King Buzzo: “Melvins Operate The Way We Wish All Bands Would Operate”
Written by Greg Moskovitch on 23rd May, 2014
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Buzz Osborne, known to his devoted followers as King Buzzo, has spent three decades fronting the quintessential band’s band, the Melvins. Cited by some of music’s most iconic figures as a formative influence, by Buzzo’s own admission, the Melvins operate the way he wishes other bands would.
The frontman’s fidelity to his own true north has now seen him take the plunge into a territory previously unexplored. With the Melvins still hurtling through the outskirts of the musical galaxy at full momentum, he’s launched an all-acoustic solo project, with which he will soon be touring Australia.
To find out more about Buzzo’s new project and to uncover what it is that makes him one of rock’s most singular and influential figures, we spoke to him from his LA home, discussing his thoughts on his Australian tour, his new album, the music industry, and late friend Kurt Cobain.
Watch: Melvins – Honey Bucket
Hi, Buzz. Thank-you so much for taking the time to speak with us today.
KB: Thank-you! I always appreciate anyone that has any interest in what I’m doing.
As someone who for so long has been associated with a distorted, electric sound, what has the reaction been like to this new project?
KB: It’s been overwhelmingly positive across the board. I think maybe some people have a problem with it to some degree, but by and large it was a lot more positive than I would’ve imagined, which was nice. I mean, you can’t please everybody. On paper, it doesn’t look like it would work and so far it has.
You said that a pre-requisite of your job is to be able to look stupid in front of a lot of people, but was there really any concern that fans wouldn’t be supportive?
KB: You never know with this kind of thing. It’s a brand new thing for me. I mean, I’ve always played acoustic guitar, but I never did live stuff and now I’ve got about twenty shows under my belt so far and it’s getting better. Every show I learn something new.
Can you describe your first solo acoustic performance? Was that the Scion AV show?
KB: Yes, that was here in Los Angeles. I was warring over it for quite a while. My wife told me, ‘Look, just start the show off with songs that are easy to play’, so that’s what I did. [She said], ‘Play like you’re in our living room’, which I do all the time.
What were some of the songs that you played during that first show? What made those songs easier to play?
KB: Some songs I’ve been playing for a long time, so that makes them easier, like the first song that I played was The Ballad of Dwight Fry, which I’m gonna play… I’ve been playing that song for a long time and I love it so much and it’s such a great song, it’s an Alice Cooper song. We recorded that more than twenty years ago on our album, and it works great on acoustic.
Alice Cooper’s one of my all-time favourites, so it was nice to go out and do something that’s familiar to me and make it work with an acoustic. If I can make that work, I can make any of it work. So that was kind of what I did. I’ve played that song at every show.
What made you feel like your new EP, This Machine Kills Artists, was something you needed to do? Was there something you were trying to express that couldn’t be done with the Melvins?
KB: I think it’s “as well,” as well as the Melvins. You know, there’s room for a lot. We’ve done a lot of records over the years and I never felt like it was something I couldn’t do, so I wasn’t too worried about that… but I just felt like it was okay for me to do it, not like I needed to do it for any particular reason.
I have a lot of material and I have the ability to write a lot of material. I’ve always believed that more is more.
Listen: King Buzzo – Instrument Of God
You’ve said that “almost 99%” of your songs end up Melvins songs, what makes this 1% different?
KB: Well, I think it’s that 99% of the Melvins songs have been written by me. I write a lot of songs that don’t end up anywhere [laughs] These songs could have been turned into Melvins songs. I mean it’s also similar to the way Bob Dylan or Neil Young work. They can play whatever they want to and it’s pretty much… no one cares, you know? It still sounds like them.
You’re incredibly prolific and by your own admission you’re constantly demoing, you have enough material saved up that you could make albums till you drop and never write another riff…
KB: I probably could make it. Does’t mean it’ll all be good [laughs] I could certainly make that work.
?I bet it would be.
KB: Well, thank-you.
Is all of the acoustic material brand-new or did you go through the archives to see what might make a good acoustic song?
KB: Most of it [was new]. I listened to a bunch of our own albums, but I don’t really do that too much. Listening to my own music isn’t a thing I do a lot of, I kind of do it to make sure I’m not repeating stuff. I don’t do it a lot. It’s difficult not to sound like yourself.
You’ve referred to the new material as “molk”, a mixture of folk and metal, who would you say are some of your forebears in that genre?
KB: Nobody I can think of.
You made it clear you didn’t want to become some horrible parody of Guthrie or God forbid James Taylor. How easy or difficult was it to find your voice writing acoustically?
KB: I’ve always loved singing anyway and I felt like my voice has gotten better over the years, the more I’ve done. The more you do of anything, the easier and better it becomes generally. I mean, there are exceptions. It’s hard to say, I’m not too sure.
I guess it’s not something I felt I had to do, I really wanted to do it and I thought I could do it as well as the Melvins. It’s not either or, we have a new Melvins album coming out in the fall.
You’ve also made it known that you’re someone who likes a challenge, so I’m just interested to know what the challenge was in taking on an acoustic-only project?
KB: I’ve just never played it live on my own. So it’s not like it was alien to me. There’s lots of songs that end up being really heavy songs that were all written on an acoustic. That’s just because I don’t really wanna have some big amp at my house. And any guitar player that’s worth a shit knows that a guitar is a guitar. You can play an acoustic guitar, an electric guitar, it’s all interchangeable.
There’s no difference. There might be, playability-wise. But you don’t have to sound like Segovia to play an acoustic guitar, just like you don’t have to sound like Jimi Hendrix to play an electric, not in the least. What was weird was doing it live. I’ve never done an album of all acoustic stuff. It was nice to know that I could, and I’ll probably continue to do that. There’s room for all of it.
Watch: King Buzzo’s First Ever Acoustic Performance For Scion AV
Was there anything earlier that told you you couldn’t do it?
KB: No, I think with the acoustic thing is that most people that do it are just so horrendous. It’s this crappy singer-songwriter garbage and I just never felt like the Melvins had brother bands in the first place. I certainly don’t feel like I have a brother band in the folk department. Even though I could easily play any of that stuff or any of those festivals, I just don’t sound like those guys.
How well does This Machine Machine Kills Artists prepare listeners for the album coming out in June?
KB: Oh, it’s totally different. There’s a couple twists in it that I won’t go into just yet because I don’t want to let the cat out of the bag just yet. It’s gonna be a head-scratcher for people, but once they hear it they’re gonna think it’s amazing. It came out great, I’m super excited about it.
You’ve got an Australian tour coming up, what can Aussie fans expect from that?
KB: Me up there, as stripped down as totally possible. Just me playing through a little amp and trying to do my best to fill up whatever space I’m in, and if you like the Melvins there’s no reason why you shouldn’t like this.
You’ve also alluded to a new Melvins album being in the works, which I have to ask about. You’ve called it “another head-scratcher” – will it be more of a head-scratcher than some of the Melvins’ past material? I mean, you guys only recently released Everybody Loves Sausages, which was an out-there album.
KB: Well, it’s just not gonna be what people expect. Musically they’ll dig it, but it’s a move that no band would ever make. Not like this, and it’s all for the good, not for the bad. It’s a strange combination of everything we’ve done.
Staying with that, you’ve said that the band’s willingness to try something new is the only reason it’s been able to survive for as long as it has, but that kind of goes against the conventional wisdom of today. Do you believe that audiences in general are hungry for something original and that they haven’t heard before or did you just get really lucky with your fan base?
KB: Our fan base is always changing, I’d say that we lose twenty percent of our fan base with every record we make, but we gain new fans as well. I’d say that we amaze and alienate at the same rate. Our fan base is basically, as we get older, our fans stay the same age.
I don’t think the general public has been spot-on about anything and they’ve never been into being into anything drastically different from their neighbour. Not on a massive scale, but we don’t play music on a massive scale. I would, I’m not opposed to massive success by any means. But I’m just not gonna worry over it, I’m gonna do what I do and I do it well.
If I have good taste, other people will like. It’s not gonna be millions, but it’ll be some.
Something of a watershed moment in your career was quitting your day job in ’88 – that’s harder more than ever for artists to do these days. As someone who wasn’t making music with a mainstream appeal, what was the trigger that helped you take the plunge into doing music full-time?
KB: You gotta understand that there was no golden era of music-making. The idea that it was easier twenty years ago to put out an album is crazy. We had a lot of trouble finding anyone to release any of our music for a long time. In the eighties when it was supposedly the ‘indie heyday’, there weren’t three labels in this country or in the world that would’ve even done a seven-inch with us.
We started our band in ’83, but we didn’t have a label that was solid and put out record till 1988. That’s a long time. Now bands can put stuff out themselves, put it online, and millions can hear it without doing anything. I think it’s much easier now than it was then as far as that’s concerned.
And then you go to all this trouble to make a record and the labels won’t pay you and the way that it is now… what’s gonna be interesting is how it’s going to affect major labels. They aren’t sure what to do and that’s good and bad. I’m a big fan of a lot of music that’s on major labels. Not all of it, but when they realise there’s no way for them to make any money they’ll quit investing money in it.
That’s not necessarily a good or bad thing. It means that bands need to get cagey and figure out a way to do something that’s left of centre, certainly in the business department. Our idea is that we wanna make things more personal. So we’ve tended to try to play live even more than we ever have and do a lot of special packaging things.
But most bands aren’t willing to do that extra work, I’ve always been willing to roll up my sleeves and do whatever it took. Now I have the opportunity to do it, I’m not gonna do less work, I’m gonna do more! You can try and find an interview where I bitch and complain about anything. I’m never afraid of work. I’m a workaholic. I’ve always said we’ll let our volume of work speak for itself.
It’s interesting that we’ve done as well as we have, under the circumstances, by breaking pretty much every single cardinal rule in the music industry and for some reason it still works. Why? Because it’s innovators that always figure out a way to make it work.
Listen: King Buzzo – The Hesitation Twist
So you would consider yourself an innovator?
??KB: Absolutely! We operate the way we wish all bands would operate. That’s it. I make music the way I would like music to be made as a fan, with that in mind. Not that I write music that I think our fans would like, but I operate in a way that I would appreciate as a music fan.
Well speaking of breaking every cardinal rule, you’re also incredibly outspoken. In the Melvins retrospective that you, Mike, and Matt did for Consequence of Sound, your comments on Kurt Cobain upset a lot of fans….
KB: They did?
Oh yeah, on social media…
KB: What upset ‘em?
That actually brings me to my question, there’s this sort of zealotry that surrounds Cobain and that band. I was wondering what your opinion of that is?
KB: I’m just curious to know what they were upset about?
From what I could tell, saying anything disparaging about Cobain or Nirvana these days will automatically get you slammed.
KB: Look, if they wanna look at, through rose-coloured glasses, a situation where a heroin addict, who was a friend of mine, dies under absolutely tragic circumstances, if they wanna see the romantic side of that or like there is somehow some good to that then they’re insane.
What do they imagine I think of this? That I think it’s good? That I just look at the good times? What were the good times? A guy decides that death is better than life, leaving a child, and married to a horrible woman and a terrible drug addict. I think it’s absolutely absurd and insane and insulting that anyone could possibly think that I should have a good view of any of that. That is fucking nuts.
I honestly wish he’d never become famous if his fame or any of that stuff hastened his death in any way. Then everything he stood for, everything he did was worth nothing. I have no happy memories of that. I just view it as a tragic nightmare that I’ll never get over. And anybody that wants to look at it another way and think that I’m saying something wrong can kiss my ass.
Well I’ll be letting you off the hook soon, we’ve absolutely smashed through my questions, so I’ll just ask: you’re going to puke, shit, and bleed all over the stage when you win your Grammy for Best Molk Artist, do you have similar plans for the VMAs or Billboard awards?
KB: [laughs] Yeah. Well, I don’t get invited to things of that nature so I don’t have to worry about it.