“You calling about the job? What are your qualifications?”
Dale Crover, eternal drummer for Melvins, isn’t about to let the first question go to the journalist on the other end of the line. Then again, what else could you expect from the man who’s spent much of his musical life in one of rock’s most irreverent bands?
Ostensibly on the line to talk about a double LP he, Buzz Osborne, and bassist Stephen McDonald let loose into the world this year, titled A Walk with Love and Death, he also has the small matter of a new solo album, his first ever, to field questions about. For nearly half an hour he takes on questions regarding the recording of new Melvins music, his decision not to make a typical drummer record under his own name, drugs, and the worst dressing rooms in the United States (a club in Lawrence, Kansas, he says, is a fine room but weaker on amenities).
Crover has received his fair share of attention for his work. He consistently hailed as one of the leading drummers in the world of rock. He’s also working musician in the truest sense of the word. He’s been in the stoner-ish band Altamont since the early 1990s, plays with the Mexico City psych-influenced Low Flying Hawks and is currently in McDonald’s mainstay, Redd Kross. That’s in addition to whatever other work he might pick up.
He maintains a levelheadedness that is more commensurate with those who take up work as carpenters or high school softball coaches. Perhaps he doesn’t see his work as being all that far removed from what others do and it’s probably this that lays the foundation for his deeply avuncular personality.
He, Osborne and a rotating cast of bass players have built Melvins into one of the most reliable acts in heavy rock. The group issues full-lengths at the pace of roughly one every other year while clocking in somewhere between 80 and 120 gigs within a 12-month timeframe.
Add to that the group’s recent undertaking of scoring director Jesse Nieminen’s short film, A Walk with Love and Death, an event that Osborne called “huge undertaking” when coupled with a new album, citing the totality of the project as new benchmarks. “We work backward,” offers Crover, pointing out that the band had the idea for the soundtrack before a film or script or single image existed. “The music’s everything: It’s the soundtrack, it’s the dialogue, it’s the story. The film’s still being made.”
Nieminen is a longtime friend of the band who has long worked on the group’s website. “If you’ve been to the website, that should give you a pretty good idea of what the movie’s like,” adds Crover. “It’s pretty surreal, very weird and demented and scary.” He notes that pictures by Federico Fellini and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain as well as David Lynch’s Twin Peaks were points of reference in the creation of the sounds and images. “It’s a real mind bender,” he offers. “Don’t watch it alone.”
The film music, which comprises the Love portion, presents an image of the strange. “Eat Yourself Out” summons memories of Frank Zappa’s thoroughly experimental Lumpy Gravy release as well as that album’s sometimes more accessible counterpart We’re Only in It for the Money. Some will find correlations between the music of Boris or other noise bands to slot the material next to but there’s something about it all that longtime fans will recognize as being fully Melvins. The humor, such as it is, gives us a lift at the right times, even when it doesn’t provide complete relief. More simply? This score recognizes the joy that fans or horror and surrealism take in viewing that work and does its best to fully celebrate it.
McDonald’s wife Anna Waronker (That Dog) guests on vocals across both platters as does Pixies’ guitarist Joey Santiago. Toshi Kasai, the longtime engineer for the group, adds doses of other weirdness throughout. Death, meanwhile, offers something approaching more conventional material, though conventional is not an attribute one associates with the veteran band.
“It has a lot of different tunings than we’ve worked with before,” Crover says. “A lot of it’s written in G. It’s dark and moody.” He sees the material as another step in the band’s evolution. “We always try to do something different than we’ve done before: Different ways of recording, different types of songs. With the soundtrack, especially, we made something that you really have to put headphones on and listen to in order to get everything. There are more field recordings. It’s reality recording. That’s what it is, just like reality TV.”
Surprisingly (or not) there haven’t been many requests for Melvins’ music to appear in films, despite the group’s desire to participate in the medium. “Things come in, like, ‘Can we use something for free? Not pay you guys?’ In this case, since nobody was knocking, we just decided to do it ourselves.”
Crover’s experimental tendencies are also on display via his own The Fickle Finger of Fate. It represents the first time he’s made a full-length effort (his last solo release was more than 20 years ago and only an EP) and is a further departure from what fans might expect from him. Commissioned to write a series of 30-second pieces for a highly experimental 12-sided record, the drummer was only too happy to take up the challenge. Working once more with Kasai, the pair performed the overwhelming majority of the sounds heard across a collection that ranges from Floydian ballads to sounds inspired by voices as disparate as Max Roach and Throbbing Gristle. Pieces such as “Hillbilly Math”, “Big Uns”, and the titular piece provide further evidence of Crover’s creative reach.
“I’d been thinking about it for a couple of years,” he says, adding that he had some material before being approached by the Joyful Noise imprint to record the multi-sided project. “We printed up 100 of those and they sold out immediately. People wanted to hear what I’d done so we released this but I went back and added vocals to some of those tracks or made them longer,” says. “We didn’t have to worry about keeping them short like when we cut the vinyl.”
To release the album in digital form, he notes, was also something of a relief: “People don’t understand that vinyl has limitations. CD doesn’t. When you listen to CD you get every frequency you can hear. With vinyl, you have to cut things out,” he says. “So, you wind up missing things from the original recording. You gotta cut the low end and cut the high end.”
He continues, “It’s funny, because when I was mastering this record with John Golden, who’s done tons of stuff. He said, ‘I understand why people think vinyl is so warm: it cuts off all those frequencies that people think can be harsh or intense.’ When we did Gluey Porch Treatments (1987) on CD, I said, ‘That’s what it sounded like when we recorded it!’ I hear things on that that are not on the vinyl. Every record I heard on CD after that, I’d think, ‘That’s what it sounded like!'”
That the record further spotlights his abilities as multi-instrumentalist only adds to its charms, though he will most likely always be best known for his drumming. From the 1990s forward, he was an often-cited influence by younger players. “I always consider it an honor,” he says. “I’m not big-headed about it all. It’s awesome to have people say that to me. It means I’m doing my job.”
Crover still recalls his admiration of Peter Criss and the letdown he felt as the Catman’s skills declined by the end of the 1970s. “Kiss was a good band. The bands always had to be good, I wouldn’t just listen to the drummer,” he says, “but Peter started to suck. All you have to do is look at him in 1974 on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. He was great. But I think his partying took its toll. You can tell, later on, that that made his drumming and his performances suffer. But that influenced me too: don’t fuck your head up with drugs.”
He adds, “I’m going to turn 50 in October and Buzz reminded me the other day that we did Ozzfest in 1998 and we would see Ozzy all the time. He was just this zombie walking around. Buzz said, ‘You remember that? He was as old as you are right now.’ He was already an old man back then. It’s really sad to think about.”
As for the physical side of his playing, Crover has taken greater care to preserve his abilities. A notoriously hard hitter he’s backed off some on the force of his attack. “As I get older things get small and shorter,” he says. “I can play as good as I ever could, I just play differently. I pay a lot of attention to ergonomics, having things right there where I can really hit stuff and not have to reach. Your cymbals should be at eye level and not any higher. And don’t be afraid of China cymbals. Break all the rules. I do. Charlie Watts using China cymbals, so who gives a shit?”