Buzz, Dale & Toshi

At this point, Buzz Osborne and Dale Crover are the Melvins. They’ve recorded over 29 studio albums in all types of spaces and show no signs of slowing down. I caught up with Buzz and Dale for a couple of days on their “double bass player tour” (with Jeff Pinkus and Steven McDonald [interviewed this issue]) and talked to them about their ideas regarding making records, overdubs, and knowing when a recording is done. Jon Spencer even dropped in for part of our chat. How do I know these guys? I make records as Conan Neutron & the Secret Friends with Dale Crover on drums, and I’m also a continuing client at their studio, Sound of Sirens, with producer/engineer Toshi Kasai (interviewed this issue as well).

You have a dedicated space where you make records with Toshi. You have it dialed in, are able to quickly get sounds, and are able to work in a nimble way. How long has that been active?

Buzz Osborne: Five years; maybe six.

Hostile Ambient Takeover was the first record?

B: With Toshi, but that was in a studio. Then the last one we did in a studio was The Bride Screamed Murder.

Dale Crover: When we first met Toshi he was working at this place, Hook [Sound Studios]. I think Buzz met him first with the Tool guys. We were looking for a place to record, his name came up, and that’s how we hooked up with him.

You’re not analog purists there, by any stretch of the imagination?

B: No, not at all. I don’t care about any of that. We’re very much of the belief that you can make a crappy record with any recording technique. We challenge anyone to say you can’t make a crappy recording with analog.

D: Or how about all those digital drums they recorded in the ‘80s onto analog tape? There’s plenty of analog gear that it goes through anyway; it just doesn’t hit the tape machine. Toshi has that ‘70s Yamaha board [PM-1000]. He said they made them for live use, but the modules in them are really similar to Neve [consoles]. He’s built his own gear, too. I think recording on digital has opened up a billion more possibilities. Sure, people make crappy music, but I think it’s made everything easier and more cost-effective too. Easier for us to make records, because we don’t have to blow hundreds of dollars on reels of tape. Since it is our own space and we’re not on the clock, that takes so much weight off everything. But having the freedom to do that hasn’t made it to where we’ve slacked off or anything. Having our own place has caused us to record in a much different way than we ever would have.

How has that specifically changed your creative process?

B: We can record whenever we have a song.

D: We can get it to where we think it sounds good and go from there.

B: Everything’s set up for recording.

The studio itself is not that large.

D: There was just the room. Toshi threw up some blankets to isolate where he had his little mixing area. Then, eventually, we built a control room, and there’s also a nice little booth in the back.

It’s not the most pristine environment outside, but there’s not any bleed or anything.

B: Oh, lord no!

D: It has a practice room type of vibe. It’s very comfortable.

B: I’m tired of the pro thing. I want something much more relaxed.

Jon: Do you guys find that because you have the luxury of your own place it’s easier to compose and record, or do you find you don’t get anything done? I like it when I have to go somewhere else.

B: We still schedule ourselves in when we’re going to work there. It all started in our practice place that we had, when Toshi would bring his gear there and we’d set up to record for a month. We would record during the day, and then me and him would sit there and screw around after everybody left. That got him thinking that we should get a space.

D: He’d wanted to for a long time, but for some reason he had a hard time and didn’t think it was possible. Then he started looking into spaces and found something out in the [San Fernando] valley that was relatively inexpensive.

B: The owner loves us because we pay our bills. He said, “You can do whatever you want.” There’s nobody around our space who are musicians. It’s an industrial area. We work during the day, usually. I don’t like to work late at night; I like to get done early. If I have a song and start showing it to Crover, once he has it it’s probably not going to get better than that. We might improve on it a little bit, but let’s track it and see how it goes. There’s an immediacy there that you don’t get after flogging the shit out of it for weeks and weeks.

J: That’s the [Rolling] Stones’ model. As soon as they could play it through once…

B: I wouldn’t have believed it until we started doing it, but then we listened back. “It’s good. It’s fine!”

D: Since I don’t have anything set in stone, it’s less likely I’ll screw it up!

J: Have you worked with producers? Who was it, Garth [Richardson, Tape Op #28]?

B: …and Joe Barresi [#23].

D: We went to record at A&M Studios one time, which was cool.

B: Our biggest budget recording; I think we spent $20 or $30 grand for Stoner Witch at A&M for 21 days.

J: You only spent 30 grand on 21 days?

B: What I realized when we were at Atlantic Records was that if we let Atlantic pay the bill, then the studios would screw the shit out of them. But if I went in there and asked, “What time do you have that nobody wants?” Then we’d have the biggest studio in there for $800 a day because they couldn’t get anybody in.

J: Are you a studio for hire, or is it mainly for your band?

B: Toshi does other sessions.

J: But the studio’s not a business for you guys.

B: No. All of our gear is there. We have guitar amps mic’d up, ready to go, and a drum set mic’d up and ready. We’ve already dicked around to make it sound good.

J: Do you experiment with drum sounds?

B: Oh, yeah. Mostly it’s mic’ing; different mics. A million different ways of doing this.

D: There are a couple of good places for the drums. We’ve done it a few different ways. I’ve got this old kit.

The Gretsch Broadkaster.

D: It’s mismatched, like 1948 for a couple drums and 1953 for the bass drum. I’d borrowed a set that was similar when we did the Houdini record. The guy knew there was one for sale, and I went and got it.

When I listen to the records, it sounds like a gigantic drum kit, but they’re small drums.

J: When you’re in the studio, do you always use small drums?

B: Everything. I never use my live rig.

J: Have you ever used the little Smokey amps? You get an amazing sound out of them.

D: There’s no real reason to use a big stack.

B: Behind the control room we have a bass cabinet, plus a 4x12 [guitar cabinet], and they’re mic’d. We can switch between all these different [guitar amp] heads.

There’s a big stack of amp heads.

B: You just have to move the speaker cable. They’re ready to go. We have a wide variety of microphones.

J: Are you guys buying microphones, or is Toshi?

B: He buys the microphones. We bought all kinds of other gear. I bought a bunch [of mics] from Shure; we had a Shure deal for a while.

I always think it’s interesting how much you guys have adopted new gear as it comes out.

B: In the studio I use all kinds of stuff. I have no idea what I use.

D: Sometimes it’s, “Oh, I think this would sound good on this song.”

B: People will say, “Once you started using those Electrical Guitars, you lost the [Gibson] Les Paul sound.” Well, what song? Maybe it was a Jackson and a [Fender] Mustang and the solo was played on a [Fender] Stratocaster. “You don’t even know what you’re fucking listening to. There’s no Les Paul on it!”

D: Yeah. There’s one guitar that gets used a lot that nobody’s probably realized is a Paul Reed Smith that somebody gave us.

B: We started using it because it had a whammy bar on it. It’s pretty good. But I don’t like the guitar; it’s way too generic.

D: It’s not something you’d sit around and play, but for an overdub it’s fucking great.

B: Yeah. If I do an overdub, I don’t want to double or triple [the same guitar]. Let’s try a different guitar. That guitar always gets cycled through, one way or another. There’s something you can do with it. I’m of the belief that if a studio had some amount of guitars, I wouldn’t need to bring anything in. I could use whatever was there and I’d be fine.

How do you guys approach doing overdubs?

B: Anything goes in the studio. To me, making records is a whole different world than playing live. I hate making an album and thinking, “How are we going to do this live?” If I’m going to do that, then why don’t I make a live record? Learn the songs, play it live, and record it. It might be an interesting thing to do; record your record, then learn all the songs live, and then re-record it. There could be two different versions: The recorded version, and the live version. That would be cool.

D: We did a bunch of shows where we played multiple records.

B: Some of those songs we never intended to play live. What did we do? We figured out a way to do it. It’s not that precious!

When you move so quickly and have such a deep catalogue, you don’t have to play every song live either.

B: For Stag and Bullhead. Bullhead we’d played all that live before we recorded it. When a band starts out, all they have are songs that aren’t recorded. They play them and play them.

D: There were a lot of songs we wrote that were abandoned by the time we got there.

Where did you record Bullhead?

D: Razor’s Edge [Recording] in San Francisco.

B: We recorded it in maybe five days.

D: We probably had more time to do it, but we still did it quick and mixed it really quick. I think we decided to go back and do some remixes, because we thought we could do a better job.

B: Even that might have been ten days. It wasn’t much. The Eggnog record was three days, maybe two. Lysol was about the same; three or four days. We didn’t have much time to do any of those records.

D: Houdini we spent more than four days on, but that’s mixing too.

You’re not overtly laboring on it when you’re on the clock that way.

B: “It sounds good. Go!” Then later, after Atlantic Records, we did the Honky record, where we said, “When we walk out of here in six days, the record is done.”

What about Stag?

B: Stag we might have spent three weeks. Not even a whole month.

D: I think we tracked all the bass and drums in three days at Sound City [Studios], and then we went to another place [Entourage Studios] in the valley to do overdubs. It’s gone now. We did a couple of records there.

B: That was great. What we did on the sixth day was, “Okay, we have to do planning. We’re going to fly everything to tape. Every single effect. When you go to mix it, it’s done.” You have to make those decisions.Record it like that. Done. You can’t re-decide. When you mix it, you bring up the levels.

Do you feel that eliminates the equivocating?

B: The end result is all that matters. If you get too tied up in the specifics, you throw the baby out with the bathwater.

D: With Joe Barresi doing it too. He brought down all of his toys. It was great.

B: He was ready to do it.

D: They had three different rooms to do drums. We could get a pretty heavy drum sound; there was another room that had a tight drum corner that was super ‘70s-style dry, a metal room, and then a big parking garage with a shotgun mic on it. There’s one song where it switches from that sound to the tight room.

B: We did so much of that; it was fun. But we didn’t have much time. Joe had heard multitracks from early Aerosmith records, and he said, “You bring up the mix, bring up the levels, and it’s done.” Everything is how it was recorded. That’s how you’re hearing it. We did the same thing.

I think it’s very clear that you guys seem to know when songs and records are done.

B: We follow that advice all the time. “It sounds done to me!” Could we make it better? Well, we might be able to play it better, but we’re not going to make it better. That’s important. You get a hot guitar solo. Is that how you planned it? No. Is it good? Yeah. I’m not going to be able to improve on it. This vibe is better than trying to get it perfect. What is perfect, anyway? Boring!

D: There are mistakes on all of our records!

Some of the best records of all time have mistakes. Obvious punch-ins.

D: On almost every song I’d say there’s something I didn’t mean to do. “Oops!” Doesn’t matter.

B: People have bitched about us going digital. You can’t tell what you’re fucking listening to. You have no idea what you’re talking about. Analog’s fine. Do I have any problem with any of it? No! To me they’re just tools to get to the end of what we’re doing. The Honky record was recorded in six days with no automation in a studio [Grandmaster Recorders] no one ever mixed in. It’s a fucking studio! It has great monitors and an amazing board. What do you mean you can’t mix here?

D: Certainly, at that time, there were “mixing” studios and there were “tracking” studios, but it didn’t really matter at all.

B: No problem! A couple of passes and it’s finished. People will shit their pants. “No automation? What am I going to do?” You can go into an automated studio and make your shitty-sounding record anyways. That’s how it works.

Like your thoughts on digital…

D: It’s only made us being creative easier.

B: We don’t go digitally editing everything in perfect time. We don’t fix it. We redo it. It’s not hard. Fuck it.

D: It’s much easier to punch in the drums. I’m not going to play it again. Punch it in and I’ll play that shit.

That blew my mind when you punched in the whole drum set on our record.

D: It’s easier to do that now. That’s something you were always able to do with guitar, vocals, and bass on analog, but it’s much trickier to do it with a whole drum kit and make it work.

B: There’s also trust in the engineer. If he or she knows what they’re doing, you can do it.

Toshi has a way of telling you when something’s terrible that doesn’t feel he’s attacking you.

D: I want him to tell me that.

B: We had to learn to read him though. He’s Japanese, so he won’t just say, “That sucks.” When he says, “That sucks,” the way he phrases that is, “Yeah, that was good. That’s pretty good.” That actually means, “Do it again.”

My favorite was on a vocal take. “Uh, do it again. Maybe do it cooler.”

D: He’s good at working with people and getting the best performance. That’s a skill.

B: Plus, he’s hilarious. I think he’s the most underrated engineer and producer out there. I love working with him. We get work done at an incredibly fast rate with him.

D: And he’s got a great ear. I don’t know too many other people who work like he does.

B: You don’t waste a lot of time with him.

You can trust him to not let you get away with weak performances and to keep on track.

D: If he’s mixing something for us, we don’t sit over his shoulder and say, “Do this. Do that.”

B: I’m not an engineer, and I never want to be one. I sit in there and listen to drums, and I can’t tell what’s good. I’m done. I lose all perspective on it. I can’t tell if it’s getting better or getting worse. I have to wait until it’s semi-done and then listen to it. I think that’s better. Hearing it doesn’t fatigue me. The genius is knowing it’s good enough! Don’t waste time on shit that doesn’t matter.

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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