Songwriter Interviews

John Garcia (ex-Kyuss)

by Greg Prato

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With such an instantly recognizable singing style (as the frontman for such groups as Kyuss, Slo Burn, Hermano, and Vista Chino), it's hard to believe that John Garcia has never issued a solo album. But that finally changed in 2014, when Garcia issued his self-titled solo debut via Napalm Records.

First hitting the scene with Kyuss, the band helped popularize the "stoner rock" genre during the early to mid '90s (along with the likes of Monster Magnet and Fu Manchu), with a monstrously de-tuned sound on such now classic albums as 1992's Blues for the Red Sun, 1994's Welcome to Sky Valley, and 1995's ...And the Circus Leaves Town, before going kaput. And after years of fronting other bands and guesting on other artists' recordings, the singer is now calling all the shots as a solo artist.

In this chat with Mr. Garcia, he discussed songwriting, his influences, and the stories behind several Kyuss classics.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): As far as songwriting, how is it different writing your own material for your solo project compared to writing material for Kyuss or Hermano or any of your other previous projects that you've written for?

John Garcia: It's freedom. I have a lot more freedom now. Just take, for instance, Vista Chino, a song called "Adara." having ideas for that and writing a song for Brant Bjork and him taking it and going, "Okay, well, instead of doing your chorus, I've got this other chorus. What do you think about this?" Cool. That's great. Whatever's best for the song, I don't care who wrote it. That was the Vista Chino formula. And the Hermano formula and the Unida formula.

But for me, I collaborate with guitar players instead of guitar player/singer/singer-songwriters. It's fun for me to have an idea, play it on guitar - because I play guitar, primitively - and give it to somebody like Dave Angstrom from Hermano, who is a good friend of mine and who plays a lot of guitar on this record, and him breathing new life into it, going, "Okay, that's the way I hear it. I gave you the generality."

But there's just a lot more freedom to work with a lot of different musicians. I have a lot more freedom to do what I want to do when I want to do it, and going back to how I want to do it.

Songfacts: How is it working with Robby Krieger?

Garcia: [Long pause] Well, from my lack of response, there's really no words to tell you how good it felt to be in the same room. I've seen Robby Krieger play several times as a fan and somebody being out in the audience. And I'm a big Doors fan. So to have him want to be a part of this project was a big honor. To see him work and how he did it, and walking into a studio with a burrito in one hand and an acoustic in another, and have him just set his burrito down and start whaling acoustically on "Her Bullets' Energy" was an unbelievable experience and something that I will never forget for the rest of my life.

He's Robby Krieger for crying out loud, so some people would go, "Oh, he's Robby Krieger from the Doors." Well, I don't look at it that way. He literally is a living legend. And to be in his presence and to see something like that in that intimate of an environment in his brand new recording studio was amazing. By the way, that was the first song ever to be recorded in that studio.

Jim Morrison was the face of The Doors and their primary lyricist, but guitarist Robby Krieger had a major hand in the creation of many of their classic tunes. He co-wrote "Light My Fire," "Love Me Two Times," "Touch Me," and "Love Her Madly," among others, and was one of the few rock guitarists of the era to pluck and strum his guitar with his fingers (rather than using a pick).

Krieger played on (and co-wrote) John's solo track "Her Bullets' Energy."
Songfacts: He co-wrote the song "Light My Fire." I don't think it can get much greater than that.

Garcia: Yeah. I get you get it. If I were to tell my wife Wendy's grandmother that I played with Robby Krieger, she'd probably go, "Oh, that's nice, honey," you know what I mean? [Laughing].

I'm a fan of music and you're a fan of music, so to be in that environment, to have someone like this play on your first ever solo record, this has been more than a dream. It's an amazing experience, and I'm shocked and stunned that I'm actually here and I'm actually doing it.

And you know what? There's no fucking drama. There's zero drama. Everybody who is part of this project wanted to be a part of it. I didn't have to beg anybody. And the minute any guitar player went, "Well, you know..." it was, "Okay, thank you. I appreciate it." And I moved on.
In 2012 Garcia and Bjork found themselves in the midst of an ugly lawsuit with their former Kyuss mates, Josh Homme and Scott Reeder, over the use of the name "Kyuss Lives" (Vista Chino's original moniker). We'll spare you the gory details here, but I covered the back story (and how the lawsuit was settled) in these four news stories (1, 2, 3, 4) for Rolling Stone.
Everybody who played on this record wanted to be on this record, and there wasn't a whole lot of drama. I'm not saying there was a lot of drama attached to it, but for those who I thought that just weren't into it, it was cool, it was fine. You're not into it, right on. There's going to be people who don't like the record. That's part of being a musician. There's going to be people who give us shit reviews, and that's fine. If it's not up your alley, have at it.

But for me, I'm excited about it and I'm passionate about it, and I want to go out and tour it. I'm going to play some Kyuss songs along with it, and I'm going to play some Slo Burn songs along with these songs. Rehearsal's already started. Mike Johnson's playing bass; Aaron Grobin's playing guitar. I have one last audition for a drummer coming up and we're moving forward, so things are good.

Songfacts: Before, you said as far as songwriting that you play guitar, I think you used the word "primitively." When you are writing music is it primarily on guitar or do you ever write on a different instrument?

Garcia: Acoustic. Yeah. Acoustic on my iPhone and then if I've got melody, I'll just do it on my iPhone. I used to record on those old Tascam four-tracks. I'm not sure if you're familiar with those or not.

Songfacts: Yes. I know them.

Garcia: Now it's just so much easier just to have your computer, and if you have a little program on there, whether it be Mixcraft or Pro Tools, you can record melody all day long. So if I hear something at three o'clock in the morning, when I wake up I'll keep singing it until I turn on the computer and get it warmed up, and then I'll sing it and go back to bed. It could be as easy as that. Or it could just be me on a day like today where it's absolutely gorgeous out here near Palm Springs, and I'll go out on the deck and just start strumming the guitar and I'll press "record" if I like something. So that's exactly right. It's easy as that.

Songfacts: We talked a little bit about Robby Krieger and the Doors. Who were some of your other favorite songwriters?

Garcia: Well, I love the Cult - early Cult, Southern Death Cult. I love Electric. I love the Billy and Ian [Billy Duffy and Ian Astbury] writing team. They were great. Also a big fan of Josh Homme and Brant Bjork. They were a really good writing team. To see them work when I was in the same room, they were really a good team. They were talented together.

I'm a big fan of the Misfits as well as Glenn Danzig. I love Johnnie Taylor, Earth, Wind & Fire - Maurice White, Philip Bailey, they were a great, great writing team. Those are some of my favorite all-time writers.

Songfacts: Earth, Wind & Fire is a band I really only knew their hits. But about maybe one or two years ago, I checked out some of their other stuff and I was amazed at how many songs, say, the average person doesn't know, but I think are probably just as good as the songs that are the big hits.

Garcia: Sure. Yeah, absolutely. When the kids are at grandma's, Wendy and I will say, "Do you want to go out or do you want to stay in?" And if we stay in, then we know that we're spinning records. And if we're spinning records, then we get our menu going and we'll pick them all out. And it never fails that part of the menu is Earth, Wind & Fire. And part of the menu is The Cult. Part of the menu is the Misfits. Part of the menu is Johnnie Taylor. A lot of '70s disco I'm into.

It goes back to when you're a kid in the '70s growing up. Sometimes your brother kicks you out of his room and you have to go share a bedroom with your sister, and she's listening to Pink Floyd and Tom Petty. And then suddenly your sister kicks you out of her room and you eventually make it back to your brother's, and then he's listening to Earth, Wind & Fire, the Ohio Players, and Johnnie Taylor, and those songs bring back great memories.

Songfacts: You mentioned the songwriting team of Josh and also Brant. Would you say that Kyuss's surroundings definitely influenced the way that the band sounded and also how the songwriting went back in the day?

Garcia: Those two guys are mad scientists, both of them are. And they're very talented, no question. They work really well together, but their relationship took a shit right around ...And the Circus Leaves Town. Sky Valley was the last record that BB did. Let me see, you know what, I can't remember the last one that he did.

Songfacts: Sky Valley was the last album Brant did with Kyuss.

Garcia: Yeah, I think it was Sky Valley. Yeah, because Alfredo came in for Circus, I believe.

Songfacts: Yes, he did.

Garcia: And then to see those guys, especially the younger years, the Sons of Kyuss days, that type of stuff, you could see them just starting to develop and really find their own.

Josh was not a big fan of solos, and when he did play solos they sucked. Hence why Kyuss has really never had a bunch of guitar solos. They're instrumental songs, but rhythmically there was nothing too solo-y about it. That type of stuff and seeing them turn into and morph into what they are now and being a part of that, It was a special experience for me.

Songfacts: Before the interview I was looking at the songwriting credits for some of those Kyuss albums, and I noticed that on the first few albums you didn't really write too much, but then on the final album, ...And the Circus Leaves Town, you were much more of a presence with songwriting. Would you say that it was just because you were so impressed with what Brant and also Josh were doing at the beginning that you kind of stepped aside?

Garcia: You're right. And I give credit where credit is due. Those guys are very talented, so when Josh would come to me with a song like "Supa Scoopa and Mighty Scoop," and goes, "Okay, it's just you and me for this part until the whole band comes in," I can tell you that his version of that song versus my version of that song are two totally different versions. The same with "Green Machine." When Brant set me down, he goes, "Dude, the song is called 'Green Machine,' and it starts off like this, 'I've got a war inside my head, it's got to set your soul free,'" I can tell you that his version of that song and my version are two totally different songs. I had to make them my own. I had to fall in love with those songs and make them my own to have them sound like that.

Now, whatever was best for that, whatever was best for a song, I'm a big proponent of "If yours is better, let's use yours. It's better for the song." So me being completely and totally absent from the process of everything being written down, I'm not going to take any of that credit. But as time went on, I found myself wanting to do a lot more of my stuff, and it turning into better stuff than what I had previously written. So I just kind of went through the Josh Homme/Brant Bjork school of music before I started doing my own thing. That's why the last record is my favorite record of all the Kyuss records, because my participation level went up.

Songfacts: My favorite song off your solo album is "Rollin Stoned."

Garcia: That's one of my only covers. There's two covers on my record, "5,000 Miles" and "Rollin Stoned." I loved that song so much by the band Black Mastiff, out of Edmonton, Canada, that I had to cover it.

Songfacts: I didn't know that was a song that you didn't write.

Garcia: Nope, I loved them so much I had to produce their new record too. So they just left here about a month ago and came in and did another record. So watch out for them. A band called Black Mastiff. Great, great band.
Black Mastiff is a trio that hails from Edmonton, Alberta, and is comprised of lead vocalist and guitarist Bob Yiannakoulias, bassist Clay Shea, and drummer Allan Harding. The story goes that the band was lucky to nab an opening slot when Vista Chino played their hometown, and Garcia was so impressed with the band, that he was willing to cover their "Rollin Stoned" on his solo album, which should hopefully introduce them to a wider audience. Thus far, Black Mastiff has issued a pair of recordings: a self-titled EP and a full-length, Pyramids.
Songfacts: So that's a song that was an original of theirs, right?

Garcia: Correct.

Songfacts: And would you happen to know which album that's on? Because I'd be curious to check out their version of that song.

Garcia: Self titled. And I think people go by that record by its cover and it's called Pyramids.

Songfacts: On your new album what is a song that you wrote that you'd say is your favorite that you'd want to talk about lyrically?

Garcia: "The Boulevard" is a great song. My stories are all fiction, but they're mostly love tragedies, and this is a perfect example of a relationship gone bad within herself and being succumbed by the streets of Indio, California, where I grew up. Doing bad things, a lot of drugs, prostitution, just a tragic, tragic story. That's one of them.

The same with "Her Bullets' Energy," the classic him/her/drugs/tragedy/cheating, that type of stuff. I'm not a poet by any means. My claim to fame is not writing poetry like Jim Morrison or anything like that. My stories, they're fiction and they're sometimes pretty abstract. So if you asked me to decipher "Demon Cleaner," I could tell you what Josh Homme wrote that song about, because he told me. It was about brushing your teeth. So if you try to get something like that, something deeper out of that from that song, I think that's great. And I think the listener should do that.

I also believe that whatever the song means to you, if it takes you back to whenever or however and it makes you feel... I know songs do that to me - Earth, Wind & Fire does that to me a lot. They take me back to when I was a kid. An everlasting summer Sunday with your girlfriend, whatever it may be, that's what it should mean.

Songfacts: Some songwriters purposely don't include their lyrics in the album jacket because they want the listener to make up their own mind about what the lyrics are and what the song is about.

Garcia: Well, that's why Kyuss never printed lyrics on their records. But the lyrics are going on my record. I want people to hear what I say. Sometimes it's kind of hard - I don't like my vocals pushed too much. I like them kind of neck-and-neck with the music. So I want people to hear what I'm saying. I want people to see what I'm writing. So everybody's a little bit different.

Songfacts: And then if you want to go back to the final Kyuss album, what do you remember about the writing of "Hurricane" as far as the lyrics?

Garcia: Josh and I wrote that song together, and it really wasn't difficult. He had a couple lines, I had a couple lines, and that's how it went down. Really, really easy. It was very natural. There was never any hardcore, "What can really fit right there?" type of moment. It flowed out and it was very simple.

Songfacts: I was also going to ask about the song "One Inch Man," so that's pretty much, I guess, the same, that you were just trading lines and stuff like that as far as songwriting?

Garcia: I wrote the lyrics and the vocal melody for that on my own. Honestly, that was me and my good friend John Moreno, and we were a little stoned and we were fishing, like we do. Well, like we used to do. And smoking a little pot. I had this idea about this little guy, and took it to rehearsal that night. Scott Reeder came up with the riff, and that was still in my head.

Again, I'm not a poet, but I would write stories down. I would constantly be writing lyrics. And whether I used them or not, I still have them. Because they're little stories and that's what I did. And that's still what I do. This one just happened to fit.

So, yeah, another kind of tragic little story about this little one-inch man who never had any peers and he felt all alone and blah, blah, blah. That one is a kind of "to each his own" type of thing and I wouldn't try too hard to decipher it. It's just another tragic little lonely guy by himself doing his thing.

Songfacts: And then one of the recordings that you appear on that I always thought was pretty cool and that probably fans didn't expect was when you teamed up with the Crystal Method on the song "Born Too Slow."

Garcia: When I play the type of music that I play, I always want to explore, and when their A&R guy called me up and asked me if I wanted to sing on this song, I thought to myself, Well, do they know what I do, what type of music I play? And they said, "Yeah, they know. They want you." And I said, "Well, I'm familiar with the Crystal Method, they're dance techno." I said, "Well, send me over the track."

So they sent me over three or four tracks. And I love a challenge. I like it when I have a personal vendetta with a song, I'll put it to you that way. When I can't fit a lyric or a melody to a song, it becomes a thing with me and I have a relationship with it, and sometimes it wins and sometimes it doesn't win. Well, this one was personal to me and I wanted to see if I could do it. My inner artist was bored with what he was doing, and I just thought it was a challenge.

So I wrote it here at this house that I'm in right now. That's just something where it was a challenge and another tragedy about this dude born slow and who got into drugs - just another tragic story.

Songfacts: Then the last question I have is looking back at all of the albums that you've been on, what would you say that you're most proud of as far as songwriting?

Garcia: By far, 100 percent, I say that with some reservation, my self-titled solo. Danko Jones wrote a song for me eight or nine years ago called "5,000 Miles," and I loved it. We collaborated on it, and I had a couple of lines on there, but my lines I didn't like - I liked his lines. So I scratched mine and I decided to use his. Those are the only two covers.

But I'm excited. I'm a singer, I like to sing. So I don't care if it's a Joe Blow song. If I like it, I'm going to sing it. And I give credit where credit is due. But this one by far I have the most participation, the most I've ever had in any record. I'm proud of this. You have something built up for so long, over 20 years, and it finally is released and people are hearing it for the first time. That's exciting for me. And of course there's going to be people who don't like it. That's all right. It's bound to happen. But it's always nice to get something off your chest, and this is certainly something that is a direct result of me getting all this stuff off my chest and off my shoulders. And it feels good.

July 25, 2014. For more John Garcia, visit his Facebook page.
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