by Mike Corrigan
For more than 18 years, THE MELVINS have survived the ebb and flow of Next Big Things precisely because they've never wasted a milli-volt of mental energy aspiring to become one. They are a burr on the butt of the recording industry, abominable to everything the mass-produced music-pushing suits in their gleaming skyscrapers revere. They are unpredictable, prolific, steadfastly strange, full of mischief and nearly impossible to market to Kmart.
On top of that, the Melvins shovel the sludge and wax metallic better than anyone on the planet. Their riffs bludgeon with almost incomprehensible heaviness, their songs are uniformly uncompromising and as such represent a genuine threat to the status quo. In the shadow cast by the Melvins' imposing stance, the new crop of posturing nu-metal hopefuls shrivel and decay.
Fortunately, there are no signs that the band (Buzz "King Buzzo" Osborne on guitar and vocals, Dale Crover on drums and Kevin Rutmanis on bass) has any intention of slowing down. The Melvins' appearance at the Double Dribble this Monday night marks their stateside return to headlining (in support of a new album, Hostile Ambient Takeover) after touring Europe and Australia in an opening slot with Tool.
Osborne, like so much of the band's recorded output, is anything but conventional. Our interview begins on time, which for him means 9:30 am. But in fact he's been up since seven, watching the daybreak over the Indian Ocean from his hotel room in Perth, Australia.
"I don't know what day it is," he says exasperated by the time/date difference between our two longitudes. "I'm on tour. Every day is Saturday night."
In spite of what MTV is telling you these days, living well on rock music is not dependent on platinum-level success (or even gold for that matter). In fact, it's possible to forge a perfectly respectable career with no mainstream appeal whatsoever. The Melvins -- divested from commercial concerns from Day One -- are living proof of this tenet.
"We are doing what we want to and have been for a long time," Osborne says. "And nothing could be better than that. This is the most creative and expansive time of our entire career. And I'm really into it. We're playing in Perth tomorrow night on the Indian Ocean. Yeah, things are fine."
The abbreviated history of the Melvins is as follows: Aberdeen, Wash., native Osborne forms the band in 1983. Crover signs on shortly thereafter. They put out some great records that nearly everyone ignores, then move to San Francisco. In the post-Nirvana signing rush, the Melvins (to their surprise) land themselves a label contract with Atlantic Records. Three wonderfully non-commercial albums later, they leave Atlantic and return to indie status. More albums. More tours. More bass players (finally settling on ex-Cows Rutmanis). In 1999, they hitch their wagon to Mike Patton's (of Faith No More) Ipecac label. It's been sweetness and light ever since.
"The Melvins machine is working smoother than ever," reports Osborne. "It has to do with Ipecac and it certainly has to do with who we have in the band at the moment. We fit together better than any other lineup. And that should be relatively obvious to people when they see us play."
What's obvious about the Melvins (both in a live setting and on record) is that the band never panders to expectations -- even to those of its fans.
"I don't want people to know what they're getting with us. That's very boring. There are lots of bands out there willing to do that sort of thing. But I have no interest in it. We pay the price for it because a lot of people are too narrow-minded to understand that one band is capable of doing lots of different things. I think it's really unfortunate because there are records we put out that people don't take seriously. They don't get it. And I can't help it. You don't like us? Well, good for you. That's great. I'm sure the bands you listen to are amaaaazing."
Old fans and newcomers alike should sit up and take notice of Hostile Ambient Takeover. The album is a blast, a distillation of the ideas the band first explored two years ago on the infamous trilogy -- three albums (The Maggot, The Bootlicker and The Crybaby), released within a few months of each other that consecutively indulged the group's heavy, light and experimental proclivities.
"I love the new record," exclaims Osborne. "I wouldn't change a thing on it. We wanted to make as good a record as we could without treading too much on what we've done before -- and without looking like a Vegas act."
Like many artists on the fringes of the popular culture, Osborne displays a healthy contempt not only for the safe, sanitized and numbing entertainment preferred by the masses but for the undiscerning consumer as well.
"I try never to explain or apologize for anything, 'cause generally speaking, it's just a waste of time," he laments. "Walk around the mall, and then realize that you are not going to get through to any of these people. They watch TV and get drunk and maybe that's the way it should be. Because that attitude of total indifference is what makes it possible for people who have the will and the desire to go and search out things that are better than that. And that's what makes it possible for us to have a career. So I'm glad. Let them sit there like idiots. That's fine with me.
"What's funny is I've talked to so many people who have told me that they initially hated our band but then came around and are now massive fans. We're an acquired taste, definitely. It's not bright and greasy pop tunes that they can just be-bop along to or sing out in the rain with or whatever. Like Jewel. We're the antichrist compared to that stuff."
For all his cynicism and borderline misanthropy, Osborne seems perfectly content with his place in the Melvins organization and with the band's bone-crushing, convention-smashing legacy.
"The most satisfying thing about this is that I've been able to devote a third of my life -- the last 12 years -- entirely to music, which I think is really great. If you boil it down and look at exactly what we're doing, we're up there making a hideous racket, we're really into it and we're making a living doing it. We work really hard. There are very few out there willing to put that much work into it. But that's okay. It just makes more room for the rest of us."
He's just a guy with a guitar who sings about hope in a cynical world. But DAVID WILCOX, who returns to the Met on Sunday, doesn't try to gloss over problems with superficial saccharine. He may have an optimistic outlook, but that optimism is tempered with reality.
"I love songwriting and storytelling that can give us back the courage to be alive now, in this world," he says. Those kinds of songs and stories -- words to inspire "confidence to keep your heart open" -- fill Wilcox's newest recording, Live Songs & amp; Stories, a compilation culled from five years' worth of shows. The performances on the CD, like those on the current tour, are mostly solo, something that has become the comfortable norm for Wilcox.
"I used to travel with a band, and it's really fun, but I missed the spontaneity of playing solo and being able to go with what the crowd needs," he says. And figuring out what an audience needs is what Wilcox strives to do every time he steps on stage. Working without a set list, he gauges crowd reactions and intuitively tailors each show as he goes along.
"I want to make sure it's right for those people on that night," he explains. "At the beginning, I play a few songs that are different from each other and see how people react. There are a lot of choices of what to do with the crowd's energy."
Unlike the stereotype of the folk troubadour, Wilcox doesn't fill his songs with an overtly political or ideological agenda; there's a message there, but it's more subtle. Mostly, his songs -- and the stories that link them in his live performances -- are about his own musings on life's little absurdities.
"I have very few songs where I'm trying to convince people to take up my point of view," he says. "A lot of what I love to sing about is that this world is a great place to live a life of dignity. Not that it's easy, but that no little bit of love is wasted. My message is about trusting the guidance that's in your own heart."
Some critics have dismissed Wilcox as a feel-good acoustic music version of an inspirational speaker, and some of his earlier studio albums have been almost achingly earnest. But on the newest release, the more philosophical songs are interspersed with humorous tunes and well-timed comic monologues. The wry humor might surprise those who've only heard his recordings, but Wilcox says the album fairly represents a typical live performance.
"The balance of stories to songs on the live album is what I normally do [in performance], although the stories tend to vary," he says. "I can use a different story to introduce a song, and it's like when you put a picture in a new frame; it draws out different things."
A gentle spirituality informs many of Wilcox's songs, although he's certainly not preaching. Still, there's a sense of mission when he talks, and it's clear he feels like he's doing what he's meant to be doing in life. "My strength is to give words to the subtle yearnings of the heart," he says. "It's trusting that you're led, spiritually. If we ignore that, then we're cut off from those things that keep us alive and awake."
Life as an independent singer-songwriter can be challenging, but Wilcox focuses on the journey rather than the destination these days. He doesn't have a major label contract, and he's not playing to packed arenas, but that's not what he's looking for. He uses an apt metaphor in this post-Bloomsday week to explain. "When you're a runner, it's easy to look over at all the people driving by in their comfortable cars and start envying them," he says. "If you're expecting a ride, then you're going to be disappointed.
"But there's another way to look at it. I enjoy running and seeing all the things I can see along the way. I'd turn down a ride if it were offered. As a spiritual discovery, a humbling craft can be really good, as long as you look at it as a choice."
Wilcox seems deeply content with his life now. He spends about one-third of his time out touring; for the rest, he's back at home with his wife and son, working on new songs. "I need to be grounded, to have friends and family who'll welcome me home. I need to have a life worth singing about." He says he'll continue to hone his skills for as long as he can. "I'm very grateful to work at a craft that's elusive. It feels very satisfying that I have so much to learn, so many ways that I want to get better at what I do."
--Ann M. Colford
We've all heard his songs. With a songbook that only just gets warmed up with familiar tunes such as "S'wonderful," "Embraceable You," "I Got Rhythm," "Summertime" and "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," GEORGE GERSHWIN has made his way into American musical consciousness like no one before him, or probably since. This weekend, the Spokane Jazz Orchestra, led by Principal Guest Conductor Gunther Schuller, pays homage to this national treasure in a tribute to Gershwin and his influence on American jazz.
Gershwin was born in 1898 in Brooklyn, New York. He was raised in the musical melting pot of Tin Pan Alley, and by the age of 18 had his first song published. He went on to write such classics as "Rhapsody in Blue," "An American in Paris" and "Concerto in F." In the 20 years between that first song and his untimely death from a brain tumor at age 38, Gershwin was responsible for changing the landscape of American music. His understanding of jazz, classical, opera and everything in between allowed him to bridge the gap between these genres and blur the lines of what constituted American Music.
"Gershwin is one of the truly great inventors and composers in both classical and jazz, considering he only lived 38 years," explains Gunther Schuller, conductor of this weekend's concert. "Jazz musicians, in general, whether they know it or not, are constantly playing Gershwin's music. He wrote all the songs that became the center of the jazz lexicon. They provided the material on which all the great jazz musicians improvise."
Schuller has programmed a portion of the concert to illustrate this point. "I picked 10 pieces that are all associated with Gershwin," Schuller says. "Two are by Gershwin, the other eight are all pieces based on the changes in 'I Got Rhythm'".
Those eight songs include pieces by such jazz icons as Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and Tommy Dorsey, and they are all birthed from the musical changes in Gershwin's song. "I wanted to show how universal those changes are," Schuller explains. "It's something I've wanted to do for a long time, show how songs by famous musicians are the basis for other songs." Schuller asserts that Gershwin can claim this perhaps more than any other composer. "He, almost more that anyone, provided the material on which jazz has been feeding for the last 50 years. You could do a hundred concerts of music based on Gershwin, and all of it would be jazz."
In addition to providing material on which jazz musicians could build, Gershwin also infused jazz into his classical pieces, including the opera Porgy and Bess. Gil Evans orchestrated the opera for an 18-piece jazz orchestra. Evans' version used no voices, and instead featured jazz legend Miles Davis on trumpet. Evans played with sequence as well as instrumentation, transforming an opera into a jazz opus.
"The story [of Porgy and Bess] didn't really get told," explains Schuller. "That was not the purpose. Miles and Gil were sort of fascinated by pieces from the opera. And therein lies Gil's genius. He takes a lyric piece and turns it into something entirely different."
The 1958 recording of Porgy and Bess, featuring Miles Davis, is now considered one of the must-haves for any jazz collector. Schuller, who was one of the 18 musicians on that original recording, says the piece deserves this place in the lexicon. "We all knew this was a real breakthrough recording," says Schuller. "Now 40 years later, the music has been assimilated into our musicians' consciousness, and so it isn't as different as it was then."
As celebrated as the recording is now, Schuller says, the week of recording sessions were a frustrating time for him. "The recording sessions were not a great pleasure," says Schuller. A variety of factors, including placement of the musicians, conducting and live acoustics threw off the timing and made for a grueling week. "In spite of the fact that there are 20 of the finest musicians in the world, one can hear there are ragged moments quite often," admits Schuller. "There is lots of tricky stuff in that piece. It's some kind of miracle it came out as well as it did."
As popular as the recording is, Evans' Porgy and Bess has seldom been played live. In fact, the Spokane Jazz Orchestra performance will be only the second live performance of this piece west of the Mississippi.
"It was never performed live because Miles Davis lost the parts," Schuller says. "Until 1996, it was never played at all and after that only two or three of the 13 movements were performed because that was all that had been transcribed."
Schuller felt the piece should be performed live, so he took matters into his own hands, transcribing the parts from the original recording. "It's just one of the great classics of live jazz," insists Schuller. "Music on a recording is nice, but it needs to be played live."