Brant Bjork Tells All

Stoner Rock’s Founding Father Declares His Independence on “Mankind Woman”

“I think it’s this ironic twist of fate that when I’m at the grocery store I’m either seeing a magazine with Trump’s face on it, or a magazine with a pot leaf on it.” Brant Bjork, founding drummer of the legendary Palm Desert, California rock band Kyuss, prolific multi-instrumentalist, and arguably the man who struck the match on the entire modern “stoner rock” genre, chuckles. His tone is a familiar one: The type of wry bemusement we all get when we pinpoint something sort of funny about the state of our current affairs, yet the weight of everything happening elsewhere is too heavy to actually outright laugh.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the year 1968. We’re experiencing the 50-year anniversary of 1968 right now, and I think it’s kind of interesting to see where we’re at versus where we were at then,” he says.

Considering 1968 is referred to as “the year that shattered America,” this thought is unnerving, but realistically he’s right: 1968 was the year the Vietnam War intensified, causing the draft lottery to be instated the following year. It was also the year Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, inspiring a month of violent protest during which 40 people were killed. Additionally, Robert F. Kennedy was killed during his potential run for presidency, and the announcement of the presidential nomination of Hubert Humphrey at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago led to both tumult within the Democratic Party and violent protests between antiwar protesters and police. Inadvertently, it also arguably caused the triumph of Richard Nixon in November. These themes are not unfamiliar in 2018.

Bjork, who is speaking to me from his home in Venice, California, is riding the high from the release of his latest solo record, “Mankind Woman”, and a successful North American tour that concluded last Friday in the desert. He’s also prepping for a two-week jaunt across Europe in early November. The album is his 12th solo record in the past two decades — 13th if you count a live album that came out last year — and at 45 years old, he has absolutely no intention of slowing down. “Mankind Woman” — a nod to the growing force of feminism in the world that Bjork fervently supports — is, in every way, a love letter to the ‘60s: It grooves, it swings, it doesn’t shy away from political commentary, and much like the rest of Bjork’s discography, it’s somehow simultaneously heavy and lighthearted enough to kick back and smoke a joint to.

Between his lyrics encouraging everyone to chill the hell out while not taking shit from anyone, his videos with boogie vans and skateboarders, and his smoke-a-joint-in-the-sunshine riffs, it’s difficult not to view Bjork as an effortlessly cool, wise rock ‘n’ roller. When asked about what keeps him so chill, he first jokes, “Well, if you talk to my wife, she’ll tell you I’m not cool,” and laughs, before talking about little things like smoking a good, chill weed (he misses the Mexican brick weed of the ‘80s), opting for listening to The Beatles in the morning instead of reading the news (he digs their weird, psychedelic albums like “Revolver”and “Sgt. Pepper”), and doing his own personal mix of yoga and Tai Chi he lovingly refers to as “stoner chi.”

“I think it’s nature and nurture. My nurturing is pretty recognized and understood; I come from a pretty chill environment — the desert. A lot of the kids I grew up with were a lot like myself. We’re laid back, we’ve got this desert sense of humor, we like to smoke weed and drink beers. It’s a pretty simple kind of mindset, really. So that’s the nurturing side.”

“And then there’s nature,” he says, his voice shifting to a more serious tone. “My nature is not super known — I haven’t really spoken about it publicly until recently.” He tells a tale of how he ended up in Palm Desert, a town at the bottom of the Coachella Valley in Southern California, when he was abandoned by his birth mother and adopted by a desert couple.

“My real mother was a radical white girl from Long Beach who ran away from home, and she hung out with Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels and stuff. She met my father up in Oakland, a black man who was a Vietnam vet who was in Vietnam in ’67 and ’68. He was a biker, he rode with the Ravens MC, a mixed-race club up in Oakland. My mom has made some not-so-positive decisions in her life — she’s now homeless, and she’s done a lot of time in prison, but she’s very cool and very laid back. And so is my father — he was a jazz musician, too. So that’s my nature.”

His voice is light again.

“I just have rebel blood, but it’s chill, you know what I mean? I’m literally a combo burrito of all of that stuff.”

By the late ‘80s, Bjork was a skateboarding punk-rocker whose sights shifted from the Ramones and Black Flag to Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, and Black Sabbath as soon as he figured out how to get his hands on some weed. His love of psychedelic rock ‘n’ roll grew — as did his hair — and he decided to track down the other kids in town who were into that sort of thing and might be interested in creating music of their own.

In 1987, when he was just 14, he had assembled a group consisting of Josh Homme (now the frontman of Queens Of The Stone Age, who had learned to play guitar from the local polka teacher), Nick Oliveri (later the founding bassist of Queens of the Stone Age) on second guitar, Chris Cockrell on bass, and John Garcia on vocals. Bjork, who taught himself to play multiple instruments by fumbling along with Ramones records, opted for drums. They called themselves Katzenjammer — a German word literally meaning “cat’s wail,” and more colloquially used to mean “hangover.”

In 1989, the group decided to change their name. Bjork, who had dabbled in Dungeons & Dragons a bit per the influence of a friend’s older brother, dug a rulebook out of his closet for inspiration. He flipped through the pages and found a chapter on a character called “Son of Kyuss” — a walking corpse whose power was to curse others to be undead like themselves. This sounded metal as hell, so he brought it to the band as a potential name. Shortly after, the group recorded their first eponymous EP under the moniker Sons of Kyuss.

After gaining a local fanbase and some radio play—and popularity amongst the desert bikers, who would often turn up at their shows and be shocked to discover that they were just teens—the group simplified their name to just Kyuss and got signed to a major label.

“Our manager at the time thought it was pretty cool and unique that we were just blatant stoners, so she kinda’ thought that would be a good hook for PR for our band,” Bjork remembers. “So, we got kind of recognized for having pot be a big part of what we were doing. Back then, it was very rare to hear a band talk openly about weed like that.” Inadvertently, with the inception of their first full-length album, “Wretch”, and their breakout record, “Blues For The Red Sun”, a heavy, psychedelic, hypnotic new genre took form and was dubbed “stoner rock.”

At the time, Bjork and Homme had a great working relationship, both creatively and professionally, sharing the majority of songwriting and business-dealings. Bjork describes their personalities outside of the band as “pretty much opposites,” but they agreed that good songwriting was the cornerstone of every band they both loved. “Even if only 10 people ever heard our band, we wanted to make good songs,” Bjork says. For the most part, the two of them worked together to create the classic riffs and lyrics for which Kyuss became internationally famous, and Garcia gave life to their words. However, Bjork wrote many songs alone: most notably, he penned their breakout hit, “Green Machine” — a song that often gets mistaken for a weed anthem but is actually an anti-capitalist song about greed, corporations getting out of control, and the soulless pursuit of money for money’s sake.

Shortly after their breakout record, Bjork remembers a distinct diversion of ethics between the two men. Bjork never wanted to be rich or famous, but rather saw — and still sees — himself as an artist and entertainer who just wants to create music for the sake of art and bringing people together. His M.O. is simple: “I give my love, I take my time, I sell my talent, and I buy my tools.” He felt like Homme’s business-minded attitude toward the band was at odds with his ability to make art the way he wanted.

“I think about that classic moment in The Doors’ history when Jim was away on some drunken bender and the guys sell ‘Light My Fire’ to Buick,” He says. “For a commercial. And he was really bummed! He was like, ‘Dude, what are you doing? We decided from the beginning that this was going to be a pure, creative thing.’ That’s kind of what happened with Kyuss. There wasn’t a big dramatic moment like that where a song was sold to a corporate car company, but there were many, many little, different things that were going on at the time where I was just like, ‘This is not why I wanted to be in a band.’”

Ultimately, Bjork quit the band in 1994 after the release of their third record, “Welcome to Sky Valley,”and went on to pursue his solo career, as well as play drums for Fu Manchu, Ché, and a few other SoCal stoner-rock groups. Kyuss made one more record without him, “…And The Circus Leaves Town,” and ultimately fizzled out when Homme’s career took off with Queens Of The Stone Age. In the process, Homme also trademarked the name “Kyuss,” giving him ownership and control over any usage of the name in the future, despite the fact that Bjork originally named the band. He also made it clear he would never join or support a Kyuss reunion.

Years later, in 2010, things began to get a bit messy.

Several original members decided they wanted to find a way to perform Kyuss songs anyway. They were allowed to do so under “tribute” monikers, such as Garcia Plays Kyuss and Kyuss Lives! However, after discovering that Bjork and Garcia had attempted to regain control of the Kyuss trademark without his consent, Homme sued them for “trademark infringement and consumer fraud” and won. The courts later determined it was wise for them to rebrand rather than try to continue performing under any similar names, so they recorded one album under the name Vista Chino before parting ways and focusing on their solo careers.

Brant Bjork Tells All
Photo by Sam Grant

Though many details of the lawsuit and the interpersonal events leading up to it weren’t made public, it became very clear that there was lasting bad blood between Homme and Bjork in 2014 when an episode of Dave Grohl’s “Sonic Highways” HBO show came out. In the show, Grohl drives out to the desert, meets up with Homme, and gets a lesson in the history of Kyuss and other desert-rock bands. However, despite naming and co-founding the band, Bjork’s name wasn’t mentioned one single time in the hour-long episode. To him, it felt like a power move meant to remind him who has more connections to control the narrative of what went down with Kyuss.

“I’m very, very blessed and stoked to be where I’m at in my life. So, I’m not losing sleep over that kind of stuff,” he reiterates. “But because I’m so historically-minded, accurate information is important to me. Josh always used to tell me when we were kids, ‘My grandfather always told me, Why let the truth get in the way of a good story?’ And I always used to tell him, ‘Well dude, the truth is what makes the story good.’”

He sighs in a way that seems to say, “C’est la vie, dude.”

“I just keep playing my music, and just I trust that everything is what it has to be for whatever reason, and I don’t stop.”

He did arguably invent the genre of stoner rock, after all. No matter what happens, it’s clear his contributions are here to stay.

The new record, “Mankind Woman,” reinforces this defiant, truth-bringing attitude, whether it’s about himself, the country, or the spirit of the ‘60s permeating culture today.

“Try and do something about me,” he croons on the defiant, bluesy anthem “Swagger & Sway.”

“I dare you.”

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