If Melvins fans have learned anything from the band, it's that expectations don't count for much. The band's lumbering, oppressive sound was created during the early '80s from an unlikely mix of punk, heavy metal, and classic rock. Even during the major-label sweepstakes that followed the success of Nirvana's Nevermind, the Melvins, generally credited as the progenitors of grunge, were a poor fit for Atlantic Records, which seemed to have no idea what to do with them. At almost every stage of their career, the Melvins have chosen the least obvious—and often most difficult—path.
On the one hand, the group's vast discography, dating back to 1987's classic debut Gluey Porch Treatments, demonstrates remarkable consistency—even minor entries like 2002's Hostile Ambient Takeover and 2010's The Bride Screamed Murder are worth hearing, even for casual fans. On the other hand, the last decade has been marked by restless wandering and experimentation—not so much in the music itself, which remains suffocatingly heavy, but in concept.
Take this year's Freak Puke, released in June and credited to Melvins Lite: Singer/guitarist Buzz Osborne and drummer Dale Crover temporarily ditched bassist Jared Warren and drummer Coady Willis, their Melvins bandmates since 2006, to join stand-up bassist Trevor Dunn in a jazzy trio format, which encourages a swinging vibe and sophisticated sensibility that Osborne and Crover have rarely given themselves the chance to pursue.
"At this stage in our career, we're constantly looking for something to do to keep things fresh, to satisfy my own curiosity," Osborne says. "It just hit me that I needed to do this, just like I hit upon the idea for everything we do, like a moment of clarity. I've known Trevor for more than a decade and he's actually sat in with us on a few occasions. This is the first time we've ever worked with an acoustic bass player, the first time we've ever done anything of this nature, so that's kind of the point—to give us something else to do."
Freak Puke was the second of three releases for the band in 2012. First was The Bulls and the Bees, a free five-song download offered by carmaker Scion's A/V wing, which has been a surprisingly benign benefactor of heavy music in recent years. The third release, the 1983 EP, was recorded by Osborne, Crover on bass, and original Melvins drummer Mike Dillard, and will be available on the band's current fall tour. Three lineups, three records, one year.
"I don't think any band's ever done that," Osborne says.
The band is following Freak Puke with something else that no band has ever done—a 51-day tour that will hit all 50 states, plus Washington, D.C.
"It's a big stunt tour," Osborne says. "We just wanted to do something huge. That's it, that's the only plan. So we're going to do it as Melvins Lite, that's the lineup this would actually work with because we don't have as much gear, and less people. We're looking forward to doing something that's very ridiculous. That's essentially it. That's all it amounts to. Something crazy. The world needs more of that."
At least part of the reason Osborne has been free to follow his crazy ideas is that the last six years have been the most stable in the band's three-decade history. The band has had a Spinal Tap-like rotation of bass players over the years, capped off by the mysterious departure of Kevin Rutmanis in 2005. Instead of simply replacing him, Osborne and Crover picked Warren and Willis, who already played together as the bass/drum duo Big Business, to play with them on the 2006 album (A) Senile Animal and a subsequent U.S. tour. Warren and Willis have been official Melvins since, while still keeping Big Business at least periodically active.
"It was like starting over," Osborne says. "I'm very, very satisfied with playing with those guys, and that's not going to change. It would only change if they quit or went insane. If they went insane, this whole thing would end with them. As long as they don't go insane or decide that they don't want to do it, then I have no interest in getting rid of those guys. They're great players, they're great guys, they put up with me. I like the idea that we have two completely separate things going on. It's not going to get in the way of us working with either one of them."