Rockin' the suburbs

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Godfathers of grunge

The Melvins continue to stay out of the mainstream

Grunge band The Melvins will play its live soundtrack to three Cameron Jamie films on December 4, 2004.


For any band, having Kurt Cobain as an avid fan would definitely have come in handy. For the cult metal band The Melvins, that led to a record deal in 1993 with Atlantic Records.

The Melvins were eventually deemed the "Godfathers of Grunge" after grunge bands that had made it big in the popular music world like Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam started citing The Melvins as a pivotal influence. The trio formed in 1984 in Aberdeen, Wash., which has since been called the "birthplace of grunge," and became one of the first bands to counter the speed riffing of '80s thrash metal by slowing its music to a death-like tempo. Frontman and guitarist Buzz Osborne is also credited in many quarters for introducing the now-ubiquitous dropped-D guitar tuning to an entire generation of rockers.

The only paradox is how The Melvins, who are performing at Royce Hall on Dec. 4, have always managed to remain just beneath the mainstream rock music radar in its 20-year existence after having such massive influence on what some would say are the greatest rock bands of all time. Osborne, the only remaining original member of the band, is perplexed himself.

"Our sound is very mainstream," Osborne said. "It's just that the mainstream audience doesn't see it that way. Everybody should like our records and they should sell millions and millions and millions. And the fact that we don't is a big mystery to me."

But most people would agree the band is not as commercial-sounding as those it has influenced, like Nirvana and Soundgarden. Many of the band's songs do not follow conventional pop song structures and some last longer than 18 minutes, so The Melvins come across as experimental rather than mainstream.

Just this year, the band released a collaborative album with Ambient music artist Lustmord titled "Pigs of the Roman Empire." And in live sold-out shows across Europe, they have been performing their self-penned soundtrack music to three short films by underground filmmaker Cameron Jamie. The films explore suburban rituals like backyard wrestling, America's obsession with Halloween and the Austrian fixation with the fictional character Krampus, the archenemy of Santa Claus who scares children.

Osborne was initially attracted to the idea of performing a live soundtrack to films because the band had never done it. Keeping things new and different is a high priority for Osborne and is perhaps the reason behind his disdain for many mainstream groups, which he thinks recycle material and musical technique. Osborne believes dropped-D tuning in particular has been severely overused.

"I wish (bands) would use their imaginations and come up with a few different tunings," Osborne said. "But for most bands, like Soundgarden, it doesn't make any difference because they just quit. A lot of good it did them. Now they're finished and the singer's in Audioslave. Wow. Well, we all needed that, didn't we? Thank god! Alice in Chains. God! The seeds of what we've sown."

It isn't that Osborne is against commercialism itself. Rather, Osborne is against the sense of predictability he feels comes with things that are commercial. When writing the soundtrack music for Jamie's films, The Melvins made a special effort to thwart predictability.

"One thing I didn't have any interest in was doing something along the lines of an mac cosmetics MTV video," Osborne said. "Like with power cuts and with things that happen exactly where you expect them to. I just think that music videos are a severely played-out piece of commercialism that I don't really want anything to do with."

The effort to keep its material novel, different and experimental is perhaps why the band has been called a "weird rock outfit," but Osborne is perfectly comfortable with that description.

"I guess that's true, but we're certainly not the weirdest," Osborne said.

True. Take, for instance, the band The Residents, whom Osborne actually saw perform in Royce Hall several years ago. The experimental rock group, which formed in 1966, has covered everyone from John Philip Sousa to James Brown with a blend of electronics, distortion, avant-jazz and classical symphonies, and appeared publicly in uniform disguises: tuxedos, top hats and giant eyeball masks.

Although his appearance may not be as bizarre as that of The Residents, if Osborne were walking down the street, most people would probably stare at his towering, crimped, dark-haired afro with its skunk-like streak of white in the front. To some, Osborne resembles the character of Sideshow Bob from "The Simpsons."

What's stranger is that the band once featured Shirley Temple's daughter, Lori Black, on bass.

The group also has an offbeat sense of humor. In 1999, they band completed a cover of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" with former bubblegum pop teen idol Leif Garrett on vocals. When asked if the group has any strange rituals, Osborne chuckled at his own outlandish response.

"None that I really wish to talk about," Osborne said. "We don't shoot heroine in our eyeballs or anything like that. Maybe we should. Maybe we will for the Royce Hall show. How about that?"

But for Osborne, being weird is just a part of being true to oneself.

"It's natural," Osborne said, "but if people want to look at it like we're being perversely weird, there's not much I can do about that. There's enough normalcy out there. We certainly shouldn't expect rock bands of any kind to present us with any sort of normalcy."

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