Artist Spotlight: Melvins (or; How To Leave Town Before the Gold Rush) [Part 1 of 11]
Look, I know. You’re thinking, “What in the actual fuck? How am I going to read 11 articles of this shit?” Really, though, Melvins didn’t take off a few decades like previous entries and contemporaries Faith No More and L7. In fact, the closer we get to the present day, they release more albums, solo endeavors, side projects, and extend themselves to three (more than three depending on how you define “lineup”) different touring lineups at any given time.
Back when the Melvins began in 1983, there weren’t marketable in any way. When they signed with a major label in 1992, they still weren’t marketable in any way, with the exception of geography. They were related to a very important music scene… that they left five years before. Yet, despite all odds and probability, a band that most people don’t seem to like all that much has influenced countless bands, and even today their influence can be heard in the current crop of “sludge metal” bands. How did this happen? Read on!
Singer/guitarist Buzz Osborne was born in a small town in Washington state, his parents “were poor people, lower-middle class at best”. When his family moved to Montesano, Washington when he was about 12, he began getting interested in music, starting with Sex Pistols and David Bowie.
Osborne had made friends with drummer Mike Dillard, who was a year behind him in school. Osborne and Dillard would get together and play, and Dillard’s friend since third grade, Matt Lukin, was invited to be a second guitar player. Dillard’s cousin had a bass and was going to play with them as well, but he rarely showed up, so Lukin borrowed the bass and played that instead. The band would jam on some covers by The Who, Jimi Hendrix, and Cream. After a few weeks, Lukin said, “Holy shit! You guys are insane! I’ve smoked more pot and drank more booze in the last two weeks than I have in my entire life!” Dillard later recalled, “We were probably responsible for him going down the road of drugs and alcohol.”
Dillard and Osborne worked together at the local grocery store. “We named the band after this guy who worked at the Thriftway,” Osborne said. “Melvin was a fucking asshole. He was an adult and was in a position to give you orders. He was the kind of guy who would yell at you in front of somebody else to try and impress them. We wanted to call ourselves that because it sounded stupid.”
Behind the Thriftway, there was a park and ride lot where the band found an outdoor plug connected to a nearby building. Melvins brought a huge extension cord and set up in the parking lot. They handed out flyers advertising “free live rock music”. One of the people who showed up, was a young Kurt Cobain. From his journals, he wrote: “They played faster than I ever imagined music could be played and with more energy than my Iron Maiden records could provide. This is what I was looking for.”
“We did a bunch of stuff like that,” Osborne said. “It wasn’t really a show… our first show was in Olympia, Washington. That was in ’84… a few weeks later, we played a show with The Fastbacks, and all the kids who came up to see us play the first show came up to see us play again. So, at that moment I knew, okay, we did it. We pulled it off.”
Fastbacks guitarist Kurt Bloch said, “The Melvins were unlike any other band. They had this absurd sound, which was just pummeling… the lyrics didn’t make any literal sort of sense, but they’re yelling them like they mean them.”
After playing out of town a lot with March of Crimes (featuring future Soundgarden bassist Ben Shepherd), problems arose with Dillard. Osborne had Lukin tell Dillard that he was quitting for a new band, but Osborne might call one or both of them if his new thing didn’t work out. “That was his spineless way of kicking people out of the band so he didn’t have to face them. He made me do the dirty work,” Lukin said.
“I had a girlfriend, and I’m sure my lack of interest in the band was showing,” Dillard recalled. “I didn’t really want to do it anymore, anyway. I think at that point they’d already gotten things squared away with [Dale] Crover… they couldn’t have found anybody better than Crover.”
Meanwhile, Osborne and Lukin stopped by Taco Bell, and were introduced by a mutual friend to a “tall freaky guy in the back, singing along to Muzak Christmas carols”. That tall freak was future Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic. Osborne played Novoselic a tape, “It was a revelation. It changed my whole approach to life. Buzz was the preacher, and his gospel was punk rock,” Novoselic said. Osborne recalled, “I played Krist some music, and he was one of the few people who actually got it.”
“What I wanted was a heavy metal drummer,” Osborne recalled. “I wanted somebody who was going to push the band beyond belief. Like a freight train, a combination of Keith Moon and the guy from Iron Maiden.” Osborne and Lukin asked Novoselic if they knew anyone who was a drummer. Novoselic introduced them to a bunch of people, before finally getting to Dale Crover.
Dale Crover was a high school student at the time. “The guidance counselor said, ‘it looks like you know what you want to do already’… He was like ‘my advice is to drop out, because you’re gone all the time, so you’re just going to fail anyway’.” Crover said. “I played in a band called Rampage. They liked other rock stuff that I liked, [but] it was kind of like, ‘Oh, we have to play this Eddie Money song. We have to play ballads’.”
Rampage had been selected to play a benefit for the mentally handicapped at the Elks Hall in Aberdeen. When Rampage arrived, the Melvins were on the stage. The other guys in the band were not impressed, but Crover said, “I was like ‘I don’t know, it’s kind of cool, and they’re playing their own songs’. They played super-fast, they’re loud as shit, and they blasted one song into another.”
After Crover joined, the decision was made to slow the music down. “Dale was really into speed metal at the time, which was kind of funny, in the sense that the Melvins were slowing down,” Lukin said. “The idea to slow down came pretty much from Black Flag’s My War, side two,” Crover recalled.
“I actually saw Black Flag on that same tour with this band Saccharine Trust, and they were every bit as slow, and weirder,” Osborne said. “We slowed down, but I always thought that was another thing that we were doing. We always played fast, always. People get hung up on us playing slow.”
“I was blown away, the Melvins went from being the fastest band in town to the slowest band in town,” Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil recalled to Guitar World in 1996. “It was a pretty amazing and courageous move. Everyone was trying to be punk rock, a kind of art-damage thing… That was right around the time Green River and Soundgarden first started getting together. Mark Arm [Green River / Mudhoney] and Ben Sheppard and I would always have conversations about the Stooges. We were talking about the ‘feel,’ that sort of MC5 stuff when it was a slow, depressing, trippy, heavy thing. We talked about that a lot. But the Melvins went and did it.”
While the band was still experimenting and finding their sound, there is some debate about whether or not Kurt Cobain tried out for the band as a second guitarist. Lukin and Crover state that Cobain did try out, but Osborne disagrees, but it seems a matter of semantics. “As far as Kurt trying out for us, that’s not true, absolutely not,” Osborne said. “We jammed with him on numerous occasions, same with Krist. We never tried anyone out for the band, ever.”
On the other hand, Lukin said, “Kurt did try out for the Melvins, and it fuckin’ sounded great! A couple of days later, I was asking Buzz, ‘Hey, what’s up? That sounded great when Cobain was playing with us,’ and he’s like, ‘Yeah, I don’t think it’s going to work’.” Crover’s memory is sort of in the middle, “We thought about having Kurt in the band, but he didn’t have any gear… It’s not like he passed or failed, it was just that he didn’t have any money and didn’t have his shit together.”
There’s also some confusion about whether or not Novoselic was a roadie for the band. “I don’t know if I’d say Krist was a roadie, but we started using his van, and he’d drive with us to Seattle and help load our equipment,” Lukin said. “So, yeah, I guess he was a roadie. Cobain took that role after a while.”
Naturally, Osborne disagrees. “We were actually friends with Krist and Kurt. They understood what we were doing, liked what we were doing. We trusted Krist right away, went on all kinds of adventures with Krist… We never had any roadies, that’s bullshit. They were just friends. Sometimes Krist would drive us places. I always laugh at that: Kurt Cobain was our roadie. Look at him, he could barely lift himself out of bed.”
Deep Six (1986) / 6 songs (1986)
I already when into Deep Six earlier, you can read that here, but I didn’t really talk about the Melvins. Unfortunately, other than C/Z Records co-founder Chris Hanzek saying, “Melvins were the most one-take of all the bands”, there isn’t much else about it.
While the other bands had two songs (U-Men had one song, but considering their popularity at the time, their song amounted to charity for the other groups), Melvins had four. But the songs were a mix of the new slower style, and the prior speedy style. “Scared” and “Grinding Process” were a little over two minutes, while “Blessing the Operation” and “She Waits” clock in at about 40 seconds each.
While the songs aren’t as strictly heavy as they would become, it is a good starting point for the band’s evolution.
Later in 1986, Melvins recorded their debut EP, 6 Songs (sometimes titled Melvins), which was also released on C/Z Records. Deep Six was their first release, while 6 Songs was the label’s second. In 1988, Osborne expressed frustration that the EP never sold that much, and stated that Hanzek had boxes of them sitting around because he refused to sell them to record stores (if this is accurate, he could be talking about Skin Yard’s Daniel House who had taken over the label by this time, he didn’t mention anyone by name, just the label “owner”). Crover said, “I think he had 1000 copies under his bed, or something, for the last three years. He finally decided to sell them for cheaper.”
The EP was recorded live in the studio, with no overdubs, and focuses on their slow, sludgy jams, with the exception of two tracks. “Now a Limo”, which it more mid-paced… and lasts all of 55 seconds. The EP does close with “Snake Appeal” which is reasonably fast. The thing about the Melvins in this period, they were slowed down, but the songs were still pretty short like punk songs. The album also has “At a Crawl”, which isn’t just a clever name, it literally comes at you at a crawl.
In 1991, C/Z Records reissued the EP as an LP titled 8 Songs, and a CD edition titled 10 Songs. These weren’t in print long, and can fetch a healthy price… or they could, before they were reissued again. I was lucky enough to find 10 Songs at a used CD store in Chicago in 1999, when I was there on vacation. Both versions contain one of my favorite Melvins songs, “#2 Pencil”.
The collection was reissued one more time on Mike Patton’s Ipecac Records as 26 Songs in 2003. The collection is rounded out by some garage demos and outtakes, and a field recording called “Hugh”, that the band stuck on their demo tape they gave to clubs to drum up interest for shows.
Gluey Porch Treatments (1987)
In 1986, nothing was happening for the Melvins. They had attempted to tour, but it was a complete disaster. Sub Pop, when it was only a column in the back of The Rocket wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole… and that would remain the same when Sub Pop became an actual label (until 2016).
Melvins had played with San Francisco band Clown Alley, and guitarist/vocalist Mark Deutrom had asked Melvins to put out an album through Alchemy Records. Deutrom was starting up the label with Victor Hayden, who was a cousin of Captain Beefheart, and played in his band. Alchemy paid just enough for the band to come down to San Francisco and record. The band moved in temporarily Deutrom and his girlfriend, Clown Alley bassist Lori Black, while they worked on the album.
“One of the things that Buzz and Dale used to joke about is the fact that they were gonna do this recording without drinking any beer,” Deutrom said. “They did it stone cold sober… they just white knuckled their way through the whole experience.”
The album was recorded in 2 or 3 days, and then mixed in 2 or 3 days. The band returned to Aberdeen, and after a few months, the album was in their hands. The artwork was not at all what they wanted, and it looked like a bad xerox copy, even their logo was crooked. Osborne said that he never got a chance to complain, as the owner disappeared, taking the label’s money with him (not Deutrom).
The album is a mix of their fast and slow styles, and as a result, it’s a much more fun listen. The album opens with “Eye Flys”, a six-minute slow grind, but the title track is a speedy hardcore workout that’s over in 48 seconds. The album also revisits “Disinvite” and “Easy As It Was”, but retitled as “Steve Instant Newman” and “As It Was” respectively, from 6 Songs. The album sounds great, and the drums have this huge cavernous sound.
One of the best tracks on the album is a cover of Green River’s “Leeech” (sometimes just “Leech” with two e’s). “I remember seeing them record their first demo, and they did a song called ‘Leech’ which was awesome, easily the best song they ever wrote,” Osborne wrote in the Ipecac reissue liner notes. “Later, Jeff Ament, told me he hated the song. ‘Too repetitive’ he said… all of Jeff’s comments seem really strange now considering he went on to form Pearl Jam and make about a billion dollars playing repetitive riffs.”
But, of course, history repeats itself, and the album wasn’t readily available in stores… which Osborne was pretty salty about. The album would be repackaged on cassette with 6 Songs, and then on CD with their next album, Ozma. Ipecac would reissue the album in a 29-song version which was the original 17 track album with additional demos.
“When we recorded Gluey Porch Treatments… that’s when Lori [Black] and Buzz hit it off,” Lukin recalled. “Buzz had Dale tell me, ‘Buzz is moving out to San Francisco, quitting the band, going to live with Lori in San Francisco.’ And I’m like, Okay, that sounds familiar, that’s exactly the same story he had me tell Dillard when we kicked him out. I called Buzz and I go, ‘So you’re moving to San Francisco to be with Lori, huh? I think you’re moving to San Francisco, and Lori’s going to be your new bass player and Dale’s going to follow you.’ A month later they’re playing shows, Dale’s living in the house with them, everything that I accused him of. Fucking spineless asshole.”
Lukin was out, but he was invited to jam with Green River members Mark Arm and Steve Turner, and Dan Peters (briefly a Nirvana drummer). They formed Mudhoney, and Lukin played with them until 1999. He rejoined for a tour in 2000, but was out for good by 2001… and quit music for good to be a carpenter.