music (2006-45)

Way Beyond Grunge

The Melvins are still standard-bearers in underground rock


by Mike Gibson

Washington expatriates The Melvins are music’s closest equivalent to a wallop from a brick-bat square at the base of the skull—you know, the soft part where the hard shell of the cranium ends and the cerebellum rests like an overripe fruit-sac on the lumpy stem of the medulla oblongata, right at the top of the spine. Blunt, heavy and pummeling, their distinctive brand of grinding sludge rock has been influencing post-punkers, proto-grungers, desert rockers, math-rock geeks and doom metallists now for nearly 25 years.

And while it might be a stretch to compare their sphere of corrupting influence to that of the Stooges or the Ramones, it isn’t a stretch by much. Just as those bands took the raw undercurrent of scrappy garage rock at the heart of the ’60s British Invasion and warped it into a nihilistic template for first-generation punks, so the Melvins crafted a viable model of punk-inflected Sabbathian stomp fit for the ’90s and beyond.

Lead Melvin Buzz “King Buzzo” Osborne (vox, guitar), a gnarled and stubby little troll of a man with an implausibly chaotic mop of kinky black hair, has never had much use for his status as the idol of millions of garage rockers, and a godfather of grunge.

He’s perhaps a little burnt that some of his spiritual descendents (from Seattle’s Nirvana, Soundgarden, et al. through latter-day outfits like mega-heavy Mastodon or the droning Sun O)))) have sometimes enjoyed the fruits of commercial success while his own band—save for a three-album stint on Atlantic in the mid-’90s—has labored in the muddy trenches of indie-label rock, on well-regarded but modest-selling imprints such as Amphetamine Reptile, Alternative Tentacles, and Ipecac.

The first time he spoke with this Metro Pulse reporter, on a jaunt through Knoxville opening for Tool back in 1998, he was voluble but virulent, still eager to wax bilious over the band’s rags-to-riches-back-to-rags interlude with Atlantic: “It’s all about who you know and who you blow,” he said.

And he described his northwestern rock brethren from Seattle as “[mostly] a bunch of cutthroat morons who certainly didn’t want to help us out.” Just in case his feelings weren’t clear, he added that “they’ve taken what we’ve done and sanitized it to the point where the moronic public can finally digest it.”

He was unfailingly polite to his interrogator, however, as he was when we spoke again, more recently, by phone in advance of the Melvins’ upcoming show in Knoxville in support of their latest album (A) Senile Animal on Ipecac Records.

Polite, but perhaps a little short this time around. He’s less chatty, but he’s also mellowed on the subject of his band’s cult status. “I guess having the longevity (rather than stardom) is OK,” he says. “I’m not too worried about it at this point. We like what we’re doing.”

He describes the band’s new record as “A-number-one, cool and classy,” and briefly addresses the Melvins’ propensity to run through bass players the way longhaul truckers run through bottles of gas-station speed (he and drummer Dale Crover have been through more than a half-dozen four-stringers since they came together in 1984): “I don’t know; apparently bass players have a natural inability to get along with me personally. I usually run them off.”

The new record is a particularly vibrant, even tuneful blast of archetypical Melvins rock, with Osborne and Crover backed in this instance by Jared Warren (bass) and Coady Willis (drums), a.k.a. the Los Angeles-based two-piece proto-metal act Big Business. Osborne says he and Crover hooked up with the duo when Big Business opened for the Melvins on an earlier tour. “We were looking for a bass player after we kicked out our last one, and it seemed like a good idea to get both of them,” he says. “They’re a two-piece anyway, so what the hell? It was just a matter of not being afraid to try two drummers.”

The new dual-drummer lineup makes for a pleasingly raucous, ultra-percussive rumble on Senile Animal , an intriguing changeup from the band’s staple sound, which is dominated by Osborne’s bottomless detuned guitar.   

It should make for a more visceral performance, too, from a band even better known for the demented intensity of their live act than for their consistently fine recorded output (more than 30 records and counting since 1986, the great majority of them well worth owning.)

Be forewarned that a Melvins show can be a crapshoot, insomuch as Osborne has been known to flash his petulant streak, eschewing a real set in favor of an apocalyptic noise-fest, prowling the stage for an hour or so with his guitar feeding back, howling like a mortally wounded elephant seal.

But that doesn’t happen much. When he’s on—which is most of the time—the Melvins rock like no one you’ve heard since the glory days of SST and the frenzied epoch of first-wave American punk. It’s the kind of live show that befits a band of the Melvins’ stature, a band who, despite their cultish appeal, continue to loom like mighty titans over the scorched earth of post-grunge heavy rock.

What: 90.3 The Rock and Metro Pulse present The Melvins w/Big Business

Q&A by Heather Downs

Q: What’s this Nov. 11 ball we’re hearing about?

Q: Why a Spanish ball?

Q: What’ll the music be like?

Q: Tell us about the menu. Who’s the chef?

Q: What items will be auctioned?

Q: Any other auction goodies?

Q: What’s the dress like?

Q: Tickets are $175. Where do the proceeds go?

The “Gala de Espana” will take place this Saturday, Nov. 11 at 6:30 p.m. at the Cherokee Country Club. Reservations may be made by calling Theresa Stone at 865-584-2724.