We Called Up The Melvins to Find Out if Rock Can Be Saved

This article was initially published in AdHoc Issue 12. Pick up a copy of the zine for free at AdHoc shows and small businesses around Brooklyn. You can also order a copy here and download a PDF here. Illustration above by Sara Lautman.

You sink a my swan. Rolly a get a worst in. Maybe minus way far central poor forty duck a pin. —The Melvins, “Hooch,” 1993

Prince is dead. Bowie is dead. LOU is dead. Percy fucking Sledge is dead. Music fans won’t pay for anything any more besides monthly subscription services, and unless you’re a bald Swedish guy or your name begins with a J and ends with a Z, you don’t see a goddamn cent—let alone 5 decimal points of a cent. Festivals—the only opportunities for artists to play outside their hometowns without losing tons of money—are getting cancelled left and right. What the fuck are we going to do? No, really. What. The. Fuck. Are we going to do?

So far, the most important story in rock & roll in 2016 (besides everybody DYING) is that Steve Miller doesn’t give a fuck about the Black Keys, or anybody else. Well, that makes two of us, Steve. (Oh yeah, but Steve Albini says everything is going to be okay: he likes streaming music and thinks it’s great for musicians.) What the hell is going to happen? What the fuck are we going to do?!!

I called Buzz Osborne and Dale Crover from the Melvins to beg for advice. Maybe they can help you, too.

Hey Buzz, this is Ben from AdHoc. How are you?

Buzz: Great. Where are you located?

I’m in New York City.

Buzz: Never heard of it.

I wish I could’ve come to the show—I was out of town.

Buzz: Oh yeah? What were you doing? Standing around somewhere else?

Yup. Where are you guys right now?

Buzz: Driving to Cleveland—another mecca.

Oh yeah, the birthplace of rock & roll radio, right?

Buzz: Yes. It reaffirms the, uh…validity of rock & roll, doesn’t it?

Well, that’s actually what AdHoc wanted me to talk to you about.

Buzz: They wanted you to talk to me about the validity of rock & roll? Okay. I’ll do my best.

You’ve been a band since what—1982, 1983? You’re probably more qualified than I am.

Buzz: There’s nothing I don’t know, so you just listen closely, son—I’ll tell you how it goes. Make sure you’re recording this and writing things down, ’cause you don’t want to miss any of it.

I’m really curious about what you think of the state of the genre. It seems like it’s more difficult for younger bands to present a cohesive statement than it used to be, maybe because they’re inundated with so much more and varied information or inspiration now, or maybe because of the ease of access to new instruments and recording technology.

Buzz: Yeah, I guess so. I mean, was there ever a golden era?

Well, I don’t know. Arguably, your band started in kind of a golden era, although it probably only seems that way to some people in retrospect.

Buzz: Uh, I don’t know about that.

So when was the golden era for rock & roll, then? The ’50s?

Buzz: I guess, but for every good song, there was an “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie [Yellow] Polka Dot Bikini,” you know? And that kinda takes the air out of everything.

So maybe it was the ’40s then? The roots of the genre?

Buzz: Yeah, long before rock & roll was the golden era of rock & roll—I’ll agree with that. [Sings the opening line of Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood.”] That was the best—before it ever started.

Right, yeah, or the “Rock Around the Clock” guitar solo.

Buzz: The first five minutes of rock & roll was the golden era, and then it was downhill.

And then it became what? Self-aware?

Buzz: I don’t know, I don’t look at it that way. I’m not really a Bill Haley guy—I’m more of a Jerry Lee Lewis guy.

Ah man, me too. I love Jerry Lee Lewis.

Buzz: That speaks to me much more than even Elvis, you know? Although I really like Elvis.

Oh yeah, but Jerry Lee—that’s more about his energy, right?

Buzz: The energy? No—I’m just not with some hick who made millions of dollars that died a big fat guy sitting on the toilet, jammed full of drugs, in his early forties.

I don’t know, he’s something of a controversial figure I guess?

Buzz: He doesn’t seem controversial to me—he seems like he really only hurt himself. Little Richard, stuff like that—I’m into all that. But for every one of those guys there’s a Fabian who’s gonna ruin it all, who doesn’t give a shit, you know? It’s music—you can’t take it too seriously, right?

Right. That’s something I see around me quite a bit: people taking themselves way too seriously, kinda missing the point.

Buzz: Oh, indeed—you get people that get all bent outta shape about us putting weird songs on our records. I always say, “What is it you listen to, Mr. Serious?” It shows me exactly what little understanding they have of us at all. We’re a band called the Melvins. Why are you looking to us for seriousness?

Do you feel like people have always reacted that way?

Buzz: Oh, always. We’re serious about what we’re doing, but we also have a sense of humor—it’s completely obvious. The fact that I even have to bring that up is irritating.

All the great bands have had a sense of humor: the Ramones, the Stones.

Buzz: Well, even if they didn’t, both those bands I thought were pretty funny. I mean, nobody laughs harder at what we’re doing than us.

You mean you can’t believe what you’re doing or you can’t believe that people are into it?

Buzz: We love it. We love what we’re doing, one hundred percent—there’s no bad vibe to this. The downside is when people don’t get it; that might be the one downside to the whole thing. I can’t explain it to people—even with charts and diagrams.

You should do that: you should make a video with a pie chart and a big ruler.

Buzz: Doing that sort of reminds me of something… Oh yeah. A waste of time.

[Buzz passes the phone to Dale]

So: rock & roll. The industry has changed so much, and a lot of people wonder about the validity of the genre. What do you think?

Dale: Certain things are better now for bands that are our size and smaller than they’ve ever been. Just being able to put your music out online for people to hear, or watch, or whatever—we didn’t have that. We didn’t have anybody to put out our stuff at all. Now if you don’t have that, at least you have Bandcamp. Seems easy. Even the laziest rock musician can do something like that.

Absolutely. Do you think record labels will even exist in 10 years?

Dale: We’ll see. I guess they’ll have to have a good product to sell. Running the way that they used to, in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s—no, that party is over. Selling millions of records is pretty much over for most bands. We’re fine with that; we’ll be okay. We really haven’t changed much of the way we do things, except that we do a lot of our own handmade releases that you can only get at shows. So fine by us if not only record labels are gone but record stores are gone too, because we’ll be able to do it ourselves anyway. Cut out the
middle man completely.

But you guys are in a very specific position to be able to do that.

Dale: I think anybody can do that.

Right—I guess people just have to like your music.

Dale: Well, that’s the one thing: you’ve gotta be a good band. If you’re a good band people will pay attention. Sometimes even if you’re not. [Laughs]

That’s what I was gonna ask: do you think that all this easy access makes bands better? Do you think it leads to more people producing good rock & roll music?

Dale: Sure. Or even the fact that you can record your own record now, too, without spending millions of dollars at a studio. But it takes talent, obviously.

But you do see a lot of bands—I think even more with rock bands, as opposed to other genres—where there maybe isn’t as much talent or energy going into it, but they’re still getting all of this talk about them for whatever reason.

Dale: Well, yes, that’s always been the case. There’s always been crappy bands, y’know? There’s just a very small percentage that I ever thought was any good, that spoke to me, or that I was really excited about. I was always the outsider as far as that goes, besides liking stuff like the Beatles. But I can see why that stuff’s popular, because those guys are really good; they made really great records that are still relevant today—and listenable, and that don’t sound very dated. They hit upon something—had some kind of talent—that would be good at any point.

To bring it back to your band: you guys presumably had years of working at shit on your own. How long were you a band before you went on your first tour?

Dale: Oh, I joined in ’84; we went on our first big tour in ’86, but I mean… it was hard. Nobody really knew who we were outside of Seattle, and even there, when we started, if we could get 100 people to a show, that was great. We didn’t really have anything out. We had our own 7-inch that came out but didn’t have any distribution—basically, people didn’t know who we were. And at that time the stuff that was popular was not what we were doing at all.

When was the first time you played in New York?

Dale: That would have been in 1986. That was okay. I remember it was with Adrenalin O.D. and NOFX.

Whoa, people really didn’t know what to do with you guys, eh?

Dale: No, no. Even in the big city, they scratched their heads. They still scratch their heads, but they like it for some reason now.

When was the first time you went to Europe?

Dale: I think Bullhead [1991] had just come out. After we did that tour in ’86, we decided that we weren’t gonna really tour anymore because we couldn’t afford to lose a bunch of money, and it was just kinda miserable. Like I said, we didn’t really have any records out; no one knew who we were. So we waited a few years and then, lo and behold, everybody grew their hair long and started liking the Stooges, so somehow all was okay. So the first time we went to Europe was actually really good. American bands were very popular; bands from Seattle were very popular. We went over there, and we were selling out clubs and stuff like that, which we were really surprised about. Once we were able to tour like that, we never really stopped. Once we could see that people were interested and we could make money doing this, we just kept doing it.

Well, right: you maintain. Would you say that’s the goal?

Dale: Exactly, right, but even more than that—I mean, things are better than ever now. The bus, touring-wise, audience-wise, all that stuff—we’ve built up our own thing from not stopping, from continuing to put out records, not resting at all.

It took you guys 10 years before you were finally touring Europe. But you look at bands now—there are bands that are barely around for a year, and they’re already getting offers to go overseas. Maybe they’ve sold 1,000 actual records, but they’ll have a million plays on YouTube.

Dale: Best to not question it at all. [Laughs]

Respect.

Dale: Why are we still going? Why do kids still like us? I don’t know, but fine by me. Totally fine by me.