Published on June 2nd, 2015 | by The Beige Baron1
Interview: Kevin Rutmanis
“What’s your favorite Melvins record?” For lovers of primal music that heaves and thrashes at the deep end of the pool, the answer to that question changes with every incarnation of a band that has refused to stand still for 30 years.
A lot of listeners now in their late 30s first fell in love with the Atlantic-period records as the Melvins found themselves bathed in the glow of Nirvana’s ascending star—a band whose members they helped introduce, played together with, and profoundly influenced, and who in turn were given an opportunity to share their music beyond the confines of the Seattle grunge scene.
Rutmanis brought a tone and range to their sound that further illuminated the best qualities of King Buzzo’s writing
Hungry for more, the newly minted Melvins obsessive combs back through their catalog to discover stone-cold classics like the malevolent drone of Lysol or the reeking sludge of Bullhead; then further back again to the deconstructed ’80s punk of Ozma and Gluey Porch Treatments—savoring the tastes and textures before The Bootlicker, The Crybaby, and The Maggot—a trilogy for Mike Patton’s Ipecac label—landed at the end of the ’90s. Only for Hostile Ambient Takeover to loose yet another crippling blow to our metal heads in 2002.
As a bass player, these last four records hold a special place in my heart because they each feature the unique talents of Kevin Rutmanis. As well as fitting perfectly into the subversive Melvins aesthetic—the band does an incomparable job of undermining self-serious pompousness in the industry—Rutmanis brought a tone and range to their sound that further illuminated the best qualities of King Buzzo’s writing and guitar playing as well as drummer Dale Crover’s impeccable sense of rhythm and feel.
From the naked menace of The Bootlicker—an album that feels like it’s screaming into your soul without ever raising its voice above a whisper—to the wounded bovine bellows of slide bass on Hostile Ambient Takeover, Rutmanis’s aggressive yet precise technique influenced a whole new generation of bassists wanting to explore the possibilities offered by the instrument.
Rutmanis’s early career with Minneapolis experimental punk band The Cows and contribution to the Melvins led to a friendship with Mike Patton and his alternative-metal band Tomahawk, to which Patton recruited Rutmanis in 1999.
Rutmanis recorded on Tomahawk’s first self-titled album followed by Mit Gas, but left the band in 2007 during the recording of Anonymous—officially for “reasons unknown” but possibly related to a struggle with substance abuse.
We recently spoke to Kevin Rutmanis about his time with the Melvins and the recording of The Bootlicker, what shapes his musical taste, and how he arrived at his sound.
I grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, a college town of less than a quarter-million. Pretty good-sized arts and music community. I liked school and I was a good student. By the same token, I was a heavy drinker and drug user by 14. Loved Alice Cooper more than anything. Aerosmith, Mothers, Pink Floyd, Captain Beefheart, Captain Beyond, Deep Purple, Hendrix, T. Rex, Bowie, Elton John.
Can I ask why you got wasted when you were so young?
Who knows why I drank so much? It’s difficult to say. But I loved it.
What first attracted you to bass guitar? Did you come to it via guitar or did you always want to play bass? Was there a particular bassist that influenced your style?
Dennis Dunaway from Alice Cooper is easily my favorite bass player.
I didn’t start playing bass until I was 28. I had played acoustic guitar in a very minimal way. Mostly along with simple old acoustic blues records like Hooker, MacDowell, Josh White. I started learning bass along with my brother Sandris as he learned drums. Dennis Dunaway from Alice Cooper is easily my favorite bass player. Those melodies!
How long did it take you to find a tone you were happy with? Do you use the same amps and pedals and bass you started out playing with, or do you experiment a lot to try to find new tones and sounds? Do you have a favorite bass?
The tone I have now is my favorite. Crown power amp, SansAmp rackmount preamp, SVT 8×10. G&L made a bass called the SB-2 in the seventies for two years. Any bass with those pickups in them sounds better than any bass I have ever tried. They reissued the bass but it only has one of the pickups, so it’s not as good. You can buy those pickups though. I am always experimenting with new sounds.
What was the motivation behind forming The Cows? Was the band a reaction against mainstream music or was it that you just wanted to make something you enjoy listening to?
I started Cows for both those reasons. The bands in Minneapolis were AWFUL and there was so much new music that I loved. The Minneapolis music scene lacked any sense of danger or adventure at that time.
Could you tell me a bit about recording the trilogy Melvins albums The Bootlicker, The Crybaby, and The Maggot? I love The Bootlicker most because it’s like a perfect demonstration of how something “soft” can be colossally heavy. Was this “soft heaviness” a calculated thing or did it just turn out that way? And with The Crybaby, what was it like collaborating with the other musicians?
Bass and guitar were all direct! Fucking devastating.
Bootlicker is one of my favorite LPs I’ve ever been on. It was very much by design. No amps. Bass and guitar were all direct! Fucking devastating. The involvement of other bands was indeed pleasurable. And not too hard. Leif Garret!
Is it harder to play direct and clean or with heaps of effects?
It isn’t harder to play clean; it’s just very different. I guess it affects how I physically play. How I hit or finger the strings.
One of my favorite things about the album Hostile Ambient Takeover is the bass part, using slide, and how the bass is so kind of forward and center stage, almost more like a lead instrument. How much were you responsible for this in terms of contributing to the songwriting?
Buzz really pushed the idea of using the bass as a lead instrument
Buzz really pushed the idea of using the bass as a lead instrument on that record. He is an expert in using people for their strengths. He is shrewd and knows the value of not letting ego ruin songs.
What about playing with Dale Crover? What in your opinion makes a good drummer: technique, imagination, something else?
Dale, like Buzz, doesn’t let his ego dictate what he plays. By the same token he will showboat like a motherfucker when the time is right! That is my definition of a great drummer. Open-mindedness, confidence, and restraint when necessary. And wanting to have fun. I hate dicks.
I read somewhere that you were not averse to loading up and playing gigs, but Buzz seems pretty down on drugs and alcohol. Did this ever cause any tensions when you were in the Melvins?
I don’t drink or take any drugs anymore. Me playing wasted created a huge problem in the Melvins that led to me getting fired. It wasn’t the only problem, but it was most of it. I’m grateful that Dale and Buzz and I are friends again. That I still get to write, play, and record is nothing short of a miracle!
Is it frustrating to be in or have been in bands that are regarded as being hugely influential but not seeing the level of commercial success that derivative or artistically lightweight bands are awarded? Has it made you cynical about music?
That’s always come with the territory of making fucked-up music. It’s never going to be big bucks. But I sure like making money! I’ve been very lucky. I’ve done okay for myself.
I let accidents happen and I keep some of them
As a listener, sometimes really great music has to challenge you and push you out of your comfort zone in order to reward you. Sometimes the music is challenging to the point of unlistenability and you sort of set it aside and say “This is not for me,” and maybe come back to it. As a musician who has been in bands that pushed the boundaries, when as a musician do you judge “this is quality” or “this is shit, it’s not working”? When do you know when an experiment has been successful?
I really let the songs and sounds write themselves to some degree. I let accidents happen and I keep some of them. It’s all kind of mysterious! Control doesn’t work that well for me, but it’s important to some people who are very good at it! For my money a lot of “crazy music” isn’t crazy enough. I love good “songs” too! It’s all a bit mysterious.
Do you listen to a lot of new music or do you listen to your old favorites mostly? Do you listen to the same kind of music you make, or do you listen to completely different stuff for pleasure?
I have a very wide listening range. And I listen to music all the time! And thanks to the internet I hear something new to me every single day! Amazing! What a life! New music everyday of my life!
What’s the last great book you read?
Punk Elegies by Allan McDonnell.
Are you interested in or involved in politics? If you feel like there’s something wrong—for example money in politics, too much corporate influence, loss of privacy and so on—do you think it’s important for younger people to get involved in the process, or do you think change has to be forced from the outside, like revolution?
Right now what bothers me the most is what I call “morality micromanagement”. The willingness to completely dismiss with the wave of a self-righteous hand others with different morals. A racist is immediately disposable. An animal killer should be executed? Christians are poisonous? Liberals are gutless? Conservatives are fascists?
Maybe but that’s not enough for me to hate you. I need more! If I’m ever scrutinized for my morals I’ll be executed one, two, three! Fuck all that clear-cut bullshit. Racism isn’t enough for me to discount you. By association that makes me suspect. Fine.
Then are you a moral relativist? I think there are clear-cut definitions of what is right and wrong that transcend race, religion… that work on a kind of biological or evolutionary level … more like how Sam Harris defines it as being more scientific, a result of biology and evolution.
I didn’t say that I don’t think these various moral systems are right or wrong. Only that the world is larger and deeper than, say, how I judge someone who whistles at girls on the sidewalk. If some girl has her arm in a vice over the weekend while men take turns burning her with a crack pipe, for instance, then my views on race or politics or hers for that matter, or the guys burning her, have no relevance. There is a larger more powerful symmetry at work. The world is BIG.
I don’t have to like what anyone thinks.
I think it’s the opposite of relativism. I think the lines are already drawn and that they have immense depth and more profound than individual attitudes and mores. I don’t have to like what anyone thinks. But I do have to give space to their thoughts.
But the lines of what hurts others are pretty clear; society and religion are irrelevant to them. Do you agree?
I’m not sure the lines are clear really! But I think these things all need to happen. Maybe there’s an evolution constantly in motion. My point is more about judgment and acceptance on a smaller scale. How the fuck would I know? Ha!
My attitude is: “Get off my dick so I can see what’s going on! Christ!”
The Melvins, Tomahawk, and Cows catalogs are available at good record shops. Kevin’s is currently in hepa/Titus with music available on Bandcamp.