In a year when the Melvins release the double LP A Walk With Love & Death, their drummer issues his first proper solo album, mixing experimental drum pieces with (mostly) one-man-band songs.
by Michael Parillo
Even by the weirdo standards of the Melvins, Dale Crover’s 10-inch vinyl Skins album was a strange one: a “twelve sided” record with six spindle holes, populated by sonically manipulated drum pieces that run only thirty seconds each. Joyful Noise Recordings made just 127 copies of Skins, and they sold out pretty much right away, even at a hundred bucks a pop.
“The guy from the label was like, ‘Well, people are kind of complaining that it’s limited,’” Melvins drummer Crover explains of his experimental solo recording. “I thought about it: How about we do a full-length record? I talked to Joyful Noise to see if they were into the idea, and they were really into it.” Now we have Crover’s first full solo album, The Fickle Finger of Fate, which contains most of the material on Skins, alternating the short drum-oriented tracks with more standard verse/chorus-type songs on which Dale supplies the majority of the instruments and vocals. “Plus that 10-inch is in mono, because they cut it on an old lathe from the ’40s,” Crover says. “So now you get the full stereo!”
Fickle Finger was recorded in Los Angeles at the Melvins’ Sound of Sirens studio by the group’s longtime engineer (and sometimes coproducer), Toshi Kasai, who also did some playing on the album. Along with director Adam Harding, Crover made a video for the song “Bad Move” to accompany the recording’s August 2017 release. The clip is inspired by a 1980 Paul McCartney video, and although Crover fills in more details below, it’s probably best if you just watch it now.
Shortly after putting out the album, Crover had another Fickle Finger slider to throw. In September 2017 Joyful Noise issued a 6.9″ brass “cymbal record” for the track “Thunder Pinky.” Yup, it’s a hybrid of a playable cymbal and a playable record.
“It does work,” Crover says. “Not sure who’s going to play it, though.” As with Skins, all 127 copies of the “Thunder Pinky” single sold out in minutes. Therein lies one of the sage strategies employed by Crover and the Melvins to keep things rolling atop a rocky music-industry landscape: Give fans something unique and special, something fun to show your friends, something that can’t be downloaded.
MD: Was the recording process different for the shorter drum-oriented pieces and the verse/chorus songs on The Fickle Finger of Fate?
Dale: All the drum bits came first, because that was for the Skins thing. Toshi and I used a lot of effects. He’s got a huge rack of effects—effects that would normally be used for guitar. He’s got everything hooked up to where he can just patch in different things.
We’d think of things to try sound-wise. I’d have him set something up, and that would influence what I played, so we would write a little piece that way. Which was easy enough, because with the Skins thing it was limited—they said some of them shouldn’t be more than fifteen seconds [to accommodate the twelve-sided-record format]. Then they came back and said they could all be thirty. I’m like, “But I’ve already done these things.…” [laughs]
With a normal LP, the further in you get, the sound quality gets worse, because the grooves [in the vinyl] are close together. So that’s why everybody always stacked the good songs first—well, besides wanting people to hear the good songs first. When we started making records, we looked at people’s records, everything from the Beatles to the Stooges, and we noticed that they were about thirty-five minutes long. Then we found out that’s about getting to the limit of where it’s going to sound good. So that’s why some of those drum pieces are so short—thirty seconds was the max. I would write something and play it, and sometimes I would have to edit it a little bit because it would be too long.
MD: So the effects weren’t added in postproduction but were part of the pieces from the beginning.
Dale: Yeah. Toshi may have, when mixing, done different things as well. We’ve worked with him so long now that I just let him do his thing and then play it for me, and I comment on it. Which with him is usually, “That’s great.” [laughs] He always has really good ideas.
MD: After you, he was the person most involved with the album.
Dale: Yeah. He did all the engineering, more or less with both of us producing together. And then he added keyboards, and some vocals, and we cowrote a song called “I Found the Way Out.” Since it’s Toshi, we were playing this thing, and he was like, “I don’t want to make it sound too bluesy and dark.” He’s more into Queen. You can kind of tell.
MD: Does he play keys on the Melvins’ version of Queen’s “You’re My Best Friend”?
Dale: Yeah. And on “I Found the Way Out” he also added guitar. We came up with this drum sound we really liked. For a lot of the “song” songs we were experimenting with detuning the drums, and sort of an old Beatles trick where you drape a little bit of a towel over it, so it’s dead enough but then you get this really deep drum sound. And we just started jamming on something he was playing. I’m like, “Wait! That’s really good. Record that.” So we basically wrote the thing right there.
MD: I like “Slide On Up,” with the keys at the end that get really wacky.
Dale: The drums are triggering the keyboard. I would hold down a key, and the drums—the snare and kick, I think—would trigger it.
Toshi has this whole crazy project that he’s been working on for a while now, getting drummers to play different pieces, and he’ll program a synth to do stuff along with it. Also, sometimes doing that kind of stuff, you can write little things where you’re influenced by what the effect is doing.
There’s another one on [The Fickle Finger of Fate] called “String Bean.” I played kick and snare; I came up with this little thing, and he’s like, “That sounds like this crazy Japanese string instrument that I have.” And it did sound like it, so I played the string instrument—but with pencils or something like that. I came up with a little melody to go along with it. We were laughing our heads off when I made that up. It sounded really fun. Then I’m like, “Put jaw harp on it! That’ll sound really cool.” [laughs]
MD: On the song-oriented tracks, there’s a wide swing between dry drum sounds and bigger, more open, Melvins-like sounds.
Dale: Yeah, I don’t think any two songs have the same sound, and they’re all manipulated somehow. Hardly anything sounds very straight, which is fine. I like experimenting with that kind of stuff, and not necessarily having a normal drum sound the whole time.
So with the “song” songs, how I would record those is I would lay down guitar first, just to a click. When I used to do my own demos and write songs on a 4-track cassette, I would try to play drums first. And that was always harder. [laughs] Then I read someplace where somebody said they would do it this way—record guitar first. Then you have something to play along to, and it feels better. So I would go and figure out the drum part after that. I kinda had an idea in my head, and then I would just work it out with the song.
Besides the detuning of the drums on a few things, I don’t know how much Toshi had effects running while we were doing basic tracking stuff. He’ll always run a couple of “stunt” microphones, though, that are distorted, or a mic at the end of a big long tube, or a weird microphone that’s not your normal one, like a shotgun mic on the drums or something like that.
MD: So you can mix it in if you like it and leave it off if you don’t.
Dale: Yeah. Sometimes some of that stuff would add to it.
So I would write the drum part, then go back and redo the guitar and then add everything else on top of it.
MD: Drummers often say that with their own music they think about the drums last. Was that the case?
Dale: Sort of, but I guess I always had an idea. Even just playing guitar and writing a song, I’d be thinking about how I’d want the drums to go.
MD: Were the songs written specifically for the record, or did you have some of them lying around?
Dale: I maybe had one song completely done that I’d done a 4-track demo of a couple years ago, or longer. I wrote it and never really knew what I was going to do with it. But then, when I was thinking about doing a solo record, I’m like, Okay—that’ll be a good one.
MD: Fickle Finger mostly alternates between the drum pieces and the songs.
Dale: Yeah, those drum bits were supposed to be in between the regular songs, almost like little haikus or however you want to think of them—commercials, palate cleansers….
The other thing is that now we have a studio. That’s a big factor in why there’s a solo record now. I have the studio, and a good engineer right there that’ll help me do what I want to do. So I’m hoping to do more of this, and why not?
And the video thing came out pretty good. It’s for a song called “Bad Move.” I was thinking about this Paul McCartney video, “Coming Up,” where he played all the characters. The label and I have a mutual friend, Adam Harding, who I’ve also done some other work with. I’m like, “Yeah—he owes me a favor! I know he’ll do it inexpensive.”
I told him the idea for a parody, and he looked at the [McCartney] video, and he’s like, “I actually want to build this set.” So it looks kind of the same. My friend Dan Southwick, who was in Altamont with me, he played bass and also cowrote the song with me, so I had to get him in it, and Toshi plays keyboards and does backup vocals, so I had to get him in it. Their characters are pretty funny. Toshi’s got a Jimmy Page suit on, and Dan’s dressed like Tracy Pew of the Birthday Party.
I’m a singer guy—I wanted to be kind of like a creepy Bryan Ferry, but the director is also really into David Lynch, and he’s like, “What do you think about doing the thing in Blue Velvet where Ben is singing into the work light?” “Is it too much of a rip-off reference?” But then when we saw it we were like, “Naw, it looks really good.” And the drummer is supposed to be kind of me as my younger self.
Then the guitar player…I’m really into this Captain Beefheart video where all three guitar players are just total weirdos. I’ve always been into those Musikladen videos from Germany. That’s why every band uses Orange amps—because they saw Black Sabbath on this TV show, and that’s the backline that they had for everybody. [laughs] They’re cool videos. There are so many different bands that I really like. I have VHS of all these, before YouTube, and would trade with people and collect. There’s Black Sabbath, and the Captain Beefheart one’s really good. Drumbo is wearing underwear on his head and playing this weird open-handed beat on the hi-hat…. The James Gang stuff is really good. All kinds of stuff. And being able to see all those drummers too…those drummers back then kick ass. Simon Kirke—really liked him.
MD: So, why did you decide to call the album The Fickle Finger of Fate?
Dale: Most people think I got the title from either the movie [of the same name] or Laugh-In. But I heard Dodgers announcer Charley Steiner say the phrase about one of the players’ recurring finger blister. I thought it was hilarious and would make a good song or record title, or both.