Words by Andrew Humphrey
In a complicated time, Buzz Osborne has released a sophomore solo album featuring stripped down variations of the sound that earned him his “Godfather of Sludge” status. While falling under the “King Buzzo” moniker, Gift of Sacrifice distinguishes itself from the freshman This Machine Kills Artists by including collaborations with upright bassist Trevor Dunn (Mr. Bungle, Fantomas). It’s an acoustic album, yet undeniably heavy. It features oddities you’d hope to hear in a Buzz project, notably transitions of synth-driven noise.
We chatted with Buzz about the album a few months back. Like many artists, the album faced some COVID-related delays so we sat on the interview, eagerly awaiting its publication. But a lot changed over that time. Buzz found himself in some hot water, and we found ourselves asking some difficult questions.
If you’re a Buzz fan, you’re probably already aware of the controversy surrounding an interview he did with Gavin McInnes, Vice Magazine co-founder and abysmal right wing troll king of the Proud Boys hate group. We followed up with Buzz to discuss that interview. We’ll give you the highlights of both of our Buzz chats. The first half covers his newest album. The second covers the Gavin interview.
Off Shelf: My first question is what I’ve been asking everybody lately: how are you doing physically and mentally? How are you holding up in this pandemic?
Buzz Osborne: Yeah, I’m not sick, so that’s good. I’ve basically been following the rules, but the rules seem to change every 48 hours, which is interesting to me. 85% of what’s happening, they’re probably wrong about, but we won’t know that until after the fact.
When it’s all said and done, I think that they do the best they can under the circumstances they’re in, but that’s not always in the public’s best interest. I don’t have much faith in that sort of thing.
It’s a weird time, it’s a weird thing to go through. We’ll see if we’ve been misdiagnosed and misinformed. Time will tell.
OS: Given your extensive touring history, what’s it been like being at home for you?
BO: It’s putting a big damper on what we normally do. I’m supposed to be on tour right now. My solo record was supposed to be out in May. We’re supposed to be having a great time, kicking ass all over the US. Right now, as we speak, all that’s done. So that’s a bummer. I’m used to playing live, somewhere between 80 and 120 times a year. This year I won’t be doing that. I doubt I will play a single live show before no earlier than March of next year. Then we’ll see what happens. It’s difficult to even know how many people will want to go out. Unless we come up with a vaccine or something to make people feel comfortable.
OS: Well, I’m sorry so many things had to get postponed, but congratulations on the release. When you were making it, what were some of the highlights of that process for you?
BO: Well, the main highlight was working on the album with Trevor Dunn. The record was about 85% done before he came in. We decided we were going to do this tour together. I said, “let’s record a little EP that we can sell on the tour”. He came out to LA and we set about recording a few things to sell together on the tour. Then I said, “how about you try playing to one of my songs that’s already done”? He tried it and it sounded great, so I ended up having him on most of the record.
OS: I love his playing on it. Was it mostly improvisational, or fully composed before recording?
BO: Well, he came and listened to them in the studio so it wasn’t exactly improvising. He heard them and played along with them, just getting himself familiar with the songs, the chord structures, and all that stuff. Then he just went from there. The only instruction I gave him is that I wanted him to overplay, knowing if I gave him a theme to overplay he actually wouldn’t overplay.
That is the thing that people do that is a mistake, especially people who consider themselves quote-unquote composers. They think that they know everything. I never thought I knew everything. I always was very impressed with musicians I’ve played with and I wanted to see what they could do with this material. I have prided myself and considered myself very lucky to play with musicians that I think are of the highest caliber. When that happens, you let them do their job. You let them do what makes them be the kind of musician that impresses you. So that’s all I did. I just told him to overplay, knowing he wouldn’t overplay, and that if I gave him that much freedom, I’d get a much better product out of the whole thing. And, I did.
OS: How did you and Dunn meet and what was your first collaboration with him?
BO: First time working with him wasn’t a collaboration. It was us playing in Fantomas. The best thing I got out of my relationship with Fantomas was my relationship with Trevor, by far. Not only is he somebody I can work with, but me and him are really great friends. It’s hard to find people like that you can count on and have it last a little over 20 years. It’s not something I take likely.
OS: Do you have any favorite tracks on the new album?
BO: I don’t know what my favorite would be. Maybe “Doing Clarity”. I like that one. I also like “I’m Glad I could Help Out.”
OS: The video for “I’m Glad I Could Help Out” almost looked like a David Lynch short film. What was that process like for getting it produced?
BO: My buddy Jesse Nieminen made it. Me and him collaborated together on the A Walk with Love & Death movie, which was great. I trust his vision enough to just tell him to make whatever you want. “Here’s the lyrics. Let’s see what you got.” I don’t have a lot of faith in music videos, so it’s best to make them as weird as possible.
OS: Is there anything non-musical in life that inspires you the most? Or even further, non-artistic sources of inspiration?
BO: Yeah, my wife and my dogs. Massively. All the time. Never ending. I have been married for the better part of 27 years to the same woman, and that has been the ultimate achievement of my entire life. Once again, it’s not something I take lightly. That kind of thing doesn’t just happen by accident. You don’t just accidentally get married for almost 30 years. My life has been made completely better by my relationship with her.
You get in a relationship with someone, and you get married to them, you enter into a legally binding contract. You are made better by your association with them. Everything about you will become better, as long as it’s the right person. They don’t have to be perfect. But when the chips are down, we’ve got each others’ backs. That’s important. You don’t get that from a group level. You get that from a personal level. I got that from Trevor, I got that from my wife.
OS: In your discography, are there any records you listen back to with greater frequency, or at all?
BO: No, never. Like with this new record…I made it. I mastered it in December and then I’ve been living with the finished product since then. I can easily enjoy it like that until the time it comes out. And then I move on. I let it go. I really don’t revisit things too much. I was satisfied with it at that moment and I don’t need to go back and do more with it.
OS: Was there anything you learned when writing This Machine Kills Artists that you wanted to apply to the newest record?
BO: Well, there’s only so much you can do with an acoustic guitar. You do your best, but it’s difficult for me not to sound like myself.
OS: Do you ever write songs on an acoustic guitar that become electric guitar songs?
BO: All the time. Any of those songs could be electric. Any of those songs could be Melvins songs.
OS: How do you find time to write music, especially as much as you’ve toured historically?
BO: I don’t do so much songwriting when I’m traveling. I do it when I’m not home. When I’m “not working” is essentially when I’m working. I do it all the time. All day, sometimes.
During this pandemic I haven’t been writing much of anything new, I’ve just been finishing up stuff I’ve already started. Like a new Melvins record; we’re finishing that. I’m working on lyrics and vocal parts for that as we speak. Normally, I’d be playing guitar every single day at home at least for some amount of time. If I’m not touching my guitar, I’m thinking about songwriting. That’s just how it works.
After the Gavin McInnes controversy surfaced, we considered pulling our initial interview, but reached out first to learn more. Buzz gave us a second interview to give us his side. We kickstarted our conversation with some pleasantries. Buzz is still mentally and physically doing great, and we chatted about our shared love of baseball. Quickly, we got into the meat of it. Here are the highlights of that conversation.
OS: As I’m sure you know, I’m hoping today we can get into some topics that are philosophical or even political in nature. Is that still cool?
BO: That’s fine. The reason I was doing this follow up interview was because [my PR agent] said you didn’t want to run our interview because of the interview with “what’s his face”?
OS: Gavin McInnes.
BO: I was like, “if they want to talk to me about that, that’s fine”. But as far as me making political statements, I’ll do the best I can. You can ask me, and I’ll answer them as best as I can. I’m still not really quite sure what you would have a problem with. I guess you’d have to explain that.
OS: Sure, and we’ll get into that. To be clear, it’s not that we had decided that we were going to pull the interview. We were considering it and wanted to get more information on it, and I think that’s what ended up leading to this interview.
BO: Ok. I’ll do my best.
OS: And I appreciate that. I guess the first question I have for you has to do with the influence that artists have. I don’t think there is any debate that you really do carry a lot of influence. You have fans worldwide who adore you and will say that your music has positively impacted their lives. Do you think this carries any inherent responsibilities?
OB: You know, artists are people who create something that people use in their lives, after they’re done with their normal lives. That’s what they do, whether they’re painters or musicians or filmmakers or whatever it is. That’s it. Now, if people want to think, “well, since they’re influential than their opinion matters”, well, I disagree. If you’re talking about someone like Brad Pitt, or some musician who makes millions of dollars, you’re talking about people who wouldn’t work two months for two million dollars. Their reality is not our reality. It’s not your reality. So, to think that you’d be able to learn something from them is absolutely ridiculous. If people would just think about it, they’re only doing this to make themselves look better.
OS: But not all people that have influence have money necessarily. If somebody has influence but maybe they’re not millionaires like Brad Pitt, are they still not also responsible for the ideas they put out into the world?
OB: If you look no higher for your political beliefs than an entertainer, then I think you have something wrong with you.
OS: And I’ve heard you say those kind of things before. To quote you exactly, “you should look to a higher source”.
OB: Yes! Do that work yourself. If you’re only going to look as far as the National Enquirer, or stuff online, or in magazines, then you’re just an idiot.
OS: Well what about rock music though and its political influence in shaping the world? Rock music has been inextricably linked to massive social changes over the years. Is that wrong?
OB: I don’t know. I couldn’t say that that was true or that it was good or bad.
OS: But if someone were to be influenced by it, you would still think that this was stupid?
OB: I guess it would depend on what you’re talking about. Guys like Bob Dylan never thought it was important. To put that on someone because they’re an entertainer means you don’t want to do the work yourself. You want someone else to do the work for you. I think it’s absurd.
Don’t judge them by what they say. Judge them by what they do.
OS: So on that note then, I think the common judgement for the interview that happened with Gavin McInnes honestly seems to just be a lot of disappointment. Some listeners going as far as to say “I’m no longer a fan”. Is there anything you’d like to say to those specific listeners out there that are feeling that way?
OB: No, not really. If they come away from it with that sort of thing, there’s nothing I can do about it. There are people that hate our band for far less reasons than that, you know?
OS: What was your familiarity with Gavin McInnes and who he is? Were you familiar with his role in founding the hate group, “The Proud Boys”?
OB: No, until last week, I had never heard of the Proud Boys. I had no idea who they were. To this day, I don’t have any concept of what they do. I would never pay any attention, nor had I ever heard of them. Remember, this interview was two-and-a-half years ago. I certainly hadn’t heard of them then. And in that two-and-a-half years, it never had come up in my life. But I can go on the record right now and say I absolutely do not support any sort of extremist group. No matter where they come from. I don’t support them in any way.
OS: So knowing what you know about him now, would you ever do an interview like that in the future? When you draw that line and say, “I don’t support extremist groups”, does that include who you would interview with?
OB: I don’t know anything about Gavin McInnes. At the time, I just thought he was some dude from Vice Magazine. As it turns out, he had already left Vice Magazine, but I didn’t know that. So this is just one of literally thousands of interviews that I’ve done. I’ve literally done hundreds and hundreds of interviews since then and hundreds and hundreds before that.
I don’t know Gavin McInnes. I didn’t listen to the podcast. I never listen to podcasts I’m on. And I didn’t have anything to do with him after that. As far as like, how he works, what he does, how he lives, what his personal thoughts are on any issue, I have no idea. I had no idea then, I have no idea now.
It’s just another interview. The reason I do interviews is to promote myself, to promote my music and to promote my band. It’s like this… when I agreed to do this interview with you, I did not do a background check on who you are. I did not check to see if you had been arrested for a hate crime. Or maybe you’re a child molester, I have no idea who you are. I have no idea what you do, what you think, what your opinions are… to me that is completely immaterial on why I’m doing this.
OS: Well, I hope you can trust me when I say that I am definitely not a child molester.
OB: I take your word for it, and that’s my point. I talk to people all the time. It’s hilarious that the one interview that I’ve done out of the thousands of interviews I’ve done that this is the one that would come up. If you listen to the interview… I haven’t listened to it, but have heard from lots of people who have… I don’t say anything controversial. Nothing.
OS: Maybe then that’s a good segue way to talk about the interview, then. I have listened to it several times. There were a couple of different topics that came up I’d like to discuss.
OB: Ok. Sounds great.
OS: Ok, the first one is something I’ve heard you do in other interviews. It’s equating socialism and Nazism. That they’re basically one in the same. Besides the word “socialism” being shared between the two, are there specific things that really do mean one in the same to you?
OB: I didn’t call them socialists. They call themselves socialists. It’s “the socialist party”, that’s what they call themselves. Just like the USSR. If people want to pretend like that’s not the case, then that’s not my problem. That’s their problem. You can say, “well I’m not associated with that”. Well, Charles Manson said the same thing about the people that murdered for him. “I wasn’t associated with them”. Ok…you know?
OS: Yeah, but the word “socialism” was used by Hitler to trick people into buying into his movement. He was trying to trick the working class into buying in to his authoritarian regime.
OB: It sounds like you’re pretty much an expert on how Nazis work. So let’s just leave it at that. I’ll take your word for it.
This is what gets me. I can’t believe that we would even talk about or even care to discuss something that is so fucking boring. Who cares what I think about socialism? Who gives a shit? What does that have to do with anything? People are upset about this? There have to be worse things going on in their lives than this. That’s crazy.
OS: I think the reason fans were disappointed to hear this, was because it was with Gavin McInnes, given his connection to hate groups.
OB: That’s just crazy to me. If people want to get upset about that, there’s nothing I can do about it. If they want to think of me as the enemy because I might have a different view on socialism… who gives a fuck? I don’t give a shit about that. It doesn’t mean anything to me.
OS: Another item that came up in the conversation is your concern over backlash with expressing conservative beliefs, especially in the punk universe. It’s sort of the idea that “PC Culture” is almost worse than the government in terms of censoring the exchange of ideas. Is it not the right of the public to reject ideas it may find wrong, or even abhorrent?
OB: Let’s look at it this way. When Lenny Bruce was in trouble for using curse words on stage, he was fighting against the government. Now the government doesn’t care what sort of language you use. That’s the difference.
OS: Right, it’s not the government censoring anybody. It’s people deciding among themselves what ideas they want to embrace and which ones they want to reject.
OB: Well, that’s the way it can be perceived. But to me, does that mean now that the general public can handle less than the government in the 1960’s? That seems backwards. I don’t get it. You think that the mob mentality is better? That there should be no filter on that at all? Just to be “guilty as charged”, no need to look any further… I don’t agree.
I don’t understand how that is an issue to put me on trial for. That seems like trivial nonsense to me.
OS: Again, I think it’s because of the podcast you were on. I understand that you didn’t know who he was at the time. But I think people take that in of itself very seriously. I think the fact that you were on it, and that you talked about some of things that you did, is giving people a lot to think about in terms of how they feel about it.
OB: They need to just lighten up on this. I do podcasts with lots of people. I don’t know what they’re talking about. I have no idea. I would do a podcast with anyone.
If people want to get mad because I was more interested in free speech than they are, then that seems really backwards. And scary. They need to think about that. If they want to think I’m part of these hate groups, or that I’m into Nazis, then they’re out of their minds. I don’t believe any of that shit. Are you kidding? Like I said, I don’t believe in any of that stuff and I’m not going along with it. I’m out doing these interviews solely to support my own band. That’s it.
OS: Ok. So last topic that came up in the conversation that I’d like to dissect a little more… and I think this is the one that people are the most frustrated with, so I’ll quote you directly rather than trying to paraphrase. It was, “diversity has never ever been proven to make anything better, as far as art is concerned. And if you want to paint me with collective guilt or say that I’m a racist, go ahead”.
Do you really think there aren’t ways that diversity can help art thrive? That other people may have different world views and different backgrounds to bring to their audience?
OB: If you are picking artists or musicians or filmmakers solely on the color of their skin, then that is fucking racist. That’s what it is.
OS: But that’s not what they’re doing. People like Ava DuVernay, who you talked about in that interview, for directing A Wrinkle in Time…
OB: Oh, I hated that movie. I hated it, and it had nothing to do with the color of the people’s skin who made the movie. Nothing. It wouldn’t have made any difference to me. That movie fucking sucks.
OS: I don’t think anyone judges you for not liking that movie. I think people are upset by the idea that diversity couldn’t help make a better art piece.
OB: If you’re saying “I have to have a certain amount of skin color in whatever I’m doing art wise, and you want to demand that from me, that’s fucking wrong.
OS: I don’t know if it’s about ticking boxes though. I think that it’s more about giving other people who don’t get a chance to express their world view a chance to do so. If you don’t give them that platform, you won’t get as many artists stepping up. Like say, Bong Joon Ho, for instance. If we weren’t more inclusive in filmmaking, we might not have had a chance to get a movie like Parasite.
OB: I didn’t like Parasite. I don’t care who made it. It’s a crap movie and I don’t care who is behind the lens. And how much diversity was in that movie? [laughs]
OS: Well, in the context of the Oscars, it was the first movie that was subtitled that won “Best Picture”.
OB: I quit watching the Oscars and caring about them when Ordinary People won over Raging Bull. That was when I was in fucking high school. I could not care less what those people think. If that’s how you judge what is good and what’s bad, then you’ve completely lost the plot.
OS: But I think it can give a proxy for what movies can get attention and which ones can’t. The ability for an artist to thrive largely depends on the world’s buy in of them. Hence, I think inclusion has merit in helping an artist who might not have a chance of being seen get more visibility.
OB: I will go back once again and say that if you’re judging art solely on what color the people’s skin is, then that is completely racist.
OS: But I don’t know that anybody is doing that. Do people really judge the merits of A Wrinkle in Time because of race?
OB: The woman who made the movie said that “if you didn’t like it than you’re a racist”. That’s what she said. Not what I said.
OS: Buzz, she didn’t say that. There’s no quote anywhere on the record of her saying anything like that.
OB: I might be paraphrasing, but I know I saw that somewhere. I know it.
Look, none of that makes any difference to me. The movie’s fucking garbage. I don’t care who made it. You’re missing my point. Forced diversity makes no sense to me. Especially with art. None. If that’s how you’re going to judge stuff, then you’re a racist.
OS: I’m not saying that I’m judging movies by the color of anyone’s skin. I’m saying that I think that it’s fair to give people of color the same opportunities to make movies that we give to people that are white, so they can tell their stories too.
OB: That has nothing to do with art. I don’t care what color someone’s skin is. I don’t care. All I care about is the art at the end of it. Listen, I am very much into underground art and underground music, very little of which sells millions and millions of copies. I’m very interested in going out and looking for that kind of stuff. It’s available if you look.