The Melvins vocalist/guitarist Buzz Osborne estimates he’s written and recorded well over 500 songs during his nearly 40 year career with the legendary rock band. “The songwriting thing is not something that ever stops,” he says, calling American Songwriter from his California home. “I feel like it’s my job as a musician to not stop. This is what I signed up for. That’s the deal I made: I’m going to be a professional musician, so I’m going to go out there and I’m going to do my damnedest and my best to make that happen. I’m going to write tons of songs.”
The latest evidence of this high work ethic comes on the new Melvins album, Working With God, released on February 26 via Ipecac Recordings. Osborne says that the songwriting process for this release was much the same as it’s always been for him.
“I write by myself,” Osborne says. “I wade through a lot of garbage until I find a few things that are good, and then I concentrate on those until I think maybe there will be something I can turn into a song, and then I take those to the band. We sift through it for a long time and try to decide what we can or can’t do with them. I’ll listen to it in terms of how I think the vocals would fit in, where it would go dynamically, how the drums and bass should sound—all the kinds of things you would think about for a song.”
Although Osborne has been remarkably prolific during his career (Working With God is the 24th Melvins album, and he has also put out numerous releases as a solo artist and with side projects), he says he has to have patience when working: “A lot of times, I’ll record something and I’ll know this is good, [but] I just can’t figure out what to do with it right now—how to finish it,” he says.
In fact, Osborne says, it’s not uncommon for several years to pass between the time a song first begins taking shape and when it actually appears on an album. “And so, a lot of stuff that people think is new material is actually stuff that’s been sitting around for a long time,” he says. “It’s funny to me: people will perceive something like a song, a new album, is all brand-new material. No, it’s new to you. It’s not new to me. I’ve been living with this for a long time—sometimes years and years and years before it ever sees the light of day. I’m always amazed when people go, ‘Their new direction’—it’s not a new direction; it’s just what I was able to finish.”
That said, Osborne is still careful not to hang onto material for too long. “I don’t want to overthink it—you can cook stuff for too long and then it’s ruined; you’ve beaten the life out of it,” he says. “People tend to think that their first instinct is wrong or that they can make it better. Well, maybe you can. But maybe you can’t. Some stuff you practice forever and then it finally goes on a record. Does that mean it’s worse? No. But it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better. So I think you’ve got to be careful with that.”
On Working with God, Osborne is joined by drummer Dale Crover as well as drummer Mike Dillard—who were members of the classic Melvins lineup that first appeared in 1983, the year the band formed. While Osborne and Crover have been Melvins mainstays, Dillard has come in and out of the band, last appearing with them on 2013’s Tres Cabrones. Osborne says their input during the songwriting and recording processes has been invaluable.
“I kind of have an idea what they’re going to do, but I get surprised all the time,” Osborne says. “If a good idea happens, I’m all over it. That’s always exciting. I’m not dumb enough to think that I thought of everything. Sometimes you give it to these guys and they start playing around with it, and all the sudden, it’s something better—so I don’t want to miss those moments.”
Osborne and Dillard first formed the Melvins in 1983 in Montesano, Washington, with Dillard then handing off drumming duties to Crover. Although Osborne had come to playing music relatively late—“I didn’t really start playing guitar until I was later in my teens,” he says—things came together for the Melvins quickly after that. “Within a couple of years, we were writing songs and playing in the band,” he says.
From the start, Osborne created songs that were distinctively heavy, with a unique dirge that was unlike anything any other band seemed to be doing. Osborne recalls that The Who were a particular influence on him, though his own music ended up nothing like theirs: “They’re my favorite band, by far,” he says. “I think they’re quite clearly the best live band from the ‘60s and made some of the weirdest records. They’re a huge inspiration for me. Always were, since I was twelve years old. But even though I was the biggest Who fan in the world, I knew I could never write songs like that. But I could be inspired by the way Pete Townshend did it. He’s probably the biggest inspiration for me. He’s a songwriter, first and foremost.”
In 1986, the band put out their first EP, Melvins, followed in 1987 by their debut full-length album, Gluey Porch Treatments. These releases made a far-reaching impact in the Washington music scene, and the Melvins are frequently credited with laying the foundation for the grunge movement, as well as influencing the metal scene. Bands such as Nirvana, Soundgarden, Tool, and Faith No More, among many others, have made a point to publicly credit Melvins’ music for sparking their own successful careers.
“Good. I’m glad,” Osborne says of watching artists he inspired go on to achieve significant accomplishments. “Usually, those people are very grateful about it. I never had any problem with those people having massive success. That’s great. If they’re saying that part of the reason they’re doing what they’re doing is because of us, then I feel like our stuff has had an impact on a global level, which I’m very excited about.
“Sure, it’d be great to have massive amounts in the bank, but I don’t think my life would change much,” Osborne continues. “I have what I want and I’m very happy and very fortunate and very grateful for all of it. I’ve made my living as a musician since 1988 without having another job, and no one is more surprised or more happy about that than me. That is a fucking gift. and I got there by working my ass off and not taking it for granted.”