Why Weirdos Win
Frontmen of The Melvins and Napalm Death embrace individuality
Posted May 03, 2016
Have you ever been called “weird,” “crazy” or “strange”?
Well, if you haven’t, count yourself lucky. Because for the rest of us, feeling like we’re “weird” is an unfortunate part of life that makes us question whether there is something wrong with us, that we don’t fit in with “normal” people. And maybe after a while we believe that we have some flaw that is going to prevent us from having a happy life filled with success and love.
Well, fear not, fellow weirdos: There is hope. And that hope is hitting us like a juggernaut in the form of the Savage Imperial Death March Tour featuring Napalm Death (perhaps the greatest grindcore band of all time) and the Melvins (perhaps the greatest sludge metal band of all time). These bands have been around for nearly 30 years and are still going strong — not despite being weird, but because they are weird.
Frontmen Marc Greenway of Napalm Death and Buzz Osborne of the Melvins have a message for the other weirdos out there who feel marginalized from the world:
It’s their problem, not yours.
Starting at a young age, it is not uncommon for children to refer to others as “crazy” or “weird” and then continue to use these terms as they grow up and throughout their adulthood. But this lifelong process is not benign. Even more mild forms of teasing experienced in childhood have been shown to be associated with psychological distress in adulthood.
In more severe cases, the consequences of being bullied are worse with physical and mental effects lasting potentially for decades. Studies have shown that the experience of social rejection and isolation that can result from being bullied has the potential for direct harmful mental and physical health outcomes and even early mortality. Call it “the lethality of loneliness.”
Why do we call each other “weird” in the first place?
Greenway and Osborne feel that pointing out others as different is a reflection of a broader societal problem of conformity – the need for everyone to be the same and the threat that occurs otherwise. Moreover, by making social comparisons by which we denigrate another person, we feel better about ourselves for being “normal.”
Greenway explained, “Where it would come into play for me at the earliest age would be people pointing at people in the street, ‘Oh, this guy’s a weirdo.’ People were labeled weird if they didn’t conform to the rigid societal structures or the behavioral norms. The thing that sort of perpetuates that is monoculture — one cultural view or maybe two cultural views tops, in different societies. Once that becomes the norm, it’s very hard to bring anything in that pushes at the boundaries.”
Moreover, there is an elitism. “When you see somebody on the street who’s lacking in certain functions, it’s almost an elitism thing, because you are more complete, and they are not,” Greenway explained. “Or people lack the motivation to understand what somebody might be about who has an alternative perspective or lifestyle or existence.
“And I think that is extremely small-minded,” Greenway said.
Osborne thinks that people who are different threaten those who cling to a conformist social structure. Osborne told me, “People are generally conformists in every area of their life. They do it to get by. There’s a movie [starring] Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, Easy Rider. There’s a quote in the movie where they say, ‘Don’t ever tell anybody that they’re not free, ’cause then they’re going to get real busy killing and maiming to prove to you that they are … and if they see a free individual, it’s going to scare them.’ I think that’s true.”
Both Greenway and Osborne were aware of being considered “weird” at an early age.
“I come from a small town. It was really obvious,” Osborne explained. “I was vastly outnumbered. I had magazines like Creem magazine. The only thing that I knew was that there were bands that I liked — Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Sex Pistols — and from all of that, then I discovered a whole lot of bands along those lines that were in these magazines. But no one I knew listened to any of that kind of stuff. And I had no one that went along with what I was saying.
“There’s nobody who’s telling you what your thinking is OK,” said Osborne.
Greenway concurred. “It’s the same for me. The concept of weirdness, I struggled with it at first because I thought it was more of a derogatory thing,” he said. “People at school that were dickheads to me and to other people — they would punch me in the face at every opportunity.”
And yet despite being subjected to isolation and in some cases physical attacks, both Greenway and Osborne were able to recognize that the label “weird” was not necessarily their fault. And they fought this experience in different ways.
“Mine was more of a self-preservation thing. If you’re surrounded by people who are inherently evil, what do you do?” Osborne explained. “I just assumed that was how it was going to be. So what I did was try and make it as easy on myself as possible. And the way I did that was try and draw as little attention to myself as possible. I wouldn’t talk with people. I didn’t want to explain anything to them. I didn’t want to have confrontations with people. If they don’t get it, that’s their tough shit.
“And once I got out of that environment, then I realized that it was the world that I was in that was the problem, not me,” Osborne said. “Because when you get out into the big world, like a big city, there’s lots of people who are weird.”
Greenway’s approach was often more confrontational. “While I consider myself to be very considerate and humane in a lot of things, in terms of me being judged by other people, I was really belligerent about it. Fuck you,” Greenway said. “I would never assault anybody about it. But if I got accosted in the street by 10 people, I had so much naïve energy that I’d be like, ‘You can all fuck off.’”
Greenway’s rationale was that if he didn’t confront the issue, another kid would face the same abuse — and he saw others being mistreated often. “I’ve seen people in the street clearly with outward mental and physical issues as well. And I’ve kind of tensed myself,” he explained. “Not because of them, but because of the response that I can anticipate from people around me. And it just feels really uncomfortable — the kind of pointing and laughing and stuff like that.”
So, Greenway would speak up whenever he could. “I felt that if I didn’t do it, the next person wouldn’t do it. I liked to live at that point — and, certainly, to a certain extent now — in the sense of, what should the next person do? Should they just accept being bullied?” he said. “Because that’s what it is, essentially. And if there’s one thing that I don’t like, it’s bullies.
“It’s just not acceptable to me,” Greenway said.
Soon, Greenway and Osborne found a creative outlet in music. And that was when both of them realized that being “weird” was something that not only was not negative, but also actually was something very positive. It was the very characteristic that allowed them to thrive as artists.
“As it develops, weird can be used in a positive way. It can be — from the most subtle level to the most powerful level — something that defies convention,” Greenway said. “The sort of stuff that we do, the kind of underground — very brutal in some ways, very nuanced in others — it’s quite deep. There’s quite a lot to it. You can argue that there are other forms of music that are more easy to digest, but also easily disposable.”
Osborne agreed. “The reason it provides me a living is because I am adventurous —because I did weird stuff. I knew it would work because I knew that’s what I liked. Not because I thought that’s what they would like. I don’t know what they like. I have no idea what people think. I know what I think. And I take chances. If I stop doing that, it will end. Without risk-taking, there’s no reason to even go on. Without jumping in the deep end, I have nothing. Without going for it, I have nothing. It’s over.”
And in an era where bands tend to make more money from live performances than from record sales, the experience of embracing “weird” helped prepare Osborne and Greenway for taking on the challenge of shows. And this was no easy task, as both were terrified of being embarrassed in front of others.
“I suffer from stage fright every night without fail,” explained Greenway. “I’m fucking pacing the room. I can’t speak to anybody. I can’t look at anybody. I’m so scared of putting on a show that wasn’t to me — judging it afterwards — a 100 percent show.”
Greenway recognizes the necessity of his approach to performing. “I’ve got to be able to have the purity to break out, basically,” he said. “We need to sound a bit off the rails. If something drags us in from that, it’s like diluting a fucking cordial — a glass of pop.”
While live shows are taxing for Osborne as well, he recognizes that they are irreplaceable. “Oh, yeah. It’s terrible. And you have to be willing to look stupid in front of vast amounts of people. But that’s the juice. It’s the humanity. That’s the human element that you’re never going to download. There’s no way it can be,” he said.
For both Osborne and Greenway, the secret weapon to making “weird” work is to have a clear sense of purpose. This sense of purpose may not only help create a clear artistic vision, but also improve well-being. Positive psychology theorists suggest that leading a “meaningful” or “purposeful” life may predict improved health. In one research study of more than 6,000 people, those who had a higher sense of purpose lived longer than those leading a less purposeful life.
“You just keep doing what you’re doing. And if you’re good, it’ll work out — as long as you work at what you’re doing and you have a clear vision,” Osborne said.
Greenway agrees. “When people say to me that you’re really rebellious artistically or stuff like that, I don’t see it that way myself. For me, it’s like riding a bike down the street. It’s my natural flow,” he explained. “The main thing for me is satisfaction. Of course I’ve got to put fucking meals on the table like anybody else. But the main thing is satisfaction. Given everything, if I wasn’t satisfied, if there wasn’t a purpose to what I was doing...I need a purpose in life.”
“If I haven’t got that, I’m not interested,” said Greenway.
But purpose isn’t enough. You have to back that vision up with hard work. Initial research suggests that having grit, or the tenacity to work hard to achieve one’s goals, predicts higher achievement. In one study, while grit was unrelated to IQ, grit predicted grade-point average in Ivy League undergraduates, as well as the likelihood of West Point cadets completing their studies. Moreover, perhaps not surprisingly, grit has also been shown to be an independent predictor of lower depression.
In fact, Osborne’s work ethic comes specifically from a rejection of a “normal” approach to work. “The one thing I can tell you is that you will get nowhere by thinking in terms of a 40-hour work week — or thinking in terms of weekends or vacation time or how a normal person perceives their workday,” he said. “If you want to be successful in what you’re doing artistically, you have to work a hell of a lot more than 40 hours a week. You want to have weekends off, you want to only work eight hours a day and not think about it anymore than that, then good luck. You’re not going to make it. And if it takes you 48 straight hours to do it, that’s what it takes. Why not? Why is that wrong? There’s nothing wrong with it.”
In fact, Osborne thinks that people who are more “normal” thinkers dissuade him from working harder. “People go, ‘You put out too many albums.’ I don’t think I put out enough albums. Are you kidding?”
Greenway also demands a stellar work effort from himself. “I’m generally a 100 percent person. I can’t do things 50 percent,” Greenway said. “If I can say to myself, if I can look back at a gig every night and go, ‘You did it 30 percent because you couldn’t be fucking bothered,’ I’d be fucking disgusted with myself.”
To be sure, despite their success, Greenway and Osborne still face pressure to be less “weird” and to conform to establishment norms. This can occur even within the metal or punk worlds, which were in theory developed as anti-establishment cultures.
“Everything becomes uniform in the end,” Greenway said. “So I know that in our scene — that kind of punk, metal, grind mix scene — you get people at some points pointing to other people and going, ‘Look at his patches. They’re really crappy. He doesn’t have the right back patches,’ or ‘He doesn’t look a certain way.’ So everything becomes the same. Look at me. I look like the least punk rock you could see. But I feel comfortable.”
Osborne agreed. “It doesn’t matter. I never wanted to look like somebody else. I never wanted to act like somebody else. I never wanted to sound like somebody else,” he said.
Greenway even felt pressure to conform to Napalm Death’s artistic past. “The first two Napalm albums – before my time — are kind of held up as milestones. I wasn’t part of it. But then coming into the band, there was a lot of pressure on me and us, then as a unit, to make the same album,” he explained.
“And we’re like, ‘Why the fuck do we want to do that?’ It’s been done. Don’t you realize that we could tie our hands behind our fucking back and put blindfolds on and put us in isolation tanks, and we’ll make those albums again. But why do we want to do that?”
Osborne and Greenway see the pressure to conform as an ongoing issue that they face, often in the form of “critiques” from strangers. And just as they were very aware of the harmful effects of the criticism of being called “weird” growing up, they are both keenly aware of the potentially toxic effects of criticism from critics or “well-intentioned” people who may not understand their vision or approach.
Osborne has little time for critics. “I always loved Lou Reed’s quote about critics. What sort of a person wants to be a critic?” Osborne asked. “‘I want to criticize someone else’s work.’ What kind of a person is that? I want to meet their parents.”
Osborne has even less patience for strangers who provide unsolicited critiques of his work. “‘Yeah, but’ is the mating call of the asshole. ‘I liked your show, but …’ I don’t want to hear it. I really don’t give a shit,” he explained. “I’m pals with people in bands, and they can talk freely with me, and I can talk freely with them. That’s different. But I can’t imagine walking up to someone that I don’t even know and telling them what I didn’t like about what they were doing. That’s insane to me. It’s just not very nice.”
Greenway doesn’t let critics influence his artistic direction per se, but is perhaps a bit more open to listening. “The way I deflect it is that I — from a softer level, I suppose — just literally say to myself, ‘You can literally read stuff about any band online that’s really O.T.T. with the comments.’ And you know what, everybody’s got a right to an opinion, I suppose. I’ll just deflect that by going, ‘You know what, man? Thanks very much. I appreciate that. Not a problem. Not a problem at all.’”
Greenway has even occasionally found critiques helpful. “There has been some stuff that people have said where I go, ‘Hmmm, you know what? OK,’ he explained. “And that then – not forced me to go and do something else. But it’s made me think about something else a little differently. And I can say it didn’t corrupt what I would have done anyway, but it gave me an extra impetus or a more rounded approach.”
Perhaps learning from the way that they felt misunderstood and mistreated at different points, both Greenway and Osborne feel very committed to treating others with the kindness and empathy that they often did not receive from others.
“I felt that it was my duty as a human being to understand what other things were. I don’t know if it works all the time. But as far as I’m concerned, I don’t stop trying,” Greenway said. “The one thing I don’t want to do is, I don’t want to hit people with a big stick and say, ‘You. Will. Do. This.’ For me, it’s about putting ideas on the table. And I’m comforted enough in those ideas as humane ideas, as tenets of humanity, I suppose.”
And Greenway welcomes anyone who changes their perspective over time – even if at one point they were antagonistic towards him or Napalm Death. “I think everything is a learning process,” he explained. “… if the boot was on the other foot, and I went to someone and said, ‘Look, I get it now.’ And someone turned and said, ‘You know what? You didn’t get it then. You might get it now, but sorry, buster, you’ve had your chance.’ I’d be fucking crestfallen to say the least. So I wouldn’t be like that with people. I think everybody arrives at certain points at different times. And I accept that. It’s absolutely fine. I don’t have a problem with that,” he said.
“Otherwise, it puts all the stuff that I’ve ever talked about inclusion and all the rest of it — it just completely blows it out of the water.”
Osborne concurs and is particularly grateful for the fans who support the Melvins. “I am nice to everyone. If anyone is a fan and is at a show – even if they’re drunk, or slightly drunk, I have time for them,” he said. “I’m nice. I always tell them thank you for coming. Those people provide me with a living. And I appreciate that more than I could ever tell them. Whether I agree with everything they ever do or not. I do not take it for granted. Absolutely not. No way.”
And so for Osborne and Greenway, finally being able to tour together has been another validation that their approach: Embracing “weird” has been a huge success. In part, this tour was a recognition that they had each found kindred spirits. Osborne was quoted by Rolling Stone as saying, “Napalm Death sounds like a gorilla on LSD firing a machine gun … and I mean that in a good way … . We’re happy to be heading out with the ultimate grindcore pioneers.”
Similarly, in describing the Melvins, Greenway told me, “When the Melvins came out, I’d stop listening to anything that resembled slow, more sludgy music. And the Melvins [were] a bit of a shot in the arm. Because I remember hearing Gluey Porch Treatments for the first time, and I was like, ‘Fuck, what is this?’ And you’ve got Buzz with his hair, running around in a Freemasons gown or whatever you call it. And all these really strange lyrics that you couldn’t put your finger on, no matter how much you tried to drill into it. The Melvins were weird — a good weird.”
What makes the success of the tour even more exciting is that because Napalm Death is considered a grindcore band and the Melvins are considered more of a sludge metal band, their touring together was yet another defiance of convention. Greenway and Osborne feel that their similarities of perspective outweigh the differences in musical style.
“The one thing for us is to try as much as we can not to get stuck in the ease of a round peg to a round hole,” said Greenway. “With this tour, it’s the next level. This is our dream tour, something we’ve been wanting to do for fucking ages. Not metal bands. Not straight up hardcore bands.”
“We wanted to do this. We wanted to do this more than anything. And this has been one of the best tours we’ve done in I can’t even tell you how long,” he said.
“I feel like we’re like-minded, and we fit in with these guys really well,” Osborne said. “Why does it work? I just knew it would work. They knew it would work. It’s not what people would expect. I don’t need to do this. They don’t need to do this. But the reason you do it is because it’s going to be so fucking cool.”
And the world is starting to come around to embracing “weird.” From television shows like “Freaks and Geeks” to travel websites like weirdus.com, we are embracing our differences. And it’s not just in entertainment. There is becoming more of a realization that divergent, creative thinking is critical to success in education and business.
Greenway appreciates the shift. “Austin, Texas, is an example. They’re quite happy to plaster everywhere, ‘Keep Austin Weird,’” he said.. “And you can look at it and say, ‘OK, it’s a marketing tool.’ And as it sits in a very conservative state, it’s an island in a sea of conservatism. So it can be used in good ways.”
Through their music and approach to life, Osborne and Greenway have now become role models for others who feel marginalized. They appreciate the fact that they are doing for others what earlier bands had done for them, even if it feels strange to them to be revered in that way.
“I do get a little nervous when people say, ‘Oh, you saved my life,” Greenway said. “Really? Are you sure about that? Because I don’t think I really did. I think you got there maybe fractionally by me, but from other people and from yourself. So it’s a tough one.”
Osborne appreciates hearing similar testaments from fans “because I know how powerful that stuff was for me.”
“It’s strange to hear it, but I understand it. I don’t necessarily buy into it. But I understand it, where it’s coming from, he said.”
Greenway and Osborne are in this for the long haul and have no plans of changing or easing up any time soon. That’s because being “weird” is not something that ever gets old; it just gets better with time. Just as they’ve rejected other conventional constraints, they also reject ageist notions about their music and performances.
“I really hate this thing where people just assume, ‘This band, it’s made up of mid-40s to 50-year-olds – so somehow their output must be less exciting, less challenging or whatever.’ Absolutely fucking not. Not at all,” Greenway said. “The one thing that I think becomes completely negated in all of this is any kind of age definition, because I think if you want to do it, you just do it.”
Osborne agreed. “There are ageists out there who want to think along those lines. But it’s never bothered me. I never thought anything of the sort. I was always a music fan. It didn’t matter to me what age. When I was 12 years old, I liked Jimi Hendrix and shit like that. Or Jerry Lee Lewis. It certainly wasn’t the music of my generation. None of it made any difference to me. Never did. I never thought of it in those terms. Still don’t.”
So there is it: There’s hope for us weirdos. Keep true to yourself, work hard, stay the course, and you will find the professional and personal success you crave.
What’s next for Greenway and Osborne?
Osborne is looking ahead. “We’re talking about doing this kind of tour in Europe next year. That’d be really interesting,” he said.