Beat & Blacklight
Lava lamps! Masters of Reality vocalist Chris Goss, Def American Records publicity dude Pat Hoed and I are sitting in a booth at Barney's Beanery in Hollywood, cackling over the American record industry's latest promotional masterstroke. The label has sent out lava lamps - those trippy globes of luminescent smegma popular with late-'60s drug users - to push the Masters' album with radio folks.
"It's the whole feel of the record, man," Hoed offers.
"It's blue water with white lava," Goss adds. "It looks reproductive."
To be sure, Masters of Reality, produced by Def American overlord (Run-D.M.C., Danzig, Slayer) Rick Rubin, is a psychedelic record. You can hear loads of '60s-era musical influences caroming around in the Syracuse, New York-based quartet's sound - Hendrix, Cream (especially in guitarist Tim Harrington's thundering, lyrical lead work and Goss' lightly inflected, Jack Bruce-styled vocals), Led Zeppelin (particularly in the thumping of drummer Vinnie Ludovico) and, of course, Black Sabbath, whose album title inspired the band's name.
Goss explains the nomenclature: "At the time it was like, piss off intellectuals, piss off college music lovers. The [Psychedelic] Furs were around at the time, and it was like the tail end of Public Image [Ltd] at the time. At the time [I was] listening to Black Sabbath five hours a day, all the time. Just constantly. That low end that they got, man, it's addictive. It just chugs ya. This name, it's in respect for a great band that everyone at the time was really putting down."
But as the preceeding explanation indicates, the Masters aren't just some retro-hippies high on a big blacklight fantasy. They're a band for today, who sound like everybody and no one but themselves at the same time. While they're certainly heavy and (as we used to say in the old days) "far out", the Masters also puree every imaginable kind of style in their music. Call it psycherock'n'rollheavypunkbluesprogressodelia.
Goss is nonplussed when I ask him to compare his group to other bands.
"That's tough," he says. "It's hard for me to talk about where I see the band's work, where it belongs, you know. Though to be alive in an era when ZZ Top and Neil Young and Jimmy Page - those people - are all alive at the same time, it's great. It's a great feeling. They're not rock 'n' roll musicians to me, they're like Picassos and Dalis to me, you know what I mean. So I feel like if the world lasts that long, if there's a history book around that I was alive during that era when those guys were working, it's great. I feel lucky. If the record gets anywhere near them, it's cool."
Goss' thumbnail sketch of the band's history since it's genesis in 1981 goes a long way towards explaining the bizarro sound of Masters of Reality.
"In the mid '70s I played in bands that did Aerosmith and Zeppelin covers, stuff like that," he recalls. "Then I got into what was going on in New York in '77-'78, with the Ramones and Patti Smith. Then the Contortions came along, and I got into the art-funk type of thing. Right about the tail end of that is where I hooked up with Tim. I liked Kraftwerk, and I liked James White, but having a metal background at the same time. So that's what we sounded like. It was like Kraftwerk meets Black Sabbath."
"We used a drum machine. The two of us got together. We just started jamming. What we saw eye to eye on was that it had to be heavy, it had to go for the spine. We both knew that without even talking. So we put together this two-man show. We'd have our rhythm tracks on tape or we had a drum machine, smoke machine, blacklights, and just put this two-man medicine show together."
"We just let the drum machine fly. It was the time before you could even program them. You got what they gave you - like 'Rock One', 'Rock Two'. You could turn down the claves and the cowbell. It was funny. We had all these notes from these old songs. It'll say like, 'Disco One for 18 bars, then Disco Two.' We used to play this repetitive, droney kind of stuff that was still heavy over this drum machine. At the same time we gave 'em this really evil, fucked-up show. A lot of boos. It was really crazy."
At around that juncture the group picked up their current bassist Googe - who was then playing keyboards - and a second keyboard player. But the Masters ultimately looked to becoming a conventional rock band, and wound up jettisoning their mechanical rhythm backup.
"We just started craving a live drummer," Goss recalls. "The Zeppelin drum sound, the bass drum that sounds like the kid rehearsing above you, that kind of thing. So we found a great, stupid, great big drummer kind of guy, jazzier than Bonzo."
"We were getting to the end of our ropes with the drum machine and we said, 'Well, let's do a demo'. We planned on printing it ourselves and putting out our own record. Spend a few thousand dollars, get five songs on vinyl, and if it doesn't work... So we did that demo with the drummer. A friend of mine, who had worked with Rick on Beastie Boys' videos, Peter Daugherty, played the tape for Rick. That's how we hooked up with Rick."
Without knowing it, producer Rubin had anticipated the Masters' weird combo of metal and low technology in his own way.
"The combination at the time was really intriguing," Goss says. "I thought, Wow, this is beat-box heavy metal. A great idea. Just this circusy type of feel to it, but real dark at the same time. Then [Run-D.M.C.'s] 'Rock Box' came out. I saw this label Def Jam. It was a heavy metal beat box. I said 'Wait, that's my idea. What are they doin'?' That's the first time I knew someone else in the world was skimming a similar area."
The collaboration between Rubin and Masters of Reality has proven a potent one, although Goss says the pairing wasn't immediately a natural for Rubin.
"It seems like we both wanted to get more rootsy at the same time. He heard us with a drum machine. He heard a demo about four years ago, three years ago, and he didn't care for it. It was too collegey for him, or something like that."
The singer continues, "I think Rick sees a lot of tradition in the music that he wants to know more about himself. I see Rick listening to Eagles albums now."
But exactly what tradition is Goss talking about? His conversation is studded with the names of a vast catalog of seemingly incongruous bands - the Velvet Underground, Sisters of Mercy, Van Der Graaf Generator, Joy Division, even Yes (he's a major fan) - whose styles have played a role in forming the Masters sound.
Trying to pin down Masters of Reality's music is a daunting task - one that even the group's frontman continues to grapple with.
"I still haven't figured that out," Goss admits after a lengthy pause. "I don't ever want to have it down, you know. I'm looking forward to the next experiment."