For almost 30 years, The Melvins have been playing their own peculiar brand of rock ’n’ roll. While their early sound was reminiscent of contemporaries like late-period Black Flag and the Butthole Surfers, The Melvins soon found their true calling by playing their songs half as fast and twice as heavy, regressing Black Sabbath-style metal into a pounding, disorienting avalanche of musical sludge. Formed in Washington State in the mid-1980s, they were a huge influence on what later became grunge (a star struck young Kurt Cobain was a roadie on their first tour, while Melvins’ drummer Dale Crover played on several early Nirvana recordings), and during the ‘90s alternative boom they were briefly signed to Atlantic Records, but their abrasive and often challenging brand of art-metal was too strange and heavy to ever find mainstream success. Still, their early-90s records like Houdini and Stoner Witch remain cult favorites. Since then they’ve soldiered onward, releasing a prolific number of albums through independent labels like Ipecac Recordings, and solidifying their reputation as elder statesmen of all things weird and heavy.
While their sound remains as appealingly mind-numbing as ever, The Melvins have also consistently made unexpected left turns, like their 2004 collaboration with ambient noise artist Lustmord, two albums with Jello Biafra, the hour-long experimental electronic live album The Colossus of Destiny, and the 1992 trio of solo EPs from each member of the band, patterned after the infamous quartet of late-70s solo albums by the members of KISS. Their line-up has shifted dozens of times (Crover and singer/guitarist “King Buzzo” Osborne are the only two consistent members), and although they’ve often shared band members and collaborated with like-minded musicians, The Melvins remain a singular force in American music; easily identifiable but rarely predictable.
Rather than courting success or satisfying others’ expectations, The Melvins have always seemed content to do things their own way. Melvins enthusiasts tend to be a peculiar and obsessive bunch, but one often gets the sense that the band is mostly concerned with satisfying its own unique brand of idiosyncratic whimsy. Unusual album covers and song titles often give the indication of being part of some larger in-joke that the listener can almost (but not quite) grasp. The recent wave in popularity of slower, heavier metal bands such as Sunn O))) and Boris (named after Melvins songs) has guaranteed The Melvins successive generations of fans, but the music both predates and eludes easy tags like “doom metal” or “stoner rock.”
“We’ve been around since way before any of that, regardless of what we’re lumped into,” explained Buzz Osborne. “I mean, whatever, journalists do their job, we do ours. But we don’t really have any brother bands, you know? We are on our own. I don’t really feel a part of anything. I’m a Groucho Marxist,” he says, citing the oft-repeated quote about not wanting to join any club that would have him as a member. As for their habit of subverting or skewering expectations, Osborne said, “You get a certain amount of flak no matter what you do, and you’re not going to get away from that. People are weird, I can’t explain it … You can’t win, no matter what you do. So I don’t even try to win, I just make music that I would appreciate as a fan, and leave it at that. We operate the band like we would like other bands to operate.”
For their newest album, Freak Puke, The Melvins have changed their name to The Melvins Lite, due to the participation of Trevor Dunn, who plays stand-up bass throughout the album, giving them a sound that is gentler and more subtle, although no less satisfying or spooky. “I’ve worked with Trevor in Fantômas for quite a while,” says Osborne (referring the experimental metal “super-group” featuring Dunn, Osborne, Mike Patton of Mr. Bungle infamy, and former Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo). “I always said the best thing I ever got out of my dealings with Fantômas was my working relationship with Trevor. I saw him playing stand-up bass through an electric bass amp once, and I thought it was pretty cool. It got the wheels in my mind turning … six months later we recorded the record. And now we’re on this tour, you know? I mean, I’m not really one to sit on ideas for very long. And I plan ahead.”
Careful planning is presumably essential for a project like The Melvins’ current tour, on which they’re playing all 50 States (plus Washington, D.C.) in 51 days, setting a Guinness World Record. When I spoke to Osborne, they had just finished the second week of the tour. “If we can do 14 nights in a row, we can do 1000 in a row,” he said. “Plus, it’s a good publicity stunt.” Show number 35 will bring them to Charlottesville’s Jefferson Theater, on Tuesday, October 9. “Isn’t Charlottesville where Thomas Jefferson lives?” Osborne asks. “I’ve been there twice, it’s really cool. It’s amazing. I’d love to have a house like that.”
Though this one is ambitious enough to be record-breaking, heavy touring is hardly a new experience for The Melvins, who have crossed the country regularly since the mid-80s. Their tour history gained some internet attention earlier this year, when Rolling Stone magazine noticed an eBay seller auctioning off The Melvins’ first tour van, a 1972 Dodge Sportsman spray painted with the iconic Black Flag logo and a crude rendition of the first KISS album cover, ostensibly painted by a young Kurt Cobain. The “Melvan” originally sold for $99,999.99, but the buyer refused to pay, apparently citing uncertainty about the authenticity of Cobain’s artwork.
“It’s really just the Nirvana connection,” says Osborne. “I mean, I wouldn’t buy it. I haven’t seen that van since ’85 or ’86, and as for what’s happened to it since then, I have no idea. The guy has re-auctioned it three times, I think he’d be lucky to get $2,000 in cash for it.” As for the authenticity of the artwork, “I’m not going to go on record as saying ‘Yeah, it’s real!’ and then have somebody paying twenty grand for it, and then later I get dragged into court, forget it,” said Osborne. “I am not that stupid. I mean, I’m stupid, but I’m not an idiot. I might have been born at night, but it wasn’t last night.”