Artist Spotlight: Melvins (or; How To Leave Town Before the Gold Rush) [Part 5 of 11]

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4.

Prick (1994) / Stoner Witch (1994)

When the time came for the band to record the follow up to Houdini, they were already disillusioned with the major label system. “I have no faith in major labels having any more brains than they did any other time in music history, but the opportunity came for us to try this out, see what’s going on, so we tried it,” guitarist/vocalist Buzz Osborne said in an interview in Copenhagen in 1995. “They don’t know what to do with us. They know what to do with the Stone Temple Pilots, but they don’t know what to do with us, you know, which doesn’t surprise me, but it irritates me a bit, and it also makes me lose faith in the record industry in general. Y’know, we’re a hard sell, we’re not an easy band for them to market, or anything like that. They’re gonna really have to work to sell our records, and I don’t think they know how to do that.”

The band returned to the studio immediately after 8 straight months of touring. While demoing material in London, the band decided they were going to also record a second album of “experiments”. “One of the experiments was that each band member would record a song by themselves. You’d do one track by yourself first, and when you were recording your next track, you could not hear what you did previously,” drummer Dale Crover said. “Danny Goldberg was the head of Atlantic at the time, and he seemed to understand what the Melvins were all about.”

“Our contract specified 100 percent artistic control, so Atlantic didn’t have to put the record out, but they couldn’t stop us from turning it in and getting paid for it. I didn’t really see any reason to do that,” Osborne said. “Initially, Atlantic asked to release it, and we said, ‘You guys are not gonna want to do this.’ Eventually, they figured out that that was true and told us to do whatever we wanted to do with it.”

Prick was recorded April 1994 and released August 5 that same year. The album is just a noisy mess filled with electronic loops and samples, field recordings, random drum solos, and tuneless guitar wankery. The only thing close to being a “song” is “Chief Ten Beers”, and that’s a generous reading. The album cover has the band’s name backwards, which Osborne often uses to deflect criticism, by saying it’s a Snivlem record, not a Melvins record.

“We were going to call the record Kurt Cobain before he died, then he died, so we decided to call it Prick,” Crover said back in 1994. Osborne added, “Now that he is dead, everyone would think it’s a tribute record. No way! Death is just a part of life. Kurt would have liked this record.”

I wasn’t even going to talk about this, but it seems like a major miss if don’t. Imagine you’ve known someone since they were 11 years old, now imagine that for your entire career (nearly 40 years) you’ve been asked about this person. And then for the past 26 years, in addition to questions about this big rock star, you have to answer questions about his suicide. Depending on which way the wind blows, Osborne (it’s almost always Osborne being asked) could be glib and sarcastic, but sometimes he lets some real emotion slip out. So, if you’ve ever seen something with him being a dick about it, remember someone he was friends with for 16 years committed suicide and he has to not only think about it in his personal life, he has to deal with it at work every day since.

“I was playing with Melvins on the In Utero tour. There was a cocooned environment going on with Nirvana,” bassist Mark Deutrom said. “I’m sure stories abound about the legendary last show. At the sound check, Kurt was throwing his guitar and saying, ‘This is our last fucking show’. There was a catering area in this venue, and a bunch of phones. Everybody got to sit in the catering area and listen to Kurt on the phone, screaming every expletive in the book at Courtney.”

“Kurt said he was cancelling the rest of the tour because he had laryngitis. While we’re still in Europe, they’re reporting that Kurt Cobain ODs. Accidental Overdose. Took a bunch of pills.” Crover said. “But the shows were getting rebooked. They were advertising it on TV over there! On MTV! We even saw posters about them being rebooked. And we’re just thinking, that’s really weird. Those shows are already getting rebooked after this guy basically tried to kill himself. What the fuck is going on?”

“The last conversation I had with Kurt was in Munich, after he had the screaming match with his wife,” Osborne said. “I had told him this before and I basically reiterated, ‘I think that what you should do is give her everything, and run as if your life depends on it. Sign everything over to her from this moment on and just be gone. And if you need money, just go out and do a fucking solo tour, play acoustic guitar, you’ll be fine’… Right when they were walking onstage, he said, ‘I should just be doing this solo,’ and that was it. I never talked to him again. They canceled the rest of the tour.”

Of course, you already know that Cobain committed suicide after returning home on April 5, 1994. The Melvins were returning themselves from working on demos in London. As soon as they stepped off the plane, management informed them of the suicide. The band had a show scheduled that night, and the manager asked if they wanted to cancel. “She asked if we wanted to cancel the show, and [Osborne] just kind of laughed at her like, you don’t get it. We’re going to play a show,” Deutrom said. “That’s how we do it. I think it was Buzz channeling his rage. What better way to salute somebody than doing the most life-affirming thing possible, which is playing?”

Osborne was pretty candid when interviewed about it during Melvins’ 1995 European tour. “I felt bad but not surprised. I think that anybody who deals with that kind of lifestyle that he was pursuing certainly has a possibility of ending up dead at any time. I’m sure you all know people who have overdosed on drugs or something like that. So, it’s never a big surprise to me when people end up dead under those conditions. I literally think that’s it. People can say whatever they want, they can write whatever they want, but I think if you take the drugs, and the drug lifestyle out of the picture of his life, he would still be alive. No doubt. Anybody who wants to see it any other way is just fooling themselves, they’re living in some rock ‘n’ roll fantasy world that I really want no part of, and, you know, I was upset about the whole thing, but ultimately it doesn’t really affect me so much.”

In 2015, Osborne was asked to review the Cobain documentary Montage of Heck. You can read the entire thing here, but he said, “First off, people need to understand that 90% of Montage of Heck is bullshit. Total bullshit. That’s the one thing no one gets about Cobain — he was a master of jerking your chain.” Three days later, Osborne has some heat on him about his statements on the documentary, telling Riff You, “If they want to argue and say that I’m wrong, then okay… Would they feel better if Kurt Cobain did ‘fuck a fat r*tard.’ Do they feel better now? Do they feel better if he actually was suicidal? That makes you feel better? None of that’s true. I don’t think that’s a good legacy for him to have out there. I know it’s not true. It’s that simple… I don’t think that’s a good legacy for him to have out there.”

Now that that is out of the way…

Melvins spent 19 days in the studio with GGGarth Richardson and Joe Baressi, who stepped in to help with Houdini when Cobain quit showing up. The songs were all written before hand, but the band did experiment with different guitar and bass tunings, and Crover had 3 drum sets in the studio for different sounds. This was the longest the band had ever been in the studio. “Once we got a take that we liked, we were done,” Osborne said. “We didn’t end up with 10 takes of every song, or any of that crap. A lot of the band’s philosophy about making records was spawned while we were making Stoner Witch.”

The album is intentionally front-loaded with the most accessible songs. “Skweetis” and “Sweet Willy Rollbar” fly by at a quick pace, while “Goose Freight Train” and “At the Stake” slow things down. “Queen” and “Revolve” are the most standard rock songs here, still heavy, and “Revolve” was actually edited down for a single, but that gambit didn’t pay off. “I never had any faith in the idea that cutting a few seconds out of a song would make it more appealing for radio. Of course, it didn’t do anything,” Osborne said. “If you’re working in the radio department at Atlantic and you had a Stone Temple Pilots record and a Melvins record, which one would you put money into? The Stone Temple Pilots made a record that sounded exactly like Pearl Jam, who had already sold millions of records.”

The B-Side (yes it was still released on vinyl, but also cassette, so “sides” were still a thing) was full of the more experimental stuff. “Magic Pig Detective” starts with three and a half minutes of complete noise, before turning into a brief uptempo rocker. But then, “Shevil” is this ambient sounding track that eventually has a beat, and some vocals that are so deep in the mix you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s an instrumental. “June Bug” is a quick little instrumental, showcasing some great bass, its intro is reminiscent of “Pearl Bomb”. The album closes with “Lividity”, which is a 9-minute bass drone.

Stoner Witch was released on October 18, 1994, and immediately sold 6 copies. Osborne was quoted as saying, “I smell gold on this one!” (Osborne has said this a few times at least, and it was printed on the inside of the promo CD for “Revolve”, but I’m sure it sold more than 6 copies on its release date. Don’t they usually count “shipped” as “sold”? Maybe this was some Soundscan intel…)

One of my favorites, which consensus seems to indicate this came from the Stoner Witch sessions, is “Instant Larry” which was released on the soundtrack to Tales From the Crypt’s Demon Knight. It’s the best song on the soundtrack, or at the very least, tied with Ministry’s “Tonight We Murder”. I can remember a friend of mine saying, “I’ve had this song stuck in my head all day, which is tough, because the lyrics are completely unintelligible.”

After the release of Stoner Witch, Melvins toured opening for Nine Inch Nails, and then opening for White Zombie. Later, they did a co-headlining tour with L7. “I don’t know what it is about the Melvins, but it’s really easy for us to piss people off. We did a lot of opening shows where it wasn’t that hard for audiences to instantly turn on the Melvins. That kind of stuff didn’t get us down, though,” Crover said. “Usually, if people are really upset by us, we end up playing a lot noisier and a lot longer. It was always like: ‘Well, our set would’ve been done by now, and they would’ve been clearing the stage for the next band, but you guys are all uppity, so here’s some more Melvins’!”

Stag (1996)

“Honestly, I was surprised that they wanted to do a second album. I figured that we’d do Houdini and that would be the end of it. Then, when they wanted to do a third album, I was shocked,” Osborne said.

Each member was now living in separate cities, Crover in San Francisco, Osborne in Los Angeles, and Deutrom in London. Each member was isolating from one another, and each had their own four track recorder. “We had a project on Stag where we each did one song,” Osborne said. “You had to record it at your house, on a four-track with whatever you had, without going into a studio or anything, and you had to do everything on it.”

“When we’re apart from each other we don’t talk that much. We work on material by ourselves and then when we come back together, we bring it all back,” Deutrom said. “We just throw it all into a big pile and then start sifting through it. The sending of tapes back and forth is a little more romantic, but it’s more diverse. We spend so much time together that when we’re apart we tend to isolate from each other. The three of us are open to completely different experiences. I think if we were all living in the same city, we might all have more or less the same experiences.”

In typical Melvins fashion, most of the songs were near completion before they ever entered the studio. “Yacob’s Lab”, “Cottonmouth”, “Hide” and “Lacrimosa” were all taken directly from the 4-track recordings the members did at home. “Hide” was done by Osborne at his house, “Cottonmouth” was Crover’s, and the other two were Deutrom’s.

“[Lacrimosa is] actually in the requiem mass and there’s a particular procedure to it. It’s a certain type of ritual. The lyrics are a translation of that,” Deutrom said. “That song has an interesting genesis because it came out of the Stoner Witch sessions. Originally, it was just a bass track with Buzz, Dale and Buzz’s wife Mackie playing drums. I took it home and put all this ambient guitar over it. Then I put a vocal over it and played it for Buzz. He liked it so much we put it on Stag.”

Melvins brought back Joe Baressi to engineer from Stoner Witch, while producing themselves. “When we worked with punk rock-type people, we had more trouble getting them to do weird things,” Osborne said. “Because they’ve just got more rules than anybody else — ‘I can’t do that. If I do that it will sound like Bon Jovi.’ If we think it should sound like The Beach Boys or a country album, then so be it. I don’t want anybody giving me any garbage about it, certainly not from the engineering department.”

One track Osborne was particularly proud of was “Goggles”. “I managed to record absolutely the most hideous vocal I’ve ever done,” Osborne bragged. “We ran my voice into a cassette deck and buried the record levels. Then we ran the output into the mixing board and abused it there as well. It doesn’t even sound human. It’s the most distorted loft vocal you could ever imagine. Now I’ve got to do something worse.”

The band was also expanding their toy box, including additional guitar played by Crover and Deutrom, sitar (also played by Crover), turntables, samples, and guest trombone work by Fishbone’s Dirty Walt. The result is a record that downplays their sludgy, heavy past, and plays up the eclecticism. The first single, featuring the trombone, was “Bar X the Rocking M”. The song had a video directed by famous (?) adult film director Gregory Dark, but of course no one ever saw it. “You won’t see ‘Bar X’ on MTV. The quote directly from MTV on that song was ‘We don’t like the band.’ That’s a direct quote. We laughed ourselves silly when we heard that,” Deutrom said. “As if we expected something different. They’ve never played us before.”

My favorites on the album are the three tracks, “Skin Horse”, “Captain Pungent” and “Berthas”. “Skin Horse” is a song that sounds pretty tender and sweet, and then it hits you with some helium vocals by Crover on the back half. It seems like it shouldn’t work, but it does. “Captain Pungent” and “Berthas”, I really consider one track, the way they seamlessly run together (fortunately, someone on YouTube feels the same way) They’re both some straight-ahead rock numbers, about as straight ahead as this album is going to give you.

Meanwhile, Crover released his debut solo EP, titled Drumb, on Man’s Ruin. It’s titled as an EP, but it’s really just two songs… actually, one song. The A-Side, is “Forwards (Four Words)” and the B-Side is the same song only backward, and titled “Backwards (Back Words)”. It’s been out of print forever, It’s also not streaming, and it’s not even YouTube. Good luck!

As was inevitable, Melvins and Atlantic parted ways after the release of Stag. “When Atlantic picked up the option for the third album, I just couldn’t fucking believe it,” Osborne said. “I got to the point where I called up our A&R guy, who’d essentially told us, ‘I’m in charge of all the older bands that nobody else wants to work with.’ I couldn’t get him on the phone, so I told his assistant, ‘We want him to drop us off the fucking label immediately.’ Get a call back from him in five minutes. I told him, ‘Just drop us. We know it’s going to happen. Just drop us now, it’s fine.’ A couple of weeks later, we find out that we’re done… that just pushed us into the next era of our band.”

“Pretty much from when we signed on to do our last record for Atlantic, everybody was gone,” Crover said. “We made Stag, and I thought, this is the best record we’ve ever done. I don’t know why they wouldn’t be able to sell a shitload of these records! But the people at the label at that point just had no idea what to do with our band.”

“There is no splitting. You have a contract with them, and they agree to put out three records. They either decide to sign you again, if you are Phil Collins, or they say: ‘Goodbye. Your contract is over.’ so that’s what happened. It was just the end of contract, and it was time to make a record someplace else,” Deutrom said. “The publicity department really liked the Melvins. The administration of the label didn’t care one way or another, because, the Melvins didn’t sell enough for anybody to be interested on that level. The publicity people were really great.”

“When we were on Atlantic, we thought we’d try a lot of things we’d never tried, and I’m glad we did,” Osborne explained. “Like opening for arena rock bands on tours and things of that nature. We did a lot of that stuff and I’m really happy about that… I always thought it was really great that the same week we could play the Superdome in New Orleans with KISS, as well as some dump in Birmingham, Alabama. I love that.”

To be continued…