A Chat with Melvins’ Steven McDonald

They influenced countless artists including Kurt Cobain and Mike Patton. They walked grunge through its early steps. They made a song that gave the band Boris their name. The punk, metal, and rock scenes owe them a lot. They are a cult stepstone in music. They are Buzz Osborne, Dale Crover, and Steven Mcdonald. They are Melvins. And their 26th album, Bad Mood Rising, is out now Amphetamine Reptile Records. We caught up with the bassist McDonald on Zoom and had a great chat, which you can read below.

Steven McDonald: I’m sorry it’s only me! (laughs) I’ll do my best to satisfy the Buzz and Dale urge.

Don’t feel sorry. This time we’re with you, which is great. How are you doing these days?

I’m good! Melvins have just completed 108 shows for 2022. Feels like a nice accomplishment. I’m taking a little breather and enjoying that accomplishment.

That’s a crazy schedule.

It means we did a show every third day. But they are a bit condensed in certain periods. Melvins did a show on my birthday every year since I joined them. (laughs) That’s the only downside.

Of course, our subject of focus here is Bad Mood Rising. You have been highly productive as a trio for the last couple of years. How do you find that energy?

Well, Melvins didn’t tour during the pandemic. The biggest break they had taken from touring. I have only been a member since 2015, but I think Melvins had been touring nonstop every year since 1997 or something. Yeah, the venues were closed during the pandemic, but that didn’t mean we would stop working. (laughs) So we just recorded stuff and made a couple of records.

Let’s go through the basics here: What is this new album to you, and how did it come to be?

I’ll start playing it on my phone right now. (both laugh) It started with Buzz and me leaving town. We went into demos. I guess that was a different approach for a Melvins record. Since I joined the band, Buzz and Dale always work very spontaneously and very quickly. And I’m always like “Wait, what are you guys doing? Can you slow down for a second? I don’t quite understand how to do this.” They basically treated me like a very slow kid: (speaks slowly) “Okay. This is what we are doing Steven. Do you understand?” 

So what Buzz and I did this time around when we were away was that I recorded demos for this record on my laptop. I got to learn the riffs in a less pressuring environment. We did it in four days, I think. That’s how the record started. I was more familiar with the songs than I had ever been before recording them for real. That’s the main difference for me with this record.

If you were to pick the easiest and hardest songs to shape from the album, which two would those be?

“Mr Dog is Totally Right” is very long. I think you may just go by length. Fourteen minutes. (laughs) “Never Say You’re Sorry”, that’s a quick 5 minutes and 25 seconds.

Buzz’ riffs come out so naturally though, he’s so individual, he’s his own person. He hears music very uniquely. Some of his riffs are so complicated that I just go: “How do you count that?” He replies: “Count that? I don’t count that!” “What do you mean? Where’s one?” “I don’t know!” 

Do you think it is all intuitional?

Yeah, maybe, don’t know. I just feel left out, and then I look at Dale and it’s like “Dude… Where is one?” “I don’t know!” A lot of times, a riff might have several bars of four or… Are you a musician? Can I talk to you musician to musician?

I wish. I wouldn’t call myself a musician. I’m a music writer.

Most songs go in this meter: “One, two, three, four…” Buzz’s songs go like “One, two, three, four, two, two…” and then “One, two, three, four five, one…” He’ll throw in these odd bars with an odd amount of beats. He’s not thinking about it, it’s just something he does naturally. Often when a composer does that, they will forewarn everybody. They will go like “Okay, I’ll throw in a bar of three, and I will tell you when that’s gonna happen.” Because I guarantee you, every musician will miss that bar of three unless you tell them. And Buzz goes “I don’t know!” Okay then. (laughs) Even now, what he is doing is really unique. Most of us are much more repetitious than he is. I slowly learned some of those things.

On this record, though, there are great riffs, like “Hammering.” 

A really catchy tune.

Yeah! It’s like a Mott The Hopple anthem or something. Or maybe people your age will see it as an 80’s glam rock song. Like Mötley Crüe. That one came really naturally to me. So I would say “Hammering” was the easiest for me. And then…

(At this moment, Steven proceeds to listen to a song -which goes unheard through his mic but is presumably “Hammering”- from Melvins’ new record, imitating the beats.) 

I’m slowly learning some of Buzz’s formulas. He’s very much of a maverick. 

There are some weird effects in “Mr. Dog is Totally Right” that remind me of Twin Peaks. Have you seen that show?

Yeah, you mean the voice of that mystical, metaphysical antagonist BOB, right?

Exactly. So my question is: What instruments and tools did you use for the recording of this project? And especially for that part.

I can’t remember that part, but a large portion of it is the touch of Toshi Kasai, our resident magician engineer. He has all these crazy boxes that he can lean into. But I’m not sure what we did for the backwards stuff. We might have spoken backward and then have them reversed. I don’t remember. But I know one thing I did differently: I brought some samples. I don’t know if Melvins ever did that before. I know Queen records that say “This album was made entirely without the use of synthesizers,” which was a funny concept. Anyway, the gospel backing vocals on “Hammering” were sampled. Most of it, though, is Buzz doing guitar, and he has a few boxes. He is now designing pedals for Hilbish Design. You can find his pedals online. Most of them are standard distortion pedals and compressors, but I think he has started making more complex noise makers. Delays, flangers, and what-have-yous. Audio trickery, though, is definitely a question for Toshi. I basically just brought an Epiphone Thunderbird bass for the entire record. It’s made in Indonesia. I actually prefer it to the fancy Gibson ones. It’s a cool thing that instruments are much more cheap and accessible these days. They are not just for Jimmy Page anymore.

At the very least, we have online instruments as well, which is a whole thing. I’m personally into these modern gadgets and tools, and it’s cool to see Melvins use all these effects and samples as well.

I have a 13-year-old son, and he and his friends make hip-hop beats on software instruments. They’re logging into websites and making music there. We haven’t quite done that yet, but maybe the next record will be made completely from those websites! (laughs) I’m game!

How did that song become a Dylan Carlson collaboration?

I think I was there the day he played. He came and played guitar. I didn’t know him, he was an old friend of Buzz and Dale. From the old Aberdeen days, I guess. He is a nice guy, we went out and had a nice Mediterranean meal. Then he laid out some odd tracks. 

Photo Credit: Chris Casella

A friend wanted me to ask you if there are any plans for a concert in Turkey.

Have Melvins ever played in Istanbul? I don’t think they have. Do American bands come there a lot?

Well, they do.

That wasn’t a quick “yes!” (laughs)

There was an abundance of international artists in concert especially this year, though. At times, multiple international bands I love had a show on the same day and I had to choose between them. It was a crazy year in that sense.

Right. Well, I would love to go. I have never been there. I would love to see Istanbul.

You should come. You have a fan base here.

Alright, noted!

Being a member of such a legendary project for nearly a decade now, what do you think is the most valuable lesson you have learned so far?

(Melvins) definitely have their own philosophy and way of seeing the world. They are firm believers in hard work. The pandemic hasn’t stopped them from working. Buzz speaks a lot in golf metaphors. He likes to golf. The thing about that metaphor is that he doesn’t believe in impulsive playing. You just have to be slow and steady. If you form a plan and continue to stick to it and act it out, it will work out. I don’t know anything about golf, but that’s just sort of his general philosophy in life: Don’t aim for immediate gratification. Which is ironic, because you look at him, and he looks like a freak. He is not grimly disapproving of everything, that’s just a shtick. All those “I hate you!” looks are a shtick! He is a performer. The truth is, he likes a lot of things. It’s weird because he is very performative on many levels. When it comes to the actual work, it’s all about not succumbing to the ego. Anything that will keep you from reaching your goals is these momentary pleasures of the ego. 

Maybe these are all clichés, all conservative ideals. But executing these ideals is something he is very consistent about. It has worked for him. I haven’t articulated my answer very well…

I think you articulated it well enough.

Yeah. It’s not a sexy answer. Sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll! That’s what we want, right?

But it’s a genuine answer.

Yeah. I’m too old to live fast and die young anyway. (laughs) I blew that opportunity.

Your favorite Melvins record from before you joined the band?

I’m most familiar with the stuff we play the most. So, obviously, I’ll go back to my iTunes. (picks up phone) I can easily say fan favorites like Houdini and Stoner Witch, the records that people know the most. We recently added songs from (A) Senile Animal to our sets, from when they had two drummers with them. I really enjoyed playing those. That album is maybe the second or third golden era for Melvins. I think we are starting to create a new golden age for Melvins. I’d love to be a part of that.

A quick game, no cheating: What are the three most recently streamed songs from your streaming platform account?

Okay! Where is the… I never quite know how to navigate that part. I want to make sure I don’t erase what I have been listening to. (both laugh) But I’m always listening to the Beatles and the Stones. I hate to be super cliché, but… I actually created a playlist for the tours. My son and I have been trading playlists.

Are your playlists public?

I’m not sure. Could be. I’m always afraid to use iTunes because my work stuff is always there and I might publish demos at some point. I don’t want that! (laughs) But on our summer tour, I listened to… (looks at phone) a lot of The Rolling Stones, B-52’s, The Supremes… The classic 60’s and 70’s stuff. Not the hits though. The deeper cuts. Also, I was at Big Star’s 50th anniversary show the other day, and they are among my most recently streamed.

If you had a chance to carve one of your lyrics to your memorial stone 100 years from now, what would you choose?

I don’t write the lyrics, but if I were to go with something from Bad Mood Rising, I would say “Never say you’re sorry.”

That’s a badass answer.

In real life, I’m very much the opposite. (laughs) I always say “Why do you always have to be right?” For Melvins, I see them live that. I think they mean that. They also think a lot about their actions. They are not impulsive. 

You know what, though? I think I pulled an “I’m sorry.” from Buzz before.

You can check out Melvins’ official website here.