Sludge Packers

Seattle's Melvins storm into Tampa

Back when the whole Seattle/ Aberdeen/ Olympia thing went volcanic some 12 years ago, Melvins had already been around longer than most local bands last. In a way, they're the ones who made it all possible: Guitarist Buzz Osborne was the guy high-school kids just a few years younger (including Kurt Cobain) wanted to be; original bass player Matt Lukin split to fill out Mudhoney; and drummer Dale Crover played on the first Nirvana full-length, Bleach. As a handful of their contemporaries suddenly reshaped the topography of modern rock, Melvins remained below the radar. And when the whole thing began to look like a cartoon to everybody except the industry and bands that actually packed up and moved to Seattle five years too late, Osborne became the man to see for a pithy quote about atrophy and general suckage.

The band scored a major-label contract amid the fray, but their opposite-of-catchy style and difficult reputation left little doubt that Melvins wouldn't do much beyond being a band that was once hugely influential and always, for the most part, unknown.

By now, virtually every Grunge Nation product has either called it quits or had it called for them. Melvins, on the other hand, are cruising through their 18th year of plying iconoclastic prog-sludge to a rabidly loyal worldwide following. A proliferation of unbelievably shitty metal bands, as well as an alliance with extreme music guru Mike Patton, have made Melvins more sought-after than ever. Hostile Ambient Takeover, their 15th proper studio recording, was released in April.

Melvins' dense, complex and misanthropic style has often been labeled purely reactionary in nature. The mainstream music press long assumed that the band's only desire was to present an opposition to the speed and simplicity of punk, as well as an antidote to the formula of commercial rock. Osborne confirms that such an ideology probably has a place in Melvins but considers it more unconscious than overt. Obviously, the man doesn't spend much time glued to MTV or the FM dial.

"It's not intentional. I don't realize it until I'm actually faced with the other end of the spectrum," he says. "I'm not completely aware of all the crap that's out there. It's just that when I do become aware of it, it makes me realize how far away from that I am. But it doesn't surprise me."

The trio doesn't exist in a vacuum, however, and he's long been an outspoken critic of the recording industry's casual dismissal of expression in favor of easy marketability.

"There are all kinds of things missing from mainstream music. The list is far beyond anything I could even comprehend. It's horrible," insists Osborne. "I don't listen to the radio a whole lot, I never have. When I do, I don't find it very interesting at all. It's kind of a drag, you know?"

Melvins' music has taken on many forms over the years, flirting with everything from Sabbath-y dirge to dark-hearted math-rock to elements of electronica. One thing it has never been, however, is mainstream. They are among very, very few bands in whose output the ghosts of various influences aren't even vaguely perceptible. It's as if the inspiration for their tuneage comes not from music at all, but instead from immediate environs, negative emotion and even the time-tested cliche about "these troubled times in which we live."

"It comes from everywhere, including music. Influences are vast and extreme, and they should be. I think, anyway," Osborne chuckles. "It seemed like a good idea."

Personality-wise, they're even harder to pin down. Crover and current bassist Kevin Rutamanis (formerly of Cows) tend to leave the mouthpiece duties to Osborne, who seems to revel in sending the most mixed messages possible. Over the course of any given interview, he can imply that Melvins are everything from a joke to frustrated artists of immeasurable talent. When asked point blank if he intentionally incites confusion, Osborne comes (somewhat) clean, though he contends that it's more an issue of representing the breadth of the Melvins concept than one of subterfuge.

"We like to embrace both sides of that. Absolutely," he says. "No doubt about it. There's room for all of it."

This refusal to simplify may be most responsible for keeping Melvins from some semblance of the big time — and one gets the impression it's intentional. Nearly every album contains at least one tune that wouldn't seem terribly out of place alongside radio's weirder heroes, but the threesome doggedly eschews a trendy, easily digested image and has no real designs on superstardom. They've had ample opportunity to expose themselves to a wider audience via tours supporting huge acts like Tool, White Zombie and Nine Inch Nails — hell, they played Ozzfest back in "98. While the band undoubtedly won a few converts doing so, Osborne says he doesn't see any arena opening slots in the near future:

"We kind of think we've done that end of it, and we don't feel like selling the band that way anymore. Stick to doing our own shows, maybe a few of those kind of things here and there, but by and large it's a "been there, done that' type of thing. We enjoy our own shows much more."

Melvins are currently in the midst of an American theater tour, after which they'll probably break to spend some time working on their myriad side projects (the most famous of which is Fantomas, the noise-metal/cartoon-soundtrack outfit featuring Osborne, Patton, former Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo and Mr. Bungle bassist Trevor Dunn). Such outside activities, rather than leaching vitality from Melvins, seem to be a key factor in keeping the band fresh. The members go out and jam with other people, get new ideas, then get jazzed to do the next Melvins project. And that desire to keep moving forward, according to Osborne, is the biggest reason Melvins are still around. And plan on staying around.

"You've gotta just keep working on it. Look at what you've done, and try something new," he says. "That's about all you can do."

Music critic Scott Harrell can be reached at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or at scott. [email protected].

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