|Photo by Wild Don Lewis|
Life in Joshua Tree: You’ll need a cord of wood to stay warm
for the winter. In the summer, you’ll avoid daylight/heat, rising at dusk like
a vampire. Every day, your home will shake with the rumble of munitions explosions
and sonic booms from the nearby Marine base. You have to warn guests about the
poisonous plants, about the dangerous insects and wild animals. Still, it’s better
than Los Angeles, says former Kyuss drummer-guitarist-vocalist Brant Bjork, a
low-desert native who relocated his base of operations last winter to the high
desert after a two-year shift in L.A.
“When you’re strapped, and you’re living from day to day, any city can be brutal,” Bjork explains over morning coffee. “But L.A. was just driving me a little nuts: traffic, finding a parking spot, billboards, buses. I think L.A. people are generally pretty cool, laid-back. I just need a slower pace.
“I’d rather live in the middle of nowhere and be strapped. Because at least I’m surrounded by natural beauty and space.”
Clad in a Kiss T-shirt and long shorts emblazoned with bright images from the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Axis: Bold as Love, Bjork seems at ease. He gets up to turn down the Santana record so our conversation will be audible to the tape recorder. He sits back on the couch, looks around and chuckles.
“Growing up in the low desert, we felt so deprived,” he says. “The desert wasn’t exactly a place people wanted to go. For a lot of people I knew growing up, their whole goal was to get out.”
As a teenager in the early ’90s, Bjork got out. He’d formed a rock band, Kyuss, with several high school friends, including Joshua Homme, who today runs the platinum-selling Queens of the Stone Age. The sound that Bjork and Homme formulated together — low-tuned, monolithic guitars; floating vocals; a songwriting and jamming sensibility equal parts punk ferocity, psychedelic expansiveness and space-trucking swing-propulsion — was extraordinarily powerful. Unlike other desert bands, Kyuss had some success outside their stomping grounds.
“The fact that we were even touring anywhere was amazing,” says Bjork. “We loved music, we always had dreams, but we never took them serious. The first time we went to New York, we were like, This is it. We’ve done it. We can stop now. And then it just kept going and going. When we went to Australia, we were like, Who’s gonna know us in Australia? And like the first song, the first night, dude, we HAD thousands of people. Fuckin’ BOOM. You could feel the floor shaking. Matter of fact, the soundman from Metallica the first night came up to [Kyuss soundman] Hutch and said, he was being cool, he said, ‘You got full PA. You can just ROCK. Don’t worry about it, man, everything’s cool.’ Hutch just looked at us and went, ‘Fuck. All right.’ The next night, we didn’t have full PA.” He laughs.
“So I came home, and was just like, I’m done. At that time, I’m a kid, I’m 18. And as far as I’m concerned, we just blew Metallica off the stage. What else is there, for a kid who’s got something to prove?”
Bjork quit Kyuss soon after, and in the decade since has wandered
in and out of the desert pursuing inspiration, wherever it may lie.
He moved to Humboldt County, where he went to college, worked at a pizza joint and generally tried to make sense of what he’d just experienced with Kyuss. Before long, he was homesick. He returned to the desert and began playing again, joining a couple of local punk groups as drummer. Then he moved back up north, this time to Santa Cruz, to do music with former members of the ’80s SST post-punk band Bl’ast!
“I was living in a truck on the beach, skateboarding during the day and rocking out at night,” he says, smiling. “It was good.”
But at the end of the summer, Bjork decided to return to the desert, playing guitar for about a year with scene veterans Fatso Jetson. He was beginning to work with old Kyuss partner Homme on what would eventually become the first Queens of the Stone Age album when he was invited to immediately join Fu Manchu, a turbocharged San Clemente riff-rock band with some similarities to Kyuss’ sound, if not its artistic ambition. He accepted the offer.
“I loved playing music with Josh, but at that point in my life, I was like, I wanna try something DIFFERENT. So I told them — Fu Manchu — I’ll do a couple gigs and I’ll do a record. And that turned into five years.”
After quitting Fu Manchu, Bjork released his first solo record, 1999’s low-key slow-burner Jalamanta, which was followed in 2000 by Sounds of Liberation, an archetypal stoner-rock album recorded in a one-off trio called Ché, with singer-guitarist Bjork joined by two longtime desert vets, drummer Alfredo Hernandez and bassist Dave Dinsmore. After completing Brant Bjork & the Operators, a streamlined, groove-inflected record on which he played almost all the instruments, Bjork moved to Los Angeles for a second time.
“I had a new focus, which was on finally getting a band together so I could play live, and get my record label going. I finally met all the right people to make all that happen, and I knew that I had to go back up to L.A. to plant seeds. I did that, but . . . well, as an artist, I’m really sensitive to the environment. The more I stay in the city, the more I sound like it. I’m not saying that’s a good or a bad thing, but in the desert, every day is an open canvas. It’s so vast. It’s not as oppressed like in the city. When I’m out here in the desert, it’s like letting the dogs roam free. My imagination can fly around. I can hear my heart out here.”
Brant Bjork has finally got where he was going, which wasn’t too far from where he started.
“I’m a small-town guy,” he admits. “Out here, they’ve got everything I need. If I need a bottle of tequila, I don’t have to go find parking, I don’t have to get hassled. I’ve got [Pioneertown diner] Pappy and Harriet’s if I want to bust a gig. I’ve got a little Thai restaurant if I’m hungry. Growing up in the low desert, I never would’ve thought that the desert would become this cool place that people would gravitate towards. It makes sense to me now, because it’s beautiful and it’s everything you need it to be, but . . . It’s just funny, man.”
After two solo albums — 2003’s solid-gold, Thin Lizzyian Keep
Your Cool and 2004’s Local Angel, an uneven collection of solo acoustic
numbers — in August, Bjork released the studio double CD Saved by Magic,
recorded with his band the Bros, a genuinely shit-hot live unit that works in
the spirit-vein of the late ’60s and early ‘70s — a time when Cream, the Doors,
Hendrix, War, Zeppelin and Santana were allowed to do as they wished.
“I love that era,” grins Bjork. “The music was so vital, and the people needed it so bad. The music was being revolutionized, and the business was trippy, too. But in the last 20, 30 years, the music business has gotten better at being more lame, saturating the market, churning out bullshit, grooming bands for what kind of clothes to wear, how to write lyrics, what to say in interviews. Rock & roll is like a product now, a way for a bunch of corporate people with power and money to turn five dollars into ten.
“But that’s not what it is for me. I’m interested in jamming and going freeform live, for two, three hours. Some people have started calling it ‘stoner jazz,’ because it’s got a lot of improvisation and stretching out. And sometimes, yeah, you do fall flat on your face, but that’s the fun of it! Music to me is like when I was a kid and I was skateboarding — it was all about going out and getting rad. Sometimes you ate shit, sometimes you pulled it off. It wasn’t about being all clean and orchestrating this perfect assault — that approach freaks me out as an audience member. When I go pay to see a band, I want to see a band taking chances. Confrontin’ the dragon. Freaking out.
“You’re free: Get rad.”