Melvins don’t like to do the same thing over and over again. Founded in 1983 in tiny Montesano, Wash. — two hours’ drive southwest from Seattle — the band led by Buzz Osborne (a.k.a. King Buzzo) has always done things in its own, idiosyncratic way. “Anytime I could do something that’s a little different, I’m down,” says Osborne in a phone interview with City Paper. “That’s it: Just adding a flavor you might not have thought of.”
After 2016’s themed release Basses Loaded (the album featured a large cast of guest musicians handling bass duties), the band returned this month with a double album called A Walk With Love and Death.
The first disc, Death, is, by Melvins standards, a fairly conventional album. It features nine songs that explore musical territory familiar to fans of the band’s deep catalog: heavy, mid-tempo tunes with memorable guitar riffs and a thunderous bottom-end. While some tunes showcase yelping lead vocals, others — like “Edgar the Elephant” — display vocal harmonies that recall late-period Beatles.
After a long succession of bassists — eight at last count, many of whom returned to guest on Basses Loaded — in 2016, Redd Kross bassist Steven McDonald took responsibility for supplying Melvins’ low frequencies in his own style. “I want the way he plays; that’s what I’m interested in,” Osborne says. “Not Steven McDonald playing what I tell him to play.”
A Walk With Love and Death’s second disc has a completely different feel. Subtitled Love, it’s the soundtrack to a film of the same name. Some of the tracks on the second disc are recordings of impromptu, one-off jams. Commenting on the seemingly offhand nature of those tracks, Osborne says, “That’s what it sounded like that day, and we accomplished what we were trying to accomplish.” Reaching for a handy metaphor, he adds, “We tried to throw out the baby and keep the bathwater.”
In between the short songs on Love are odd bits of “found sounds,” weird spoken-word bits and psychedelic audio experiments. As good as Melvins’ regular albums are, it’s this disc that’s really intriguing.
“We recorded a lot of the stuff with really ambient techniques,” says Osborne. “On a couple of tracks, we would record to a microphone outside, and then record [other sounds] over that.” He points out that Death has some of this ambient material as well. “But you have to listen for it,” he says.
The crowd sounds, blips and bleeps scattered across Love may remind some listeners of Pink Floyd’s landmark 1972 album The Dark Side of the Moon. Osborne concedes there’s some similarity. “I would find it difficult to find any bands that weren’t in some way influenced by that,” he says. “Especially the ambient stuff; Pink Floyd were geniuses at that. But do we sound like Pink Floyd? Not really.”
In fact, Osborne is very wary of Melvins being compared to other artists, especially those from the Pacific Northwest. “I don’t identify with anything, musically,” he says. “I’m very much not a joiner; I don’t want to be part of anything. I’m a Groucho Marxist: I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”
Washington and Oregon have a long tradition of hard-edged, heavy rock, and rhythm and blues, from the Sonics and Paul Revere and the Raiders to Nirvana and Soundgarden. But Osborne bristles at the prospect of being labeled as part of that lineage. “There’s lots of crap bands up there too, so how do we explain that?” he asks.
Besides, he points out, he left the region 35 years ago. “I’ve made the vast majority of my music since I’ve lived in California,” he says. “So who do we blame for that?” Melvins are also defiantly outside the mainstream of the current music industry. In an era that focuses on downloads of individual songs, a sprawling double-album/soundtrack is cheerfully out of step with current fashion.
“Not everybody wants music dictated to them by what they can download,” he says. Paradoxically, Osborne believes that more popular individual downloads become, the better it is for his band. “The more impersonal it gets, the more personal [our music] will be for people who like what we’re doing,” he says. “So it’s creating its own monster. I’m into it.”
Melvins’ current dates are in support of A Walk With Love and Death the album, but not the film. That’s because the latter hasn’t been released yet. A minute-long trailer debuted in April, but it’s anyone’s guess when the Jesse Nieminen film will see official release. “I’m not sure exactly when,” says Osborne. “But it’s coming. We’ve always thought, ‘Our stuff is perfect for soundtracks,’ but since nobody was asking, we just did our own.”
In the meantime, a listen to Love should provide listeners with a mental movie; strange tracks like “Park Head” have a hypnotic, swirling feel reminiscent of early Flaming Lips audio experiments, and/or a particularity distressing and disorienting acid trip. Even though Love, Death and the film (when it’s finally released) are three physically distinct things, Osborne considers them as a single, unified work. “It’s very strange,” admits Osborne, “as it should be. We’ll make people uncomfortable; that’s what we want.”