To some he is the leader of Masters of Reality, a band that has existed in many forms since 1981. To others he is a producer, known for his work with Ian Astbury, Auf Der Maur, The Duke Spirit, The Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster, Fatso Jetson, The Flys, Mark Lanegan, UNKLE, Kyuss and Queens of the Stone Age. In fact, his long- time association with the last two artists, and his contributions to Josh Homme's Desert Sessions, led to his living out in Joshua Tree and working on many records at Rancho De La Luna — and to Chris and Josh joining up as the production team, The Fififf Teeners.
You started off playing in Syracuse, New York, with Masters of Reality. Were you doing production on your early records?
I would say early demos, experimenting. We were bouncing cassettes from one cassette player to another in the early '80s and later had a 4-track cassette player. When you're a fan of both Led Zeppelin and The Beatles — the difference between those two styles of production, when you're growing up and you're hearing both of them, you're scratching your head like Scooby Doo. Like, "I love them both but they're so different. What is the modus operandi between those two styles?" The room air around Led Zeppelin versus the up-front, compressed, no air about The Beatles. Those two stand out as being the first lessons for me. There was also that '70s, really clean, California-style production like The Eagles. The drums are very muted and the drum room is very quiet — '70s pop music. That was another step of, "What are they doing?" As weird as it is, it's working. It doesn't have the energy or cut of The Beatles or the energy of the Led Zeppelin productions, but it still has some kind of quality to it that's worth looking into. Early Frank Zappa stuff, Mothers of Invention — his manipulation of tape speed, cutting tape and tape editing — I loved records that sounded like they were Scotch-taped together. Then I found out a lot of them were actually Scotch-taped together. On Yes records the long pieces were different takes from different days. I loved that. It proved that if you have good ears and a good spirit about what you're doing, that the sonics will take second place. There's a cut into this passage that has a totally different drum sound. As long as it's in time, right?
One thing about the Queens of the Stone Age's productions that you've done is the way you keep space for the vocals. You read press about them and they're like, "Oh, they're hard rock" and then you hear the records. The first thing that I thought when I heard a Queens' record was The Cars — a pop production in a way.
Sure, yeah. Pop music. It's pop because we want people to like it. At the same time you want to offend them — you know what I mean? Now more than ever, especially in the last ten years, CNN is our competition as much as Korn right now. Sonic fuckin', annoying stuff from every angle that you get from media right now — that's our competition. Now that you've got The Ramones and Iggy and the Stooges on car commercials, what's going to turn someone's head towards the speaker when they hear something these days? It has to be a mutation that's never been heard before or hasn't been heard in a long time. Either invent something new or steal something old — or put the two together. We're really, really in strange places in sonics right now. The generation like mine — I'm in my late 40s — we were raised on wooden Led Zeppelin-style home stereos. Now everything is in plastic speakers or in headphones — a lot of high end. Everyone's brain has been fried now with their iPods and it's a whole new sonic philosophy happening.
Do you think that part of it is trying to subvert the playback systems — to try to make something sound different?
It's a matter of taking a Patsy Cline record — something that sounds perfect the way it was recorded in 1961 — and putting it next to some horrid, fucking over- compressed, emo-thing that's just annoying and let someone decide what sounds better. I think almost everyone is going to point to the Patsy Cline — even though it's an older woman who's dead singing rather some schmuck. It's like the worst of times and the best of times. Kids are ready — their ears have been so assaulted that right now is a good time to lay the shit out again because they might go, "Whoa, what's that?" That's why most kids I know love Led Zeppelin and The Beatles so...