It came out of the Californian desert in the mid-’80s, hard driving, throbbing and mad, like some new language. It would creatively peak with a gang of stoner punks called Kyuss, but the new tongue that emerged from the Palm Desert (mixing hardcore, metal, blues and psych dialects) would be adopted far and wide beyond California. It’s been called ‘desert rock’, ‘stoner rock’, ‘Palm Desert rock’, but its sound is singular and distinctive. “The art of the desert music scene,” contends pioneer Mario Lalli (Fatso Jetson, Yawning Man), “was that it bloomed from boredom and mediocrity.” From this desolation, Kyuss arose, “seeming to sound organic to the desert” asserts fanatic Joerg Steineck. “Even today, he says, “listening to Kyuss still evokes the same timeless, eternal feeling that you get when actually standing in the middle of nowhere. Like the desert itself, their music doesn’t seem to age.”
As part of The Carouser‘s then-and-now examinations of this fuzz-ridden phenomenon, we speak to desert scene figurehead Brant Bjork, founder and drummer of Kyuss. Brant began gigging at 13 years old, and had formed Kyuss (with later Queens Of The Stone Age mainman Josh Homme) in high school in 1987, giving the band its moniker. Kyuss, and their peers, were responsible not only for for bringing heavy, psychedelic elements back into rock ‘n’ roll, but for the impetus of the stoner rock genre as a whole (their second album, 1992’s Blues for the Red Sun, is HUGELY influential). They would be the first band from the desert to achieve international success. But in 1994, after playing on three albums, Brant left Kyuss. The band would release one more LP before breaking up in 1995. Brant went on to drum on four Fu Manchu albums, a couple of Kyuss/Queens maniac Nick Oliveri’s Mondo Generator records, and later in Kyuss offshoot Vista Chino. He founded desert labels El Camino and Duna Records, and is known the world over for his work as a producer. He has also enjoyed a consistent solo career as a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist in his own right, and he currently plays guitar and sings in his latest venture, the Low Desert Punk Band.
Sipping a Guinness in a Highbury & Islington pub, Brant talks to desert devotee Daragh Markham about his time with Kyuss.
The Carouser: Let’s start with Kyuss if you don’t mind. How much did your surroundings, the desert environment, influence you as a musician?
Brant Bjork: I think every artist is kind of an extension of their environment to some degree. I think we were so young that we might not have realised that our environment was having an impact on us, we were just a bunch of guys out in the desert. We were bored and had nothing to do and loved punk rock music. But, there was a moment when, speaking for myself, I became consciously aware that we were doing something that I think was in line with our environment, which inspired me to kind of roll with that. That was Blues For The Red Sun, to say: “We are actually from the desert”, which was something we didn’t really do in the beginning.
Who were your musical influences when Kyuss was starting out?
I loved the Ramones, the Stooges, Jimi Hendrix, Black Sabbath, Credence and the classics, Black Flag…
Tell us about the importance of the DIY element in Kyuss’ early days, and the generator parties out in the desert. The footage of Kyuss jamming ‘Whitewater’ in the desert at night, along with tales of those parties, has become stuff of legend almost.
There was no venues, there was nothing, it was very primal, it was very just like… something to do, and every Friday or Saturday night everyone just goes out to the desert and drinks and parties . It was very much revolving around a kind of punk rock environment. Yeah, it was very primal, man. There was no money, there was no security… you were out there at our own risk, you didn’t know what was gonna happen.
We didn’t have any venues, so some of the older guys, one being Mario Lalli, they got the idea to get a generator and just go out into the middle of the desert. It’s kind of almost natural to do that, to go out there. You would think, “Let’s make do with what we have because we’ve got a shit-ton of nothing…” Even in the ‘60s – I’ve talked to guys that were way older than us and were brought up out there, and they were doing that even in the late ‘60s, the generator parties. It really wasn’t anything new, but for us with the punk spirit and the DIY thing, we kind of took it as something new.
You were a major creative force in Kyuss. What was your direction and concept for the band? Did you write parts for the other instruments aside from the drums?
Even when the band first started, I was writing a lot of songs, I was already playing guitar. Songs like ‘Gardenia’, ‘Green Machine’ and ‘Whitewater’ and stuff like that, those were songs I wrote entirely.
My original vision for Kyuss was to kind of combine Black Sabbath and Cream, the music and song writing, with the whole grass-roots, cottage approach of Black Flag and the Grateful Dead. That’s what I wanted. Josh and some of the other guys were interested in going in a more traditional, commercial route. I was the hippie in the band, I was outnumbered!
So did you feel more at home then when you joined Fu Manchu?
Yeah, I’ve known Fu Manchu for years, we were kind of like brother bands. Even though musically Kyuss was a little bit more a representation of where I was at, I still loved Fu Manchu and as people they’re great guys. I think I went through so much turmoil and such a heartbreak with Kyuss that I wanted to just have fun. So I joined Fu Manchu and we had a fuckin’ great time, had a lot of fun, and made some great music too.
Back to Kyuss. How did the desert scene react when you guys got signed to Elektra Records?
We actually didn’t get picked up by Elektra, we got picked up by a label called Chameleon. That was just a stroke of luck because it was essentially a guy who was independently wealthy that had his own record label and he signed us and pretty much allowed us to do whatever we want, which is very rare. So we did Wretch and we did Blues For The Red Sun, and then [in late 1993] Elektra came in and wanted to buy the guy out and that was one of many things at that time that I just didn’t think we should roll with. And everyone got excited, “Elektra!”. They were already like, “We gotta get rid of your manager, we gotta do this…”, there was already this whole grooming thing for like, the big-time… And I already knew that that was the last nail in the coffin. So, by the time they signed and were working with Elektra I was already out of the band.
Welcome To Sky Valley was a very depressing record to me because I knew I’d quit the band before I made it. The shit had already hit the fan, the damage was already done. But I wanted to just leave my last final mark so I did the record. I think Blues For The Red Sun represented a peak in terms of creativity as a band, but really those couple of years prior to being signed were just great, those were those years you’ll always look back and be like, “We were just fans, we were young…” We were young and dumb! They were enjoyable times.
How hard was it when you left Kyuss to walk away from something you founded and had been such a vital part of?
At that time it was devastating, it was the hardest thing I’d ever experienced. It affected me for years and years and years. But I just thought the pain of being part of something and watching it deteriorate in such a… I’d rather leave when it was still to my mind there. So, it was tough.
Finally, with all sorts of doom, stoner and fuzzy rock ‘n’ roll being in vogue again right now, what do you make of new(ish) bands like Steak, Warchief, Truckfighters, etc. that have come out from places far from the Palm Desert, but really worship its sound?
Bands inspire other bands, artists inspire other artists, I think that’s the natural law of things. We had bands that we admired and were inspired by. I think it’s exciting to describe a certain sound along with its environment to kind of boost that inspired influence. The desert obviously is a perfect example of that. But I mean, you don’t have to be from Detroit to sound like the Stooges. You can rock anywhere. I think if there’s anything that people should have got from us being from the desert is that you can make rock music in any environment.
This article was originally intended for The Carouser’s Bourbon Special but got bumped due to time constraints. The next instalment, with London stoner lords Steak, can be read HERE