The Melvins are one of the most highly respected and influential rock bands active today. In a genre where it seems you’re not anyone until you’re dead, they are unique in that they are, well, still alive. More remarkably perhaps, even after twenty years, the quality of their output remains unblemished by corporate sell-outs or unsuccessful experimentation.
They are looked on as one of the biggest influences of the “grunge” genre in the nineties, famously having employed a young Kurt Cobain as a roadie – a piece of trivia that continues to haunt journalistic introductions to this day.
I spoke to drummer Dale Crover and guitarist/vocalist Buzz Osborne before they went on stage at the Button Factory a week ago. If the Melvins are known for the quality of their music, they are known likewise for being largely ignored by the mainstream media for the entire span of their activity. While contemporaries Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Nirvana were breaking into charts all over the world and getting heavy MTV rotation, the Melvins remained very much an underground band. I asked why this was the case. “Our music is never going to ever have that kind of popularity. It’s too weird,” says Osborne, “our stuff’s always been experimental, but experimental compared to what? Compared to Throbbing Gristle, no, we’re not. Our stuff is like top 40 compared to that. Compared to what’s popular, on the radio at this point, yeah, we’re experimental. But our stuff is never going to be popular, you know, it’s just not going to happen.”
Would the Melvins have “sold out” if they were offered enough money? Is it just coincidence that they’ve retained their artistic integrity instead of making their own Nevermind? “No, we just couldn’t do a record like that. We wouldn’t be able to. We’d take the cash though. We’re not going to be a Nirvana junior. Our stuff is better than that. We already did three albums in the early nineties with Atlantic Records anyway. They knew from the beginning we weren’t going to do anything other than what we wanted to do. We’ve never liked across-the-board popular music ever anyway.”
So no cash, but what about the kudos? “Well, we were offered to curate All Tomorrow’s Parties this year, y’know, a few things like that. Recognition doesn’t mean shit really. All of the accolades, none of the cash,” Osborne laughs.
So are the guys still happy to play gigs twenty years on, without major financial gain? “Oh sure. Still fun. If the Rolling Stones can drag their bloated carcasses on stage every night, then we can too. We probably tour more than we used to, or at least as much. I don’t particularly like life on the road, but it’s part of the job. I wouldn’t like life in Starbucks either, or life in Home Depot, or in an emergency room in a hospital. There’s a lot of sitting around in somebody’s dressing room. At least you get to be creative this way.”
The band received an injection of fresh blood to the line-up recently in the form of the band Big Business. A strong two-piece in their own right, they now make up the rest of the Melvins’ line-up, playing shows with two drummers in tandem. It is this ability to constantly rejuvenate their output that keeps the band favourites of fans and critics alike.
They are strikingly down to earth, if not dismissive, about all of this critical recognition, however. They seem sceptical about the kind of hero worship and idolatry so often lavished on rock stars, especially those advocating the decadent rock and roll life style. “Speaking generally about rock and rollers, knowing what we know about those guys, probably the best thing to do is the exact opposite of what they say. I think people should look to higher sources for religion, politics, and all that kind of stuff. We’re artists, we communicate, but ultimately we’re just entertainers. If you wanna inherit your political leanings from what some rock band says, you’ve got some problems.”
With the advent of the internet, the music industry is beginning to restructure itself with manifold repercussions for some bands, especially those who haven’t crossed the rather large hurdle of commercial viability. I asked how this was affecting them.
“Well, one plus is that music is a lot easier to get a hold of, sure,” responds Crover, “that’s good for younger bands, but overall that doesn’t mean the quality of music is going to get any better. It’s not. Nowadays far less people are going to be willing to invest money in a label, and so the “classic album” as we know it will probably die out. The Beatles’ White Album, or Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. All of these smart-asses downloading music think they have it figured out: well, there’s gonna be repercussions coming. I don’t think they thought of that.”
Twenty minutes later the Melvins played a blistering show to a packed out Button Factory. Here’s to another twenty years.