The Melvins, Globe-Trotting Men of Metal
Buzz Osborne is en route to Allentown, Pennsylvania, headed for his band's 23rd show in 23 nights. The Melvins' guitarist/frontman is blissfully unaware Billy Joel wrote a song about his evening's destination. Even still, his pigeonholing of the Piano Man is remarkably astute: "Elevator music for people who think they're still into rock music."
Which makes the Melvins? "Captain Beefheart playing heavy metal."
Again, nail on the head.
But back to 23 shows in 23 days. The band's appearance in New York will be their 30th out of 51 gigs in a quest to set the Guinness world record for the fastest tour of the United States. The experiment in exhaustion began September 5 at Anchorage, Alaska's, Bear Tooth Theatre and will, with any luck, conclude in the president's home state, at Honolulu's the Republik. They're traveling economically, as a threesome known as Melvins Lite, rounded out by Dale Crover, the drummer of 28 years standing, and Trevor Dunn, touring bassist of less than one year.
There's nothing overtly light about Melvins Lite, though. Known since 1983 for their slo-mo, sometimes dirgelike heaviness, offbeat humor, and punk perspective, the Washington-bred band played such an instrumental part in the "Seattle Scene" that it almost overshadowed their music in the '90s. Kurt Cobain, a former Melvins roadie, helped produce the Melvins 1993 major-label debut, Houdini, while Crover played with an early Nirvana lineup and Osborne introduced Dave Grohl to Nirvana.
Although the words "seminal" and "indie cred" often accompany Melvins references, Osborne, a/k/a King Buzzo—he of the light-socket and now-gray Afro—is unabashed in calling the 51 shows in 51 days a "publicity stunt" to do something big and stupid. "We're perfect for that," Osborne says, admitting the jaunt has so far been a triumph of the band's current motto: "Seldom right; never in doubt."
Thirty years of making music for a living has resulted in an aural outpouring so prolific Osborne himself cannot keep up. This year has seen a four-song EP of 1983 Melvins, a five-song EP of regular Melvins, and a full-length album, Freak Puke, from Melvins Lite. Add to that a split seven-inch and four other 12-inches, and what you have is a rock band that releases new material as often as rappers release mixtapes.
"That's a lot, even for us," Osborne says. "Most bands just don't do it; it doesn't mean you can't do it."
Since the era of A&R departments snapping up everything Seattle, which found the Melvins on Atlantic for three records from 1993 to 1996, the lineup has had a longtime home on Ipecac, the label co-founded by Faith No More's Mike Patton. The just-released Freak Puke appears to be the band's 18th full album (though even Osborne stopped counting), and it sees them as strong as ever.
Its 10 songs range from the unexpectedly lively and garage-y title track to the portentous, spare darkness of "Mr. Rip Off" to an epic cover of Paul McCartney's "Let Me Roll It." Why a Beatle? "Mostly because we knew it would surprise people," Osborne says. "I like that song, but I'm not a McCartney fan. Paul is one of those baby boomers who refuses to let himself go gray. What is that about?"
Approaching 50 and oft-interviewed, Osborne appears comfortable with his and the Melvins' place in the world, despite missing out on the massive success—and commensurate sorrow–of some of his peers. He's not much for legacy anyway.
"I want my entire musical catalog to be deleted the second I die," he says. "What do I care? I'll be dead. I don't care about history. I don't even want a tombstone, are you kidding? None of that stuff makes any sense to me."
We'd say it's the exhaustion talking, but like the Melvins themselves (Lite or otherwise), King Buzzo seldom missteps.
Melvins Lite play the Music Hall of Williamsburg on October 4.
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