Following an acoustic set that saw the alt-rock originals look back over their career, Melvins are back at their abrasive best with new album ‘Bad Moon Rising’. Stealthy released, the top-secret album landed without fanfare just ahead of the band’s recent US tour. “We chose to just put it out, not say a thing about it; that’s it”, reveals the band’s leader as we sit down for a chat. Talking the new album, guitars, and how he introduced Dave Grohl to Kurt Cobain, we caught up with the Godfather of Grunge, the one and only Buzz Osbourne. Working with God; Eamon O’Neill.
Hi Buzz, how are you doing today?
Never better! I’m in Oklahoma, and we’re playing a show in Tulsa tonight. It’s a great place to play. Tulsa’s a weird place, but it’s very nice. S. E. Hinton [writer] is from here, and the Sex Pistols played the club we’re going to play at, Cain’s, in the ‘70s, and Larry Clark has an amazing photography book called ‘Tulsa’; there’s three things, right there.
You clearly know your stuff, having zig-zagged across the States more than a few times in your career!
One too many!
Before we get to the new album, I wanted to start with your last set, the acoustic ‘Five Legged Dog’.
That was great. I’m hoping that maybe we could do maybe a tour. A whole acoustic tour would be a whole lot of fun. I just don’t know when. We did the acoustic record at the beginning of the pandemic. What happened was, I have another, which was my second acoustic album ‘Gift of Sacrifice’  that was going to come out at the beginning of the pandemic, and then the pandemic happened and that was hit. It all got cancelled, my entire tour, all touring I had planned was down the shitter, so then the record got pushed back, and nothing really happened with it. I couldn’t play any shows, so it just kind of just laid there.
Did this lead to the acoustic Melvins album?
I kind of had acoustic on my mind anyway, and then we weren’t really sure when we were going to be able to tour at all, so we thought; “if we have an acoustic thing, that’s the only way we could tour, knowing what the situation’s going to be [social distancing], so let’s do something like this. It’ll be a lot of fun, and we have nothing else to do”. We also did a bunch of Melvins TV things that were live streaming shows, three different ones. Those were a lot of fun. We did those during the pandemic, recorded this record, I recorded another acoustic album, we recorded the ‘Working With God’  album, and we did ‘Bad Moon Rising’ as well.
You were very busy!
The acoustic one was a lot of work. It was two and a half hours of music, four full-length albums. We’re really happy with it, and hopefully at some point we’ll be able to do a full tour of it; I don’t know, we’ll see!
From the sublime of the acoustic album to more familiar territory, you’ve recently released the aforementioned ‘Bad Moon Rising’, which is only six songs long.
This does have a song that’s fourteen minutes long, so we’re playing that song, and we’re playing another song off of it - ‘Never Say You’re Sorry’ - so we’re playing half of the album on this tour!
The fourteen minute track you refer to is album opener ‘Mr. Dog is Totally Right’, which is a doomy, sludge epic.
Thank you. Dale [Crover, drums] wanted to do something big, and I had the riffs to do it and just kind of pieced it together and figured out a good way to make it work, and I’m happy with it. It seemed like the right song to open the record. You didn’t want to put a fourteen-minute song last because no one will take it seriously.
There’s a number of movements across it which makes it more than one single song.
It’s kind of not really one song; it’s kind of about three songs put together, but they were all written with the idea that they would go together. I wrote the beginning of it after. I go; “this needs, like, an intro”, so I wrote that whole first part of it after we had the rest of it done. There’s also guitar on there from Dylan Carson from Earth, and that was a lot of fun to do some stuff with him. Hopefully we’ll do some more stuff with him at some point.
Arguably, ‘Never Say You’re Sorry’ is even doomier!
Well I had that main riff, it was pretty simple, and I had to complicate it up a little bit. But, I don’t know, I thought that riff was really powerful and we could do something with it.
My favourite track on the album is ‘Hammering’, with its heavy, muted guitar riff and harmonies.
I wrote that riff thinking what would it sound like if Lou Reed played in Mott the Hoople. I’m a big fan of both those bands. Their influence has crept into a lot of stuff we’ve done, regardless of whether people realise it or not. The Velvet Underground and Mott the Hoople, are two of our favourites, it’s the truth. I really like how that one came out. It’s a fairly simple riff if you know the right tuning that we’re using. If you don’t know the right tuning, it’s very difficult to play [laughing], or very difficult to play right! We have odd tunings; we use a lot of them, and I’m not against that. I think it’s a good thing, especially after as long as we’ve been playing. It’s a good kind of tool, and it’s a good idea.
You just pre-empted me re guitar tunings; do you use a lot of variations?
Well, I’m not sure how many tunings we use on the record; at least two different ones, and no normal tuning, like, standard tuning. That’s not by design, that’s just a coincidence that that’s the case. Usually we have, like in our live sets that we’re playing now we start off in normal tuning then we switch to this weird tuning of C G, which is an odd tuning I came up with, and then we end the show with drop D. So, there’s three different tunings in the set that we’re doing right now, and on the record. C G is a tuning I came up with; set the low E string to C, and the next one [the A string] to G, and leave the rest of the guitar as is in normal tuning. The problem with tuning your guitar down to C is that all the strings then become too floppy and it doesn’t sound good; this gives you the best of both worlds. When I figured that tuning out, I figured that out probably in about 1989, and a lot of my solo stuff is like that, and we’ve used that tuning ever since.
Did you create that tuning?
It’s definitely not a standard. I don’t read music, but somebody told me that it’s tuned to fifths, whatever that means! But you can play it all the way across like a barre chord sort of, and it sounds a little weird, but then you can play it individually as well, the two strings together. I just got that by dicking around. I got a lot of tunings like that, messing around stuff. We use a lot of open tunings too; open G, which is a very standard tuning for a lot of slide players, and open E as well. The Rolling Stones utilise open G a lot, and we’re huge, huge fans of that stuff.
Once I figured out open tunings, I never understood why an open E tuning isn’t the first thing they show people that are learning guitar, because you can play guitar that day! It’s like, you can do something that day, and maybe people wouldn’t get so frustrated with their guitar. You can eventually learn how to do the rest of that stuff, but let’s give people something they can do right away then they can get excited about playing music. But they don’t do that! You get complicated chords to start with, and it probably doesn’t have to be that way. Open tunings are so great and magical and fun; that should be the first thing people should learn.
Speaking of guitars, and you did favour Gibson Les Pauls in the early part of your career, but have moved on since.
Well I’ve been using these guitars for more than ten years form this company called The Electrical Guitar company. They’re set up like Les Pauls, but they’re aluminium; aluminium necks, aluminium bodies, and I have some that are a plexiglass body with an aluminium neck. On this tour I have three plexiglass body guitars and one all aluminium guitar, but they’re all set up like Les Pauls because that’s how I learned to play. I need to utilise a switch at the top I use it the whole show, and I have mine turned sideways so I don’t flick it off, you know, accidentally when you’re strumming. I have Les Paul pickups in these ones, and live I need to have that set up.
What about in the studio?
I have a bunch of different guitars that I play. I don’t need to have that switching ability in the studio so I play a wide variety of guitars. I made meticulous notes on ‘Bad Moon Rising’, of exactly what I used on every song; exactly what kind of pedals, exactly which guitar, how many guitars, which amps, what exactly the bass was using, the drum set up. For every single song I have all that information. It would be far different to what people think. A lot of it’s [Gibson] SGs, which aren’t tremendously different to Les Pauls, Fenders, a couple of the aluminium ones, a single-pickup Hamer with like a P-90-style pickup in it that I really think is great. I’m not really a vintage guitar guy. I’ve a few of them, but I prefer brand new guitars. I like to play brand new equipment; I like it better than vintage, personally, especially on the road.
I have my Les Paul that I’ve always had. It’s a 1970 Les Paul Custom, red sunburst, and about eight years ago I had it put back to as close to as original as I could get, so that one stays home because it’s the only Les Paul I have that doesn’t have the headstock snapped off of it.
Les Pauls with snapped headstocks; that’s the stuff of nightmares!
The other ones that I play live, one of them has been broken six times, and the other one’s been broken five times, and every time they’ve been fixed. The six one, the sixth time they broke it, I had to have metal put in there to strengthen up the headstock. But those are work guitars, and I don’t really care, but that really pushed me passed wanting to use wooden guitars I had to put on an aeroplane. I just had no luck, and it doesn’t matter what kind of case you put it in, if they open the case and it falls out on the ground, there’s nothing you can do about it.
And good luck trying to get money out of them! Maybe if I fought with them for months and months I might be able to get fifty dollars? You know that they know that they break them; they just throw it back in the case and you don’t discover until later. It’s a roulette wheel, what’s going to happen on the other end. So, I haven’t had that problem with the aluminium necks! They haven’t managed to break them, although they did break off one of my machine heads. When I went to Australia, I got there and they had snapped it off! It’s insane! Leave the vintage guitars at home, where they’re safe!
I have to talk to you about the name that’s been bestowed upon you as the ‘Godfather of Grunge’; how does that make you feel?
It doesn’t bother me. I’m really more along the lines of making, you know, what have you done lately? That’s why we’ve always done new stuff, lots of different records and toured a lot. Most of the bands, except for Mudhoney; they broke up and maybe got back together. We never broke up; we played through the whole thing, we never, ever stopped. Lots of bands like Bikini Kill, they broke up and got back together and were way bigger, which probably would have happened to us if we had have broke up for twenty years as well, but that wouldn’t really have added up, as far as I’m concerned! [laughing]. So, I don’t have any interest in blowing, musically, too much of the past; I want to push our limitations a lot more than that hence the acoustic record, and now this new album, and I did another acoustic record, all within the last few years. It just never stops. We’re already about a third of the way through another new album.
I wanted to touch on Fantômas; how was it working with Mike Patton on that project?
Mike’s a very eccentric guy. He’s one of the weirdest people I’ve ever known, I would say. He has a very specific way he wants things done, and you just try to do your best to achieve that. It doesn’t always work, it’s difficult, but in the end I think we did some pretty good work with Fantômas; four albums I think, and we did a bunch of live shows. I wish it would have continued but, Mike’s a strange cat battling a few demons, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel, so maybe more will happen. There’s no reason to believe that there’ll be another Fantômas record but that’s his deal; that has nothing to do with me, as far as writing it or making any kind of decisions.
One of the band’s most popular release is ‘The Director’s Cut’ ; what was it like recording that one?
It was tough, it was tough. Mike wants it a specific way so you just keep doing it over and over and over until you get it, or until you get what he wants, basically. The Melvins are much more accidentalists; we figure that maybe you could play it better but it’s not going to be better, with takes. We try to be more flexible with what’s ‘good’. That’s totally arbitrary so, Fantômas wasn’t like that at all. It was a much tougher thing trying to do exactly what he wants, even if it’s not completely clear. It’s tough. It’s a lot of hours’ working over guitar parts in the studio.
We have to talk about your friendship with Kurt Cobain; is it true that you introduced him and Krist Novoselic to Dave Grohl?
That is 100% correct. I was friends with Dave prior to that. He was in a band called Scream that I really liked, and I had taken Nirvana to see them play in San Francisco. So they had seen Dave play, and then Scream kind of imploded, and were stuck in L.A., and Dave called me saying he was kind of stuck there and not knowing what to do, and I said; “well, Nirvana might be looking for a drummer”. I didn’t know at the time that they already had Danny [Peters] from Mudhoney playing with them. It was news to me. I knew that he had sat in, but I didn’t know, or keep track exactly of what was going on, so then, I gave Dave Kurt’s number, and he called him, and that’s how it worked.
What did you think when you first heard ‘Nevermind’?
Well we went to the studio when they were recording it. I didn’t hear a record that I thought would sell thirty million records. I didn’t hear that. I thought it was good, better than [‘Bleach’, 1989]. I think it’s the best record they did, personally. I thought it was a good record, but I didn’t have any idea how much it would sell. They were getting popular, they were doing pretty good; I thought that they would probably do fine. Their big mistake was being on Sub Pop [record label]. That’s cost them a lot of money.
Kurt Cobain is credited as co-producer of The Melvins’ ‘Houdini’ album, which was released in 1993, and ‘Honey Bucket’ has had an incredible sixteen million plays on Spotify.
One thing for sure is we’re not getting a dollar per play for ‘Honey Bucket’! I doubt we’re even getting half a cent per play! [laughing]. That record, halfway through that record I had to let him go because he was messing up on drugs, so that was a sad time. The way all that stuff ended was all terrible and horrible feelings. I don’t have a lot of good memories about all that stuff; to look at it from that perspective other than a tragic perspective, I would rather have him be not famous and alive, than famous and dead. The world is not a better place without him. It’s tough.
Back to the present day, and what was the thinking behind the ‘stealth release’ of the new album?
Well, every band is putting out records now so it’s difficult to get any kind of press, so we chose to just put it out, not say a thing about it; that’s it, for better or worse. We’ll see how it goes. We could go out there and pay a publicist to try and push it as much as possible prior to that [the release], and I don’t know if it would have made any difference at all. So we’ll see. I think things will cool off a little bit. They are already, as far as that kind of stuff’s concerned, and then maybe we’ll be somewhat back to normal in a year and a half or so. Thankfully, people like you are interested, so we’ll take it from there.
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Melvins' 'Bad Moon Rising' is out now. Get it here.