Trump, Punk and Generator Parties: A Reflective Conversation with Brant Bjork

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“When it comes to this record now, I feel comfortable that I can now just say ‘this is Brant Bjork’. It took me twenty years to be confident, I’ve arrived at confident.” This is how the man known to many as a founding father of desert rock is describing his forthcoming self-titled record. After years of collaborations, not to mention performing in a plethora of legendary bands such as Kyuss, Fu Manchu and Fatso Jetson, this May sees the release of Bjork’s thirteenth solo release, an eponymous album on which he plays each and every instrument. The record sleeve comes adorned with his name front and centre in bright red and a commanding photo of the man himself, arms outstretched to the listener. It’s a bold statement that gives the impression of a musician at ease in his own skin; a man making the music he was born to make. However, for Bjork, It’s been quite a journey to get to this point.

Talking to us over the phone ahead of the album’s originally scheduled April release date, Bjork takes us through this journey. “In general from a very young age, I was just attracted to music as a whole, the sounds, harmonies and the rhythms,” he tells us.

In his neighbourhood, Bjork was the youngest of a group of older boys in a new suburban area in the desert. He was introduced to the likes of The Rolling Stones, Kiss and Queen, but the first band he remembers discovering on his own was The Ramones. “Just as I was discovering The Ramones, my older cousin was also telling me more about punk and the Sex Pistols and that got me even more excited,” he recalls. “It was kinda naughty and dangerous, you know? I was attracted to that.”

Perhaps punk’s greatest asset is its ability to show music fans anywhere that they can be a musician too. It seemingly had this effect on young Bjork. “I had a friend across the street, he was in a band and I used to watch him play drums all the time. So I would come home, beat on pots and pans, then one Christmas my folks got me a snare drum. From there I put a drum kit together over the next year or two and started playing the drums in bands.”

It was this instrument that Brant would come to play in stoner rock legends Kyuss, most notably on the band’s now legendary albums Blues For The Red Sun and Welcome To Sky Valley. The band formed in a time when desert rock wasn’t really a genre and the scene wasn’t really a scene at all, merely a group of kids playing at generator parties out in the desert. There was a generation above us who were very much responsible for building the foundations of what would become desert rock,” Bjork admits. “But speaking for all of us, I think we were all desperately trying to build a punk rock scene in response to what we saw and heard on records. A lot of these guys in the desert were going up to L.A. and we were almost like a satellite to L.A. and their punk movement. I don’t think anyone in the desert was excited to buy an amp and go out in the dirt *laughs*. We wanted to play in clubs and have a packed house of hyped-up kids bouncing off the walls. We just realised, in terms of clubs, there weren’t any. If there ever was a place that allowed your band to play, you’d play there once and they were like “yeah, enough of that” *laughs*.”

In response, the desert became their place: “Someone, and we might never know who that first person was, was like ‘let’s just go out in the desert.’ It was one hundred percent a necessity, it wasn’t part of some master plan. I’d heard about generator parties when I was a young kid getting involved in the scene and it was fun and a pretty unique experience but I don’t think we realised at the time just how unique it was. We were just desperate to have some sort of event that represented where we were as a young movement in a small desert town listening to punk music. So we ended up taking pride in what we did, but when someone would come from San Diego or L.A. to our scene it was like ‘hey, what are you doing here, you’ve already got everything you want, why come here?’ But we never thought in a million years that the world would recognise what we were doing, that’s the irony of all that. It’s just so surreal. Stranger than fiction.”

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In creating their own scene, the bands involved were doing what hungry young artists have done the world over – forging their own space to be creative, regardless of whether the world was interested in what they had to say or not. Like other scenes emerging out of a distinct region, they would also find themselves grouped together regardless of sound. Nevertheless, the sound of the desert clearly inspired many of these artists, their fuzzy riffs beating down like the scorching sun, whilst lackadaisical grooves channeled the spirit of the blazing heat that strips you of your energy. The freeing spirit of punk may have been an influence, but raw aggression and breakneck speeds simply weren’t an apt reflection of these kids’ lives in the desert.

The expanses of the vast open desert and the nature within that space came through in the music Bjork made, and still does. Punk may have been the spark that inspired Bjork and those around him, but another significant moment came when Bjork first saw Yawning Man. “They were one of the first bands that I heard that surrendered to the environment and just let go of any kind of sonic, urban pursuits like punk,” he says. “They sounded like the desert.”

“I never even knew you could do that,” Bjork continues. “A couple of years later when we were finding our sonic direction with Kyuss I kind of saw where Josh [Homme]’s influences were leading him and I said ‘I think there’s a way to take what we love on record and pull in an environmental element to it, like Yawning Man.’ That’s not to say that I wanted the band to sound like Yawning Man, but it made me think we could do our version of capturing the desert. With Kyuss, the name of the game was to make the heaviest music of all time. It was plain and simple, that was our goal and I remember upon listening to the final mixes of Blues For The Red Sun I personally felt that we had accomplished that. There was the great ‘70s rock movement of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath and the other greats and that’ll never be topped, but you have to keep trying something new and at the time we all thought we could create the new sound of heavy music.”

It’s fair to say they did. Kyuss in particular would go on to help inspire a generation of stoner rock and metal, and the members involved would branch out into other successful bands. Guitarist Josh Homme would, of course, go on to form Queens Of The Stone Age with bassist Nick Oliveri and Bjork’s replacement on drums, Alfredo Hernández. Oliveri later formed Mondo Generator. Vocalist John Garcia would form Slo Burn and briefly join Karma To Burn. Meanwhile, Bjork would create Brant Bjork And The Bros, and record and perform with Fu Manchu, Mondo Generator and Vista Chino, where he reunited with Garcia and Oliveri.

These days, however, his solo career is his most prolific outlet, a venture which kickstarted with Jalamanta in 1999. Two decades on, Bjork remains a master of depicting the vast desert planes, all the while exploring his relationship with them. His latest record seems to be a slight departure from past efforts, however. It marks the first time in a long while that he has performed all instruments himself throughout, and it’s self-titled nature seems to be a statement – this is Brant Bjork. Nothing more, nothing less. “Yeah, it’s kind of a full circle,” the man himself agrees. “I’ve gone back to what initially led me on a path of solo work. It was just me and my engineer Yosef Sandborn, who’s very much responsible for the sound and production of the record. It’s his production and my songs, it’s really that simple.”

The record boasts a relaxed, natural feel that runs from the easygoing vibes of ‘Duke Of Dynamite’ right through to the classic rock of ‘Jesus Was A Bluesman’ and the heavy funk of ‘Jungle In The Sound’. “It came so naturally that I didn’t even go in with any songs,” the songwriter reveals. “I felt confident enough to just say ‘I’ll write as we go.’ I’m a democratic person by nature, I love the concept of cooperation and working together. But I saw an interview with Lenny Kravitz prior to making this record where he says ‘I try to work with a lot of people over the years, but what I do, I do on my own’ and that kind of inspired me. I felt like I’d done a lot of collaborations, I was really inclusive with my bands over the years and I felt like I achieved what I’d aimed to achieve with those collaborations. It was time to go home. Like, I’d climbed the mountain, I’d seen the beautiful view but I was ready to go home now.”

The record certainly feels like home for Bjork. His inimitable voice and style have seldom been presented so clearly. In fact, it may be the most personal record he has released since Jalamanta, which saw its twentieth anniversary last year. The occasion was marked with a reissue. “That was a really intense experience,” says Bjork. “It’s like looking at a really clear, up-close photograph of your face from twenty years ago, like ‘wow, who is that person?’ Hearing that music was really touching, especially listening with Tony Mason, who was my recording partner. When I made that record I had no idea I’d be a solo artist, that wasn’t my intention. I had no idea I’d do another one. It was almost like I fell into a river and never got out. I just went down the river *laughs*.”

It was a chance for Bjork to reflect. We inquire as to whether this is something he’s doing more as he delves further into his solo career. Funnily enough, Bjork answers this question with a reflection on the past, exploring his relationship with childhood friend and Kyuss writing partner Josh Homme, and how their careers and goals differ. “Josh was so aware of who he was and where he came from, he wanted to legendise himself and reinvent himself for the sake of music and entertainment,” Bjork suggests. “And he did just that and he’s been very successful at it. For me that’s the result of someone who’s so self aware, they want to become what they’re not. For me I didn’t know who I was, so how the hell was I supposed to go out and create this mythology about myself and build myself into this thing where I can entertain myself, how can I do that if I don’t know who I am?”

Whilst Homme ascended the music industry’s ladder to become a contemporary rockstar, with all the positives and negatives that come with it, Bjork used music as a chance to explore his inner self. “My whole thing with my music career, from the moment I became a solo artist, was all about self discovery,” he tells us. “It’s all about finding who I am. It’s not to say one [route] is more important than the other in the grand scheme of things, but for me personally, that’s what it’s all about. And over the years I’ve discovered, I’ve found myself, learnt more about who I am. And when I listen to my records that’s what they are. It’s the beautiful, ugly journey of self discovery.”

Bjork’s records, then, can be thought of as a series of chapters in his life, revealing who he was at different stages of adulthood. “I don’t think I’ve changed much in terms of my music, or my intention,” Bjork suggests. “I’m just a simple tree and this is the fruit that grows on it. A lemon tree doesn’t produce pineapples *laughs*. As I get older, I’m just getting more comfortable with the authenticity of what I am and what I do. What I hear in my new record Vs. Jalamanta is that Jalamanta is the sound of a kid saying ‘I’m going to show you what’s inside of me and I’m not even sure what that is’ and my new record is the sound of me just saying ‘this is what’s inside of me, and that’s ok.’”

Perhaps this sense of being comfortable in his skin is the reason why the new record is self-titled. When we suggest this, Bjork reminisces about the initial decision to release music under his own name all those years ago. “Why are you trying to give it a title when it should just be under Brant Bjork?” a friend suggested to him. Bjork initially thought this was absurd, especially considering he was still on his quest of self-discovery. “I’m such a committed soldier to bands and rock ‘n’ roll, that it was never my intention to be a solo artist *laughs*. But my friend was just like ‘Dude, this is you. If authenticity is what you’re after, you have to put Jalamanta out under your own name.’ Being the pragmatist that I am, I couldn’t argue with that logic so I went under my own name. So when it comes to this record now, I feel comfortable that I can just say ‘this is Brant Bjork.’”

At the time of speaking, Bjork had touring planned for the coming months. Subsequently, the Covid-19 pandemic put a stopper on those plans – including pushing back the album’s release date. Perhaps, at least, this will give Bjork more time with his family. “It does get more difficult to leave,” he admits, with two boys and a wife. “I’m managing all those emotions and of course there’s always world events that pop up, ones we’re dealing with right now, which is all extra confusing. It’s an interesting time.”

At the time of the call, he isn’t referring to Coronavirus, which was yet to come, but the political instability and effects of climate change growing around the world. Over the years, Bjork has seen the USA change considerably. “I’m an artist,” he tells us. “I was an artist before I was even a musician. Artists always have a way of acknowledging and processing the political climate. I’m aware that politics is everywhere at all times. You know, [Kyuss’] ‘Green Machine’ was a song where I was touching upon the political climate of America in ‘91/’92 with Bush, the Gulf War, Desert Storm and all the greed inherent in the infrastructure of the military. And a lot of people in stoner rock, they completely dismissed that. My solo work has been created through a lot of different climates. The Bush years were really difficult.”

“In fact when I look back I was struggling with those years and I was very celebratory when Obama came into power,” he continues. “But now, the Trump situation has just been really, really surreal. Trump is also a representation of where countries, especially countries like America, go when dealing with technological advances of things like digitised news, social media, smart phones and 24-hour news. It’s like McDonald’s, you’ve got to produce something that’s got to be pumped out every minute and Trump is part of that. News has now become entertainment. It’s a very, very trying time. I’m just hanging on *laughs*.”

Trump will come and go, and hopefully the world can move further and further away from the politics he represents. Whatever happens, though, we can be confident that Bjork will still be around. “I’ll always play music,” he confirms. “I love recording. I’ll always record and release records and of course I Iove playing live. I remember my first gig in Palm Springs Desert when I was thirteen, I’ll never forget that rush; I love playing live and always will. But I don’t see myself in the tour groove for much longer, to be honest. I want to be at home with my boys, you only have one chance at that.” 

“I’ve given all that I can to the world of rock. I’m content now.”

The full transcript of this interview is available exclusively to our supporters on Patreon. Click here to join them!

Brant Bjork’s self-titled album was originally due to release 10th April but is now due 8th May digitally, followed by physical pressings on 29th May via Heavy Psych Sounds.

Words: George Parr

Interview: Adam Pegg