Q&A with Chris Goss
3pm on a Friday, and Chris Goss has been up all night.
"I've been doing... uh... stuff," the Masters of
Reality ringleader says cryptically from his home in the
high California desert. After a brief pause in which he
seems to weigh the pros and cons of full disclosure, he
finally relents: "I worked on music until about sunrise
and then went to a couple of garage sales."
As an inimitable producer who's worked with everyone from Kyuss and Queens Of The Stone Age to Stone Temple Pilots and The Cult, Goss is nothing short of a bona fide sonic guru. In fact, he's pretty much the Rick Rubin of the Mojave. But Masters of Reality is his baby. With Goss at the helm as vocalist, guitarist and lyricist, the band released their infectious self-titled debut in 1988 on Rubin's Def American imprint and followed it up in '92 with Sunrise On The Sufferbus (featuring Cream's Ginger Baker on drums) before delivering their 2001 masterstroke, Deep In The Hole, a truly transcendental rock album that remains in consistent rotation on our personal playlist.
As a band, Masters are a musical force unto themselves. Part mystical riff-riders, part cosmic-rock dream warriors, they seem to pluck songs from the universal subconscious. Like Josh Homme in QOTSA, Goss is the band's only constant member. And he constantly delivers. Problem is, most of Masters' later albums weren't even released domestically, and the band hasn't played stateside since '93. Goss promises that'll change shortly after their latest slab, Pine/Cross Dover, hits the shelves. "We gotta do it, man. We've been so fucking cruel to our US fans that I'm embarrassed by it."
Then again, our man hasn't had any sleep. We ask if maybe we should call back. "Nah, let's do it now," he insists. "It'll be weirder this way."
One of the major themes of Pine/Cross Dover is the death of the planet. What kind of specific things were you thinking about when you wrote it?
You know, I said that when my publicist asked me to clue him in on the record a little bit, because it's a weird record. But now that I take a step back, I realized that it's really what every Masters of Reality record is about: it's about looking at what's going on as far of the spiritual mood of the planet. I think that's the overriding theme on every record we've ever done, probably, even thought they may sound different or seem to be coming from different angles depending on what's been influencing us musically and whatnot. But that's nothing new, really: artists always reflect back what they're given. I mean, how can you avoid it? But now, you now, because of the web, word travels so quickly. Some dictator blows a fart in Nasdaqistan, and immediately we know. And immediately, you have to have an official response ready. Fifty years ago, that news may have taken two weeks to get to the State Department, never mind the general public. So, you have these instant panic buttons now. The scenario that has been haunting me lately is the day that we wake up and the ATMs aren't working. Which also means that the gas pumps aren't working. Which is very easily conceivable, whether it's by human error or human sabotage. We've really mistakenly put our trust in electricity too much. And I think there's gonna be hell to pay.
Your lyrics have always struck me as being deliberately open to interpretation. But at the same time, I get the sense that you're speaking in code.
Sure, yeah. It's all code, man. With lyrics, I don't care about specifics too much. I'm just trying to create an atmosphere, a mood. I may have a message underneath that mood, but whatever makes someone feel like there's something going on there, if it entices them to wanna hear it again, then I think it's successful. It's hit or miss, though. I don't hit it every time. But it's definitely a luring thing - it's like catching fish, but in an esoteric way. People don't know why they want the worm, but they're coming back for it again. And I really love it when it works. But the music's gotta be good, too.
There's a lot of acid imagery in your lyrics as well. Do you take psychedelics?
Yeah, but mainly pot. I love mushrooms, but they don't spur me to work as much as cannabis does. Mushrooms put me right in the moment, but cannabis really inspires me to work. I use it solely for making and enjoying music and art. For me, mushrooms are just fun. They don't make me wanna pick up a guitar.
You're originally from Syracuse. When and why did you originally move out to the desert?
To get as far away from Syracuse as I could. [laughs] Diagonally, I think it's about as far as you can get and still be in the US. But I moved to California in '88 and then moved to the desert in '92. I was in LA for nearly five years, but LA bugs me. I still have to work there a lot, but it just doesn't seem like a city to me, in a weird way. I discovered the desert when I came out here to work with Kyuss in late 1990. I'd never been to Palm Springs before that. I'm in the high desert now, in Joshua Tree, but I spent about 10 years in the Palm Springs/Palm Desert area, where they were from. After a week or two of rehearsing with them, I went back to Hollywood and told my wife, "Pack up. We're outta here." [laughs] Because it's just wide open here, and I really like that. Lots of elbow room.
The story Josh Homme tells about meeting you is that you went to see Kyuss in Hollywood one night and after the show you asked him if he was a Black Sabbath fan. He said he'd never listened to them, and that was what made you wanna work with Kyuss.
Yeah, I remember that conversation exactly. I even remember the wall we were leaning against. It was at a club called the Coconut Teazer - I don't know if you remember that place. It's gone now. I think it's an empty building. But that was maybe the second time I saw them play, and they were fuckin' amazing, man. I'd never heard anything like it. It was magic.
How has the desert affected you, both musically and personally?
There's such a large landscape in front of you. I imagine it's similar to some writers who like to live near the ocean. You're not closed in, so it feels like there's more space to write. I look out the window and instead of seeing a fuckin' brick wall, I'm seeing forever - an endless horizon. It's a good bar to set for your brain. I work in London and L.A. a lot, so its a great balance for me to come back here. The only thing I can hear out here at night are my ears ringing. It's completely silent where I live. It's just open desert and rock formations and the Milky Way above your head. It's mind-blowing. I really love it. I'll always have a winter home here. I'm kinda over the summers, though.
I can't imagine why.
[laughs] Not only is it hot as fuck, everything's got a spike sticking out of it - animal or plant. My buddy got stung by a scorpion the other night. But he was walking barefoot at night. You just don't do that out here. And I think it's getting more humid, too. I hate humidity. But now I'm talking about the weather, dude. What the fuck?
OK, so you split the new album in half - Pine is the male side and Cross Dover is the female side. Why that particular breakdown?
Well, the characters on one side are mainly male and the characters on the other side are mainly female. It's just duality, a mirror image. Basic Carl Jung shit.
Which came first - the characters, or the idea that there would be a male side and a female side?
The record created itself, just as every Masters of Reality record creates itself. They're all like Frankenstein in that way. I think, "What have I made here?" But it always gets up off the table and tells me when it's done. It became apparent when we were finishing the record that it felt like we actually had two records. But I couldn't expound on that properly. I also wrote liner notes for it, which is very uncharacteristic for me. Trying to put into words what I was feeling at this weird time that we're in - I've never done that in my life. But I just had to do it. I don't know why, but I felt I had to. I feel like I was just an instrument of some sort on this record, like it was written by the sky or something.
I was listening to the album while I was driving home last night, and it seemed to work really well in that setting. I feel the same way about Deep In The Hole, which is still one of my all-time favorite driving records. Do you actually write songs that are designed to be listened to while in motion.
One hundred percent. If I had a second or third occupation to choose, it would probably be a truck driver. I'm really into driving with the music on, especially when you're picking up different stations as you drive between the desert and L.A. For some reason, what just popped into my mind was 'Master of Sparks' by ZZ Top from the Tres Hombres album, where they're talking about the highway in Texas and the flatlands.
Sometimes I just put the radio on scan and find all these talk shows from all over the country. It's so weird, but also kind of melancholy and mysterious because you're hearing all these different people out there in the night. You go through a town and you get the local college radio station, and then you lose that and pick up some brilliant preacher or something. It's kinda like kook land, but it's really wonderful. It's like that Ramones song, 'Do You Remember Rock N' Roll Radio?' with that line, "Do you remember laying in bed with the covers pulled up over your head, the radio playing so no one can see." It's like this unseen communication going on late at night when people have their radio on. It's kind of like a gathering of the misfits and the lonely and people who would be up at 3:30 in the morning. I love radio. It leaves so much to the imagination. Television is the most banal thing, for the most part, right now. I mean, people are willing to watch shows where other people paint their rooms and stuff. It's fuckin' nuts.
Has there been a consistent philosophy behind Masters of Reality since the beginning?
Yeah. You know, people are talking about the death of the album these days. All I know is, when I would buy a record, the thing wouldn't leave my turntable for a few months. I'm still pretty much the same way, actually. I don't even bother trying to keep up these days. I'll pick up a music magazine and I won't know a single band in there. There's just so much shit. So, if something's meant to get into my hands, hopefully it'll get there. But I'll get stuck on something for months. Of late, it's been Joanna Newsom. She's really fascinating to me. I don't know if that answered your question about a consistent philosophy, though. [laughs]
Yeah. [laughs] I'm just trying to make someone feel the way I did when I put a record on, like, "Here's 45 or 50 minutes of escape." And you can bring them wherever you want with it. Being groomed in the era of album rock, I just wanna give that back. It's a ball of everything that I've ever listened to. It's my version of trying to get someone on the rollercoaster that I've been riding. You're gonna get whipped around, but you're also gonna be consoled and embraced by it. Usually you can tell the artists who love their audiences. You can tell by what they give you.