Wednesday 23 July 2014

"Professionally Hostile": An Interview with King Buzzo

Mackie Osbourne (C)

            An increasing number of people are beginning to recognize Melvins frontman, Buzz Osborne, as one of the most entertaining musicians on the Internet. In any given day on my social media feeds I’ll come across one of his side splitting road diaries or videos from his current solo tour where he’s telling a hilarious, semi-offensive story about a former colleague or a trainwreck celebrity, (the Dave Grohl story was an instant classic).  For the show I attended, where Buzz had an entire audience of North Carolinians mesmerized with his psychotic acoustic renditions of Melvins classics like “Boris” and “Hooch,” I was convinced he could hold court without even picking up his guitar.  Not only is Buzz Osborne an incredibly funny man, he is a naturally gifted storyteller with a vicious sense of humor who pulls no punches.  In North Carolina we were treated to anecdotes regarding the time he witnessed Iggy Pop refuse to play to a festival audience of 40,000 because Iggster had to follow a band he despised, (that band being Weezer,) or the “one” time he saw David Yow not drunk, or how he finds himself praying to a god he doesn’t believe in for bad things to happen to Courtney Love.  Naturally, the latter brought down the house.

When you speak with Buzz Osborne you are speaking to a very self aware man who has a very learned outlook on life, but who also realizes the importance of maintaining a whimsical view on the hypocrisies and frustrations everyone encounters throughout their day to day. He’s a proud professional who favors America to other countries in the world, but not in a Sarah Palin/Ted Nugent kind of way.  “In Europe they have dryers that don’t dry. Can you imagine that here?  No one would put up with that!” He also enjoys simple things like a good baseball game, (he’s a Dodgers man), or a game of golf, (he’s quick to point out how easy it is to miss a short putt,) or simply reading on his Kindle in the hotel room after a show.  In short, Buzz is a very intelligent guy who takes what he does very seriously and has no end in sight for any of it.  It was a pleasure to speak with him. - Erik Sugg

ES: So I know you’ve toured a lot over the years, but this is your first acoustic tour.  Is that right?

Buzz: Yes, it is.  Well, I did a little one in March, so this is the second.

ES: I’ve talked to a lot of guys in heavy bands and they seem to like the idea of doing acoustic tours as well.  I don’t know if they’re thinking of themselves as troubadours or if it’s just getting the opportunity to have more of a one on one experience with the listeners.  Have you noticed a real significant difference with people at these shows then at the Melvins’?  Do you feel like it’s more intimate?

Buzz: Well, by its very nature it is.  On paper it doesn’t look like it would work, you know? Most acoustic stuff is pretty atrocious and I’m trying not to do that.  I think that once people see what I’m doing they’re a little surprised.

ES: Yeah, that was a question I actually asked some folks not too long ago–when you see a heavy artist doing an acoustic show, do you think it’s cool or do you think its whack?  And I guess it just all depends on the music.

Buzz: I haven’t really seen anyone do it that I thought was good.  I mean, I don’t know who. Maybe you have.

ES: Wino comes to mind. He’s done some good acoustic stuff.

Buzz: Yeah, I have seen that. But I can’t sit down and play.  I don’t know what he does. Does he sit down when he plays acoustic?

ES: Not exactly.

Buzz: Yeah, I can’t make that work.

ES: Yeah, I think that’s when people get turned off with that whole, “an intimate evening with”-vibe.

Buzz: Yeah, it’s horrendous mostly.

ES: So this has been a pretty long tour for you it seems, and it’s something completely new for you.  Has there been a city that’s “gotten it” the best?  Has there been a “best town” on this tour?

Buzz: Well, what happens with this kind of stuff–and it hasn’t happened too often–but once in awhile you’ll have a big crowd and they’re loud.  They’re talking and, you know, they’re kind of ruining it, but there’s assholes everywhere you go.  There were a few particular shows that were bad, like Bellingham. Lots of people, they were appreciative, but it was just loud the whole show.  Which, you know, whatever. I don’t tell people to shut up. They can do whatever they want.  It just makes it a little difficult to concentrate.  There are some shows where the audience is really interested in what you’re doing, and that makes it a lot easier.  It’s my job to keep them interested, but in some towns it’s just not working.

ES: You may have actually answered my next question.  I was going to say I’ve seen Grant Hart of Husker Du play a couple acoustic shows before, and the ones I saw were pretty much like you just described.  He had a hell of a time with people talking loud, the whole drinking atmosphere.  He got really flustered and pissed off about it.

Buzz: I’m not going to let that happen.  Even though I am internally pissed off I’m not going to let people know it’s getting to me.  I’m just going to act like it doesn’t exist. That’s the best way to do it. But, by and large, there’s been more really good ones than bad ones. Every now and then you’ll have some yahoo freaking out, but whatever. It’s not really different than the Melvin’s stuff.  I know which cities we’ve worked good in, and those are the ones I’ll go back to. I’d say 95% of them have been fine.

ES: That’s good to hear.  Another problem Grant seemed to have trouble with was people not seeming interested in the material he was touring in support of at the time.  When they did acknowledge him, they were yelling out Husker Du’s greatest hits, things like that.

Buzz: Well, did he do any Husker Du songs?

ES: He did, yeah. Do you get a lot people yelling out Melvins tunes?

Buzz: No, not really. I mean, a little. It’s about half and half. I think they’re pretty accepting of my solo material.  It’s my job to make them like it, you know?  I haven’t had any trouble, really.  I think people are pretty accepting and it’s working.  We’ll see next time I come back, how many people are here.

ES: I’ve been reading online that you do the Alice Cooper song in the set.  That’s one thing I always really liked about the Melvins, is that you guys do really good covers of good songs, like the MC5 song, “Rocket Reducer.”  I’m a huge MC5 and I thought you guys just killed it.

Buzz: Thank you. Yeah, that’s a good one. Everybody likes the MC5.

ES: Do ever feel like there’s expectations for you to play covers?  Do you ever get sick of playing any of them?

Buzz: Well, there will be songs, even our own songs, that we’ll put away for awhile. We’ve got so many songs.  It’s difficult to get too sick of them. If we don’t play them for awhile while it’ll be fine. As far as covers go, I don’t think people freak out one way or another about that kind of stuff.  Most of it’s fine, but I’m not overly concerned with what the audience wants. It’s my job to do the best I can and decide on what I think is best, and if they don’t like it then they just don’t like what I do!

ES: That’s good. A very uncompromising stance to take.

Buzz: Definitely. I mean, the shows on this tour.  If people don’t like it, they just don’t like what I do. It’s certainly not my fault, you know?

ES: Another thing I was going to bring up about your tour is your road stories that you publish.  They’re a constant source of enjoyment for people.  I really love how you chronicle the frustrations that a lot of touring musicians experience.

Buzz: Oh, you mean the diary?

ES: Yeah. Like when you talked about the San Francisco traffic jam, or just that downtime before gigs, that kind of thing.  You still seem like you keep some good humor with pretty much everything you do.

Buzz: Oh, yeah. Of course!

ES: Do you ever feel like you’re just at your wit’s end completely?  And if that does happen, where you’re just having a day where it’s totally frustrating, what gets you in a good mood again?

Buzz: Well, you know, I’m a professional. That’s what I do for a living. I’m a pro musician, and with that comes the ups and downs of touring, but it’s not unlike any other job, although it is an artistic job. It still is work.  I’m doing a job tonight, you know?  I come here and I take this seriously and I have a job to do and I’m going to do it to the best of my ability. Some nights are better than others.  It’s just part of the deal. If you have problems with this sort of thing then you probably shouldn’t be doing it.  I don’t know anyone who has a working situation where they’re completely satisfied. I’ve never heard of that.  Sometimes nights are more frustrating than others, but I stay focused on what I’m out here to do. I’m here to work. I’m here to do my job.  That’s it.  The rest of the stuff, if you have expectations of being happy or whatever, that’s not going to happen.  As far as the traffic stuff, things like that that are frustrating, I’m speaking for everyone in that department.  I firmly believe that kind of stuff. I believe those situations are conspiracy, you know?  It’s unnecessary and stupid.

ES: Well, we definitely get some funny stories out of it.

Buzz: That’s good!  I’ve got another coming out that’s going to be about me fantasizing killing everyone in Portland!  Portland, Maine.

ES: Ha! I look forward to that one.  A couple of things about the current record.  I think it’s–well, for one I think it’s an excellent record.

Buzz: Thank you. First try!

ES: It’s got a lot of the musical trademarks that people love about the Melvins.  It’s got the intense rhythms and the cold stops, but one thing I think is really striking about it–and I didn’t have any reason to think it wouldn’t be like this–is that it still sounds heavy.  It’s an acoustic record and it’s heavy.

Buzz: Yeah, I didn’t want it to sound like “Stairway to Heaven.”

ES: Yeah, and to me it doesn’t sound like you just doing a record minus the Melvins being there, you know?  It’s kind of its own beast.  Is that what you were shooting for?

Buzz: Yeah, kind of. It’s going to be hard to not sound like the Melvins because I write most of the material, you know?  Unless I’m going to make a fucking country album, which I’m not going to do. I mean I love country music, but almost everyone does that kind of thing too, you know? They’ll go do their “Nashville Skyline” record.  I just have no interest.  It’s not me.  I could do that kind of stuff.  I could easily do that. I could totally do a whole album of Hank Williams songs.  Maybe at some point I will, but for my first endeavour into this, that wouldn’t have been right for me. I wouldn’t have felt right about it. I need to make this work. I’ve proved to everybody that it’s the Indian not the arrow, you know?  You can go online and see Pete Townshend and the Secret Policeman's Ball on an acoustic guitar and it’s good.  It works just as well as it does with the whole band.  HE wrote good songs.

ES: Yeah, you had mentioned Pete in a recent interview.

Buzz: Yeah, he’s a big hero of mine.

ES: I’ve actually got friend out in L.A. who met you once and said you guys had a conversation about the Kinks and that you were a big Ray Davies fan.

Buzz: Sure. Oh, absolutely. But see, I’m a fan of the late ‘70s Kinks stuff. Unlike everybody else.

ES: Yeah, you have the “You Really Got Me” folks and the “Village Green” folks, and so forth.

Buzz: Yeah, I’m a “Low Budget” guy. That’s their album that I think is the best.  I saw them on the “One for the Road” tour and it was really, really fucking great.  Nobody ever talks about the Kinks in relation to us.  I don’t know why.  But that’s why we did that covers album.  It was all music that was a big influence on us that maybe people hadn’t thought of.

ES: Yeah, there was definitely some stuff on there I was surprised to hear, but just like every cover I’ve heard the Melvins do, you guys made it your own.

Buzz: Yeah, thank you.  And once you see, “Oh, that’s where that kind of thing comes from,” whether it’s the Fuggs or whoever it may be, people don’t appreciate that to some degree.  I don’t know why.  I mean, we make a lot of records.  There’s no end to that.  I think it was Pitchfork who said bands do that kind of thing when they’re done.  I think I’ve put out two albums since then and one in the can, haha.

ES: Haha, yeah.  Not quite done yet!  Another thing I wanted bring up–kind of going back to the acoustic record that still sounds heavy.  I once read an interview with John Paul Jones where he said one of the heaviest songs on Led Zeppelin I was, “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You,” which was a pretty intense song for an acoustic track.

Buzz: I wonder who they stole that from?  I wonder who’s song that could be?  I don’t know.  It could be, but with the artist you never know where they’re coming from and you have to trust their judgment as far as that goes. I don’t know. He’s looking at it through different eyes.

ES: Exactly.  And even with the Melvins records, there are songs like “Shevil” off of “Stoner Witch.”  A very mellow song, but I always thought it was very intense and heavy.

Buzz: Totally.

ES: Is that what you were going for with this record?  Just having that vibe, that it could be mellow and understated, but still could have the intensity of heavy music?

Buzz: Well, sure.  There’s no question to that.  Definitely.

ES: And another thing I wanted to ask–and I promise that I’m trying to sound like too much of a brown noser here–but you’re a really kickass rock and roll singer.

Buzz: Thank you.  You’re very nice.

ES: Well, the reason I wanted to bring it up is because I realized when people talk about bands who are heavy they’re talking about the sound and the instrumentation, and when you have a good singer like yourself, who’s good at coming up with good vocal melodies, it’s not mentioned.

Buzz: Yeah, it rarely is.

ES: Yeah, and I always felt guys like you, John Garcia, and Jus Oborn from Electric Wizard were great rock singers.  You can definitely hear the Kiss-type vocal style, or Alice Cooper. Any other vocal influences for you when you write your music?

Buzz: Thank you.  Captain Beefheart, Tom Waits, Howling Wolf.  Maybe–oh, I don’t know who else.  I always thought it was a good idea to sing with a cartoon voice.

ES: Well, I remember there was the one record you guys put out in the late ‘90s.  I can’t remember what the title of the song was, but it had the caption, “Before Britpop became shit-pop.”

Buzz: Haha.  Oh, god. I can’t remember what that was.  I know what you mean though.

ES: I remember that was kind of a cartoony style of singing.

Buzz: Sure, sure.  I don’t know if that was me?

ES: Was that not you singing?

Buzz: It might have been Dale or Mark.  But yeah, I mean I’ve really worked hard on singing.  I’ve never had lessons or anything, but you know, you’ve got to practice what you’re doing.  If you want to sing you just have to practice singing.  You can’t get around it.  Sing things you like. Sing along with things that are easy for you to sing.  Get good at those things and then you can try harder stuff.  I only write songs that I CAN sing.

ES: I play music myself and learned that it’s important to keep it within the realistic bounds.

Buzz: Oh, of course.

ES: I can’t go out there and shriek like Rob Halford. I’ll sound horrible.

Buzz: You could try it, but I’m not capable of doing that stuff so I wouldn’t even venture there.  You know, there’s people who are like, “I can’t play guitar and sing at the same time,” and I go, “Well, write songs that you can!”  Haha…

ES:  Right. You might be surprised at how good your music is if you keep it within what you can do.

Buzz: Right. Write a song that you CAN sing and play at the same time.

ES: When you’re writing a song what comes the first?  The riffing or the vocal melody?

Buzz: The music always.  The vocals are always inspired by the music.  In rare cases, I don’t know.  Maybe Dylan did that, wrote lyrics first, and maybe Townshend did to some degree.  That’s a rarity to me.

ES: It’s the literary guys who create the music around what they want the lyrics to be?

Buzz: You’d like to think, but I’d be hard pressed to understand what the fuck Dylan was talking about most of the time.  People always talk about his message.  I go, “I’d like to know what the fuck it was.”  I can’t figure it out, you know?  “It’s all right, mom, I’m only bleeding.”  I mean, what the hell is that about, you know?  Or “Like a Rolling Stone?”  I mean, what the hell are you talking about?  I have no idea. Or even the Stones. Great lyrics, but I don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.

ES: Yeah. I’ve always been one of those listeners who never really paid too much attention to that. Maybe that’s why I always got into heavy music, because the message was really all about the rhythm and melody, and the intensity of the music itself, you know?

Buzz: Yeah, sometimes.  I never knew what Captain Beefheart was talking about, but I liked it anyway.

ES: There was a great interview you did recently where you mentioned some non musical influences like Flannery O’Connor, Francis Bacon, and John Huston.  Do you ever have any books that you like to bring on tour, like any quintessential road reads you like to keep with you?

Buzz: I’ve been reading lots of John Fante on this tour. I like that stuff a whole lot. And I’ll bring my Kindle, which has tons and tons of stuff, but I don’t have any particular books. Movies, I bring a lot of movies with me. I don’t really have a lot of time to read. I drive all the time. I’m not really comfortable with somebody else driving, so I drive all the time.  But then at night, or in the day if we happen to go to the hotel before the gig I might have some time to read, but usually what I’ll do is that I just have it on my iPad or something like that and then I won’t have to bring a ton of books with me. But, you know, Jack Black, Hubert Selby Jr., maybe some Thomas Sewell books, stuff like that.

ES: Yeah, the economics guy you mentioned in the interview.

Buzz: Yeah, he’s amazing. I think he’s the greatest philosopher of our time. People don’t have any idea who he is. It’s a shame. I read his books for a long time before I ever knew he was a black guy, and I was pretty impressed with that. That had never occurred to me, you know? My mind doesn’t work that way.

ES: Yeah, it’s always a surprise.

Buzz: Well, I was really happy about all that because he’s not writing with that sort of thing in mind. He doesn’t have an agenda along those lines. THAT is progressive. Within the first five minutes of reading some of these books, whether they’re black or white, if you know what race they are, that’s fucking crazy. It happens all the time, especially with black writers. They make sure that you understand that immediately. That’s just fucked up and stupid to me. That means they have an agenda that has nothing do with anything other than massive racism. I am not interested in racism, whether it’s forward or backwards. It is what it is.  Two wrongs don’t make a right. So, whatever. That’s about as much of a social statement as I’ll make along those lines. I have little or no time for that kind of thing. I don’t believe there is any political party that speaks for me. I certainly am both. I go both ways very hardcore, you know?

ES: You always struck me as someone who was very nonpolitical.

Buzz: Certainly in public. My politics would be more along the lines of someone like Thomas Sewell, but I really don’t talk about it much. I think it’s really a bad idea for someone to take political beliefs from someone who’s an entertainer.

Andreas Koesler (C) 
ES: Haha, well I feel like there are just so many more interesting things you could talk about with someone like yourself.

Buzz: Well, there is. But entertainers, actors, musicians, they always run their mouths off about all that stuff. I think it’s a bad idea because they usually don’t practice what they preach, and they paint the whole entire scenario under a bad light and I think that’s a mistake, you know? I think it’s irresponsible and stupid, and generally if I don’t like their work why would I believe that their opinion politically would make a difference to anyone?  Plus, they’re actors!

ES: Yeah, you definitely see actors doing it.

Buzz: Or musicians, like really famous musicians like Bono. Here’s a guy who wouldn’t work two months for two million dollars. If you offered him two months of shows for two million dollars he wouldn’t do it. So what exactly can people like us learn from him? Nothing!

ES: He does seem to have a very brow view of things, but doesn’t seem to be very “of” the people he’s trying to represent.

Buzz: He has no idea how people think. No idea. If you have an actor, you know, an actor like Brad Pitt or someone like that who wants to speak out politically about Africa. If you offered him two million dollars for two months of work he would not do it. Therefore, I can learn no lesson from that guy. Nothing.

ES: It’s important to see that realistic side of it.

Buzz: Well, the thing is–one thing you’re never going to hear from guys like that is, “I’m going to work. I have enough money. I’m going to work from now on. Every dollar I make is solely going to go towards whatever political or philanthropy type of situation for whatever I’m going to do for the rest of my life. I’m going to bust my ass and I’m going to do it!” That’s never going to happen because they’re liberal with other people’s money, not their own.  So fuck that. Fuck you guys. I’m not taken by that crap, you know? You wanna do that stuff then do it silently and not with a big press crew around you.

Paul Milne (C)

ES: Yeah, putting on the whole presentation.

Buzz: That’s it! And they fool everyone, and they’re absolute, total bastards. They think that this is going to make up for it. I don’t buy it. I’m not fooled. As a matter of fact I’m offended by it.

ES: That’s why I always tend to be drawn towards to artists and musicians who keep politics the fuck out of everything.

Buzz: They should, because they don’t know how to talk about it, haha.

ES: Speaking of artists, Brian Walsby is touring with you, and he comes up with some really hilarious art work. I’ve seen him depict you as Tesco Vee, Bob Dylan, the characters on Black Flag records. I was just curious if there was ever a piece of his art that brought you into total gut-busting laughter, that just really cracked you up?

Buzz: I think the “Police Story” Black Flag ones, the “Make me cum, faggot” ones. Those are always good, whether it’s Charlie Brown, or me, or Kiss, or Gene Simmons with a gun in their mouth.  That, I thought was funny!

ES: Yeah, I always thought the original Flag piece was hilarious, so of course Brian’s spin on it is sheer hilarity.

Buzz: Well, you have to understand, people like me and Brian, we grew up with Mad Magazine.  That’s where that sense of humor comes from.  Mad Magazine pulled no punches and that’s kind of how that is, but it’s humor. It’s funny. If it’s not funny it doesn’t work, and it doesn’t matter how brutal it is.  If it isn’t funny it doesn’t work.

ES: There is definitely some brutal humor that comes out of it.  I was a Mad Magazine fan myself.

Buzz: Yes, especially ‘70s Mad. That’s how we think about that stuff.

ES: I even bought the “Up the Academy” soundtrack when I was record shopping once, which was a shitty movie that the Mad Magazine guys put out. Killer soundtrack, though.

Buzz: That was a long time ago, yeah.

ES: Pretty generic question, but since the somewhat subject of this interview is your acoustic tour, did you ever have a favorite all-acoustic record?

Buzz: Probably Bob Dylan’s stuff.  Although lot of his stuff wasn’t all acoustic. Probably the Townshend “Secret Policeman’s Ball” soundtrack, the songs he did on there.  That’s probably about it. Nothing else really comes to mind.

ES: You had mentioned Hank Williams earlier.

Buzz: Sure, I love Hank Williams. You have to love Hank Williams. How could you not? But most of his stuff wasn’t just acoustic. Maybe some of the “Luke the Drifter” stuff might have been, but I can’t remember.

ES: I think that’s pretty much all I wanted to cover with you, man. Is there anything else you wanted to say about the record or the Melvins? You said the Melvins have a record coming out in October?

Buzz: Yes, we do. I’m really looking forward to it.  It’s already done, mastered and finished. The whole thing. So that will be great.

ES: And being the road dog you are, do you have any other tours on the horizon once this one winds up?

Buzz: Yeah, I’m going to Australia and Europe doing this, and then when I come home we’re going to do some shows in the U.S., but not a ton of them because we don’t really want to travel in the winter.  We’ll be back next year and we’ll have a whole lot of things to say then.

ES: I think that’s about it. Thanks!

Buzz: All right, man!  Thank you. It’s a pleasure

Words and Interview by: Erik Sugg

For more informaton: