Grown People Are Talking: Twenty Minutes with King Buzzo of the Melvins

by | Jul 11, 2022 | MUSIC

Klogg Wallabee and I used to work together at a gas station. If you caught him in the right kinda light, Klogg looked like he could’ve played Sean Astin’s cousin in some movie. He had a shitty sedan with a dent in the side, a bunch of trash in the back and on the floorboards. Cigarette butts and soda bottles, single socks, pistachio shells, and spent pine tree air-fresheners; the car smelled like old people’s clothes. There was a Mudhoney sticker on the bumper and someone had spraypainted “meth” on the trunk. We’d climb in there among all that shit somehow, and the way Klogg turned up the stereo and peeled out of wherever we were you’d think the car was a Ferrari and Klogg was some foreign billionaire, and we were about to go faster than God. But Klogg Wallabee wasn’t a billionaire, and we could only go but so fast. 

Smoke would already be circling above Klogg’s $10 glass pipe by the time King Buzzo started singing, “Youth of America / is living in the jungle / fighting for survival but there’s no place to go.” Then the pipe would be passed to me.   

Klogg would take turns too sharp and sometimes we’d go the wrong way down one-way streets. Windows down, stop signs run, half the time his eyes were closed as he shouted the lyrics. Punching his steering wheel, white smoke coming out of his mouth. He’d say, “This is the Melvins’ magnum opus, bro.” 

The desperation in the guitars during the song’s intro is what always got me. Deliberate and melancholy, the feeling of walking to the school bus stop to get your ass handed to you. Followed by the adrenalin of suddenly fighting back.

Then we’d be on the interstate, the guitars and Dale Crover’s drums would make the speakers pop while I refilled the bowl. It wouldn’t take long before I stopped looking at the speedometer and focused more on the taillights of the cars we’d weave around. We’d talk about one day getting to see the Melvins play live, while Klogg tipped back a pint of Captain Morgan’s. We’d talk about Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains. The Screaming Trees and Nirvana, and how the Melvins had influenced all of them. Their albums Stoner Witch, Houdini, and A Senile Animal were our favorites, and we played tracks off those as we repeated this scenario, long before we were told the Wipers did “Youth of America” first.

Ten years later, King Buzzo was following me to sit down at a booth. I was thinking about Klogg Wallabee and all the times I’d rode around with him in that shitty sedan. Speeding around the city with a stoned, half-drunk wild man listening to a band who had, along with a handful of others, helped define the generation of kids who cut their teeth during the time between hair metal and nu-metal. I was one of those kids, running around with a Discman like it was a teething ring in the 1990’s. So was Klogg. Breaking the law down the interstate in the Commonwealth like irresponsible teenagers with him over a decade later were some of the best times of my life.

The Melvins were playing later that evening with Helms Alee at the Broadberry. Buzz sat down with me on the patio, in the shade, that very hot, clear-skied Saturday in June, the only cloud being the enormous gray one mushrooming just two inches above Buzz’s blue mirrored sunglasses. 

There is a modestly dignified air to Buzz Osborne. At 58, despite being referred to as “King Buzzo” and lumbering around onstage with a custom chrome guitar, wearing a skeleton or a variety of evil-eye themed muumuus, Buzz comes off as a mild mannered, straightforward, highly intelligent dude from the Pacific Northwest. A guy who means what he says, and is indifferent to how you feel about it. Someone who knew some of the most famous people in the world and watched them implode. After long enough, and enough bad stuff, you start saying what you really think. But I don’t know Buzz, personally. We only talked for 20 minutes.

King Buzzo. Photo by Ayne Bales.

There were a lot of things I wanted to ask the Melvins’ founder/singer/guitarist (also a founding member of Fantomas, the supergroup which includes Mike Patton, Dave Lombardo, and Trevor Dunn). A lot of these questions would be largely pedestrian, and we can easily find the answers to them on the Internet. There’s no sense in making the man repeat himself about the same old thing. It’d be akin to campfire stories told by someone who’s got more to talk about than Kurt Cobain and Amphetamine Reptile Records; the Melvins’ new(ish) bassist Steven Shane McDonald; their 2021 albums, Working with God and Five-Legged Dog; the 2022 Broken Pipe EP; or when Fantomas is going to release new music again. 

If you ask adult questions, expect to get adult answers. Avoiding pedestrian stuff and taking a deliberate detour into darker territory isn’t a joy ride. The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade, along with reckless shifts in gun policy and threats to other Constitutional rights were announced by the media the day before this interview. All of this with the backdrop of the January 6th hearings, school shootings, police brutality, inflation, and a growing divide among people in the United States. We are walking an oddly parallel line to a way of life lopped off decades ago — something people thought had been cauterized. 

The negative charge from the recent events was in the air all over the venue before the Melvins show. Like before it rains, or just after. These decisions will have a massive impact on American life. What else are you going to talk about? Discussing hard topics with a well-respected, hugely influential musician is the thing to do when given the opportunity, even if it is brief. Or you could spend 20 minutes talking about what it’s like to be in a touring band, or about how they found their specific guitar tone. Depends on what kind of interview you want to put out there.

This isn’t a loss. I can still talk to Klogg Wallabee on another wild ride down the interstate about all the things we think we know about Nirvana, Soundgarden, and the Melvins, just before Klogg crosses three lanes of traffic to find a place to pull over so he can take a piss. 

I figured Buzz would probably like to talk about something else anyway. But you talk about all kinds of stuff on a detour. Usually where you’re going. Sometimes where you’ve already been. 

Ryan Kent: I have this framed picture I wanted to show you. It’s by Brian [Walsby]. 

Art by Brian Walsby, Photo by Ryan Kent.

[I show him a marker drawing of King Buzzo reenacting the famous Howard Beale “you’ve got to get mad” scene from the 1976 film, Network (see above). Brian Walsby is known for his underground comic series, Manchild, which documented the punk scene in the 80’s and 90’s. Walsby often toured with the Melvins and did solo dates with Buzz, selling the band’s merch, but also selling his Melvins and rock parody artwork.]

King Buzzo: Walsby?

RK: Yeah.

KB: Network. I love Network. That’s funny.

RK: That’s my favorite movie next to Fight Club. I found it randomly on Netflix years ago and bringing [the Walsby drawing] was how I wanted to start this [interview] out. How do you think Howard Beale would react to the America we live in now, as opposed to [1976] when Network came out?

KB: I think, what’s his name, Trenowski? The guy who wrote it.

RK: Paddy Chayefsky. 

KB: Yeah. I never knew how to pronounce it. I think he predicted how things are gonna go pretty, pretty well with that movie. I really love that movie too. That was, what’s his name, that director? Lumet?

RK: I don’t remember. 

KB: Sidney Lumet. His first movie was 12 Angry Men

RK: Ah. I saw the remake with Jack Lemmon.

KB: His last movie was a movie called Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. That movie is one of the most intense movies, and that’s the last movie he made. [He was] in his 80’s. So that’s it. He’s a super smart guy. And what I like about [Network]: Howard says, “I don’t know what the answer is.” That’s the key. “First thing you have to do is get mad.” I don’t know what the answer is. Go to your guru. Figure it out. People coming out with, “I know what to do.” Nobody knows what to do. No one can possibly have all that information. But I always hate it when I hear that. Things are much more complicated than people think. Nothing is simple, even tough issues. They’re not just simple black and white. Nothing’s black and white ever. So, I think that’s kind of what you’ve got to get. You know, what is he saying?

KB & RK: [both quoting Howard Beale] I’m a human being God dammit. My life has value.”

RK: I remember when I saw that [for the first time].

KB: “I don’t know what the answer is.” I don’t either.

RK: “I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write your congressman,” you know.

KB: I like when he says, “5% of you read books.” I don’t know anybody who reads books. Almost anybody. And, you know, he’s 100% right. They learn from the tube. How to act. How to dress. How to talk. How to think.

Photo by Ryan Kent.

RK: “We are the actors.”

KB: We’re the reality. That is just a circus. So, I don’t take a lot of it seriously. Because there’s very few people that I would trust to know what to do. Who? I’m not on one particular side politically. I agree with some things on one and some things on the other, but ultimately, I think that they’re all talking about the same thing. I have very little clue there. No teaming up. I’m not a joiner-in-er. I mean, the South Park guys said they hate conservatives, but they really hate liberals. They don’t like any of them. We don’t like any of them. That’s, that’s the key. I don’t like any of these fucking assholes – at all. And I don’t see any difference, personally. They don’t give a fuck about me and you. They don’t fucking care at all. And the fact that they act like they do – the more they do that, the worse it gets. What they need to say is, to me, as far as that’s concerned, they need to say, “We don’t care what you do, or what happens to you. You need to care about that. We’re just here to administer things. Not to tell you how to live your life.” That’s it. When they try to do that kind of stuff, it just irritates me. I don’t think Howard would have much of a different view now than he ever did.

RK: I wonder if he would be [angrier]?

KB: Well, at the time, think about what was going on then. There’s massive inflation. Crime rates are through the roof. The Vietnam war wasn’t over. On and on and on. 

RK: Sounds kind of familiar, right?

KB: Yeah. I don’t see any changes as far as that’s concerned, but mostly I don’t talk about politics. It’s not safe. They’ll take one thing out of what you said and completely [misconstrue] it, but that’s what they’ve always done. I usually just steer clear of it, and just let the Internet and things like that have a life of its own.

RK: I’ve had to mostly stay away from social media for the past couple of days because of the obvious, but mostly because of the knee-jerk reaction to tell somebody what I think. And it’s like, I’m getting nowhere by arguing with [people] about this. Let me just take myself out of [the conversation], but still be aware of everything that’s going on. 

KB: I mean, ultimately, I’m pro-abortion, but I’m not pro-protesting. I don’t like protesting. You should agree? I agree with this: that abortion should be legal, it should be available – but I don’t agree with protesting. I don’t like it. Because you yell and scream doesn’t give you more rights than someone who doesn’t. So, I don’t like it.

Photo by Ryan Kent

RK: Do you think there’s a lot of performative activism going on out there? Dishonesty about being part of a cause so it can be manipulated for a personal agenda or as content for social media exposure?

KB: I don’t know. Maybe? I don’t like protesting. Like I said, I completely agree with this, as far as what they’re mad about, but I don’t agree with that way of doing it. I don’t agree with it. I don’t think it’s okay. You’re disrupting. You’re just acting like children. Children should be treated like children. You yell and scream – that’s what children do. Just doesn’t seem right to me. Never has. I would never protest anything. Never. Marching in the streets. What gives you the right? Because you do that, you think you have more say than someone else? I don’t get it. I don’t understand it. So, I steer clear of it. I would advise someone not to do it. Because I don’t think it works, personally. 

RK: What would you suggest? 

KB: I don’t know. I don’t like that. I don’t have an answer. But I know, I don’t like that.

RK: I don’t know what to do, either.

KB: Live by example. It’s nothing to do with the issue. I don’t agree with that kind of civil disobedience. I don’t like it. To me, it’s not much more than vandalism and looting, or just raising Hell, and it doesn’t make me on your side if you do that. You’re acting like a baby. I don’t listen to babies. I don’t argue with babies, either. I don’t let children tell me how to live my life. I just don’t. If that’s how you’re gonna behave because you didn’t get your way, it doesn’t mean anything to me. I’m gonna continue to think what I think, but I don’t like protesting. I just don’t like it. I never have.

Photo by Ayne Bales

RK: That’s fair. Around here they were taking the monuments down [after] the protests. A lot of people didn’t like it at all. That it was disrupting life and businesses.

KB: You can take down a monument if that’s what they want to do. I don’t really care one way or another. Put up whatever you want. To me, they should put up 50-foot-tall iron monuments of Miles Davis. That’d be great. Yeah, replace them all with Miles Davis or James Brown.

RK: We should try to get an Oderus Urungus monument here in Richmond. A nice Dave Brockie statue. 

KB: If I could do street art, it would be much different than any of that stuff. A life-size Saturn rocket. Full-size. There – that looks beautiful. I love all that kind of stuff. I love industry and the way cities look and the way oil refineries look, I think they’re beautiful. It’s artwork, to me. It’s massive. It’s showing what man is capable of doing, and it’s absolutely, breathtakingly amazing, to me.

RK: That enormous thing was created by human beings.

KB: And “men” meaning all of us. Men and women. Mankind. I think it’s – uncivilized places, it’s the strong [who] rule things. Civilized places, that’s not how it works. So even the protests, I don’t view them as civilized. It’s uncivilized behavior. I would say. 

RK: A lot of stuff went down here.

KB: In an uncivilized world, the strong have all the say. 

RK: Yes. 

KB: But that’s not what a civilization is. It makes me feel like we’re going backwards when that kind of stuff happens. I don’t like it. I don’t like it. 

Photo by Ryan Kent

RK: When I grew up [I was taught] money is the root of all evil. Now, it’s just more than a saying. It’s very, very blatant. Money controls everything. Like, I mean, bringing up the internet again, getting paid for click-bait or false information and the marketing of it.

KB: But you can easily not go on the internet. It’s your choice. Just like TV.

RK: That’s absolutely true.

KB: You’re watching something that’s paid for by people who want to sell you something. That’s the way it goes.

RK: I don’t watch TV. 

KB: I don’t either. But it’s the same thing. Money-wise, I don’t fault anyone for making money. I mean, as long as you’re not hurting anybody else, I don’t really care what you do. Money is – it’s a good thing.

RK: Years ago, I was at Pike Street Market in Seattle. They had a downstairs with some small shops and there were a bunch of posters in one of them. I found this poster and I brought it [Nirvana, Soundgarden, The Melvins LIVE at the Paramount Theater. $10. April 1st] but, apparently the show never happened.

KB: [looks at poster] No, it did – wait, Nirvana. No, no. That’s not true. April 1st. That never happened.

RK: Shit. Well, what does that feel like? [This is] a hypothetical memory of your life. I had it hanging on my wall and I’m a stranger. Now, there’s another stranger who’s making this fake memory of your life and making money off of it. 

KB: [They] didn’t do a very good job on it. It’s okay. Not much more than a Xerox copy. I wish it would have happened.

RK: Was there [a show] like this that ever happened?

KB: Oh, no. Nothing like that. We played with those bands, but nothing like a big, celebratory thing.

It’s $10 [points at poster]. It couldn’t have been. That doesn’t make a lot of sense. I saw the Rolling Stones in Seattle in 1982 and it was $16 to see them. $10 doesn’t sound right to me. It seems like it would have been more than that. Especially at the Paramount. It’s about a 3000-seat place. It’s a cool place. We did play with Soundgarden two nights there when they were headlining, not Nirvana.

Ryan shows Buzz the poster. Photo by Ayne Bales.

RK: Was that a long ago or was this…

KB: Yeah. Long time ago. I never even saw him when he did that – before he died.

RK: Yeah, that broke my heart.

KB: Yeah, it’s very strange. Hard to know what to think of that kind of stuff. I’ve dealt with all that kind of stuff in my life and it’s never easy. Certainly, harder for the people involved, but it’s not something you get over. I don’t anyway, either of those cases. I don’t know when I will. I just keep my head down and keep working. That’s all I can do.

RK: I’ve read that people romanticizing the grunge movement is not one of your favorite things. When you play live and you see the recycled shirt designs [of bands from that era] that you’ve seen for years, something that happened 30 years ago… 

KB: What, like a Nirvana shirt? 

RK: Or anything like that. How does that feel?

KB: Well, for me, those bands sold millions and millions and millions of records all over the world. So I understand why people are interested in it, so it doesn’t bother me at all that they’re interested in it. Better that stuff than something else. I don’t have a lot of fond memories of all those kinds of things. Mostly because it ended in such a tragic way. So it’s difficult for me to just walk away from it without feeling – and leave the bad stuff behind. I can’t do it. I’m not capable. I have patience with everyone along those lines, but it wasn’t a happy time. Coming up on 30 years ago. Not a happy time for me.

RK: I can’t imagine what it would be like to be an integral part of something that had such an impact on an entire generation of people. Not just in a specific city or state, but across the world. You know what I mean? That’s got to be a heavy load of rocks to carry around.

KB: Well, what we’re doing is much weirder than any of that stuff. But from what we started doing, our vision on music changed music on a global level. So, the best part about that is that I wasn’t wrong. My instincts were correct. I felt like there was something that wasn’t happening that needed to happen. Like filling a void that was there with something that had a lot of heart to it. [That] people could relate to, somehow. I’m still doing it.

Top Photo by Ryan Kent

Ryan Kent

Ryan Kent

Ryan Kent is the author of the collections, Poems For Dead People, This Is Why I Am Insane, Hit Me When I'm Pretty, and Everything Is On Fire: Selected Poems 2014-2021. He has also co-authored the poetry collections, Tomorrow Ruined Today, and Some Of Us Love You (both with Brett Lloyd). His spoken word record, Dying Comes With Age, will be released by Rare Bird Books in 2022. Ryan is a staff writer for RVA Magazine and maintains a pack a day habit. (photo by D. Randall Blythe)

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