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Smells Like Leif Garrett 

The Melvins are (still) willing to provoke and confuse

Wednesday, Jan 19 2000
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The Melvins, legendary innovators of brutal intelli-sludge heavy rock, like to challenge their audience as much as their drum heads and amplifier outputs. As vocalist and guitarist Buzz Osborne says, the band's modus operandi is to "screw with people. That's what I like."

Speaking from his Los Angeles home, Osborne is quick to insist the group doesn't exist simply to provoke. "I don't mind pushing buttons," he says, "but it's just one little part of our whole thing." However, with the impending March release of what's potentially the group's most controversial album to date, The Crybaby, the band is poised to screw with people: The disc features a note-for-note cover of Nirvana's angst anthem "Smells Like Teen Spirit" with guest vocals by '70s teen idol casualty Leif Garrett, as well as a straight reading of Merle Haggard's anti-PC redneck anthem, "Okie From Muskogee," sung by Hank Williams III.

Over the past 15 years, the power trio -- Osborne, pugilistic and precise drummer Dale Crover, and bassist Kevin Rutmanis -- has churned out 22 full-length albums, 25 singles, and numerous compilation tracks. In that time, the band has evolved from an influential indie darling to a major label anomaly. These days, it's off in its own realm as an unpredictable purveyor of sounds that defy categorization. With the band's flippant cover of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Osborne insists that his intent was only to draw an ironic parallel between two teen idol pop stars ruined by the music industry that exploited them. "I don't have to have permission [from Nirvana's surviving members] to do a cover song," Osborne says. "I just have to pay the publishing on it. If they can't see the humor in it, I can't help them."

Considering Nirvana's well-publicized irreverence for its instantaneous pop-stardom, it's unlikely former members Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic would consider the Melvins-Garrett effort a mockery of the band. But last year, well before the release of The Crybaby, speculation abounded that Cobain's widow, actress and Hole singer Courtney Love, might seek an injunction against the Melvins. Osborne isn't concerned. "Hopefully she will get upset about it," Osborne smirks. "If she thinks that what we're doing is somehow cheapening the good name of Kurt Cobain, so be it."

A spokesperson at DGC -- Nirvana's and Hole's label -- sounded surprised to hear word of the Melvins-Garrett satire, and said that neither Love nor the label would comment on the track.

The Melvins had originally considered soliciting a mainstream pop idol -- like Paula Abdul, or a hip-hop artist -- just to see what mutant sounds might develop from the pairing. "Us doing a song with Paula Abdul would be genius," Osborne say, laughing. "Not because I think she's great, but because I think she sucks. It could be a pretty hilarious combo."

But after seeing VH1's Behind the Music look at Leif Garrett's sordid tale of teenage stardom, drug addiction, and misfortune, Greg Werckman -- president of Alameda's Ipecac Recordings, the Melvins' label -- suggested the Melvins hook up with Garrett for a song. Werckman tracked down Garrett's phone number through the fallen idol's fan club and convinced the singer to guest on the album. When Osborne heard Garrett had agreed to work with the Melvins, the guitarist realized "Smells Like Teen Spirit" would be the perfect song for their collaboration. "It's one of the best, most fucked-up ideas I've ever come up with," Osborne say. "Especially with Leif's obvious drug past and Kurt's public drug use."

According to Osborne, Garrett knew what he was getting into. "Leif's not a dumb guy," Osborne says. "He saw the idea of this as being something that would be interesting to capitalize on -- not really to become rich and famous again, but just to do something cool."

The Crybaby wasn't conceived specifically as a vehicle for Garrett's guest spot. The band initially invited several friends and peers to contribute to -- or tinker with -- the basic tracks, which would be recorded with each particular artist in mind. The resulting 11 songs feature underground luminaries like Jesus Lizard singer David Yow, rowdy country music revivalist Hank Williams III, industrial-dance icon Jim "Foetus" Thirwell, Mr. Bungle vocal contortionist and former Faith No More singer Mike Patton (also the co-founder of Ipecac and leader of Fantomas, in which Osborne also plays), Brutal Truth singer Kevin Sharpe, noise-rock yelper for the Pain Teens Bliss Blood, emotional-metal rockers Tool, and avant-popsters Skeleton Key.

"We recorded the basic tracks and sent them to [each contributor] with the instructions 'Do whatever you want -- you want to put vocals on it, you want to fart on it, whatever,'" says Osborne. "I wanted to give these people that kind of freedom so that they would put their thumbprint on it."

Not all of the original contributors were able to leave their thumbprints on the album. Folk-hop wunderkind Beck Hansen had committed to the project, but Osborne grumbles that meddling managers felled the endeavor. Beck's track, Osborne laments, "was the only time that we had to deal with someone's manager on this whole thing. I dealt with the artists directly on every one of the other songs.

"We went out of the way to record a song for him," he continues, "then transfer it to the format he wanted and send it to him six months in advance. According to his management -- because they wouldn't allow us to talk to him ourselves -- we screwed up by not giving him enough time to get it done."

The Melvins' earliest albums, like 1989's Ozma and 1990's Bullhead (both released on San Francisco-based Boner Records), suggested a behemoth beast lumbering along beneath the standard pitch of traditional rock music. In fact, Crover's ingeniously lugubrious rhythms were often recorded with the tape running at a higher speed. When played back at normal speed so the detuned guitars and Osborne's deranged vocals could be added, the band sounded like an inhuman musical monstrosity. On more recent releases like Stag and Honky, the Melvins expanded their repertoire to hint at further explorations into electronics, atmospherics, metallics, and perhaps even hallucinogens.

The group's newfound penchant for ethereal drones, wry piano flourishes, and lounge-lipped vocal whispers amid sections of cranky guitars and Crover's requisite drum-god triplet psychosis creates a juxtaposition of styles that's almost more schizophrenic than it is artistic. That aesthetic-at-odds-with-itself approach was possibly behind the band's decision to record three separate albums last year -- each with its own unique style -- comprising a complete thematic trilogy for its debut on Ipecac Recordings. Nearly all the tracks for the three albums were recorded in San Francisco at the aptly named Louder Studios, the home studio of Champs guitarist Tim Green. The first disc in the trilogy, The Maggot, was released in May and aimed its sights directly for overdrive, proving that heavy metal needn't be superfluous or stupid. The Bootlicker, which followed in August of that year, demonstrated the slithering, stripped-down, devolved-pop side of the Melvins. "I think we can do this kind of [experimentation] and I think our fans can handle it," says Osborne. "And, if they can't," his voice rising in sadistic glee, "oh well!"

The Ipecac trilogy seems an accurate representation of the group's triple-pronged hydra-head personality: If The Maggot is the blustering metal-sludge album and The Bootlicker is the quirky, quiet, warped album, then The Crybaby is the prankster record featuring a feeding frenzy of guest musicians. Instead of issuing the trio together in one set, the band wanted to provide fans with the option to choose the Melvins personality they prefer -- or, better still, buy all three on the layaway plan. "I didn't want to do a three-record set," says Osborne, "because I don't want to saddle someone with having to buy a $30 CD."

Whether or not The Crybaby will rouse the controversy that some observers expect remains to be seen. The band is already working on new material, which Osborne says is nothing like the recent trilogy. Additionally, an album of cover tracks and revamped versions of old Melvins songs is scheduled for release on local imprint Man's Ruin later this year. And band members are involved in various side projects to fill up what time remains in their busy schedules between frequent tours. "We have a lot of irons in the fire," Osborne says.

Having traveled down the West Coast looking for places to call home -- band members have been based everywhere from Aberdeen to the Bay Area to Southern California -- the band doesn't intend to change its approach. "Now all of us live in L.A., so it's like a new beginning for us," says Osborne. "It's the first time we've all been in the same city in seven or eight years."

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Dave Clifford

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