By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
The Melvins, legendary innovators of brutal intelli-sludge heavy rock, like to challenge their audience as much as they do their drum heads and amplifier outputs. As vocalist and guitarist Buzz Osborne says, the band's modus operandi is to "screw with people. That's what I like." Speaking from his Los Angeles home, Osborne is quick to insist the group doesn't exist simply to provoke. "I don't mind pushing buttons," he says, "but it's just one little part of our whole thing."
However, with the impending March release of what's potentially the group's most controversial album to date, The Crybaby, the band is poised to screw with people: The disc features a note-for-note cover of Nirvana's angst anthem "Smells Like Teen Spirit" with guest vocals by '70s teen-idol casualty Leif Garrett, as well as a straight reading of Merle Haggard's anti-PC redneck anthem, "Okie From Muskogee," sung by Hank Williams III.
Over the past 15 years, the power trio -- Osborne, pugilistic and precise drummer Dale Crover, and new bassist Kevin Rutmanis -- has churned out 22 full-length albums, 25 singles, and numerous compilation tracks. In that time, the band has evolved from an influential indie darling to a major-label anomaly. These days, it's off in its own realm as an unpredictable purveyor of sounds that defy categorization. With its flippant cover of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Osborne insists that the band's intent was only to draw an ironic parallel between two teen-idol pop stars ruined by the music industry that exploited them. "I don't have to have permission [from Nirvana's surviving members] to do a cover song," Osborne says. "I just have to pay the publishing on it. If they can't see the humor in it, I can't help them."
Considering Nirvana's well-publicized irreverence for its instantaneous pop-stardom, it's unlikely former band members Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic would consider the Melvins-Garrett effort a mockery of the band. But last year, well before the release of The Crybaby, speculation abounded that Cobain's widow, actress and Hole singer Courtney Love, might seek an injunction against the band. Osborne isn't concerned. "Hopefully she will get upset about it," Osborne smirks. "If she thinks that what we're doing is somehow cheapening the good name of Kurt Cobain, so be it."
A spokesperson at DGC -- Nirvana and Hole's label -- sounded surprised to hear word of the Melvins-Garrett satire and said that neither Love nor the label would comment on the track.
The Melvins had originally considered soliciting a mainstream pop idol -- like Paula Abdul, or a hip-hop artist -- just to see what mutant sounds might develop from the pairing. "Us doing a song with Paula Abdul would be genius," Osborne says, laughing. "Not because I think she's great, but because I think she sucks. It could be a pretty hilarious combo."
But after seeing VH1's Behind the Music look at Leif Garrett's sordid tale of teenage stardom, drug addiction, and misfortune, Greg Werckman -- president of Ipecac Recordings, the Melvins' label -- suggested the Melvins hook up with Garrett for a song. Werckman tracked down Garrett's phone number through the fallen idol's fan club and convinced the singer to guest on the album. When Osborne heard Garrett had agreed to work with the Melvins, the guitarist realized "Smells Like Teen Spirit" would be the perfect song for their collaboration. "It's one of the best, most fucked-up ideas I've ever come up with," Osborne says. "Especially with Leif's obvious drug past and Kurt's public drug use."
According to Osborne, Garrett knew what he was getting into. "Leif's not a dumb guy," Osborne says. "He saw the idea of this as being something that would be interesting to capitalize on -- not really to become rich and famous again, but just to do something cool."
The Crybaby wasn't conceived specifically as a vehicle for Garrett's guest spot. The band initially invited several friends and peers to contribute to -- or tinker with -- the basic tracks, which would be recorded with each particular artist in mind. The resulting 11 songs feature underground luminaries such as Jesus Lizard singer David Yow, rowdy country-music revivalist Hank Williams III, industrial-dance icon Jim "Foetus" Thirwell, Mr. Bungle vocal contortionist and former Faith No More singer Mike Patton (also the co-founder of Ipecac and leader of Fantomas, in which Osborne also plays), Brutal Truth singer Kevin Sharpe, noise-rock yelper Bliss Blood of the Pain Teens, emotional-metal rockers Tool, and avant-popsters Skelton Key.
"We recorded the basic tracks and sent them to [each contributor] with the instructions 'Do whatever you want -- you want to put vocals on it, you want to fart on it, whatever'," says Osborne. "I wanted to give these people that kind of freedom so that they would put their thumbprint on it."
Not all of the original contributors were able to leave their thumbprints on the album. Folk-hop wunderkind Beck Hansen had committed to the project, but Osborne grumbles that meddling managers felled the endeavor. Beck's track, Osborne laments, "was the only time that we had to deal with someone's manager on this whole thing. I dealt with the artists directly on every one of the other songs.