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POP MUSIC : Rock in a Hard Place : An oasis of creativity has bloomed in the desert of the Southwest, tucked away from the music capitals of either coast. 'We may as well be on Mars,' says one musician. 'The thing is, we're a very satisfied bunch of Martians.'

October 16, 1994|Chuck Crisafulli | Chuck Crisafulli is a frequent contributor to Calendar

PALM DESERT — Out past the diner with the life-size dinosaurs in the parking lot and the high-tech windmills that dot the hills like oversized wildflowers, Kyuss has found a rock 'n' roll oasis in the California desert.

The beautifully bleak expanses of the Coachella Valley might seem an unlikely home for cranked-up guitars and thundering drums. But members of the hard-rock quartet see something in the landscape that they couldn't find in the music industry hub of Los Angeles--inspiration.

"The desert is the key ingredient in our sound," says singer John Garcia, 23. "We're always trying to work the desert vibe into our music. Whatever power and integrity our sound has comes from living around here."

The members of Kyuss--the group takes its name from the game Dungeons & Dragons--are lazing about a genuine oasis, complete with a spring that nurtures a stand of palm trees and a lush tangle of vegetation.

The band recently completed a European tour and is getting ready to hit the road for three months across the United States opening for Dinosaur Jr. There are plenty of last-minute details to worry about, but right now, the band members are content to spend a few hours soaking up some more of that desert vibe.

"You can't find medicine better than this," bassist Scott Reeder, 28, says with a shrug.

Musical hot spots come and go, from Seattle to Chicago's "Guyville," but the desert doesn't budge. At the outskirts of towns such as Palm Desert, up in the high desert of the Wonder Valley or out in Arizona's Sonora Desert, bands can work free of most urban distractions and enjoy life in the slow lane.

The sun, wind and wide open spaces of the Southwestern deserts don't create a single, identifiable sound--the whomping metal of Kyuss wouldn't be easily confused with the loopy meditations of Tempe, Ariz., group the Meat Puppets or the shambling, countryfied rock of Tucson's Giant Sand.

But the harsh beauty of the desert does seem to pull uniquely powerful music from the players who call it home.

"The desert can be the biggest, coolest club you could imagine," says the compact, athletically built Garcia, who fronts Kyuss onstage like a man possessed but in conversation is serene and soft-spoken.

"We didn't have many real clubs to play in around here, so we'd take a generator, a light, a keg and a bunch of kids out in the middle of nowhere and throw our own party," he says. "We're only two hours away from Los Angeles, but considering how different things are out here, we may as well be on Mars. The thing is, we're a very satisfied bunch of Martians."

*

As Highway 62 slides eastward between the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base and Joshua Tree National Monument, the world gets awfully quiet. That makes Dick Dale a very happy desert resident.

"There's perfect peacefulness here," says the veteran guitarist. "You can close your eyes and just listen to your ears ring. . . . You don't want to turn on a radio, because you feel like you'd dirty the air. You don't even want to speak. It's that powerful."

For most of his career, Dale has been known as the King of the Surf Guitar, and he and his group the Del-Tones had hits with such genre-defining tunes as "Let's Go Trippin' " and "Miserlou."

Six years ago, disgusted by the polluted waters surrounding their Newport Beach mansion, Dale and his wife, Jill, set out for the desert and built a house for themselves. The man who once spent half of every day in the surf now hauls his own water to his home and frets over faucets left running too long.

"I've been able to experience the spirituality of the ocean all my life, but I feel that's been destroyed," says Dale, whose 2 1/2-year-old son Jimmy rounds out the household. "Now I've got the spirituality of the high desert, and I don't think I could get any higher."

Dale, 57, says the desert has added a new ferocity to his music, but he didn't take to his stark surroundings all that quickly.

"When I first came to the desert, I said, 'Who the hell would want to live here? You'd have to be out of your gourd.' But property was cheap, so we bought land and built the house. We were coming out once or twice a week, and then we started asking, 'Why are we bothering to drive back to the beach?' "

The desert has given Dale peace of mind, but it's also refired his desire to make powerful, primal rock 'n' roll. He says he's given up his "Surf King" crown and has no second thoughts about his move inland.

"For $3 million and perfect surf, you couldn't get me out of this place. I don't need to be in the world of riches anymore. Diamonds and Rolexes and all that crap are gone. I have a Rolls-Royce that's got four flats and a rat living in the trunk. The rat's happy, and so am I."

There's no rat in Curt Kirk wood's trunk, but he does have a desert tortoise hibernating in his closet. The Meat Puppets' guitarist and singer has been creating oddly soothing mixes of punk, country, pop and rock music for nearly 15 years.

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