Music » Music Stories & Interviews

The contrarians



The Melvins with Down, Weedeater
6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 2
House of Blues, 407-934-2583

The early '90s were a great time to be alive if you played heavy rock in the Pacific Northwest. When Nirvana broke, the resulting tidal wave washed nearly anyone with a distorted guitar onto the shores of a major-label recording contract and some measure of fame. Of course, for every wagon-jumper, there is one left rolling in the dust.

Way back around 1985, the Melvins congealed around the core of singer-guitarist Buzz Osborne and drummer Dale Crover, who would form the band's consistent membership over the next quarter-century. They quickly found a comfort zone in playing uncomfortable music, favoring extremely dense and heavy soundscapes and slowed-down tempos.

Osborne, for one, largely disagrees with the near-constant categorization of the Melvins as one of the slowest, grimiest bands around.

"Why people tend to think all we ever did was snail-paced sludge is beyond me," says Osborne. "I'm guessing it's because people have a problem with using their ears."

The Melvins have maintained an approach of staunch experimental eclecticism, and their nearly annual output ranges over more differing sonic elements than a dozen bands will cover in their combined careers. Among some 20 albums, attentive listeners will find ambient noise, found sounds, doom- and drone-metal forebears, digital sampling, warp-speed thrash and the occasional Cars cover. Of course, this open-handed treatment of all musical possibilities is tempered by the fact that the unifying element tying Melvins albums together in a sonic continuum is heaviness, with dirge-like tempos coming in a close second. While this harsh, wildly experimental sound made them influential within the burgeoning "grunge" scene, it also made them a hard sell as major-label material.

Most people would see a stellar band being passed over by its own progeny as a cosmic injustice, but for the Melvins, it was more like a foregone conclusion. The band was simply not suited for music as big business. When Atlantic signed them (briefly) during the Aberdeen, Wash., gold rush, it was a doomed marriage from the start. They were, and remain, far too unconcerned with the whims of labels or fans to sell millions of records.

"If we would have ‘made it big,' I would now have a shitload of money … maybe," says Osborne. "I could also have ended up strung out with my head blown off, too; or worse, alive and married to `Courtney` Love. That would not be good either."

The band isn't losing sleep over it. They prefer to continue with what got them started in the first place — making music. They are strikingly prolific. Few bands could handle such an unrelenting schedule of recording, releasing and playing live, but it's what fuels Osborne. The Melvins "are habitually contemporary. We move forward at a rapid clip."

In their nearly 25 years, they've released 24 albums (counting live and best-ofs) and the past several years have seen the Melvins undergo some significant changes. Long known for a mercurial disposition toward its membership (the band has been through at least four bassists), the core duo of Crover and Osborne teamed up with stoner-sludge rhythm duo Big Business in 2006, adding bass and a second drummer to the lineup, resulting in some of the heaviest sounds the band has put to tape.

"We have been wanting to do a double-drummer thing for years," says Osborne. "Big Business are a good fit for us." The "double-drummer thing" is executed in synchronicity, with Crover matched beat for beat by Coady Willis. Not only does this lend a thunderous quality, it also contributes a sense of sonic parallax, as the two skin-beaters' notes clip and curtail each other, sometimes leading and sometimes lagging, causing an innate rhythmic interplay of micro-shifting tempos. As Osborne puts it, "as for other bands getting two drummers, give it a shot. It's harder than it looks."

That's a good summation of a band like the Melvins, who make big music because they never got big. Ever the contrarian, Osborne sees things differently.

"I have no idea if not making it big gave us a longer career but, off the bat, that sounds like a pretty far-fetched idea."

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