Increasingly over the last five years, you’re likely to hear the name of Kyuss cropping up in interviews, album liner notes and even sometimes on radio shows. The reverence that Kyuss is held in is starting to approach mammoths such as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix or contemporaries Nirvana.
Unlike the four acts we’ve just mentioned, Kyuss never hit the big time. They never appeared on mainstream TV programmes. They rarely were mentioned in music magazines of the time. At the time, let’s face it, very few had heard of them. Therefore, in order to understand Kyuss’ legacy and importance, we need to take a trip back in time…
Brant Bjork, John Garcia, Scott Reeder & Nick Oliveri divulged their memories about the band for an extended article, first published on the (old) Roadburn website a couple of years ago. If you have any stories about Kyuss you want to share (gigs, meetings, anything else), please put them in the comments.
Kyuss’ first album, Wretch, was utterly non-indicative of things to come. Wretch is basic loud rock-metal with some dubious production values. Not a bad record, but the band obviously haven’t found their feet yet.
In 1992, with the production duties being taken over by Chris Goss, Kyuss recorded and released Blues For The Red Sun. This record is the essential blueprint for classic Kyuss and forms the major part of their musical legacy that’s being imitated to this day.
The major technical components of the sound are downtuned guitars jamming out long, hazy, rolling riffs underpinned by a thundering rhythm section. The final component is classic rock vocals, powerful and melodic.
As many bands “influenced” by Kyuss have discovered, copying the mere technical aspects to Kyuss don’t make you sound like Kyuss. Kyuss extended the burgeoning “desert sound”, a mixture of psychedelic jams married with heavy rock and a spacious “unbounded by the universe” vibe.
Their third album, Welcome To Sky Valley continued their upward trajectory featuring three “acts” composed of several sub-tracks. Sky Valley is designed to be listened to as a continuous, organic jam perfectly capturing Kyuss’ generator party origins. Sky Valley, to many, represents the ultimate expression of Kyuss’ musical output.
Their final album, …And The Circus Leaves Town was recorded when conflict existed within the band and, although still an absolutely excellent album, leaves the extended jam nature of Red Sun and Sky Valley behind. Circus is filled with more traditional four-minute song structures for most tracks.
Given that in broad terms, Kyuss recorded two classic albums and two good ones, none of which selling massively, why the reverence for them nowadays?
Musically, they managed to fuse the optimistic psychedelic jams of the late 60s and early 70s and the heavier traditional heavy rock brought to life by Black Sabbath into a whole new sound. Today, the literally hundreds of bands that “tune down, turn up and play loud” owe a debt to Kyuss for their sound.
Interestingly enough, the original members of Kyuss strive to leave the sound as far behind as possible with their new projects. However, in each of these projects, the “vibe”, the key ingredient missing in virtually all Kyuss-soundalikes, is still there…
BRANT BJORK: The First Line Up
“I met Josh when we were about 11 or 12 years old. We played local soccer together. I first knew Nick around the same time, except we were playing little league baseball. I met John later in high school when I was 15. “I became friends with Josh simply because he was the only other kid in town who was my age and who was listening to punk rock.
“Most of the other kids listening to punk rock were 4 to 5 years older. We liked a lot of the same bands and turned each other on to stuff we hadn’t heard. Stuff we dug was Black Flag, Ramones, G.B.H., Discharge, Misfits.”
“I really don’t know if we were the in crowd or the out crowd. We were the guys who did what the fuck we wanted to do and didn’t give a shit what people thought in or out.”
“Nick and I became close friends my first year of high school. We jammed a lot together playing Ramones and Damned songs. Nick back then was a longhair, a metal dude and he was discovering punk through a girlfriend. So we just kinda became friends. Nick’s a great guitar player.
“I met John around the same time. He too was a music lover. He wasn’t really into punk rock. I remember he liked Earth Wind and Fire, ZZ Top and The Cult. He’d never been in a band but had a great voice and became our singer.”
“The first line up of Kyuss consisted of John, Josh, myself and Chris [Cockrell] our original bass player. Nick played 2nd guitar for a while when we first started but took off for a year and came back to town and took Chris’ place on bass. We recorded our first record ‘Sons of Kyuss’ with Chris and recorded ‘Wretch’ with Nick.”
JOHN GARCIA: Plain Fun
“Brant, Josh and Chris, the very first three, started the band, and they needed a singer. I went up after school one day, and Josh started to play some Cult, and I said, “Fuck. Do you have a microphone?”, and I started to sing a little bit of ‘Wildflower.’ Brant came up to me a few days later and he goes, like “I want you to sing in my band.” I was in high school, and said, “Sure! Fuck yeah!”
“It was fun. Just a hobby. An after school project, and it was good, clean fun. I smoked some weed back then, the other guys didn’t. We used to go up to Brant Bjork’s house every day after school or every weekend. His parents were real cool; they used to let us play as loud as we want and as long as we wanted, and we just had a good ol’ time playing music, jumping in the pool, swimming. Having parties.”
“I developed my voice through trail and error, because at first when I started singing, I sucked. I was horrible and didn’t care. But Brant handed me some lyrics and he goes: “Here, try singing this.” And I went dadada…dadaa daa…just like punk rockers would do. And he goes, “No! Don’t sing it like that, sing it like this, melodic, melodic, melodic.” And I said: “Oh I’ll try it that way!”
“I’m just self-taught, I didn’t have a singing teacher. The majority of the time, Josh and Brant were my teachers. They always gave me pointers; Josh wrote the majority of the lyrics including the melodies in Kyuss. There are a few things that I’d put in. Josh would start me off on an idea being completely his or part Brant [or part me], but the majority was all Josh.”
BRANT BJORK: Punk Rock Steppenwolf
“Even though Josh and I were from a punk background we both loved all kinds of music and bands. We knew early on that our band was not going to be ‘punk rock.’ We set out to create a sound that wasn’t Metallica and wasn’t Black Flag. We wanted something more organic. We weren’t afraid to take ideas from all kinds of music and bands. Even movies inspired us.”
“Punk wasn’t happening for us anymore and we weren’t into the speed metal thing. Kyuss was the result of this frustration. Naturally we were labeled a metal band because we were long hairs and our singer would sing. And of course the music was heavy. It would sometimes frustrate us cause at the time we were young, idealistic musicians. We had a solid awareness of what Kyuss was and we knew then that Kyuss is closer to Steppenwolf than Motorhead or Metallica. I think people nowadays recognize this.”
SCOTT REEDER: Rockin’ the Desert
“We all lived in the same area, but I’m eight years older than Josh and Brant – they were 12 years old when Across The River [Mario Lalli's seminal band, Lalli is now in Fatso Jetson] was rockin’ the desert. Later on, Josh and Brant got into some pretty cool bands, from Ramones, to Discharge, to G.B.H. They were really young, but they had a good sense of what bands were great and which ones had their heads up their asses.”
I’d been in the punk scene since around ’81. We’d been playing big generator parties near Los Angeles with a lot of SST bands, and then our friend Dave Travis brought out a generator to the desert in ’85, and we started setting up parties way out in the desert -it was better than any club in the world!”
BRANT BJORK: Swallowed Up By Fire
“The desert influenced our sound. That’s all we knew as our environment. Kyuss was like the desert in many ways. All the desert bands were. We were all natural and the sounds were harsh and beautiful at the same time. Kind of lazy, too. It was too hot to work too hard.”
“Living in a small desert town there was no place for kids to play music. So we would get a generator [usually belonging to Mario Lalli], some beer and go out to a remote spot in the desert, set up and play. We’d tell our friends where and they would tell their friends. All word of mouth. We’d play all night. This was a very natural thing for us to do. Kids before us did it. I guess it’s just something that goes down in the desert. People were doing it in the late sixties.”
“Generator parties influenced Kyuss as far as our volume and improvised jamming. Playing in open air like that forces you to really create a sound that surrounds people like a liquid. And you didn’t just showcase your songs like a headlining act. You played like the house band for a bunch of freaks in the middle of nowhere. You would jam. Like bands did in the 60’s and 70’s. There was no time limit. Even the local hardcore punk band would jam. Why not?”
“The weirdest thing that happened to me while at a generator party was when some guys accidentally started a fire and it raged so fast everybody had to evacuate while the band was playing and we didn’t know because of our volume. We just noticed people running away from us. I could feel the heat on my back while I was playing. I remember thinking at the time ‘wow, It sure is hot tonight.’ One guy couldn’t get his car out in time and it was swallowed up by the fire. It made local headlines the next day. Hundreds of acres burned. That was trippy.”
RECORDS AND ROAD TRIPS
BRANT BJORK: Wretch and Blues
” Wretch for us at the time of it’s recording, was a chance to document some songs we had been playing for awhile. A year later when our label said they wanted to release it, we were a little concerned because we had already evolved from that. We wanted to record and release new stuff, which was to be ‘Blues.’ Our label insisted we release ‘Wretch’ to establish ourselves. Get something on the shelves quick. At the time we didn’t understand but it makes sense now. I think we are glad now that it was released then otherwise it might never have come out. I love it. It’s a great rock n roll record. Not bad for 16-17 year old kids.”
“In my opinion, Blues was a natural progression from Wretch. We were older, wiser more confident. In a lot of ways we had nothing left to prove. We just got stoned, drank some wine and jammed.”
“Chris Goss was there from the beginning. We would play some little bar in Hollywood in front of nine people and two of them would be Chris and his wife Cynthia. When our label gave us the go-ahead to do Blues we of course asked Chris to help us capture our sound and get it moving in a natural direction.”
“He helped us with our confidence to evolve. Not to question our natural instincts. Blues was the result. Recorded and mixed in something like three weeks. We went in and rocked. We would listen to all playbacks on the biggest speakers as loud as possible. We knew we were creating something beautiful.”
SCOTT REEDER: Keeping the Vibe
“We always called Chris ‘the shit shield.’ The wrong producer definitely could’ve ruined the vibe of that stuff – luckily Chris and the band were on the same page about keeping the rawness that needed to be there, instead of polishing it to death.”
“I’ve got a great respect for Chris as a songwriter, but I know my way around a recording studio – I don’t need anyone to hold my hand to get a record done. Chris spent three days tweaking tones at the beginning of Sky Valley. Three days!
“He actually got out the master tapes from the Blues sessions and was trying to get the bass and guitar tones to match exactly. I was like, “Jesus Fucking Christ! It’s a different amp, a different bass and a different guy playing it!”
“One time, the sounds were pretty happening and we had a few friends at the studio, we had the incense burning, the liquid oil-projectors lighting the walls, burning some good herb. The vibe was perfect, and we busted out about half the songs and had a great time. The next day, I walk into the control room, and Chris said that none of it’s any good – the tones aren’t quite meshing right. I freaked! I knew we were never gonna top some of those performances. I managed to salvage ‘Odyssey’ for the album. I said: “Just split the bass and guitar left and right – fuck it!” And it worked.”
“I joined Kyuss just before Blues For The Red Sun came out. My first show was the record-release party. Those guys were really into my old band, Across The River, with Mario Lalli and Alfredo Hernandez, that was together around ’84 through ’86. Later on when I played in The Obsessed, we got to tour together on the West coast. They asked me to join on that trip, but I turned ‘em down, then a few months later they called and said Nick was out, and we hooked up. I was just supposed to fill in for a few shows until they found a bass player, but things gelled pretty quick, and I said, “Stop lookin!”
“Creatively, I felt completely welcome from day one. Josh and I threw a lot of ‘Space Cadet’ together the very first day we jammed. We had Pete Moffet from Wool and Government Issue come in and play on that one, coz’ Brant quit after he finished his parts.”
JOHN GARCIA: Stay in the Van
“At that point in time, Kyuss got to a certain amount of success. I think Brant wasn’t afraid, but he wasn’t in it to being successful. He didn’t want to do it, to become this huge rock star. We never would have done it anyway, but Brant said that it was too big already, and he started another project.”
“We were really afraid of becoming big. We didn’t want to become this huge supergroup, especially Josh, and he kept a lit on it. He didn’t want anything to do with being big in that band. In my view, in my eye and that’s the way I feel, he might say something different, but he kept a lid on it where Kyuss got only this big. He only let the record company push us this much and we did everything in our power to stay in the van.”
“There was one time that we wanted to go on the road with Biohazard and Fishbone, and the record company said: “No… we’re not going to put you on the road anymore. And Josh said: “Who are you to tell us who we can and can’t play with.” We wanted to tour, and did the tour anyway. It was an underground thing.”
” don’t actually know why Brant left the band. I drove up on my motorcycle one day to talk to him because he wanted to talk to me. He said he was quitting and wanted to move to Hawaii and live there for the rest of life. His plans were constantly changing, and I think he just wanted out.
“Brant was the backbone of Kyuss. When he quit, Josh told me that he wanted to see if he could do it without him. I was following Josh back then and we were the only two remaining original band members. Josh said, “Do you want to do it, fucking continue the band, or do you want to break up?” I said: “I don’t want to break up because Brant quit. Let’s continue on.”
“I think Josh’s quest was to say, “I can do it without Brant”, and he did. He took the ball and kept on rollin.’ He is extremely smart, and he has always something up his sleeve. He has a lot of people that support him and alot of fans with Queens of The Stone Age. He’s gonna break the USA.”
SCOTT REEDER: Perception vs. Reality
“Kyuss was just the same old standard guitar, bass and drums with a singer. Same thing that’s been done a million times, but there was some intangible thing about it that struck a nerve with a lot of people that heard it. There was just something about the combination of personalities pushing and pulling, churning out this weird sound. We were pretty inconsistent live, but when we were on, I don’t think there was a band on the planet that could touch us.”
“I think everyone was really protective of what we had. We sensed that something special was going on, and we were really paranoid about the industry trying fuck to things up. We turned down a lot of things that most bands would’ve killed for. I think we were a little too paranoid, sometimes.
” think we were on too big of a label, though. We were competing for the attention of the same people who were pushing Metallica and Motley Crüe, and I think we were getting lost in the shuffle, because we were obviously not selling as many records as those guys! There was no conscious direction about which way the next record would go, we just messed around with ideas at sound check, and started incorporating stuff into the live set one by one.”
“We had acoustic guitars on the road and jammed in hotel rooms a lot. ‘Whitewater’ was written that way. A lot of the songs would start with someone bringing in a riff or two, and everyone helped arrange the stuff, and there were a lot of jam sections, so I definitely felt like it was a band effort. Its hard to keep an eight minute song with two riffs interesting.
“When Sky Valley came out, though, the songs were credited to whoever brought in the first riff and with the credit goes the money. Every other band I’ve been in has split things evenly, so it was kinda weird. I’d really put my heart into Sky Valley. The record was held up for around a year, and Alfredo Hernandez joined a little before it got released. When it came time to do Circus, my attitude wasn’t really in the right place to do my best.”
THE CIRCUS LEAVES TOWN
JOHN GARCIA: Fish Tanks and Friction
“For …And The Circus Leaves Town we went into a studio that was a ‘s get this done. Let’s get this over with.” We were in a studio with fish tanks on the wall, and we felt like, “We don’t need this.”
” Circus was probably a lot more my record than Josh’s record. I did a lot of writing with Scott on that album. I just wanted to go off on something we hadn’t done before, musically. Like a song like ‘One Inch Man’, that was the direction I wanted to go into -adding a kind of swing and more choppy vocals.”
“But it was a horrible fuckin’ record to make. Josh and I were clashing all the time and had creative differences. I wanted to sing certain songs this way, and Josh would go, “Try it that way.” And I felt something like, “Let’s meet somewhere in the middle.” And that’s were we kinda started to get a little bit of friction, but it was just about whatever we thought the songs would sound best. It all came down to the music and the partying and the weed and the booze. We stayed loaded, and all the recordings were done while we were fucked up.”
SCOTT REEDER: Blown Money and Wasted Time
“…And The Circus Leaves Town was just the next batch of songs. I had two or three songs that got cut from the album because they were too different. I’m working on a solo album right now, so some of those songs that never got finished will finally see the light of day soon.”
While recording Circus soooooo much money was just getting thrown out the window. We were in one of the most expensive studios in Hollywood just for recording overdubs. People running around to get you food, cigarettes, anything you wanted. We could’ve been in a smaller place with a couple of good microphone preamps, got the mix done in the expensive place, and we would’ve all walked away with a bunch of money, but it just got blown. Stupid.”
“There was also a bit of bickering going on, and I was pretty stressed. Too many weird vibes. It wasn’t the way things are supposed to be. And I had this crazy idea that you should actually be able to hear the bass! A lot of the stuff had to get remixed because the bass was almost inaudible when you got it outside that studio. I’d been worried about it the whole time. Everybody was a little too stoned, I guess. We had Keith Richard’s bong in the studio – that was pretty cool. Made for a lot of wasted time, though. No pun intended!”
” ‘Fatso Forgetso’, the last song Kyuss ever recorded, was done on mushroom margaritas! That was probably my favorite recording that we ever did. Josh came up with the riff for the first part, and then on the jam we just went for it. The mushrooms were kicking in hard by the time we got to the jam. I just remember listening to the playback, digging it, and giggling uncontrollably, somebody saying, “Scott, what’s so fucking funny?”, and Josh saying, “Scott just ripped balls, that’s what.” Later we went outside, and heard a pack of coyotes making a kill nearby. And Fred Drake’s horse turning his ass towards me and John and cutting a huge fart!”
“We had such a great time that night – I had renewed optimism for the future. We recorded that stuff on a shoestring budget with no outside producer, and I thought it sounded better than our albums. If we’d done another record out there in Joshua Tree, I think it could’ve been the best thing ever, but it wasn’t meant to be.”
“John called and woke me up one morning asked me to meet at Josh’s parent’s house in a half hour. I walked in, and they were just staring at the ground, and I said “Spit it out.” They just said “We can’t do this anymore”. They both have different stories about what happened. I think I know what the real truth was, but it doesn’t really matter now.”
“On our last tour through the States, the shows were actually packed for the first time. It felt like we were finally starting to get the word out. Pulling the plug at that point in time to me was just as senseless as committing suicide to preserve your youth. Sometimes I think we could’ve pulled it together and gone on to grow and create a lot more music together. There were bad times, but man, we had some really great times during those last couple of years!”
JOHN GARCIA: Split
“As a band, we got out of touch. Tensions were high, because there were some personal things in the band that we didn’t like, and that we needed to fix. And they weren’t fixed. Josh wasn’t about to fix them, so the tension grew even higher, and it was very difficult. The pressure was building, and personal things came between us, pretty much. It had nothing to do with creative differences or the music that broke Kyuss apart.”
“Josh and I sat down at this bar in Palm Desert, and I wanted to talk to him about some things. Within 5 minutes of the conversation, Josh said that he wanted to break up the band and I said, “OK, you wanna break up the band. Forget the band.”
“It was just time to split up, and we got off to do our own thing. It all just happened and I didn’t even know that Kyuss was an underground type of cult or band until we broke up. All of a sudden, people start talking about Kyuss this and Kyuss that. It was actually when we broke up that people got interested in the band, and that’s kinda weird.
“I was just in it for the ride. I was completely in it for the ride, and I was very lucky to have been part of that ride, because I fuckin’ rode it real long and hard as much as I could.”
NICK OLIVERI: It wouldn’t last forever
“I played on the first two Kyuss records and Brant on the first three and Josh and John stayed for all four. And in the end I know, knowing those guys and going to see them play whenever they came to town after I was out that there was some fear of getting too big like that. I think what made that band cool was that it wouldn’t last forever. It was broken down before it could get stupid.”
“I guess there becomes a point where you cannot do anything about it. But I didn’t see the end of Kyuss coming. I thought it was cool that a band that I had something to do with at all was gonna do something real. They didn’t do something musically to make that happen but they just made the music that they always thought about from the start.”
“Josh and Brant were the two major songwriters for Kyuss. It was the collaboration and the chemistry between those two guys. I wrote a couple every now and then and John would too but in the end of the day it was Josh and Brant that wrote all my favorite ones. Brant wrote ‘Allen’s Wrench’, ’50 Million Year Trip’ … some great songs those guys wrote.”
“So I was very exited for them when it started to happen. I saw the One Inch Man video on TV one day and I was like wow! At some point Josh fired me. So being fired from Queens is actually the third time.”
“We had a band called Katzenjammer when we were kids and I would play second guitar… Josh decided that he didn’t need a second guitar player and he fired me. So I was out. And when Katzenjammer’s bass player Chris left, they needed a bass player and put me on bass. That became Kyuss. So that was cool but the deal is that just musically I was going in a different direction and I took it alright.”
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