BRANT BJORK – Soldier Of Rock
Brant Bjork – based in Palm Springs, California and best known for his tenure behind the drumkit for stoner rock outfit Kyuss – embarked upon the Kyuss-related ensemble Vista Chino from 2010 until 2014, a band which spawned the lone outing Peace (September 2013). Brant would subsequently return to his solo career following its dissolution, a career which had already seen the issue of a slew of solo releases. November 2014 affair Black Power Flower expands upon that aforementioned solo catalogue.
“Writing just consisted of me going into my studio by myself,” he shares. “When it comes to my solo work, I’ve never collaborated. I’ve only written by myself. I set up my four-track cassette, and just let everything fall out of me. It was about maybe three weeks of just constant riffing, and beats, and drums, and songs. I think it was around earlier in 2014, maybe February, or January. To be honest, I don’t really recall. I’ve always worked non-stop, sorry, and I don’t really have a good concept of time (laughs). I really don’t know.
“About the fourth week, I started to just pick and choose what I thought best represented what I needed to express, and fleshed it out. I needed to go back to a more primal expression of the music that I hear inside me. I didn’t want to try to over-intellectualise the process, the result, and the need to create this music. I wanted to kind of just have it be total action, a primal action, and much like it was when I was younger discovering punk rock and stuff. That’s why I’ve said that in spirit this record is kind of like my punk rock record.
“Even though I wasn’t of the era, I grew up on my neighbourhood with guys that were much older than me. They kind of turned me onto punk rock at a very young age. Lucky for me, I was turned onto the original wave – the first wave of punk bands. Not necessarily proto-punk, but bands like The Damned, and The Ramones, and The Sex Pistols, and stuff like that. As a kid, I was kind of able to quickly see the difference between that, and say something like Kiss and The Rolling Stones. To me, punk was simple in spirit. It reminded me of rock ’n’ roll, the rock ’n’ roll that my dad played around the house like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and stuff like that. It had urgency, and it was artistic too. I think the movement was really about art as well, and so I think to sum it up in spirit, to me it’s just primal art really.”
Although the frontman wished to return to a more primal expression, that isn’t to say his solo material has become more complicated fare in recent years. “Not necessarily,” he notes. “I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever over-intellectualised my music or created music that would be considered testy or pretentious, but part of what I wanted to achieve with this record and these songs was to deliberately try to simplify. I wanted to almost give myself boundaries, draw some lines in the sand and just kind of try to keep it simple, which is difficult to do sometimes.
“It was really just a non-stop process. I’d get up every morning and just work all day, and then turn it off, and do the same thing the next day. I just did that until I achieved what I wanted. It was almost like a painting, and yeah, like I said, just get to the point. It took me about 50 songs to get to these tracks. They were pretty deep, and it felt like there were layers of unnecessary elements stacked on top of these songs, which were buried. I just had to dig real deep, and get to the essence and the point of what needed to be expressed. There was some trimming of the fat, for sure. And getting to the point, getting to the point really.”
Albeit accredited to Brant Bjork And The Low Desert Punk Band, Black Power Flower is nevertheless “very much a solo album. All of the words represent my personal feelings. All the riffs and arrangements are mine, but I wanted to capture a band executing these songs in the studio and then of course taking it to the stage. It was important to me that the band was identified in what this record is.”
To capture a band executing Black Power Flower’s respective tracks, an array of musicians were accordingly assembled. “As I was becoming more aware of what this record needed to be and was going to be, I was able to focus on the proper musicians that would make sense for this music,” Brant explains. “It just involved calling some of my old friends that also came from a punk rock root, and so they would understand that spirit that I was tapping into. Then like I said, these are guys that are friends, and that I have history with. There was some camaraderie and some familiarity there, and so it wasn’t really super-difficult to kind of stop and think who would make sense. It kind of came to me pretty quickly, and then I just made some phone calls. I called Dave Dinsmore who plays bass, Tony Tomay who plays drums, and Bubba Dupree who plays guitar, and it really was a pretty smooth process. It took a couple of phone calls, and then we were already scheduling.”
In selecting which musicians to telephone, musical ability wasn’t the overriding concern. “It’s an interesting group of musicians, and I’ll tell you,” the vocalist begins. “I kind of focused more on personality, and I didn’t really know if a chemistry was going to be there immediately. I knew that it would in time, and sometimes it takes time, and naturally it takes time for certain musicians to generate a chemistry, but I was actually amazed at how fast the chemistry of this group came together. Tony’s a very non-flash drummer; he’s got a really solid one and a two. He’s kind of like a bricklayer; he just goes to work, and he keeps the beat.
“And Dave, Dave’s a great bass player. He’s one of my favourite bass players; he’s very musical, but he’s got a lot of intensity, and he can swing. He’s got a great swing on the bass, and Bubba. I had never played music with Bubba Dupree, but I was a fan of his guitar playing and I knew him as a person. He turned out to be even beyond my expectations, which were already fair. He’s an unbelievable guitar player. I’ve always said that every musician, their musicianship perfectly represents their personality. Bubba’s a very reserved, quiet guy, but a deep thinker and a very intelligent man and that’s reflected in his guitar playing, so it turned out great.”
During October, Brant Bjork And The Low Desert Punk Band toured across Europe. “It was great,” Brant exclaims. “I was excited to come back over and play as a solo artist. It had been about four years. I didn’t really know what to expect, other than I knew that the band was gonna execute well and that we were just gonna have a good time. That’s exactly what we did, but really the expectations… Like I said, not having really much, I was blown away at the responses of the crowds and the turnouts. It really felt good to see people come out to the shows and then also respond to the new material, because we shamelessly played a lot of new songs without the new record being out yet, and people responded almost as if they were already familiar with the new material. It was very positive. I don’t know if I’m being over-optimistic, but I feel like the appreciation for just rock music in general seems to be super-solid right now in Europe.”
So rock isn’t dead then, as Kiss bassist Gene Simmons claimed in a September 2014 interview with Esquire magazine. “I wouldn’t say it’s dead,” the guitarist chuckles.
The fact that Brant displayed enough confidence in Black Power Flower’s material to play much of the record live prior to its release is encouraging, given that some artists can be too cautious with respect to more recent fare. “Sometimes the word ‘new’ can just bring anxiety to people,” he reasons. “Change is inevitable; I welcome change, and sometimes I force change upon myself. I have that thing in me where it’s time to go to work – I can’t sit around if I know that something has to be done. Then I can’t relax until I get it done. This is a new band, this is a new vibration, and these are new songs. Why wait? Let’s get out there and do it. That’s what we came to do, so let’s start doing it.”
The story behind the genesis of Black Power Flower’s title isn’t necessarily an elaborate one. “When it came time to give this record a title, it’s not easy to name anything really – name a band, name a child, name a record,” the singer observes. “It was an interesting task, to name this record. I didn’t have a working title, and I didn’t even really think about it until it was time to do so. I applied the same kind of direction that I did with the music, which is I thought ‘Can I just pick some words that don’t necessarily have a specific meaning, but a couple or three words that can sum up the feeling behind the music?’
“I almost don’t even know why, but Black Power Flower just kept coming up in my head. I tried to figure out what that meant, and again, it goes back to that whole idea about how I maybe didn’t have to over-intellectualise the meaning. I think Black Power Flower looks and sounds to me like the record. The word ‘black’ and the word ‘power’ and the word ‘flower’ just makes sense to me.”
For listeners and journalists alike, erroneously referring to the album as Black Flower Power as opposed to Black Power Flower is an easy mistake to make. “That’s an interesting question,” Brant replies, queried as to whether this is the case. “The answer is yes, and I’m actually really interested in that. I’d say about half the time, which is pretty amazing odds, that half the time people have mixed it up and put Black Flower Power. Going back to that punk rock spirit, I want to push some buttons, and I want to force people… I don’t know if ‘force’ is the word, but inspire people to maybe look at things differently, or step outside the box, or their comfort zone.
“I want to shake, rattle, and roll them a little bit, and Black Power is something that when said can scare some people. It scares people, but sometimes when you hear Black Power, it reminds people, it inspires people, and it makes them feel good. I like that duality and that controversy, and I think that’s a big part of this title on this record. I don’t really know why people mistake it, but it’s kind of funny (laughs).”
A more carefree approach was applied to penning lyrics. “When it came time to write the lyrics, again, it was just about a feel and not so much about a thought,” the axeman ponders. “I’m not trying to express a specific point; there’s no specific message in my words – I’m just expressing feelings. I haven’t taken the time to go back through all of my records and words, but I’d say right now that I think my words are kind of more in line with what a rap would be. It’s kind of this freestyle, stream of consciousness, and sometimes when words start coming out you can almost respond to your own words and then come up with something that you might not have even intended, or maybe you can further a specific direction by stacking some words on top of each other. It very much is just representing the feelings at the time of the creative process, what these songs are sonically, and vibration-wise. That’s how the words just came out of me.”
Brant harboured both positive and negative feelings at the time of the creative process. “I sometimes wonder if that’s what Black Power Flower is all about,” he muses. “It’s the duality of the day and the night, and good and bad, and black and white, and negative and positive. It’s both. It’s about being aware of both and accepting both, and my feelings were that. I had a lot of anger in me, but I had a lot of optimism as well. It’s kind of like a funky blues, you know what I mean? You’re singing the blues but you’re simultaneously starting to feel that funk again too, which is you’re getting to that higher ground but you’re aware that you’re singing the blues too.”
As referenced earlier in this feature, a punk spirit has been noted with respect to Black Power Flower, although the platter boasts elements gleaned from several genres. “Sonically, it’s just explosive,” the mainman reckons. “It’s very loud; we recorded live to tape extremely loud, and the tones are even sometimes abrasive and very electric. And it’s funky as well, but it’s very much a rock record. Those records from the golden years of the late 60s and early 70s, which is such a beautiful period of rock music – it’s like proto-rock. I like those years when the 70s weren’t here yet, but people in the 60s were trying to figure out how to really push the envelope in terms of the music that was being created. I think that Cream was probably one of the best examples of that; Cream had the obvious jazz and blues influence, but it started to get loud, with improv. You could hear the beginning stages of heavy rock music, and this is also my version of that. I’m not really concerned with what the modern world has done to music – I still prefer those days of old.”
Cream vocalist / bassist Jack Bruce succumbed to liver disease on October 25th at the age of 71. “It’s a bummer,” Brant laments. “I was actually in London at a bar when we got the news, and saw it on the television. Yeah, it’s a real drag. He was one of the best; he was one of the best singers, and obviously he was one of the best bass players. He was a real, real talent. It’s a major loss for Britain but he left the world with timeless music, so he’s bit of a champion.”
Cream’s peers also prove influential on the axe-slinger’s work. “There are so many,” he estimates. “I’m always gonna cite (Jimi) Hendrix and all that he did. (Black) Sabbath is always a band that I think is such a huge influence, and so many bands and artists reference Sabbath. It’s not necessarily the doom – I think they come to call it now, doom. That’s not at all the element of Sabbath that I celebrate and that I gravitated towards when I was younger. What I heard in Sabbath was really funk; I thought Sabbath was really funky, man, I thought they were a funky band; I thought Bill Ward and Geezer Butler were a seriously funky rhythm section. Blue Cheer, and you might not hear it in there, but even bands like The Grateful Dead and stuff and of course Funkadelic and stuff like that.”
Recording wasn’t a drawn-out affair. “In keeping with the punk spirit, I wanted to move fast,” Brant remarks. “I have my own studio out in the desert here out in Joshua Tree, southern California, but I didn’t want to take advantage of that luxury – at least not for this record. It was important that I still moved quick in a rock ’n’ roll fashion; I gave the guys this music, and then deliberately didn’t give them much time to wrap their heads around it. I wanted everybody to execute the music, and I wanted to capture it with the sense that we were really just trying to hang on. No-one was able to fully, confidently master the music, and I wanted that. I deliberately wanted it to feel like we were just hanging on.”
The original cover artwork concept for Black Power Flower was designed by the lyricist in collaboration with a friend in Los Angeles. “Both him and I are not graphic designers to say the least, but we kind of put together a concept which involved a marijuana leaf and some funky writing, and some colour that kind of just popped off,” he details. “We sent it to Napalm – the record label – and I was surprised. I didn’t know if they were gonna back it, but they really liked the concept.
“They suggested another artist in Germany who could better execute the images and everything though, and so I said ‘Fine. It doesn’t have to be done by us. It’s more about what it looks like.’ Napalm has this artist in Germany, Alex von Wieding. He took a crack at it, and he’s a fan. He’s familiar with me and my music, so he understood the direction. He sent back his first crack at it, and that’s exactly what the record art is. That was just his first initial response. We looked at it and said ‘Yeah. What more could or would you do?,’ so we just signed off.”
A music video to accompany Black Power Flower’s issue is in the pipeline. “Right now, my managers are actually in the process of putting together some people to do a video, but I don’t know which one it’ll be for,” Brant informs. “I know there’s some urgency there, as well. I think they’re moving fast, so I’m sure it’ll be done before the end of the year.”
Handling the outing’s issue is Napalm. News of the fact that the composer had inked an album contract with the label surfaced on June 4th. “They approached me in 2010, and mentioned that even though they’re a heavy metal record label, they wanted to start venturing into more rock bands,” he recalls. “They approached me and Monster Magnet I think, and from then until now, obviously I put that offer on the shelf while I got busy with Kyuss Lives! and then of course Vista Chino. During that time, that’s why Vista Chino ended up releasing our record on Napalm. They took their interest, and parlayed it over into what I was doing with Vista Chino. Then after that, when we decided to go back to solo work, Napalm just made me an offer for my solo record. That kind of went back to 2010.
“They actually made me a better offer, and they did good. They did good with the VC (Vista Chino) record. Musically, I don’t know if they fully understand me as an artist, but they definitely understand that what I’m doing is done well and they wanna help me get the music to as many people as possible. Like I said, they did a good job with the VC record, so I didn’t see any reason why not to take a shot with this solo record. I licensed it to them, and so let’s see what happens.”
When interviewing Vista Chino frontman John Garcia with respect to his solo debut, he said that further music from Vista Chino is doubtful given the fact he wishes to concentrate on his solo career for a number of years. Brant also wishes to concentrate on his respective solo career. “The initial plan was to do two VC records and kind of respond to the first one, but at the 11th hour John changed his mind and decided that he wanted to pursue his solo music,” he tells. “For me, it’s always welcoming because to be perfectly honest, there’s no place I’d rather be than creating my solo music and kind of driving my own cars so to speak. I was like ‘Yeah, absolutely. Let’s do it.’”
The frontman’s immediate plans are to embark on a short break. “I’ve been working hard, so I’m gonna take this time between now and the end of the year to just hang out with my wife and kids, and chill out,” he discloses. “I plan to go back out on the road probably early next year, and so we’re gonna support the record throughout 2015. I’ve already talked to Bubba though, and so I think we’re gonna simultaneously work on some new music throughout next year and hopefully record another record as well.”
Oft-discussed among Brant Bjork fanatics, the full-length effort Jacuzzi will eventually see the light of day. “I love the Jacuzzi record,” he exclaims. “The Jacuzzi record was the last session I did in 2010 before I got Kyuss back together with John and Nick. It’s kind of like me being in the studio and going in a more funk, jazz direction. I kind of always feel like I’m constantly balancing this dualism inside me where it’s jazz and funk and rock and punk and everything in-between, and sometimes it’s like a pendulum. I go back and forth with that particular record; it swings real far into the funk and jazz influence. I wouldn’t call it a funk record and I wouldn’t call it a jazz record, but I think once people hear the music they’ll understand. It is instrumental; I didn’t see the need to sing on any of it.
“I would love to release that thing, but it’s just turned into time management. I’ve got things in front of me that are just demanding priority, and the Jacuzzi record has just been so patient. I’m kind of taking advantage of that, but we’ll see. I’ve got to talk to a couple of key people and see if we can finally get the planets to align, and get that thing out probably early in 2015.”
Jacuzzi was entirely a self-recording. “Again, when I do that – when I do a record myself like that – it’s almost because I just don’t really have the time to assemble other players, and schedules and all of that,” Brant clarifies. “I almost feel the need to just get the music out of me and do it quick, so it’s just me playing everything.”
Black Power Flower was released on November 10th, 2014 in the United Kingdom, on the 14th in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Finland, and Benelux, on the 17th in the rest of Europe (except Norway, Sweden, and Spain), on the 18th in North America, and subsequently on the 19th in Norway, Sweden, and Spain, all via Napalm Records.
Interview published in November 2014.
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