Interview: The Melvins on Hold It InPosted by Bryce Woodcock
There is quite a bit of Buzz about the Melvins recently. Not only for the sake of horrible puns, but also regarding their new supergroup-status lineup and resulting album, Hold It In. The Melvins have been on the scene since the early ’80s, inspiring a diverse range of subsequent bands including Nirvana and Tool. Over the past three decades the band has gone through numerous lineup changes. But this time Buzz Osborne and Dale Crover, the only consistent members of the Melvins, have recruited two members from the Butthole Surfers, JD Pinkus and Paul Leary, to support the band on bass and “rhythm and noise tracks” respectively. On paper, this looks like a match made in heaven: two power-groups whose careers date back to the early ’80s with quirky senses of humor, subversive attitudes, and an ear for both melody and anti-melody.
I had the opportunity to talk to this new incarnation of the Melvins and get their backstory and impressions on the album. The first topic that came up was the album’s reception. After establishing this much of a legacy, the Melvins have paid their dues and earned their audience; what their album actually sounds like matters less. As Pinkus aptly stated, “After 30 years you can pretty much do anything you fucking want, fart into a microphone and that’s cool.” I certainly wouldn’t put Hold It In on the same level as a mic-fart, but the idea remains: the loyal Melvins fanbase can digest anything these guys dish out as long as it says “The Melvins.”
That’s how the guys avoid getting bogged down creatively by attempting to cater to fans’ expectations. They know they will reach their intended ears, so they can experiment and keep on doing what they do with impunity. And the album does make some bold decisions on a handful of tracks–granted not that bold when we’re talking about the Melvins. For example, the second song on the album, “You Can Make Me Wait,” features robotic, vocoder-effected vocals over a moody alt-pop chord progression. Strange when compared to what we traditionally associate with the Melvins’ sound, but not so strange when we realize, oh yeah, it’s the Melvins, they can do whatever the fuck they want now.
It’s impossible to take stylistic departures seriously from this band because they are constantly experimenting, reverting to their old sound and meandering a different direction. Even as far back as Stag (1996), the Melvins asserted that they are a band whose musical interests transcend genre. Adding two Butthole Surfer members, a band with similarly wide-ranging influences and abilities, couldn’t have been better suited for the Melvins explorations of other genre.
Luckily, the Melvins always keep that trademark heavy sound–the one that originally captivated us–in their back pockets too. The album has its fair share of sludgy, stoner jams that tend to rattle your bones until your joints ache. The band explained that in their current writing process, these songs start as a simple riff or idea that one member contributes, and from there the rest of the guys poke it, prod it, spank it, smooch it, and expand it until it takes on a shape of some sort. This sort of communal approach to songwriting truly requires synergy and understanding between band members, and Buzz, who says he tries to avoid being overly controlling of the music, trusts these guys implicitly: “I’m not one to go, ‘It has to be exactly like this,’ I don’t want that, I want people to own it… He [JD] understands his sensibilities. That’s what we wanna do, we’re not Rush or some bullshit.”
Giving all members equal input in the writing process allows the songs on this album to reflect the composite effort of this specific incarnation of the band. Buzz even admitted, “I don’t remember who wrote what,” which is a great indication of just how collaborative the process was. “Once everybody starts building off your song, it’s not as much your song anymore,” JD philosophized. And he was quite right; though most of the songs were undoubtedly either written by Buzz or inspired by the sound he and Dale built their band around, they belong collectively to a phase of the Melvins that I’ll forever call the Butthole Melvins.
Bryce Woodcock: Can I first get everybody’s names in the room?
Buzz Osborne: My name’s Buzz.
Dale Crover: My name’s Dale.
JD Pinkus: I’m Dale.
(Dale faces an identity crisis, begins to question most fundamental truths taken for granted)
JD: JD Pinkus.
I’d like to start with a pre-interview exercise, I’ll say a term and you briefly state your opinion.
Dogs vs. cats
B: They’re good for some other people.
JD: Does it come with a free bowl of soup?
B: Ebola soup?
JD: Ebola soup.
B: I didn’t hear you
D: He wouldn’t know who she is.
B: I don’t know who that is.
You can say pass
B: Pass. You know who it is [to Dale], go ahead
D: Kinda cute for a dude.
B: Kinda cute for a dude, that’s a good answer. Who is it?
D: Just some kind of like, I don’t know… What’s the music even?
Top 40 hip-hop. You guys aren’t into top 40 hip-hop?
JD: I was when I was a kid
Does that inform your sound?
JD: Oh yeah, yeah, I got so much groove, man.
B: Those cats know how to lay it out.
What do you guys know about Melvins fans?
B: Some are good, some are bad. Some are nice, some are assholes.
JD: They’re not as scary as Butthole Surfer fans
B: No, that’s for sure.
D: [earnestly] We’re glad they’re interested in our band
B: They sometimes have this idea that we’re something we’re not. When they find out the truth, then they really hate us.
What is the truth?
B: I mean, whatever they think that’s built up in their mind. It could be a variety of things. “You guys must be into this!” No, not really. “Oh I always thought you were.” And you can see that everything changes. Then they wanna kill you.
JD: Yeah, I got that with Zappa. I didn’t really check out Zappa until Joe’s garage
B: [mocking] You didn’t listen to him?
JD: Everybody’s like, “You must have listened to a lot of Zappa…” No.
B: The Who?
JD: I listened to the Turtles…
D: Two of those guys were in Zappa’s band
JD: Yeah, that’s close, I was kind of listening to him on my mom and dad’s 8-track.
Your guys’ banter sounds pretty limber so let’s get into the real subject matter.
So [directed at JD Pinkus] what’s it like being in the Melvins?
Dream come true?
B: Dream? You mean nightmare.
JD: Yeah, what kind of dream?
B: Wet dream.
JD: Nah, I love playing with these guys. I’ve known them for a while. Me and Dale, our bands used to tour together. Our rock bands Honky and Altamont. So there I met him [Dale] and then I met Buzz and we played shows together. So it was just natural, I guess. These guys write songs that I like and I like playing them.
What about for you guys [Dale and Buzz], what’s it like being in the Melvins?
D: It beats flippin’ burgers.
B: I’ve had worse jobs
D: Enough to keep doing it for 30 years
Lots of bands who have been together for a long time either get pigeonholed and produce the same type of music until it becomes stale or change their style radically and alienate their fans. How have you guys navigated that risky balance over your 30 year career?
JD: I’m not going to speak for them, but it takes time to get an audience of people to accept different kinds of things, you have to build up on it most of the time. Unless you’re coming from a bigger band and then people want to hear everything you do. But my experience has been when you have one particular sound, people get used to that and you gradually bring them into other stuff. After 30 years you can pretty much do anything you fucking want, fart into a microphone and that’s cool. But if somebody new farted into a microphone–that no one had heard of before–it’d be like, “That’s stupid, he just farted in a microphone.” But if Buzz did it, it’d be like, [excitedly] “You hear that new record where someone farted in a microphone?” It’s hard to lay a lot on people that aren’t used to your sound. But that’s what I’ve found. And it takes a long time to build up that kind of audience.
B: It does take a long time, no question. Our audience pretty much knows that we’re left of center.
D: And we know that it’s a hard sell.
Would you say that the sound has changed though?
B: I would say it’s changed massively.
JD: Yeah, you got a much better bass player now. We’ve done lots of different stuff, there’s no one thing that we do all the time.
After being established as a band for this long, you’ve no doubt seen several generations of fans pass through. What’s it like to see this revolving door of fans, has it affected you at all?
D: Yeah, it’s great. People get to a certain age and don’t really go out anymore or go to shows. So every year they’re kind of the same age. I mean there’s always new people, but it’s always great that there’s still a younger crowd. Like whatshisname said in Dazed and Confused, “I keep getting older, they stay the same age.” Matthew McConaughey.
JD: Don’t mind if I do do do di da da da.
B: I don’t think I’ve seen that movie.
D: Yeah, maybe you have, we saw it together.
JD: Remember you were holding pinkies through the whole movie?
B: Oh yeah.
JD: He tried that popcorn trick on you?
D: [returning to seriousness again]Yeah, but it’s great that there’s younger people still interested. And a bunch of old dudes.
JD: Hopefully we scare them back to staying in school and not starting a band. “That’s what it’s like when you get old and play rock!”
B: Forget it.
JD: Gonna be an engineer.
B: Gonna kill myself
You guys are effectively a supergroup as far as a lot of people are concerned. What’s it been like coming together, playing together, performing together, recording an album together?
D: Well this all happened because Jeff [JD] was in town just hanging out and we were just like, “Come jam for fun.” Ended up writing some songs and he was really quick to learn and it was obvious to us right away that he was really good with stuff that’s somewhat complicated. And if he can pick that stuff up right away, that’s great. So what was going to be maybe just an EP with Jeff ended up with an LP.
B: With Jeff and Paul [Leary, also of Butthole Surfers]
D: Because of Buzz and I playing with him–this was maybe what, two years ago?–when our bass player Jared was gonna have a baby and couldn’t tour, well he [JD] could do it perfectly it was great.
B: So it went from there
Where is Paul tonight?
JD: He’s busy doing his production stuff so hopefully at the end of spring we’ll be able to do some shows if everything works out. It’s pretty time consuming just to get ready for the tour and he’s in it but he did a lot of rhythm and noise tracks [for Hold It In] and we’re not playing that whole album. We’re doing three songs off of it.
D: Especially before this tour, we did the tour with Jeff last year and he knows a bunch of the songs already. He [Paul] certainly needs some more time to figure what we want to play and all that stuff. But hopefully we can do it.
You guys [Melvins and Butthole Surfers] have known each other for a long time. Can you remember when you first met?
D: I met him [JD] at the uh… What’s that club in San Francisco?
B: The Eagle?
D: Bottom of the Hill.
JD: The bottom of your career.
D: And he was playing with Mac McNeilly [Jesus Lizard]
JD: P.W. Long [of] Reelfoot. Preston.
JD: It was a while back. I remember I had to take a shit real bad and there was only one little shitter in there. So Preston did five songs acoustically and I waited until his set and everybody went out and started watching it. And I was in there and it was one of those ones where you work twenty minutes to try and get a half a piece of cilantro out.
JD: So I’m sitting there like, song one… song two, going “fuuck…”, song three. I finally made it out there.
B: How was the show? I don’t remember.
So it sounds like you two [Jeff and Dale] have a long history together, when did Buzz join the picture?
B: Not until two years ago.
What was it like playing together for the first time?
B: It was good, I mean, me and Dale played together for a long time and–
JD: And I played with Dale, me and him recorded some stuff.
B: And if there’s one thing I’ve learned after thirty plus years of playing music is that it’s usually done before you think it’s done. There is a point where you flog things to death and it doesn’t sound good. That’s totally possible.
JD: Personality has a lot to do with it. We’re all dicks so we get along. If you’ve got a guy who’s really talented but he’s a dickhead, one way or the other it’s kind of difficult to [work together]. We’re lucky that we’re all somewhat similar.
B: We’re all alpha females.
JD: We’ve got similar ideas and ideals. Not everybody who can play music can fit into a small intimate group of people.
B: You have to trust them. Their instincts are fine, they know what to do. You don’t have to sit there and coach them along.
JD: Yeah, once we’d jammed he didn’t come over with wire cutters and snap each one of my strings and say “Get the fuck outta here.”
B: Just one.
JD: And take Novochelic’s [sic] bass with you.
What was the songwriting process for the new album?
JD: Every song was different
B: We jammed almost none. A little. But grand scheme of things, a couple days maybe.
JD: I brought four songs to the table, Paul brought three songs, you [Buzz] brought a bunch of songs.
B: We worked on stuff and changed stuff, but I don’t remember who wrote what, I have no idea. I don’t really think about it in those terms.
JD: Once everybody starts building off your song, it’s not as much your song anymore.
So the whole band collaborated on each song then?
B: Oh yeah, yeah.
JD: The last thing I recorded bass on was after the marathon session in Austin, Texas. It was just drum beat going at the end of the song, and I’m pretty burned from playing all day long on a bunch of tunes [and said] “I’ll just do something.” It actually turned out pretty cool though. My head was a little foggy at that point.
B: That’s what we wanted.
JD: I was just sitting with you listening to Miles Davis, I was like, “Shit I could do that.”
B: The thing is, is since things are usually done before you think they’re done, as long as you do it confidently, then people will put the pieces together, you know? [laughs]
JD: In Butthole Surfers we used to think, if we thought something was funny or something was good for whatever reason, then there would be a small percentage of people out there who would agree.
D: And that’s enough. You don’t need the whole pie, just a small piece of it.
There are a few songs in specific off the new album, “Brass Cupcake” and “You Can Make Me Wait” among them, that seem like a departure from your normal sound.
B: I wrote “Brass Cupcake” and Paul wrote “You Can Make Me Wait.”
Are these songs just you guys fucking around with new ideas or are they maybe an indication of the direction you would like to take your sound?
D: It’s hard to say, really, we write all kind of different songs.
B: Yeah, I’ve got a ton of stuff. I find it funny when people people are like, “I really like the stuff you did on Stoner Witch but I’m not much into your new stuff.” “Well which stuff?” and they say a song and I go, “I wrote that when I wrote the stuff for Stoner Witch.” Stuff is sitting there for years and years and… almost never for me do I do a whole album where it’s all brand new material. That’s rare. A lot of times there’s stuff that’s sat around for a very long time. So I don’t know when I wrote “Brass Cupcake,” I have no idea.
JD: I thought you wrote that for Paul [referencing the spot in the song where Paul’s vocals are featured]
B: Well I wrote that spot [in] for him, but I don’t remember when I wrote the song
D: It wasn’t new?
B: Might have been… But I had the riff all that stuff. I didn’t write it in front of you. I have tons and tons of stuff on tape. A lot of times I’ll just go through, “Ehh, I don’t like that, eh, I don’t like that, eh…” find something and go, “Yeah, that’s good, that’s got something to it.” I’ll sit there are dick around with it and then bring it in. Everybody thinks it’s a brand new song. Well technically it is, but… We have recorded stuff that I’ve been working on for fifteen years. It finally gets on a record and go, “I don’t like your new stuff,” it’s not new!
D: Yeah, there’s a song on the Melvins Lite record that we had had for a long time that we would work a little and… It just didn’t get finished for a long time for whatever reason, we couldn’t figure out how to finish it quite. And then we’d finally do it. There’s probably a lot still that we have that we’ll revisit eventually.
B: We’re re-releasing the vinyl [from] Atlantic Records on Third Man. The guy from Third Man got the masters from Atlantic for the Stag record, he goes, “What are these two songs on here that aren’t on the record?” … “I dunno.” He tells us [the names] and I don’t remember what those are.
D: Well we remembered the song titles and they looked familiar but… I had no idea
B: No idea what it sounds like, and there they are.
Where did those recordings come from?
B: We recorded them but we just didn’t do anything with them.
D: We left them off the record for whatever reason… I mean that was fucking twenty years ago… Hadn’t listened to it since then, so it’s hard to remember
JD: There were a few that we didn’t use from this [Hold It In] album that who knows when will come out.
B: Four–two, at least two maybe more.
D: Yeah, that too, there’s a bunch of recorded material that we haven’t put out yet
B: There was a song that we recorded for Senile Animal that ended up on the next record. And the guys were like, “Won’t that sound weird?” But nobody’s gonna notice. Just put it in with the rest of the songs and… no one knows.
How does your new album fit in among your past releases? Are Jeff and Paul going to be new contributing members of the band?
B: We have no permanent members of the band other than me and him [Dale]
So you’ve just borrowed them temporarily for one album?
B: I don’t know
No plans whatsoever for the future?
B: Nothing like that at all. We had a bass player before named Kevin and we had a bunch of trouble with him. Extracurricular activities trouble. And that was really hard for us to deal with, and I said I would never do that again. I’ll never put that much stock into one [member]. That way, we can do whatever we want to–whatever me and him [Dale] do, I say it’s the Melvins, that’s what it is. And we haven’t had that problem. So we can do whatever we want and no one can be weird about it because that’s how it is from the beginning. “Well I thought I was in the band,” well we never said you were, we said do you want to do this. I don’t want to go there ever again, it’s too hard. To wait around or to have something like that happen and have that much invested in it and watch it fall apart. It’s just not worth. And that would really only work for a band that’s been around for a long time.
D: It’ll only work for us or for Roxy Music. They never had a permanent bass player I don’t think.
B: I would never do something like “Let’s have bass tryouts” either. I’m so not interested. I only find someone I like and ask them. Not “You want to come and try out,” I already like what they’re doing.
D: And we’ve always thought like, oh we want to play with this person, we’ll still get them in there to make sure it’s going to work.
JD: Sometimes it doesn’t work, like y’all asked–well I won’t say his name–uh, tall guy that plays bass guitar.
B: Oh yeah, but that was just for a little project, we were never going to play live.
JD: But that’s what I mean, it doesn’t always work out, chemistry doesn’t always work.
D: It’s never been that we’ve played with someone and been like, “Eh this doesn’t really work,” it’s always worked out.
B: We already knew it’d work. If I already like what they do. And I’m not one to go, “It has to be exactly like this,” I don’t want that I want people to own it. They know what to do, I don’t have to train them.
D: In old songs we’ll teach them what we know and then add what you want
B: Add what you want, do it like this or do it better. Fine with me. I mean he’s in the Butthole Surfers, that’s pretty elastic. There’s a mass of expansive things he could do. If he can do that, there’s not much he can’t. He understands his sensibilities. That’s what we wanna do, we’re not Rush or some bullshit. That sort of thing is not us, it’s much more filthy. There’s enough bands out there playing totally in tune, why should they expect us to do it.
JD: We don’t hide behind volume or lyrics or songs or tuning or amplifiers, just go out there and do what you do.
B: If the songs are good it doesn’t really matter. It’s the same with the Butthole Surfers, if the songs are good, their sensibilities are right and you just trust them to do their job. There’s no right or wrong as far as that’s concerned.
Can I get three adjectives from each of you to describe the new album?
JD: Peachy, green, and mean.
B: Hip, cool, and classy.
D: Interesting… Fun…
JD: He’s a drummer, he can’t count.
D: And sexy.
(Everybody cheers as if witnessing a child take its first step)