The guitarguitar Interview: Buzz Osborne
Published on 26 June 2020
Buzz Osborne's guitar sound is so great, they built a distortion pedal based on it.
True story. In the Nineties, DOD (owned by Digitech) created a range of pedals like the 'Grunge' pedal and the 'Gonkulator', which were designed to capture the edgier contemporary tones of the era. The Buzz Box, released around then, was an attempt to bottle up the huge, gnarly, fantastic Melvins guitar sound in a slightly cheeky, unofficial capacity. It's rare piece now (also eye-wateringly expensive), and you can decide for yourself how successful that pedal was at nailing Buzz's sound, but the fact that is was made at all speaks volumes about this musician's influence.
Buzz is a guy who is often namechecked by other artists as an inspiration. He's a diverse, multi-faceted man indeed. In addition to the primal riffing of the Melvins, Buzz has also collaborated with a ton of other influential artists, not least Faith No More's Mike Patton, in bands like cult-favourites Fantomas. In his three decades-plus career, Osborne has remained an uncompromising, ever-prolific presence on the music scene, putting his distinctive stamp of every project he's involved with.
(Photo: Mackie Osborne)
This year sees the release of a brand new solo album under his nickname King Buzzo. Gift of Sacrifice is an atmospheric acoustic record, with instrumentation centered around acoustic guitar, acoustic bass and modular synth, along with Buzz's voice and a few extra sonic touches. Mr Bungle's fantastic bassist Trevor Dunn joins Buzz on this record, bringing extra depth and expression to the album. It's a fascinating listen, with songs like Delayed Clarity allowing space for an open and yet haunted sound to permeate.
Gift of Sacrifice is a great continuation of Buzz's own artistic world, and we really wanted to learn a little more about it! Happily, we were able to email Buzz a short set of questions, and he obliged us with some characteristically humourous answers! Read on for some insights into Buzz's creative process, how he's been spending his lockdown time, and for a little more on that great guitar tone...
Guitarguitar: So, Buzz, so far, both of your solo albums have been primarily acoustic. Was this always the plan for your solo work? Leaving the riffs for The Melvins and so on? And does that give your writing more space to move in other directions as a result.
Buzz Osborne: I never had a plan for solo stuff. I’m the primary songwriter for the Melvins so it wasn’t like I needed room for my own material. I got the idea to do acoustic stuff a long time before I recorded that first record and I wasn’t sure it would even work. I’ve never felt at all constricted when it comes to song writing in the Melvins. We’ve always done whatever we could dream up. Those guys are a dream to write songs for. Steve and Dale are two of the best players on the planet. I’m the luckiest boy on planet earth!
GG: Did Trevor Dunn co-write this record with you, or did he come onboard after the songs were written?
Buzz: He came on when the record was almost fully recorded. I’d planned on it being just me, an acoustic guitar and a modular synth. We had decided to do some shows together when the record came out and I figured it’d be a good idea to do an EP that we could sell on the tour. Once we got recording it became obvious that he should play on almost the whole record. Not a hard decision to make. Ha!
(Photo: Mackie Osborne)
GG: You’ve worked with Trevor before, in Fantomas and The Melvins Lite. What does Trevor bring that other bassists don’t?
Buzz: Trevor is a monster player and a good guy. I like him a great deal. I’ve always felt that the greatest thing I got out of being in Fantomas was my ongoing relationship with him. We get along good and I don’t have to worry about his musical ability. He’s a jazz head, which adds another element to what we’re doing. He also likes Van Halen which balances things out in a good way.
GG: Do you tend to write songs all of them time and then pick and choose a selection to record for an album?
Buzz: That’s usually how it works. I play guitar mindlessly until something gels. You can never tell when or where you are when it happens either. It’s in the wind I suppose but you still need to suffer for it. It might be all around us all the time but we’re also surrounded by endless confusion and filth. As the saying goes you need wings to stay above it.
GG: What is your primary motivation when sitting down to write a song?
Buzz: Just that. If I have a guitar in my hand I’m writing songs. I try to stay aware of that so I can grab on when something materializes. You don’t want to miss those opportunities. They don’t happen that often.
GG: Do you find that inspiration comes as easily as it ever did for you? And what inspired you during the writing of The Gift of Sacrifice?
Buzz: I suppose. Maybe easier now. I can decide a bit faster these days if something might be good or not. I find inspiration almost everywhere. Normal day to day sounds can be inspiring. We did a double album a couple of years ago that had a ton of “found” sounds. It was really fun to do that. I can see us using that approach on future albums. I wanted to write songs that were a little longer for this record. Really let the riff happen and unfold before it was over. Who knows what the next album will have on it.
GG: The record sounds great! What acoustic guitar(s) and other equipment did you use?
Buzz: Thanks! I used three acoustics. A Blue Field, a Buck Owens American and a Gibson that the engineer Toshi had. All of these were miked acoustically with a wide variety of different microphones. The vocals probably took longer than anything else to record. I did a lot of work writing and recording those. The modular synth stuff was a lot of fun. We also added a wide variety of other sounds as well. An acoustic/modular synth record was an interesting concept from the beginning and adding Trevor to it made it even better. He recorded all of his bass parts in three or four days. Everything was miked acoustically of course and we used at least two mikes and maybe even a contact mic. I used a wide variety of tunings most of which I dreamed up out of nowhere.
GG: In the song Mock She, there is an incredible sound near the end! What is that?
Buzz: I think it was something backwards with a verb on it but I’m not sure. Ha! I can’t keep track.
GG: How does being on an artist-orientated label like Ipecac compare for you to previous labels you’ve been on?
Buzz: We’ve had mostly good luck with labels. Even Atlantic let us do whatever we wanted. The evidence is in the albums themselves. Of course we’ve been burned by others as well and we continue to be. This will never change. I’ve never been in a label situation where they wanted to dictate to us what we could or couldn’t do. I don’t think I’d react well to that sort of treatment. I’d cease to function.
GG: You’ll be sick of being asked, but will there be another Fantomas record any time in the near future? We heard rumblings online...
Buzz: You then know as much as I do. There hasn’t been a Fantomas record since 2005 and remember that one was recorded at the same time as the one before it. I gave up long ago on ever doing a new Fantomas record and instead have concentrated on doing my own things. Which isn’t hard. Ha!
(Photo: Mackie Osborne)
GG: Your live electric guitar sound is, to my ears, one of the best ever. What are you currently using in terms of guitars, amps and FX? Did you have to change your rig much when you moved from the Les Paul Custom to your Electrical Guitar Company guitar?
Buzz: I never changed my rig at all in response to using EGC guitars. I didn’t have to. The EGC guitars work phenomenally no matter what amp you plug them into. The ones I use live are modified a bit with different pickups and I move the switch to the top so they’re not EXACTLY like most of the ones they sell. I love those guitars. There’s nothing on earth like them. Lately I’ve been using their Travis Beans which are unbelievable. A wood aluminum hybrid. If you can get one I’d highly recommend it. The amps I’m using are made by a guy in Virginia named Hilbish. I LOVE these amps. He’s also designed me my own distortion box called the Pessimiser and a compressor called the Compressimiser. He’s working on a delay flanger now which I’m looking forward to.
GG: Buzz, you were supposed to be touring from May until July this year, until the Coronavirus lockdown halted all plans. What kind of things are you going to be spending your time doing instead?
Buzz: Cleaning my house and exercising. I also enjoy playing golf too. I’m also finishing a new Melvins 1983 album and a noise record with Toshi Kasai.
GG: Of your own guitar riffs, which one do you look forward to playing the most?
Buzz: Hmmmmm... Not sure but maybe Billy Fish or Anaconda.
GG: Finally, Buzz, you’ve been making music professionally for three decades. What is your advice for longevity within the music industry?
Buzz: Stay away from anything that will land you in the joint or rehab. Both of those are counterproductive and besides, like Bukowski said “Jail? They have the wrong kind of bars in there.”
Brilliant. Not enough interviews end with Bukowski quotes! King Buzzo with Trevor Dunn's album Gift of Sacrifice is out August 14th on Ipecac Recordings. Keep up with Buzz's myriad creative works via the Melvins website. We'd like to thanks Buzz for getting back to us with such good, fun answers, and to Lauren Barley for setting us up with him!
Thanks for reading
Until next time