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The Melvins' King Buzzo Lays Down the Rules on Guitar Playing, “Hot Topic” Punk, and What You Ought to Know About Music

Ted Drozdowski | 06.20.2008
King Buzzo Kings, by definition, are leaders. So it’s no surprise when King Buzzo, a.k.a. guitarist-singer Buzz Osborne of punk rock legends the Melvins, says, “I strive to make music that inspires other people to make music.”

Job well done Buzz. The Melvins have seemingly been influencing bands since they formed in 1983, and that includes both underground heroes like Mastodon and Crowbar, and rock giants like Nirvana and Tool. Kurt Cobain not only idolized the Melvins; he auditioned for them.

Melvins Nude with BootsJust one year short of the Melvins’ silver anniversary, the gnarliest group to ever crawl out of Aberdeen, Washington, is at a new creative pinnacle. On July 8 they’ll release Nude with Boots, a sprawling, growling, mean-ass rock and roll burner fired by the vicious dual-drummer line up they’ve had in place since 2006’s A Senile Animal. It’s one of their best albums, which is saying a lot. A week later they’ll start a tour of the U.S. that’ll continue on to South America and Europe. And in August, a DVD featuring a 2005 union of the Melvins and Fantomas as a single big band playing both groups’ songs will materialize.

Of his contributions over the past 25 years, Buzz says, “I stand behind everything I’ve ever done and I apologize for nothing. People can take it or leave it. We’re big ugly weirdos who make incredibly strange music. But we have passionate fans who are into everything we do and there are enough of them so I’m not concerned at all. I know I’m right.”

At 44, Buzz says he feels like he’s fronting “a brand new band. We’re not a punk rock oldies act. Our new stuff is as vital as anything we’ve ever done.”

We asked him to elaborate―on everything:

The MelvinsBuzz, are you surprised by the iconic status the Melvins have attained?

When we first started I was thinking just in terms of, “It would be great to play a show.” And that’s all. But it’s not like we’ve reached a pinnacle of success or anything.

This is the second Melvins album with a two-drummer line-up. Why two drummers? And how does that affect your playing?

We were looking for a new bass player after dealing with a series of, uh, how should I put it, “personal problems,” and we’d seen [bass and drums sludge rock duo] Big Business play and they impressed us enough that instead of just asking the bass player, Jared Warren, to join us, we decided “let’s ask them both.”

It’s not that we felt we needed two drummers, but we stepped up with this and basically reinvented the band. It’s like playing behind a freight train. It upped the bar for us.

Which is hard, considering the Melvins’ blend of styles and your already high bar for weirdness.

We’ve never had limitations and that’s very intentional. What I was into when we started the band was pretty much punk rock stuff: Black Flag, Throbbing Gristle, lots of hardcore. Less Black Sabbath than you would imagine. The energy of the punk rock bands is what really attracted me to them. Especially Black Flag. My playing gets compared to Black Sabbath a lot, but the guitar sound of Black Flag was a much bigger influence on me.

Back then punk rock was a loose creative umbrella whose aesthetic was “anything goes.” In the wake of Nirvana and, even more so, Green Day, it’s become more codified―a subset of pop.

Yeah, it’s crap today, most of it. Johnny Rotten wouldn’t like it. We don’t care for what we call the new “Hot Topic” punk rock. If that’s punk rock … I guess it is, to some degree. These bands are watered-down versions of the Dickies and the Descendents.

Let’s talk about your guitar playing. What draws out your weirdest impulses?

Attitude. And I’m inspired a lot by other music. When you’re watching a performer and you believe them, it makes you want to grab your guitar and make music yourself. Trying to be as peculiar as you can in your own way helps.

To what extent did improvisation play a role in Nude with Boots?

We’re more accidentalists than improvisers. We’ll hear something and focus on it―“What was that?”—and see where it goes. But we don’t go into the studio and jam out. We’re flexible enough to change things as we go along if we get interesting ideas, but our songs are pretty much planned out.

The Melvins' King BuzzoWhat’s your live rig these days, verses the studio?

I think the studio and live are completely different experiences. I do use a wide variety of amps and effects in the studio with a wide variety of guitars, so I can’t keep track of what I’ve used on any of the records for any given part. I’m not a big gear head.

I used my ’69 Les Paul on the whole album supported by a Silvertone, Telecaster, and an early ’90s reissue Mustang. I used my normal Sunn [Beta lead] amp and an old combo amp of some kind. I also use a preamp with a power amp. My cabinets are Hi-Watt’s with Marshall speakers in them. As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized the guitar is most important and the amps have less to do with things.

My main guitars are Les Paul Customs. I think Les Paul Customs are the best guitars in the world. I have three. I have the first Les Paul I ever bought, a ’69. That one stays home now. It’s the only one I have that hasn’t had the neck broken. But I used it on our new album.  I bought my ’69 24 years ago and it just about killed me to pay $400. It’s the exact same kind of Les Paul Frank Zappa has in a lot of pictures.

What about effects?

I’ve been using Boss bass overdrive pedals [the ODB-3] for a long time because they’re easy to find everywhere and I think they sound better than the guitar pedals.

I knew I had to find effects pedals I liked that you could find anywhere. You can’t go out there and do as many shows as we do, which is a shitload, and use some kind of specialized gear you can’t find when it breaks or gets stolen.

How many shows do the Melvins play each year?

About 100, and I really enjoy doing it.

What do you like most about gigs?

It’s a roll of the dice every night. It’s the one thing you can’t download: human communication. It’s you and the audience. It’s man against machine. It’s not screwed with digitally. You can’t get that kind of experience from your computer or TV. The best music transports you.

It seems like the Melvins have churned a little bit of everything into their music.

Oh yeah, we have. Everybody in the Melvins is a big fan of all kinds of music with tastes that go way back. Any true music fans should learn their history. If you love Green Day, you should go back and find out what their influences were. And then go figure out what those bands loved.

Most people aren’t interested or committed enough, but I always wanted to go back and learn about Iggy Pop, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, and Jim Morrison.

My favorite band from rock’s formative years is the Who. They were one of the weirdest bands ever. When I was I teenager I was really into the Who and into punk rock.

People who say they love music and don’t put the time in to figure these connections out … I don’t get it. It doesn’t make sense to me. I feel there’s a correlation between Jerry Lee Lewis and Iggy Pop and Johnny Rotten. It’s not that hard to check out rock history now with the Internet. I wish I had the Internet when I was a kid. YouTube has taken over from where MTV left off, and you control YouTube. Now you can go find anything,

And now you and the Melvins are part of that history yourselves―an unquestionably influential band.

That feels great, all the accolades, but at the end of the day I still have to figure out what’s next and how I can turn all that into something I can take down and trade for food at Safeway.

I don’t care much about fame. I’d rather have half of that in cash. That’s what allows me to make music all the time.

What would you tell a wide-eyed kid who feels the same urge to start a rock band that you did nearly 25 years ago?

Start writing songs as soon as you possibly can. It’s great if you can do guitar gymnastics, but how do you work that into a song. There are all these guitar hero guys on the covers of the guitar magazines every month … They’re amazing, but you can’t think of one single song they ever wrote. I have no interest in that. Whenever you pick up a guitar, think about writing songs. Practice singing, too.

If you need to practice lead guitar that’s what you do sitting in front of the TV. Don’t be a sideman, be the guy who writes the songs. Be the guy who writes the checks, not the guy who cashes them after he does.

I play guitar to play in a band, to write music. And that is all communication, and that is what you’re supposed to do.

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