Food For Thought: An A To Z Guide To Melvins’ Stag

To celebrate the 25th birthday of Melvins' bonkers eighth album, JR Moores presents a users' manual to what the hell was going on

A is for Atlantic Records

1996’s Stag remains one of the weirdest rock albums ever to appear on a major label. It was Melvins’ eighth album in total, and the final of three to be released by Atlantic Records. This genre-straddling wonk-rock experiment is even up there with the weirdest records in the whole Melvins canon. Stag‘s strangeness does occur in an eclectic and playful way, however, rather than in the more confrontational, or else deflated, manner you might expect from an act that would shortly sever ties – or have its ties severed – from the world of corporate rock.

B is for Buzz

Roger "Buzz" Osborne (vocals/ guitar/ Moog/ other assorted noises) had predicted Melvins would be dropped from Atlantic after just one album (1993’s Houdini: their most well-known record, but by no means their best). Like many of his generation, as a youngster Osborne had been galvanised by punk. He soon outgrew its stringent idioms though, and Melvins became a slower and stranger affair. From the punk scene, some participants took a sense of community and shared egalitarian values. For others like Osborne, punk rock’s DIY spirit instilled a commitment to the inalienable freedom and independent spirit of the individual. This might help to explain both Melvins’ robustness and the more libertarian-leaning views that have been espoused by Osborne in recent times (and probably, come to think of it, throughout his career). Shunning anything released by a major label as a matter of puritanical principle, Osborne explained to Crack Magazine in 2013, would mean denying yourself many of the greatest records ever made.

C is for creative control

When musicians from the underground sign major label deals, they like to maintain "creative control". Sometimes they have this written into their contracts. Sometimes they claim to have secured it, to project a semblance of sustained integrity. Sometimes they think they have it, when the devilish record company has different plans. Sometimes they have it initially, and then the A&R bod who signed them in the first place vanishes due to a personnel reshuffle, and their replacement demands hit singles as bankable as ‘Secret Smile’ by Semisonic. According to Osborne, Atlantic contracted Melvins in the hope of attracting likeminded-yet-more-marketable artists. "You do what you want – here’s money," they told him, never pestering him in the studio. He found the whole affair "a cakewalk". In one meeting with Atlantic, Melvins played their sludge-riffic Lysol album in full, so the label knew what it was letting itself in for.

D is for Dale

Dale Crover has played drums in Melvins since 1985 when he was recruited from a heavy metal covers act. Integral to the band’s sound, his style is described by sludge metal expert J.J. Anselmi as having the "grace of a jilted orangutan" and being full of "awkward hits, fills, and rests, he’s always a zit on the ass end of the beat." Stag is one of Crover’s favourite Melvins albums. He also plays sitar on its opening track.

E is for egg

Osborne refuses to explain his cryptic lyrics. He prefers the audience to take what they will from the bizarre verses. This is similar in spirit to the film director David Lynch, who Osborne has called "the master". The Twin Peaks auteur feels no need to clarify the "true" meaning of his surrealist flicks. Stag‘s fifth track, ‘The Bloat’, includes a line about "selling bulge egg tourniquet". Answers on a postcard if you know what Buzz is on about…

F is for food

Stag‘s mixture of musical styles gives it a schizophrenic feel. Nevertheless, somebody named "amazonAMAZON" on the discussion boards insists that Stag is the first Melvins album to have an overriding theme: "animals in consumption, food and size and gluttony and the food chain." If that’s accurate, Osborne still considers us to be at the top of the pyramid. "How the fuck can I give a shit about a chicken?" he asked in a 2011 interview with The Stranger.

G is for grunge

Melvins will forever be associated with grunge. They were pals with Nirvana. Osborne showed Soundgarden how to down-tune their guitars to sound more Sabbathian. Soundgarden handed this knowledge to Alice In Chains. Kurt Cobain helped Melvins get signed to Atlantic via manager Danny Goldberg. Yada, yada, yada. But Melvins were around before grunge, and they have outlived it stupendously. They were wise to keep grunge at arm’s length by, for example, moving from Aberdeen, Washington to San Francisco instead of down the road to Seattle. They’ve been called the "godfathers of grunge", but have influenced virtually every heavy band worth its salt, from Orange-amped stoners to behooded drone priests. Melvins prefer the label "grandfathers of grudge".

H is for Honky

During their stint at Atlantic, Melvins stayed down-to-earth, with one foot remaining in the underground. Harbouring no illusions that any amount of marketing would see them blossom into the next Van Halen, they continued to tour in a humble van, knowing that fees for fancy buses and associated luxuries would be deducted from their pot. In 1994, they released Prick through Amphetamine Reptile (technically credited to "ƧИIV⅃ƎM"). The same label released a series of standalone 7-inches during the band’s stint at Atlantic. When it became clearer that their Atlantic days were numbered, Melvins surreptitiously made a sequel to Stag, called Honky. With a production cost of $3000, it was recorded in six days, and was ready to release, through Amphetamine Reptile, and take on the road as soon as Melvins received confirmation of their dismissal from the larger label. Honky includes ‘Laughing With Lucifer At Satan’s Sideshow’ which features guest vocalists reading out statements that Atlantic staff had made to Melvins: "You should consider yourself lucky. Any other major label would have dropped you by now."

I is for indie labels

As Melvins were keen to point out, plenty of independent labels had a reputation for being considerably dodgier than certain majors. For anyone who’s read Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, SST might spring to mind, or Sub Pop during its less lucrative moments. Melvins had been burned in the past. Alchemy Records altered the intended artwork for their debut album, 1987’s Gluey Porch Treatments, without consulting the band. Alchemy were then accused of bungling the distribution. It was "just a typical rip-off punk-rock label," complained Buzz. Since leaving Atlantic, Melvins have enjoyed long and fruitful partnerships with Amphetamine Reptile and Ipecac Recordings.

J is for jerky

This word appears often in descriptions of Melvins’ distinctive sound. Ned Raggett, for instance, called it a "combination of sudden, herky-jerky thrash (but not thrash metal) and epic stomp and sprawl". Jerky is also a type of beef. Maybe it does all come back to "animals in consumption".

K is for Kurt

Another strange thing about Stag is that it sounds so frisky and, at times, more light-hearted than other Melvins albums, despite its difficult gestation. This was the first Melvins album written after the death of Kurt Cobain, and Osborne said he had a tough time making it. Notwithstanding this obvious tragedy, while everybody else immediately took to canonising the Nirvana star, Melvins continued cracking jokes at their friend’s expense, just as they had when they knew him. "I wasn’t about to stop my life as a result of that stuff," Osborne told grunge chronicler Mark Yarm. "The best thing I can do is be a living example of how that stuff doesn’t work." When Cobain’s death had first been reported, Melvins played their scheduled show that very evening, business as usual. The following day, Crover tried to lift his own spirits by shopping for a brand new gong.

L is for ‘Lacrimosa’

Internet rock critic Mark Prindle wrote that Stag‘s twelfth track was "without doubt the most irritating song" this band had ever recorded, which for Melvins is "actually saying something". It is sung by Mark Deutrom, one of countless bassists Osborne and Crover have worked with over the years. Deutrom’s bass style is melodic and almost funky, without sacrificing the essential low-end heaviosity. Staff at Atlantic nicknamed him "The Grumpy Cowboy".

M is for Maximumrocknroll

In the wake of hits like Alice In Chains’ ‘Man In A Box’ and Nirvana’s Nevermind, there had been an industry-wide craze for signing scruffy types. From the potentially profitable to those utterly incapable of shifting many units at all, tons of underground acts were wooed by the corporate dollar. Indie purist Steve Albini scoffed at the whole sordid affair, most notably in an article called ‘The Problem With Music’ for Maximumrocknroll in 1994. It was part of a special issue on major labels. The cover featured a close-up of somebody holding a pistol to their mouth, with the tagline, "Some of your friends are already this fucked". Albini predicted the craze would end in bitter tears. For many, it did (or already had). Artists less resilient than Melvins would have far unhappier dalliances with majors. Such acts would mostly end up going bad, mad, or fizzling out. As with many of their endeavours over the decades, Melvins’ own corporate spell would basically end with laughter and a resolute shrugging of the shoulders, after which they would just move on with typical obstinacy. No self-pity here. For them, the (temporary, as it would turn out) elevation to major label status was a simple exercise in moderately growing an audience without alienating the older fanbase. As such, Stag‘s uncompromising oddness makes it seem less like a "fuck you" record than a "thank you" record. (Perhaps with a slight undercurrent of "…and so long, suckers".)

N is for 1996

By the second half of the 90s, heavy music was in disarray. Most of the first-wave grunge bands had destroyed themselves or were sputtering out, soon to be replaced in the charts by ghastly successors like Nickelback and Creed. Metallica caused outrage by shortening their hair. Their drummer became obsessed with Oasis. James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett were excited by Radiohead (or at least said they were). Melvins showed no patience for any such nonsense by recording a Britpop parody single called ‘In The Rain’, which is one of the silliest songs Supergrass never wrote. ‘N’ could also stand for nu-metal. We’ll come to that later.

O is for Mackie Osborne

Buzz’s wife, Mackie, has designed most Melvins artwork since 1994. (She is also credited with playing drum parts on the irritating ‘Lacrimosa’.) Melvins albums tend to have brightly coloured sleeves that are jovial in nature, with an underlying hint of surreal menace. This differs from the typical imagery used by bands at the heavier end of the sonic spectrum, and it emphasises Melvins’ sense of absurd humour and their insatiable need to challenge people. In the retrospective artbook Neither Here Nor There, Mackie defines Melvins’ agenda as such: "everything about them, from their music, to their interviews, to their costumes, their album art and so on, seems almost perversely designed to leave the audience confused, amused, disturbed and yet somehow fulfilled."

P is for pop

Melvins never saw themselves as working in the same vein as their pals from Seattle. To Crover, the multi-platinum likes of Soundgarden and Nirvana were "almost pop bands". Melvins’ music, on the other hand, is art. Proper ART. Extremely heavy, early-KISS-worshipping, Tibetan-monk-inspired, Beefheartian ART. Stag includes tracks like ‘Goggles’, which hark back to the suspenseful dirges of 1992’s Lysol. It also features one of the gentlest and most cheerful-sounding songs in Melvins’ entire repertoire: a countrified ballad named ‘Black Bock’. In its opening verse, the narrator describes the joy to be felt in murdering a goat. As the old saying goes, you can’t spell Melvins without "evil".

Q is for Queen

Buzz Osborne says that if there is one "classic rock" act that didn’t go off the boil, it has to be Queen. Then again, they probably would have, had destiny been kinder to their singer. There aren’t many Queen-esque moments on Stag but listen very closely and the double-hitter of ‘Captain Pungent’ and ‘Berthas’ may come close.

R is for rivals

Were Melvins the only group to survive unscathed by the great grunge gold rush of the early ’90s? As noted above, most groups either disbanded or declined drastically. Even the mighty Sonic Youth got quite poppy (for a bit) with their ‘Dirty Boots’ and Dirty album. Hitherto noiseniks Mercury Rev and Flaming Lips, in tandem, went all Pet Sounds. Ween and Boredoms both became slightly more accessible and more recently seem to exist only as live acts. Pearl Jam became a highly functional splice of Crazy Horse and The E-Street Band. Mudhoney kept on Stooge-ing away. In the UK, Therapy? ground on with similar bloody-mindedness after A&M folded in the late ’90s. None have had the prolificacy or consistency of Melvins.

S is for solo songs

Three of Stag‘s songs are solo efforts. Each member was asked to record a piece on which he played everything himself, at home, using whatever recording equipment was lying around. Osborne’s ‘Hide’ is little more than an ambient intro. (To be fair, he did write many of the album’s other tracks). Completed by Deutrom, ‘Yacobs Lab’ is a short and spooky instrumental that would work well in a creepy film. Crover wins the three-way contest with ‘Cottonmouth’, a slurry blues parody sitting somewhere between Butthole Surfers and Ween. It closes the album in an appropriately curious manner.

T is for "THIS IS FOR COWS!"

The opening line on Stag. Tie this to the sacrificial goats, eggs, etc. and perhaps "amazonAMAZON" is onto something. Then again, Osborne could have been thinking of the Minneapolis band, Cows, formed in 1987. The unhinged noise-rockers once said they would’ve been delighted to sign to a major, but failed to entice any offers at all. They were just too weird, and their records only grew weirder. Cows’ final statement, 1998’s Sorry In Pig Minor, was produced by Buzz Osborne. Reviewer Mark Prindle noted how Osborne liked to "throw in off-kilter effects and fiddle with the volumes of the separate components for no reason whatsoever". Cows split upon the departure of guitarist Thor Eisentrager. To no avail, Osborne offered to take Eisentrager’s place, such was his longing for Cows to continue.

U and V are for The Velvet Underground

Melvins are The Velvet Underground of heavy music: a relatively cult concern that has had immeasurable impact on a myriad of heavy genres and subgenres. Osborne likes The Velvet Underground as much as the next avant-rocker, but I suspect he prefers The Fugs, who are less well-known. He has said that Stag is Melvins’ most Fugs-ish record.

W is for weird

Is Stag the weirdest rock album ever released by a major label? Once you adjust to its theme, Metal Machine Music is more relentless than weird. Shout-out again to the efforts of Boredoms and Ween. Disco Volante by Mr Bungle can be quite the mindfuck. Have you heard Stag? The fog-swamped dirge of ‘Sterilized’? The aforementioned ‘Lacrimosa’? The sort-of-ambient ‘Tipping The Lion’? The hideous ‘Goggles’? The swinging ‘Berthas’? The choked chipmunk vocals on ‘Skin Horse’? It’s pretty bloody weird, and in such a rich variety of ways. It runs the full gamut, so said Osborne, from "extremely wimpy" to "obnoxiously hideous."

X is for ‘Bar-X The Rocking M’

Stag‘s third track has something in common with nu-metal, a genre then on the rise, because it sounds as though it’s got some turntable scratchings on it. Mind you, it also features an exuberant trombone solo performed by the dude from Fishbone. Here Melvins seem to consider jumping on two contemporary bandwagons at the same time (nu-metal and ska), but cannot repress their natural Melvins-ness. The trio slipped this track into their setlists without the need to hire a horn section. Instead, Crover replicated the parping and tooting parts with his mouth. Incidentally, when Buzz Osborne thrashed Fred Durst at golf, the latter had a big strop about it, accusing the Melvins man of cheating. That’s what really makes him want to BREAK STUFF.

Y is for Yoko Ono

Sometime in the mid-90s, the great Yoko Ono was introduced to the magic of Melvins by her son and IMA bandmate Sean Lennon. Part of their 1995 Rising album was influenced by Melvins, who were also invited to perform onstage with Yoko and company. Some fans believe Stag is Melvins’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Others liken it to The White Album. They could be barking up the wrong tree. It’s got more in common with the sonic textures and experimental style shifts of Ono’s Fly.

Z is for White Zombie

White Zombie managed to make two studio albums for a major label before imploding in a mushroom cloud of ripped denim and massive hats. Their singer, Robert Zombie, made subsequent solo albums for Geffen, but then it is harder (though not impossible) to split yourself up. In 1995, Melvins supported White Zombie on an extensive North American tour, performing in not-full arenas. Playing to "highly gullible brainless fans" (in Osborne’s words), Zombie would "dance around to half-baked horseshit that’s not even live, with a bunch of two-bit effects". Worse than that, Zombie proved a "lower-level fuckhead" who engaged in "pointless rock-star behaviour", such as pulling the plug on a Melvins soundcheck because it was interrupting his lunch. "My instant thought was, what the fuck is he eating, a Fabergé egg omelette?" recalled Osborne in an article for Spin, noting that this was the single worst tour of his entire life. The following year, Melvins made Stag.

Rob Zombie’s lunch? The food chain? Cows? Eggs?! Gluttony? Consumption? Fulfilment? Flavours? A major label feeding frenzy? There are definitely some culinary metaphors emerging here… But we’ve had about 3000 words already. You’ve probably got the gist. And I need to fix myself a venison sandwich.

Melvins’ latest album is Working With God. JR Moores’ new book, Electric Wizards: A Tapestry Of Heavy Music, 1968 To The Present will be published by Reaktion in September

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