(ki' · us)
Kyuss is the greatest band you've never heard of; one of the great underground music phenomena of the 1990s. In the isolation of the southern California desert, they labored away for years, creating a lead-heavy, stripped-down sound all their own. Radio never really got them, but without so much as a hit single, they subtly warped the landscape of rock music in their generation, and helped to spawn a blossoming new music scene: the subgenre now called stoner rock.
The sound of Kyuss was fueled by the vocals of John Garcia – somewhere between Ian Astbury and Glenn Danzig – and Josh Homme's guitar, tuned down four frets to C and played through an Ampeg SVT bass cabinet ,for a bowel-loosening, warm, fuzzy sound.
Kyuss made their reputation as a jam band, so their work retains a certain loose, neo-hippie spaciousness, but at its core is the pummelling fury of metal, and even a little punk rock attitude. Critics, who can seldom resist pigeonholing even the most original artists, most often compare Kyuss to their 1970's forbears Black Sabbath, but the band disclaims this (Homme insists he had never heard most of the Sabbath catalog until Kyuss already had two albums under their belt). Nonetheless, the two bands seem to draw their primal energy from much the same place.
I won't keep going on like this. Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Just listen to the records; there's nothing else like them. Here's a band history:
Garcia and Homme were high school friends in Palm Desert, California in 1988, when they formed a band called Katzenjammer, with Brant Bjork on drums and Chris Cockrell playing bass. With no music venues in the immediate area, the band's sound was forged by a unique desert institution: the generator party, which is pretty much what it sounds like: a few days of drug-addled and diesel-fueled mayhem in the wilds of California. The next year Katzenjammer changed their name to Sons of Kyuss, after a monster in the game Dungeons and Dragons, and distributed a few hundred copies of a self-titled LP.
The band made their way to the bars of Los Angeles by 1990, when hair metal was dying slowly and grunge was still being born. A year or so of slogging around the Hollywood club circuit produced a few loyal fans in the alternative music press, a deal with independent label Chameleon Records. The band picked up new bassist Nick Oliveri, and the label managed to coax out a studio album, Wretch. The debut, released under the newly shortened name Kyuss, contained most of the songs from the previous vinyl album, but the band was never really happy with its sound when compared to the crushing assault of their live set.
Longtime fan Chris Goss of Masters of Reality, who had filled in on bass for some of the Wretch tracks, approached the band to produce the followup album, Blues for the Red Sun. The resulting record eventually became a landmark, the Dark Side of the Moon of stoner rock, but even in 1992 it scratched the surface of mainstream rock radio and MTV. Suddenly Kyuss found themselves on tour with Danzig, Faith No More and White Zombie, and being name-checked by high-profile fans like Dave Grohl of Nirvana. In spite of all this exposure, Blues initially managed to shift only 40,000 copies.
Following the tours, Oliveri left the group to join The Dwarves and was replaced by Scott Reeder, of the legendary doom band The Obsessed. The new lineup recorded a third album, Welcome to Sky Valley, in early 1993 before being selected as Metallica's opening act for several dates in Australia. The band members agreed that the tour was an eye-opening experience, now admit feeling overwhelmed by the huge stadiums and the stress of touring in an unfamiliar country, and after the tour, drummer Bjork left the band as well.
Before Sky Valley could be released, Chameleon Records went bankrupt, but Kyuss' momentum was enough to interest Chameleon's distributor, Elektra, in signing the band and releasing the record. Amid the setbacks, Kyuss found a replacement in jazz percussion player Alfredo Hernandez, and propmtly recorded 1995's ...And The Circus Leaves Town. The supporting tours took the band as far afield as Europe, including television appearances and an often-bootlegged set at the Bizarre Festival in Germany. The single, "One Inch Man," began breaking into the grunge-saturated alternative radio airwaves, but sales of the album were not enough to prevent Electra from dropping the band.
In 1996, Kyuss broke up. The exact hows and whys are not clearly known, but the usual tension between a demanding label and a fiercely independent band must have played a part. Josh Homme has since said, too, that by the end the four members always seemed to be "painting each other into a corner." Garcia wound up in the bands Slo-Burn and later Unida, while Scott Reeder partially retired from music only to resurface later as a producer. Homme, for his part, dug up his old cohort Nick Oliveri to form Queens of the Stone Age, who released a split single with the last few Kyuss B-sides in 1997. Drummer Alfredo Hernandez also joined his former bandmates to record QOTSA's debut album.
The legacy of Kyuss, even apart from their stylistic impact on the stoner rock scene and on music in general, is that of a band who refused to be driven by image, money, girls, or even by the scene they helped to found, but who remained ultimately committed to making the music they wanted to hear. No matter how far the various members and side projects go on their own, there will never be another Kyuss.
"Just don't try to figure it out. You can't. I can't. If you try to, you'll wind up going fuckin' nuts." – john garcia
Sources: Various interviews and articles, mostly collected by or linked from http://www.stonerrock.com/kyuss/