Rock 'n' Roll as an Act of Rebellion: An Interview with King Buzzo of The Melvins
Interview by Parisa Eshrati
Since '83, The Melvins have been paving the way for experimental musicians across genres. In support of their 53-day tour across the country, we spoke with lead vocalist and guitarist Buzz Osborne on everything Melvins. We discuss quotes from his favorite films, philosophers and musicians and how they relate back to his ethos on life, love and music.
Since 1983, The Melvins have pioneered a sludge rock sound that has inspired bands and artists across grunge, heavy metal, and beyond. Led by founder Buzz Osborne (or just “Buzzo”) on guitar and vocals, drummer Dale Crover and bassist, Steven McDonald, the group has been continuing to experiment over the past 30 years and have never played it safe. Their latest 2018 full-length, Pinkus Abortion Technician, evolves the band further through the incorporation of psychedelic tunings and experimental riffs.
Buzzo is a vault of quotes. Whether drawn from his favorite movies or favorite philosophers, Buzzo always has a quote to support his point. So to frame our conversation, I decided to bring up some quotes that reference his favorite films, musicians, etc., and asked him about everything and anything Melvins-related.
I wanted to start off with this quote from one of your favorites, Captain Beefheart, where he says, “Most of modern rock and roll is a product of guilt.” I know you’ve said that rock and roll for you is an act of rebellion. What do you think about this quote in context of how rock and roll exists and where it stems from?
I always felt that rock and roll is a product of accusations. Most rock music stems from the attitude of “you did this or that, you’re stupid for breaking up with me, you destroyed my life, you changed my life for the better.” I'm not sure exactly what Captain Beefheart meant by “guilt”, but there certainly is that aspect too. I've done a lot of singing about my end of things along those lines, for sure. It's as true as anything else.
It’s interesting to tie that idea back into your start with music. Your family didn’t take interest in your musical passion growing up, and Montesano, WA is not the type of place that harnesses creativity. So your music started as a form of cathartic release from your environment. How much would you say your musicality is still indebted to that dynamic?
In some ways, it definitely is. I got into music solely for the music, but as a byproduct it's given me a way to find answers to things I had never even considered. It moves me in a way that nothing else ever has, until of course I met my wife. She's the only other thing that's moved me in such a powerful way, but that's on a completely different life level. When you're talking about music, you're talking about art. When I'm talking about my wife, I'm talking about a lifelong soul partnership. It's completely different, but both are incredibly important to me. She makes me a better person, and I think it goes both ways. We've had an amazing partnership for 26 years. As much as I'm a rebel in a lot of areas of my life, I'm not when it comes to being married. I believe in commitment. I think a lot of people go into marriage without really thinking about it, but it's the most important decision I've made in my life. I don't take my partnership with my wife for granted. When they say for better or worse, sickness and in health, I really believe all that.
With art, nothing has ever moved me that way like music has. I've never looked at a painting and got the same feeling that I do from listening to music. Not ever. It doesn't mean I don't like paintings (not to mention I am a huge film buff), but it just doesn't move me the same way. I once met a guy who was an IndyCar driver in the early seventies, and he said the only thing that's ever come close to the feeling he got from driving an IndyCar was listening to music. I knew exactly what he meant by that. Music is an old instinct that goes way back in history. It feeds something into our very existence. It's so deeply rooted within us. Every single tribe or people have always had music. I don't know why, but shit, we don't need to know everything.
When hearing you talk about The Melvins' legacy, I was reminded of one of my favorite Frank Zappa quotes: “Ronald Reagan is the kind of guy who worries about being remembered. And his wife worries even more. And I don’t give a shit. So there you go.” Would you say this attitude still resonates with you on the idea of your legacy?
Oh, exactly. That quote is spot on. I've actually had people get mad at me when I've said very similar sentiments in interviews before. They tell me I already have a legacy, but I don't really care what happens after I die. People can say whatever they want. I don't give a shit. I'll do what I want to do. People can take it or leave it.
Let’s talk about the latest Melvins release, Pinkus Abortion Technician. I know you’re a big fan of Thomas Sowell, so I wanted to bring up this quote where he says, “The most basic question is not what is best, but who shall decide what is best.” Can you relay that in terms of your latest album, and the dynamics between band members during the writing and recording process?
That's exactly the kind of philosophy you use when you're playing with people of the caliber of Dale Crover, Steve McDonald and Jeff Pinkus. You don't do a lot of dictating. You let those guys do their jobs. You let them be who they are and I've never been disappointed by doing that. Never. So if I were to relay that to what Thomas Sowell was saying, it'd be like me hiring these fantastic musicians but then being over their shoulder and telling them how to play. What's the point in that? Now, you can have some ideas as a songwriter, but we're better together when we’re not dictating one another.
To continue on that quote, Sowell is asking an important question here of just how much power are we going to give to one dumb elected official. I don't want them to have any power. Why should we trust these guys? They're career politicians, most of which have never had a job. Nobody knows what's best for everyone. What's best is it politicians would stay out of people's way. As long as you're not hurting anybody else, it's none of your goddamn business. If people have a problem with my philosophy, well then fuck them! No politician needs to stick their nose in every little part of my life. Seriously, they can kiss my ass.
Sowell also states, “Sometimes it seems as if there are more solutions than problems. On closer scrutiny, it turns out that many of today's problems are a result of yesterday's solutions.” Does that resonate when it comes to making new music and growing from your previous releases?
I would agree 100%. It really just comes down to not making things worse.
Sowell really knows what he’s talking about here. There are people out there in the world that think they'll better the world because they're so fucking smart. How do you know you're not making everything worse? Yeah, exactly. You don't. You're better off doing nothing. Nothing at all. That is an option. Why should you have to do anything? Just leave it and things will probably be okay. That's the way I see it anyway.
But as far as the music goes, my biggest problem is that I wish musicians would be a little more adventurous. One time, though, I was talking about this with Mike Patton and he brought a good point to my attention. For some people, what they’re doing might be really adventurous in their eyes. Perhaps that’s all some people are really capable of doing.
You guys have always stuck to playing more intimate shows, and have expressed distaste for bigger tours you’ve done. My quote for this question is from your favorite movie, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, where Howard says, “I know what gold does to men's souls.” I know you’re not opposed to making money, but what does this quote mean to you as far as straying away from those kind of bigger production tours?
Well truly, we just play the places that make the most sense for us. But I think the bigger takeaway point is from the quote shortly after where Howard says, "The noble brotherhood will last right up until there's money to be split out." This is one of those scenes that make this movie one of my all-time favorites because it's so applicable to life in general, not just my career in music.
I've seen the most hardcore socialist person go fucking ape-shit when it comes to splitting money. Suddenly all the ethics and morals go out the window! And the funny thing is, I've never met people that were more fucking stingy than liberals. They're the least likely to pick up the tab, least likely to be nice to you. I don't know why. Modern liberalism means "me first." It's all the same shit. And it's too bad, because I'm a classic liberal, so essentially a little more libertarian. I believe in total liberty. That's my philosophy. If people want to argue with me on that, fine, I'm willing to argue with you, but I won't go after you because I'm far too polite [laughs].
I was listening to Everybody Loves Sausages the other day and thinking about how you do a lot of cover songs. Even the latest LP has covers of Butthole Surfers and The Beatles. So, flipping this around, what’s your favorite cover another band has done of Melvins?
Not too many people have covered our songs, so not very many come to mind. Mastodon did a cover of our song "The Bit," but I don't think they ever recorded it. I've heard it live a few times and it's for sure my favorite Melvins cover I've ever heard.
Your costumes and shirts always kind of give a glimpse into what philosophies you’re into at the moment. You’ve talked about your Barry Goldwater shirt in other interviews, for example. If you had to describe this current tour just based on your t-shirts and wardrobe, what would it be?
Well, we have a Red Kross/Melvins shirt that has Linda Blair on it. I think that speaks for itself!
September 13th was Dale’s 35th year with the band. You mentioned you don’t care for legacies, but what would you like to say about that landmark and the 35 years of co-creating with him?
You know, it is very important to me. Again, we're more about focusing on what's in front of us now than reflecting too much on what has happened, but I think it's pretty damn cool we've had this creative partnership for this amount of time. I think this longevity is due to the fact that we don't argue about anything. He's really good at interpreting my musical vision and I'm good at letting him do his thing. It's a great dynamic, and there's no reason for us to stop doing it.
I’ve seen you rocking Haunted Mansion shirts and posting pictures outside of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, so I gotta ask you: what are your top 3 Disneyland rides?
Damn, that's actually a hard one. Number one would definitely be Haunted Mansion, I really like Pirates of the Caribbean...and, third, I'll have to say the Peter Pan ride.
The Peter Pan ride is so underrated. What’s next for you, whether it’s solo stuff or with The Melvins, after this tour?
We're currently en route on our 53-day tour with Red Kross, and I'm very excited about that. We just hope people enjoy the show. We're doing our best to bring the best quality live show to everyone single single night of this tour. So you know, come on out and see our eclectic brands of rock and roll!
Tour dates & more info on The Melvins:
The Melvins will be headling Night of the Living Fest on November 2nd in Tucson, AZ. More info and tickets available here.
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