John Garcia, desert-rock legend, on the challenges of going unplugged

“I’m proud of this album, but it took a lot out of me!” exhales John Garcia, a pioneer of Californian rock, in particular the ‘desert’ or ‘stoner’ variety (depending on which source you consult, and your tolerance for genre labels). 

“This album came out of nowhere, and I had a blast doing it. As I’ve got older, I’ve often thought to myself, ‘I want to try acoustic music out and see how easy it is’. Well, I’ve found it to be not that easy at all! It’s much harder to do. So this album was a real challenge...”

Garcia’s new album, The Coyote Who Spoke In Tongues, is a collection of his various bands’ new and old tunes given the acoustic treatment: it comes sandwiched between a row of European dates in mid-2016.

It’s imperfect on purpose, which is a key thing to remember. There are rattles in the guitar strings, and there are times when I sing flat

Recorded with guitarist Ehren Groban, bassist Mike Pygmie and percussionist Greg Saenz, The Coyote... is an inventive continuation of the music which Garcia has been making since the mid-1980s, when he was a rocker kid headbanging among the Palm Desert sand dunes. 

The best-known songs on the record are Gardenia and Green Machine, classics by the band Kyuss, in which Garcia sang from its formation in 1987 through to its split in 1995, alongside guitarist Josh Homme, now of Queens Of The Stone Age, Them Crooked Vultures and the Eagles Of Death Metal. 

Asked about Gardenia, now stripped down to an acoustic blues from its original, stadium-sized riff-storm, Garcia explains: “We sat down in the studio to work on that song, and one of our producers, Harper Hug, said, ‘I hear this song a lot slower, and played with a much different attitude’. It was the same for Green Machine. 

"This record’s not for everybody: some people are going to say, ‘You butchered that song!’ Well, that’s fine and dandy, but it’s called ‘exploration’… My guitarist, Ehren Groban, came up with a great, alternative sound and feel for those songs, and it really worked. But I also enjoyed trying my newer songs, like Give Me 250ml or Kylie, acoustically. 

"Those are difficult songs, but at the same time very exciting to play. It’s cruising music, for when it’s late at night and you spark up a joint, and you want to kick back and have a glass of wine with your other half and hear some easy tunes. This is going to be the record to do that for you.”

Warm, woody

Asked how he and his team achieved the album’s warm, woody sound, Garcia explains: “It’s imperfect on purpose, which is a key thing to remember. There are rattles in the guitar strings, and there are times when I sing flat: there’s not one vocal that has gone through any type of processing or Autotuning. 

"We used a six-band EQ, not a 12- or 20-band one. It’s very simple with a lot of depth and warmth. That was my plan when I walked in there: I said to them, ‘Don’t do anything to anything!’ Ehren and myself, we had a goal and I think we achieved it. I came up with ideas on the guitar and he turned them into something that’s real.”

You’ll never find me singing about politics. A lot of musicians do that, and so they should, but I don’t...

For a singer accustomed to performing with a full band, the live dates have been a real challenge, Garcia tells us.

“I like being able to go on the road with one guitar player and that’s it – talk about an easy load-in and load-out – but I always say this: I thought that doing an acoustic tour was going to be very easy, until I got to the rehearsal room and I started practising. 

"There was nothing for me to hide behind – no drums, no bass, just really stripped down naked. To be exposed like that is challenging, but I enjoyed it 100 per cent.”

Garcia is heading for London's Desertfest when we speak, and when we quip that he’s coming from the politically maddest country in the world to the second politically maddest, he smiles and explains: “You’ll never find me singing about politics. A lot of musicians do that, and so they should, but I don’t because music is my one escapism: the one thing I can always count on to take me away from the crazy stuff that’s happening in the world. 

"It’s my one sacred place: no matter what kind of bad day I’m having, I can always turn to music and it’ll take me to a better place.”

Kyuss Lives?

In 2010 Garcia delighted Kyuss fans by forming and touring with a group called Kyuss Lives! with fellow alumni of that legendary band. Although that group was obliged to rebrand two years later after a lawsuit from Homme, he has fond memories of that era, he says. 

“Kyuss Lives! was a great thing. I had left music for a while, so it was a great re-introduction and a way to say, ‘Don’t kick me to the kerb just yet. I’m not done’ and I used that as a tool to help my solo career get kicked off. I respect those guys – all of them – and I wish them all the very best in the world.”

Is it gratifying that Kyuss, who became big enough to support Metallica in 1993 but otherwise remained a cult act, still have a huge fanbase, we ask? “I appreciate that people still pass the music back and forth, and how long it’s lasted,” he nods.

“I’m not comparing myself to bands like The Doors and Led Zeppelin by any means, because I’m not even in their realm, but it’s nice to be able to say ‘Take a listen to this album that was put out in the 1990s by four guys from the California desert’. I appreciate being a part of that. 

"You know, a young kid came up to me recently with [Kyuss’ classic 1992 album] Blues For The Red Sun and asked me to sign it – for his mother! That really put things into perspective for me. It was really cool.” 

One more round of congratulations on his excellent new album, and Garcia bids us farewell. “You know this is a real departure for me,” he muses. “Usually I’m talking to Metal Hammer, but here I am talking to Acoustic. I like that!”

The Coyote Who Spoke In Tongues out now on Napalm Records.

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