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Brant Bjork of Vista Chino Talks Bassist Troubles, Drumming Legends, and Lawsuits 

Wednesday, Sep 4 2013
If legendary Palm Desert band Kyuss stands a cornerstone of the downtuned stoner-rock movement that emerged during the '90s, musician Brant Bjork has earned his place as one of the genre's architects. Besides playing drums on the best albums by Kyuss and Orange County heshers Fu Manchu, he also produced an avalanche of music as a guitarist and songwriter under his own name as well as with the bands Che and Brant Bjork and the Bros.

Fans rejoiced in 2010 when Bjork reunited with original Kyuss singer John Garcia and bassist Nick Oliveri to tour as Kyuss Lives! (Belgian guitarist Bruno Fevery filled the sizeable shoes of Kyuss founder and Queens of the Stone Age leader Josh Homme). But when the group announced plans to record new material under the moniker, Homme and latter-era Kyuss bassist Scott Reader blindsided the band with a lawsuit that eventually forced a name change to Vista Chino. Despite the turmoil of the legal battle and not one, but two departures by Oliveri, Vista Chino has emerged triumphant with Peace, a stunning debut album on Napalm Records that lives up to the high standards set by Kyuss. Ahead of Vista Chino's show this Thursday, Sept. 12, at Slim's, Bjork spoke with SF Weekly about the lawsuit, the album recording process, and drafting Corrosion of Conformity bassist Mike Dean into the band.

I read in another interview that you played bass on one song from Peace, which made me wonder how the bassist situation panned out. I know Nick was involved in the initial recording, but what was his contribution as far as songwriting? And if Mike Dean came in to play bass as well, how did that part of the writing and recording process break down?

When we officially started the creative process and were like, "Okay, we're going to start on our new record," literally about five days later Josh and Scott filed the lawsuit against us. Of course, it wasn't long after that Nick decided to step out.

John isn't an instrumentalist. He plays a little guitar, but he's mostly interested in melodies and lyrics. At that point, we had a record to do while we were dealing with a federal lawsuit. But it was really just Bruno and I hanging out in the desert and writing songs. So we approached the whole record from that position: just drums and guitars and songs and jamming.

We demoed and tracked many, many songs, just the two of us. We really got into it in terms of jamming and creating and recording. And then we'd pull John in there and he'd listen to some stuff and give his two cents. He'd start seeing what inspired him to go in what direction with what words and what melodies. We tracked the whole thing — the guitar and drums — live.

At that time, we'd pulled in a friend of ours to play bass because we still had some Kyuss Lives! commitments in Europe and the Soundwave Festival down in Australia. So our friend [bassist Billy Cordell] came in and took a crack at dropping some bass tracks, but it was immediately clear that it just wasn't working out. I think it was at that point that Nick was back in touch with us. Even though he split, we understood because there was a lot of moving parts when it came to that situation at that particular time.

So there were no hard feelings there, and Nick was excited to come back and rejoin the group and start dropping tracks on the record. Which he did, and it sounded fantastic, of course. And everything was groovy, and then Nick ran into some more problems with his personal life and he wasn't able to come with us down to Australia. At that point, I pulled Mike Dean in. There were two or three tracks left on the record that Nick didn't get an opportunity to play bass on, so Mike played on one track and I think I played on two or three. That's kind of how it worked out.

Was Mike Dean the first guy who came to mind as far as stepping in for Nick?

Yeah, 100 percent. I've known Nick my whole life. I played Little League baseball with Nick; that's how far back we go. I love Nick. He's like a brother and he's an amazing bass player, really. He's got such an explosively rad personality, I think sometimes people forget how awesome he truly is on his instrument. And Scott Reeder is an exceptional bass player as well. But to be honest, my favorite bass player since I was young, back in the punk rock days, was always Mike Dean. I always loved him and always thought he had a really cool style and was a real groovy bass player.

So when Nick wasn't able to go with us to Australia and things started to get all shook up again, I'll tell you, man, I was just really at the end of my rope with bass players [laughs]. Bass players have made the last two years of my life very complicated at best. So I said, "You know what? I'm just going to shoot for the moon." I've known Mike for years and I finally just gave him a call. Within a week, he was out in the desert and we were working on the set to go down to Australia. He's been with us ever since, man.

In some ways, he kind of like the reward for all the BS that we've had to go through. He's one of the coolest guys I've ever worked with. He's super, super grounded; he's got overwhelmingly large amounts of positive energy, which is certainly something we're down with and need. And most importantly, the music right now — the chemistry of the band live — is getting super, super deluxe.

So right now, we're in a situation where if it's not broke, don't fix it. The schedules are jibing with Corrosion of Conformity, because we certainly don't want to cause any problems there. COC is a great band. Right now everything is good. Mike is committed to support the record, so we're just going to go out there and go rock.

I have to say the two main bands you've played drums for — Kyuss and Fu Manchu — and Clutch are the only heavy rock bands from the modern era that swing relentlessly. Lots of metal and hard-rock drummers try to copy John Bonham and Bill Ward, but they don't swing like those drummers. You and Jean-Paul Gaster from Clutch are the only two drummers who capture that aspect....

Well, thanks! I appreciate that. I know JP from Clutch and he's a fantastic drummer. The thing is, you have to remember that in the '60s, drummers like John Bonham and Bill Ward from Sabbath and even your drummers from earlier, like Ginger Baker and Mitch Mitchell and Keith Moon, these guys were raised on jazz drumming. Your Gene Krupas and Art Blakeys and stuff like that, or Buddy Rich.

I mean, Buddy Rich was John Bonham's whole style. If you took Buddy Rich and gave him a bunch of vodka and 'ludes, he would have been John Bonham. That's where that swing comes from. By the time you start getting into the late '70s and early '80s, unfortunately that swing was kind of washed out of rock drumming.

Rock drumming hadn't been invented yet. Before Bonham and Bill Ward and those other guys, there was no such thing as rock drumming. They were actually pioneering a whole new style of drums. That jazz influence got washed out over the years, but I think JP and I do a good job of bringing that groove and that jazz back to heavy rock.

You touched on the suit filed by Josh Homme and Scott Reader. There must have been a lot of frustration after having this initial amiable agreement for you to go on tour as Kyuss Lives! How hard was it for the two sides to come to an settlement?

Well, it was a very difficult experience for all of us, you know? It wasn't easy to come to an agreement. In fact, John and I really never had a chance. We didn't have much ground to stand on in terms of the lawsuit. It's kind of a frustrating reality, but it didn't really rely on law and right and principle; the things you normally equate with justice.

It really was a matter of economics, and Josh has deep pockets, man. So John and I really didn't have any leverage in terms of what we needed and wanted. Josh just basically wanted money and wanted us to not use the name, and that's what he got. That's just the way the cookie crumbles.

But John and I and Bruno and of course Mike, we're just happy to be where we're at. We're just musicians and we're happy to play music. That was a real drag. It was a bummer experience, but I learned a lot. I think we all learned a lot. I can't get hung up on the negativity and the hatred those other guys have. We stay focused and we stay positive. We'll just move on doing what we love: making music.
Thu., Sept. 12, 9 p.m., 2013

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Dave Pehling

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