Desert rock luminary Brant Bjork has been embroiled in a prolific solo career for over a decade now, and with his latest album, Gods and Goddesses (released through his own Low Desert Punk imprint; the reincarnated version of what was once Duna Records), the former Kyuss and Fu Manchu drummer and successful multi-instrumentalist has changed his approach somewhat, focusing on higher production value and a tighter range of execution. In short, he’s gone back to his straightforward rock roots and blended the aesthetics of early ’70s hard rock (Deep Purple, Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, etc.) vinyl releases with his trademark desert approach, incorporating elements of surf, funk, soul and jazz for good measure.
My review of the album is here, so I won’t go on about it, but as someone who’s followed Brant Bjork‘s progression over the course of his solo works, it’s hard not to be excited about the material and dynamics Gods and Goddesses presents. Joining Bjork on the album are bassist and longtime friend Billy Cordell (Yawning Man), guitarist Brandon Henderson and drummer Giampaolo Farnedi, and the unit sound both crisp and organic thanks to the production of Ethan Allen (The 88s, Luscious Jackson), with whom Bjork has, as he explains in the interview, been waiting to work with for years.
He and the band are currently embarked on a European tour that includes a stop at the Roadburn festival in Tilburg, The Netherlands, but before he left, Brant Bjork took some time to discuss over the phone the change in his approach to making records that preceded Gods and Goddesses, founding Low Desert Punk, his time spent living in Spain and much more. Q&A is after the jump. Please enjoy.
The production seems much more elaborate this time around. Is that something you were really shooting for, or did it just come from working with Ethan Allen?
Well, it’s both. I definitely decided not too long ago that I wanted to up the production level. I’ve actually enjoyed making lo-fi records, but I’ve been doing it for so long that I was excited to do it at a different level. I’ve known Ethan Allen for a while, I’m familiar with his work, and he’s a good guy. We always talked and I knew when I was ready to take it to a new level, he’d be the guy to do it. So we just finally decided to do it.
How do you feel about the different representation of your songs? Like you said, you’d done lo-fi records for a long time. How do you feel about the material being presented differently?
It’s exciting for me, just because I enjoy making records of all kinds. To be honest, a lot of the reasoning behind the creation and enjoying lo-fi records is financially, that’s about all I can afford to do (laughs). With this particular record, I stepped it up, got a couple bucks together and worked with Ethan. I wrote and arranged songs knowing I was gonna go in and step it up. There were some songs that I’d been sitting on for a couple years, because I wanted to wait and then throw them into more of a produced situation, where it’s more – I don’t know how to explain it – but not lo-fi, if you will. It’s cool. I enjoy it. It’s a fun experience.
How long were you in the studio, and how does that differ from when you’re making a record by yourself?
We still worked very fast. I did basic tracks with the band live in two nights, and then did the overdubs and vocals at a different studio in about a week, and mixed it the following week. It’s about a 14-day record.
That feels awfully quick. It’s pretty in-depth sounding for 14 days.
I’ve made quite a few records, and so has Ethan. When two guys get together who don’t fuck around and know how to get down with what they’re trying to accomplish, you can move quick. I like to move fast in the studio, I don’t like to hang around.
There’s just a certain spontaneity I enjoy in rock records, and I feel like if you try to sit in the studio – like I’ve said before, I don’t really believe in masterpieces. Get in, get out and what it is is what it is. Come back and do another one in the future. It’s about making records, not a record. That’s just the way I look at it.
Have you always felt that way? It seems like you’ve taken a lot of different approaches to your various solo albums.
Yeah. For me, I love making records, and I love playing music and performing. I’m not looking for the big break or the big record or the big show or the big song. To me, the whole thing is a journey. It’s just about creating. I just want to create. That’s what it’s all about. It’s nice to just get in the studio, have a couple weeks and see what you can come up with. Then come back next year and try it again, learn from your prior experience.
How would you describe the progression of your sound over your solo career in general?
Every artist has to create with whatever he’s got, whatever tools he’s got there to create with. When I first started my solo career, I didn’t have much. I had my Marshall and I had a couple guys, and we just started creating music, and a lot of times, obviously, by myself, I’d just go in and start making records. One guitar, two amps, and you just start seeing what you can come up with. The progression is a natural progression. I’ve done a lot of tours, lot of records, lot of songs, lot of band members. What you hear now is just the sound of a guy who’s been doing this for about 10 years now. I think that’s what the record ultimately represents.
You mentioned writing with the production in mind. Have there been any other changes in your writing process over the course of these albums?
My writing process is generally always the same, but when I’m doing a record like Saved by Magic, I’m just throwing everything against the wall and making a double record. I’m not worried about time. I’m improvising on the whole concept of making a record. This was a really focused effort, Gods and Goddesses. I went back to the early rock records that I loved and grew up on, Deep Purple and Sabbath and Zeppelin and stuff. It was always eight songs, four on a side, each side was under 17 minutes, because the 16-minute side to vinyl is about what you want, so I did that around the vinyl release. I wanted to take it back. A CD holds a lot of information, and a lot of people just download songs one at a time now, but I come from the generation where I grew up on side A and side B, so that’s what I’m going back to. CD format, you’ve got yourself a 32-minute record that’s just rock. Every song’s a little different. I tried to give every song its own character. I just trimmed the fat and tried to get right to it. That’s a big part of what the arrangement and production direction was for me.
Was there something in particular coming off Somera Sol that made you want to do that this time around?
Ultimately, I always want to do something new every time I have an opportunity to make a record. I don’t want to keep reinventing the same record. I know I have my own style and that’s what it is, but I don’t want to reinvent the same record. I just knew it was time. I’ve made a lot of records that some people are gonna find more interesting than others. I take the liberty and the freedom I have, being an independent artist, to do what I want. People like Neil Young really inspire me as solo artists, to exercise the freedom I have. But I haven’t really, to be honest, taken some songs and deliberately made what I consider to be just a basic, no bullshit, classic-formatted rock record. To put myself in that box and say, “Alright, you have to do this,” give myself limitations and boundaries. That was exciting for me. That, to me, was a whole new challenge.
Tell me about starting Low Desert Punk.
Well, I did Duna [Records] for years, and my partner and I decided to separate, and I was left with Duna, and I then moved to Spain, and when I moved back from Spain, my good friend was like, “What’s up with Duna?” and I was like, “I don’t know, I’m kind of sitting on it, I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what my next move is?” And he was like, “What if we built an online store, and took Duna and did this?” and I was like, “Yeah, okay, let’s change the name and make it Low Desert Punk.” It’s basically the same thing.
I remember when you launched the label, there was the mission statement you put out. Do you have a different attitude toward it now?
I guess the attitude is the precursor for what I’m talking about with Gods and Goddesses. What I do and what I’ve done in the past is very self-indulgent for me. I’m just kind of in my own trip. I have my own language and my own song and my own dance and my own trip, and a lot of people observe it and get into it, and they dig it, and a lot of other people don’t understand it and they might think it’s pretentious, and I understand that. But I just wanted to reinvent my love for basic rock and roll and keep it simple and make it direct. To be honest, I dig where kids are at nowadays. I’m still a kid at heart, so I want to keep it fun and not take it to a level where it’s too much to absorb. I want to make sure a 13-year-old can embrace it, dig it, as much as anybody else. That’s kind of my trip.
It’s funny you mention keeping it simple, and accessible, because there is a lot going on with Gods and Goddesses. There are a lot of different styles and elements coming together.
Growing up on Sabbath records and Deep Purple records and Steven Kidd. There’s a lot of jazz and funk going on with those records too. I love jazz. I probably listen to jazz more than anything. And I love funk, Motown, whatever. I think rock and roll’s always incorporated, whether it’s MC5, The Stooges, Sabbath or even The Ramones, there’s always gonna be classic elements of other music included in that rock and roll. That’s what makes rock and roll what it is.
Do you experience music differently now, as both an artist and a listener, than you did when you were starting out with Kyuss?
I think so. I feel there’s that 13 year old in me that still hears music with 13-year-old ears. Then there’s that part of me that’s a more experience veteran of performance and writing and producing and that element of my art, and that part of me doesn’t necessarily listen to music the same as when I was younger. That’s just an interesting thing that I have to balance. Music’s my work now, and has been for most of my life, so I listen to things and I study and I listen to the production and I go deep, but there’s times when I enjoy taking a song or a sound for what it is and not digging too deep, just keeping it surface and trying to enjoy it. It’s a balance.
Making this record, did you enjoy the process of taking the new approach?
Yeah, I really enjoyed it. A big part of it was working with Ethan. We just really had a good time making this record. From beginning to end, it was just a super-good time. In my experience – I’ve made a few records, when the recording process is enjoyable, the record’s usually a pleasure to listen to. At least for me it is.
How did working with Billy come about?
I’ve known Billy, shit, since I was probably about 12 years old. We grew up together, been in bands together, been in the music scene in the desert our whole lives, and when it came time to start looking for bass players, Billy was at the top of my list always. In fact, there have been times in the past where I needed a bass player and I’d asked Billy and at the last moment it just didn’t happen. When it came time to fill in the bass duties, I called him up again and Billy was like, “Hell yeah, let’s do this,” and it was really a no-brainer, and I know it’s sort of cliché to say, but it really happened naturally and instantly was rocking. And I knew it would be, for sure.
Is it different playing with someone who you grew up with like that, someone you’ve been in the scene with, versus The Bros.?
Yeah, it is. It’s a lot better for me. Musicians I’ve played with in the past, Mike, Cortez, Max, these guys, they’re really good, talented musicians, but as far as personalities, they’re from a different place than I am. Sometimes that made it interesting and sometimes it made the creative process, touring and all that, socializing, it made it challenging. When you’re hanging around people that are native to your land as well, there’s just a communication process that’s natural, and when you’re trying to create, it’s definitely an asset.
Is Billy going to be touring with you?
You mentioned living in Spain before, and I know you were there for a while. Tell me about being there and moving back. How was that experience for you?
It was fantastic. I was bouncing around Europe for nine months in 2006, and I came back to the desert to record Somera Sol, and during that time I had rented a room with a friend. We got an apartment in Barcelona, and while I was making the record, I met my wife, and we got married and decided to move and live in this apartment I was renting in Spain. So we went to Barcelona and were living there for about a year. It was a fantastic experience. It really was. But I knew, economically, I had some leftover business in the States, that I just had to come home and organize. Cleaning up my taxes and cleaning up a lot of what Duna had left for me to clean up. In that cleaning up process, that was the birth of Low Desert Punk.
How did it feel coming home again? Aside from the business end of it, do you feel like that has affected what you’re doing musically now?
I’m sure it has. Being in America definitely inspires you to be the American rock and roller that you are. When you’re overseas in a country like Spain, I definitely would be more inspired to dig into other flavors and other musics. You’re in a different place, so naturally, you’re going to be inspired by different vibes and things. Upon returning to America – a lot of the reason I was stoked to stay overseas was the social politics of what was going on, Bush being in office. There was just bad vibes in the States, and now Obama’s in office, and I’m not super-down with politics or anything, but it does affect our lives, and I’ll tell you, even though the economy’s in shit still, there’s definitely an overall shift in vibe in the country now as opposed to when Bush was in office. It’s a little more tolerable to be in the States these days than back then.
Yeah, 2006 was pretty dark times. America, pre-hope.
I know you’re going back to Europe to tour and you’re playing Roadburn. You did Roadburn in 2005 and 2006 if I’m not mistaken. Are you excited to be going back?
I’m totally looking forward to it. My other two prior Roadburn experiences were fantastic. I had a great time. It’s a bitching festival. Walter is a super-rad dude, I’ve known him for years, and I’ve seen him take what was once just a concept, I’ve seen him take the concept and he’s one of those few people that doesn’t just talk the talk, he rocks the rock. And he did it. He did Roadburn. It’s a huge, awesome – I don’t know, but it’s probably the biggest stoner rock festival in the world. It’s fucking awesome. I think he’s really onto something. I’m stoked to go back.
Any chance of shows in the US? I know you’re doing a couple warm-up dates before you go out, but any chance of US touring?
We just picked up a US agent a couple months ago. I’m definitely not the top-grossing act in the country, but our goal is to get back out there and start working the States again. I’d like to say there’s about an 80 percent chance that this year I’ll be doing some American dates. I definitely want to go back to the East Coast and Midwest, that was always good for me, and of course down in the South. I basically want to hit as much of the States as I can this year, but we’ll see how it works out.
Tags: Brant Bjork, California, Che, Fu Manchu, Kyuss, Los Angeles, Low Desert Punk