Interview: Brant Bjork
A stoner rock legend talks to Manchester Rocks about Weed, Kyuss, and the story behind his new solo record, Tao of the Devil
Words & Interview: Adam Robertshaw
As founder member of Kyuss, a former member of Fu Manchu and solo artist with 10, soon-to-be-11 solo albums under his belt, it’s fair to say that Brant Bjork is a member of stoner rock/desert rock/ whatever you want to call it royalty.
His loose yet hard hitting drumming style provided the groove to a musical revolution back in the 90s, the influence of which can still be heard today, especially in this fair city’s own burgeoning stoner/doom/sludge scene.
Brant’s latest solo effort, the Tao of the Devil is due to be released on Napalm Records later this month, and we were honoured to have the chance to have a good old chin wag with him about it.
Manchester Rocks: So where abouts in the world are you at the moment?
Brant Bjork: I'm in Joshua Tree California. My family bounce between Venice and Joshua Tree.
MR: What's it like out there at the moment?
BB: Interestingly enough, it's raining. It might look a little bit like Manchester to be honest with you. It's cloudy and drizzling, but it's still very warm, getting towards the end of the summer. It's been a nice summer so far though. I deliberately wanted to take some time off to spend time with the kids and the wife. I did a couple of shows in Europe a few weeks ago but other than that it's been relaxing.
MR: Getting ready for the new album to come out in September?
BB: Yeah, I knew the new one would be getting ready to drop in the fall, and then we'll be going out to play some shows in Europe. My kids are getting older and they get kinda grumpy when I split so I thought I'd take the summer off and get ready for the album to drop.
MR: The new album, The Tao of the Devil has an interesting name. What does it mean to you?
BB: It can be interpreted in many different ways, like most of my titles. I have been studying Taoism for over 25 years and I just thought it was an appropriate pairing of concepts. But it might actually mean that I'm discussing the nature of things that are demonised. In this particular case, maybe that's cannabis… marijuana.
MR: That brings me nicely on to my next question actually The album cover features a leaf and the opening track The Gree Heen has a nod to a certain herb. How much would you say that that particular plant influences your music and life in general?
BB: It is a very big influence and I think at my age and after all the years I've been busy with my music I'm arriving at a place where I'm more comfortable being open about it. It's almost like I'm 43 now and I have to embrace some kind of political agenda (laughs) and I think my politics has always been, you know, like marijuana. It's important to me. I'm not sitting around the house smoking joints all day but I think the cannabis plant is a very important part of where my world is at today and it was important part of me developing into the musician that I am today and the legacy that I've created.
MR: Of course. I suppose it's called "stoner rock" for a reason. And you guys in Kyuss and the other bands you've been in were fundamental in creating that sound.
BB: Yeah. Although I think the thing that can rub people in a specific way with the term 'stoner rock' is that it kind of dumbs down a certain real, inspired thing. And that thing is freedom and creativity and soul and earth and really big, far out concepts that always find their way into good music and great artistry. And cannabis has for a long time always been there assisting those concepts. And I think the term stoner rock is almost a comedic, pedestrian version of that. For me I want to be clear about how real and respectable cannabis is to what I do as an artist and to be proud of that, you know?
MR: Of course man and very well said. So back to the record, you recently released a video for Dave's War from the new record on the Napalm Records YouTube channel. That song is a 9 minute long epic that starts off as this angry little punk rock tune and then turns into a psychedelic funk jam. Did you choose to release that song in particular to be the first introduction to Tao of the Devil and if so, why?
BB: For the record - pun intended - I didn't choose that track to be singled out as the first release. Napalm chose that track and I don't know why. They didn't tell me and I didn't ask. I don't have a problem with it and I completely embrace every song on the record and every song I've ever released. I guess when you're promoting a record you can't release all the songs so you've got to single one out and in this case they chose 'Dave's War' but it doesn't really make a difference to me.
MR: Is 'Dave' in the title a real person?
BB: I'd be lying if I said it wasn't directly inspired by dear friend and my bass player Dave Dinsmore who sometimes is a sensitive man and he gets really frustrated with the very plain and obvious elements of the planet Earth. We thought we would have fun with that frustration and turn it into a rockin' song. To his credit he kinda spearheaded the second half of the song, the jam part with his bass line. So it's an ode to Dave Dinsmore.
MR: So he's part of the Low Desert Punk Band?
BB: Yeah he's a member of the Low Desert Punk Band. The original Low Desert Punk Band on (2014's) Black Flower Power included my friend Tony Tornay who I grew up with and who is admittedly and shamelessly and authentically an old punk rocker. And so we thought the name was appropriate. But with this release we thought the moniker of Low Desert Punk was unnecessary. Plus we have a new drummer. Well a new old drummer, Ryan Güt. He's jazz trained and I wanted to get back to swinging a bit more.
MR: And as an extremely accomplished drummer yourself, how does the writing process work, in particular with the drum parts on the record? Do you show him the parts you want him to play or do you just let him get on with his own thing?
BB: Well when you're putting a band together the drummer is like the engine of a car. And when you're putting a band together it's like building a car. And you can tweak the drums but at the end of the day the drummer is gonna do what he does. And the best way to get the best out of a drummer is to let them be who they are and to not impose a certain restriction or desired effect in his playing. That's what I know from being a drummer. When someone asks me to play and they let me do what I want to do, they get way more out of the situation.
And with Ryan, I got him in because I wanted to get back to the jazz element of rock n roll. Rock was born from jazz and blues and all these other things and I wanted to get back to that swing, which unfortunately has been washed out of rock music. And it took time don't get me wrong but I think we've got to that point where we can let it all hang out.
MR: I heard Keith Richards say once, "less of the rock and more of the roll".
BB: Yeah I suppose you could say that.
MR: I know you've had a hand in producing many albums in the past. Did you produce this latest one too?
BB: I did. I produced it but I partnered up with my guitar player Bubba DuPree. I've done a lot of work over the years by myself and it's kind of ironic because I really enjoy working as a team player and I like the camaraderie of working with groups of people. But sometimes I've got an agenda and I wanna stay busy and I don't have time to wait around for other people so I go it alone. But with this one Bubba and I, based upon our results of working with each other on Black Flower Power and developing a jive and a kinship with each other, thought it made sense that we worked together on this record. And I'm really proud of the results.
MR: Was it done on analogue? I know you've done albums such as Peace on tape before. Was it like that with Tao of the Devil?
BB: I'm not as much of a purest as I was a few years ago and I've come to embrace computers. They're not going away. I look at them as an ally and an effective tool. I like using the foundations of analogue to get that live, compressed sound and keeping that warm air in the original recordings but when it comes to mixing and overdubs in post-production I think computers totally serve a purpose. So I like the best of both worlds.
MR: Cool, man. Now I doubt you remember but I met you briefly in Manchester when you were touring with Vista Chino, when I interviewed your good friend John Garcia on your tour bus. Are you guys still in touch and are there any plans to get Vista Chino back up and running at any point?
BB: There's no plan to get Vista Chino back together but there's no plan not to get back together. I'm pretty content focusing on my solo work and John is content doing his. And Vista Chino for me and maybe for John represents something that got really difficult to put in motion because of all the battling and law suits. I think it was important for us to say “Hey let's let this thing rest for a while.” There was a dark cloud around it after the situation we had to go through to get that thing out on the road. It just wasn't fun. But maybe if it looks like it might be fun again you never know.
MR: And even if you never get it back up and running you can look back and say that at least you got one really decent album out of Vista Chino. It's a great piece of work.
BB: Yeah I love that record. I think it might even get better with time. And what that record represents is John, Nick and I standing up for what we believed in. It wasn't exactly a good time but we were able to show the world what we believe in.
MR: Right on. And as I mentioned, I saw you guys on the Manchester date of that tour and this interview is being done for Manchester Rocks, so speaking of Manchester, do you have any particular fond memories of playing here?
BB: I don't remember anything in particular other than that I've played there a few times and I know that Manchester is a city where people seem to know their music and appreciate their music.
MR: They certainly do. Although I've seen you're doing a European tour in the winter but there's only a London date in the UK, no Manchester show. What's up with that man?
BB: Haha. The thing is sometimes there's just that real frustrating reality that rock n roll will follow economics and business structures. I've battled that for many years. And the UK as a country is hard to get into and make financially viable for some artists including myself. I'd love to play many more shows there but sadly the golden age where there were record labels and tour support and all that are over. So this time around we're just gonna rock London but hopefully in future we can hit some more cities.
MR: Well you're always well received here in the UK and hugely respected as a musician. Not only do you have a huge catalogue as a solo artist but you've got the undeniable legacy of Kyuss behind you as well. I don't want to dwell on it too much but looking back at Kyuss, which of those classic albums is your favourite?
BB: For me, Kyuss was a band that was made up of a group of guys that grew up together in a small town and got the chance of a lifetime to record and go perform our music. We weren't like minded people. We really weren't. Our bond was that we came from the same small town. What made the chemistry of the band so magical was that we were so different as people. But one thing that we shared was that we knew this thing might not last so we wanted to give it our all while we could and really define ourselves. We thought the door could just shut as soon as we put our foot in. And that first effort for me was Blues for the Red Sun.
That record for me is what we wanted Kyuss to be. Welcome to Sky Valley is a respectable record, And the Circus Leaves Town is a respectable record and even Wretch when you take into consideration how young an naive we were. But Blues for the Red Sun is that one record that every band hopes to make where you stand back and go "You know, we nailed it".
MR: I'm glad you said that because that record is one of my all-time favourites. It really is an incredible piece of work, so thank you for nailing it like you did.
BB: My pleasure.
Tao of the Devil is out on 30th September via Napalm Records.