Buzz Osborne Interview: Melvins’ frontman goes acoustic, but doesn’t go soft on new album ‘This Machine Kills Artists.’
When one thinks of the Melvins, sludgy, monolithic riffs and seismic percussion immediately come to mind.
So it was somewhat surprising to learn that bandleader, guitarist and vocalist Buzz Osborne is releasing an acoustic album, entitled ‘This Machine Kills Artists’ (out June 3rd on Ipecac) But it’s unlike any acoustic record in recent memory.
While many of the Seattle bands he helped influence released popular acoustic albums in the 90’s, they were a melodic respite from their otherwise down-tuned heavy material. But Osborne’s new album is no less heavy than most Melvins material. But the distortion-free framework allows for exposed moments of haunted atmospherics.
I had a chance to speak to Osborne regarding the upcoming release and tour for ‘This Machine Kills Artists’ (click here for my review). He was wonderfully off the cuff and not at all shy in his opinions. We discussed the genesis of his acoustic album, his creative process, his disdain for criticism and his general views on music and pop culture.
SLIS: Well first off, I’ve had a chance to listen to the new album and I really like it. I was curious when you came up with the idea of doing an all-acoustic record? What led to that process?
BUZZ: Well first off we just did a short EP and then it just kind of ballooned into a full album. I just realized that I had enough material to do it…But that’s not uncommon for me. I write a lot of material all the time. I’m not afraid of the creative process you know? I’ve always been of the belief that more is more, you know? There’s always room for more music. So the world does not need less music.
SLIS: In your press release you said you didn’t want ‘This Machine Kills Artists’ to be a half-assed version of Woody Guthrie and that this is a ‘different kind of animal’ when compared to most acoustic albums. But the album title is also reminiscent of the ‘This Machine Kills Fascists’ which is what Guthrie wrote on the body of his guitar. Was he at least symbolic influence on the album?
BUZZ: Well yeah, obviously it’s a take off on that, but I just prefer to let people decide what they think it is. It’s that essentially the acoustic guitar is not going to kill me you know? I mean it may have in the past (laughing); not me but other artists.
SLIS: Well there’s definitely a heaviness to it that you don’t hear in a lot of acoustic music. I know you even coined the term ‘Molk’ jokingly in describing it. Was that a deliberate idea to make it heavy from the get-go or was that just how it naturally came about when you started playing it.
BUZZ: Well I’ve always written songs on a wide variety of guitars one of which is an acoustic, so that’s one way I do it. And there’s been a lot of Melvins songs written along those lines. So it wasn’t really too hard to adapt it, but the thing I had to really concentrate on was making sure that I was filling up enough space since I didn’t have any other instrumentation, so I had to come up with songs and arrangements that would work along those lines.
It’s kinda coincidental but most of the songs are pretty short on this record technically…But y’know a little acoustic guitar goes a long ways. But I knew I didn’t want it sound like street folk music, or like James Taylor. But I think a lot of acoustic music falls prey to that and I don’t know why really. I’ve had some people say stuff…I had this one guy say that ‘what I was upset about is that this album sounds too much like you.’ And I was like, well what the fuck did you think it was going to sound like?
I mean Johnny Cash sounds like Johnny Cash! The human element of stupidity knows no bounds. I mean do people say that to Neil Young, you know? It’s just beyond me. Generally I don’t want to hear the end of any of those sentences. I don’t want to hear constructive criticism. AT ALL.
Not At all! Certainly not at this point in the game. Cause all your going to do is piss me off (laughing). I haven’t yet had anyone tell me something that criticized what I was doing that I ever agreed with..I’ve never walked away from that conversation going ‘that guys got a point.’ Not once! In 30 fucking years of playing music have I ever had an asshole tell me something that I thought was right. EVER! So I just don’t to listen to it, because I’m really not strong enough psychically to be able to handle just standing there and being dressed down by what someone doesn’t like about what I’m doing. I can’t deal with that. (laughing) I mean I don’t really know how many people could. You know what I mean?
SLIS: I totally do. It’s hard when someone’s criticizing you, even constructively, because it still feels like a knock on what you’re doing.
BUZZ: Right. And now it’s easy because everyone is a computer keyboard warrior. ‘I can say whatever I want!’ Well great, but now a mass opinion means less than ever you know…so if you’re going to write something it’s going to have to really be good. Now that’s good, that’s a game changer…same thing with music or any industry. Because now the exchange of info is so amazingly quick that it really is a game changer. So I think that’s great. I can put up a new song or tour dates up in one spot and the instantly the entire fucking world knows about it. It’s awesome.
So for everything that people bitch or complain about, there’s something beneficial. I’m a move forward kind of guy. I hate anybody that pines for the good ole days. I think that’s just total bullshit. I don’t think there was ever a golden era of music, I think there’s always been assholes and there’s always been shitty bands you know? And I’ve said millions of times that the only reason my record collection has gotten bigger is because TIME HAS PASSED (laughing). Not because things are better, or worse than they ever were. So once in a while a few things slip through the cracks that I can like.
By and large I really want to like everything you know? I hate people who are like ‘I’m part of an exclusive club’ crap. I hate that shit. I want to be able to turn on the radio and like everything that’s on it. That wouldn’t bother me, but then there’s people out there that perversely want to hate something. I never understood that. At this point in the game I can’t stand to have somebody talk about what they hate about what I’m doing.
Jesus Christ, if I was going to write reviews? To me, as a musician, I come from a different place because it’s WHAT I DO…it’s where my area of expertise is. But if I was going to go outside of my expertise and become a record reviewer, I would only write good reviews. If I didn’t like a record I wouldn’t even review it…it’s more fun to write as good review! Anybody can piss on something you know?…I mean even if I like one song from a band, then I’ll buy the record. No question.
SLIS: You had written last year in an article that you liked the Stooges last album ‘Ready To Die.’
BUZZ: Oh yeah, I love it.
SLIS: Was that an influence on the new album? Because I know you’d said it ‘made you want to write music.’
BUZZ: Well not for this record. I’d say that Iggy’s influence has been massive on me, on an emotional level. I believe that music affects me more than any other art form. It speaks to us, and it’s an old language. People get excited by this. I met this Indy car driver one time. And he told me that music gave him the same feeling he got when he’s driving a 170 mph on a race track. Which I thought that was pretty outstanding…I know what he means. Music is important. It’s weirdly viewed in the fine art world as ghetto. And to me, by and large, amazing music pisses all over fine art…They’re just elitist pricks basically if you look at it that way.
I mean, I read something absurd about Captain Beefheart where they told him “If you want to be a painter, then you have to quit playing music because then you’ll just be a musician who paints.” Well you know what? Fuck you. Music is more important than painting, and anybody who doesn’t think that is a fucking jackass. I mean painting is one-dimensional you know? (both laugh). As important as it is, it’s not as important as music. And very few things are. I mean what would be the equivalent? Filmmaking is amazing. But music really makes a massive difference. Imagine ‘Jaws’ without the musical theme.
SLIS: It’s like daylight and dark.
BUZZ: It’s completely different. It probably wouldn’t work! Or ‘Psycho.’ So it really irritates me when I hear people say stuff like somehow fine art is above music. No, no, it’s the exact opposite. It just is! (laughs)
The fine art is just paved with people who suck off the public-sectored money teat you know. An army of talentless quacks who get their horrendous scribblings get put into multimillion dollar facilities worldwide. And I could not disagree with it more. That doesn’t make you good, it means someone just decided that you were good. I never felt that was the case with the bands that I liked. Because the stuff that spoke to me and made me want to make music was a lot more fierce than that. Threatening and beautiful is a wonderful thing you know. I don’t know how that works, but it does, Iggy is a great example of that. I mean what are you gonna do to him? He’s more dangerous than anybody. At his age, you’re always gonna learn something from him.
SLIS: Speaking about film soundtracks, I’ve read that you’ve been heavily influenced by film score in work. Were there any cinematic influences in ‘This Machine Kills Artists’?
BUZZ: Nothing that comes to mind. But I’m a huge movie fan. I’ve always thought our music was tailor-made for soundtracks but the people who make movies never thought that themselves…honestly I can’t imagine writing film scores. It sounds horrible to me. I don’t think I could do it. Once again, I don’t think I’m strong enough for that. To be able to take direction along those lines. Work for hire you know? But there’s a vast array of things that we’ve done that people could use for their soundtracks. Maybe someday they will, but I’m not gonna pursue it.
I couldn’t imagine someone like Quentin Tarantino sitting there and telling me (imitating)’ I want it to sound more like the music from Bullitt.” You know what I mean? Do I go over there and tell you how to direct your movie? I couldn’t do it. I’m not wired that way. I’m more like ‘I didn’t know I didn’t even want to do this until you told me you wanted me to do it.’ (laughing)
That’s why I was never really a 9 to 5 guy…you know I’ve been working from the time I was 14, that I was never cut out for that kind of thing. And I’ve worked a hell of a lot harder then I would have if I’d done the 9 to 5 thing. But that’s fine with me, I like being my own boss. I’m up for the challenge.
SLIS: Speaking of being your own boss, when you did your first solo show, did you feel almost naked playing on stage without a rhythm section or using distortion?
BUZZ: Well you know I didn’t really know how it was going to go over. And so I was a little worried about that but, you’re certainly naked. I mean you’re up there all by yourself, but I knew that was going to be the case. You know, my fear of looking stupid in front of large amounts of people, I got over that a long time ago.
Plus to be an entertainer you kinda have to be a showoff to some degree anyway, you know? And I’m naturally like that. And you want people to believe what you’re doing you know? I think Bob Dylan said once that he likes to see people who look like they know something that you don’t when they’re on stage. And I take that to heart. I mean Iggy Pop looks like he knows something that I don’t. And that’s why you go…to see the beauty and danger and destruction of everything that they have to offer. And you can tell the fakes from the guys that are for real. I’ve said it a million times, that I’ve made music the way that I would appreciate other bands to make it. Not really sound-wise but attitude-wise. I’ve operated like that forever. We’ve paid the price to some degree, I mean I never thought we would sell millions of records anyway you know.
You know me and Dale always laugh about this, y’know when we make records, one thing we’re sure of? Millions of people won’t buy it (laughing).We totally understand our space in music that we occupy…we have no delusions of grandeur….I’m very happy at where I’m at. I think that millions of people should buy our music but I’m okay with that and I’m proof positive that you can make a living making music without selling millions or records or ever getting played on the radio. All you have to do is work hard and trust in the experience that you know what you’re doing. That you’re doing it for you…the reason you’re an artist is that you know you have good taste.
And because you make things with that in mind, other people will like it. It might not be millions, but they will be there. I’ve always relied on that and I’ve never lost sight of it. And here I am talking to you. And people like you never abandoned us when every one else has. It’s totally crazy so I completely appreciate it. I do this as much of this kind of stuff as I possibly can…I appreciate it. And I will do it as much as I can with any publication that has an interest of any kind, you know?
I’ve taken shit from people for going on Fox News’ Red Eye. And I’m like ‘what shows do you think are cool?’ You think I wouldn’t go on The Tonight Show, or whatever else you think is cool? Of course I would! But that’s how it works. Oh well. The people at FOX were nice enough to ask me so of course I’m not going to say no.
It’s like when we got signed to Atlantic records. All these hip indie labels that had no interest whatsofuckingever before that, all sent in contracts along with all the major labels, saying ‘it would be a lot cooler if you sign with us.’ And we’re like no, we’re gonna do a record..and believe me, the irony was not lost on us…on the same label as Zeppelin, Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones. And you hip indie people can kiss my ass (laughing). And that was absolutely a motivation for all of that. It was really funny, I thought we’d be done after ‘Houdini’, but we did 3 albums with them and nobody was more surprised than us…It wasn’t one of those things that was gonna make or break us but I believe we came out of it in a better position than we were when we went into it, and I think that’s solely based on the fact that we didn’t think it would work!
When they sign a band they’re convinced that they’re going to sell a ton of records…but I was like it’s not gonna happen, but if you guys want to give us a relatively decent amount of money to make these records, we’ll do our thing and make sure it doesn’t destroy us…it was a little side road in our career that was really fun..we got three records out of it that I really liked and it didn’t hurt us one bit.
[amazon_image id=”B000002IWU” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Houdini[/amazon_image]
And that’s rare. Most bands that get dropped from a major label that’s the end of them. Because they think that’s their big shot. But their first mistake was thinking they’re going to make it! Always assume it’s not going to work and you’re better off. If you operate like you’re going to be out of business in 6 months, you’re going to be a lot better off in every area of your life. Cause you never know what’s going to happen, you don’t know what kind of roadblocks, whatever there is up there in the cosmos that’s gonna drop right in front of you. You have no idea. Don’t count your chickens…those are wise words…whoever said that was…probably a chicken farmer.
SLIS: So when you talk about how you know how to do your music better than anyone else…when you’re coming up with a riff, and you’re known for some of the heaviest, sludgiest riffs around, is there any criteria, any one thing that makes you say ‘this can be a song’ vs one that doesn’t make the cut?
BUZZ: There’s a process where you have to wade through a lot of garbage to get to what’s good. And sometimes that takes a long time. But once you’re in the middle of doing it you realize there’s something there that you like, and you record those little tiny riffs…and sometimes it takes years before you can finish it. But usually I can tell when I’m playing something that ‘there’s something there that I like’ and I can turn that into something. But you have to be able to self-edit as you go along.
And you never know when one second you’re coming up with something amazing, or ones where you really have to labor to make good. You just go through this process and get to the other side with it and you end up with songs that you’re really proud of. And I mean they’re not all home runs but nothing in life ever is.
What I think is really funny though is if there’s people that will say stuff like ‘I don’t like your new material.’ And I go, ‘you know what, some of that “new” material was stuff from the 90’s. I just hadn’t finished it until now.’
Like on that 2nd album we did with Big Business there were riffs that I’d had since 93 that I could never finish. You bring it into the band and you turn it into a song and everyone thinks its new. I mean it’s new to you, you know (laughing)! So you can’t win.
I also started to get the same shit when I started using aluminum guitars, and people will go ‘well I liked it a lot better when you used Les Paul’s.’ Especially on the ‘Stoner Witch’ record. And I’d be like, which songs are you talking about? And they’ll say ‘Revolve’. And I’m like well that song was a Fender Mustang! So it’s hilarious. People build up these ideas in their head of how they think things are. Because I don’t JUST use aluminum guitars on the record. There’s all kinds of guitars; Mustangs, Telecasters, I have a Paul Reed Smith that I use and on and off.
People have no fucking idea of what they’re talking about you know? They honestly think I go in the studio with the same guitar that I use live? Who the fuck does that? It’s a studio, not a live recording! If you want a live album, then record a live album! Record all the new songs at a club and you’re done…. Some people think when they’re listening to music in their car, that it’s the same experience as when they’re at a fucking rock club! Really? Who’s that dumb? You can’t tell the difference? I always viewed them as two different things so I assumed that everyone else did!
My wife says that one of my big problems is that I fail to see the weaknesses in others… always assume that everybody’s on the same page, and I have to catch myself and say, ‘Oh I guess not everybody understand this stuff.’ Maybe because I have an undying faith in the human spirit. Well…not all of it.
Without naming names (editors note: my money is on Steve Albini), there are certain hip indie producers who think that records shouldn’t sound produced. Well what the fuck are they supposed to sound like? (both laugh). Even if you don’t ‘produce’ it it’s still produced! You’ve just produced a really crappy sounding recording.
When I’m making an album, I worry about making a great sounding one. I’ll worry about working it out live later. But apparently to some people that’s unspeakable!
But this acoustic thing is a new thing for me to do, hopefully it’ll end up being a thing that I can do as well as what I always do. I can easily fit it in. I’m not afraid to work, I’m a workaholic. And you’re in Austin, and Austin’s always welcomed us with open arms…Austin’s always given us a home to do our music and I’ve always never taken that lightly or forgotten it.
SLIS: Speaking of Austin, I got to see your Melvins set last year at Housecore Horror Festival. It was awesome.
BUZZ: That was a lot of fun. Phil (Anselmo) really pulled off a great thing. All those different bands he pulled together with no problem. He’s always been great to me. Down have always been total gentlemen to us and I can’t say that about a lot of people.
SLIS: Will you be playing it this year?
BUZZ: Well we have different plans for Halloween this year, none of which I can speak about because we’re not announcing it yet (laughing)…what I can say is it’ll be in conjunction with a new Melvins album which will be out in the fall. That’s as much as I can tell you.
SLIS: So does that tie in with the ‘head scratcher’ release you’ve been hinting at this year?
BUZZ: Yes, it’ll be a bit of a head scratcher for people. Which is gonna be good!
SLIS: I’m intrigued.
BUZZ: The best advice I can give to our fans is just let us do the driving. (laughing)
SLIS: Have a guitar nerd question. What did you do to make that trippy little outro on ‘The Hesitation Twist’? Was that something you ran in reverse? It’s one of the coolest guitar sounds I’ve heard in awhile.
BUZZ: Oh that repeating thing? That’s from a guitar riff that I don’t even think is from that song. But we ran it through, I can’t even remember what, but it’s a mutated guitar riff…we always have our little studio that we work out of here in LA and it’s getting more and more elaborate. But it’s actually Toshi Kasai’s place who we’ve worked for well over 10 years. He’s honestly one of the most talented engineers in the world…we laugh all the time while we’re making records…we’d thought it would be funny to put something that sounds electronic at the end of an acoustic album.
(both laugh HARD)
SLIS: That’s perfect!
BUZZ: (chuckling) We just had to get that little thing in there you know. I don’t remember exactly how we did that but honestly I can’t even begin to tell you how much stuff we’ve recorded…it’ll all eventually come out, but we have so much stuff since we’ve started doing recordings on our own without going to another studio. We have so much stuff that we’re continually working on, so there’s a ton of stuff like that.
SLIS: Last thoughts before we wrap up?
BUZZ: I’m really excited for it to come out and to have people hear it and come out to the shows. I had a good experience playing live at some 20 shows I’ve already done. I have no reason to believe it won’t continue like that, and I’ll do my best to make it as good and human an experience as I possibly can. That’s it. See you guys out there. Maybe somehow we’ll meet in the middle (laughing). The middle distance, just keep staring.
Much thanks to Buzz Osborne for taking the time out for this interview. You can pre-order ‘The Machine Kills Artists’ from Amazon or iTunes via the links below. And click here for his summer solo tour dates.
[amazon_image id=”B00JGWKU7Q” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]This Machine Kills Artists[/amazon_image]