The King and I

Buzz Osborne goes silent right after I ask him a question, and the duration of the pause makes me wonder if he's pulled the phone away from his ear to look at it as if it were a dachshund. The Melvins singer/guitarist/majordomo known as "King Buzzo" is riding through Michigan on his current solo tour, supporting "This Machine Kills Artists," his recent solo acoustic outing. It's the first such album and tour in Osborne's three-decade-long music career, and it brings him to Baltimore this week. "Kills" is a solid slab of Osborne's heavy grooves impressively translated to the acoustic six-string and, as usual, the whole album, from the Woody Guthrie-winking title through the song titles (sample: the slow burning 'Drunken Baby'), is spiked with Osborne's irreverent wit. Twenty-plus releases into one of independent heavy music's most consistent and satisfying careers, Osborne puts out the usually dreaded frontman "solo acoustic album" and doesn't merely maintain Melvins' intensity, but also reveals new wrinkles to his songwriting gifts. And I'm asking him idiotic questions.

Now, you need to understand something. Buzz Osborne is one of indie music's best talkers. Like Ian MacKaye, Mudhoney's Mark Arm and Steve Turner, Carrie Brownstein, and Dan Deacon, Osborne gives good quotes. He's smart, pays attention to the world around him, is consistently funny, and has the bottomless generosity to talk to anybody. He's a fan of music and movies and books and, you know, stuff, and he can talk about it all. Seriously: Go online and look for a bad Osborne interview in print, video, or podcast. He just doesn't have one.

Until now. Pro tip: If you're getting nondescript responses you're asking bad questions. I've known this for nearly 20 years, and yet that didn't stop me from asking Osborne, in my out-loud voice, the following: Given that you've now done a solo acoustic album and Melvins aren't shy about trying different things out, can I ever expect to hear a Melvins big band, with you in the Duke Ellington role and, like, a 15-piece ensemble behind you?

WTF? Not only did I just ask that, I have the temerity to sit around silent waiting for an answer. Do I think I'm being funny? Why didn't I ask about "This Machine Kills Artists'" 'Rough Democracy,' two-and-a-half minutes of snarling guitar pound and a lyrics that take an epic-rock approach to acoustic folk's typical protest themes: "You lack money, you're like everyone/ liberated, are you with us?" Why didn't I ask about 'New River,' on which Osborne displays a gorgeously bluesy and percussive guitar style and sings what sounds like a mediation on existence? Or why didn't I ask about 'The Blithering Idiot,' which is simply a killer rock song? Instead, I'm pretty sure I started the interview with something along the lines of, "Remember that time Melvins and Helmet played the Lithuanian Hall in Baltimore in 1990? That was awesome."

Oh, the 1990s. Maybe the downside of being so familiar with a musician's career is that my own projection of his general temperament rendered me momentarily lobotomized. That's the only reason I can come up with for taking two minutes to ask what should have been a simple question about the album's genesis. But, no, I couldn't do that. I had to roll through a term paper about how we joke about what a band leader's solo acoustic album is like and the notion of manufactured authenticity of the unplugged setting and how the acoustic guitar song typically means it's time for the rocker to offer up his sensitive unvarnished truth but surely it hasn't always been that way because, you know, there are nearly 100-year-old blues albums that are as dark and heavy as metal and even lesser-known artists from the so-called folk revival who aren't all peace, love, and flowers, so the quote solo acoustic album end-quote became the trite thing we consider it today because at some point somebody figured out how to sell that shit to people. So how did the acoustic album become such a cliché?

"Oh, who knows," Osborne says. "Maybe musicians themselves are boring. I don't know. Maybe they're afraid to do anything different. Maybe they rarely drift left of center, and when they do they want to do their version of the 'Nashville Skyline' record [by Bob Dylan]. No thanks. I don't have any interest in that because it's been done to death, mainly."

It's a simple answer to a preposterous question, but it's also a reminder of how Osborne and artists like him find ways to forge careers outside of the conventional industry. He keeps doing the things that interest him. And we continue to be curious to hear what that will be.

But recognizing that fact isn't helping my interview, a self-made coffin that I can't talk my way out of. Every word out of my mouth is more idiotic than the one that preceded it. It was one of the most embarrassing interviews I've ever done—and I say that as somebody who was once assigned to interview NewSong, the Christian vocal group, about its 'The Christmas Shoes' song when it was playing a holiday show at a North Texas mall.

So with the hope of not sounding like an asshat completely gone, I retreat to high-school questions. First time touring solo? How's it going? "It's no big deal," Osborne says. "I'm kind of used to looking stupid in front of lots of people, so that's not a problem." Doing any cover songs? "Yeah, I'm playing Alice Cooper's 'Ballad of Dwight Fry,'" he says. "Melvins have played that for a long time."

And, you know, what about a Melvins big band? Ever the consummate professional, he finds an answer. "I doubt it," he says, and chuckles a bit. "But you never know, I guess. I don't want to get too reckless."

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