SO-CALLED "EXPERIMETAL" PUNK group the Melvins have always been misunderstood. Throughout their turbulent 15-year career they've been unfairly tagged as Black Sabbath clones, and had to carry the burden of being the original godfathers of grunge. But neither claustrophobic label does the band justice. The Melvins have been maligned, under appreciated and all but dismissed before and after the once mighty Pacific Northwest grunge spectacle imploded with the infamous shotgun blast of 1994. Despite the trials and tribulations associated with the grunge choke collar, the Melvins have survived the fallout and still endure. The San Francisco-based trio will be making a rare appearance in the Old Pueblo this week (their first since 1993), at The Rock. It'll be a coveted opportunity for all flannel-sporting head-bangers to partake in the no-frills, full-spectrum Melvins stage circus. The trio will also unveil new songs from a three-CD trilogy for release this summer and fall on the rookie Ipecac label (owned by ex-Faith No More/Mr. Bungle singer Mike Patton), featuring some of their heaviest, darkest and most pop-sounding material to date. Expect a molten, heavy-metal mass inducing sensory meltdown, akin to a skull-shattering death march, to answer the false critical complaints once and for all.
Since their inception in 1984 in Aberdeen, Washington, singer-guitarist Buzz "King Buzzo" Osborne and drummer Dale Crover, and a slew of interchangeable bass players (Kevin Rutmanis, formerly of the Cows, is the latest four-string axe mauler), have managed to reinvent themselves with each passing album without becoming stale or repetitive. The secret of their longevity is almost unheard of these days in the fickle, flavor-of-the month altrock scene (Limp Bizkit and Blink 182, anyone?). It's not even explainable by the affable, funny and well-spoken Crover, calling in from his tour manager's cell phone during sound check before a gig in Atlanta last week. "I don't know," he offers, then adds quizzically, "Is that the secret?" He gathers his thoughts and uncorks a casual comeback: "It's because we haven't started to suck yet."
The Melvins' wholly radical sound conjures visions of Neanderthal cavemen dragging slaughtered dinosaurs through a flaming tar pit. Definitely an acquired taste -- and not for the faint of heart.
Approaching the end of a 70-city U.S. tour, the Melvins have always been one of the hardest-working live acts on the planet. The grueling and boring schedule of driving long hours, playing one-night-stands to a handful of devoted fans in the middle of nowhere has finally paid off, though. "This tour is the most successful one we've ever done -- money wise and attendance wise," Crover says proudly. "We've been touring like this for a long time. I think a lot of younger bands don't realize that if you want to become recognized, you have to do the roadwork. It's hard and it's not for everybody, but before we were on Atlantic, we didn't work day jobs. We did all the work ourselves, and going out on the road helped us sell records on the independents...and it's helping us now."
Last summer, the Melvins were participants in the mega-heavy Ozz Fest stadium package tour, and also supported pals Tool for a handful of shows. Crover describes his Ozz Fest experience as a pleasant one solely because of the guys in Tool. "They are the ones that were pretty much responsible for us being on the tour," he explains. "Why they're so nice to us, I'm not sure. Those guys paid us for part of it, they took us on their bus for nothing and they're just the coolest guys in the world. I can't say enough good things about them." Crover says they routinely laughed and made fun of the lame metal groups that were there to gain a smidgen of recognition on the oft-neglected second stage, or to get near enough to kiss headliner Ozzy Osbourne's pimpled ass.
"We laughed at a lot of the bands on the bill because we think they're silly and goofy, and not very good," says Crover. "But we had a lot of fun every night at 7 o'clock when Motorhead would play. That would be the thing to do -- get off the nice air-conditioned bus, go watch Motorhead, watch Tool and then go back to the bus to watch TV. I'm sure we'll never get asked to do it (Ozz Fest) again."
Despite battling frequent comparisons to Ozzy's old band, Black Sabbath, the Melvins never met Ozzy during the entire tour; nor did they care to, according to Crover. "We didn't meet him," the long-standing stickman with the receding blonde 'do says without remorse. "I didn't really care that much about bootlicking Ozzy. I used to like them (Sabbath) a whole lot when I was 13 years old. I even met him when I was 13 and he was pretty out of it then, but he's way out of it now. So even if I introduced myself, I'm sure he wouldn't remember five seconds later."
Crover reveals that between 1984 and 1986, the Melvins were totally infatuated with dirge-like 6/8 Sabbath time signatures, but their main influences were punk bands like Flipper, Fang and the Wipers. "I think we still have slow and heavy stuff," he declares, "But people don't realize we were more influenced by Black Flag than Black Sabbath."
With the urging of friend and fan Kurt Cobain, Atlantic Records agreed to sign the Melvins to a major-label contract in 1993, where they released three jaw-dropping and utterly compelling (though commercially lukewarm) albums before mutually parting ways in 1997. Atlantic gave them exposure in mall record chains, but simply did not know how to market the group to a mass audience. Crover says the band's experience with Atlantic was a rewarding, albeit mainly frustrating, one, but that wouldn't deter him from signing with a major label again. "Atlantic was really good in some ways, especially the press," he clarifies. "They totally, totally kicked ass in getting us interviews. Unfortunately, most of the major labels go through employees faster than they do bands, especially now with Seagram's (yes, the liquor distillery conglomerate) buying out labels left and right, thinking they know something about music.
"I think we made really good records with Atlantic," he continues. "We definitely had the budget to go and sit in the studio and really work on stuff, but it was frustrating with them not knowing what to do with us. We eventually forced them to drop us."
By contrast, the fledgling Ipecac label has only three employees. "They're much more open to our stupid ideas," Crover laughs at the obligatory working relationship so far. "I think regarding our latest project (the CD trilogy), working with a major (label) would be like pulling teeth trying to get them to work on three records at the same time." The Melvins are a marketing executive's worst nightmare. Each successive release in their dozen-plus album catalogue is different from the next. "We like exploring new ground," Crover explains. "For us to keep doing this for this long, we have to change and reshape our sound. Change is good. I really love playing in this band, and I don't think I would've developed the way I play drums without the Melvins."
The first CD from the new trilogy, called The Maggot, is an über-heavy exercise in hell-raising destructo-metal (a throwback to the magnificent Houdini-era Melvins). The second installment, The Bootlicker, is subdued, dark and kind of pop-y sounding in spots. Disc number three, The Crybaby, is the "guest star" album with visiting musicians from Tool, Jesus Lizard, Pain Teens, Brutal Truth and Foetus according to Crover (with a special appearance by former '70s teen heart-throb and recovering junkie Leif Garrett, who sings "Smells Like Teen Spirit").
Crover is dumbstruck when queried about the motivating force and/or aural concept behind the trilogy. "We're doing it pretty much because we can," he says offhandedly. "There's really not any theme strung throughout them. The only thing that connects the three records is that the artwork looks similar. Originally, we thought the third record was going to be real experimental and whacked out -- pretty much unlistenable to most people, except to those people like ourselves. But it turned into this crazy guest-star thing."
Crover says he'll play music with anyone. "I've wanted to play music since I was in the fourth grade," he concludes. "If I wasn't doing this, I would be taking a dirt nap -- meaning, I wouldn't be alive. This is it. This will always be it." Case closed.
The Melvins stampede The Rock, 136 N. Park Ave., on Wednesday, August 25. Tickets are $10 in advance, $12 at the door for this 18-and-over show. See this week's Soundbites column for details on the show, or call 629-9211.