Art is Extra: A Conversation with Buzz Osborne of The Melvins

by Robin Sinhababu

The Melvins Buzz Osborne

Last month, legendary Pacific Northwest act The Melvins came through Austin and played The Sidewinder in support of their new bass-centric album Basses Loaded. We sent Robin Sinhababu out to talk to Melvins guitarist and founder Buzz Osborne about growing up in Aberdeen, why he hates bars, his belief that artists can never put out too much content and lots more.

Robin Sinhababu for Ovrld: I went to Aberdeen for the first time last month.

Buzz Osborne of the Melvins: Oh my God. Why’d you do that?

Ovrld: A friend of mine got gay married in Vancouver, and then I went to Washington, and I’d already been to Seattle, so I drove around the coast.

BO: Oh. It’s horrendous.

Ovrld: It’s horrendous? It seemed like a nice sleepy town, but I was going to ask about when I was driving in – you’re from a little east of there, right?

BO: Montesano, ten miles east. But I lived in Aberdeen, too.

Ovrld: So when I was driving into Aberdeen, I saw the Come As You Are sign. It seemed funny, because Aberdeen seemed non-urbane and kind of sleepy.The sign just seemed out of place. I mean, I understand he’s from there, but it seemed like they were trying to glom onto something that…

BO: Yeah, they’re about as interested in you Coming As You Are than as getting a case of crabs. They have no interest in that. That’s about the last thing they want, is for you to be who you are. No, I have nothing good to say about any of that area. I had a bad time living there. Best thing I could have done is leave. There’s no happy memories, none of that stuff. I didn’t like it at all. Still don’t.

Ovrld: Damn, dude.

BO: I feel like I did my time with the rednecks, and living in the small towns, and I’m done. Long time ago. I was done 30 years ago.

Ovrld: Did you play in high school bands in Aberdeen?

BO: No, I didn’t have any other bands. I didn’t start playing really until I was almost out of high school.

Ovrld: What was the first band?

BO: This band.

Ovrld: Wow. Everybody’s usually got some funny-named act they were in with a couple random folks from high school.

BO: No, not me. I never did that. There was not a lot of things to do there, not along those lines. It was horrible.

Ovrld: The only two bands I can think of that I’ve seen from that far back, that are still at it, Swans and Mission of Burma. Have you seen either of them recently?

BO: No. I’ve never seen Mission of Burma. I’ve seen the Swans, but not recently.

Ovrld: You didn’t see Burma back then either, did you?

BO: No, never saw them. But they quit for a long time.

Ovrld: Right.

BO: So I don’t know about Mission of Burma. They quit. We never quit.

Ovrld: Right.

BO: So that might be the difference.

Ovrld: Between…

BO: Between us and them. We never stopped.

Ovrld: You think it’s important not to quit?

BO: Well, it was important for me not to. I can’t speak for anyone else. Had we quit for ten years and started over, it would have been different somehow.

Ovrld: If you had quit this, do you think you’d be in another band? Or were you ever tempted by another career? Are there other things you’re interested in you’d like to pursue?

BO: Not really. I’m sure I could start another band if I wanted to. I stay pretty busy with this. Started doing an acoustic thing a couple years ago, it’s cool. But I don’t have a Plan B, really. I never believed in that.

Ovrld: A little ways back, did you ever play with Bungle or with Faith No More?

BO: We played with Mr. Bungle. Never played with Faith No More. Never. Not that I wouldn’t. I didn’t know those guys. Knew Mike. Didn’t know how they operated, wasn’t aware of any of their songs, even. But Bungle we played with quite a few times.

Ovrld: And during those dates, if you can remember, did you feel like the Melvins audience and the Bungle audience was the same, or did you feel like it was two different –

BO: Oh, they hated us.

Ovrld: Yeah? Did you guys play first, generally?

BO: Yeah, Bungle was pretty big by the time we played with them. Mike was already a big star with Faith No More, which kind of carried into Mr. Bungle. No, they had no interest in anything we were doing, none at all. They were quite disappointed in us opening for them, and made sure we knew that.

Ovrld: It seems odd now that Mr. Bungle was that big a band back then, because compared to what I remember being popular in the ’90s, they seem esoteric and weird by comparison. It’s funny that they would be the headliner with y’all…

BO: They played shows to thousands of people. I think it carried over from his Faith No More thing. He was MTV poster boy for a long time, no fault of his own, but that’s how it was. He was a popular dude.

Ovrld: Do you remember when you tried to buy the house with street cred?

BO: Yeah.

Ovrld: Who was the real estate agent?

BO: She was a real real estate agent.

Ovrld: Really? I remember thinking that it seemed like a put-on to me.

BO: Oh, no. She was not kidding around.

Ovrld: So what did she think about the cameras?

BO: Oh, we told her that I was a Rock Person, and they were filming me, doing a… she didn’t have any idea who I was. They were filming me buying a house for some thing on HBO. “That sounds great!” So then, at the end, when we told her, she thought it was funny. Afterward.

Ovrld: Really? She wasn’t mad?

BO: No, she thought it was funny. She got to be on TV, and she thought it was fun. It didn’t hurt her any.

Ovrld: On this record, you have a bunch of different bass players.

BO: It’s a good thing to do. They all added their own little things to it, made it come out cooler.

Ovrld: Did you find yourself– or did you and Dale find yourselves– giving much direction, or did you just let people take it where they wanted to take it?

BO: No. Unless it’s very specific, I don’t really tell people what to do, playing-wise. I figure the guys we decide to play with are already good musicians, and I don’t need to lead them by the hand, so I trust what they do. I let them do what they want to.

Ovrld: Does Jeff Pinkus still live here in Austin?

BO: He does. He’s out of town, or he’d be here at the show today.

Ovrld: Did you guys play with Butthole Surfers back in the ’80s or early ’90s?

BO: No, we played with them about six years ago for the first time. We did three shows with them, in San Francisco, San Diego, and L.A. That was cool. Never played with them in the ’80s, but I was always a huge fan. Still am. One of my favorites, easily.

Ovrld: When did you get your Electrical guitar?

BO: Got the first one in 2011, maybe? Maybe 2010.

Ovrld: Had you played a Travis Bean or a Veleno before?

BO: No, I never had a Veleno. Never had a Travis Bean either. I would’ve bought one– I never really liked the Travis Beans that much. I’m playing two now that he [Kevin of Electrical Guitar Company] made– new ones– that I really like. But I always thought the Travis Beans played kind of doggish.

Ovrld: I don’t know that word.

BO: Doggish?

Ovrld: Yeah.

BO: Played like a– kind of doggy.

Ovrld: Yeah, I – 

BO: Dog. D, O, G.

Ovrld: As in dull? Dead?

BO: Yeah, kind of. Like that, yeah.

Ovrld: Everyone I know that’s played one, they sound so sharp and bright.

BO: What, the Electricals or the Travis Beans?

Ovrld: The Travis Beans.

BO: That could just be the way have their amps set. I never noticed that, I just thought they were kind of clunky.

Ovrld: Do you ever feel that you are making too many records?

BO: No. I don’t think I’m making enough.

Ovrld: Yeah?

BO: I mean, compared to who?

Ovrld: Mark E. Smith?

BO: Does he make a lot of records?

Ovrld: Classically, he has. I think he put out three in a year once.

BO: I wouldn’t find that terrifically difficult to do. I think it would be pretty easy.

Ovrld: But you don’t think that there should be a limit. That the market can be saturated, or that fans can only want so many, or some other audience-based reason for not putting out too many?

BO: Well, I don’t think it’s a huge, massive investment for somebody to buy an album. It’s basically the price of a movie. I’ve heard people talk about this sort of thing, but they never seem to complain about the price of beer; it doesn’t seem to stop them from drinking. I mean, if they don’t want to buy them, if we’re making too many records– I’ve just never struggled with, or worried about that kind of thing. I’ve always figured that I was going to operate the way I wanted another band to operate, and that I had good taste, and if I made music and operated in a way that I liked, other people would like it. Won’t be millions, but it’ll be enough.

Ovrld: So have there been bands that you’ve liked who you wished would be more productive, that you wanted more records from?

BO: Yeah, lots. So maybe that stems from that. I mean, it’s just music, it’s not massively important. It’s extra. Art is extra.

Ovrld: Art is extra?

BO: It’s extra. You can only worry about art when you’ve got everything else covered. In societies, generally. Throughout history, societies that had the basics covered were able to then continue with art.

Ovrld: Oh, right. Food, water, shelter – 

BO: You got it. When you don’t have to worry about those, then you think about other things. So it’s not a life or death thing, even though I treat it like that, it’s not going to kill anybody if they don’t buy one of my records. People need to eat, things like that. Art is extra, and music is art.

If I put out too many shitty albums, that’d be one thing. Might be shitty to some people, but there’s no accounting for taste. Can’t count on that.

Ovrld: Do you see David Yow often in L.A.?

BO: Once in a while. I tend to not be a part of lots of stuff like that. I’m not interested in being involved in anyone’s scene or club. It’s like here– I would never come to this bar. Never. I would never go to any bar here. I’m working tonight, which is why I’m here.

Ovrld: Do you go to bars at all?

BO: No. Not unless I’m getting paid to be there.

Ovrld: There was a time in the past when you did, right?

BO: I never did my drinking in bars. I thought it was stupid. I did my drinking outside; alcohol was something I used to go on an adventure. The idea of sitting in a bar didn’t interest me in the least. I wanted to drink and go crazy, run wild, wake up somewhere weird.

Ovrld: Like drinking by the railroad tracks, or in the woods?

BO: Drinking in vacant lots, or in cars, that seemed a lot more attractive to me. I don’t like the people that go to bars.

Ovrld: Sorry about tonight, man.

BO: I’m working! And they’re here to see the music. I don’t know who would– “I’m just going to go out to a bar.” Doesn’t interest me at all. I don’t like those people.

Ovrld: Do you do a lot of interviews?

BO: I do a fair amount, yeah.

Ovrld: You’re probably an old hand at it by this point.

BO: Well, I’ve answered a lot of the same questions.

Ovrld: Yeah. Sorry about that, man.

BO: No, not necessarily this interview.

Ovrld: No, I mean my whole flock. We’re bad at it.

BO: Some of them are really bad at it. And you just go, “I’ll answer whatever question you would like to ask me.” And then they don’t know what to ask you!

I’ll do any interview, I don’t care what it is. Because why am I doing interviews, what’s the point? I’m doing interviews to sell a product. To sell my band, or my music that I made with the band. If I wasn’t doing that, I wouldn’t do interviews, why would I? It’s advertisement.

Ovrld: It’s never come to a “Man, I just don’t feel like it today?”

BO: No, I’ll do them. I don’t really have any interest in saying “People should know what I think.” I don’t believe that. I would not be doing this if I didn’t have a reason to do it. There’s a reason for me to do this. You’re here to do a job, I’m here to do a job. And if this will help me do it, why wouldn’t I do it? I’ve never understood bands– “I don’t want to do interviews.” Why?  Why are you bothering, to begin?

Ovrld: Well, not that these are necessarily good reasons, but one would be ego. Or that they don’t feel that the person is going to treat them fairly. Or they’re having a rough day and they don’t want to deal with it.

BO: Well, did you put out a record? Do you want to sell it? That’s crazy! That’s insane! I’ll do any interview, I don’t care what it is.

Ovrld: Have you ever regretted one?

BO: No. I’ve had people write stuff that was way off-base, and way out of line. And hatchet jobs, where they had it in for me at the beginning for no reason.

Ovrld: Is that easy to sniff out?

BO: No, not necessarily. They can be really nice, and then write something horrible. Or, they’ll selectively edit it where it looks like I said something I didn’t say. Then there’s not much you can do, and I don’t go back and correct that stuff. I just leave it. Let it have a life of it’s own. Because if you think about it, I didn’t really tell you any personal details. Nothing. And I make a point of answering the question I wish you’d have asked. Not you, but, in general.

Ovrld: Do people still ask you what Kurt was like?

BO: Sure.

Ovrld: Man. It’s never going to die.

BO: It doesn’t surprise me. I don’t mind. They don’t necessarily like my answers.