Buzz Osborne On Butthole Surfers

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Melvins [L-R: Steven Shane McDonald, Dale Crover, Buzz Osborne, Jeff Pinkus], photo by O1
Depending on how you’re counting it, Melvins released its thirtieth album, Pinkus Abortion Technician in April 2018. The title of the record an obvious, and humorous, reference to the 1987 Butthole Surfers classic Locust Abortion Technician. It should be noted that Butthole Surfers’ longtime bassist Jeff Pinkus has been a member of Melvins since 2013. The record is bookended by two Surfers songs, “Stop Moving to Florida” and “Graveyard.” While a testament to the impact the Butthole Surfers had on Melvins, both bands proved influential on 80s underground rock and the musicians who would break that parallel vision of interesting and exciting music, likely considered largely uncommercial at the time, to the world in the early 90s when alternative rock bands took the foundation built by bands like Butthole Surfers and Melvins to a massive audience.

Though Butthole Surfers had two left field hits in the 90s with “Who Was In My Room Last Night” and “Pepper,” neither Butthole Surfers or the Melvins were aiming to appeal to any trends, their respective music too weird and idiosyncratic for most people with mainstream tastes and otherwise casual music fans. Because of that both bands have a body of work that has aged well and in the case of Melvins, work that continues to evolve organically, regularly yielding interesting records. This weekend, Melvins are playing a pair of shows in Colorado, the first on Friday, August 10 at The Gothic Theatre in Englewood and Saturday, August 11 at The Aggie Theatre in Fort Collins, both with WE Are The Asteroid. We spoke with Melvins guitarist Buzz Osborne ahead of the show and talked about Butthole Surfers and his pragmatic attitude toward the appeal of his own music.

Tom Murphy: When did you first hear about Butthole Surfers?

Buzz Osborne: ’82 or ’83. I think I saw them first in ’83. Seattle.

How did you hear about them?

Same way I heard about every other band. I listened to underground music, I heard the EP and I really wanted to see them. I heard about them long before I saw them, like the year before.

What is it about that music that appealed to you?

It was left of center, it didn’t sound like anything else. They had a nice way of expressing their melodies that I found to be quite exciting and refreshing. I thought they were extremely good players. It was weird to the point that I could get into it and not feel like I was listening to a fucking REO Speedwagon record. It was everything I enjoyed about underground music. But having said that, honestly, if REO Speedwagon put out a record I liked, I would buy it. I’m not going to hold my breath but I’m not being perverse, you know. I never have been. I feel things are good or bad and that’s the end of it.

When you saw them the first time was it more the stripped down thing or the multimedia thing they did later on?

It was stripped down. I’m not sure what you mean. To me it was super punk rock but it wasn’t 7 Seconds, you know? It wasn’t no jive bullshit like that. It was really good in every sense of the word. Not normal but I was okay with that. I embraced that.

Do you feel like they were influential to you then?

Of course! They always were. That’s why at this point now, when I think about what we’re doing and who we’re doing it with, I can’t even really believe it. The idea that I’m in a band now with two guys that I’ve been fans of for literally decades is really quite amazing to me. It’s second to none and I feel like the happiest boy on earth.

The album is bookended by two Butthole Surfers songs? Was there an inspiration for the choice of eras of the band?

I don’t know. It could have been any era. We have been touring around playing both of those songs live a long time prior to recording them. And when we got in the studio with Jeff it just seemed like the right thing to do. An obvious choice. There’s no more to it. There isn’t an era of the Butthole Surfers that I don’t like.

Did you tour with them way back when?

We did shows with them but never toured with them. Three or four shows.

Is there a specific era of the Butthole Surfers you favor?

Like I said, I like every era of the Butthole Surfers. But if I had to get particular, I guess I would pick Hairway to Steven, [Psychic…Powerless…] Another Man’s Sac and Brown Reason To Live.

How do you think they impacted the world of music?

I never thought about how they influenced music in general. Maybe their weirdness. They influenced me. They did have an album that sold a lot of copies but I can’t say how well-versed a lot of the people that bought that album were in what [Butthole Surfers] did before that. Or if they had explored the earlier records if they would have been as excited about it. Maybe they would have loved Another Man’s Sac as well, it remains to be seen. Yeah, these guys are going to love the Brown Reason to Live EP, they’re going to be super into it. But who knows? I have no idea why people like what they like. I only know what I like and I’ve always figured that I operate with the assumption that I have good taste and I will make music I think is good without thinking in terms of how it will be perceived by anyone else. Just figure that if I like it, other people will like it but it probably won’t be millions of people and I’m okay with that. It’ll be enough. I’m not concentrating on selling records or not selling records. I’m concentrating on making music that’s good.

Chrome’s Legacy of Inspired Dystopian, Industrial Psychedelia Comes to Denver

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Chrome, photo by Jeremy Harris

In the annals of weirdo, psychedelic, noisy rock Chrome (performing tonight, March 31 at Larimer Lounge) stands out as one of the true originals. Innovators of an art/acid damaged sound that fully blended synthesizers and rock music, Chrome is often considered one of the progenitors of industrial music. Butthole Surfers freely admit the influence, so did Stereolab. One has to assume Arab On Radar drew on Chrome’s proto-sampling, recontextualizing, deconstructionist impulses as well. When Chrome released its debut album The Visitation in 1976 it must have seemed as alien as its closest musical cousin in the early solo albums of Brian Eno. Ned Raggett Allmusic Guide described it as “Brian Eno meets Santana.” The latter probably because of the fluttery, bluesy leads that are the hallmark of part of the guitar sound on the record alongside the fuzzy, spidery melodies. The band might have continued to develop along that path if bassist Gary Spain hadn’t been playing violin in a band prior to The Visitation’s release with future Chrome guitarist Helios Creed, mentioning he was in a band called Chrome.

“I asked if I could hear it when it was done,” says Creed. “He gave me a copy and I liked the record, The Visitation, but I guess the record wasn’t selling at all and everybody quit. Then I auditioned and me and Damon [Edge] got along really well. It ended up just being me and him after a while. I played the bass on the first three records [after I was in Chrome]. When I heard that [first] record I [told them I] felt like they needed me and I was right.”

Creed had grown up in the 50s, 60s and 70s listening to, among other bands, Black Sabbath, Iron Butterfly, The Doors and Blue Cheer. “I went to go see Black Sabbath on acid and I sort of felt like I knew what I wanted to do, in a way,” says Creed. To Chrome, Creed brought another dimension to the band’s spirit of experimentation and a guitar sound that was as energetic as it was corrosive and both jagged and serpentine.

Starting with Alien Soundtracks, originally titled Ultra Soundtrack when it was a soundtrack project for what might be called an avant-garde strip show in San Francisco. But the music was considered too weird even for an endeavor like that in a city where strange art had long been embraced. From the opening track, “Chromosome Damage” to the last, “Magnetic Dwarf Reptile,” it is obvious that Chrome had absorbed obvious influences like Blue Cheer, Black Sabbath, Hendrix, Stooges and Hawkwind and allowed that to mutate and stew into something that sounded like what cyberpunk authors like William Gibson, John Shirley and Bruce Sterling were trying to capture when they took the spirit of J.G. Ballard’s visionary, dystopian science fiction and its influence on punk in brilliant new directions. Chrome albums have consistently seemed like science fiction novels and movies no one has yet written or made. “Yeah, we got sci-fi ideas and integrated it with the feel of the music,” says Creed. “Or a sterile, dehumanizing, robotic society. We had a lot of different kinds of inspirations. That movie Carrie? Alien, the first one. Blade Runner and A Clockwork Orange–the feel of those movies really inspired us.”

 

Although based in the Bay Area, Chrome didn’t exactly play live shows in a city where the avant-garde or any kind of strange, eccentric art seemed to find a home. The band had garnered critical acclaim abroad with Alien Soundtracks and its follow-up, 1979’s Half Machine Lip Moves but it wasn’t until 1981 that the group performed live for the first time.

“We didn’t play until Blood on the Moon came out,” says Creed. “That was our first show and we played in Italy at a music festival in Bologna. We played all new songs but they dug it. We played the whole Blood on the Moon album. There’s a live record of that show somewhere.”

The lineup with both Edge and Creed produced some of the most interesting and unusual music of the era including 1980’s more synth-infused Red Exposure, the aforementioned 1981 album Blood on the Moon and 1982’s 3rd From the Sun. With more electronic elements including drum machines, those records, dark and clearly taking cues from no one beyond the dictates of active and restless imaginations, Chrome’s sinister psychedelia was not destined to fit in with the fake positivism of the 1980s mainstream culture. Thank goodness. However, the Edge/Creed era of Chrome ended by the mid-80s and Edge moved to Paris with his wife and collaborator, Fabienne Shine. Edge released albums as Chrome into the 90s before he died of heart failure in 1995. Around that time he had reconnected with Creed with notions of doing Chrome together again.

After Chrome, Creed continued as a solo artist and collaborator with current synth and guitar player Tommy Grenas (from bands Farflung and Pressurehead) who connected Creed with former Hawkwind member Nik Turner with whom Creed and Grenas worked on a 1993 re-recording of Turner’s 1978 solo album Sphynx and the 1994 Nik Turner record Prophets of Time. Creed and Turner now have a band with Jay Tausig called Chromium Hawk Machine that put out an album called Annunaki in 2017 on Massimo Gasperini’s Black Widow Records imprint. “Massimo is into the whole Zecharia Sitchin theory about Nibiru so we made a record about it.”

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Chrome circa 2008, photo by Tom Murphy

Rumor had it that Grenas was able to get a hold of Edge’s original synth rig after the musician passed. Turns out the rumors were true.

“I met Damon before I met Helios,” reveals Grenas. “When Damon passed away I had the opportunity to buy his stuff when [his sister] Sharon put it up for sale and I bought it before anyone else did. I bought Damon’s [Moog] Liberation and the [Electro-Harmonix] Micro Synth and something else. I used it on the first tour but a lot of that stuff is too fragile to take on the road.”

Grenas used some of the older gear for the Chrome records that have come out since the turn of the century. Right now the band is touring in support of 2014’s Feel It Like a Scientist and 2017’s Techromancy. While the methods and means of making sound have changed, Chrome still seems off the frequency of mundane normalcy with songs about an ominous, dystopian future society.

“It seems like we’re on the brink of going right into that with machines and robots taking over,” says Creed. “So maybe they’ll just kill us, I guess. We’re going to be obsolete. ‘You must go to this room here and wait for destruction.’ We also have songs of hope.”

In spite of the overt sound of the band and the subject matter of the lyrics, Creed’s sharp and playful sense of humor is infused into the music as well and so is his willingness to explore the dark underbelly of American culture that is often simply dismissed as folklore. Although Creed grew up in Long Beach, California and lived in the San Francisco Bay area for much of his life, he did spend some years in the American Midwest where lurid stories of local figures and events are not in short supply.

“I was living in Manhattan, Kansas, twenty miles from Stull,” says Creed. “Supposedly it’s one of the gateways to Hell. That’s the scuttlebutt. Supposedly the Pope won’t fly over it when he comes to America. Every Halloween apparently the Goth people and witchy kind of people show up there thinking they’re talking to the dark ones. But really all it is is just a burned out church. [So the story goes,] a bunch of rednecks who hated blacks, and really everyone, put people in that church and burned it down and opened a vortex to hell. You know how the old west was. Where I was living in Kansas they used to cut the heads of slaves if they didn’t like them. All this stuff never gets written about but I know the history of Kansas is very dark. It ain’t no Wizard of Oz place, I’ll tell you that much.”

Chrome performs Saturday, March 31, with Echo Beds and Phallic Meditation at Larimer Lounge. Doors 8 p.m., show 9 p.m., tickets $25.