Rising from the ashes of the sadly burnt-out but much beloved desert-rock icons Kyuss, Vista Chino have been touring the world for the best part of the last three years, bringing the music and the vision of Kyuss screaming back to life in all of its distorted glory.
Originally formed under the name Kyuss Lives! by ex-Kyuss members Brant Bjork (drums), John Garcia (vocals) and Nick Oliveri (bass) with Brian Fevery (guitar) completing the line-up, the band has experienced significant complications over the course of the past two years, thanks largely to a now rather infamous “trademark infringement and consumer fraud” lawsuit taken out against them by former Kyuss band-mates Josh Homme and Scott Reeder in 2012. The result of that lawsuit being issued was a year lived within the two rather disparate realms of the rock show and the law courts, and eventually by virtue of the judge finding in favour of Homme and Reeder, an enforced name change.
Hurt by the verdict, but nonetheless undeterred from following their vision of bringing Kyuss back to life, the band (by this point consisting of Bjork, Garcia, Fevery and Corrosion of Conformity’s Mike Dean) changed their name to Vista Chino before bunkering down to record and release their debut full-length as a unit, the appropriately titled Peace. Released in September 2013, Peace was well received by critics and fans alike, and has enabled the band to return to the touring circuit with some fresh sounds to incorporate into their stellar sets of Kyuss classics.
Currently in Australia as part of the Big Day Out festival, we caught up with the legendary Brant Bjork backstage at the Sydney leg of the festival to talk about all things Kyuss, conflict, music, family and Peace.
UTG: Obviously you’ve had a rather diverse array of experiences over the last couple of years, dividing your time between a messy law court dispute, a studio and live shows such as this one at the Big Day Out festival, how are you feeling?
Brant Bjork (BB): I feel good, we’re really excited about the new record and we’ve been hitting it hard for the last year or so and to be here at the Big Day Out in Australia is something that is really exciting for us. We all really love Australia and the Big Day Out was something that none of us have had the opportunity to do before, so we’re really excited to be here.
UTG: You’re renowned for being quite a spiritual guy, at least in your own unique interpretation of spirituality anyway, which leads me to ask if you have had an opportunity to absorb any of the landscape or the natural beauty since you’ve been here in Australia. I mean this tour is renowned rather affectionately in musical circles as the Big Day Off, so have you been taking advantage of the off days?
BB: It is for sure. Well, to be honest I am not really the adventurous type, it is quite obvious that Australia is a very beautiful country and I have experienced the natural beauty of it and it is very much everything that it is said to be, but sometimes depending on the kind of tour that it is I just like to sit in my hotel room and chill before the shows, or head down to a local bar and see what the local energy is and try and absorb that and immerse myself in that for the purposes of enjoyment and inspiration, so for the most part this time, I’ve been in the state of mind where I just want to chill out and I’ve been trying to reject any form of formal routine as much as possible, so it’s been a very chilled experience so far.
UTG: The first album under the Vista Chino name, Peace, came out in September. As a listener it comes across as a breath of fresh air in a stale scene. Is it a breath of fresh air for you, as the artist to have that music out there after all the dramas that you went through before it?
BB: Yeah, totally, man. You know, I think Kyuss was for me, a vision that wasn’t ever truly fully realised. So for me, having the opportunity to put the band back together and play those tunes lives to audiences that hadn’t yet had the chance to experience them, and then be able to take that thrill and that initial spark of inspiration and turn that into a chance to create fresh music was a great experience. It was challenging, it was exciting, it was awesome.
UTG: From my interpretation, at least lyrically anyway, the record seems to focus a lot upon your court-room dramas with Josh Homme. Was it as cathartic of an experience as it sounds to get that off of your chest and get the record out there?
BB: Yes, of course, man. I mean I am an artist you know, I’m definitely an extension of my environment and my experiences and like any artist I definitely have a tendency to express those experiences and reflect upon those experiences in my craft. So, you know my art, certainly relating to the Vista Chino record has always been partially fantasy and partially reality and I think the Vista Chino record definitely has both of those — quite a bit of reality and a fair bit of fantasy, too. You don’t really ever plan to go out and vent all over a record, but I think it is definitely healthy to use it as an avenue to cleanse your mind and your soul and that definitely ended up happening on Peace.
UTG: You’ve gone on record as saying that Kyuss was quite dysfunctional as a unit and that made for a rather chaotic and conflict-ridden creative process. Was writing with Vista Chino a different experience to that, and how do you think that difference is reflected in the music?
BB: Well it was exactly the opposite experience. That’s not to say that that’s the key to better music, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, but for me at my age, and after all I have been through as a musician, it was really exciting for me to be able to go back to the Kyuss concept and be able to execute it in a harmonious way with people who I could stand to be in the same room with. It’s exciting, it’s exciting. Tension can inspire some incredible art, but I also think that just jiving with people and focusing upon really good communication and understanding of one another in the collaboration of and fulfillment of the creative process can lead to some incredible art as well. Having had both experiences, I think that when you jive with people, then really the sky is the limit.
UTG: Obviously there is a very diverse line-up on this festival and for a lot of people this might be their first experience to see you perform. What can they expect from Vista Chino that they might not get from any other artist on the line-up?
BB: Well I don’t want to tell anyone what they should do with their time, because I think every band that is here are here for a reason and that reason is that they are world class at what they do, but as far as our band goes, we just perform what we consider to be good, solid, honest rock music, and that’s reflected in our songs and our performance and our execution and if that’s something that people are on the lookout for, then stopping by our set would be a good way to get that fix.
UTG: There are a lot of artists on the bill that would be labelled ‘pop’ acts, at least in the modern context of the word anyhow, and a lot of great pop songwriters in those acts and that skill is something that you’ve mentioned in past interviews you have a great appreciation for. This leads me to wonder how you maintain the balance between that knowledge of pop song craft and pop sensibilities, and the need to include certain aspects of those structures for the melodic needs of the song, with the deeper musical vision you have for the music of Vista Chino.
BB: Wow. That’s a fantastic question right there, man, thank you for asking it. You know, I love pop music, my favourite band that inspired me to become a musician was the Ramones and I’d say 95% of what I do musically is all about combining my love and respect for the crafting of pop music mixed with my love and respect for experimentation. I described it the other day as me being like low-brow pop. You know “Paranoid” by Black Sabbath is a pop song, Led Zeppelin wrote fantastic pop songs, Deep Purple wrote great pop songs, even the early metal bands like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest wrote fantastic hook-filled songs. Where I come from obviously the school is always about getting out there and jamming and that’s where the jazz elements come in, where it’s all about getting out there and performing and it’s all about how you incorporate all of those elements into one cohesive artistic display, and that was very much what Kyuss was all about really.
UTG: Are we going to see some live re-imagining of Kyuss tunes today?
BB: Yeah, for sure, man. Until we get another Vista Chino record under our belt, we’ll definitely be lacing our sets with a fair sprinkling of Kyuss classics.
UTG: I’ll admit that’s somewhat exciting for me, as due to my age I never had the opportunity to see Kyuss live.
BB: And that’s what it is all about, man: Kyuss. It’s been 20 years since that band was an active band, and the kids that have grown up since then and have been exposed to our music have never had the opportunity to see us play those songs, so to be able to deliver on that for them is a big part of what makes our live sets so enjoyable.
UTG: As a musician, do you find it interesting or surprising even that there are new kids discovering Kyuss and really digging what you did as a band, given the fact that in most instances the band has not even been active in their lifetime?
BB: Well I’m not surprised, but I am certainly flattered. Every generation looks back at what came before, like for our generation we loved bands like Black Flag and Bad Brains and then our natural curiosity had us looking back at the bands like Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, and then we even went further backwards in our case anyway and discovered a lot of great blues and jazz, so it makes sense for kids to do that today as well with the music that they like, but it’s definitely flattering to be considered one of those influential bands. I think that anyone who is really into honest true music is always going to find them going backwards.
UTG: Now you’ve got a home studio, which was about 20 years in the making to get that one together, so I assume now that you have the freedom to record whenever you are home we may be likely to see more output from your other acts like Jacuzzi?
BB: It’s really great, man, and as you said it gives me a lot more freedom to write and record as feels natural and as our live schedule allows. As far as plans go, I think this year I’ll put out the Jacuzzi record and that’ll take a more jazz and experimental vibe, with a lot of focus upon experimental rhythms, and then I might look at doing another solo record which will be more of what I have been doing for the last 10 years, which is good, solid, honest rock music.
UTG: Personally I was a drummer originally, which makes your music particularly interesting for me to listen to, and I was wondering if the way that you experiment with so many different genres throughout your different bands is something that you’d recommend to upcoming musicians out there who might be looking to better themselves?
BB: Well, don’t overwhelm yourself with virtuosity at first. I think rhythm and feel should be the basis of what you are doing and then following your instincts and your passions and your intuitions will take you where you need to go.
UTG: Moving back to Vista Chino, do you envision Vista Chino being for the long haul?
BB: At the moment, definitely yes. We feel pretty good right now, so we’re going to go home and cut a new record. You know we all have a lot of other things outside of this band that demand our attention though. You know, we all have families and other bands and responsibilities, but you know as long as we are having a good time and everyone is happy and can find the right balance, then I can’t see a reason why we wouldn’t continue doing this for a very long time. We fought hard enough to get to this point.
UTG: How is the family coping with the return to full-time touring?
BB: It’s hard you know, man, it’s definitely hard. To be perfectly honest, I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to hit it as hard as I do, because I do want to see my boys grow up. So pretty soon I’ll have to evaluate and find that balance, but for now I’m really enjoying the tour, but I am really looking forward to getting home too.
UTG: Now, you’re wearing a Corrosion of Conformity shirt, and you have Mike Dean in your band, what’s that experience been like? And given the rather chaotic history of COC in terms of the line-up chopping and changing, was he a valuable sounding board for you during the whole court-room drama?
Well it’s literally a dream come true. Chris Cockerill and I started the band that would go on to become Kyuss in the summer of 1987 and I think our favourite band at the time was Corrosion of Conformity. We really liked the way they were combining punk rock and metal and it didn’t seem to really fit into either category still and we really liked that idea. Fortunately enough we were able to play with COC as we were coming up through the ranks and personally I was able to play with them at many different festivals and shows through the years and really got to know and like Mike. So when it came time to get a bass player I just shot for the moon and it really worked out. I figured it would be a good fit, and it turns out that we really just jived instantly and we’ve continued to jive ever since, so it is great, it is a really great experience.
UTG: The time has come to let you go and get on with the rest of your day, man, but before I go I was wondering how the Big Day Out festival compares to other festivals you’ve been involved with through the years? Like for example, Coachella or something like that?
BB: Well ironically enough, being that I am from the Coachella Valley, I’ve never actually played the Coachella festival.
UTG: Sorry, man, and I thought I was so well prepared too and then I went and flamed out on the second to last question!
BB: That’s alright, man. I wasn’t making a point or anything, just merely stating a rather unusual fact, but you know festivals are exciting. They are exactly what the name says, they are festive and I am really flattered and pleased that of all the bands that could be invited to play these events, that the Big Day Out thought to invite us. I always feel grateful for that.
UTG: Lastly, just once again tying us back into the festival, are there any bands that you’re looking forward to seeing that you have not had the chance to see?
BB: I’ve not had the chance to see that many bands yet, but the ones I have seen such as Mudhoney have been great. I really like Snoop Dogg and Deftones too so I’ll be trying to check them out later for sure, man.
UTG: Thanks for taking the time to talk today! Enjoy the rest of the festival and I’ll see you later for your set. I’ll be one of many kids losing their minds at hearing Kyuss songs live for the first time.
BB: That’s awesome, man. Have a good day yourself.
As Brant walked away from the interview he took with him an aura of confidence and self-assuredness the likes of which one can only possess when they know they have given their all for what they believe in, and as he disappeared into the grounds of the festival I couldn’t help but find myself marvelling at the fact that despite all the drama and noise of the past few years, he had managed to emerge in remarkably good spirits, with a great sense of hope and excitement for the future. I got the sense that the drama had only further solidified his desire to finally fulfill the musical vision he had for Kyuss all those years ago and that Peace was the creative outlet he had needed to pursue to find not closure, but a sense of renewal and beginning.
Approximately three hours later I was fortunate enough to experience the Vista Chino live show in all of its glory, and it was every bit as spectacular and fulfilling as I had hoped. The rhythm section of Bjork and Dean were locked in and from the get-go, providing the perfect backdrop for the guitars of Fevery and the iconic voice of Garcia to cut through and deliver inspiring performances. Encouragingly, the Vista Chino tracks “Dargona Dragona” and “Adara” slid seamlessly into a set containing Kyuss classics like “Gardenia,” “Thumb,” “Freedom Run,” and “Green Machine,” ensuring a perfect balance of nostalgia and progression was maintained. As the faces of audience members young and old lit up at the start of every Kyuss track, I couldn’t help but notice that the band seemed every bit as thrilled to be playing those songs again as the audience was to hear them, and as Bjork smashed away in his trademark manner, his smile once again underlined what I had gathered from both the record and our interview – Vista Chino is not the end of the Kyuss story, but rather the continuation of it, and there are still many, many chapters to go.