll need some Vaseline for the chafing that hardcore track “Embrace the Rub” will give you on first listen.
“[Bassist] Steven McDonald wrote that song, and it was definitely fun to put a guitar part over it. The majority of Pinkus Abortion Technician was written by other members in the band, which was a relief, because nine months before, we did a double album for which I mostly wrote all the tracks.”
Another Pinkus highlight is “Don’t Forget to Breathe” its heavy, low-end lurching quality mixed with steel drums, and the vocal harmonies are beautifully complex.
“I think people would be quite surprised how we work,” says Osborne. “And we’ve done it for so long now, it’s hard to think differently. We’re big accidentalists, we’re not too precious; we’re not worried about how right or wrong something is. As a songwriter it’s nice to have a general idea and then trust the musicians to provide something you haven’t thought of. You get that from playing with guys when you let them off the leash. They know what to do, they’ve been in the music industry their whole lives. It’s counterproductive to think you can control them.”
One thing Osborne tries to control is the career of his band. Anything good in his life came from music- making a living, meeting his wife. For him, it’s all connected, all about viewing himself as a working-class artist who sweats for every nickel, while often forgetting to sweat.
“I’ve always looked at our band as a performance art project rather than a musical band,” he says. “I don’t feel like I’m working all the time even though we’ve done north of 2,000 shows and released a shit-ton of records. I feel like I’m massively fortunate to go out on stage, and it makes me better. Until that collapses, why would I stop?”
The Melvins play 172 in the Rio on Saturday, Jan. 12, 9:30 p.m., with hepa-Titus. $23 plus fees. Show is 18 and up. For more info, go to caesars.com/rio-las-vegas/things-to-do/172.