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Off the Beaten Track: Kyuss and the birth of desert rock

@TomTaylorFO

The opening drone to ‘Thumb’ on Kyuss’ second album, 1992’s Blues for the Red Sun almost sounds like the aural equivalent of a desert mirage. You could picture the somnambulant hum being penetrated by a Chevrolet Caprice shrieking through the dustbowl screaming about bat country, or the staggering footsteps of Harry Dean Stanton in a cracking dogeared baseball cap, but instead, you get the slow slutty guitar lick of Josh Homme and find yourself embalmed in the miasma of sultry hot desert air all the same.

There’s scarcely a more befitting motif in music to start an album with: it sounds like the desert because it was Kyuss defining desert rock itself, and they should know, it invented them after all. And yes, that is the right way around. When it comes to Kyuss it was more about the desert inventing a rock band than them inventing desert rock. While nature and nurture are ever-present forces in music, as this Off the Beaten Track feature has come to know, when it comes to Kyuss and the blistered lands of west California, the relationship is perhaps more profoundly symbiotic than anywhere else in world music. 

Originally, the genre the band propagated was known as generator rock. This name derived from the fact that they would play parties out in the Palm Desert of California where the only source of electricity was petrol-powered generators, (there’s that humming motif returning once more). At these raucous events, small hardy groups would gather and as guitarist Josh Homme remarks: “That was the shaping factor for the band. There’s no clubs here, so you can only play for free. If people don’t like you, they’ll tell you. You can’t suck.”

With no backup band to bail you out or alternative party for your patrons to flee to, Kyuss did indeed have to be on the money, even if there wasn’t any cash lying about, but they were suffering an unlikely problem: Feedback; and not from the crowd either. The issue was that initially at these desert parties they were hurling the ubiquitous heavy rock of the day across the equanimous unspooling of flat sandy miles into the primordial mountains rising like abandoned structures left to ruin a million miles away. This was all part of the fun – heavy rock out in old lawless lands like some Mad Max civilization seizing a patch of reclaimed Shangri-La amid a dystopian ruin. 

But the rock they were sending out was being sent back at them by the far-off mountains. Thrashing heavy Black Flag-like stuff was being drowned out by the sludge that the landscape was gusting back, it was like Miles Davis blowing into a giant washing machine. So as mad as it sounds, they had to find a way to play in time with the mountain’s own cacophonous music.

The result was to slow down, tune down and often play guitars through a bass amp for that iconic sonorous whoomph. As the band’s singer John Garcia told the LA Times when they began to emerge from the dust in 1994: “The desert is the key ingredient in our sound. We’re always trying to work the desert vibe into our music. We’re only 2 hours away from Los Angeles, but considering how different things are over here, we may as well be on Mars. The thing is, we’re a very satisfied bunch of Martians.”

However, what was notable was that unlike other world music scenes that have their roots back in long unfurling cultural histories, desert rock was emerging when the hegemony of an all-consuming mainstream was very much a thing. Thus, it is notable that Garcia even makes reference to the stone’s throw of Los Angeles because this draws on a second key theme in desert rocks makeup – aside from the landscape, the pariah status also rubbed off on the music. 

As Chris Goss, who would later become as vital a producer for the band as George Martin was for The Beatles, would recall: “I have enchanting memories, where you’re driving toward where they’re playing in the middle of the desert, and you’re totally lost… And you see someone stumbling out in the darkness… And then seeing a little glow, a single halogen light on a pole —so the generator wouldn’t blow out.”

Adding: “And then actually getting there, and seeing Kyuss playing, surrounded by a few hundred kids slamming in the sand in the middle of the night, with the wind whipping sand around everywhere. And then the sound of it, like you’re listening to Kyuss in a tornado, and you could only see this cacophony of bodies, of fucked-up kids, slamming into each other. It was like stumbling on the Plains Indians doing a war dance.”

This war dance spiritualism that came with being desert denizens literally absconding themselves away from the mainstream also played a part. They were an outdoors band of outlaws. However, the desert rock sound would never have seeded if they also didn’t whisk it into the studio. Fortunately, Chris Goss was one of the few people in the industry mad enough to understand what they were going for, and even more fortuitously he had the expertise to pull off the sound that Kyuss were militantly guarding in the untouched lands outside of Los Angeles. 

When they arrived to record, he wanted to recreate the tornado maelstrom of sound that they were crafting in desert night dust bowls. In order to mimic the role of the mountains in the studio, they set amps up facing directly towards each other so that certainly frequencies would be cancelled out, just as they had been by the land two hours to the west. The result was something so heavy, spiritual and immediately transportive that it was as at home in the oasis of Europe as it was in the parched Death Valley. 

So if that hum at the start of ‘Thumb’ sounds like the desert, or you thought it was too pretentious to admit it at first, the reason it sounds that way is because the landscape may as well have been playing the second bass. 

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