Reality - Letting Their Roots Show
With the power out in his Los Angeles home, Masters of Reality guitarist Chris Goss conducted most of this interview in the dark, fitting for the founder of a band that once deliberately cultivated an air of mystery. With Sunrise On The Sufferbus, a record that sounds like nothing else recorded in the past 25 years, the band has come clean. The record's evocation of early Cream, Blind Faith, and Traffic is the realization of Goss' destiny.
"The vibe of this record is what I've been trying to do for a long time and it's great to have a band that feels the same way," he says. "We're not afraid to take turns and directions that may be off-the-wall."
A lot has happened in the two years since Masters of Reality delivered their first album. Bands like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden have made the world safe for a new kind of 'classic' rock. "If it means good songs I'll take it," Goss says of the tag. "But do they mean classic rock as in 'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida' or as in 'In The Summertime' by Mungo Jerry? It's a real hard thing to define."
Critics have been singing this band's praise for years now but Goss is wary of becoming a critics' favorite since he thinks they usually are wrong. In fact he claims to remain blissfully unaware of the expectations of critics and fans alike when making a record. "Remember when Francis Ford Coppola did Apocalypse Now and his work brought him to the edge of insanity? I try not to do that."
Now a power trio in the classic Sixties sense, Masters of Reality is Goss on guitar and vocals, Googe on bass, and Ginger Baker on drums. Yes, that Ginger Baker. Whether it was fate that brought the out-of-work legend in contact with this pair of classic British blues fans or just a chance meeting, rock music itself is the benefactor. "Ginger thinks Sunrise On The Sufferbus is the best rock album since Disraeli Gears," Goss says, "which is funny since that's the last album he played on."
Despite the presence of Baker in the group, the members of Masters of Reality contribute equally to both the songs and the production. However, Goss is quick to point out the benefits to be gained from Baker's seasoned chops. "He doesn't approach the drumkit as just a kick and snare. The drums are more flowing and not so choppy and that makes the songs better. It's impossible to find that in contemporary drummers. Disco music destroyed drumming. Today's drummers feel obligated to lay down 10 seconds of fake sustain over their drum sounds as if the real thing isn't good enough anymore. I find most modern drummers anal, awful, and boring and Ginger is one of the few exceptions to that."
When Goss formed Masters of Reality in Syracuse, New York in 1980, the drummer was a tape-loop and Googe presided over a bank of synthesizers. Goss cut a menacing figure on stage, scaring the bejesus out of the group's early audience. Clearly, Masters of Reality has undergone an evolution. "It's a constant process of going against the grain," explains Goss. "If there's something that I don't hear that I want to hear, I try to supply it."
That said, you aren't likely to see Masters of Reality diverting from their current course. For Goss, adopting the British blues sound of an earlier decade was a return to his roots. He still prefers that period to the older Delta blues. "When I listen to Howlin' Wolf or Robert Johnson, after about 15 minutes I feel the need to hear something punchy. The British blues invasion gothicized the blues, mixing the Arthurian legend with black roots music and making it accessible to white Englishmen. It's like a Martin Scorsese movie - it's about the salt of the earth but it applies to both the idiot and the genius at the same time."
The Masters play homage to a certain period in rock but this isn't empty-headed nostalgia. Goss recalls that many of the groups considered classic today had trouble selling records while they were still active. "There will always be stupid rock," he says. "When there was Hendrix there was also the Monkees and that music will always sell more than the people who are really the true artists, but so what?"
Unlike many of the trios that appeared in the Sixties, Masters of Reality wasn't formed on paper. Goss and Googe met Baker at a barbecue where all three participated in an impromptu jam session. To this day the band seems to genuinely get off on playing together. Their new live show is expected to find them stretching out on the tunes in ways that we haven't heard in years. Can Masters of Reality make jamming respectable again? "When me and Googe and Ginger play, we just go," says Goss. "We never know where it's going to end up. I'll start playing a riff that I have laying around and I don't give any directions, I'll just play it and see what everybody does. They always seem to do exactly the right thing."
Many of the songs on the new album such as 'Gimme Water' and 'T.U.S.A.' came about as a result of these jam sessions. Goss is the kind of songwriter who digs through cassettes of his work looking for the right riff. "Some of them are combinations," he explains. "You stumble on a good groove in the band in a jam (and) suddenly you come across a bridge for a chorus you've had for a couple of years and you put them together. It's a real quilt-work thing."
Apart from a newfound unity, the Sufferbus album includes the finest songs Goss has written to date. He's still a menacing figure but the evil tinge of the bands earlier music has been replaced by something happier. Songs like 'Jody Sings' and 'Rolling Green' have beautiful, fragmented melodies that give the album a reflective quality heard too infrequently these days. The quirky quality of his lyrics is still intact, as on 'Madonna', an ode to the Material Girl that you might not expect from these retro rockers, and the whimsical 'The Moon In Your Pocket'. In addition to his stellar drumming, Baker contributes his vocals to an hysterical song about the inability of Americans to brew a proper cup of tea, lending a bit of authenticity to this British blues tribute ('T.U.S.A.').
Where Masters of Reality differ from, say, the Jimi Hendrix Experience is that Goss is a far cry from a guitar hero. "I know like three chords and that's it," he admits. "If you asked me to play a major scale I'd probably make a mistake and not be able to do it. My major concern is whether the band grooves. I don't think technical ability has anything to do with what I do. I'd rather play with a bass player like Googe who comes from the same school as I do: self-taught and from the gut. We wouldn't know a sheet of music from a menu."
Inspired by Steve Howe's 'Mood For A Day' on the Yes album Fragile, Goss picked up a Yamaha G55A classical guitar at the age of 15. Other influences include Jimmy Page, Scotty Moore, James Burton, Les Paul, and Billy Gibbons. "The whole list of players that I just mentioned, they make me laugh when they play. That's what it's all about to me. Page and Howe did really serious work but they always balanced it with a sense of humor in their phrasing. Billy Gibbons is hysterical."
Goss now plays a vintage '65 Telecaster customized with DiMarzio X2N pickups, a combination guaranteed to make guitar collectors and purists cringe. Goss likes DiMarzios because "they sound like a dime falling into a garbage can." One thing's for sure: Goss' Tele sounds like no one else's. "I like a sound that isn't mushy. When guitarists have a lot of sustain on the guitar it's very easy to move your fingers around and get a sound out of that. My guitar isn't like that - people who pick it up think they're playing a banjo."
Goss calls the rack-mounted effects used by other guitarists "processed cheese," preferring to stick with his tried and true Boss Chorus and Boss Octave Divider. "I'd plug my guitar into my ass before I'd plug it into a rack. It doesn't intrigue me to play with a bunch of phony sounds that some dork invented in 1985."
He'll use any amplifier that is easy to mic, including vintage Fender and Vox amps from the Fifties and Sixties. "I find it easier to get a small sound and expand it in the mix than to mic a Marshall stack and shrink it in the mix. Live i use JCM 900 channel-switching heads, because you're standing about 30 feet in front of your amps and you've got to move some air. I'm running everything through a customized 1975 Marshall head and then through the JCM 900's." With a few noted exceptions (like his use of heavy-metal pickups), Goss is a traditionalist. "The key is to put as little as possible between the wood of your guitar and the audience's ears," he says.
There's another reason why Sunrise On The Sufferbus sounds so old-fashioned: the recording was entirely analog right up to the mastering stage. Whenever he could, Goss used plate reverb as opposed to relying on digital effects. Getting a good drum sound was the most important thing and the band played most of the tracks together. The album was even recorded in the same studio as Fleetwood Mac's Rumors.
Be they an older or younger audience, it is the people who became disenfranchised with rock 'n' roll in the Eighties for whom Goss is making music. "You've got to keep forging onward and doing new things," he says. "The music public demands that. The reason there are so many country albums in the Top 10 is that so many people are longing for simplicity. Steve Miller isn't making rock 'n' roll music anymore so they buy Garth Brooks."
This return to simplicity could mean the time is finally right for the Masters' bare-bones guitar, bass, and drums music. "Guitar bands never left," says Goss, "it just got polluted for a while. I think now since the Sunset Strip pop-metal days are over, hopefully bands will start being themselves and stop worrying about whether they sell out Gazzari's."
With a Southern Democrat in the White House, Goss thinks we might see even more radical upheavals in rock music over the next few years. Scenes like the reunion of Fleetwood Mac, or Don Henley being questioned by CNN's Bernie Shaw as though he were a spokesperson for the youth of today feel like the Seventies all over again. "Look at the atmosphere that brought the punk rock thing about," he notes. "It was the Carter years and you had bands like Charlie Daniels and Marshall Tucker - that backwoods hippie thing became mainstream."
Goss and his fellow bandmates are a little long in the tooth to be leading a musical revolution but while he's cheering from the sidelines, he'll continue to make music that goes against the grain. "The great ones, in my mind, play worse as time goes on and not better," he says. "For instance, late Led Zeppelin - it epitomizes what a great band sounds like as they get raunchier. By that time they could've sounded like Steely Dan. Neil Young is another example of that; he doesn't give a shit what other people think. He didn't run out to buy his spandex and cowboy boots when 1982 came along."
Sunrise On The Sufferbus was named for a grueling bus tour the band took across America; still, the Masters are looking forward to letting a few more people in on their secret. This time out the band hopes to rotate a few weeks of touring at a time with the same amount of time off so as to keep the music fresh. Each Masters of Reality gig is different, which in itself is something of a slap in the face of corporate rock. "I don't want to become a touring slave of the music industry," says Goss. "I want to supply the same thrill in 1993 that I got when I saw Yes or Led Zeppelin in the Seventies."