Guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Buzz Osborne talks about art, independence & the band’s new double album
Since 1983 Melvins have been bringing their brand of rock ‘n’ roll to listeners wherever they could find them. But after over 20 albums, the same question always remained; ‘What Now’? It was with that in mind that they took on their first-ever double album, A Walk With Love And Death.
The record is in two parts: The first is the kind of rocking and rolling record you would expect from the band who has been building its legacy for over 30 years. The second is a score to a self-produced, Jesse Nieminen directed short also titled A Walk With Love and Death.
ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann caught up with Buzz Osborne to discuss the new album, find out the ways in which making a score is different from creating an LP, and discuss the current music landscape.
Christopher Friedmann: You’re about to release your new album, A Walk With Love And Death, so how’s your mood around the release?
Buzz Osborne: Well, you have to understand how this works! It’s odd – it’s strange for people to comprehend. It would have been a much different scenario had we recorded the record a week ago and it was just coming out, but this record we started working on in early Fall of last year. So you get it done, but by the time it comes out you’ve moved on.
We were super-excited about it four months ago, but that’s not how it works. People perceive it as a “New Album” but that’s not how it works. Usually, for me I can enjoy a record that we record right up until the time it comes out, because then I’ve moved on.
So, we’re all into it, but we’ve all been into it, and we’ve kind of moved on from it. We don’t hate it or anything, but I don’t go back and revisit a lot of our records. By the time it gets to that point; the time it comes out, it’s already months and months and months old, sometimes even longer.
It’s a different perspective. I feel like you release it to the public and it has a life of it’s own. Then you move on from it.
One of my all time heroes is John Huston. If you read his book – An Open Book, it’s actually called – it’s about directing, well, it’s about his whole life, but it’s about directing movies. In a lot of ways it’s a whole lot like making an album… there’s a lot of similarities. I’ve done a lot of reading about how directors work, and I try and associate or incorporate that into what we do. How we think about doing an album, especially after us doing well over twenty albums… some people say one number, some people say another. I haven’t really counted, but I know it’s over twenty.
By the time you’ve got into the double digits of albums, you’re really looking to do something new. For years and years and years and years I’ve looked into how someone like John Huston would work, or how David Lean would work on a movie, or David Lynch, or John Waters… whoever, and try to use some of that info into what we’re doing. So, John Huston used to say he’d make his movies – he would edit them with the editor, he would get a cut that he really liked, they’d watch it in the screening room and then he would walk away from it. Like “Next. Done!” He wouldn’t go and watch it in a theater, he was finished and he liked it as much as he was going to like it and he wasn’t going to rely on what crowds thought or a bunch of audiences. He made the movie he wanted, he was happy with it and at that moment he left it.
I think that’s a really healthy and good way to look at it. It makes it so you don’t second-guess what you’re doing. You knew it was good at that moment, and you let it be. And that’s how I look at it.
I can always make a new album!
CF: Speaking of that approach – how did you get involved in making this album and scoring a movie at the same time? Because “Death” is a more traditional Melvins album, but “Love” is a soundtrack to a short movie, right?
BO: I always thought our stuff was tailor-made for soundtracks and stuff, but I’m not good at going out and hunting down a bunch of Hollywood types and saying “Here’s our music, please buy it!” Lots of people are really good at that sort of thing; I’m not good at that. I’m not good at networking, I’m not good at going to Hollywood parties. I just won’t go, y’know.
I remember a really good example of that; Bukowski in a documentary says the way he got out of World War II was that a psychiatrist asked him at the induction, “Do you believe in the war?” and he said “No.”. Then he asked “Well, will you fight if you have to?” and he said “Yes”. And then he says “Well, I’m having a party at my house tonight, you’re a writer… I’m having a lot of artists and writers and interesting people from the industry… they’re all coming to my house for a big party tonight, do you want to go?” and Bukowski said “No.” And so he said “OK, you don’t have to go to the war.” [Laughs] That’s me – NO – I do not want to go! I don’t want to hang out with other people like that… I do to some degree, but I’m not a joiner-inner. I don’t want to be a part of any of it.
If you want to work with me, you know where you can find me. I’m not Howard Hughes, hiding out. It’s just not how I think. I’ve never been to a GRAMMY party or Sky Bar or an OSCAR party, I won’t do it. I’m not comfortable in those situations and I refuse to be a part of it. It’s not right for me.
So we figured – we had this music that was very cinematic – that we’d do our own thing. We made this soundtrack as a soundtrack the way we wanted a soundtrack to sound. Me being a massive movie buff and really being into that whole genre and art form, I made a soundtrack the way I watch movies and listen to soundtracks – intensely, watching for all the mistakes that I think are made.
It isn’t like a Star Wars soundtrack or even a David Lean soundtrack – none of that. I don’t want any of that, I wanted something different to that. I wanted something that I’m really in to… Forbidden Planet, that soundtrack I think is massively interesting. So we made the soundtrack first the way that we wanted it, before we made the movie. The soundtrack was that important to us.
When you hear it, it’s creepy. The funny thing about it is when people listen to it they don’t think much about how much goes into something like that. We probably worked something like four times as hard on that as we did on the regular record. It takes a long time to do.
CF: What is the difference in the writing process between a soundtrack and a regular album?
BO: It’s way more vague. Film soundtracks, to me in my world, would be much more ambient in as far as what’s going on around you at any given time. You’re surrounded by noise all the time – you’re rarely not – you’ve just learned to tune it all out. Well, on this, we were trying to tune it all in. Everything is happening at once, everything. Every footstep, every conversation you overhear, everything. Everything, every sound of a car… everything is important. Then it makes you want to listen to it, y’know: “What IS a film soundtrack?” “What is music?” It’s communication on one level or another. As long as people understand that, they would have a lot easier time understanding a lot of other ways for that to happen.
Communication, first and foremost is the most important thing in any art form. You paint a picture to communicate something, you make a film to communicate something, you make music to communicate something – that’s what we’re doing. It doesn’t matter if they understand it or not. It’s not your job to help them understand it or not, it’s your job to lay it out there in the best way that you can. If they don’t get it, that’s not your problem. You’re not above them, but you do this with the conviction that what you know will work, and other people know that it will work if you are serious about it.
Now, if you’re just after going: ‘Well, this is what these sorts of people will handle – This is what I can do to make these people like me’, that’s not art, not to me. You might as well be working at f***ing Starbucks. Now, there’s nothing wrong in working at Starbucks, but that’s not an art form… I’m sure a decent artist could come up with a way where that could be an art form…
I make my living doing this, but this is my passion. It’s more than a paycheck, much more. I’ve been able to put that much effort and honor into it and to actually make a living out of it, and that’s not lost on me – I feel like that’s been given to me as a result of all my hard work, and I’ll continue to hold up my end of the bargain by doing as many interesting things as I possibly can and never stopping.
CF: When it comes to interesting things on this album you also invited a number of contributors – one of them being Joey Santiago. What made him the right person to bring in, and how do you go about finding these people and adding them to such a personal process?
BO: One thing you have to understand about me is that I’m totally fearless when it comes to that. If I happen to run across someone that I feel will be right for a project, I will not hesitate in writing to them to ask if they’d like to do something. That’s why we we’ve worked with such a massive variety of people.
I got to know him through a weird series of events and I wondered if he’d like to come around and lay down some guitar tracks one day in the studio. So, we had a bunch of stuff that we’d already recorded – we played it for him and we spent a few hours playing around, having him add his special element of how he plays his guitar onto both records. But we never wrote songs for him or anything like that.
The same with the rest of them – every other person on the record – that’s how it worked. They worked in an existing format. Though, our last album, that was more of a collaborative effort with a lot of people, to some degree anyway.
CF: Over the years you’ve worked with more than a couple of bands, but what is it about the Melvins that brings you back to keep producing more?
BO: That’s never stopped. I never left the Melvins – we’d do this other stuff as well, Crystal Fairies will have something coming out later this year. I’m really proud of that. But, I have time for all of it – there’s no reason to not do that. It’s amazing to me how much musicians have time to do all those things but they do hardly anything at all.
You have to understand, we’re only looking like we’re really busy compared to the rest of the people in our business. We’re not tremendously busy as far as other people who work forty hours a week just to make a living. We’re not recording eight hours a day every day – we’re not, we’re just not! [Laughs]
In fact, a lot of people would be amazed at how we worked, especially these days… How things work is that we have a wide variety of odd ways of doing everything. Some of it is meticulously worked over, other aspects are accidental – both methods are equally good.
CF: You’re also about to head out on a massive tour. Over the thirty years you’ve been doing this, what do you feel are the changes to the process of being out on the road, carrying material to the fans?
BO: Oh! It’s gotten easier! Before, we spent the first third of our career with no one really caring about what we did, so touring wasn’t really an option. We did a few things here and there. We tried to do a U.S. tour – which was a complete failure in ‘86 – and we vowed to never tour again, it was just stupid to even try. I don’t think it’s a good idea for bands to go out on the road an lose a bunch of money. In fact, I think it’s a really bad idea!
We spent a long time after that where we played locally. Living here in California I’ve given this advice to people, young bands; if you’re living in California which has a massive amount of places you can play – with three major cities. San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco and a bunch of other places in-between – if you can’t play gigs that you can drive to in your area and make ends meet then you can’t drive to Delaware and do it. That’s not how it works!
Set up a tour in California or wherever you are, and see if that works. If that doesn’t work, go back to the drawing board – don’t go and do the same thing – you’re going to hate it, it will destroy you to do that. I’ve never been in a position where I can go out and lose hundreds or thousands of dollars whilst entertaining some weird romantic idea of touring on the road. That wasn’t my life, I couldn’t do it and so we didn’t do it until it was feasible – barely able to do it without losing your ass. But how many bands do you think have taken my advice? None! They all do the same thing!
I don’t think we ventured off the West Coast until ‘89 or ‘90. After that ‘86 tour we thought “F*** this!” We recorded, and [eventually] it became clear that we could do something like that and we had a booking agent that was telling us that he thought we could do something and make some money on the tour. And we thought ‘Okay’ because we were working s*** jobs/minimum wage jobs – we didn’t have a bunch of people at home to put things on credit cards for us on this ridiculous endeavor. We were on our own, so that whole aspect seemed ridiculous to me: going out to play to a bunch of people who don’t care about you, and you get paid nothing.
Now we can tour wherever we want to: we can play pretty much every major city in the world and we can tour the U.S. and play every white spot in the road and have a decent amount of people there, which we think is great. I’m all for it! I’ll play a show in Pensacola, FL or Syracuse, NY and I’ll play the exact same show that I’d play in San Francisco, Chicago or New York City – it’s not going to be different – the shows mean the same to me, I mean “Wowwww! I’m playing in New York City!”, or playing in Pittsburgh, it’s the same thing, y’know?
CF: Talking of shows, you just played a show at Glen Helen Amphitheater with Tool, Primus, Clutch, Fantomas, and The Crystal Method. That’s a hell of a line-up, you’ve clearly got working relationships or affections for most of the people that you shared a stage with – but can you speak, as a fan, on the gravity of watching these artists, and what they continue to represent in the musical landscape.
BO: I have no idea what they represent! To me personally, and I don’t speak for everyone else… I don’t like going to gigantic shows like that. One of the things that initially interested me about Punk Rock was the intimacy of it, which I enjoy much more.
If I go to a hockey arena or something like that, the places designed for sporting events – I want to see hockey! I would much rather see a band in a much smaller environment and have them work out how to do multiple shows. As far as the show itself is concerned – the MASSIVE show – bands worry over that on that level a great deal, and probably for good reason, because it would be damned boring without it. But that sort of thing doesn’t speak to me.
A long distance away from it, the sound isn’t good, it’s like you’re at a keg party in somebody’s backyard, or you’re at a keg party and in the neighborhood over there there’s someone with a loud stereo, y’know. But if you’re sixteen years old and you’re on acid, and you want to be away from your parents for a long period of time, then it’s a great thing to do…
Like I said, I’m only speaking for me personally – but that stuff doesn’t speak to me – they don’t offer me anything. Nothing personal against people doing that, they can do whatever they want, I don’t care, but I think Tool and bands like that worry over things like that a great deal and it shows.
Honestly, I would rather watch them in a smaller place with no production. Have them communicate to me their live music on a much more human level, I think that would be way more entertaining and way more meaningful for me. If I could see them in a 1,200-capacity place and you could look at them sweating, then you feel the meaning of it.
I don’t mean to pick on Tool, it could be any band on that level; they’ve lost what it means to be a band, and that’s unfortunate, because that’s what got them to there in the first place. In a lot of cases I think it would do them a lot of good to go back and figure out what that is, and find that again. Make people believe you without smoke and mirrors. Figure that out; “How do we do that?” and then build on that, that would be much more impressive – because they don’t need it.
There’s millions and millions of reasons why people play those big shows. But y’know, put them in those small venues and show me what you can do. The Rolling Stones could do it because they have two or three hours of solid, amazing songs that they could play and kick your ass in any environment.
Roger Waters doesn’t need any of that stuff, it doesn’t make me like his music any more. I enjoy it, I love Pink Floyd on CD I certainly don’t feel like I’m at a live show, there’s no visuals on there. It’s the same with Tool. They have the songs, make it happen! Show me! Show me how it works.
In this download world, and there’s nothing wrong with the internet, but what is missing is the human element – that’s the one thing that you won’t get on a computer, or on a giant ninety-foot high screen, or with inflatable pigs. No matter how much you s***-talk Trump it doesn’t make you a human being. That’s what missing.
Having said all that – that’s what we’re striving for. Even with the soundtrack, we wanted it to be more human than a John Williams soundtrack from Star Wars. I don’t think they think of it in those terms. I think that’s what happens a lot of the time with these bands, they become traditional – they become executive in everything they do. The point of least resistance. The easiest thing for a band to do at that level is an arena tour. Anyone could do it, so what?! What now?!
My entire philosophy, from the very beginning – I’ve not had to worry about playing or not playing arenas… ‘oh well, tell me something I don’t know’… But I can guarantee you that if I had tons and tons of f***ing money in the bank, the last thing I’d be doing is playing in a place that I would not go to to see a show!