By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Over the course of an over 30-year career playing by their own rules, guitarist Buzz Osborne and monster drummer Dale Crover have co-piloted seminal underground rock band the Melvins through a wildly diverse exploration of heavy music. Inspired by the slow tempos and down-tuned guitar sludge of Black Sabbath as well as the dissonance of punk mavericks Flipper and My War-era Black Flag, the Melvins became legends in Washington State during their formative years in the early-to-mid 1980s after being founded in the small town of Montesano.
The band’s combination of crushing riffs and lumbering grooves would end up influencing the entire Northwest music scene. Aberdeen natives and early fans Kurt Cobain (who at one point auditioned for the band) and Krist Novoselic were inspired to form Nirvana, while fellow grunge heavyweights like Alice In Chains and Soundgarden similarly updated the Sabbath template. The Melvins have been credited as a cornerstone inspiration for a number of heavy rock subgenres, providing the template for stoner-rock bands and experimental drone terrorists alike.
With a revolving cast of bassists, the Melvins have produced a veritable landslide of experimentally minded releases that have consistently pushed the envelope of alternative rock. Whether recording for major label Atlantic during the early ’90s or issuing discs on numerous independent imprints, the group has forged a singular, instantly recognizable sound. The band has received piles of critical accolades since the start of its collaboration with with equally heavy duo Big Business featuring bassist Jared Warren and drummer Coady Willis a decade ago with the celebrated effort (A) Senile Animal in 2006.
Powered by a massive two-drummer onslaught (the two players used a huge overlapping kit that shared some drums), that album and follow-up recordings Nude with Boots and The Bride Screamed Murder spotlit Osborne’s twisted, tuneful riffs and some of the band’s catchiest output yet. The group would also branch out with other collaborators, partnering with noted avant-rock bassist Trevor Dunn (Mr. Bungle, John Zorn) on an album and a record-breaking tour that had the trio playing 50 states and Washington, D.C. in 51 days with Dunn sticking exclusively to acoustic bass, reuniting with original drummer Mike Dillard (with Crover switching to bass), issuing a guest-packed collection of cover songs (Everybody Loves Sausages in 2013) and recording with Butthole Surfers members Paul Leary and J.D. Pinkus.
Last year, the group managed to further ramp up its already prolific output. In addition to Sub Pop issuing a set of long-shelved recordings with godheadSilo bassist Mike Kunka that were recorded back in the late ’90s (credited to Mike and the Melvins and entitled Three Men and a Baby), the band toured extensively with latest bass-playing recruit Steven McDonald of Red Kross and OFF! fame to promote their other release. The Ipecac Records effort Basses Loaded features newer material recorded with McDonald as well as songs featuring a variety of recent bassists and a guest spot from Novoselic himself.
CBS SF caught up with Crover a couple of days before the band traveled north from Los Angeles to play a rare semi-acoustic set before the Noise Pop 25 screening at the Swedish American Hall Saturday night of The Colossus of Destiny: A Melvins Tale, a documentary by co-directors Bob Hannam and Ryan Sutherby released last year that takes an in-depth look at the band’s over three decades of making music. The musician talks about plans the Melvins have for the coming year, he and Osborne’s recent collaboration with singer Terri Genderbender (Le Butcherettes) and Omar Rodríguez-López (The Mars Volta, At the Drive-In) in the new group Crystal Fairy and more.
CBS SF: I seem to recall you and Buzz appearing at the LA premiere back in July. Have you been at any other screenings?
Dale Crover: No no. In fact, this one was kind of last minute. We had some plans get cancelled, so Bob said, “Well, do you guys want to try to do this?” And we said “Sure!”It will be pretty casual. It’ll be similar to that other one. We’re going to play for about a half an hour, sort of acoustic. Semi-acoustic I guess. We’re going to have Steve McDonald play with us. It’s cool, he’s got this Hofner bass he’s going to play. I like the sound of it. It’s not the Paul McCartney one, but it’s a hollow body with those flat-wound strings that give that bass that unique sound. Kind of a weird setting for Melvins songs [laughs]…
CBS SF: Will this semi-acoustic set be akin to Melvins Lite with Trevor Dunn on acoustic bass?
Dale Crover: It’s almost lighter! I’ve got a cocktail drum kit that I play. That thing is really fun. It basically fits inside a suitcase.
CBS SF: So it’s like Melvins Ultra Lite?
Dale Crover: Yeah! Melvins Extra Lite. Super Lite. Ultra Lite. However light you want it! However you want to say it!
CBS SF: When you’re playing in this kind of set up, does it narrow down the material you choose from for the set? I would imagine a big droning epic like “Boris” wouldn’t work the same way with acoustic instruments…
Dale Crover: We actually looked to see what we played last time and we were like, “Oh s–t! We did ‘Halo of Flies!'” We’re not afraid to try anything. We’re not thinking, “Oh, we can’t play that.” We’re playing the heavy stuff. It’ll just sound different. A little bit. I think people will like it. It will be a fun little bonus. And then I’m sure we’ll do some yapping as well.
CBS SF: I was going to ask if you had participated in a post screening Q&A session, or if you leave that to Bob and Ryan?
Dale Crover: No, it’s always fun to get us up there and talk, because we’ll make it silly [laughs]! We love to talk and talk and talk. Sometimes it goes on forever about some useless piece of information. But it’ll be fun.
CBS SF: Have you watched the documentary since you initially saw it? I figure you might have had a private screening before the LA premiere last May, but have you watched it again since then?
Dale Crover: Not really. I went to the initial premiere that was at the Cinefamily here in LA and then I watched some of it when we played with it last time. And before that, I saw a rough cut. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it enough! I probably won’t watch too much of it Saturday…
CBS SF: I was thinking it might be a sort of “Watched it? I lived it!” situation?
Dale Crover: Yeah, exactly. And it’s a little weird watching yourself talk about yourself as you’re being interviewed.
CBS SF: You guys were the subject, but it sounds like you were pretty hands off as far as leaving it to Bob and Ryan to tell the story as they saw fit.
Dale Crover: Oh yeah. Totally. It was their thing for sure. Those guys took it on. There have been plenty of people over the years who have said, “Hey, I want to do a movie about you!” Yeah sure. It’s a lot of work and … good luck. But Bob had been saying it for years and filming stuff, and Ryan I knew a little bit from the Northwest and he also wanted to do something. So I hooked those guys up. “Why don’t you work together?”
So that’s what they did. I’m impressed that they did this thing, having never done it before. Being able to pull it off and getting to do cool stuff like show it at the Noise Pop thing is great. Bob did all that work himself. I think it’s going to mean good things for him. I know he’s got some other stuff lined up that’s going to be really good. He may have a whole new career that he didn’t know he was going to have [laughs]! And he did it all for the love of the band. He wasn’t out to make money off of this thing or anything. We’ve known Bob for a long time. He’s been our merch guy forever. We’ve known him for 20 years at least.
CBS SF: That said about giving them creative control, is there anything you would have changed about the movie? Or anything you wish had or hadn’t made it in?
Dale Crover: Oh gosh, I don’t know. Not really, It’s 33 years worth of stuff. They had to cut a lot of stuff out of there. Our only suggestion was that it was too long. What can you cut? They said, “Well, it’s hard because you guys have been around so long and there’s so much!” And the story is still not done. There’s no ending really. So I can’t say what I’d do differently, you know? If we were going to make some kind of movie like that, it wouldn’t be anything like a documentary really. I guess we have. We did that tour movie when we did that 51 shows in a row tour.
CBS SF: I was disappointed to hear that the tour with Crystal Fairy later this month got scrapped… be rescheduled? Why did it end up getting scrapped?
Dale Crover: Yeah, it’s getting put on hold. We had a scheduling problem. That’s the problems when everybody else is in another band that’s their main band.
CBS SF: I’m sure it’s a lot of calendars to sort out. But you are going to shoot for doing a tour later this year?
Dale Crover: Yeah, I hope so. The record is coming out pretty soon. We’re really happy with that record. We think it’s something pretty cool.
CBS SF: It’s interesting because it’s the first Melvins collaboration in a while I can think of that didn’t end up being the Melvins. It’s distinct but still definitely rooted in what you and Buzz do…
Dale Crover: For sure. I think having Terri as the singer made it where we wanted to do a new band. We wanted to have something new and have her be the frontperson. I guess that’s why. It is certainly different enough. It has our sound, but it also has her thing. She’s all over it and she wrote all the lyrics.
CBS SF: I figure this is an outgrowth of the time the Melvins spent on the road touring with Le Butcherettes?
Dale Crover: Exactly. We were playing live with her and doing that Bikini Kill song. That’s when we realized it would be really fun to do something else and maybe try to write something. That’s how it all started. And it was really easy once we got in the room with her. Even the first day, I think we wrote three songs in the first day! I know we recorded at least two, and possibly three songs in the first day. That’s writing and then tracking them. That part was cool, because it was immediate that we could write with her and it was so easy.
CBS SF: Between Buzz and Omar, you have two of the more prolific rock musicians I can think of working today…
Dale Crover: Well she wrote half those songs. Some of those songs are hers all the way and she then wrote the lyrics. And she did it all rather quickly too. She’s really got good ideas. Both of them have really great musical sensibilities. I’m glad it’s its own thing.
CBS SF: I hope you guys can manage to get out and play live. I really like the songs I’ve heard so far. It’s definitely a different beast altogether; You can hear the elements everyone’s different sounds, but it is a new thing for sure.
Dale Crover: I think the first couple of songs we wrote kind of have a Zeppelin vibe to them. At least, I know that’s where I was coming from. For whatever reason. The riffs sounded like they needed that kind of drumming.
CBS SF: I know I’ve seen a couple of Altamont releases in the last year and was wondering what are your plans for that band?
Dale Crover: Hopefully we do something soon. Actually we haven’t played in a year. I guess I’ve been busy, and there’s the fact that both those guys live in a difference city makes it hard. But we had a bunch of reissues come out on Valley King Records and then a couple of new 7-inches with those guys as well. And I have a solo record coming out some time in the summer. Along with all the Melvins stuff.
CBS SF: With the solo record, is that something you’re envisioning having time to put a band together and tour?
Dale Crover: I don’t know. I would like to! It depends on if I have time. I’d love to do something with it. I’ll be on tour one way or another this summer, whether it’s with the solo thing or not. The only problem is I could put a band together and tour, but I don’t want to tour and lose a bunch of money. I just don’t know if I could do it to where it would finance a tour.
CBS SF: One of my favorite Melvins shows I’ve ever seen was the big variety show you had where you were playing with Moss in Porn to open and Jared did his goofy solo acoustic thing before Big Business and the Melvins played. Maybe there’s some way to work the solo stuff into a Melvins tour…
Dale Crover: Right. If I could do some of that stuff live with the Melvins, maybe it would make more sense. Maybe I will. We’ll see.
CBS SF: I imagine for the solo material you’re out front playing guitar like you are with Altamont. Would you rather be a guitarist?
Dale Crover: No. I mean…no. [laughs] Every drummer wants to be a guitarist and vice versa. It’s just something I do for s–ts and giggles. It was something I wanted to do for a while. I had an opportunity to do it with these from [record label] Joyful Noise. I did a couple of things for Joyful Noise.
I did a split 7-inch with this band Qui. I made kind of a regular song for that, but I also put out this weird record that they made that had 12 cuts, six per side. But what they had to do is take it and cut one song, then take it and move the spindle hole to a different spot and then cut another song. So it’s got six spindle holes and depending on where you put it, it coincides with where the groove is.
So it’s this weird hand-made thing that they did where they made 100 of them. 100 hand-cut records. It took about 45 minutes to cut each record. It was super limited, and since it was, I ended up talking them into me adding to it and making it a full record and more available. There all these short little drum pieces, about 30 seconds long and shorter each.
CBS SF: So there are those two thing and the solo record, which I am imagining having more traditional songs?
Dale Crover: Yeah, it’s basically those two things combined, plus a bunch of new stuff.
CBS SF: You already mentioned there being Melvins touring plans for the summer and you obviously have a good rapport with Steve as the bassist in this trio version of the band. Was the upcoming Melvins album recorded just with him?
Dale Crover: Yes. Actually there are two records coming out. One of them will be a record with Steve; it’s a double record. The other one is sort of a secret, but it’s going to be us and Steve and Pinkus. So two bass players. Jeff came to town and we ended up recording some stuff. We didn’t plan on it, but we recorded a whole other record. It just happened. Funny. [laughs]
CBS SF: And the double record with Steve is all new Melvins material?
Dale Crover: Yep.
CBS SF: So you’re probably still trying to figure which version of the band is going to tour when you hit the road again?
Dale Crover: We’re working on plans now. I hope we do both. I’m sure that we’ll work it out. It sounds really cool when we’re playing both those guys. We were like, “Oh yeah! This will work!”
CBS SF: I can’t think of too many rock bands that have ever had two bass players. I guess there are certain line-ups of King Crimson and that DC band Girls Against Boys, but mostly I’m thinking of jazz bands that do that…
Dale Crover: I think it will work well. Those guys both have pretty different tones. But I think we can work it out. It will be really cool. It will be another adventure. Bob’s going to have to make a sequel! [laughs]
The Melvins appear at the Swedish American Hall on Saturday, Feb. 18, 7:30 p.m. They perform a short set before a screening of the documentary as part of the Noise Pop 25 film series. More information and tickets here.