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In a parallel universe that gets everything wrong, Buzz Osborne and Dale Crover would be capping the Melvins' first quarter-century mulling over whether to wear tuxes or L.A. Dodgers jerseys to their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Melvins albums would've become progressively slicker and more pedestrian over time, but each would've sold appreciably better than the last. By virtue of just hanging in there, they'd have achieved that bland legendary status bequeathed on people like Billy Joel and Jon Bon Jovi. We'd learn in their tearful induction speech by Eric Clapton that late Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun wrote a letter on his deathbed to Jann Wenner, making sure the Rolling Stone publisher knew the Melvins were favored sons, right up there with Big Joe Turner and Foreigner.
Thank goodness we're in the universe where the Melvins used their 25 years to achieve and maintain a level of noxious irritants rarely found in a band that doesn't actually suck. In that time, the Melvins created a heavy sound that music reviewers called "sludge" — metal that didn't so much rock or roll as ooze. By bridging the gaps between Black Sabbath, punk, and post-punk, their influence laid the foundation for the Seattle grunge scene — Brownie points the Melvins themselves might insist you take away, because all that grunge led to was the death of a friend and enough bad music to fill two box sets.
On the eve of their latest album release, we spoke separately to both founding members: Osborne, who provides the infamous Melvins guitar pluck you'd expect from a guy who appears on Fox News' Red Eye for recreational snarking, and Crover, who gives you the more thoughtful and straightforward accounts. Osborne and Crover know they hold an important place in the world of rock, but they also know there's no dumber place to be important than the world of rock. It's that lack of sentiment that allows them to make the albums that groups afraid of losing their massive unit-shifting potential simply don't make. The band's new record, Nude with Boots, is the second Melvins album to include drummer Coady Willis and bassist Jared Warren of the Seattle bass and drum duo Big Business. If you ask Osborne about this successful merger of two bands, he'll tell you, "Actually, it was more like a violent rape."
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"We were ready for a change," he continues. "We'd just kicked out our bass player. And Dale's wife suggested Jared. And I said, 'Why not Jared and Coady? We've already got a drummer and that's why we should do it.'"
Usually, when a veteran band like The Moody Blues or Pink Floyd adds a second drummer, it's because the original drummer can't cut it but is still needed onstage to fulfill an original member quota. The Melvins have two drummers (Willis and Crover) at the peak of their powers in both the left and right channels of your headphones, and three vocalists weighing in on almost every cut, layered, according to Crover, "So it sounds like Queen."
As for laying down the drums, Crover explains that he and Willis "have to see each other. Because Coady's left-handed, it's like looking in a mirror. In the studio, we have a wall between us with a window, but we put everything down pretty much live." Engineer Toshi Kasai confirms that he used 27 microphones to mic the drums, and 30 tracks were used. "Serious? I don't think the studio had them all," Crover says. "With ProTools, the number of tracks is a moot point. We stopped recording to tape with the last album. Most studios you go to now have tape machines there, and it's like a big giant drink coaster."
As far as samplers go, Nude with Boots catches the best of the Melvins, from the riff rock of "The Kicking Machine" and the trademark sludge of "Dog Island" and "The Savage Hippy" to the ambient metal of "Dies Iraea" and the atmospheric "Flush." But the idea of making records to please Melvins fans of all stripes isn't much a motivating factor for Osborne.
"I can't think about that," he says. "Every time we put out an album, we lose fans anyway, because they're unhappy about us not making the same record. But then we get new fans and we lose them with the next record."
What other band would release an album like The Maggot, which had all its songs divided in half? Was this a nod to 8-tracks of a bygone era, or a way for people who like to listen to CDs on scramble mode to deconstruct and reassemble the Melvins?
"Sure, that sounds good," Osborne says with a laugh. "No, we did it that way because we wanted everyone to hear what the middle of the songs sounded like." The Maggot was part of a trilogy that culminated with The Crybaby, which featured the Melvins recording a note-perfect "Smells Like Teen Spirit" with Leif Garrett on lead vocals, as well as a pair of country songs with Hank Williams III. "[Hank III] was disappointed because he wanted to do Melvins-type stuff," Osborne says. "Why else would we play with Hank III if we weren't gonna do country music?"
The one juncture where the Melvins might've been in a position to please the largest audience came in 1993, when the Melvins were swept up in the major-label Seattle signing frenzy that followed the success of Nirvana's Nevermind. "I didn't think it would work even before it happened," Osbourne says of their deal with Atlantic. "They were offering us a lot of money — well, not a lot when you break it down, but enough for us to keep us on the roads [and] continue making records and do what we were doing. Record companies have always taken big gambles hoping something will sell. Do you know how many bands they sign and lose money on every year? They're entering a business partnership with musicians, the worst kind of insecure, self-obsessed drug addicts. We decided to sign with them, and we just kept making records until they came to their senses. I didn't actually think it would go beyond even one record."
It actually went to three. First, there was Houdini, produced by Kurt Cobain and containing "Honey Bucket," which has worked its way back into the Melvins' set this tour. In between Stoner Witch and Stag came Prick, an experimental album and potential deal breaker that Atlantic refused to issue. Yet the Melvins were contractually able to put it out on Amphetamine Reptile by mirror-reversing the Melvins' name. "Look," Osborne says, "any band signed to a major could do what it wants if they hired a lawyer and actually read their contract."
As for today's recording industry climate, Crover says somewhat ruefully, "Our live show has always been our strong point anyway. There's one thing you can't download and that's a live show. I can see a day coming when bands aren't going to make full-length records anymore. They're just not getting anything out of it. Spend all this time making a CD and all someone has to do is buy one copy, upload it, and now it's free. I can see making special Internet-only releases; possibly release one song at a time. Maybe some people will still make records, but it's gonna be kind of pointless."
To generate alternate revenue streams, Osborne and Crover have taken after their friend Gene Simmons in the merchandising department. They've sold two-headed dolls, a Melvins fetus, Melvins luncheon meat, even a Melvins 8-track. Crover reveals that the Melvins just finished a limited-edition seven-inch that has "Detroit Rock City" on one side and "The Star Spangled Banner" on the other. The latter continues a chain of Melvins/KISS touchstones that began in 1992, when the band members issued three EPs modeled after the KISS solo albums, and continued when Gene Simmons played "Goin' Blind" with the Melvins onstage.
"KISS had us on that first reunion tour where they put back on the makeup. We played about five or six shows," Crover says. "They were really nice to us. Gene came into our dressing room with full makeup going, 'How are they treating you guys in here?' [It] was weird seeing him talk in his normal voice instead of the Demon. That was really something for us. We really enjoyed it. They were the band that inspired me to put a band together.
"We did an in-store at Amoeba Records at the start of this tour, and some guy had my solo EP signed by Peter Criss," Crover says with a laugh. "He also had Buzz's signed by Gene Simmons. But Gene signed Buzz's name."