A Magical Skill
Chris Goss, the 52-year-old leader of Masters of Reality, is near tears. A mountain of a baldheaded man, part Aleister Crowley, part Admiral Kurtz, Goss has been involved in some of the most vital rock 'n' roll music made in the last two and a half decades. Masters of Reality's 1988 debut, a masterwork of concise songwriting and classic rock riffage, was produced by Rick Rubin; their second, the lovely Sunrise on the Sufferbus, featured an actual classic rocker, the formidable Cream drummer/crankyman Ginger Baker.
Around that time, Goss discovered a group of teenagers from the California Low Desert called Kyuss, who played a heavy, trippy mix of Black Sabbath and the Misfits. Goss produced Kyuss' best work, inaugurating a relationship with guitarist Joshua Homme that would continue into the latter's subsequent Desert Sessions and Queens of the Stone Age projects.
And while there would be other Masters of Reality albums, other production gigs of varying profile and quality — my favorite is Mark Lanegan's Bubblegum — and an album-and-a-half as Goon Moon, a bizarro-rock collaboration with Marilyn Manson guitarist Twiggy Ramirez (and, on the first EP, underground free-rock drummer Zach Hill), generally speaking, Goss has slipped into legend: one of those musician's musicians, a guy who knows the occult secrets of the creative process and can get a great drum sound, who somehow, in this devolved age, still feels it.
Which, I think, is why he's near tears, as we sit on a patio outside his Joshua Tree home. Masters of Reality have a new album out — a beautiful, musically adventurous, warm affair with double-name Pine/Cross Dover — and are about to play a set of West Coast dates. It's the first time in years that Goss has been able to line everything up: a great album, a happening band, U.S. gigs. But who is there to hear anymore?
"Hard time for art right now," he says. "Socially, politically, economically — this is awful right now for everyone, this confusion. We're in the new Dark Ages. It's very hard and depressing, and you get angry because just so much attention is paid to so much shit. It's a shit storm. But there's no reason to stop making music. The market is down? Fuck the market. If you love what you're doing, you gotta keep doing it."
Even making record albums, when record stores are going out of business and everything is available for free on the Internet? Isn't that tactile experience over?
"I love the album format. I'll never lose that. Never. I don't want to lose it. I mean, why can't we keep experiencing it? It's easy, it's palatable. I'm so used to buying music in my hand and I can't get over it. Packaging matters. The visual album-cover connection to the music matters. Remember the gatefolds with the storybooks in them and the pop-up photos and stuff? This kind of thing is a boutique, elitist origami item now, but when I was a kid it was a five-and-dime item. I remember how it felt when I had Jethro Tull's Passion Play in my hands as a kid, from a poncy Shakespearean Renaissance Faire English hippie guy, knowing that, like, another million kids also were reading this storybook. There was this feeling that so many other people were experiencing what I was experiencing, at the same time. It was like combining that Harry Potter intrigue with the music for the kid of the time. That's empowering. Those records connected us. ..."
The music experience is more than what meets the ear — is it about actual physical contact?
"This is about warmth, and beauty," Goss says. "Now vocal tuning is everywhere. What a horrid tone. The chipmunk-robot people are here! Great. Lovely. Did you see Shania Twain live at the CMAs this year, maybe last year, with a vocal tuner on her voice when she was singing live? "And! I! Love! YouuuuUUUU!" It puts that thing on the tone at the end, an artificial lengthening of when you land on the note. So the person's natural phrasing is gone. Why? When Lennon was flat, it was wonderful. When Keith Richards is flat, it's wonderful. Because it sounds like the guy is sitting right next to you. He hasn't been chopped to spam before he gets to you."
People don't even know what they're missing.
"I remember going to see Yes in the '70s, back when people knew the lost art of properly mic-ing an acoustic guitar live. It has to have a low end, so that if you bump the guitar with an elbow, the PA goes boomf. You need that full spectrum of sound — you gotta feel the chest, and the belly, that part of the sound spectrum. Music should come through your chest, your eyes, your belly, that part of the sound spectrum. I think that's my favorite part.
"There's some great Israel Regardie Golden Dawn meditation tapes," he says, describing one of Crowley's disciples and his mystical society, "where he talks about getting into a state where your body is made out of spiderweb, like mesh. You try to conceptualize that you're just a net blowing in the breeze — forget your physical boundaries, let everything blow through you, don't block it with your body. That is what good music does to me. I immediately get this feeling, like I'm made out of sponge."
Goss has his arms outstretched, his torso vibrating like jelly.
"When the good stuff hits me, it's recorded with those spider frequencies in mind, when you know that the person wants to embrace you. You can embrace people in weird ways too. Giving them the creeps during that embrace is fun. You hug and you tickle, or you pinch their ass. Bowie and Page were masters of that — who could manipulate sound in a way that in the future it has a physical effect on the person hearing it. Instinctively knowing that. Because you can only do that if you know that feeling yourself. So it's like I'm going to attack the left side of this person's chest with this bridge that's coming up. While they're embracing the guitar's midlevel, I'm going to poke them on the left side of the forehead with something. Just make it a physical contact sport, in a way. Attack with intention and great skill. It's a magical skill.
"There are still people making records like that. Joanna Newsom, who I adore, who is just such a gift in this era for us, I know she knows that sense of being at one with her instrument. She's hearing the harp through her eyes. Hearing it through her fingers, too. So when I hear her records, even if I might not agree with the production decisions sometimes, I feel that I have my head against her chest.
"That's something to be preserved — that's something to shoot for. And I suppose that's our only hope, to strive to keep the things you know are worth preserving. Preserve that beauty! Just because everybody else stops, doesn't mean you have to."
Masters of Reality perform on Nov. 10 at the Anaheim House of Blues, Nov. 12 at the Los Angeles House of Blues and Nov. 20 at Pappy & Harriet's in Pioneertown.
Jay Babcock is editor of Arthur magazine.
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