Buzz Osbourne Talks Soundgarden in the '80s, His Golf Swing, and the Savage New Melvins Album
"[Chris Cornell] was a good drummer; a lot better than people think."
A quick note before I get to the crux of Sonic Breadcrumbs this week. Over the holidays, so many of you bought a copy of my book Total F*cking Godhead: The Biography of Chris Cornell that you literally cleaned out Amazon’s entire stock. To be honest, I’m still trying to wrap my mind around that mind-blowing fact.
Anyway, I’ve got some good news! Amazon has finally replenished their supply and they are shipping almost immediately once again. They also cut the price by a few bucks, which ain’t too shabby either. If you wanted to support local retailers however, you can alway check out this list to see where it’s available in a brick and mortar store near you.
I just wanted to offer a massive “Thank you!” to all of you for all your continued support for my many different projects. If you’ve been digging Godhead, I’d be supremely grateful if you let a friend know or left a review behind. I also wouldn’t hate it if could give them a head’s up about Sonic Breadcrumbs too, but no pressure.
And now, onto my interview with Buzz Osbourne…
For their 24th studio album, proto-grunge pioneers Melvins decided to turn back the clock. They jumped way past 2020, back through the Obama administration, the Bush years, the Clinton administration, the first Bush years, and landed straight in Ronald Reagan’s America. 1983. The year Sally Ride launched into space, Return of the Jedi ruled the box office, and the television series M*A*S*H bid the world a tear-strewn Goodbye, Farewell and Amen.
1983 was also the year that three kids from Montesano, Washington got together and formed a band. Their names were Mike Dillard, Matt Lukin, and Buzz Osbourne. They of course called themselves Melvins and their beginnings were extremely inauspicious. “Nobody gave a shit, really,” Osbourne remembered. “We did okay on a really local level around Olympia. I don't think it was until 1986 that we made more than $200 playing a show.”
Dillard, the group’s first drummer before Dale Crover took over, ultimately wasn’t long for the life of a rock and roller. He left the Melvins just a little over a year after the band’s inception. “Mike lives in a house that's approximately one mile from the house that he came home,” Osbourne explained. “When he came home from the hospital, that's where he went to. He was not even a mile from that. He's married to the woman he was going out with when he was in 10th grade. He has three kids and he is a union machinist. It was not in the cards for him to be traveling around the world making music on some weird rock band. It just was not going to happen.”
That doesn’t mean Osbourne ever forgot about his old buddy. The man they sometimes refer to as “King Buzzo” has made sardonic, sludgy music in a variety of configurations of what we know as Melvins throughout the years. Some other most celebrated work on records like Ozma and Houdini was recorded with Lori Black — Shirley Temple Black’s daughter — on bass for instance. Mr. Bungle’s Trevor Dunn has also held down the low-end in a different configuration called Melvins Lite. Butthole Surfers bassist Jeff Pinkus held down the spot most recently up to 2018.
Back sometime around 2012, Osbourne got back in touch with Mike, who was eager to collaborate again. “He had suggested, ‘Let's do some new songs,’” Osbourne recalled. “I was like, ‘That sounds like a great idea.’ So then I started writing songs for him and Dale [Crover]. Dale was playing bass instead of drums. We will not be playing with the original bass player. That's not going to happen. So, this is as closest to that as we can get.”
The result was a new configuration of Melvins dubbed Melvins 1983. The album, Tres Cabrones dropped in 2013. The entire experience ultimately proved so rewarding, they decided to run it back again for their latest record, an uproarious detuned face-melter titled Working With God.
“I was writing the songs for a few years, figuring it all out,” Osbourne said. “It took us a little while to get the whole thing recorded because Mike Dillard lives in Washington state. We live in California. He could only do it when he got time off from his work. He'd fly down on a Thursday night, we'd go to the studio, work on the songs, he'd record Thursday night, Friday and Saturday and fly home on Sunday.”
Given the configuration of the group — a drummer who doesn’t often drum professionally, and a bassist, who’s typically a drummer — Osbourne had to re-work his songwriting strategy. “I have to write songs that those guys can play,” he said. “That's the thing. I can't make too big a math problem like I used to.”
The result is a record that's blissfully unsubtle in the way it punches you in the mouth. Massive, detuned riffs combine with heavy, Paleolithic rhythms to create a sound that can best be described as atomic sludge. Crank up songs like “The Great Good Place,” “Hund” and “Caddy Daddy” to experience the full, brutal effect. “I use all kinds of weird tunings, most of which are just my own design,” Osbourne said. “The last few years I've done a lot of Open G and Open E tuning stuff, which I find really fascinating and fun.”
Did I mention that Working With God was also funny? The opening track, for instance, “I F**k Around,” is an explicit cover of the Beach Boy’s immortal, summertime anthem “I Get Around.”
“'Round, 'round, fuck around, I fuck around / Yeah, fuck around, woo ooh ooh / 'round, 'round, I fuck around.”
For Osbourne, the idea of covering the Beach Boys at this point in their career felt like the perfect move, because with Melvins, truly anything is possible. Zagging while others zig is what’s set them apart from so many of their contemporaries across the span of decades, and has sustained their ability to continue cranking out new albums with a staggering frequency. “It just to set the tone for the whole record,” he said. “Bands like us, meaning punk rock bands verging on heavy metal, don't usually do stuff like that. All the more reason why we need to do it. If people want a regular type of band, then there's lots of bands out there that are willing to do that. They shouldn't look to us to do that. We're something else. People can't handle it, fine with me.”
With Working with God finally out in the world, Osbourne has kept busy with a variety of project both Melvins based and otherwise. “I did a solo record that came out last year,” he said. “We have, so far, two online video-type concert things that came out. We got another one in the works.”
There’s also a secret effort in the works that Osbourne was loathe to go too much into, but sounds pretty enticing. “We have another big project that I can't tell you exactly what it is just yet,” he said. “It will come out at some point. But a big, huge thing. And I'm working on stuff for a new record.”
In the meantime, with a pandemic ranging that’s sidelined every band’s ability to tour, Osbourne has been keeping busy following in the footsteps of rockers like Alice Cooper by perfecting his golf swing. “I'm about 11 or 12 handicap,” he said. “Not too bad.”
For what it’s worth, if he ever wanted to start a grunge rock Pro-Am, well, I know a guy who might be interested…
The Buzz on Soundgarden in the ‘80s
As I mentioned in my note up top, I once wrote an entire book about Chris Cornell. So, given the opportunity to chat with someone like Buzz Osbourne, it was really only a matter of time that the subject of Soundgarden got brought up.
King Buzzo was one of the very few, integral members of the Seattle rock scene in the 1980s, so I couldn’t resist asking him a few questions about the Deep Six compilation — an extremely local compilation that marked some of the first recorded appearances by Green River, Skin Yard, Malfunkshun, the U-Men, and of course Melvins and Soundgarden — the Gorilla Gardens rock club, and what Chris Cornell sounded like behind a drum kit.
Here are his full thoughts on each subject transcribed below:
We’ve talked a bit about the Melvins in 1983. I’m wondering if we could fast-forward a couple of years from then and touch on the Deep Six compilation. What memories do you have about working on that record? What was the experience like?
That was cool. That was probably the best recording we'd done up to that point. Not long after that we recorded our first record. I was really happy with the way that came out. Not so much the way the next thing we did with them on the seven inch, which was live to two track. I didn't really like the way that sounded. I thought that was kind of a mistake. I'm not sure why they wanted to do it that way. But that's they wanted to do. Didn't like the way it came out that much but there's not much I could do then. Oh well.
You were playing around Seattle a fair bit around then. Do you remember a place called Gorilla Gardens in the International District?
It was kind of a dump but it was two theaters next to each other; old movie theaters. So, mid-sized, not ornate by any means. Next to the railroad tracks in a semi-abandoned type of area there. Seattle was a much more vicious, dead town at that point; not like the way it is now.
That whole area down there has turned around completely and whole different kind of thing. Bands would come through there and play. It was cool. Sometimes they'd have two shows at once. I never understood why they had shows in one room or the other room. I don't know how they decided that. I saw lots of shows in both rooms. I saw lots of shows where it was two shows in one night, which is really cool. I always thought the guy who ran it was kind of a jerk, but we got to play with some cool bands. We played with Hüsker Dü. It was fun. I saw a bunch of shows there, too.
I noticed you were on a bill with Hüsker Dü and Soundgarden in 1985. Do you recall that gig at all?
Oh, yeah. Yeah. Chris was playing drums. That's originally how I remembered Soundgarden was two guys out front with no microphones and Chris playing drums and singing.
That's crazy. What did that sound like, even?
They sounded a little more like Killing Joke, maybe. That was fun. He was a good drummer; a lot better than people think.
He was really good. He had a big jumbo bass drum set. Played drums really great. Talking to Matt Cameron not long ago, he talked about how Chris would make these demos and sometimes the drums would be so good he would just play them the way that Chris wrote them.
Was there anything that guy could not fucking do?
Chris was a fucking good drummer. I always thought he was a better drummer than he was a guitar player.
Yeah. The guitar player in that band was Kim. Also Ben's a really good guitar player. Ben was a guitar player first. The thing about that band that was strange was it was four songwriters. Four guys writing songs. That's odd. It almost never happens.
Is it true that you taught Kim Thayil and Mark Arm how to play Drop D?
I may have showed him that. I don't know if Mark Arm does much of that but Kim, that certainly changed his world. He loved it. That was a long time ago. That was mid-80s.
I saw you were working with Matt Cameron recently for a solo record he's doing?
Yeah. I heard at least one of the songs but I have no idea what he's going to do with it.