What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been:
The Melvins’ Walk with Love and Death
Sure, the Melvins are a strange band. They have beaten the odds and defied expectations so many times over that the absurdities of their very existence seem to have become givens and granteds, mundane even. I mean, who would’ve thought that a crazy-assed band whose apparent raison d etre was only to amuse themselves would end up setting the templates for both grunge and doom metal – all the while defying stylistic/generic conventions at every turn? And who would’a thunk that a couple of ne’er do wells from Montesano, Washington, would then transcend their proto-hardcore roots to attain a degree of quasi-success on a major label? And what kind of nut would imagine that this insane band would then continue beyond the inevitable collapse of said major deal, build a sustainable business model on their own terms and become rock ’n’ roll legends in due process?
Yeah, the Melvins are innovative. Yeah, the Melvins are heavy as fuck. Yeah, the Melvins are quite successful and universally respected. And yeah, they kick ass. Pretty much everything about the Melvins is a contradiction. So what else is new?
Helmed by vocalist/guitarist Buzz Osborne and drummer extraordinaire Dale Crover, the band has somehow managed to eke out a quite comfortable living by doing exactly what they damn well please. Well into their fourth decade, the band is a monolithic vexation, a miracle. And pondering exactly how and why the band achieved all this is something of a fool’s errand at this point. So here I go as usual – on a fool’s errand.
I’ll begin by making a list of the Melvins’ givens and granteds – all of which are in and of themselves infinitesimally unlikely confluences of virtuosity, personality and happenstance. Osborne and Crover are first and foremost great players. Their music is unrelentingly challenging. They have a relentless work ethic. They’re smart. They’re not afraid to take chances. And they were a bit lucky early in their career, being in the right place at the right time to momentarily reap the spoils of the post-Nirvana signing frenzy of the early 1990s. Fair enough.
But there were a lot of talented, driven, inspired bands that were similarly lucky in that era. Most of these lucky and talented bands crashed and burned within two years at most, overburdened by the ruthless and amoral machinations of the music industry, the fame game, their own egos and excesses.
The Melvins beat the odds. The Melvins preceded the grunge wave – but they rode the grunge wave, too.
Now it’s been a score of years since the Melvins dusted themselves off from a headlong crash with the music industry and just kept doing what they were doing all along. They just kept touring, kept cranking out albums and kept getting better and more uncompromising – all on their own terms.
The Melvins are abiding, eternal and transcendent, kind of like God. The band is an infinite entity of awesome power that, for all intents and purposes, has existed since before the inception of time – and will extend beyond Armageddon.
“We do OK,” explains Osborne, nonchalantly. “I kind of take it for granted.”
That’s certainly the understatement of the decade. While Osborne might indeed have come to understand the Melvins’ continuing success as a given, he certainly hasn’t fallen into a pattern of creative repetition. Every Melvins album (There are around 20 full-length albums in the band’s canon, depending on how much collaborations and solo projects count in the tally. They’re certainly prolific, these guys.) is different, sometimes maddeningly so.
The band’s new album, A Walk With Love and Death (Ipecac Recordings) is their first double album. The first disc (Death) is a conventional album – well, as conventional as the Melvins ever get, that is. This is to say it’s unconventional rock songs that more-or-less follow the predictable verse/chorus/verse structure. Disc two (Love) is the weird disc, a soundtrack for an upcoming film that is for the most part found sounds and sonic landscapes. Love is, well, “interesting,” I guess. That said, the conventionally heavy and rocking Death disc will probably be a lot more interesting for the average Joe. Granted, it’s a given that the Melvins have never been afraid to challenge listeners or to follow whatever tangent they damn well please.
“Mostly, people seem to like the new album,” says Osborne, laughing. “It seems to be going over pretty good. I mean, I haven’t taken a poll or anything like that.”
Clearly, focus groups, marketing research and the like is not part of the Melvins’ modus operandi. But surely there’s at least a degree of method to the Melvin’s madness?
“I don’t think we have a model for it [maintaining ‘success’ in the music biz], but keeping it interesting is certainly the plan,” says Osborne. “So maybe keeping it interesting is the model. It’s not like we have a plan or a blueprint. We’re not looking at something and trying to imitate it – saying, ‘that’s what we want to do.’ I think we’re covering uncharted territory.
“When we started we didn’t have any kind of master plan,” Osborne continues. “And I didn’t think about money. It took about five years of playing before we were able to make a living doing it. Making money was not part of the plan – that [making money] is just how it worked out. But when making money became an option, I obviously thought it would be a good idea. I’ve always tried to keep my head above water, no question.”
One way Osborne and Crover have kept their heads above the proverbial waters is by making executive decisions when necessary. Over the years the band has hired (and subsequently fired) a series of bass players. These “executive decisions” were probably the result of conventional rock ’n’ roll problems such the bassists’, um, “health” or the dreaded “creative differences.” But for quite some time now the comings and goings of bass players and supplemental musicians in the band have been amicable and driven by creative demands only – a way of keeping things afresh.
“I really don’t like it when people say we have ‘revolving door bass players,’” says Osborne. “With everyone we’ve played with, we already respect what they do. And we give them plenty of leeway to do whatever they want creatively. We might give them a little bit of direction, but by and large they’re left to their own devices.
“Using the term ‘revolving door’ makes it seem like we could just have anybody doing it,” Osborne continues. “I’m very much aware of how special everybody we’ve ever played with has been.”
For the last couple of years, the S.S. Melvins has been crossing uncharted waters for an especially productive tour of duty with bassist Steven McDonald from Redd Kross on board. This seemed at first an odd pairing – but it totally works. Sure, the Melvins have always been as comfortable with melody as they have with dissonance and heaviosity. But McDonald’s copious pop sensibility certainly sweetens the pot. What’s more, there’s an obvious chemistry between Osborne, Crover and McDonald in the live setting. It seems as if these guys are having the time of their lives, playing for sheer joy. (Interestingly, Crover has also been drumming with Redd Kross. Both Crover and McDonald will be pulling double duty as a member of both bands for the upcoming European leg of the tour.)
For the present tour, the band is playing daily for over four months running, one of their most ambitious outings ever. “Actually we’re playing fewer shows than we did last year,” explains Osborne. “The only thing that’s different this time around is that we’re doing most of them [shows] in a row – there’s not a big break between any of them.”
Osborne says that he doesn’t really spend that much time pondering the band’s creativity or plotting about how long it will be feasible/comfortable/interesting to continue at such a relentless pace.
“I mean, clearly at some point we’re not going to be able to do it any more, or not do it so much,” he says. “But I’m certainly not planning to stop. Maybe nature will make it where I have to stop someday. I dunno. I just do what I do until I can’t do it anymore. I’m really not overly concerned about the future. There’s plenty of time for everything.” (Everything, incidentally, includes revisiting the Melvins Lite lineup at some point and another solo acoustic tour.)
Being in a band is hard work. And one might think that after decades on end, Osborne and Crover’s extended collaboration would be more or less “all business.” But Osborne maintains that the band’s everlasting status is truly the result of friendship and mutual respect.
“We are friends – absolutely. We trust each other. That’s why it works.”
Photo by Chris Casella.