Meet the Melvins: 30 Years Without A Job

An interview with King Buzzo Osborne and his brace of bassists

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My friend Jerry Wilkins was first in line Friday, July 20 outside Wonder Ballroom, for his 38th time seeing the iconic, weird and wildly influential heavy-metal-inspired and grunge-inspiring Melvins.

The prolific Melvins are touring their new album Pinkus Abortion Technician, a riff on the 1987 Butthole Surfers album Locust Abortion Technician, featuring Butthole Surfers bassist Jeff Pinkus, two Butthole Surfers covers, and a distorted slowed-down cover of the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

The Melvins brought their powerfully groovy, hard-rocking, doom-town sound and their ‘70s rockstar vibe to an all-ages Portland crowd electrified by the wiry-haired presence of lead singer and guitarist Buzz Osborne, wearing one of his trademark eyeball-emblazoned sci-fi slickers and commanding the scene while dueling bass players Pinkus and Steven McDonald tore up the stage on either side.

Portland State Vanguard huddled in a noisy backstage booth with Osborne and Pinkus before the show.

Making money as musicians

Buzz Osborne: I’m always planning something. I spend 70 percent of my waking hours trying to figure out how to hustle a living out of this. So far, so good. I haven’t had a job since 1988. So, success. There’s nobody underwriting what I’m doing. The thing is, what happens with a lot of this kind of stuff is people think you’re either fabulously wealthy or you have nothing at all. They don’t look at it like it’s possible to make a living playing music.

What motivates them after 35 years

Osborne: Not every day is good, but they never would be. You look at people like Chris Cornell, who was fabulously wealthy, lots of success, wife and kids at home—kills himself. That’s a story that happens every day. I don’t know what the answer is.

Jeff Pinkus: I’m happy, I love my life, I love doing what we do. Like Willie Nelson says: For him, what’s retirement? He quits playing golf, smoking weed and playing music. I doubt that’s going to happen.

Sports

Osborne: I love playing golf. When I’m at home I play every day, as much as I can. I’ve always loved sports; I’ve just always hated the people who play sports.

Pinkus: I’ve been fancying tennis lately, myself.

Covering Butthole Surfers songs

Osborne: It was easy.

Pinkus: I’ve always wanted to play ‘em.

Osborne: It seemed like the right thing to do.

Pinkus: I wanted to play “Florida” with someone who could remember the lyrics.

Osborne: I saw [Butthole Surfers] in probably ‘82 or ‘83. I was a big fan, I thought it was really good. I really liked their attitude and the fact that they were very musical and they were different.

Dueling bass players

Pinkus: [McDonald] is very California-esque and I have to explain my bad, off-color jokes to him sometimes. He can be so innocent and pure. He hates it when I say that.

Osborne: They’re both acid casualties from a young age. Once you have that in perspective, it’s easier to deal with.

Pinkus: [Osborne] saw we both have different styles. When he asked me about doing recordings with Steven, he said, “Yeah, Steven’s a great musician and a really nice guy, and you’re a fucking weirdo!”

Osborne: Steven is one of the most badass bass players I’ve ever played with. He’s a really good player. He’s very underrated. We’ve never had a band with two bass players. It’s an odd combo, but there’s no reason why it wouldn’t work. I like it a lot.

Pinkus: Our sounds are completely different. I’m into more like a Grand Funk tone, and he plays with a pick and has more like a Beatles kind of tone. We both get to use toys, so one of us can go low while the other one can go high. There’s a lot of different textures. [Buzz] just stands there and does performance art.

Osborne: I don’t even play anymore! I don’t have to change a lot of strings. I bought two sets for the tour, that’s it. Two guitars, two sets of strings.

Favorite Portland bands

Smegma, The Wipers, Poison Idea, Iommi Stubbs

Advice for new bands

Osborne: Be as peculiar as possible.

Pinkus: Make the hard stuff look easy and the easy stuff look hard.

Osborne: Don’t go to college.

Steven McDonald, poking his head in: Get a tuner. Make sure your tuners are calibrated to one another.

Who’s the better bassist?

McDonald: We have a plan. There’s a duel that’s gonna be happening at the end of the tour—pistols at dawn. We will never know about the bass player, but we will know who’s better at pistols.

Your questions answered!

A good chunk of my friends are Melvins fans, so I reached out to ask, “What would you ask the Melvins?”

Bryan Donald White: I would ask Pinkus to recall the very first time he took LSD.

Pinkus: That’s easy. It was Orange Sunshine. I saw all the bones in my hand.

Adrienne Shaffer: Do they still nail down their drum set?

Osborne: We have a carpet for that.

Pinkus: We nail the drummer down instead. They tried to do that to me with the bass, but it wouldn’t work.

Jason Frazier: Is punk dead?

Osborne: No, but it just sucks now.

Pinkus: I missed it. I’m 50. I was in Georgia, so I was part of it, but we didn’t have much of it there. When I started playing with the Butthole Surfers, I thought we were already post-punk.

Harry Gadd: Angles—obtuse or acute?

Osborne: Obtuse.

Kristin Urbana Weigert: What exactly is a night goat?

Osborne: I think it’s clear. How much clearer do we have to say it?

Sean Farrell: Is Joan Osborne your secret daughter?

Osborne: I thought she looked familiar!

Lindsey Burdett: How do you make that chipmunk voice? 

Osborne: Helium.

Brendan Mack Hagin: Why haven’t Melvins recorded “Nasty Dogs and Funky Kings”?

Osborne: Well, it would be hard to improve on it. But we could. We certainly could.

Jerry Wilkins: Ask Buzz why he runs the other way every time he sees me. All I want is to shake his hand and a pic.

Osborne: It’s not that I’m afraid. I’m a germophobe.


My friend Jerry finally has closure, and maybe someday he’ll get that pic. No matter what, he will be there next time, first in line.

 

My name is C.J. and this is my new column where I will share interviews, reviews, events, opinions, and musings on the local music scene. Check out my radio show “The House of Sarcasm” on KPSU, Fridays at 11 am.

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