By 1992, Pearl Jam’s Ten, Nirvana’s Nevermind, Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger, and Alice In Chains’ Facelift and Dirt had sold tons. All of which, if they hadn’t already gone platinum, they would eventually. The major labels were salivating for the next big band in the Seattle gold rush. Along comes Atlantic Records, knocking on the door of the Melvins.
“I couldn’t believe they wanted to do three albums; I was surprised they even wanted to do one,” Osborne said. After receiving 15 contracts from 15 labels, guitarist/vocalist Buzz Osborne and drummer Dale Crover chose Atlantic. “We signed with Atlantic, and went and played them the Lysol record, and they said, ‘Sound great!’ Cool. They didn’t do anything. They never tried to hook us up with Aerosmith-esque songwriters or anything like that or even try to get us to do anything… the ironic nature of a band like us being on Atlantic sounded like something we wanted to do. The same label as Aretha Franklin and Led Zeppelin. I thought that was hilarious. So, we went into it with the idea that we were gonna get out of it with as much as we could without having to sacrifice everything that we thought was good about us.”
Nirvana manager Danny Goldberg, who was now working for Atlantic, asked Kurt Cobain who they should sign. Cobain replied, “Sign the Melvins. They’re the best band in the world. They changed my life.” So, Goldberg floated the idea to the band of having Cobain produce the album. Crover was not really into the idea, but Osborne stated that they hadn’t done anything like that before, and maybe Cobain could help them write stuff and they could produce something totally different than they had before.
Well, that proved to be a disaster.
Osborne and Crover entered the studio with Cobain, but they didn’t have anything ready to record. Cobain was immediately disappointed that they had nothing ready, and thought less of them that they didn’t prepare for an album the way he prepared for an album. Osborne wanted to collaborate, but Cobain was not willing to share any of his songwriting ideas, preferring to save them for himself. Cobain was also passing out from excessive drug use, if he even showed up at all. They did manage to get him playing some percussion on “Spread Eagle Beagle” and some guitar on “Sky Pup.”
During this time, Lori Black returned to the band in the vacant bass slot, but it was short lived. She is credited on the album, and in the illustration on the back cover, but doesn’t actually play on it and she did not sign the Atlantic contract. Some sources say she is not on it at all, Osborne says if she is on it, it’s very little. The bass duties were mostly filled in by Osborne and Crover.
“I broke up with Lori in ’92, I think, for good,” Osborne recalled. “It really wasn’t working, and I was just over it. What was interesting was, when I was done with the relationship with Lori, her dad called me. After having absolutely no interest in what I was doing for years, us being signed to Atlantic somehow legitimized the whole thing in his mind. He said that he didn’t see any reason why his daughter couldn’t still be in the band. He became really nasty.”
Houdini was the most inventive album in their catalog at the time of its release, which makes the fact that it’s on Atlantic all the stranger. There’s still the heavy, sludgy stuff they were known for, but there are straight up noise experiments and… I’m not sure softer is the right word, because it’s not like the album has any prom theme songs on it, but maybe “less abrasive” would be more apt. The album is front loaded with the “primordial ooze” type songs that reviewers love to mention, while the back half is more experimental, and actually pretty fun.
The front half has the “singles”, such as they were. “Night Goat” had already been released by Amphetamine Reptile the previous year. “Lizzy” was also a single, and their second video, but their first video was “Honey Bucket”. I can remember seeing it for the first time, and I was really confused, and it’s almost a strange choice because it’s more than half over before any vocals come in, but it is fast.
Naturally, the album follows that up and closes Side One with “Hag Me”, a slow, chugging number. Listening to it feels like drinking an entire bottle of Robitussin.
Side Two starts out with “Set Me Straight”, which is practically a pop number that goes all the way back to the 6 Songs days. But then it also has the experiments of “Sky Pup” and “Spread Eagle Beagle”. But one of my favorites was “Pearl Bomb”, with it’s ridiculous 30 second drum into and no guitar.
Needing to move the band forward, Melvins looked no further than Clown Alley guitarist/vocalist, Gluey Porch Treatments and Ozma producer, and Lori Black ex-boyfriend, Mark Deutrom. Deutrom had been running sound for the band on tour since either 1991 or 92, so he was the next in line. “Interestingly enough, he wasn’t a bass player by trade—he was a guitar player. But, attitude-wise, we thought he could relate to us better than anybody else,” Crover said. “We really loved playing with Mark. Most of the bass players we’d had before were pretty much following the guitar line. Not too many strayed from what Buzz was playing. Mark was more like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve got a different part for that!’ He was quite inventive.”
“Buzz called me and asked if I would consider playing with them. We had already been friends for six or seven years at that point, so it was an easy decision to make,” Deutrom said.
Melvins toured heavily after the release of Houdini. In addition to some headlining tours, they toured with Primus, and then on another leg with Rush. Fucking Rush. I wonder who put that together.
While on tour for Houdini, the band was invited to perform at The Viper Room, at the suggestion of Johnny Depp, who was a big fan of the group. When they were approached to play, the band explained their fee, but it is tradition that whoever plays The Viper Room plays for free… or in the words of Viper Room management, for “the good vibes”.
“The Viper Room called and asked us to play, but explained that they wouldn’t pay us. We told them that we just wanted our normal guarantee,” Deutrom said. “There got to be this little back and forth, and they kept saying stuff like, ‘Well, Johnny Cash played here and he didn’t get paid.’ We said, ‘Nah, we’re going to need our money.’ So, they caved and told us we could have whatever we wanted, and as a joke, we sent them a ridiculous rider.”
The rider included hundred-dollar bottles of cognac, fresh seafood, fresh flowers, a year’s worth of back issues of Field & Stream Magazine, shotgun shells, and for Madonna to be notified when they arrived… just in case she wanted to come down and perform with them. The Viper Room basically just then said, “Nah, bruh.” The band’s management then went to collect the guarantee/cancellation fee, which the club paid… in coins. “A big bag full of change with a dollar sign, cartoon money,” Crover said.
“They actually had a sense of humor because they paid us in change,” Deutrom recalled. “In retrospect, it was childish. But what did we really miss out on? Hanging out with Christian Slater?”
Perhaps the most bizarre thing of all, was that on November 23, 1993, Gene Simmons joined Melvins on stage for a cover of KISS’s “Goin’ Blind” (which is covered on Houdini), where he played bass and sang. Crover remembers, “You know, he brought his own bass and he had own roadie take care of his bass, he was like, ‘will you watch this for me?’ The roadie said yes, Gene took off and went to eat or whatever and we had his bass… So, we play the show and it comes time for him to play ‘Going Blind’ with us and he’s not coming out. We’re all wondering where Gene Simmons is. Little did we know that the dressing room door had gotten locked and his bass was in there and nobody had the key. I saw this later because my drum tech actually filmed this. Since nobody had the key, the production manager was there and he told Gene to just kick the door open.” Simmons did eventually get in and get his bass, and there is some video of it on YouTube. I’m certain this is probably the coolest thing Simmons has ever done.
During this time, Osborne made a crack in the press about Courtney Love being a “gold-digger”. So, of course, Love demanded Cobain’s name be taken off of the album. Goldberg had a minor panic, and begged Cobain not to take his name off of the album as producer. Cobain said not to worry, he would never take his name off of it. (It’s not really relevant to the Melvins in anyway, but during the recording of Houdini, multiple sources claim that Cobain openly said he wanted to divorce Love. Make of that what you will.)
Also, in 1993, Crover sang with Acid King, a stoner rock band with his then wife Lori S. on guitar (who also played bass on the Dale Crover EP). In 1994, Crover left Acid King and started Altamont, with Acid King members Joey Osbourne (drums) and Dan Southwick (bass). The only reason I’m not going to continue covering Altamont is because all of their stuff went out of print when Man’s Ruin went under, and it’s not readily available.
To be continued…