Interview © Antiquiet.com October 22, 2010
by Johnny Firecloud
An Hour Through The Eyes Of Chris Goss
Chris Goss walks the walk. Though he may have been under your radar, his work has likely played a heavy hand in your musical discoveries over the past two decades. The guitarist, songwriter and production visionary has helped shape the studio sound of the legendary Kyuss, Queens of the Stone Age, Screaming Trees, The Cult, UNKLE and many more, playing an integral role in weaving the tapestry of respectable modern Rock at a time when snake-oil salesmen hold the biggest megaphones. To trust in his direction is to reap massive musical bounty, as evidenced by a glance at his body of work.
Goss’ uncompromising artistic vision is showcased in his band Masters Of Reality, an early endorsement of production demigod Rick Rubin which has featured collaborations with the inimitable likes of Josh Homme, Mark Lanegan, former Cream drummer Ginger Baker, Zach Hill, Josh Freese and more. The depth of songwriting Masters Of Reality have produced over the span of two decades has been a far cry from that of the chart-topping cockrocking groups of the era, and though the band has been a revolving door of players, Goss has remained the one constant, guiding the musical ship into deeper and more fascinating waters with each release.
This year Goss returns to Masters Of Reality with the new album Pine/Cross Dover, a complexly eclectic record which finds the music moving once again in bizarrely exciting new directions. We tracked Chris down at his desert compound in Joshua Tree, California, for an in-depth conversation about the album, the Desert Rock world he’s helped create and the philosophy behind his approach to music.
Right off the bat, stylistically this new Masters Of Reality record is all over the map. Was that your intention at the onset?
I think my head’s all over the map, along with my drummer John, too. I think of myself as a lucky guy – I can be just as happy putting a Ramones record on or a Weather Report record or a Stravinski or Led Zeppelin or Joanna Newsom or Deerhoof or a fucking podcast. I love music in all forms. If it has soul, if it swings and has passion and intelligence, then it’s up for grabs. That’s it in a nutshell – I have a very wide aesthetic range, I’m very tolerant and very patient. I was lucky to be raised in a time when bands could get away with 17 minute songs. You didn’t have a thousand songs on your iPod to listen to, you have one album you could afford that month. And that record was glued to your ears for that entire month. That kind of patience to discover music that deeply… I feel very very privileged to have been raised in a time like that.
Speaking of which, I read somewhere that you pride yourself on being one of the first DJs in the country to play Madonna’s stuff back in the ’80s.
Yeah I bought her first 12″ plate the day it came out at Downstairs Records in New York City. Plates would come in, and DJs would throw ’em on… they’d open the cases of records as they came in, and DJs would be standing around the counter like the stock market. “I’ll take one, I’ll take two…” It was everybody’s favorite. There was a lot of faceless funk at the time, a lot of bands that were studio projects and they’d just throw a girl’s name on it. Tia, Sharon, Madonna… it was all fair game at the time. Jellybean Benitez and his little studio projects at the time that would last only 6 months. But Madonna followed up with Lucky Star, and I knew we had actually a girl who had a really good ear for melody at the time. Madonna was a great writer at one point.
That’s all a thing of the past now, of course, but she certainly had a good early run. It’s impossible to believe that Lady Gaga would be so much as a twinkle in her own eye without Madonna leading the way.
You know, Lady Gaga’s great, and Marilyn Manson was maybe the male Lady Gaga… a little bit harsher, but it’s time for girls to do a lot more of the things that men have sort of washed up and used to the hilt, and it’s actually a good time for the girls to take the steering wheel for a while.
There’s a lot of quality female performers and songwriters out there. Joanna Newsom’s newest is fantastic…
Yeah, she’s my hero right now. I saw this little girl with a harp play 5 years ago in front of maybe 50 people, and it was like “look out, we’ve got a little genius on our hands.” And she’s followed it up flawlessly. The spirit she has and what she’s trying to do is instill that patience again. She’ll open her album with a piece that’s like 16 minutes long, and have the balls to pull it off. I adore her.
It certainly demands attention. The last album was this massive 3-disc experience, and you’ve gotta commit to it but it’s rewarding. She really meets you halfway.
It’s just gorgeous. Not to mention that she’s one of the best musicians and poets to come along – that combination is really rare. You find that in John Lennon, Dylan, Bowie, there’s not too many musicians who are also great poets. She’s one of them, for sure.
When her first album came out, I actually bought six copies over the course of that first year and gave them away as gifts. When I like something, I don’t believe in duplicating it to give it away. I love to buy records, and I love to send that two dollars that the artist makes off the CD. It’s my pleasure to give them two bucks.
Couldn’t agree more. Speaking of lengthy jams on record, I was pulled toward Alfalfa strongly on my first run through of the album, and it’s stuck with me ever since. It’s really kicking my ass that it’s entirely improvised – on paper, a 12 minute improv jam seems like the worst thing someone could put on a record, but it’s completely a highlight. What does it take to orchestrate musical telepathy? Is it just the right balance of chemistry and ability?
Yeah, it’s the moment. People who are in the room at that particular moment, just stumbling on one really nice thing after another. Rhythmically, John and I are joined at the hip like twins now, and the two other players also on that particular night… it was just happening. The jam was originally 18 minutes long, and I just took 6 minutes out of it and chopped the best 12 minutes together, and there you have it.
What can you tell us about Worm In The Silk? It’s enchanting in its oddity.
Some of the lyrics of the song have been in a giant tin box that I keep my lyrics in for about thirty years. There were some obvious upgrades to it, but the character of the song is this boy Gerard, this scared and alienated kid. There’s just something about the original lyric that I always had in the back of my head, thinking someday I’ll use that. Musically, I wanted to shoot for something that kind of combined the surreal landscapes of a Bowie record like Heroes and when Bowie works with [Brian] Eno, where there’s atmospherics that imply as much as the lyrics do. Also Public Image, with the dub bass and the way the song kind of rolls along.
So just combining three or four pretty surreal factors in this, I think the record is, in a strange way, the study of modern times from different perspectives. That song is, in particular, maybe a call back to my own childhood as a TV generation kid, getting barraged by imagery. Hence that list of things at the end of Worm In The Silk. I really really enjoy that song, and it was a lot of fun to play on tour in Europe last fall. Really enjoyed playing that, and we’ve got some U.S. dates for November as well, so I’m looking forward to bringing that back out.
So the good news for fans is that we’ll see about a year’s worth of pushing behind this record.
Yeah, yeah. I’m tired of throwing a record out and then doing a short European tour and moving on. I want to perform a lot of music that we haven’t had a chance to perform in probably the last four or five albums that we’ve put out. If presented properly, I think it would be a lot of fun for us. Stylistically, I want the show to be all over the place. I really love to do that. A lot of bands that I grew up loving were really well-skilled at rock theater and visual performance. All the way from 1970s Yes to Marilyn Manson, they knew how to put on a really great, visual psychedelic performance, whether it be transcendental or horror based. I look forward to presenting all these different moods live, especially in the States. We’ve been really, really cruel to our fans in the States, and I don’t enjoy thinking about that. But with the States being so big compared to Europe, and the fact that our records were always released over there, it was really just a matter of convenience. The labels here aren’t quite as intelligent as some of the indie labels in Europe. There are cool little labels popping up in the States, but my days of sleeping in a van are over. There’s a certain amount of comfort level and professionalism that I want to convey that up until now… well. It’s just time to play. (laughs)
That’s what the fans want to hear, for sure. There’s a quote on your site I wanted to ask you about: “Do not make art for the world that is – that world is lost. Make it for the transformation.”
I think that has a lot to do with the mood on the record. Obviously right now, the globe is going through some major changes. The implications can be terrifying… but they can also be miraculous. From a Buddhist perspective, if there’s enough shit piled up, a flower’s eventually bound to bloom on that pile of shit. It’s just a matter of time before things get so bad that something lovely will happen to counteract it. It’s the balance of things. And that ties in to the two sides of the record, and the juxtapositioning of what’s going on as either tragic or, as George Harrison said a long time ago, “all things must pass.”
It’s difficult for people in today’s age to humble themselves enough to grasp the glacial tides, and the fact that we’re barely one frame in the entire movie.
Mountains are going to turn to dust, this is all going to change. That’s just the way life is. And at this point, we’ve never been in a position to actually stand back and watch ourselves like we can now. Communication and being able to actually stand there and watch, to predict the comets coming or the floods and the earthquakes…. and basically there’s nothing you can do. The world is changing, and it’s pretty tough for people who were born in the 50s and 60s, who were born into a time of optimism and change and thoughts of utopia. It was one of the most creative periods, where the world was joined together by the Beatles. For the first time ever, the world was unified by music. Rock n’ Roll changed the whole world, and these people saw that kind of magic happen.
But then the flipside of the coin, the modern technology wave and the resulting panic and pandemonium can run awry very quickly. The state of mind that puts the listener in, in their day to day lives, how they approach everything in their lives as being affected by the barrage of information, the changing atmosphere of it all, can be very volatile. It’s changed the way we digest music. The brain is a pretty amazing machine, and what’s being fed to it in the last 20 or 30 years is a totally new diet from what it’s been fed for thousands and thousands of years. It’s a pretty heavy thing to consider, but that’s it. That’s the transformation. It might be the Mayan calendar, it might be the new Aeon that Aleister Crowley talked about, it could be the revelations that the Bible talked about… who knows? All we know is that something’s happening, and we’re all watching it happen on a scale like never before.
We’re so caught in the glut of it that it’s difficult to step back objectively to see what the hell is really going on, or even really figure out how to with the overload of opinions and contradictory news. There’s a mass neurosis taking hold that we can’t help but immerse ourselves in, just from the sheer overload.
It’s overwhelming. What’s dangerous is the people who take advantage of it, sweeping decisions can be made, sweeping legislation with implications that are absolutely huge, and people don’t have the time or the wherewithal to say wait, let’s look at this. Because there’s so many sources of propaganda being shot at people from all different directions, that no one knows what the fuck is going on anymore. It’s a very dangerous position for people to be in, a very advantageous one for people who would take advantage of that kind of situation. It’s a perfect scenario for disaster, and it’s also a perfect scenario for maybe some miracle to happen that we never dreamed possible.
It’s probably the subject of every Masters Of Reality record, to be honest with you. I mean, I’ve lived with it… all I think about is where we’re at. What people’s minds are digesting, and the messages that get sent through media and our music, because of our current malaise. But it’s the same old story, really. Artist throws back what gets thrown at him. And I think that’s a reason why jazz is going to make a startling comeback very soon. Good jazz music. It’s the perfect atmosphere for good jazz.
It’s a great time for a revival, for sure. We’ve just gotta find ourselves another Miles…
Oh they’re out there, man. They’re out there. There’s young geniuses in the garage now, as we speak. And there always will be.
A while back I asked your good friend Josh what it is about working with you, from Kyuss up through Queens, that does it for him, and he said one of the best things is that you’re able to push him farther than he thinks he’s willing to go. Is that a conscious model for your technique, or a product of your relationship with one another?
I think it’s my call to arms with everybody I work with. Don’t be scared of art. That’s basically the message. You can’t hurt your career by experimenting. I think it makes a longer career if you take chances. The more records you sell, the heavier the burden you have to repeat your success. And that’s unfortunate, because it should be a license to go crazy. That’s why I feel like a broken record, spewing the Bowie example over and over, the way he took his success of the early ’70s and then just took it where he wanted to. Through the mid-’70s he was making records that RCA deemed unsellable. He just followed his gut, this musical instinct…
That’s what made him so unique and fantastic at the time.
Exactly. So when Low came out and sold like, nothing, and Heroes came out and sold almost nothing, people were like ‘ah man, Bowie’s lost his way.’ But that wasn’t it at all, man. Bowie found his way. Now look back upon this genius ten year period of one masterpiece after another. That’s an example that few people point to, to say yeah, having balls paid off, not being scared of your obligation to everyone who’s working for the band, and so on.
Then it becomes a matter of safe sustainability, and no longer about true artistic drive.
Right, you can start to feel like the head of a company, and if you fuck up, oh my god, there’s gonna be twenty families whose lives will be fucked up too. Look at Neil Young. He does whatever he likes, whatever he wants, and he said when he cancels a tour or changes direction on a record just before it’s going to happen, he can always assure the musicians who were booked to do that tour or that album that that decision was made only, solely on creative reasoning. And you can trust that. And you’ve gotta respect that too. It takes a lot of balls to make that phone call, to tell your best friend that guess what, I’m not going to use you on this record, I’ve decided to do an electronic record instead of a Rock record with Crazy Horse. So for about 60 people, their salary for the next five months has just been flushed down the toilet. It’s not easy to make those kinds of decisions as an artist, but I just encourage fearlessness. If you try to comply with your past success, you’re fucked. You’re over. Move on, don’t try to repeat what’s been done, especially right now, when there’s a lot of thirsty ears looking for leadership and direction.
You’ve undoubtedly watched people fall victim to drugs and seen some great talent fall by the wayside, but it’s a very different experience when unplanned illness comes into play that might not be induced by self-abuse. That brings us to Brian O’Connor (bassist for Eagles Of Death Metal/Masters of Reality) – how’s he been holding up w/treatment?
Yeah, he’s a tough guy, and if anybody can do it he can. He’s in chemotherapy now, and last I heard he just had a poker game at his house a few nights ago that I wish I’d known about but I was kinda busy. I just spoke with Dave Catching the other night and he’s going out to dinner with Brian on Saturday to a great place in the West side we all love to go to. But yeah, God bless Brian and long live Brian. That’s all I can really say. He’s the kind of guy who’s going to enjoy life to the maximum, in any situation. And that’s all that matters, man, because you could walk out right now and get hit by a bus, and if you’re a miserable asshole, you’re dying a miserable asshole. And Brian’s anything but a miserable guy. He’s maybe the coolest person I’ve ever met in my life.
That’s really great to hear. The fans are really pulling for the guy. It was a special moment to be in the room for the benefit show with Queens, Eagles and friends. The love was in the air.
He’s very well loved by his friends, man. And when you’re in that position, and you’re ill, you feel that. And you know you’re loved in that situation, and it really helps. Everyone can take solace in that, that the guy knows he’s the shit, and he knows that we know too.
Excellent. I’m always wondering what kind of crazy ass sounds are coming out of living room gatherings and random sessions amongst you all that nobody ever hears about.
We’re all so busy, man, so it’s hard to make it happen sometimes, but yeah when we do get together, we blow it out. Everyone has their main projects and then their three side projects, so every chance we do get together and whatever, whether through Desert Sessions or just reuniting for any reason, it’s pretty crazy. They’re a lovely group of people making some really whack music, and it’s worldwide. It’s really kind of astounding, from a little ditch in the Mojave Desert to get our claws around the world in places that we never thought.
Will we see the 5:15ers rise again?
(laughs) Uhh… yeah, probably. It’s literally like the fifth side project kind of thing. So god knows, man. Nothing actively happening, but I’ve been wanting to do another Goon Moon record as soon as possible too, and I’m working with the Cult right now…
Ian Astbury called the new Cult music “Textured metaphysical rock music for the contemporary music head.” How’s that hit you?
There’s Ian… (laughs) It’s been crazy working with him. We’ve been dear friends for a long time. He loves to swath new paths, and the man is constantly searching for new music, new aesthetic. He just did a record with Boris, and it’s really cool. He doesn’t want to do what’s been done, and so it’s a constant discovery process.
The last thing I want to ask about is expanding consciousness. The primary reason I fell in love with smoking marijuana as a teenager is how it changed the way I listened to music, how my perception would shift and it felt like listening with entirely new ears. It seems like that’s a rite of passage for kids who tend to be in love with music and are exploring the perimeter of their own minds. What are your thoughts on that as a process of exposure to music, as well as the fact that Prop 19 could make marijuana legal for recreational use very soon?
Obviously a lot of thoughts on that subject. Without prosthelytizing, for me, I can only speak for myself, but for me it’s been a gift from the creator. When I’m working on music, to shut the world out, and in another way to put up a kind of antenna that’s sort of above it all, above the din, and so I kind of get a condensed broadcast of what’s floating out there. A lot of songwriters… Keith Richards, I heard him say that as musicians we’re antennas. We don’t write the stuff, it’s just out there for grabbing, but it’s a matter of hearing it. David Lee Roth had a great quote too, he said if he’s not high on marijuana, and he makes a list of things to do, there’ll be ten things on the list. If he gets stoned, there’s a hundred things on that list. So that kind of sums it up, in a way. For me, through my whole life, it’s always opened up a creative path. But I don’t use it outside of music. I don’t use it to make my list of things to do or to rake the lawn or paint the kitchen. I’m strictly using it for my sacrament, for what I believe I was put here to do, which is make music. So I use it very respectfully when in that process. Also as a listener, particularly live.
I was at a concert at the Hollywood Bowl, seeing some unbelievably great jazz from Herbie Hancock and some friends at this outdoor venue, some really brilliant stuff, and there was a no-smoking rule that was strictly enforced. This is a concert at an outdoor venue, and we’re listening to music that was invented in smoky reefer bars, yet we had to climb up to the very top row away from everybody to sneak a little hash. Because the crowd there would have you arrested… it’s a weird, fascist social order that just blows my mind. We’ve become uptight in a lot of different areas, and very lax in others.
Thanks for your time. Looking forward to catching you guys when Masters Of Reality makes it out to California. Wait, you’re from here, aren’t you?
Yeah, I live in Joshua Tree. I have to work in LA a lot, but now I’m home here in Joshua Tree, and I’m very happy about that. Los Angeles is fine in doses.
Yeah, looking to skip town here myself not too far down the line…
I got out of there about twenty years ago when things started to really change. But with the work you do, with technology you can do it anywhere, just like me in a way. A two hour drive away from LA, with a chance to live the life I love out here in the desert, is perfect. It’s allowed a lot of people to come out here and work with me in these conditions, and not be bothered by three-hour sushi jaunts and the Hollywood scene. There’s no sushi out here – most of the time we grill our own food. It’s just wonderful, it’s been a really privileged lifestyle.
Sounds utopian, man. That’s great to hear.
It’s wide open, man! Come on out!