The man called King Buzzo says nothing as he paces the stage. Electric guitar in hand, hair a mushroom cloud of gray curls, he lurches forward with a brutal downstroke across the guitar strings, igniting an ominous, fuzzy slab of noise. The song is “Hag Me,” a growling, seven-minute echo from the grunge '90s as bleak and unhurried as Black Sabbath, and as weirdly threatening now as it ever was.
Onstage at the Observatory in Santa Ana, Buzzo and his band, The Melvins, are the same eccentric, unstoppable force that has influenced generations of underground rockers, including his high school friend Kurt Cobain. Looking like a psychedelic high priest in a custom muumuu covered with images of blazing eyeballs, Buzzo steps up to the microphone to roar a surreal, incomprehensible message: “I stole your gravity. … Don't hag me with your false green!”
What follows is a night in The Melvins' noisy discomfort zone, where punk collides with the heaviest of metal, with stretched-out songs of rage and experimentation mixed with loving Beatles and Alice Cooper covers. To hear The Melvins now is still like facing an oncoming truck, fueled by the muscular beats of drummer Dale Crover, Buzzo's musical partner since 1984. A new double album called A Walk With Love and Death continues the tradition, sending their uncompromising musical impulses into a world that still, after more than 30 years, seems unready for them.
“We lose 20 percent of our audience with every record.” —Buzzo
“We lose 20 percent of our audience with every record, but we gain new people along the way,” says Buzzo, aka Buzz Osborne. “They're not universally accepted by any means, but they're accepted enough where we can continue.”
While Osborne and Crover remain identified as Washington grunge icons, they have spent most of their careers in California, much of that in Los Angeles. On bass these days is Steven McDonald, whose life in the underground goes back even further, beginning as a middle-school musician from the original L.A. punk scene as a member of Redd Kross, and more recently with the hardcore band OFF!. The current Melvins trio, together since late 2015, have gelled into something thunderous and agile.
The Melvins have had several bassists over the years. Their 2016 album, Basses Loaded, featured five guest bassists and is where they first recorded with McDonald, whose predecessors have come and gone in good cheer and bad, a rotation Osborne has grown weary of. “I get too emotionally attached, and then it's hard when it doesn't work out,” he says.
Offstage, Osborne is more chatty and amused than the formidable, brooding figure he appears to be when prowling clubs and concert halls. “He’s an intense character,” says his wife, graphic designer Mackie Osborne, who creates the visuals for many Melvins projects in the couple’s workshop at their Laurel Canyon home. “He doesn’t really have a lot of patience for people who aren’t as smart as him … I can understand why people are intimidated.”
On a recent morning, The Melvins are gathered at McDonald's small studio and rehearsal space in Glassell Park, which he has named the Whiskey Kitchen after a band sticker left on the door by a previous tenant. They share the room with OFF! and Redd Kross, and Crover has often filled in on drums for both. Taped to a random surface is a master list of songs Crover needed to learn for this year's Redd Kross tour. “It's all become very incestuous,” the drummer says with a grin.
Together and apart, The Melvins have been prolific for three decades. In February, Osborne and Crover released an album collaboration with Teri Gender Bender (of Le Butcherettes) and Omar Rodríguez-López (At the Drive-In, The Mars Volta) as the band Crystal Fairy. The new Melvins album, out July 7, delivers one disc of songs, plus a second disc of soundtrack music for a 33-minute experimental film directed by Jesse Nieminen, which Osborne describes as “a strange trip.” As always, the music is heavy and mind-expanding, including a 25-year-old song, “Euthanasia,” that the band have often performed but never previously released on an album.
The Melvins have another album already finished, and in August Crover releases his first full solo album, The Fickle Finger of Fate.
“They like to have things in the can,” McDonald says, plucking an unplugged bass. “Of all the bands I've ever been in, they are the most on top of it. They are also probably the ones with the most dependable, sustainable careers. There might be a correlation there.”
Longevity was no one's expectation when The Melvins began making noisy hard rock with subversive melodies in the era of hair metal and Phil Collins ballads. They were more in the tradition of Black Flag and Hüsker Dü, self-sufficient and utterly unknown to the rock mainstream, expecting no rewards beyond the chance to play club gigs for a crowd of fellow misfits who understood. They escaped Seattle in time to watch the grunge explosion from afar.
Osborne still remembers local club nights there, sharing stages with Soundgarden and Green River for audiences of barely 25. When The Melvins left Washington, no one noticed. Now whenever the band play there, they are welcomed as returning heroes. “As soon as we moved away and came back, then it was way bigger,” Osborne says. “Where were you guys when we played here all the time?”
In the '90s, they were swept up in the major-label gold rush in search of the next Nirvana. The Melvins released three albums for Atlantic. “I thought it would be one record and we'd be out, and we'd get this weird experience out of the whole thing,” Osborne says. “We were doing OK before it happened. It wasn't like they pulled us out of dishwashing jobs.”
We're speaking a little more than a week after the death of Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell, whom they first met when he was still the band's drummer. “Back when no one gave a shit,” Osborne puts it. “He was a good drummer, too.”
The Melvins have experienced the same loss of friends and musical colleagues many times through the years. Cobain's suicide at 27 in 1994 was a shock but much less surprising than Cornell, who had survived decades beyond the most dangerous years for the grunge generation.
“It's always horrible. It sobers you right up,” says Osborne, whose own survival to 2017 was unexpected. “I'm 53 years old. I didn't think that was going to happen. You might as well prepare for it.”
Every year, the band record music in the winter and tour in the summer, hitting between 80 and 100 concert dates a year. “Playing live has always been part of the thing,” Osborne says. “I saw something with Bob Dylan where he's asked, 'Why do you still tour?' He goes, 'That's part of the deal I made. I'm holding my end of the bargain.'”
Their sound and career moves have always been instinctual. Osborne assumes they'd get nowhere if The Melvins tried to follow trends, and their role is different anyway. In his experience, when mainstream music gets too polished and predictable, listeners start to wander, sometimes surprising themselves when they discover a band like The Melvins.
“The bigger stuff gets, the more pop-oriented it is, the better it is for people like us,” Osborne says. “Not everyone wants to get their music dictated to them. Whether they know it or not, they will see the difference, because there is a difference.”
THE MELVINS | The Troubadour, 9081 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood | Fri., July 7, 8 p.m. | $25 | troubadour.com
THE MELVINS | The Echo, 1822 Sunset Blvd., Echo Park | Tues., Aug. 22, 8:30 p.m. | $24.50 | theecho.com