How the Melvins’ King Buzzo casted crushing guitars and merciless rock beats into an acoustic guitar

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Photo by Mackie Osborne | courtesy of the artist.
Photo by Mackie Osborne | courtesy of the artist.

“It’s not strange for me to be in front of a bunch of people looking stupid,” says Buzz Osborne, the Melvins frontman better known as King Buzzo. What’s different this time out, he says, is the fact that he’s facing that crowd alone. “I’m up there with nothing to protect myself except an acoustic guitar.”

Osborne recently embarked on his first solo acoustic tour, a seeming anomaly given the unrelenting steamroller force that the Melvins have been known for over the past 31 years. Somehow, though, it works – the recently-released This Machine Kills Artists (Ipecac), its title a wry nod to Woody Guthrie’s fascist-killing guitar, take the Melvins’ deliberately-paced riffs into new dynamic territory without losing Osborne’s distinctively menacing songcraft. The album’s 17 songs possess the same controlled intensity, replacing the crushing electric guitars and merciless, sludge-paced drums with a pared-down sound that at times emphasizes the percussive strike of pick on strings, at others a gnarled-oak woodiness, at still others a surprisingly clean strumming that foregrounds Osborne’s estimable songwriting chops.

“I’m trying to start off by not alienating every single fan I’ve ever had,” Osborne says from his hotel room in New Hampshire, on an off day between concert dates. “But I’m also trying to do something that they’re not going to get at a normal show. I’m also trying to not emulate other acoustic acts.”

There was little chance of that happening in any case. Osborne, along with drummer Dale Crover and the Melvins’ rotating cast of bassists (the line-up has remained remarkably consistent since absorbing Big Business’ Jarred Warren and Coady Willis in 2006) have always proceeded deliberately along their own path, weathering the grunge explosion with which they were tenuously, never quite fittingly, associated. “There’s nobody doing anything like what we’re doing,” he insists. “Who are our contemporaries? Nobody I can think of.”

That long-surviving singularity, and the fact that he’s responsible for the vast majority of the Melvins’ prodigious catalogue (more than thirty albums and a couple thousand gigs over the past three decades) means that This Machine Kills Artists shouldn’t be viewed as a more individual expression of Osborne’s art. “The Melvins is my baby, basically,” he says. “It’s all my music, pretty much, so I never felt the need to do a solo record because I wasn’t getting enough chance to spread my wings. I never felt hindered by any means, like George Harrison or something. It’s really just an ‘as well as’ project.”

The acoustic tour arrives in Philly on Tuesday, July 15th at Underground Arts with jazz guitarist Mary Halvorson providing a solo opening set (Halvorson is a longtime associate of Trevor Dunn, who plays with Buzzo in Fantomas and in his Melvins Lite incarnation, as well as being an in-demand player in more forward-thinking jazz circles). While the last few months have marked Osborne’s first-ever performances on acoustic guitar, he’s always played acoustically and written a good chunk of the Melvins’ songs that way before transferring them to electric.

“I write on every guitar,” he says. “I’m playing Melvins songs on this tour that I wrote on electric guitar. I believe that a different kind of song will some out of every guitar you pick up. You’ll write a different kind of song on a Fender Mustang than you will on a Les Paul or one of my EGC aluminums. A guitar is a guitar, and a guitar can play anything.”

One major difference in this altered context is the foregrounding of Osborne’s lyrics. But while they’re more audible, they’re for the most part no more comprehensible; his writing has always leaned toward the evocative, more concerned with drawing strange juxtapositions or the sonic qualities of the words than with telling a straightforward story. “They’ve always been indirect,” he says. “It means a lot but it doesn’t necessarily lead you down the garden path to exactly what’s going on. It’s similar to Captain Beefheart and maybe The Stooges, or The Birthday Party – what the hell was Nick Cave writing about? I have no idea. The slamming of a car door or falling on your face can all influence anything and everything that you do work-wise. I have to wade through a ton of garbage just to find the little things that work. That’s the process.”

The acoustic project has long been in the back of his mind, Osborne says. “So finally I just jumped into the deep end. I had to figure out a way to make this thing work, and I stripped it down to next to nothing with just a little tiny amp, and I’ve got to make it work with just the strength of my abilities as a singer and a guitar player. That’s what I wanted to do, and so far so good.”

King Buzzo, with Mary Halvorson opening, plays Underground Arts on Tuesday, July 15th. Go here for more information and tickets.

Below, listen to “Dark Brown Teeth,” from King Buzzo’s This Machine Kills Artists.

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