Published on February 23rd, 2015 | by The Beige Baron1
Interview: John McBain
“Rich and I first met John in Seattle when our band Zen Guerrilla opened up for an early Queens of the Stone Age gig,” says Carlton Melton’s Andy Duvall. “John was playing guitar with them at the time. I remember briefly saying hello to him then, but that was about it.
“Fast-forward about 10 years. I was back in touch with John via the Freeks. Carlton Melton had released our first LP Pass It On. I sent him a copy, thinking he might enjoy what we were doing. Lucky for us, he liked what he heard. We have been working together ever since.
“He has occasionally joined us on stage as well; I hope there is more of that down the road. John has an incredible ear and touch. Great guy. Straight shooter. Classy dude to boot. Oh, and an incredible guitarist.”
For fans of desert rock and psychedelic music, the name John McBain is legend.
Creative force behind Monster Magnet’s first and unarguably best full-length album Spine of God.
Contributor to Josh Homme’s chaotically brilliant Desert Sessions LP Volume 1: Instrumental Driving Music for Felons, and well as the track Avon/Nova on Volume 3, and midwife to some of Queens of the Stone Age’s earliest and greatest songs including Regular John.
Founder of The Wellwater Conspiracy with Soundgarden’s Ben Shepherd and Matt Cameron, guitarist in ’90s grunge pop underground heroes HATER.
And now an occasional contributor to the mind-bending Bay-area space-rock instrumental band Carlton Melton… whenever he can get away from his busy mixing studio.
Despite his enormous contribution to music and influence on countless young bands around the world, McBain, now 49, maintains a pretty low public profile.
Brown Noise Unit was fortunate enough to find Mr. McBain is a mood to talk openly and honestly about his time with Monster Magent, recording the legendary Spine of God, working with Josh Homme at Rancho de la Luna, and why he left the first incarnation of Queens of the Stone Age.
BNU Ever since your magnificently spacey solo record The In-Flight Feature in 2006, you seem to have dropped out of sight. Then I saw your name listed as a guest guitarist with Carlton Melton. How did that association come about? Have you been working on anything else with that band, and were you taking a break from writing music until you started working with them?
“Carlton Melton got me playing guitar again.”
JM: My “relationship” with Carlton Melton began with the Smoke Drip EP. I mixed and mastered the record and added some guitar here and there. Next up was the Photos Of Photos album. Same thing. Mixed and mastered, guitars etc.
We’ve done several albums since then. Its an ongoing thing. Even sat in with them on a couple of local shows. The whole thing works. I “get” them, and I think that they feel comfortable with my contributions. I have zero interest in being in a band. But if I did, it would be Carlton Melton.
They got me playing guitar again. I had stopped for a long time. Just lost interest. But they hit a chord with me, no pun intended.
Carlton Melton is total freedom. The real-deal psychedelic band.
BNU: You live in San Francisco? Are you in a rural-type setting, and do you like going to the beach or the mountains? What do you like about where you live?
“People consider Spine of God to be some sort of psychedelic ‘masterpiece’. That was never our intention. It just turned out that way.”
JM: I do. I live in the city with my wife. It’s a perfect place for me. Couldn’t think of anywhere else that I would rather be. As for the mountains and beach, I spent lots of time there in the past so its a “been there done that” kinda thing.
BNU: Your discography includes some of the most important records ever contributed to psychedelic and desert-rock genre. Why does psychedelic music appeal to you, and what guitarists have most influenced your style? What do you listen to mostly?
JM: I never considered myself to be a psychedelic guitarist. I just play what I hear. My style is really loose and full of fuck-ups. Kind of like me. As for influences, it runs the gamut from Sonny Sharrock to Mick Ronson. I hear tones. I don’t necessarily hear songs. So my biggest influences are sounds, not people.
BNU: I know you must get this a lot, but Spine of God… It’s almost inexpressibly great record and it changed my life when I first heard it. You can see the basis for that album in 25 Tab and the EP in 1990, yet Spine of God seemed to burst out fully formed, sonically light-years ahead of anything else at the time including those first records you made with Monster Magnet. Could you tell me what you remember about writing it and recording it? Could you hear how the album sounded before you laid stuff down on tape?
“We didn’t want it to sound ‘right’. Fuck The Boss. Fuck big production. Fuck the Jersey Shore. Let’s make a record that we can shove up their collective asses.”
JM: We wanted to make a record for ourselves. It was an album that we were always looking for but could never find. “What if The Stooges made an album with Hawkwind? What would that sound like?”
So that was our approach. It was a really sloppy affair. I never really thought twice about what I recorded. No re-dos on my end. All of it was recorded very quickly. No more than one or two takes for everything.
It was almost as if we were expecting someone to walk in at any moment and tell us that we had no business being in a recording studio so we had better pack up our shit and get out. So we tried to be as over-the-top with everything that we did and use every idea we had. We had one chance to make this record so we had better get it right.
“Why add a track of Echoplex noise when we could add two? Or four?”
“Wow, that’s a really sloppy guitar part there! Perfect.”
“Throw a phaser on everything, and see if that works?”
“Well, that doesn’t work at all.”
“Great, leave it. Next song.”
Dave and I were definitely on the same page at this point. Spine Of God was a big fuck-you to the whole New Jersey/party rock music scene. They hated us and we hated them right back. And this mindset extended to mixdown.
We didn’t want it to sound “right”. Fuck The Boss. Fuck big production. Fuck the Jersey Shore. Let’s make a record that we can shove up their collective asses.
So we started the album with a drum solo, piled on the fuzz guitars, ran everything though walls of tape echo, and essentially mixed it in one pass. In the end, it was a big mess. That may be why people consider it to be some sort of psychedelic “masterpiece”. That was never our intention. It just turned out that way.
“I never expected it to go any further than some local shows and an occasional trip to NYC.”
Over the years we entertained the idea of going back to the master tapes and giving it a remix. Labels have approached us about it. But that never works. Just listen to Iggy’s remix of Raw Power. Fucking unlistenable. The initial Bowie mix is the one for me. Leave well enough alone, I say.
And I guess on some levels Spine Of God and Raw Power are sorta similar. I’m not comparing us to them in any way, but they both sound like they were mixed by someone with zero studio skills.
BNU: After that record came out, what changed for you? Did everything change again when you departed the band?
JM: Things changed when we hit the road. The business part of it kicked in and I quickly realized that I wasn’t comfortable with that part of the biz. I never expected it to go any further than some local shows and an occasional trip to NYC.
So when the band started to really to get noticed, I shut down. I wasn’t happy. But I couldn’t pull the trigger and bail. So I gave the other guys the guns and ammo and let them do it for me.
I hated the road. Still do. That’s why I walked away from that part of the music business. Couple of shows here and there, but that’s been it for me.
BNU: I think your next major project came from your involvement with Brant Bjork, Fred Drake, the Rancho de la Luna scene, and your collaborations with Josh Homme on that first Desert Sessions volume. I thought you could never top Spine of God, but that record… it’s just totally mind-blowing. It must have been a hell of a party. I can’t believe that so many great ideas came out of that one long session, and that it was all largely improvised on the wing. Is that true? What do you like most about playing with Josh and Brant and Dave Catching and all those guys?
JM: Josh asked me to be a part of it. So there was no pressure there. A week in the desert with some nice people, good food, and no clocks. How could I say no?
And it wasn’t a party. Mind you, we had fun. But we also worked really hard to make it happen. Josh, Dave and Fred were awesome. No expectations from anyone involved. The music was a direct result of the comfortable and isolated nature of Rancho De la Luna.
“Just a fantastic drummer with an impeccable sense of time and feel.”
Most of it was improvised. Josh had a few riffs here and there. I had a couple. Everyone had something. But you ultimately surrendered it to the collective nature of the session. No room for egos.
BNU: You co-wrote the song Regular John with Josh for the first full-length Queens of the Stone Age album. If I could pick a song that defines what I love about rock music, I would probably pick that one. It’s so joyful. Can you share something about where the idea came from to just keep that riff going?
JM: That was a Josh riff. He had that QOTSA sound in his head for a while. I just helped him pull it out. Alfredo was also a huge part of that song. Just a fantastic drummer with an impeccable sense of time and feel. Everything he did was perfect. I never heard him make a mistake.
My contribution was the middle bit and suggestions here and there. I may have contributed more, but I honestly don’t recall.
You have to understand that my presence in QOTSA had to do with an agreement we made early on. I asked Josh to help out with the second Wellwater Conspiracy album, and in return he could “borrow” me for some demos for a new post-Kyuss project that he was working on. So he sang and played on some tracks for me and I played on the five-song demo that we recorded in Seattle with Alfredo and Mike Johnson.
We also helped each other out with some shows when needed. Those demos led to him getting signed, and that’s where my time in QOTSA ended. It made sense. We discussed it for about five minutes. I said that my guitar was unnecessary and he talked about his plans to relocate to LA. That was it. Done. Easiest breakup ever.
And then we went back to rehearsing as if nothing happened.
I think Brant once said that stoner or desert rock was just slowed-down punk. How would you define psychedelic rock?
Hard to define it. But I can say that my favorite psychedelic records are largely unintentional affairs. For example, Skip Spence’s Oar LP. I don’t think that it would have turned out like it did if he was in his right mind. It sounds like he was trying make a folk album, but his brain wouldn’t let him. And that’s why I consider it to be a genuine psych record.
Same goes for the Syd Barrett albums and early Butthole Surfers. The mind and fingers are not working together.
And not a trace of the Summer Of Love. I’ve never cared for “intentional” psychedelia. The Grateful Dead can kiss my ass.
BNU: Your work with Wellwater Conspiracy seemed like a love letter to that classic ‘60s psych-pop period, though. Was that a fun band to be in? I think I read somewhere that some of the material you had left from that project ended up on The In-Flight Feature, which seems to be coming from a totally different place—almost like ’70s kraut rock and Eno-style ambient on some of the tracks. Do you have anything else left in the vault that you might consider reworking and releasing in the future?
JM: I’ve recorded at least two albums worth of music since The In-Flight Feature. But time will not permit me to finish them. I have a day job and my mastering business. That leaves me no time to focus on all of it. I don’t want to put it out just to put it out, so it sits on a hard drive and waits.
I also recorded a bunch of songs with the UK band, The Heads. That should be out sometime in the next ten years, judging by the work regimen that we have established!
BNU: A lot of my rock heroes seem to have gravitated towards other hobbies later in their lives, for example Scott Reeder has a ranch and his horses, and Maynard Keenan is into his winery business. Do you have something outside of music that you are passionate about?
JM: My wife.
BNU: There are so many cool bands coming out of San Francisco recently, like Destruction Unit and Wooden Shjips, and there seems to be a huge revival in experimental music generally. Do you get out to see bands play live very often? Who would you recommend from SF?
JM: I don’t get out very often to see bands live. Most of my nights are spent mastering or spending time with my wife. I’m boring. I like doing nothing when time permits.
“My mastering has allowed me to keep my ears open to new music.”
My mastering has allowed me to keep my ears open to new music. When I work on someone’s album, I get to appreciate it on an unfiltered level. I usually have no clue as to what they look like, what they are “all about” or what genre they have aligned themselves with. It’s really refreshing.
The impact and influence you had on rock music is hard to overstate. What work are you most proud of? If you could go back to 1990 and do it all again, what would you do differently?
I’m proud of all of the records that I made, but The In-Flight Feature ranks at #1 for me. It’s a homage to the music that got me to pick up a guitar in the first place. I still have the very first 4-track tape that I ever made. And it’s really not that far removed from the music on The In-Flight Feature.
I’m sure I could give you a fairly long list of things that I wished I could do all over again, but all of them eventually led to me meeting my wife. And she is the single most important thing in my life.
So I suppose it was all some kind of grand plan on my part, huh?