If Buzz Osborne's solo debut, This Machine Kills Artists, sounds unlike any other acoustic record in existence, that's because it is. The 17-track album (released under Osborne's stage name, King Buzzo) incorporates a dark, brooding ambiance reminiscent of early Delta blues records blended with the sort of heavy riffs associated with Osborne's band the Melvins. That said, the disc isn't merely a drummer-less Melvins album because the material was written as a solo acoustic EP that soon grew into an LP.
Osborne plays June 12 at The Constellation Room. I caught up with the 50-year-old to inquire about how his solo set will differ from a Melvins show. He answered my questions and then some. Here is the result.
OC Weekly (Ryan Ritchie): A lot of solo acoustic music is boring, repetitive and uninteresting after two minutes. Your record is none of these. Why?
Buzz Osbourne: Thank you. I tried hard to make it something that wasn't a normal acoustic record. I approached it differently. Most of them sound like a cross between a half-assed Woody Guthrie and "Kumbaya," which I'm so not into. I wanted it to be as threatening and powerful as anything I've ever done. I don't think there's another acoustic record like it.
It's not like singer/songwriter stuff. It's intense and heavy.
I was adamantly opposed to that. Bob Dylan and David Bowie have done really amazing acoustic stuff that doesn't sound like that. What was good about Dylan was he was mean-spirited, and in the singer/songwriter thing, that rarely happens unless they're talking about some chick. Then, it's like, "Who cares? Nerd gets his heart broke. That's the oldest story in the book. Let's try for something else." What made me a fan of Dylan was he took Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and bettered it. He did what they didn't do, which was he was super-mean-spirited and finger-pointing. Mine's a little more introspective. Who knows? I'm not one to lead people by the hand and tell them, "Here's how it all works." The journey is half the battle.
My whole point was like, "I can't gut everything I've ever done." I've had people go, "It sounds too much like the way you play electric." And I go, "Do you tell that to Neil Young? Are you fucking joking? I sound too much like me?" I've received a lot of constructive criticism over the years, and there isn't one piece I've heard from anyone that I could take away and go, "This guy's got a point." To stand there and get dressed down by somebody, even if it's in a polite way, is super-unnerving. Like, I want to go, "I don't know anything about you, but I think your girlfriend's ugly."
From a musical standpoint, the songs sound complete, even though it's only one person playing.
I worried over that incessantly. I would write songs, and when I felt like they were finished, I'd go to the studio and record two or three songs at a time. We'd record the guitar in vastly different ways. There's no direct boxes or amps–it's all just mic'd acoustic guitar. Very few songs are the same. We did a lot of doubling the guitar to make it more interesting. That gave it more dynamic range, as opposed to setting up and recording 17 songs with the exact same set-up. That certainly was not the case. Also, I realized what was going to make this record more interesting was the songs needed to be shorter. Only a couple of them breach the four-minute mark.
Was this written as a record or just a bunch of songs?
As a record, certainly. All of them in conjunction with what I had already done. The hard thing was figuring out what was going to work as a complete song with an acoustic song. Like, I wrote these Melvins songs, so about half the set is Melvins songs, so I had to find ones that would work on the acoustic, which is a lot of fun.
How do you maintain the pacing of a live show with only your voice and a guitar?
It's tough. There are a few spots when I have to tune. In a Melvins set, the drums would be doing something. Everybody gets their spots where they can change things. It's specific, like a record. I don't lay out an album randomly. I have a reason and a purpose and why the songs are where they are. It's all meticulously thought-out. Nothing is left to chance. Nothing. I've thought over it and worried over it until it gets to the general public and by then I know I'm right, so I move on. I love to read about how directors make movies and I feel like making a record is a lot like making a movie. There's a reason for it. It's not like it's Tommy, but there's an ebb and a flow to all of it. There has to be, otherwise it's just silly to me. I certainly did that with this record and I'm super proud of it.
Were these songs written as solo music or were they intended as Melvins songs? Or could they become Melvins songs?
Any of them could be. They still could be. Maybe we'll re-record the whole record with the band. Most of it was written with acoustic guitar in mind. Doing acoustic stuff has always been sitting in the back of my mind. I always played acoustic guitar and I wrote a lot of songs for the Melvins on acoustic. A lot. I knew I just didn't want to make it sound like it belongs with something else. "I can go play with these guys." I don't have any interest in that. Never have. I've never felt we had "brother bands" out there. I've never felt like I was part of any of that stuff. If people really want to think we have something in common with Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam, use your ears. I always felt like if we had been from somewhere like Florida, no one would have had that connection. The other thing that's weird to me is I left the Northwest in '86,'87.
How long have you been in LA?
Twenty-one years. We did one album and we left. I had no interest in staying there. All but one record and a seven-inch was all recorded in California. The closest in the Northwest would be The U-Men and, later, Mudhoney. Nirvana, to some degree, but once the pop star thing came up that was pretty much it. We were pretty much out of the picture at that point, but I never felt like I was part of that picture, anyway. They had their eyes on the prize in a big way and so be it. I never expected that sort of thing for me. I think millions of people should buy our records, but it's not going to happen. The reality is something different from that and I'm not afraid of that. I'm totally fine with my reality and the place that I have in the musical world. But I'm not trying to make it some exclusive club — I hate that stuff. I want to turn on the radio and like everything that's on there. I love the whole classification of stuff, like now there's all these classifications of heavy metal. Look, it's all rebel music. Who fucking cares? I never wanted to be categorized into some little box. If I was one of those bands and I was getting categorized like that, I'd shave my head and start wearing a tutu.
Are your Atlantic records still in print?
All those records you can buy on CD. I don't consider a record — if it's not on vinyl — to be out of print. They're still selling them. They're out there. People buy them. Still not recouped. What a surprise. I never thought we would. I always thought the advance was all we were going to get. It wasn't that huge of an advance, but it was more than I was making off records at that point and why not? It didn't hurt me. Not one bit. We came out in a better position that we were when we went into it.
King Buzzo performs at the Constellation Room, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600; www.observatoryoc.com. Thurs., June 12, 8 p.m. $12. All ages.