Mr. Catching, Mr. Goss and Rancho De La Luna
lives at Rancho De La Luna. Yup, a bed
sits in the corner of a room that doubles as a space to
isolate one's amplifier while tracking. Dave is also a
guitarist, and his playing graced the very first Queens
Of The Stone Age recording (plus later touring and
albums) as well as being a member of Eagles Of Death
Metal, earthlings? and former member of Tex and the Horseheads and Mondo Generator. Of course, he also shows
up all over The Desert Sessions albums.
"Dave has worked hard enough for so many years that he can pretty much make it exclusive to his friends. We have a circle of people who work at Rancho together with us and it has become so wide. There's always one of the Desert Session family recording. Done. You don't have to wait six months because there's this death metal band from Stockholm in here." - Chris Goss
For 15 years a small, unassuming ranch-style house in the unincorporated desert city of Joshua Tree, California, has housed a studio known as Rancho De La Luna. Fred Drake and Dave Catching started gathering recording gear in 1993, and many projects passed through here, benefiting from Fred's engineering skills until his sad passing from cancer in 2002. Dave has carried on, and over the years this special place has been host to artists like Queens Of The Stone Age, Kyuss, earthlings?, Daniel Lanois, UNKLE, The Twilight Singers, Masters of Reality, Victoria Williams, The Duke Spirit, Eagles Of Death Metal and Mark Lanegan. The studio itself might even be better known as the epicenter of an ongoing project known as The Desert Sessions - led by Josh Homme of Queens Of The Stone Age (and formerly of Kyuss). These sessions have involved over 30 musicians, including some of the above artists as well as PJ Harvey, Ben Shepherd, Dean Ween, Josh Freese, Jeordie White and many others.
With the serenity of the locale, an amazing view looking out towards Joshua Tree National Park and a house covered in funky art and filled with instruments and amps, this is one of the most unusual and interesting recording spaces in the world. John and I met up with Dave Catching, Chris Goss and engineer Edmund Monsef on a clear, warm day. As our interview wound to a halt and the artists showed up to resume their sessions, it was hard to leave - this really is a place where good people show up and good things happen.
So this house started with Fred Drake?
It started with Fred. He moved out here in '91 or '92. He was here with some friends and saw a sign that said, "Three houses for rent." He came up, looked and he said, "I'll take it" and moved out of L.A. At the time he didn't even have a car, all he had was a cooler. Every morning he would walk to get ice from the store. Finally he got a truck. It wasn't that long, but when he first moved out here it was pretty hardcore.
What was he doing before that?
He was an engineer. That's how I ended up meeting him. A friend of ours - Dean Chamberlain who plays in the band Code Blue and was in The Motels for a time - had a studio and Fred was the engineer. Dean and I played in bands together, so that's how I ended up recording with Fred. It was kind of funny because Fred was like, "I want to move to the desert and start a studio." So, he moved out without anything and in a couple of months he got a call from a friend of his, a singer named Hugh Harris. Hugh had a 24-track Tascam and a board of some sort that he sold to Fred. So within a couple of months Fred had a studio. Within another month Dean was shutting down his studio. I was living in New Orleans and I actually had a restaurant out there - I had given up the music business. I said, "Fuck this, I hate L.A." and I moved to New Orleans. I get a call from Fred in early '93 saying, "Dean is selling his gear and he wants to know if we want to buy it" which I thought was interesting since I was living in New Orleans and he's living out here. He was like, "It's just six thousand dollars for the board, the tape machine, a bunch of mics" - not good mic's but 57s and 58s - "and some cables and everything we need" - speakers and stuff. I said, "Yeah, sure. Let's do it." He said, "All we have to do is give him a thousand dollars down and make one hundred dollar a month payments." His wife at the time just wanted him to get out of the business and it wasn't really about the money. I sent Dean my three grand and I said [to Fred], "Okay. You take care of doing the payments for your half." So we had a studio and I was still in New Orleans. Daniel Lanois had taught a woman named Trina Shoemaker to record. She did Victoria Williams' Musings of a Creekdipper record here and she engineered Queens Of The Stone Age's Rated R. She ended up working for Daniel Lanois, and now he was looking for a location. At the time he was in Baja [California, Mexico] and he had a giant mess tent set up with all his gear. His engineer, Mark Howard, showed up at the door here one day - no call or anything - and knocked on the door. Fred opened it and he said, "I'm Mark Howard. I work for Daniel Lanois. Trina said that Dan would probably like to record here and I just wanted to check it out." Daniel Lanois - Fred's favorite producer in the world! Mark walked in and [clapped] and was like, "This will work fine. Dan will call you." Fred gets a call from Dan and he said, "This is what I've got: I've got a vintage Neve console." He had [Fender] Strats that felt like you were playing barbed wire - like '58 Strats that felt like they had the original strings. He had Eno's keyboards, like [Yamaha] DX7s. We were like, "Oh my God, it's Eno's keyboard!"
The broken DX7?
It's a broken DX7! His deal was, "Here's what I'm going to do. I'll leave all my gear here for at least six months. I'll probably record two or three weeks in that six months and when I have a week I'll come out."
This is long before he did the Teatro Studio in Oxnard, California?
Yeah, before. He went from here to San Francisco for a short time. Then he did Teatro. It was wild. Fred was working with Dan. It was really weird because Fred got pretty ill and he had a roller IV [intravenous therapy] so he was helping Dan Lanois engineer while he was walking [the IV] around. I mean, Fred was a tough motherfucker.
I guess so.
It was the best thing ever for him.
It was like a dream come true.
It's ridiculous, right? I love Dan's productions. Especially in the early '90s - they really have their own sound. They still do, but especially at that point, it was so completely out there. Fred's stuff, if you listen to some of his stuff - especially considering Fred did it on a Soundcraft board with a 16-track 1/2" Tascam - he was really good.
What did Lanois work on at Rancho?
He did a record called Trip. I think it was soundtrack stuff that he was working on. [It was a promo-only compilation of soundtrack pieces - LC] It was just trippy experimental stuff that he did. He loved it out here.
What fell into place for you to start doing things here?
Right around that time my restaurant caught on fire and I lost it. After a few months of living in New Orleans, people were starting to call me to do work for them. My best friend Hutch [QOTSA's live sound engineer] who lives next door - we were talking and he said, "I'm going to Europe with this band, Kyuss" - which were friends of mine through Chris [Goss]. I was like, "Fuck. I need a job. I've never been to Europe. I'll guitar tech." They said, "Yeah, that sounds great." I went to Europe with them and while we were over there [I told them] I'd just started this studio up in Joshua Tree, so they came up here to do some recording.
That was their final record?
It was an EP [Kyuss/Queens Of The Stone Age] that they did. They came out here and then came back to finish up and it was the last stuff they recorded.
Was it really three days on mushrooms?
Yeah, it was three days on mushrooms - horse farts and everything. Lizards and horse farts. Fred had this horse called Kashmir that was a stallion. It was a great horse but it was a motherfucker. It was hilarious - while they were trippin' Fred decided to ride the horse into the house. It was pretty out there.
That was Fred engineering alone for this?
A guy named Billy Bizeau was helping him. You can imagine it was pretty crazy. I love that stuff - I think it sounds great. At the time it was on a Soundcraft board with a 1/2" deck. It still has a great sound, but it wasn't the Lanois Neve with the 2" machine. We did a little bit of stuff. We did some earthlings? recordings on his gear and a band called Wool. The singer for the earthlings?, Pete Stahl - that was his band.
At that point were you living out here full time?
Yeah. Hutch and I moved into the house next door in June of '99.
You were working here a bit and touring and starting to play with people?
I started playing with Queens Of The Stone Age. Josh [Homme] was playing with Screaming Trees at the time and they were doing a European tour. Some friends flew me over to hang out and go to a few shows and have a good time. I wasn't working at the time. It was really nice. I forget what label, but they had some money to do a compilation record and they wanted Kyuss and Josh was like, "There isn't a Kyuss" so they said, "Do something." He and I wrote a song and we had a couple of friends of ours, Milo [Beenhakker] and Eva [Nahon] from a band called Beaver [in Amsterdam], and we all went to a recording studio outside of Amsterdam and recorded a song called '18 A.D.' It was a silly sort of song. Seeing as drugs are legal in Amsterdam we had this huge bag of weed and mushrooms. It turned out alright - it wasn't the crowning moment of either of our careers but it was the first Queens Of The Stone Age release. We started doing some recordings with me and him and Fred, and then he went back to Seattle and started playing with John McBain (from Monster Magnet) and Matt Cameron [Soundgarden, Pearl Jam]. They actually did a show, I believe, with Mike Johnson playing bass and then he [Homme] came back down and we tried it with a few different people. Barrett Martin [Screaming Trees] was one of the drummers and we tried it with Brant Bjork [ex-Kyuss] playing drums and then it kind of morphed into Nick [Oliveri - bass] and Alfredo [Hernandez - drums]. Josh came down and we started the album here with Mike Johnson and Alfredo and it just kind of wasn't working. I don't know exactly why it wasn't working, but it wasn't really working. Joe Barresi was doing the record and then it got moved down to Goss' studio - he and Alfredo and Josh did the record with little cameos from everybody.
And started a long history of that.
Once the record was done, that's when Nick got involved.
That's kind of crazy. Everything all ties together with this place.
It all stems from meeting Josh. I met him at a Masters of Reality gig in L.A. and they were looking for weed, and I just happened to know where to get weed, so I brought some down and I ended up meeting Chris. He might not want me to say that, but it wasn't for him. Anyway, that's how it all got started.
After Fred passed away and you were living nearby, was there a time when you wondered what was going to happen with this space?
It got to be a problem, because when Fred passed away he left the studio to a lot of different people. But in all honesty I bought the majority of the gear, so it was a difficult time there. First of all we lost a great friend, which was horrible. Then it became kind of "business" and it was like, "Okay. We'll just continue on. There's no way that we're going to let this place close." Not that it was ever going to close. It was all a bunch of musicians so everyone was just contributing whatever they could and occasionally, if we got people in, that would pay the rent and then after a while no sessions were coming in. We didn't really have any good gear. The bills weren't getting paid and I thought, "I kind of need my own place." I already paid for the gear. I'd kind of already paid for it again, so I thought that I should just move in and start taking care of it. And slowly, Josh started doing more Desert Sessions.
It seems like The Desert Sessions really gave this place some identity. I assume that lead to other people hearing those and wanting to come record.
Yeah, and Lanegan doing his EP [Here Comes That Weird Chill] here was really good for the studio. There's a whole scene that's not about the hi-fi. It's not about lo-fi either. It's really just about a vibe. A lot of the records that we make are made one track at a time anyway, so if you have one good mic and something good to put it into it's going to sound pretty decent. Those Desert Sessions: the first one was kind of funny because Josh liked the way the earthlings? worked, which was you just get loaded and make a bunch of coffee and sit around and, "Oh shit. That keyboard's broken! That sounds awesome! Lay that down, quick." He said, "You should come up and jam with us." Kyuss was very focused. Even Goss didn't play on their records, despite the fact that he was producing them. They were really tight.
They were very much a band.
Exactly. I think maybe he saw it like, "Well that's kind of cool to experiment. I don't have to do it with Kyuss but I can do it with other friends." That's how it started, based on that premise. The first one was so unorganized - we had no idea what the hell was going on - and it started getting better and better. Those sessions would facilitate us getting a better mic. Any time we've ever done a session it was like, "First of all, let's fix the broken things that don't sound good and buy something that helps."
Just keep adding to the arsenal of toys.
Thank God we met Ed [Monsef] because he completes the whole picture. He actually knows how to do stuff that none of us are able to do.
Do you think that part of The Desert Sessions' charm is a door opening to something happening that might not have in another situation or place?
It's always been fun. The last time [The Desert Sessions 9 & 10, 2003] was really one of the most fun. I'd never, ever in my life been in a session where there was so much going on in a three day period. It was amazing. Twiggy [Jeordie White] was walking around singing 'Shepherds Pie' until I almost peed my fucking pants before we laid it down. Then it'd be Chris [Goss] and P.J. Harvey going up to Hutch's house for a few minutes, while Mickey [Michael Melchiondo, Jr.] from Ween and Alain [Johannes] were sitting out on the front porch working out something, while Joey [Castillo] and Josh were cutting something.
For three days.
Yeah, but in one day, Chris and Polly [P.J. Harvey] came back, "We've got this idea. Let's just lay it down real quick so we don't forget it." One take and they did 'There Will Never Be A Better Time'. We all got up and gave them a standing ovation - it was fucking incredible. Right after that, laying down another song - 'Powdered Wig Machine' - where there was a possibly busted microphone, so I just threw one out and did a little [synth] sequence to check it out. Josh was like, "What the fuck is that?" An hour later everyone had already done their parts. Josh Freese walked in and nailed the drum track. Polly said, "Oh, I've got an idea for that." It's crazy. I don't know how often that happens in other situations. Maybe because it's in a living room. When Lanois recorded he put the drums in here some days. Some days he would do them in the bathroom or in the back. Victoria [Williams] recorded here. At one point Fred and I decided that we had to have microphone lines going into every room in the house because in the middle of doing a song she'd go, "Hey. I got this idea for a banjo song" and she'd go out on the front porch, "I'm going to cut it out here." So, after about a week...
...they're running everywhere?
Everywhere. She'd disappear to the fire pit, "I've got a new song." I don't think it happens in a lot of studios like that. People feel inspired to do things like that here. That's the coolest part.
It's a different environment.
Yeah. Almost everyone that's ever recorded here has felt comfortable enough to just do whatever, wherever and was inspired to do so. I feel like the luckiest guy alive to be here. I have a beautiful view. My favorite musicians in the world - my best friends - all love to come out and record. It's amazing.
It doesn't get much better.
It really doesn't! At one point I wanted a bunch of gear and I was like, "Fuck that. If I start spending on gear it would never stop." I think I've got one microphone that's good, I have one good chain - we're going to be able to make a record, no matter what.
How do you "market" this studio? I'm sure that's a really dumb question. But what about when people call you, "Do you have this? Do you have that? Where's the iso room?"
It's on the porch! It's funny - when Chris brought the UNKLE guys up here they were only coming for one day. "Just go up there and write a song. We'll take it back to the studio." I saw them getting out of the car - before they walked in here they were like, "Can we do five weeks?" I said, "The only problem is I live here" and they were like, "No, we want you to hang out and play and write with us." I'm sure that neither one of those guys have worked in studios like this. I'm sure their studios have been tight or at home. That was the coolest thing that before they walked in the door to even see what was in here, they felt the vibe and said, "This is enough for us."
Chris Goss. To some he is the leader of Masters of Reality, a band that has existed in many forms since 1981. To others he is a producer, known for his work with Ian Astbury, Auf der Maur, The Duke Spirit, The Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster, Fatso Jetson, The Flys, Mark Lanegan, UNKLE, Kyuss and Queens Of The Stone Age. In fact, his long-time association with the last two artists, and his contributions to Josh Homme's Desert Sessions, led to his living out in Joshua Tree and working on many records at Rancho De La Luna - and to Chris and Josh joining up as the production team, The Fififf Teeners.
You started off playing in Syracuse, New York, with Masters of Reality. Were you doing production on your early records?
I would say early demos, experimenting. We were bouncing cassettes from one cassette player to another in the early '80s and later had a 4-track cassette player. When you're a fan of both Led Zeppelin and The Beatles - the difference between those two styles of production, when you're growing up and you're hearing both of them, you're scratching your head like Scooby Doo. Like, "I love them both but they're so different. What is the modus operandi between those two styles?" The room air around Led Zeppelin versus the up-front, compressed, no air about The Beatles. Those two stand out as being the first lessons for me. There was also that '70s, really clean, California-style production like The Eagles. The drums are very muted and the drum room is very quiet - '70s pop music. That was another step of, "What are they doing?" As weird as it is, it's working. It doesn't have the energy or cut of The Beatles or the energy of the Led Zeppelin productions, but it still has some kind of quality to it that's worth looking into. Early Frank Zappa stuff, Mothers of Invention - his manipulation of tape speed, cutting tape and tape editing - I loved records that sounded like they were Scotch-taped together. Then I found out a lot of them were actually Scotch-taped together. On Yes records the long pieces were different takes from different days. I loved that. It proved that if you have good ears and a good spirit about what you're doing, that the sonics will take second place. There's a cut into this passage that has a totally different drum sound. As long as it's in time, right?
One thing about the Queens Of The Stone Age's productions that you've done is the way you keep space for the vocals. You read press about them and they're like, "Oh, they're hard rock" and then you hear the records. The first thing that I thought when I heard a Queens record was The Cars - a pop production in a way.
Sure, yeah. Pop music. It's pop because we want people to like it. At the same time you want to offend them - you know what I mean? Now more than ever, especially in the last ten years, CNN is our competition as much as Korn right now. Sonic fuckin', annoying stuff from every angle that you get from media right now - that's our competition. Now that you've got The Ramones and Iggy and the Stooges on car commercials, what's going to turn someone's head towards the speaker when they hear something these days? It has to be a mutation that's never been heard before or hasn't been heard in a long time. Either invent something new or steal something old - or put the two together. We're really, really in strange places in sonics right now. The generation like mine - I'm in my late 40s - we were raised on wooden Led Zeppelin-style home stereos. Now everything is in plastic speakers or in headphones - a lot of high end. Everyone's brain has been fried now with their iPods and it's a whole new sonic philosophy happening.
Do you think that part of it is trying to subvert the playback systems - to try to make something sound different?
It's a matter of taking a Patsy Cline record - something that sounds perfect the way it was recorded in 1961 - and putting it next to some horrid, fucking over-compressed, emo-thing that's just annoying and let someone decide what sounds better. I think almost everyone is going to point to the Patsy Cline - even though it's an older woman who's dead singing rather than some schmuck. It's like the worst of times and the best of times. Kids are ready - their ears have been so assaulted that right now is a good time to lay the shit out again because they might go, "Whoa, what's that?" That's why most kids I know love Led Zeppelin and The Beatles so much.
My girlfriend seems to really pick up on Josh's words on the Queens stuff - what's going on in the song and the humor. Humor in music was killed by indie rock or something along the way.
It's true. Everyone is going for this weird angst in the lyrics. The radio is un-listenable right now. I don't know what a single is. If the singles on the radio are singles then I truly don't know what a single is anymore, because they don't sound like singles to me at all.
When you're producing a record and it's on a major label is there any interaction that you're having with A&R where they're talking about singles? Is there a tightrope to walk there?
Luckily, I'm in a position that the caliber of people that I'm working with is respected by the label, so the label gives them some space. It's not just some follow up to a triple platinum debut by some MTV reality show girl or something like that. Unless the girl wrote great songs, I wouldn't even do it. It's about the songs. So, a little bit, but for the most part, look where we record. We're not in the middle of Hollywood, so if by chance an A&R guy does come up to Joshua Tree, he's so overwhelmed by this space that he would most likely just kind of sit there and shut up.
But the last Queens record was done in L.A. right? You're a little closer to the epicenter there.
Mark Williams at Universal [A&R] is a sweetheart, though. Mark's one of the few men of taste left in the business. That band, and a lot of the bands I'm working on, have the philosophy of "keep them expecting the unexpected" and that gives you license to change. I think Queens' fans like to be surprised by some left turn that they didn't see coming. Like, "What the fuck is that?" That's what the band was founded on.
There's never even been a stable line up. Say you're in a real expensive room with polished wood floors and a full staff and catering - do you think that lends a certain element where people feel like they have to audition twelve snare drums for a week?
It depends on who you're working with. If there are dorks amongst us then there we go. If a group of musicians are excited to be there and the person who is going to record that feels it too, then usually it's going to go [well] - no matter where you are. The sushi is nice, fine, whatever, but there are fewer interruptions out here and you don't feel uptight.
Plus there are a lot of fun instruments out here.
Half the fuckin' instruments are from thrift stores. I collect organs from thrift stores when the right Lowery or Thomas comes along. I just scored a Thomas organ with a Minimoog built into it. It has the Moog emblem on it and everything. It was like, "Thomas, featuring the Moog!" Fifty bucks and it's in mint condition!
It works. Fuckin' amazing. The low end on the Moog will fuckin' shatter the windows on your house, [plus there's] a built-in Leslie on the thing. The Leslie works. It's probably from the early '70s and in mint condition - not even a scratch on the wood.
Is there a second keyboard?
There's a two-tier keyboard and the top tier is either the lead keyboard or the Moog. You can switch them off or you can have both of them on at the same time. So, you can have those chimes with a Minimoog, with a glide underneath it at the same time plus the third accompanying chimes, too. It's actually three stacks of sounds and the foot pedals. The drum machine, like the samba and rock 1, rock 2 - you can coordinate with that with the foot pedals too. I put my foot down on one of the pedals and it goes, [sings a rhythm track] - like an instant Genesis song or something. It's great. Every fifty-dollar keyboard you get up here is like fifty songs just by accident - just by turning the thing on.
Dave and I were talking about The Desert Sessions earlier. Has that turned a lot of people on to this area and the idea of Rancho while also giving the Queens impetus to experiment a little more?
Yeah, sure. It's all completely tied together. This style of recording is my preference. To make stuff quickly - throw the shit down. That's why working with Jeordie [White, a.k.a. Twiggy Ramirez of Marilyn Manson] with Goon Moon - when one of us is doing a track, the other guy is writing the part to counteract what the [first] guy is doing, so by the time I'm done singing Jeordie has something ready to follow it. It's like ping pong.
With the Masters of Reality albums, who are some of the great engineers and producers you have worked with along the way?
Some really, really excellent ones: Martin Schmelzle - he also did a lot of work for Rick Rubin and George Drakoulias - Brian Jenkins, Joe Barresi, David Bianco, Jim Scott - amazing engineers over the years. Now Edmund Monsef - pretty much for the last couple of years he's been there for everything. This guy allows us to do what we do. We change course really quickly so if you want to know the modus operandi of how he captures the sounds, that's the man to talk to. I know if at the end of the day I like what comes out of the speakers I'm happy and I know we're on the right direction. And Alain Johannes [engineer on QOTSA's Era Vulgaris].
That new record is really fun to listen to. Maybe we should sit down with Alain and pick his brain.
You should. I want to see him behind his guitar. He plays like a motherfucker. He plays like Django [Reinhardt] meets [John] McLaughlin. We love Alain. Are you familiar with the song, 'I'm Here For Your Daughter' that's on one of The Desert Sessions [9 & 10]? That's Alain after about a bottle and a half of wine, going, "I've got this silly song. It's so funny. Check this out." All of us were like. "That's your silly song? Wow." That's something I could never play if I spent ten years trying.
When you're producing a record, are you hands-on at all - engineering nuts and bolts?
I don't touch the knobs.
Listening to the last Queens record, there's a lot of distorted snare drum and certain things. Where are those sonics coming from? Was there a straight drum sound and you said, "Let's do something to fuck this up?" Does it come from the band or the engineers?
[It comes from] everyone involved. Hearing an accident and going, "Fuck, it sounds great."
Like the wrong mic?
Yeah, the wrong mic that we didn't know was turned on - that kind of thing. So I would come in like a supporter of it and say, "Go with it." I would try to encourage that kind of stuff. A "personality" snare sound can be such a cool thing - a historic thing for a song. Like early '80s dance music had a lot of those "personality" snare sounds - say like on a Cure song - that could make or break a song. It's like they just stumbled onto something so cool, so roomy - it would have a cool tail - probably something that sounds cliché by now, twenty-five years later.
Yeah, because someone sampled it after that.
There are still new ones that haven't been used yet - specifically the sound that Alain [Johannes] and Josh [Homme] came up with for the snare drum on 'I'm Designer' [on Era Vulgaris]. That snare is one of the best snares I've heard in years.
It adds a level of fun. I think everyone has to be open to that. Sometimes your job as a producer is to make sure that door stays open.
That's my only job. Really. It's to make it as fun as possible.
What about the event itself, too, the tracking?
That too. It's like a workout, playing charades or juggling. Finding six people to juggle with - if you jive with them, you're all juggling together.