Grunge Schmunge

It may be difficult to remember now, but back in the days before the ascension of MTV, before grunge, before Kurt Cobain nailed himself to the cross in the name of his art, the rock underground lived and breathed a contrarian spirit. You didn't have to actually understand your instrument to yank something new out of it; the thing was, or seemed to be, to create. Something. Anything. You didn't have to have -- or even want -- a million greenbacks. You didn't have to have a tour bus. You didn't have to have an MTV Buzz Bin video. And you sure as hell didn't have to have a hit single.

The Melvins -- now three CDs deep into a deal with Atlantic Records -- still don't. They spent a paltry $50,000 recording their latest release, Stag. They toured on this summer's Lollapalooza bill in a rental car, because, says Melvins guitarist and vocal enigma Buzz Osborne (a.k.a. King Buzzo), "We've got a major label that would give us tour support, and we could spend it on a tour bus. But in actuality, you're spending your own money, so we have to watch out for that kind of stuff and tour within our means."

The Melvins produced a video for their new single, "Bar-X -- The Rocking M," with celebrated porn director Gregory Dark, and though the video is allegedly G rated, "MTV just told us flat out, 'We don't want it,' " says Osborne. " 'We have no interest in playing your stuff on any of our shows, none of the alternative late night shows, nothing.' "

Nonetheless, if you ask most any of the dozens of critics who've spent some recent quality time listening to Stag, the band has made its most adventurous, most creative, most contrarian release to date. And this at a time when -- according to all known laws of commerce and novelty -- they ought to have called it a day and tendered their applications at the local convenience store.

And what about radio support? Don't hold your breath. Of all the once-underground bands whose ties to, or patronage from, Kurt Cobain lifted them into the mass-commercial realm, the Melvins' ties were perhaps strongest, and Cobain's fandom most sincere. But for one reason or another, the gravy train never stopped at the Melvins' station.

To which Osborne responds, "Fuck 'em. I don't give a shit. Fine. It's not gonna make us not make records or not be a band."

It all started, more or less, in 1984 in Aberdeen, Washington, when the Melvins -- at that point consisting of Osborne and two now-former bandmates -- decided they wanted to be the world's "slowest, heaviest band." Sneering at an underground dogma that embraced speed as punk rock's savior, the Melvins went glacial, churning out volcanic metal riffs that made Black Sabbath sound like a band on a pogo stick. The music that resulted earned an uncomprehending nod as the sludge that would later congeal into grunge.

"It's nothing that I'm really interested in now," says Osborne. "But back then, that was a very adventurous move, you know, in a world of 200-mile-per-hour skinhead bands. It wasn't real well received, but we never stopped."

"It wasn't real well received, but we never stopped" might as well be the Melvins' motto. The band's three indie releases, along with a trio of solo efforts a la Kiss, were fine for legend but failed to move the band forward commercially, and by the time the Melvins debuted modestly on Atlantic with Houdini in 1993, the group (by then Osborne, bassist Mark Deutrom and drummer Dale Crover) had moved out of sludge and into something more closely resembling heavy metal. Last year's follow-up, Stoner Witch, sold a measly 70,000 copies -- even less than Houdini -- which must have made the band Atlantic's alternative loss leader of the year. All of which brings us to Stag, a release that is surely the product of a long progression toward progressive weirdness, but which comes twisting out of the speakers like some overnight revelation. For the Melvins, boundaries are starting to fall to the ground like gut-shot pigeons. Stag's leadoff track, "The Bit," walks a leaden stutter-stomp that says "Melvins" in all the old recognizable ways, but the standout riff is played by Crover on a sitar. "Bar-X -- The Rocking M" sounds like the Melvins woke up one morning to find themselves inhabiting the bodies of some Southern California ska/punk/funk outfit spinning turntables and blowing brass (actually, that's Fishbone's Dirty Walton on trombone). For you longtime Houston locals, the tune sounds like an outtake from a late-era Sprawl session (which is something, certainly, that no one has ever before said of the Melvins). "Black Bock" is a strummed acoustic number with nursery-rhyme plucking patterns and Osborne doing his best cloud-bound vocal impression of Syd Barrett. "Soup" is an ambient experiment in viscous bubbling. On "Buck Owens," the Melvins cross Rush with their long-eschewed stylistic nemesis, speed metal. "Berthas" sounds like Motorhead fronted by a whispery crooner. And "Cottonmouth" is Crover's stab at playing a parody of (homage to?) muddy Delta blues, complete with train whistle.

Now, before your head stops spinning, incorporate the information that Osborne, who, over the years, has evolved in self-image from a riff-meister to an aural artisan, admires and aspires to the craftsmanship of models he lists as Pink Floyd and Beck. All this weird nonsense begins to make even more sense once you assume a healthy fear of stasis and a championing of overt experimentalism as Melvins givens.

"I think that we've made our best record," says Osborne. "We want to always do something different, not repeat ourselves, and we want to push the limits a bit. I want to be musical potpourri. In a world of bands like Rage Against the Machine, where you pretty much hear the same song every single song, there's not a lot of this kind of stuff happening. I think it's a really gutsy move on our part."

Osborne's into gutsy moves, and that's one of the reasons that for the tour that brings them to Houston, the Melvins are planning something that few bands outside of P-Funk would consider plausible: three sets, two intermissions and no opening acts -- a veritable "Evening with the Melvins." For the first set, expect the band's "experimental, more ambient stuff," with Osborne playing bass. The second set will comprise what Osborne calls the "quieter stuff." And set three will, as they say, rock.

"That's a pretty adventurous thing for us to do," says Osborne. "To put our ass on the line a little bit and see if we can pull it off. We may fall flat, I don't know, we'll see what happens. It'll allow us to play a lot of material, cover a lot of ground, do a lot of strange things we've never been able to do before. I'm looking forward to it. People will really get something different."

And what if the Melvins were, by some freak alignment of stars and radio programmers, to get something different themselves? Say, the kind of sales that Nirvana, Soundgarden and other direct descendants of Melvinsludge have so famously reaped.

"Oh man, we'd go so over the top," Osborne muses. "We'd have amazing Melvins shows, stuff that nobody else ever did. If we had the dough, I'd put out a record about every six months; there'd be no three year waits for us.

"To tell you the truth, I wish that Stag would sell about ten million copies in the U.S. That'd be amazing. I want to make a shitload of money and sell a ton of records playing exactly what I want."

But it's definitely the second half of that desire that prevails on Stag. The Melvins aren't about to abandon the contrariness that's carried them this far. So even if the ten million sales mark does happen of its own inexplicable accord (and it probably won't), don't expect to see Osborne chasing anything but his own weird muse around the block.

"A lot of punk-type bands like the Replacements or Husker Du went to major labels and made their worst CDs. I think it's exactly opposite for us. Our best work has certainly been on a major label," Osborne says. "Because we haven't been going for the gold, going for the gusto. It goes against everything we ever stood for, goes against everything that was ever good about us to begin with. There's nothing worse than a band that tries to sell out, and it doesn't work. Then you're just sitting there with nothing."

The Melvins perform Saturday, September 28, at the Abyss, 5913 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $8. Doors open at 8:30 p.m. For info, call 629-3700.

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Brad Tyer