Desert Aggression: A Conversation with Brant Bjork

Brant Bjork Kyuss

As one of the pioneers of the Palm Desert scene and a cofounder of legendary stoner rock act Kyuss, Brant Bjork has had an incredible career, playing with Fu Manchu and Mondo Generator as well as releasing a number of solo works. Robin Sinhababu caught up with Brant when he came through Austin to play Barracuda and spoke to him about growing up in Palm Desert, dangerous generator parties, not being an extrovert and much more.

Robin Sinhababu for Ovrld: Have you been asked about your name before?

Brant Bjork: Not too often. My father – not my father by blood, but my father who raised me – is Swedish. It’s a Swedish last name.

Ovrld: Have you been back there much?

BB: I’ve been to Sweden many times.

Ovrld: It’s the case that a lot of people from your scene in Southern California – to use the term scene loosely – are real popular in Europe, right?

BB: Yeah, I mean, we do most of our work in Europe, for sure.

My good friend who I started Kyuss with in the late ’80s, he ended up moving to Europe; he lives in Germany now, lives in Berlin. And I’m sure that I could think of a couple others that have migrated over there.

Ovrld: Have you considered living anywhere besides California before?

BB: Yeah, I lived in Barcelona for about a year in 2007, I think. It was an experience. Then, something happened and I had to come back to the States, and I’ve just never been back.

Ovrld: Is there any other place, touring around so much, that has caught your eye as a place to live?

BB: Well, I don’t allow myself to go deep into those fantasies because I’m married with kids in L.A., and my wife’s family are very planted in L.A. They’re Lebanese and are very much part of the L.A. Lebanese community. So I don’t think I’ll be going away anytime soon.

Ovrld: Do you like your singing voice?

BB: I…[pause] It’s not something to like, it’s something to accept. A lot of times I don’t care for it, but I think it’s natural. It’s not easy to sing and shout, at least not for me. But the reason why I’m singing is what allows me to do it.

Ovrld: In the Kyuss days, did you ever play guitar or bass?

BB: Yeah, all the songs I wrote for Kyuss were because I was already playing guitar and bass.

Ovrld: Writers have often asked you about, or just written about, your ride cymbal in Kyuss. Was there a particular model that you favored?

BB: No, as a young drummer, I didn’t have much technical interest. I was just stoked to have drums. And cymbals. But back then, I wanted to get bigger sizes, because bigger sizes allowed for a certain kind of swing, which is good for heavy rock.

Ovrld: Have you seen any of the documentaries made about the Palm Desert scene, and do you recommend any of them?

BB: I didn’t mind Desert Age, and I didn’t like Low Desert Sound.

Ovrld: Do you remember when you first met John Garcia, or Nick Oliveri, or Josh Homme?

BB: Oh yeah. I grew up with all those guys. I met Nick first; Nick and I grew up together in Palm Desert, went to the same school. Josh grew up in a different town, went to private school. John grew up in a different town. So I grew up with Nick, we played Little League baseball and stuff. Chris and I were the ones, we went over to Nick’s house and bought Chris’s first bass.

Ovrld: Chris Cockrell?

BB: Chris Cockrell. Because we were going to start a band. We said, “We heard you’re selling your bass.” He said, “Yeah. What, you starting a band?” We said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well, I’m playing guitar now.” We said, “All right, let’s go.” That’s really how it all started.

Ovrld: Did you go to Palm Desert High School with them?

BB: The high school was brand new, it had just been built. So we used to have to go to Indio or Palm Springs, in my case I would have gone to Indio High School, one of my friends went to Indio High School. But about two years before I got into high school, they finally opened Palm Desert High School, and that’s where I ended up going. Jesse [Hughes] went there, Nick, then Josh came over and went there, John, we all went there. Chris Cockrell.

Ovrld: When you’re on stage, and you have your hat on, and the long hair all around your head, and the sunglasses, do you feel very enclosed?

BB: Enclosed?

Ovrld: Yeah, like, insulated from what’s going on?

BB: Yeah, probably. I kind of like to be a little…I’m not an extrovert, let’s just say that.

Ovrld: What is up with Gary Arce’s right hand technique on the guitar?

BB: Gary’s great. He’s one of a kind, a true desert musician. He plays with his fingers, never played with a pick. He’s self-taught. I mean, we’re all self-taught. And he’s just got a real beautiful, organic style. He’s a pure artist.

Ovrld: Do you know why Alfredo Hernandez stopped playing with them [in Yawning Man]?

BB: I kinda know, but I don’t think it’s really…Fredo, Gary and Boomer, those guys came up together for many years, and I think the relationship just ran its course.

Ovrld: That’s too bad. I like his drumming a lot.

BB: His drumming with them was fantastic. Growing up in the desert, I used to watch them play as much as I could. I never saw a band more than that original lineup, with Fredo and all of them. They had an amazing chemistry – best band chemistry I ever saw.

Ovrld: There’s some cool video of Kyuss playing a generator party on Youtube. It looks like this one big floodlight is the only lighting, and during “Whitewater” it blows away and y’all keep playing in the dark. Have you seen this video or any others? I understand there were a lot of these parties, and I’ve only seen one video of one of them, so I wondered if it was typical.

BB: The generator party was something that was different every time. It was a gamble every time. Sometimes it was big, sometimes it was small, sometimes it was peaceful, sometimes it was very violent. It was kind of like Altamont every weekend, you know? After a while, it just got exhausting, because a lot of people got hurt, some people died.

Ovrld: People got hurt?

BB: Oh, sure. It was dangerous. It was exciting, but yeah, it was kind of nerve-wracking.

The generator party served two purposes. One, it was organized by musicians in the desert, so we could go play, because we didn’t have venues to play at. So it’s all punk rock driven and DIY – but we don’t have a venue, so we go out in our environment and we would play. It also served as entertainment for all these people in the middle of the desert – kids, essentially, who don’t have any outlet. There’s nothing to do, there’s nothing for kids out in the desert. But it attracts people that aren’t necessarily interested in the music. They’re interested in getting high, or causing problems, and just – the desert’s an aggressive environment, so there’s a lot of aggression out there. There’s a lot of primal and tribal tension amongst all of us, and different towns and stuff, so it always got pretty intense.

If you went home after a generator party and you had a good time, it was a whole different kind of celebration. You felt like you had survived something.

Ovrld: The production on your solo records surprised me at first; the “Hey Joe” cover from Local Angel probably being the best and most extreme example. Given Kyuss, I was expecting a much more washed out, reverberating sound, but you seem to prefer crisp, precise sounds across the board. 

BB: I think it’s just a natural way I desire to hear things. I do have a very specific ear when it comes to production. I think sometimes the way you record a band, and have it be tight sonically, that’s a good balance with the actual performance if the performance has groove and swing. The Stones were very much masters of that. I think their recordings can sometimes be deceptive because they’re really not these flamboyant productions that are really slicked out and washed out; they’re a very well-produced band for a reason.

Ovrld: I listen to a lot of music on my phone. A few months ago, when I was hooked on the version of “Love Has Passed Me By” from Wretch, something went awry and the phone played all sounds at double speed. This made “Love Has Passed Me By” – especially in terms of production, drums, and John’s vocals – sound like a Bad Brains song. I’d never associated Kyuss with them, but now I have to ask, were they an influence?

BB: We were a punk band, in our minds. That was the common denominator, bands like the Misfits, the Ramones, of course Bad Brains and shit like that. Yeah, that was definitely stuff we were listening to. But we had our own take on what we thought rock should or could be at that time.

Ovrld: Did those guys ever come out there?

BB: Bad Brains? Yeah, quite a bit. I didn’t see them ’til later but a lot of my older friends saw – I mean, worshipped the Bad Brains. That’s how I got into them.

Ovrld: So was L.A. the closest place for shows, or was there a more local place?

BB: Yeah, a lot of the older guys – by the time we were old enough to even know someone with a car, the punk rock scene was all but over. So we caught some stuff, but I didn’t see any of the cool early ’80s or mid’-’80s stuff.

Ovrld: Do you and John have anything going on musically right now?

BB: No, we kind of just went back to our own projects, and there’s no plans to do anything. Anything could happen, but we don’t have any current plans.

Ovrld: Have you played on any of the solo records he’s done?

BB: No, no. Outside of Kyuss or Vista Chino material, John and I kind of go in opposite directions. I think that’s the common ground that we are able to find.

John’s got great taste in music, but as artists we’re each kind of on our individual voyages, we sail in different seas.

Ovrld: Who sings on that song – “Song?” Who sings on that track, “Lick Doo,” at the end of Welcome to Sky Valley?

BB: That’s John, I think. I don’t know, I’ve never really listened to that. It might be John and Chris Goss. Josh. I think it’s all of them goofing off.

Ovrld: Not to put words in your mouth, but I read that you were annoyed that they had put that on there.

BB: Yeah, I thought it was a bit unneccessary, but whatever.

Ovrld: It doesn’t really go with the end of “Whitewater.”

BB: No. I don’t know. I had already left the band, and I think they were all kind of pissed off about it. [Laughs]