Interview © KTVU.com
von David Pehling
Posted: 1:19 pm PDT October 25, 2007Updated: 5:59 pm PST December 5, 2007
He may not be a household name, but guitarist, songwriter and producer Chris Goss has had a sizeable influence on the sound of underground hard rock over the past two decades. His band Masters of Reality was one of uber-producer Rick Rubin's great discoveries in the '80s, showing a depth and level of songwriting rarely heard from hard-rock groups of the era on its eponymous debut for Rubin's Def American label.
Though Masters of Reality dissolved soon after the release of the album, Goss would later resurrect the band with such illustrious members as former Cream and Blind Faith drummer Ginger Baker. Around this time the musician would enter into another line of work after providing his services as producer for downtuned Palm Desert band Kyuss. The three early '90s Kyuss albums he helmed in the studio -- Blues for the Red Sun, Welcome to Sky Valley and ...And The Circus Leaves Town -- would become hugely influential to legions of so-called "stoner rock" bands that would follow, mixing elements of psychedelia and monolithic, Sabbath-flavored heaviness.
Goss would continue his collaboration with Kyuss guitarist Josh Homme as producer on several Queens of the Stone Age albums and as a principle player on recordings for Homme's Desert Sessions side project. The songwriter has continued to use Masters of Reality as a creative outlet, but Goss takes to the road for the first time in ages with his latest band, Goon Moon. Teaming with former Marilyn Manson/A Perfect Circle and current Nine Inch Nails band member Jeordie White (aka Twiggy Ramirez) as well as an A-list group of players including Homme, frequent Desert Session member David Catching and monster drummers Zach Hill (of the band Hella) and Josh Freese (Guns N' Roses, The Vandals and both NIN and A Perfect Circle with White), the group's sophomore effort on Ipecac Records Licker's Last Leg ranges from noisy, experimental dissonance to bracing, hook-filled heavy songs that would sound perfectly at home on modern rock radio. In advance of playing their second show ever at Mezzanine in San Francisco opening for acclaimed British electronic act UNKLE (who's latest album he produced), Goss took time out to talk to KTVU.com about his rich history in music and his latest projects.
KTVU.com: The songs on Masters of Reality's debut album were much more sophisticated than the material being recorded by most hard-rock bands in Los Angeles at the time. You managed to sound much more seasoned than the legions of late '80s bands copying AC/DC or Aerosmith. You were in your late 20s when the debut came out; what previous band experience did you have and had you put out anything prior to Masters of Reality? Were you just working in various bands that never quite got to that level leading up to that band?
Chris Goss: Yeah, basically that was it. I was a club DJ too.
KTVU.com: Really? DJing in rock clubs?
Chris Goss: No, I liked really early electronic stuff. I started spinning records when I was 20 years old. I was spinning Kraftwerk, early industrial stuff and the Psychedelic Furs. Early '80s all the way through mid '80s dance music. I was actually one of the first DJs in the country to play Madonna's stuff.
KTVU.com: Was that after you'd moved to LA?
Chris Goss: No, that was in New York.
KTVU.com: Maybe I should go back a little further. I don't think of Masters of Reality as from the LA rock scene, but I guess I always associated you with Southern California because of the link to Rick Rubin and American Records.
Chris Goss: When Rick moved from New York and moved his base from Def Jam to Def American, I came out with him.
KTVU.com: So you knew him already in New York?
Chris Goss: Just prior to him putting out our first record, we started hanging out.
KTVU.com: So you were DJing in New York at the same time you were playing guitar in bands?
Chris Goss: I originally came from Syracuse. That was my hometown and I started spinning records there. I'd also played in some punk band in the late 1970s. But my roots go back to when I started listening to music when I was really, really little. I bought my first Beatles album when I was six years old. So it really started early; going out and buying records and aping them as much as I could. I think one of the reasons Masters of Reality stood out at the time is that the water ran a little deeper than most bands as far as the background and the musicianship and what our influences were.
We were never a dumb-ass metal band. I was actually repulsed by that. The championship wrestling kind of quality to metal that Spinal Tap made fun of, you know? And as the '80s progressed, I realized where my roots were really was classic rock. I was weaned on Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin and other classic rock records. That's were I felt comfortable. So after going through all these different stages over all the years and listening to lots of stuff, applying all these different aesthetics from different styles of music, that's what made it what it was. And probably what made it not as big as other things that were going on (laughs).
KTVU.com: It was definitely a very refined distillation of a lot of influences…
Chris Goss: I think Jimmy Page and Robert Plant - to reach back as obvious examples people can relate to - were musicians who were playing hard rock music but when they went home at night, what they listened to wasn't other hard rock bands. They were listening to more exotic music. I mean, you can hear James Brown and Barry White in mid-70s Zeppelin stuff. You could tell they were listening to the soul music that was going on at the time. And that kind of gets ignored by the dumbed down metal press. These guys don't go home and listen to Judas Priest. Robert Plant is a musicologist; he keeps up with everything. It's a matter of keeping aware. You never go stale that way.
KTVU.com: As a respected producer now, is there anything you took away from your experience working with Rick Rubin that has carried over into your own processes as far as producing bands or producing your own material?
Chris Goss: I think I learned what not to do more than what to do. That first record that Rick did, the band was at odds with each other. It wasn't a very fun record to do. It had a lot to do with where we were all at personally with each other. At that point, I decided that this wasn't what I'd worked all these years to do and that I wanted to have more fun doing it. The process shouldn't be belabored or miserable. That record still rings of a very difficult period for me. So from that point on, I've gauged the quality of what I'm working on to how much I enjoy doing it. Very few times do miserable records come out well.
KTVU.com: I'm surprised there was so much tension surrounding that album. It's one of my favorite hard-rock records of the last two decades. There's a great resonance to it and I still listen to it regularly today. Though I guess the fact that the original band split up not long after it came out hinted that there were some problems. When you decided to put Masters of Reality back together a few years later, you end up working with former Cream drummer Ginger Baker. How did that come about?
Chris Goss: I met him at a barbeque and someone suggested that we jam. And a few days later, we did. We got along really wonderfully musically. It was instantaneous, really. At the end of the jam that day, he said "We should do something together." So we did.
KTVU.com: Your association with Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age dates way back to your production work on several albums with his hugely influential "desert rock" band Kyuss back in the early '90s. How did you end up meeting the band and producing them?
Chris Goss: Actually, my wife had received a demo of theirs from a friend and she loved it. And then I caught on to it. We went and saw them play their first LA show, I believe in 1990. There were just a few people there in a really small club. And it was such a breath of fresh air; there wasn't much metal or hard rock out there at the time that was doing it for me. And they swung; I think that was the thing that made the difference to me. It wasn't that uptight, staccato style of rhythm. It was very swinging and slow moving. I just think of swing when I think about why I loved Kyuss so much. And they were tuned down lower than anybody at the time. The reason that I got involved with it is that they were tuned down so low and were so original sounding, I was afraid some metal producer - whatever that means - would get a hold of them and ruin it. You know, make them tune up and play more like the flavor of the day whether it was Megadeth or Pantera or whatever was going on at the time.
And so I just really wanted to get it the way they were playing it and record it that way as I was sitting there watching these kids. I hadn't planned on being a rock producer; I was pretty much content being a songwriter and a guitarist/singer. At this point Ginger was in the band and I pretty much had a course set for myself. Then I saw Kyuss and thought 'Well, let me be the guy who turns the tape recorder on for them and allows them to be themselves.' And that was the whole story really.
KTVU.com: Something that's always struck me about Kyuss is the wealth of great songwriters they had. Usually in a hard rock band you have one or two people writing songs, but here you had Josh Homme and drummer Brant Bjork coming up with great material as well as John Garcia and at various points Nick Oliveri and Scott Reeder. To what extent did you have a hand in determining what songs would make it onto the albums?
Chris Goss: It was a matter of trying to get their vision wrapped up into a ball that would work on an LP and assisting them with that. I'm very involved in arrangements of songs and lengths of songs and sequencing; being an aesthetic advisor. When you're an artist in the middle of it, you can't see the forest for the trees. So I try to give an outsiders point of view. I'm a rock fan, so I produce from a fan's point of view. What would I want to hear if I bought this record? How would I want to be surprised? How would I want to be seduced by this music? It's almost like a writer bringing a script to a director and trying to figure out how to get a story to emotionally satisfy people. That's where I come in; I try to be a bridge between the band and the listener, because I'm a listener myself.
KTVU.com: There seems to be a healthy element of work shopping material in what you've done with Josh and Queens of the Stone Age as well as the Desert Sessions EPs. Is that an approach you take with your own material, whether the past Masters of Reality albums or the new Goon Moon album?
Chris Goss: It's pretty much the same goal every time, and that's to put 45 or 50 minutes of music on an album, or something that you used to call an album, and make it interesting and exciting enough for someone to want to hear it again when it's over. No matter whether that's my music or somebody else's, I try to put myself in the position of if I bought this, would I be enjoying this? I always make an announcement before I start a record with a band: There's one master in the studio, and that's the song. We're there to serve the song, and if you're serving the song, then everyone else's ego is eliminated. And usually the truth about a song will rear its head in a few days after you cut it, whether it's too long or it's monotonous or stupid. Whatever the detriments are of a song - or the positive things - will come clear. Sometimes it pays to push people's patience over the edge.
Should this feedback be 30 seconds long at the intro to the song? Hell yeah. Should it be three minutes? Sometimes, hell yeah. Sometimes, hell no, it should be three seconds. It all depends on that moment of creation. It's like this weird synchronicity that happens when something works. And it's interesting. You can never tell. Sometimes something's great in rehearsal, and then you do it in the studio and you need to cut it for the album's sake. The truth rears its head for everyone to see when you're working on a song. If someone is adamant about a part they like, in the matter of a few days, that person is going to be able to tell whether that part is good or not - whether they wrote it or not - by people's reaction to it. You do what's best for the album.
These days, there's a dilemma with doing that, what with people buying singular songs off of iTunes and not buying albums and people putting one song each from 200 different bands on their iPod. It's a bit more challenging now to put out twelve songs that will hold someone's interest. Now our competitors are CNN and the news. We're not only competing with other bands, we're competing with someone's laptop, with the television, with video games. When I was younger, there wasn't much else to do other than come home and put my headphones on and listen to a Led Zeppelin record. Now, I'd probably come home from school if I was 14 and the first thing I'd do is go to my favorite porn site. So it's a different world. Your challenges are wider and more difficult, but when haven't they been? You just have to deal with it. So I now when someone buys three songs of a CD on iTunes, I guess it's a success.
KTVU.com: When I spoke with Josh about the latest Queens album, we talked about how Era Vulgaris has a certain abrasiveness to its sound - particularly the electronic grit that the drums have - but at the same time, it has more accessible melodies to balance things out. Licker's Last Legtakes a similar approach as far as bringing in noisy elements like the dissonant violin that opens the album while still including a lot of very hooky, pop-oriented moments. You seemed to touch on this in what you were saying a moment ago…
Chris Goss: I'm glad you caught that. That's "junior" practicing the violin [at the opening]; the question is do you want to kill him? I suppose "junior" is the world right now…
KTVU.com: Josh spoke in terms of sometimes wanting to make your listeners "walk the coals."
Chris Goss: Exactly. Try their patience. But also to get their attention; you practically have to rip their ears off now to get people's attention and hold it. I think the idea is to be creating music where people are standing by for the next surprise to get them to the next song.
KTVU.com: As far as writing with Jeordie White, the songs seem pretty evenly split in terms of the vocals. It's a pretty even distribution. Did you write songs together with one person or the other in mind, or was it just a matter of how the song develops dictating the singer over any preconceived idea?
Chris Goss: We have a really great working relationship. If I had a riff or a song idea, I'd throw down a bass line and a drum beat and Jeordie would say "I have a vocal idea for that." And I'd say "Go for it." And vice versa. Usually while he or I are throwing a track down, the other person is preparing to do the next track on top of that. So it's this really cool kind of counteraction and almost like a compromise in a friendly way to say "Ok, that's not the kind of riff I would normally do. So what can I add to make that more me?" It's a matter of getting your shots in; like adding a harmony that might make a section ring a little differently.
It's trusting each other and really appreciating each other as songwriters while we're doing that and saying "That's your part; go ahead and play it." There's always a little bit of adjustment and twisting here and there, but for the most part it's very spontaneous. We try to keep the ego out of it and keeping in the back of your mind that if there's some musical point you're trying make to make it more on the next song. The songs are usually written pretty quickly and I think we've both been through the mill long enough to know when to make a stand. Choose your battles is kind of the idea, and so far we've had very few if any battles. We usually get off on each other's ideas and pretty much have a laugh over it all.
KTVU.com: From what I understand the live situation is going to be you two and Hella drummer Zach Hill? Or are you going to be augmented by other players?
Chris Goss: Actually Zach won't be playing with us. Zach is in about five bands like Jeordie and I, so between everyone's projects and just convenience of location, a guy who played a lot of the drums on Licker's Last Leg - David Henderson - is who we'll be touring with. He did the tracks that Zach or Josh Freese didn't play on. David is a fantastic guy and a great drummer and he lives in Los Angeles. And he doesn't have 15 side projects like we do. I wouldn't insult the guy by saying it's just a convenience thing; it's purely a talent thing.
I would play with Zach in a second. I love the guy. Musically, I have another project with him and Mike Garson, David Bowie's piano player, called Garson, Goss and Hill. It's like a freestyle jazz project. I think we have a record in the can already, so when I have time to mix that record there will be more stuff with Zach coming up. I'm actually going to give him a call to see if he's going to come to the San Francisco show. I'd really love to see him. There's a lot of great music in everything Zach is involved with; the stuff he's done with members of Deerhoof and Joanna Newsom, who are two of my favorite artists who have come up in the last five years. There's this whole new tsunami of cool stuff coming out that's propagated by Arthur Magazine a lot that is really great. I haven't felt that kind of an underground since … well, I won't date myself [laughs].
Zach is a genius and on top of that he's a sweetheart. I think about 80% of who I choose to work with now is based on personality. It's boiled down to if it's someone you can look at and actually say 'I like this person, and not just for their musical ability."
KTVU.com: I was curious as to how you ended up doing a version the old Bee Gees song "Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You." It evokes this majestic, orchestrated pop sound that only a small percentage of people would associate with them. I thought it was a really interesting choice and was wondering how you settled on that song to cover?
Chris Goss: Twiggy brought that in. He's a fan of the '60s Bee Gees stuff, and I was to an extent but I didn't even know that song until he brought it in. It worked out great.
KTVU.com: "The Golden Ball" seems sort of like a pastiche of fragments; were you going for something along the lines of the second side to Abbey Road by the Beatles?
Chris Goss: Yeah, that's exactly what we were doing. We had all these bits and pieces; some songs were so-so in their whole form or we ran out of ideas of what to do with something. So we had all these rags lying around and just sewed them together. It was a lot of fun. I love working like that.
KTVU.com: It's tricky to do well, but I thought you guys pulled it off. It made for a really interesting way to end the album with a ten-minute piece and then the song "Built in a Bottle" as a coda to both 'The Golden Ball" and the album as a whole…
Chris Goss: That's where the Beatles education comes in, you know? I think that comes from listening to whole albums. There are nods in that medley to King Crimson and Mahavishnu Orchestra. There's all kinds of little melodic and feel references to people and some of my favorite groups. There one little transition into the song "Sadie" sounds like a real Beatles transition to me. It's Twiggy singing about one of his cats. I listen to that and still feel like I've heard it somewhere before.
KTVU.com: Did your work on the latest UNKLE album War Stories simply come from James Lavelle appreciating your production style?
Chris Goss: Ian Astbury made that connection. I've been dear friends and worked with Ian for a long time. Back when we were recording Ian's solo record in 1996 and into '97, Psyence Fiction the first UNKLE record came out. And we were amazed by that and DJ Shadow's first album [Endtroducing], which was on Lavelle's label MoWax. In that little period of time from when we started recording Ian's record to the time we finished it, [Radiohead's] OK Computer had come out, along with Bjork's Homogenic, DJ Shadow and Psyence Fiction. These four modern records blew my mind and gave me hope for the future. It was a very mysterious and dark moment in modern music around that time, with Massive Attack and Portishead also putting out great albums. Oasis was at the top of the world at the moment, but at the same time you'd be at a pub in England and Portishead would be playing on the jukebox. There was this acceptance there on a mass scale of dark, existentialist electronic music.
It was a strange time and Ian's record reflects that time too. Ian is also a musicologist who goes way out of his way every day to find out what's going on musically everywhere. Apparently, he had been friends with Lavelle for a while and he was telling him "You've got to give Chris Goss a call. I think you guys would work well together." And I'm blown away by how it all turned out. Ian got to sing on a couple of the songs and write a few of the songs. The whole thing came together. It took a year to do that record and it was a lot of work, but it ended up being a labor of love and I made many dear friends [during the process], so thank you Ian…
KTVU.com: I've heard a couple of songs, but not the whole album. I'm interested to hear this turn towards more of a rock sound, since I've liked a lot of what Lavelle put out on MoWax and loved Psyence Fiction…
Chris Goss: He's learning. He used to work at a record shop in London in the early '90s that specialized in hard-to-get dance and funk sides. Like where could you get a Soul Sonic Force single from 1979? And James was the guy, the kid at the time, to go find that out. A specialist in beats. His knowledge of soul music is astounding. I was raised on a lot of the early club music too and a lot of New York City funk from the late '70s, and his knowledge of that music and black music in general is really astounding. I think we kind of surprised each other as far as our backgrounds. I actually remember being at that record store on Portobello Road in the early '90s and there being this kid behind the counter who I think was Lavelle [laughs].
And he's a big Queens of the Stone Age fan. I think he started realizing, when Queens broke in England in 2000 with Rated R, that rock and roll can also have this kind of trance quality to it. A lot of UNKLE is almost this catatonic, mental hospital music in a strange way, and so is Queens of the Stone Age too. So Lavelle and Rich File - the other half of UNKLE for the album we recorded and the previous one - made a jump from being DJs to being songwriters. And I think they're still doing that and it's getting better and better. It was a really good experience.
KTVU.com: Are you going to be playing with them onstage for these upcoming shows? I know this is their first tour with a live band…
Chris Goss: James had mentioned it. He just got married a few weeks ago and when we talked he said "You're going to come up and play!" so that's all I know. I'm sure at sound check I'll be relearning some of the songs. And if not, that's ok to. I wouldn't mind having a drink and watching UNKLE.