Over a recent leisurely afternoon lunch at Silver Lake’s Astro Family restaurant, musician/producer Chris Goss is in muse-aloud mode.
“Music usually makes its way into the hands that want it,” he says quietly. “Eventually, if you’re meant to have it, it’ll get to you, through weird channels that you’d never expect.”
I’m catching up with Goss at an interesting point in his career. The night before, he was in Studio City, contributing work to the new Queens of the Stone Age album at the request of longtime friend Joshua Homme, with whom Goss has collaborated since taking Homme’s desert-rock teenagers Kyuss under his producer’s protective wing in 1992. (Goss was featured on last year’s Homme-supervised Desert Sessions Volume 9/10 in a duet with PJ Harvey on the desolate “There Will Never Be a Better Time.”) QOTSA co-vocalist Mark Lanegan’s new solo album, Bubblegum, which Goss co-produced and performs on, is finally out. Goss just finished producing the new album from buzzed-up Britfreaks the Eighties B-Line Matchbox Disaster, and is itching to start writing songs in a new project called Sno-Balls, with ex–Marilyn Manson bassist Twiggy Ramirez and Hella drummer Zach Hill. And his old band, Masters of Reality, has a new album out.
Well, in Europe, anyway. Like the last three Masters albums, Give Us Barabbas has no American distribution and is available only as an import at specialty stores on- and offline. And Barabbas, technically credited to “Masters of Reality/Chris Goss,” is not really a “new” album, it’s a collection of Goss-penned songs from the last 20 years that have gone previously unreleased in studio form. Why many of these songs are only appearing now is a long, serendipitous story involving Rick Rubin, band turnover, a grunge-choked ’90s marketplace inhospitable to the Masters’ varied classic rock sound and non-pretty-boy look, an impasse with a major record label, a “lost” album and Goss’ busy career as a producer. Cautionary and instructional as that tale may be, it is ultimately less important than the songs themselves: gems like the windswept, string-laden “The Ballad of Jody Frosty,” the campfire sing-along “I Walk Beside Your Love,” the majestic chorale “Still on the Hill,” the country-blues chantey “Bela Alef Rose,” the gorgeous epic “Jindalee Jindalie.” Any collection spanning two decades inevitably carries with it the air of biography, and Barabbas is certainly that; but it also feels like a secret monograph — a collection of timeless scrolls from a legendary Master that will be passed among acolytes and disseminated to those who are meant to hear it.
“Whatever will be, will be,” says Goss, with a smile.
Yes, the songs speak for themselves, but given Goss’ long career and his reputation as wisdom-carrier, there must be interesting stories behind the music as well. So, before the Master returns to his desert home of 12 years, his work in the city finished once again, let’s hear some. Like, how did ex-Cream drummer Ginger Baker, featured on Barabbas’ dreamily rocking “The Desert Song,” come to join Masters of Reality for a studio album and several tours in the early ’90s?
“I met Ginger at Tone Loc’s manager’s house in the Hollywood Hills,” says Goss. “Two days later we had a jam session, wrote what ended up being three or four songs. I think we were both stunned. The sound of Ginger doing that fill across all of the toms put me right back to hearing the live Cream album with headphones on when I was a little boy. It was too much! My circuit board almost shut down.
“Ginger loved a groove: the body groove of playing, the physical exertion, the kind of exertion where it’s a euphoric exercise. To get to where you’re grooving and that kicks in, that’s what both of us lived for. [The 1993 album] Sunrise on the Sufferbus came out of miles of turning those riffs upside down and sideways. We called ’em ‘blues acrobatics.’ When we did the groove for ‘Rabbit One,’ we looked at each other like a couple of old junkies. And if you can groove like that, you really don’t need dope. It’s mental and body transportation. The bands that were able to combine the soul, tits and ass with brain — that’s the stuff you learn from, that’s where you reach these highs.”
There’s another Goss connection to a late-’60s/early-’70s rock hero on Barabbas in the form of a cover of John Lennon’s dirty blues “It’s So Hard.”
“It’s my favorite song on the Imagine record,” says Goss. “When I was 12, John and Yoko were in my hometown for a while, setting up an art exhibit and having an opening. So the yellow Rolls Royce with the painted flowers on it that Lennon used to have, that was in town, I’d see it go by the window of my junior high classroom, and then I would sneak into the museum after school and see John and Yoko walking around setting up the exhibit. In that period, Yoko’s art was really white, her exhibitions were white rooms, white canvases, a white ladder, a white shell of a Volkswagen Beetle. Whenever I had the nerve, I’d go, ‘Hi John!’ from like 30 feet away, and he’d always give me a little grin. They looked like they were having the most fuckin’ fun. Globe-hopping, doing drugs, making art . . .”
Several songs on Barabbas — especially “Bela Alef Rose” and “Voice and the Vision” — reflect Goss’ long-term involvement in another aspect of ’60s and ’70s pop culture, when pop artists were publicly flirting with aspects of the occult.
“That interest goes back to 1969 for me,” says Goss, “when I was trying to find out why Jimmy Page — in his music, and in his face, in the way he photographed, the way his hair was — gave me the creeps. I wanted to know where that was coming from. I wanted to be in that room, doing the drugs, with the magic books, if that’s where it came from. And it set me off on the whole Tolkien-Zeppelin connection, and the Kenneth Anger and Aleister Crowley connection.
“I found the form of magic more powerful than its content, but I’ve also found that working with the form of magic becomes content. The charts, the numerical systems, the Tree of Life, [these were attempts by magicians] to beautify the logic of our spiritual architecture. I spent a long time studying that. It’s self-hypnosis, it’s intense meditation, it’s reading a lot, it’s scaring the pants off yourself. The trick is to be able to go into the insane world, bring back the information that you get out of it, rock everybody with it, and be able to survive . . . It takes its toll, but there is a balance that you can achieve.”
How did it affect him, ultimately?
“I think I’m a calmer person for going to some of those places. You learn that the demons are all foolable. That’s what gives me hope: Demons, no matter how smart they are, we’re smarter. And applying it to art? You loosen up, you get older, and you realize the important thing is the groove. It always comes back to that.”
Goss is constantly moving on. “I’m always finding something new, and if I don’t, I revert back to old standards until something new comes my way. I never push things. I’d wanted to produce Eighties B-Line Matchbox Disaster for a while, but I never
pursued it. And then one day I got a call from Universal U.K. [offering him the job]. And I said, I’ve been waiting for this call for two years.”
At one of Goss’ first meetings with the band, he probed them on their aesthetic line. “Am I gonna suggest a synthesizer and you’ll go, ‘Eww, no way!’? Or am I gonna suggest a drum machine and everyone’s gonna go, ‘No, we’ll have none of that.’ I said, ‘What about cellos and French horns and . . . ?’ They said, ‘Everything. We want it all. Let’s take it wherever it wants to go.’ And I knew we’d get along at that point.
“They understood that you serve the song. If the song needs a dress, you buy it a fucking dress. Whatever it needs. Serve the song. No rules.”