Crystal Fairy: Embracing the Weird
The Melvins’ Buzz Osborne and Le Butcherettes’ Teri Gender Bender explain how incredible chemistry and alternate tunings inspired them to make an album together.
If we’re being honest, the world probably doesn’t need another supergroup. The annals of music’s past are positively littered with bands that failed to deliver on the promise of the names involved. But sometimes, a collaboration blossoms into something much bigger than the sum of its famous parts. A good example would be Crystal Fairy, a fresh rock ’n’ cabal formed when guitarist/frontman Buzz Osborne and drummer/human metronome Dale Crover of sludge-metal forebearers the Melvins joined forces with art-punk heroine Teri Gender Bender of Mexican garage-rock upstarts, Le Butcherettes. Visionary string-strangler Omar Rodríguez-López—of At the Drive In and Mars Volta fame—later came onboard to round out the quartet.
Crystal Fairy came together organically when Le Butcherettes toured as an opening act for the Melvins. Osborne and Crover, both fans of Gender Bender’s records and unhinged live performances, invited the her to sing with them on a cover of Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl” at the end of their set each night. The onstage chemistry turned out to be electric, and the trio of musicians quickly wanted to see if they could capture it in the studio. After a chance backstage meeting, Gender Bender’s Bosnian Rainbows cohort and Le Butcherettes producer, Rodríguez-López, found his way into the fold to handle bass duties.
The group’s self-titled debut came about quickly and effortlessly, with the writing and recording of no less than three of the album’s tracks on their first day in the studio. Built on a bedrock of filthy guitars, Crover’s unmistakable percussion assault, and commanded by Gender Bender’s athletic caterwauls and incantations, Crystal Fairy has elements of classic psychedelia, stoner-metal, and punk-rock energy, yet is more rock ’n’ roll than anything the pair of Melvins have ever been involved with and heavier than any of Gender Bender’s past efforts. A truly collaborative effort, almost none of the album’s content was written outside of the studio.
While Osborne is a firm believer in the adage “it’s the Indian and not the arrow,” he uses a wide range of custom gear to generate his earth-shaking sounds, including wild signature-model guitars forged out of aluminum by the Electrical Guitar Company out of Pensacola, Florida. Though Gender Bender is less nuanced with gear, the pair of guitarists are laced together by a love of oddball tunings and a deliberate avoidance of the expected when it comes to their fretwork. PG spoke with Osborne and Gender Bender about their killer new album, music-making philosophies, guitars, and what they both believe is the skeleton key to creativity.
Buzz, everyone gets a guitar credit on the album, but I’m curious how much of the guitar writing you were responsible for?
Buzz Osborne: Maybe half the riffs were mine, and then some of them were Teri’s riffs, and some were collaborative efforts between Teri and myself, and some we hammered out with everyone at once. That said, Teri and I were the only ones who brought in nearly completed ideas and riffs to use. The first thing we recorded was “Bent Teeth,” and we wrote and recorded that on the same day that we wrote and tracked “Drugs on the Bus” and “Necklace of Divorce.” That was just myself, Teri, and Dale in the studio on that day.
Sounds like there was a pretty remarkable chemistry between everyone to have a yield like that from one session.
Osborne: It worked so well, I just couldn’t believe it! Everyone was full of ideas. Like on “Bent Teeth,” we’d jam it a little bit with Teri, then Dale and myself would start working out an arrangement, and then half an hour later max, Teri would be ready to sing it. And those songs appear on the record as they were that day. It was crazy. “Necklace of Divorce” was Teri’s idea that we messed around with for maybe an hour max before we tracked it.
Teri Gender Bender: The chemistry was incredible. The one thing I hate about biopic films is they always try to recreate the creative process, and make those moments happen on film, and it always seems so corny and never quite like what really goes down. For us, it was like a family dinner. Little moments—like Buzz sharing a smirk with Dale when they catch something cool, or Dale and Omar having a laugh when they stumble over a cool bass part—were pretty magical, and it’s one of those things you can’t recreate.
Were there any guitars that inspired you while writing guitar parts for the record?
Osborne: I could write songs on any guitar. I’ve been playing for nearly 34 years now and it’s difficult not to collect a few things guitar-wise in that amount of time. However, I’m not really a vintage guy. I prefer new equipment.
I have a few different things at home that I play around with, whether it’s an acoustic, or a Danelectro, or maybe one of my Electrical Guitar Company aluminum guitars, that I really enjoy a whole hell of a lot. I think they’re the best guitars in the world. They’re odd and strange and made by a guy named Kevin Burkett, and I just think they’re great. Lately I’ve been playing these Travis Bean Designs pan-back guitars that Kevin’s making. I don’t know the exact story about them, but I think he’s working with Travis Beans’ widow and making real Beans now, which use a single piece of aluminum for the neck and body pan.
Bender: Before we started these sessions, Buzz gave me this gold sparkle Danelectro, which is beautiful. Some people are a little weird about them because they’re really light and not the typical rock guitar, but it sounds really cool. So, for my guitar parts, I plugged straight into the amps, which were a Verellen head and my Orange Rockerverb 100. The Verellen stuff is great, I love them.
Those new Bean reissues are intriguing instruments. I like their thicker neck shape because although I’ve always liked the idea of an EGC, I didn’t love the ultra-thin necks.
Osborne: Yeah, that’s because you’re not used to it. Guitar players are the most conservative people on the face of the planet. It’s weird, but I was massively inspired by the thin necks on the Electricals. It made it so I could play things that I never have before, and there’s no other neck like those in the world—you literally can’t get it that thin with wood. It was like, “Oh my god! Finally a new thing for me to experiment with in guitar.”
After a while, I had to ask, “What’s next?” And Kevin was willing to build the aluminum guitars for me with a traditional Les Paul setup for the electronics. The first couple I had were equipped with pickups from Les Pauls and had a switch on the top bout and the knob arrangement you’d find on a Les Paul. That switch placement is a big part of my playing, so that was really important. I don’t think he’d made them like that before, but he was willing to do that for me, which was great and made it so I could start playing them live. I just couldn’t believe it—it was such a different playing experience.
Buzz, tell us about the specific guitars you’re using from the Travis Bean Designs series.
Osborne: The Beans are set up like a Les Paul, with the pickup switch on the top bout and two tone knobs and two volume knobs, which is unique to my EGC guitars. They’re set up with the pickup from a Les Paul Custom in the bridge position. I always struggled using a Les Paul because I like to change pickups so often when I play, and I found the neck position pickup on Les Pauls is always too hot—always! In the middle position, I want it to be loud, but with no feedback, and I’d always have a hell of a time trying to find the sweet spot every single night on the guitar. I had Kevin wind me a really low-output humbucker for the neck position, and it solved the problem. In the neck position, which is what I use for the quietest parts of my playing, it’s really quite clear sounding without much distortion. In the middle position, it adds a bunch of beef, and then obviously in the bridge position it’s full blast with a regular output humbucker. It worked perfect for me, fucking perfect. It’s my dream come true and I don’t know why it took so long to think of it. Kevin thought people were going to love it and it turns out nobody wants it, because guitar players are the most traditional, conservative idiots in the world! Everyone wants the traditional setup. God forbid you try something new.
Buzz Osborne plays signature aluminum guitars made by Kevin Burkett of Electrical Guitar Company. “I’ve put them up against everything I have and none of my traditional wood guitars can come even close to getting the kind of low end I get out of the aluminum-bodied guitars,” he says. Photo by Tim Bugbee/Tinnitus Photography
With the amount of distortion you run, do you find a vast tonal difference between the different EGCs made with various materials?
Osborne: Actually, with the aluminum guitars, it’s the exact opposite of what people think. They always think it’s going to be tinny sounding. In fact, they tell me it’s tinnier sounding! Do these people honestly believe I’ve never A/B’d a Les Paul with these guitars? Never? I’ve put them up against everything I have and none of my traditional wood guitars can come even close to getting the kind of low end I get out of the aluminum-bodied guitars. With the aluminum guitars, you gain in every direction: substantially more low end, more high end if you want it, but people just look at them and get stuck in their perceptions.
People assume I use the same gear live that I used in the studio. I have no idea what guitars are on certain songs this deep into things, but sometimes people hear things that never happened. Like on the song “Revolve” off Stoner Witch. People tell me all the time the “Les Paul sounds” on that song are what I should go for. I used the engineer’s Jackson and I doubled that with a Fender Mustang on that track, and our bass player played the solo on a Stratocaster. There isn’t a Les Paul anywhere on the entire track. So, I find people hear with their eyes a lot. It’s the Indian and not the arrow. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized the truth in that more and more. I’m not that picky. I can make anything work.
Teri, I love the mirror-finished Telecaster I’ve seen you perform with. Did that guitar make an appearance on the Crystal Fairy album?
Bender: Thank you! I use that guitar for Butcherettes, so it didn’t get used on this album. I look at finishing a record like starting a new chapter, and I like to get new gear and start from scratch when we finish a record with Butcherettes. When I started the new chapter for A Raw Youth, the whole band started wearing red and I brought in new band members, and one of them, Jamie Aaron Aux, is a genius when it comes to putting guitars together and getting cool tones. I learned a lot from her. She helped me customize my Telecaster and make it chrome. It was a lovely process: We rehearsed where I live in El Paso and I showed her the guitar and she goes, “Oh, I can make this sound way better!” I learned how to swap out parts for better ones, shave the wood in spots to make it play better, strip the paint to refinish it. We used a chrome wrap, like wall paper, and it was just this great bonding experience and I think of her whenever I see that guitar because she really put a lot of love into making it mine.
Buzz, the guitar tones on Crystal Fairy are dense and have your trademark giant wall of sound, like on “Secret Agent Rat.” Did you have a specific approach to tracking and layering the core guitar on the album?
Osborne: My normal way of doing things is laying down a scratch guitar with the drums, and then I’ll redo that guitar part and then double it. Sometimes, I’ll triple it, but I think it’s always best to at least double it and have that second part available for layering. Also, sometimes I’ll add a layer by going back and playing notes on a single string that mate up with a part to make it pop even more. I couldn’t even begin to get into the specifics on the album, especially having worked with Toshi Kasai, who we’ve worked with for 15 years, and the way he does stuff. He’s a fucking great engineer, though—never afraid to experiment.
Teri, do you have a favorite guitar part on the album that you personally brought to the table, or a favorite riff in general?
Bender: I guess my one solo on the album, which is in “Necklace of Divorce.” It came to me on the spot and Buzz was just like, “Yeah! Let’s go with that!” I said, “Are you sure you don’t want me to try any other ideas?” He said “No, that’s great!” It was an endearing moment and I love how it worked out on the album.
Buzz’s part on “Moth Tongue” is so, so cool. He takes me straight to the ’70s with that lick, and I love it! He came up with that out of thin air, which was amazing to watch.
Teri’s melodic sense as a vocalist is a real pivot from the Melvins. Was that a challenge to write around?
Osborne: No, not at all. I’m a huge fan of Teri and a massive champion of what she does. I honestly think she’s one of the most talented people I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t wait to play music with her and I thought, “Let’s see what happens.” I intentionally wanted to write stuff that wasn’t quite what she’d ever done before, so it was a little more heavy metal/rock, but still weird enough to interest me as I’m not into straight-ahead … anything, really, and Teri just fully engulfed it. She totally grabbed onto what we were doing.
I have a lot of whacky tunings. I don’t read music, so I don’t know what they are or what I’m doing, but it works. “Secret Agent Rat,” for example, is in this weird C/G tuning that I think is in fifths. Using whacky tunings is massively inspirational for me, and totally opens up new doors.
Teri, how did you come to use only four strings? Were your guitars set up like that for Crystal Fairy?
Bender: I got my first guitar when I was 12, and I felt uncomfortable with it because it was a huge acoustic guitar and I was small. So, I would place it on its back and I’d just pluck one string. I’m a very slow learner, so over the next few months, I conquered the second string, and so on over the years, but eventually I ran out of fingers to fret with. I wound up using only four strings out of necessity and a hunger to play my own music. I found a way, completely by accident, of making up my own tuning which is pleasing to my ear, and I got comfortable with it and I still play like that to this day. I’m so in love with guitar playing that I’ve since learned to play more traditional guitar with six strings and standard tuning, but that’s only on my own when I’m writing music. Generally, I play the 4-string setup, and I think that’s a huge part of my sound. It’s tuned to E–C–E–G#.
Check out the collaboration that led to the formation of Crystal Fairy—the Melvins covering Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl” with Teri Gender Bender.
Was it difficult to meld your unique tuning and style with the things Buzz would bring in?
Bender: It melded really well. The great thing about working with Buzz and Dale is that they believe in 100-percent artistic freedom, so there was no agenda. We weren’t answering to any labels or pre-conceived notions of what we were going to make, so, whatever I brought to the table with my particular style, everyone was very open to. I showed Buzz my tuning and he was super encouraging. He was all, “Yeah! That’s badass, Teri.” All I could think about is what the haters would say if they knew Buzz Osborne is cool with my guitar playing.
People don’t seem to take me seriously as a guitarist, and I think it’s because I play with four strings. But you know, fuck it—I’ve made it work. Imagine if everyone limited themselves to just one way of playing guitar? How boring.
What other tunings did you use on the record?
Osborne: I use that C/G tuning a bit, I use dropped B, and also standard tuning. Those are the three I used, though I play in a wide variety of tunings outside of this. The new Melvins record has a lot of songs in open G, and also C/G, and I have a tuning where I drop the E string down to low A and leave everything else alone. I think that one first showed up on Bullhead.
I’ve heard people say using whacky tunings is cheating, and I’m like, “What kind of world do you live in?” One of the most normal things to do in the guitar world is to mess around with odd tunings, like slide guitar. So much great music relies on it.
You wouldn’t have most of the Rolling Stones discography without open G.
Osborne: Right. You put a guitar in open G and all those classic Stones songs are easy to play. There’s nothing to ’em. I love that stuff! If I’m having trouble writing songs, the first thing I do is fuck with the guitar tuning.
Teri, who are your influences as a guitarist?
Bender: Lila Downs is an amazing composer from Mexico who was one of the most innovative guitarists when it comes to melding classical Mexican music and putting it together with alternative rock. She made it very much her own thing, and I find her very inspiring. I love players that take simple structures, but make them odd somehow. Little things like the way a melody is added over a rhythm part. I love George Harrison and John Lennon, and I grew up listening to the Melvins—so obviously Buzz. I love Eric Clapton’s playing in Cream, and David Byrne. St. Vincent is unbelievably inspiring. The way Annie Clarke plays rhythmic parts with melodies over them … I just don’t know how she does it so well. And the way she plays solos, like “Rattlesnake” is one of my favorite guitar riffs ever.
Buzz, despite being somewhat of an anti-rock star, your playing and songwriting in the Melvins has had a very tangible impact. How do you feel about that?
Osborne: It’s certainly not something I sit there and ponder. I’m happy about it, though. It makes me feel like I wasn’t wrong originally with what I was into and what I was doing. I’ve made my living making music since about 1988 and, while that doesn’t mean I’ve constantly had a lot of money, it does mean I haven’t had a straight job since then, and I consider that a massive success regardless of whether anyone else agrees or sees me as influential at all. I’ve always believed I had something for people they couldn’t get from someone else, and I’ve tried to keep it that way. I’m a firm believer in not learning to play a style you don’t intend to use, particularly when it means learning someone else’s specific style.
Osborne: Yeah, or how you combine ideas. My mind works well at finding things that work against other things, or pulling from unexpected places. Like throwing down a solo that sounds like what Andy Gill from Gang of Four might’ve played over a heavy metal song. That is interesting to me. Or something like what Jon Spencer would play. No one ever says a word about Jon Spencer, and I think it’s a tragedy. I think he’s one of the most underrated guitar players ever. Dale and I often talk about what a great guitar player he is! But to me it’s important to look for vibes and adding it over different things instead of being a carbon copy of speed metal players. Put that mentality into what you’re doing. I think it’s a mistake to try to be someone else. Take influence, but think about what you have to offer and try to be surprising with your style. Don’t think about it like a traditionalist.