If grunge’s all-pervading success in the early 90s was a surprise, what happened next wasn’t. Following the explosive rise of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains and Soundgarden, an army of A&R executives decamped en masse to the Pacific Northwest with express orders to find the next flannel-clad superstars who could deliver a Nevermind or Dirt-sized blockbuster.
One of the more unlikely bands to get caught up in the major label trawler nets were Melvins. Between 1993 and 1996, these irreverent musical iconoclasts from the backwaters of Washington State released three albums on Atlantic Records, home of Skid Row, Dream Theater and AC/DC. The first of these, Houdini, was home to Honey Bucket, the song that would give them the closest thing they ever got to a breakthrough hit - although, in typically contrary fashion, its cross-pollination of uptempo yet complex metallic hardcore with thick, vicious riffing and odd time signatures didn’t sound like anything their former underground contemporaries were producing.
“If Captain Beefheart was a metal band, it’d sound like this,” says Melvins singer and guitarist Buzz Osborne of both Honey Bucket and his band’s output generally, referencing the gravel-throated visionary behind late-60s avant-garde masterpiece Trout Mask Replica. “Honey Bucket is one of our most popular songs ever. I would have never guessed that when I wrote it. I thought it was cool, but it didn’t occur to me it was going to be what it became.”
Melvins had already released four full-length independent albums before Atlantic came calling, showcasing a pre-grunge doom/stoner/sludge hybrid with side orders of everything from off-kilter classic rock to sunny 60s pop. They weren’t above a little mischief either: 1992’s Lysol album resulted in a cease-and-desist order from the cleaning product company from which it took its name.
Superficially, it’s not hard to understand what Atlantic saw in Melvins. Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain regularly touted them as one of his favourite bands, partly because of their maverick musical approach and partly because they had proved that it was possible to escape from the claustrophobic environs of the smalltown Northwest. The unofficial patronage of the world’s most talked-about rock star was a plus point for the label. Melvins’ geographical connection with the new centre of the musical universe didn’t hurt either.
“At that point, left-of-centre bands were getting signed because Nirvana and Soundgarden were selling tons of records,” says Buzz. “The labels didn’t know what was going to work – five minutes ago they were pushing hair metal – but because they’re in the business of making money, they’d sign 15-20 bands and hope a couple of them sold millions of records. We got caught up in that, but the difference was we didn’t think we’d sell millions of records. We figured it was business as usual, that we’d do one record with Atlantic and move on.”
The major label deal didn’t make Buzz and drummer Dale Crover overnight millionaires, but it did give them breathing space. Rather than simply hole up in a cramped studio for a week and emerge with a record, it meant they could spend slightly longer working on their first album for their new paymasters and generally mix it up.
Houdini was recorded over the course of a princely 20 days, in four different studios, with an array of producers, engineers and guest musicians. Regular bassist Lori ‘Lorax’ Black – daughter of 1930s child star Shirley Temple, no less – was largely out of action due to substance abuse issues that made her position in the band precarious, so Buzz and Dale played most of the bass on the album themselves, with Blessing The Hogs guitarist/vocalist Billy Anderson pitching in on a couple of tracks.
“Lori Black played on a couple songs, but I can’t remember which ones,” says Buzz. “Billy did some, but regardless of what the credits say, most of it was either me or Dale playing bass. Houdini’s credits are dubious at best; there’s definitely some fiction in there.”
The most significant piece of fiction in Houdini’s credits list pertains to the involvement of their friend Kurt Cobain, who is listed as one of the album’s producers. Kurt was initially brought onboard to listen to the songs – most of which were written well before the band signed to Atlantic – and generally offer an extra pair of ears with regard to the arrangements. Things started well enough, but they soon devolved into an unproductive mess as the Nirvana singer’s drug use began to get in the way, grating on the teetotal Buzz’s nerves. The Melvins frontman found himself in the position of having to can one of the most famous musicians in the world from the project.
“During the last part of him being there, he was a mess, drug-wise,” says Buzz. “I went to Atlantic and said I couldn’t make it work with him. I had no interest in going public with Kurt’s problems – I didn’t feel it was anybody’s business. I just wanted him off the project and that’s when we got [Rage Against The Machine producer] GGGarth Richardson.”
Even amid the monolithic riffage and convention-flouting musical excursions that make up Houdini, Honey Bucket stands out. In just three minutes and one second, it manages to unite the worlds of thrash, twisted punk, and even high-energy blues rock. Typically, it also ditched straight verse-chorus-verse structure for two distinct sections - the first part of the song is a heads-down blast of breezeblock noise and odd time signatures, while the second part draws on a more unlikely source.
“The second riff is something I always liked: riffage with an almost funky back beat, which is what ZZ Top are like at their best – always having an impenetrable groove that has more swing, is undeniably good and massively sexy,” says Buzz. “That second riff is what sells it. That riff is so good, one of the best I’ve ever written.”
Exactly what Honey Bucket is about is anyone’s guess, though. Stream of consciousness lyrics such as ‘Eight times I fell a foe fi / Like overcast and clean / I gotta motor felt the wheel / Real fashion peel’ are as much of an enigma now as they were then, and Buzz remains non-committal when it comes to the subject matter.
It may have lacked the anthemic lyrical rallying cry of Smells Like Teen Spirit or Jesus Christ Pose, but that didn’t stop Atlantic from releasing Honey Bucket as the album’s first single. This attempt to introduce Melvins to the broader public was accompanied by a video which brought the band’s absurdist bent to the fore, as Buzz, a Speedos-clad-and-cowboy-booted Dale Crover and new bassist Mark Deutrom performed on a farm before a captive audience of goats, sheep, lasso-wielding cowgirls and a dude in a Mountie’s uniform.
“That was a buddy of ours who’s now dead, Bill Bartell, who also played lead guitar on the cover of Kiss’s Going Blind [also on Houdini],” says Buzz. “He said, ‘Hey, I have a Mountie suit!’ And it was like, ‘Great!’ The cowgirls were friends of my wife who happened to own horses, so they brought them. The director picked out the farm and it was a very cheap video to make. I never had any faith in videos. They didn’t interest me because it wasn’t what I wanted to do, but it was fun.”
It’s a stretch to say that Honey Bucket turned Melvins into Nirvana-sized stars, but it did help put this trio of oddballs onto the edge of mainstream radar, reaching No.29 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart and helping Houdini shift 100,000 copies out of the gate. Echoes of its furious, staccato energy can be heard in the jagged, jarring roar of early Mastodon and High On Fire, two bands who have cited Melvins as an influence. Dillinger Escape Plan and Lamb Of God went a step further, recording covers of Honey Bucket (Lamb Of God’s version appeared on 2018’s Legion: XX, under their original name Burn The Priest).
The success of Honey Bucket and Houdini unexpectedly helped extend Melvins’ stay on Atlantic much longer than anyone expected, with the label releasing two more studio albums, 1994’s Stoner Witch and 1996’s Stag. “No one was more surprised than us that we did three albums on a major label,” says Buzz with a laugh.
Today, the track remains one of the band’s best-known songs, appearing on various Essential Sludge and Best Grunge playlists. Where some other bands might see their biggest ‘hit’ as unwanted baggage, Melvins have no such issues. Honey Bucket is still a staple of their live shows – they even recorded an unplugged version for upcoming acoustic album Five Legged Dog.
“I don’t know what it is about it over any of our other songs, but we played it live for a long time, then we didn’t, but we kept getting requests,” says Buzz. “Now, we’ll just play it and we’ll play it from now on. It’s a good song and we’re not going to deny its popularity just to be jerks.”
Melvins’ new album, Five Legged Dog, is out now via Ipecac