Saying whatever you want and leaving certain things unsaid are not mutually exclusive. King Buzzo, longtime singer/guitarist for legendary sludge-metal band the Melvins, embraces both ideas with equal gravity.
When it comes to This Machine Kills Artists (Ipecac), his new album of gutsy acoustic songs, Buzzo (born Roger Osborne) is straightforward about the record's meaning. "To me, guitars are guitars," Buzzo says.
But after 30-plus years releasing music, why a solo acoustic album? Why now? "It seemed like the right thing to do," he says. "I'm not afraid of a challenge. We'll see where it goes. That was it, really. I make music, and it's another way to make music."
But when it comes to the album's title, a wry caginess emerges. What's the correlation here to the famous inscription on Woody Guthrie's guitar, "This Machine Kills Fascists?" Does it mean the same thing, presumably that Buzzo's wielding a similar killing machine in the form of his Buck Owens red, white, and blue six-string? "Is that what he was saying?" Buzzo counters. "Did he ever say? I don't know if he ever said anything. I would leave that open to interpretation. I doubt anyone ever questioned him about any of it. Not to my knowledge. I think we should leave it at that for this as well. Let people decide for themselves."
This light-switch dichotomy between freely open and cautiously guarded makes perfect sense if you examine Buzzo's career in the Melvins. Although they're conventionally known for a few consistent trademarks — a crushing heaviness, Buzzo's foreboding howl, and insistence upon complete creative control — the Melvins have always done whatever they want, even if the group's motives were mysterious. This was the case from their beginnings in the mid-1980s, when they served as inspiration to fellow Northwestern bands such as Nirvana and Mudhoney. And it remained so throughout their triptych of major label albums Houdini, Stoner Witch, and Stag for Atlantic in the '90s. A random shuffle through their discography reveals a group that's equally liable to take excursions into harsh noise, hard rock, or weighty sludge. The variety is occasionally jarring but often thrilling. In their music, the halves of the aforementioned dichotomy support one another: They never care what anyone thinks about what they do, but they'll never surrender their right to be oblique in doing so.
The Melvins are long running, and they've got a bursting discography to prove it. Have they ever taken time off? "Not much," Buzzo offers casually. "I would say almost none in thirty years. People have asked, 'What do you do when you take a break? ' I don't take a break, I never have. Why would I take a break? People will say, 'We're not going to do anything for two years' — that doesn't make sense to me. I make music, that's what I do."
For This Machine Kills Artists, that creative line remains unbroken. Across 17 cuts, the riffing is unmistakably Buzzo. Had Melvins drummer Dale Crover been present on the recording, these songs wouldn't have been out of place on any other Melvins classic. Buzzo mercilessly invents and cuts down a gallery of fools including "The Blithering Idiot" and "Useless King of the Punks." The songs don't suffer for a lack of electricity coursing through Buzzo's guitar; rather, the solitude of voice and acoustic six-string makes This Machine Kills Artists a desolate take on the menace for which he is already known. Buzzo tosses off this sort of material with ease; the group has another album coming out in the fall, which he declines to discuss in detail but says, "It's gonna be a bit of a surprise for people."
And yet most Melvins albums of the past few years have been surprises: Which Melvins will we get this time? The double-drum behemoth featuring Coady Willis and Jared Warren from Seattle duo Big Business? Melvins Lite, their trio with longtime avant-garde mainstay Trevor Dunn on upright bass? Or a throwback to their 1983 line-up with original drummer Mike Dillard (with Crover on bass), as on 2013's Tres Cabrones? What is the true Melvins in 2014? "It's whatever me and Dale do," Buzzo says flatly.
The Melvins have run through a revolving cast of bass players since Kevin Rutmanis was fired in 2004 amid rumors of substance abuse. "After we had all the trouble with Kevin, I said I was never gonna let that happen again," Buzzo says. "I'm not going to get in a situation where I have got so much invested in one person. I can't handle the disappointment. It's not that I wanted to throw people out of the band, believe me. I'm not happy about that; it doesn't excite me. By no means."
This all-business approach explains how the Melvins have garnered such a massive body of work. For Buzzo, that last word is crucial. "It's work!" he says of his band's unflagging touring schedule. "I'm here to work. Take it seriously. People get all bent out of shape if you're not able to have 'fun.' What job do you have fun at? I couldn't care less about seeing the hip strip in Toledo — I couldn't give a fucking shit. Europe was fun the first 12 times I went there. I'm not a big fan of travel. It's part of the job."
Buzzo's never been one to stifle his thoughts. But when a recent article in the Missoula Independent quoted him referring to a few ex-members of the band KISS as "alcoholic junkies," he went on to say more intriguing things by way of explanation. "It's bullshit music, no one cares," he said in that interview. "It's not overly important. No music is. Music is ... an extra thing you do in your life."
How, then, does Buzzo square referring to KISS — long-held up as one of the Melvins' greatest influences — as unimportant, when he himself takes his work so seriously? "When you're a music fan, that's extra in your life," Buzzo insists. "Extra! It's not your life. It's part of your life. For a KISS fan, it's not ultimately important who's in KISS."
In his flippancy toward the world and its perspective on what he views as his job, Buzzo draws a distinction between what he likes and how he lives. "I take what I'm doing seriously as an artist, but I'm not a fan of what I'm doing," he says. "I'm a fan of the Who! It's important to me, and it changed my life, but it's an extra part of my life. Throughout history, take someone like the Eskimos: The Eskimos didn't build pyramids. Why? Because they didn't have any extra time. They were busy surviving. All the pyramid-builders were on one line of [latitude] on the earth, where they could enjoy an extra part of their life: art, carving, and staring at the sun and staring at the way stars move."
All of which makes sense in the Melvins' narrative arc, as wild as it's been. Their tendency to move with their gut, even in directions that baffle others, is motivated by the idea that it can mean the world to them and fuck-all to everyone else. In other words: King Buzzo has always taken his work seriously but doesn't care if anyone else does. It can be extra for us, but it's everything for him.
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