Interview © Powerplay
von Simon Gausden, 2001
Ridin' The Sufferbus Down In The Hole To Find The Blue Garden!
I remember the first time I heard Blue Garden. The startling combination of Sabbath-ian riffs and Beatles-esque vocal harmonies simply blew me away. To this day, I still maintain that only King's X have ever created anything as unique. It's not just a knack or trick, it's not just a simple statement the Masters are making either; they are creating their own legend as they go, and the ripples their stone is creating in our rock pool are still expanding to this day. From the amazing Sunrise On The Sufferbus to the colossal How High The Moon and then from the strange but beautiful Welcome To The Western Lodge to the brand new and exquisite Deep In The Hole, Masters of Reality have kept pushing the boundaries of what can be done.
"I'm over here for promotional purposes only, but it's just that I have Tuesday off so I can be here for museum purposes!" Chris chuckles at his far from rock 'n' roll admission. His label may well have him doing the regular business thing, but that's not all that he has on his mind, obviously. I tell Chris that I'm fairly surprised to find him over here, given the September 11th tragedies. "Well, it hasn't affected me nearly as much as it's affected many other people in New York, obviously", he comments.
I tell Chris that I didn't mean it quite that way, it's just that a raft of American acts have cancelled any overseas activity right now. Chris laughs that laconic dry laugh of his and simply retorts "The best way to show 'them' they're wrong and not defeating us all is to carry on living our lives normally." Amen to that.
Onto more cheerful things, I tell Chris that the new opus is a truly accomplished piece of work and he should be very proud of it. Curiously, the singer is almost subdued in his response. "I submitted it about eight weeks ago, and my hindsight isn't quite 20/20 on it yet, but... yeah, I had a lot of fun making it which usually means it ages well, from my past experiences anyway."
Next I get Chris to talk about the sheer volume of guests who appear throughout the album. Normally you'd almost expect an album to sound unbalanced because of all the contrasting styles found here, but to the Masters' credit, that just isn't the case on Deep In The Hole as the album remains consistent in both sound and quality.
"Thanks Simon, I'm glad you've tapped into what we're doing," he says. "What is cool is that this is the first time I've been able to record a Masters record when all my friends were available to be on it. Usually they're on tour when I record. For some reason it's always worked out that way until now. And so it's a simultaneous thing with the Joshua Tree... Josh Homme [Queens Of The Stone Age/ex-Kyuss guitarist] was recording the new Desert Sessions record, which is a project he does every couple of years with a lot of guest musicians..."
I tell Chris I've got volumes one to six and they rock! Chris is delighted. "Ah, a man after my own heart!" he crows. "So anyway," he continues, "he [Josh] and a lot of musicians were literally right in town so..."
I was going to ask about these legendary sessions later, but as Chris has beaten me to it, I'll go with the flow. I know about Chris' involvement with the sessions in the past, but what role has he taken on this time? Guitarist? Producer? Both? "It varies," he confirms, "it's basically about Josh getting a studio for about a week and asking whichever musical friends he chooses for a particular Desert Session to come over and add. Sometimes it's a matter of upwards of ten people coming over and finishing, or co-writing, overdubbing ten or twelve songs in one week, and it puts a real time limit on it. So it's an around the clock, fun thing, that puts a lot of people in a room who normally wouldn't get to work together, and I've always enjoyed coming down to do it. The second one he recorded, or maybe the first and second, I'm not sure, some of it he recorded at my studio in Palm Springs, so I was in and out during those sessions. It's just a cool thing to look forward to every couple of years."
Dragging Chris out of his reverie to talk about Deep In The Hole, I tell him that in my view it combines the more experimental vein that the Masters have sought out latterly, whilst at the same time embracing the simplicity that made their name with Blue Garden.
I ask Chris if my assessment is a fair comment? "Um... I suppose... I've come to accept recently that I'm a weirdo who likes weird hard rock and that's basically what you're going to get, y'know, from the Masters of Reality anyway. So with the quirky hard rock records, I like to keep one foot in that rut of basics because I enjoy working within the boundaries such that when it starts to become too profound, I just get back to a hard rock song. I like that. It keeps me in line, otherwise I might be going more wacko, which is still a possibility!" he adds with a big laugh.
I wonder how Chris is going to take my next comment, but I put it to him anyway. Masters of Reality are an extremely hard band to pigeonhole. The only other band that I can think of who I can draw any comparison with are King's X. They're a band who've also realised the magic of moulding massive riffs around sublime harmonies. What does Chris have to say about this? "I toured with them for a while back in 1989," he muses, "but I don't see it the same way. If you're saying what I think you're saying then they've stolen a lot from me!" he says with another laugh. I laugh along with Chris but backtrack furiously because as a fan of King's X, that's not exactly what I meant. "I haven't heard from them in a long time," continues Chris. "To be honest, I haven't heard anything they've done in quite a while, so I've lost track."
Apart from the appearance of Josh Homme on this album, one notable name who also appears is ex-Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan on the extremely catchy 'High Noon Amsterdam'. I ask if Mark just sang on the track or if he actually had a hand in the writing of it. "When we were cutting the drum tracks for that song, doing basic tracks, the vocals hadn't been recorded yet," he explains. "There are a couple of lines in the chorus that Mark sings that go..." At this point Chris actually sings down the telephone to me, "Get your head around/Going underground".
He continues, "When I was listening to the drum and bass tape that we had just done of it and I was starting to put melodies together as I listened to the instrumental track, I just thought Mark would be great singing on this; his voice would be able to carry that chorus for sure. So then, when Mark was in to do the Desert Sessions, he gladly came by and sang it.
At the beginning of the second verse, there were a few lines that were incomplete, and he put in 'Ain't no debutante ball/Ain't no sweet sixteen'. That's Mark getting more to the point than I would normally, and so that was good. So he contributed a couple of lines to it with that fantastic voice of his." Chris definitely agrees with the next point I put to him, when I tell him that the song (if it was given the right backing by a label) could be a really big hit for him and his band. "That's the song being sent out to radio stations by Mascot and Brownhouse"
So the next big questions are whether the band will be touring in support of the album and, if so, who will be completing the touring line-up. "Next week," starts Chris, "I go back to Rotterdam to finalise any tour plans that are currently tentative. There are some possible dates being talked about this year, and I'll be able to confirm that with you in about a week, or have someone confirm them with you. But there will definitely be a full blown tour next year, in the early part of the year." As far as the possible line-up goes, Chris' answer is short and sweet, "As before, still to be confirmed!"
The final part in this line of questioning is to establish if we will get to see Chris and the band gigging over here in the UK this time around. Chris becomes positively animated as he answers this question. "London, for sure," he enthuses, "but I want to get to Scotland this time too, if it's at all feasible, economically. Yeah, I would love to spend more time over here and tour around. A big part of the UK audience would enjoy it I think, especially up in the hinterlands, not just in London, where people go to clubs and see bands. It's more a lifestyle thing there, more so than someone in say Glasgow or Manchester, where he's a bit more isolated and spends his time indoors with his CD collection. I lived in a city that wasn't a major city when I was growing up, and so I think that you can appreciate it more when something comes to town that's a little bit different, y'know?"
As we all know, Chris Goss has a busy life outside of Masters of Reality. I also know that Chris has a solo career as a performer. I've yet to hear any of his solo material, so I asked him how he would describe it to a complete novice such as myself and how it differs to Masters of Reality.
Chris laughs, "Y'know, it's perhaps even quirkier and lighter! I like to play acoustic guitar - I'm actually a much better acoustic player than I am an electric player. I have my best moments when I'm sitting down, playing my acoustic guitar, and to some extent it's more along those kinds of lines. It's like Roy Orbison in Alice in Wonderland sort of stuff."
I tell Chris that although Masters of Reality CDs are readily available over here, I've yet to see a copy anywhere of a Chris Goss solo album. The reason why, it would seem, is all too simple, as he explains.
"The solo stuff to this point is purely bootlegs and just stuff that's leaked out over the years. It's officially being compiled right now for a release next year, actually! I did a show about three weeks ago at the Knitting Factory in Los Angeles. The Queens Of The Stone Age and members of the earthlings? and members of The Flys all backed me up, and also a singer called Roxy Saint, who just got done spending about five years in London working. I'm working with her when I get back to the States. But for this gig, which I think was recorded, I invited a whole load of people to come up and play. We learned about fifteen songs with these different combinations of musicians in about three rehearsals, and I had a ball, man! I didn't want to leave the stage! It was kind of like sitting in a living room with like percussion players and a mellotron and acoustic guitars and a weird conglomeration of instruments. It was like a fusion of my favourite groups, like Yes and Jethro Tull, all quirky, acoustic, weird mellotron shit. When I was a boy, I escaped a lot with that kind of prog rock music from the early seventies."
Yes, as weird as it sounds, this stoner legend is still, to this day, an avid fan of Yes and all things progressive! So which was his favourite Yes era?
"Oh everything from '70-'76," roars Chris. "All of it, man! I must have listened to Tales From Topographic Oceans like about 5000 times, man! Even the ones that most people found totally excruciating, I knew every note of every song inside out!"
Weird but true. I admit to Chris that I found that era of Yes hard going, only finally beginning to appreciate them during the Drama era, before falling in love during Trevor Rabin's tenure with the band. I don't think Chris is over impressed by that admission, so I ask him if he's heard the new Yes album Magnification, recorded with the orchestra.
"I missed those shows when they toured, but my drummer went when they played at Radio City and said it was great. I luckily caught the last Masterworks tour, which was about a year and a half ago."
So he's a closet Yes-ite, but what else did Chris Goss listen to during those formative years?
"Before I move on, I have to say I'm running into and meeting more and more closet Yes fans," he enthuses, "and the list is unbelievable! Keith Levine from PiL, Taylor Hawkins from the Foo Fighters to 'out' just two!" laughs Chris. This is unreal stuff, I'm sniggering fit to burst, and it takes a couple of minutes for us to compose ourselves. "Just imagine Taylor Hawkins drumming along to Tormato," I snigger, which sets Chris off again! "I know," he howls, "but I mean, Keith Levine? Public Image? I mean, he's going to kill me! He'll never live this down, me 'outing' him so publicly!"
I tell Chris how, as a young teenager, I adored PiL because they represented the new way forward, obliterating the dinosaurs like Yes. Chris couldn't agree more. "I heard or read somewhere that he was a Yes fan, so I emailed him immediately and he emailed me right back and said he still loves Yes!" I tell Chris that I reckon that's Keith's punk credibility shot forever.
"Oh yeah, people are going to kill me about Yes after this European press tour because the word has got out, and I'm ruining everybody, me. It's funny, but when [Radiohead's] OK Computer came out and had such a strong prog vibe to it, I just found it really amusing and amazing. You have to seach for more depth eventually - that's what brought about prog rock in the beginning. So the kooks are going to come out eventually and start doing cool prog rock. The kraut rock fans like Can, Eloy and Amon Duul, and it's like irresistible to me; I just really get into it."
I ask Chris if he's at all familiar with the very godly British millennium progsters Porcupine Tree. Sadly, he isn't, which gives me the perfect excuse to rant and rave about one of my most favourite bands. Chris sounds suitably impressed and tells me that he's going to search out their last two albums while he's still over here.
A few years ago, certain reviews about Masters of Reality put across the point of view that both their music and lyrics had a kind of positive spirituality about them. At the time, I seem to remember that Chris was none too happy about that phrase and wondered if that view had changed now.
"Have we talked before about that?" Chris asks me suspiciously. I assure him that we haven't. "It was probably for the reasons we discussed before, about finally being honest about what you really like and not trying to name the flavour of the day," he continues, "because I really don't care anymore. I like to listen to what I want to listen to, and the only time that I would go out and buy a record now is after a recommendation that I really trust 'cause there's so much crap coming out to keep up with that I'm not really sure that I want to. It's almost like being relaxed with who you are. I can imagine, with that being said, rolling my eyes, because if it caught me in the right mood, even these days, I may roll my eyes at something like that. In general, the music that inspired me when I was a boy had that kind of spirituality to it. Give me 'Stairway To Heaven' over Kiss' 'Rock And Roll All Nite' any day."
Chris furthers his point "Look at it this way: Kiss was the first truly corporate hard rock band. That's when it turned into gimmickry over improvisation and artistry. The architects of the art form - the Jimi Hendrix's and Ginger Baker's and Beatles and Jimmy Page's, who gothicised folk and blues, what they did eventually became comic book, and I accuse Kiss of that! Yeah, they were great marketing geniuses and put on a great fun show, and that's fine - that's part of rock music, but at the same time, let's call a spade a spade and call it what it was, which was a commercial venture that just happened to be fun to look back at. I mean, just look at the Monkees or something like that. Anyway, the beginning of this question started on the voracity of having a positive spiritual message. Well, rock 'n' roll's one of those art forms where it could fall either way. I mean, N-Sync probably puts on a great show or Britney Spears probably puts on great fun shows for kids now, but I suppose that's great; call it an escape. But for something to live say, 100 years down the line, it needs to be something looked on as almost close to literature perhaps, and now I gotta side with the 'brains' side."
I wonder how Chris will take the next comment, but assuming he's aware enough of his stature in the genre, I ask him how he feels about being perceived as a 'stoner guru'.
At first Chris seems to struggle with his answer, but after deliberating for a while he replies, "I suppose they had to call it something, y'know? I didn't have anything to do with the moniker or category they gave it, but obviously Kyuss came from the desert and the whole family of musicians I worked with are based around the area of the Southern Californian desert, so I get put in, in fact we all get put in, this kind of slot together. I don't know if everybody who gets knighted with that genre actually belongs in there, if in fact there is a guideline to the category. But put it this way; someone said recently that it was traditional rock with a weird modern slant to it, 'cause I asked them to define stoner rock, and that's how they defined it for me. I said 'Okay, I'll take that!'"
I tell Chris that I accept what he says, but again we seemed to be talking at cross-purposes. I explain to Chris that he is called the stoner guru, almost the godfather of the scene, and ask if he is happy or uncomfortable with such a tag.
Again, Chris hesitates before giving a considered answer. "I think, because I started listening to music at a very young age, in a time when a lot of experimenting was being done, I've been able to bridge the gap to people who weren't even alive then to that era," he muses, "and kind of exposed the aesthetics that were in play, exposed the aesthetics that were overplayed, exposed the aesthetics you need to be aware of. And having lived through everything from the Beatles to the introduction of heavy music, to progressive rock and jazz and the first jazz fusion bands like the Mahavishnu Orchestra... I mean, I saw the Mahavishnu Orchestra when I was twelve years old and loved every minute of it..."
At which point I interrupt Chris and tell him I am an avid fan of their drummer Billy Cobham, and own about ten of his albums. "Exactly," replies Chris. "it was staggering music to me too! I didn't know why. All I knew was that it felt like they were trying to soar into space. Anyway, I was lucky enough to live in New York during the punk rock explosion and witnessed that first hand from the start to the finish, and was also a club DJ too in the 1980s, so I was kind of able to hold the hands of both the sixties and seventies and also to hold the hand of someone who wasn't even born in 1975, and to relate to both generations of rock musicians equally. Until this nu-metal era came along anyway!"
I agree with Chris whole-heartedly, then he appears to hesitate for just a second. "That's where I lose track totally," he says thoughtfully, "I just hope that we don't look back in ten years and think 'Did we miss out on something special by not being part of the fun?'"
Moving on again, I ask Chris if we can talk about his work as a record producer. I mean, he is hugely in demand, and out of all the bands he has worked with, there are one or two in particular I'd like to talk about. First up is Russell Crowe. I ask if this is the actor from Gladiator.
"Who told you about that?" Chris begins laughing fit to burst. "Okay, the deal is this," he concedes. "Russell is a character, and that's why I'm laughing. The way it came about was kind of charming. A few years back, he was in Los Angeles. I'd first met him through a mutual friend. He had just done a film called Virtuosity with Denzel Washington, and it was a kind of sci-fi thing. I met him after that came out through this friend, and Russell - I didn't know who he was - called the studio I was working at and said 'Would you mind mixing a track for me?' I had just finished a project that had kept me in Los Angeles for four to five months and I was dying to get home to the desert so I said 'I'm sorry, I've just done with a project, and I'm done with working for a while.' But Russell was really persistent. It was like 'Oh come on. Please. Just one track. It will be fun.' So I was like 'Oh shit! You bastard! You sound like a nice guy.' So I said that I would do it and made the arrangements with the studio the next day. What was waiting for me was a buffet of food and every kind of alcohol, beer and drink I could possibly want, and a nice little bag of weed, and he gave me a runner to go and get me whatever I wanted. Now this is before Russell was a megastar. He just caught the sense that I was doing him a big favour, so he made it really sweet for me to walk into! He went out of his way to make me feel welcome when I was doing it for him, so we had some fun working together, and I ended up mixing and co-producing assorted tracks over the course of the next couple of years after that, on three of the Thirty Odd Foot Of Grunts - that's the name of his band - EPs."
Which leads very neatly into a question I had until now decided not to ask him. Quite recently, I believe, Chris gave an extensive interview to the American (and highly contentious) magazine High Times. I ask Chris bluntly if he has always been a proponent of 'the weed'?
"Yeah, I guess you could say proponent. I don't preach it, I respect it as a... I don't know what it is... but I respect it."
I decide not to press Chris any further, and we go back to talking about his work as a producer. Another band I couldn't believe that he had been connected with was LA 'big hair' rockers Kik Tracee! I couldn't imagine how on earth he had ended up producing a glam band.
Again, Chris starts laughing. "We had a mutual manager at the time," he explains, "and he played me their songs. And they had good songs, even though it is possibly the worst band name I have ever heard in my entire life, very indicative of an LA bar band at the time. But I liked the songs I heard and I've always made career moves made on songs. Anyway, they wrote good songs, which is what always effects my decision to get involved as a producer and that is why I did it."
The final project Chris had produced that I want to talk about was for a legendary singer, but this time the album is one I know very well, that is Ian Astbury's Spirit\Light\Speed opus. It's an album many of my more enlightened friends swear by. How did this joint venture come about?
"Ian and I have been friends for years, since the first Masters record came out, and we have a mutual friend in Rick Rubin, a mutual producer actually. We've always wanted to work together, and it simply came down to that, finally having a chance to do it seven years down the line. I had a studio in Palm Springs at the time, and Ian had left The Cult at that moment and had been on a sabbatical at the time, so finally we got down to it... and that was that. My feelings about that record are that we had the beginnings of something really good... BUT... Beggars Banquet cut off the funds at the end... consequently we never really got it where we wanted it to be! In a way... like... a lot of it works, but both Ian and I feel the same way... as in we wish we'd had a bit more time and money to get it done correctly, and a little more backing on it, but we do plan on working together again... tell your friends to hang tight!"
Not really being musically adept, but knowing that many of our readers are, I ask Chris if we can talk technicalities for just a minute. From memory, I recall that the Fender Telecaster was his weapon of choice, and ask if that is still the case?
"I can almost only play a Telecaster electric now. I'm so accustomed to them that I'm pretty much hooked on them! I can't play Les Pauls anymore, I can't play SGs; the Telecaster's what I'm almost exclusively hooked on now, with one exception, actually. There's one other guitar that I like to play a little these days, the Flying V. I'm quite comfortable playing the Flying V also, but almost all the electric I do is on the Telecaster."
The other thing I wanted to know about was how Chris creates that lovely warm, rich, mellow studio sound. It sounds too organic and natural to be digital. It's got to be all good old-fashioned analogue, right? Er... no!
"You're correct in saying that it doesn't sound digital, but the new album is digital! There isn't an inch of tape on it anywhere; it's all disc. To be fair, it's as much to the credit of the researchers that are making digital technology sound better and better. I'm not a scientist by any means, but thank God for the scientists... and hey... the great engineer that I use too! It's not the same digital that existed five years ago; it's a whole different sounding digital to my ears, and it's starting to take on characteristics and starting to transport that warmth now."
Next I wanted to talk about Chris Goss as a youngster. I was curious to know when he first heard music, who it was that so influenced him to take up the guitar.
"Oh, wow! That's people like Steve Howe, Jimi Hendrix - almost as an emotional guide. Um, let's see... Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce, Chris Squire, Jon Anderson, Ian Anderson, Martin Barre, Steve Marriott. My arch hero is Jimmy Page."
I can't help but note that most of his influences are British, which is where this whole interview kicked in anyway. So if his heroes are mostly Brits, I ask about his peers today, which musicians he respects and listens to in 2001.
"Thom Yorke," is the first name he offers. Then he adds, "Radiohead in general are striving... they're striving and they're trying, and you've got to pin a badge on their chests for that. Bjork is striving, Marilyn Manson is wonderful within the dark rock theatre realm, just putting his ass on the line all the time and making great hard rock out of it too. At the other end of the spectrum there's stuff that's lighter, I think that is just traditionally good song writing, like the Foo Fighters. A Foo Fighters single comes on the radio... without pretence... and it's just like a cool song. It's like REM; on every record there's like one good, cool, kooky, quirky, weird song that catches you off guard. I love pop music; I'm an Abba fan! But your question was about recent stuff. I thought Madonna's 'Beautiful Stranger' was an incredible single and David Bowie's 'I'm Afraid Of Americans' was an incredible single. Then there's 'Beautiful People' by Marilyn Manson. Once in a while in the top 40 some strange piece of dark music will pop it's head up every few years, and it kind of gives you hope!"
I can't let that one point go. Like Chris, my wife adores Abba, and I've annoyed the hell out of her by buying the Nuclear Blast Death Metal Tribute To Abba CD! Chris hasn't heard the CD, but it doesn't surprise him in the least.
"Y'know Simon, there are Gothic chord changes in Abba songs that are absolutely gorgeous," he exclaims. "The songwriting and craftsmanship is great, but the harmony work is beautiful and traditional, and almost churchy at times. It's hard not to have your pants charmed off you by those songs, y'know? What more can I possibly add to such an interview?"
My final question to Chris is the traditional one for Powerplay; very simply, if he has a message that he wants to impart to our readers.
"Listen to everything!" he exclaims. "In every era of music, there's a lesson to be had, a lesson to be pulled - a musical lesson, a rhythmic lesson, harmony... attitude. There's a world of creative psychology to be found by looking at what was popular music during different eras, and it's an endless exploration. It goes into the future too, so have fun doing it. Don't worry about trends and styles, and don't get depressed... because it gets better!"