By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Over the course of a 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 iconoclasts 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 without ever being afraid to make major experimental detours. 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 bassist J.D. Pinkus (who had already served as a frequent touring member of the band).
In 2016, 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 Redd Kross and OFF! fame to promote their another more recent release. The Ipecac Records effort Basses Loaded featured newer material recorded with McDonald as well as songs featuring a variety of recent bassists and a guest spot from Novoselic himself.
In addition playing some shows in conjunction with screenings of the documentary The Colossus of Destiny: A Melvins Tale by co-directors Bob Hannam and Ryan Sutherby, the band members also found the time to collaborate with with singer Terri Genderbender (Le Butcherettes) and Omar Rodríguez-López (The Mars Volta, At the Drive-In) in the new group Crystal Fairy for an eponymous effort on Ipecac as well as recording their first double album, A Walk With Love and Death.
The 2017 collection matched an album’s worth of more traditional Melvins material with a second set of experimental recordings that serve as the score to an avant-garde short film entitled Love made by band friend and director Jesse Nieminen. Crover has also released his solo debut The Fickle Finger of Fate via Joyful Noise Recordings. While he had already made a number of albums as the leader of his side project band Altamont, the effort gave Crover a chance to stretch out on everything from drum experiments to fractured pop tunes.
Having already brought the band’s explosive two-drummer line-up to fans, the Melvins presented a new mutant version of the band with its latest album Pinkus Abortion Technician that features both Pinkus and McDonald playing bass. A rare exception to Melvins releases that are usually dominated by songs written by Osborne, the new effort includes a couple of reworked Butthole Surfers songs (including a twisted mash-up of the R&B/rock standard “Stop” with the Surfers song “Moving to Florida”), a warped cover of the Beatles’ standard “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and a mix of originals penned by Crover, Pinkus and McDonald.
While the band has uncharacteristically not released a new album this year, the Melvins performed at an all-star tribute to the late Soundgarden singer Christ Cornell at the Forum in Los Angeles in January before an extensive tour with the two-bassist line-up. The band also released a new four-song collaborative EP recorded with avowed inspiration Flipper that included the Melvins covering a pair of Flipper songs along with two tunes with the two bands playing together.
For this upcoming tour, the Melvins switch back to a straight trio line-up with McDonald on bass but will be sharing the stage with the bassist’s longtime band, Redd Kross. Anchored by Steven and his brother Jeff for the better part of four decades, Redd Kross has long delivered it’s potent mix of punk energy and pop hooks.
Inspired by the Beatles, bubblegum pop and glam rock at a young age, the McDonald brothers dove into the Los Angeles punk scene with their first band, the Tourists. The group played its first show opening for Black Flag in 1978 when Jeff (guitar/vocals) was 15 and Steven (bass) was only 11. Along with second guitarist Greg Hetson — who would later play with the Circle Jerks and Bad Religion — and future Black Flag drummer Ron Reyes, the crew would change its name to Red Cross right before recording it’s debut self-titled EP in 1979.
The six-song effort clocked in at just under six and a half minutes and showcased the brothers’ knack for catchy, trashy punk tunes. While Hetson and Reyes would move on, the brothers enlisted several collaborators for their first proper full-length album in 1982, Born Innocent. With its brief, buzzsaw songs focusing on subject matter like young actresses Linda Blair (star of The Exorcist) and Tatum O’Neal, cult leader Charles Manson and Runaways guitarist Lita Ford, the recording placed the band firmly in the more pop-minded end of the punk rock spectrum, following in the footsteps of the Ramones and the Buzzcocks.
The band’s next effort, the 1984 covers EP Teen Babes from Monsanto, paid tribute to some of their cornerstone influences with versions of songs by Kiss, David Bowie, the Stooges and the Shangri-Las. The band would take a detour into filmmaking, appearing in and even contributing to the screenplays of Desperate Teenage Lovedolls and Lovedolls Superstar, a pair of low-budget underground films shot in Super 8 that would develop a cult audience that still celebrates the two punk movies.
In the meantime, a new line-up of the band had solidified with guitarist Robert Hecker and drummer Roy McDonald (formerly of the Things and later a member of The Muffs). The group would return to the studio and record their landmark Neurotica album that came out in 1987 on Big Time Records. Expanding their sound to embrace psychedelia and ’60s garage rock, the album would prove to be influential not only on the SoCal rock scene but on the fledgling alternative-rock movement.
Through a steady rotation of players, the McDonald brothers would persevere, recovering from Big Tim folding to sign a deal with Atlantic Records to release the power-pop gem Third Eye in 1990, the first of three records for the label during the decade. But despite solid reviews, an appearance in the time-travel farce Spirit of ’76, some MTV airplay and numerous tours with less accomplished bands (Redd Kross at various points supported the Lemonheads, the Spin Doctors and Stone Temple Pilots during the early ’90s), the band never quite broke through. They eventually went on an extended hiatus in 1997.
The Neurotica line-up of the band would reunite to play a career-spanning set of songs in Los Angeles nearly a decade later, reviving interest in the group, leading to some limited touring and invitations to play at a variety of festivals including Coachella, the ATP vs Pitchfork Festival in England, NXNE in Toronto and the Turbo Rock Festival in Spain. In 2012, Redd Kross released its first album in 15 years with Researching the Blues on Merge Records, an effort that many hailed as one of the McDonald brothers’ best yet.
While Steven McDonald has busied himself with other projects, playing bass in both the punk supergroup OFF! and the Melvins, Redd Kross has still hit the road on occasion, touring extensively on their own and with the Melvins with Crover filling the drum stool to promote the limited vinyl reissues of Teen Babes from Monsanto and the rarities collection Hot Issue on the band’s own Redd Kross Fashion imprint.
In addition to reissuing the band’s long out-of-print ’90s albums Phaseshifter and Show World on Jack White’s Third Man Records last year, Redd Kross recently put out its long-awaited follow-up to Researching the Blues. Entitled Beyond the Door, the brand new effort for Merge Records offers fan a slew of high-energy power-pop originals along with covers of the theme to the late ’60s Peter Sellers comedy The Party and the Sparks synth-pop classic “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way'” (yet another band Steven spent time touring with during the late 2000s). For this sold-out show on Sunday night at the Cornerstone in Berkeley, the two bands will be joined by Crover’s studio partner and onetime member of Big Business Toshi Kasai performing a solo synthesizer set.
Melvins with Redd Kross
Sunday, Sept. 8, 8 p.m. $29 (sold out)