Prolific Innovators Bring the Noise
Christopher R. Weingarten
The phrase “been there, done that” was practically invented for The Melvins. Since the release of their first seven-inch in 1986, their legacy as uncompromising, frizzy-haired, Sabbath-adoring, cacophonous proto-grungesters bleeds subtly and not-so-subtly through the secret and not-so-secret underground of the last decade-and-a-half.
Face the facts: besides spawning a mini-revolution of fuzzy speaker splintering, they were arguably the single most important influence on the single most important record since God-knows-when. The story has been repeated endlessly: After meeting Kurt Cobain in his Montesano High art class, Melvins guitarist/vocalist/mad scientist Buzz Osbourne introduced him to punk rock, baptizing the future rock martyr through mix tapes of SoCal hardcore bands. Three years later, Osbourne, thunderous drummer Dale Crover, and future Mudhoney cohort Matt Lukin became the founding fathers of the “grunge” movement that would be Cobain’s primary influence with their seminal sludge masterwork Gluey Porch Treatments, securing their place as the most clamorous footnote in the history of rock. In the 14 years that followed, they’ve toured with Kiss, Rush, Ozzy, and Lollapalooza; their horrific feedback-drenched hubbub was sampled on Beck’s Mellow Gold (staking a small claim on possibly the second most important record since God-knows-when); they briefly gave progressive sludge a mainstream abode on Atlantic Records; and they were a goddamn question on Celebrity Jeopardy.
And throughout this trek, these ear-splitting masters of musical magma played by their own rules, never abandoning their ill-metered adagio, noise-making proclivities and smart-assed punk swagger – whether in the henhouse or the pig sty. So it should be no surprise that the latest musical stunt – yes, from the same guys that released a series of three Kiss-esque solo records and put out an album of confounding noises at the peak of their Atlantic contract – isn’t really a stunt at all.
In a scant 24-month span, The Melvins released five albums and one reissue – making prolific penmen like Prince, Frank Zappa, and John Zorn look like damn slackers. Most importantly, during these two years, they’ve stayed punk-as-fuck, releasing 80 percent of this material on Mike Patton/Greg Werckman’s upstart indie label, Ipecac. Plus – 15 years, profound influence, and a major label tenure later – they still drive their own van.
On the opening day of their latest trek around the great 48, Crover was packing up the rest of his belongings in his California home, waiting to place them in the mini-van his band rented for their tour.
“We rent a van, so it’s not like our own thrashed piece of junk driving down the road. Those days are over,” Crover said. “Just getting a bus is too expensive for us. Those buses are three grand a week easily. And that probably doesn’t include paying the driver and paying for gas. If we had a label that was supporting us, giving us a bunch of money• well, we probably wouldn’t do it either! We’d probably just get the money and put it in our pockets. Buses are for pussies.”
Saving cents on transportation means more money for music making. Four of the five newly recorded records were done on Ipecac – starting in 1999 with a critically acclaimed three-record set: The Maggot, a deafening return to traditional Melvins prog-metal bluster; The Bootlicker, an experimental groove-oriented piece of reserved demi-rock; and The Crybaby, a guest-star-packed cameo-a-thon featuring the talents of Tool, Hank Williams III, and ’70s teen icon Leif Garrett — all were made possible by the supportive indie label.
“Creatively, they let us do whatever we want. They’ve been fans of the band for a long time, so they’re not too worried about what we want to do,” Crover said. “They’re pretty much into all of our weird ideas. Before we signed with them, we had the idea of doing the trilogy. We talked to a few other labels and told them our idea, and most of them were just scratching their heads, going, ‘Why would you want to do that?’ Then Ipecac formed, and they were all for it. They understood the idea behind it and they sold pretty successfully. They sold about as many copies as we thought they would, which is about 10,000 apiece. Which, for punk rock, that’s gold. Hell, that’s platinum!”
Their latest release, Colossus Of Destiny, also pushing units, takes the independent artist ethos to its extreme. Consisting solely of 59 incredibly taxing minutes of Metal Machine Music synthesizer noise-meets-John Cage tape manipulation, Colossus is a sonic monster that could only be unleashed by a progressive label.
“It’s the most sonically bombastic record that we’ve ever made. Brutal. Listening to the whole thing is just brutal. It destroys your nervous system. I think we’ll get a lot of shit for it, but I don’t really care. I like it. I’m sure a lot of people won’t sit down and listen to the whole thing all the time,” Crover said.
The record came out of a live show at Club Mangler in Cupertino, CA. Upon not being able to find anyone to open for them on the second night of a two-night stint, The Melvins decided to “open” for themselves with an hour-long set of ear-piercing, quasi-experimental synthesizer feedback, accompanied by fellow skronker Adam Jones of Tool.
“I don’t think the audience was too happy when we did it,” Crover said. “The place that we played at didn’t have any ins and outs. Somebody asked me later, ‘Did you guys turn on the heat on purpose?’ That must have added to people’s misery• It’s a novelty party record.”
Also a party in itself is The Crybaby, a stunning genre-mesh made more attractive by its laundry list of guest stars. Most tracks – including those assisted by Garrett, Patton, Foetus and Tool – were done by recording songs and sending the desired tapes out for guest manipulation. But Crover’s favorite memories involve those recorded with their guests live in the studio, including a head-cold-suffering Hank III who snorted salt water to belt out his tunes, and a manic David Yow, from Chicago’s legendary Jesus Lizard, relying on an old standard.
“He flew out, we picked him up, and he tried singing a little bit without his normal alcohol crutch. And it was a little stiff,” Crover said. “So we went out and bought him a six-pack of beer and he loosened up a bit, had a couple of hot toddies. And then he was running around the studio just like he does on stage. He didn’t write any of the lyrics down. He just had an idea of how he wanted to sing it• That was really funny just watching him do that. Looking out into the studio window and watching him run back and forth and go all crazy.”
Unfortunately not all the guest noisemakers The Melvs wanted to feature on The Crybaby could participate. Beck’s management kept the hip-hop-folkie-hero from mixin’-some-bizness-with- leather. And pissed off Crover and Osbourne pretty royally.
“We’ve dealt with them before, because they manage other, bigger bands, some that we’re friends with. They just said, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, he’s gonna be able to do it, no problem.’ We sent him tapes, we spent money to record the thing ourselves and he had plenty of time to do stuff,” Crover said. “We called the management a bunch and said, ‘Look, if he doesn’t have time to do it, it’s fine, we totally understand. We just don’t want to spend a bunch of money and then have him back out on it. We don’t have some big budget for this. We’re working with eight or nine other people doing this the same way.’ At the last minute, his manager [I assume he means super-manager John Silva, but who wants to risk a libel suit? – Chris] said, ‘Oh, he’s too busy now.’ We were like, ‘Fuck you. You guys are fucking assholes. You suck.’
“I know a lot of other people that don’t like the management company as well. As a matter of fact, I think Beck fired him. I think maybe Rage Against the Machine fired him, too. I think maybe a couple of other big acts the guy had shit-canned him. You can’t be a jerk in this business. He used to manage Nirvana, and whenever we’d be out with those guys on the road, which wasn’t all that often, he would totally talk down to us. It’d really make Buzz mad [and he would say], ‘You know what? You wouldn’t have these guys if it wasn’t for us introducing them to this kind of music, being an influence on their band.'”
This influence that Osbourne speaks of can be heard in its full maddening glory on the newly remastered version of Gluey Porch Treatments, which with Colossus Of Destiny and the also-recently-released remix n’ covers record Electroretard (Man’s Ruin Records), brings the total number of records released within a six month span up to three. Soon, one can add to that an upcoming appended reissue of their first seven-inch, 10 Songs, including a whole ‘nother take of the entire record, and a forthcoming record of new material in the fall. With such a quickly expanding catalog, what type of message is one of the most prolific bands in rock trying to send?
“That most bands are lazy and we’re not,” Crover quipped.
But isn’t that a bit of strain on your fans’ wallets?
“I buy a lot of records myself. I think, as a fan, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. What other things can you spend your money on? Drugs, I guess. Or booze. Groceries. Or Melvins records. You pick.”
Well, there’s certainly a lot to pick from. But that at least gives people the option to pick. If The Melvins were to release a speaker-shredding piece like Colossus on an unsuspecting public as their only release of the year, people would be bound to be peeved. Case in point, 1994’s Prick, a concoction of noise so confounding the record label insisted they print their name backwards on the label. One has to wonder whether or not punks-cum-artistes like The Melvins approach their noisier works from the standpoint of noise-for-art’s sake or noise-for-noise’s sake.
“I guess we’re more into the artsy-fartsy element of it,” Crover said, hollering over the barkings of his pit bull, Pink. (Pink? What, like the pop star? “No, he was actually Pink before she was”). “People get annoyed easily anyway, even on our regular records. People are always going to be upset about something. It’s really funny how easily they get upset, and sometimes how mad they get from music. Music that we do. We don’t really have to try very hard to achieve that, it just happens naturally.”