interview by: Roberto Martinelli
When we started this zine, there were two things that Steppenvvolf and I set as our highest goals – mere figureheads to keep our aims high, and without much real hope of their coming true. The first and foremost was to interview Immortal. And at what later turned out to be the twilight of our Norwegian favorite’s career, we were able to chat with Abbath (in issue #8).
Second only to interviewing Immortal was interviewing Weakling, a local yet mysterious black metal band that had and would ever release only one record, Dead as Dreams. I had heard small anecdotes (based on hearsay more than anything else) about the band, but little else. Of course, this had a symbiotic effect on the album seeming better and better the less there was to find out about the band that had made it.
But Dead as Dreams made a mark on us as profoundly as any record that we had ever heard. It seemed immense: 76 minutes of abyssic, soul-shattering despair that rendered one weightless in some manner of death-like peace. It might be the best black metal record there ever was, and we were determined to find out who was behind this album that had touched us so deeply, whoever that person might be.
That person turned out to be John Gossard. He’s a low-key guy who it seems had been around the entire time. For more than two years, I had heard stories about the man from people I knew who knew him: like the story that went how Gossard wanted Dead as Dreams to be cult above all else, and to do so, would bury each album somewhere around the world, and whoever would buy an album would receive a unique map to find his or her treasure. Or simpler stories about Gossard’s famous “history of metal” speech at parties.
I first met Gossard about a year and a half before this interview took place. Ever since then, I had been working on him to do it. It finally took the release of Asunder’s (the project he’s currently involved in) first record – and perhaps the alignment of several key planets – to make this happen. So, with little knowledge aside from impressions from the only three albums that Gossard has been on, and some fairly wild third hand accounts, I started where I could only... from the beginning. The following is my conversation with John Gossard, the man behind Weakling.
Maelstrom: Where did you come from? Where did you grow up? How did you get into metal?
John Gossard: I grew up I the Bay Area, in Kensington. I went to El Cerrito High School. I got into metal originally because my sister had some AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Rush [records]...
Maelstrom: How old were you then?
John Gossard: I remember I was 14 when I broke my leg skateboarding. It was a really fucked up break – I wasn’t going to be able to get out of bed for, like, two months. I wanted to play guitar... I don’t remember how long I’d really wanted to, or how badly I wanted to. I had previously played some piano, and was pretty terrible at it. My dad got me a guitar for my birthday, because I couldn’t move, basically.
A guy down the street was the guitar player in Laaz Rockit. He was a pretty shredding guitarist – the band I wasn’t too into. I didn’t know any of this stuff at the time; riding a bike down the street and seeing this guy shredding, it was like, “whoa, that’s pretty cool!” I got into it and he gave me some lessons for a little while. He told me to go see his band. I think it was my birthday, or something. I got money to go see the show, and we went to go see Laaz Rockit. It turned out the opening band was Slayer. And I’d never heard of Slayer. So I saw them, and I think I was completely stoned out of my mind. And that was it. I was like, “holy shit! What the fuck is this?!”
Maelstrom: Had they put out any records yet?
John Gossard: I think they had put out Show No Mercy that year. The people who were into metal at that time were a few years older than me. I think a lot of the older people, like, those in their late 20s, thought that thrash stuff was stupid. Like, Metallica was retarded. They’d be like, “fuck that shit; Deep Purple is way heavier.” I knew people from my high school that were young enough to be into [thrash], and who bought stuff like Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All. I remember going to buy that record because the guy in Laaz Rockit told me the album was crazy. He was like this cool older kid. I looked at the album cover and thought it was stupid. “A hammer and a fake pile of blood.” But I went home and listened to it. I remember when I first listened to it, the music seemed so fast that I couldn’t even understand it.
Maelstrom: Isn’t that funny?
John Gossard: That blows my mind today.
Maelstrom: Do you think that your interest in metal was contingent on your breaking your leg, or would you have become a metal fan no matter what?
John Gossard: I remember in sixth grade, we had to take a dance class. I think they were playing disco music. I had just discovered the radio at that point. I never really knew that you could just turn on a radio and there would be music there. At the end of the class, they said we could have any 7" we wanted. I knew Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” and whatever AC/DC hit of the month at the time. So I asked for either of those songs, but they said, “we couldn’t find it, so we got you Kool and The Gang’s ‘Celebration.’”
John Gossard: I hated the song and wouldn’t take it. So they went back and got me The Gap Band’s “Burn Rubber.” And I thought that was pretty cool ‘cause it started off with a motorcycle. So I had that for a while, until I destroyed it. I was stupid and destroyed stuff as a kid. I’d scratch it on the record player. “Wow! You can play it backwards, and fuck it up!”
John Gossard: Not that Aerosmith or AC/DC are the heaviest shit, but I liked the heavier rock stuff. I’d call up the station and ask what song it was. They told me it was “Iron Man.” I was always into heavier, darker music. But I didn’t know how to find it. I mean, my sister was into it for a little bit, but then she got into funk and soul... so I stole her Sabbath and Zeppelin and Rush albums. She didn’t care at the time, but now she wants them back.
So, I don’t know how long it would have taken me to find Slayer and Venom... I can’t even remember how I found Venom. I remember this friend of mine. We were best friends and he went to another junior high. He traded me a tape for some thing I had. The tape had “The Boston, not LA Compilation” (?) on it, which had Jerry’s Kids, Gang Green, The F.U.s... it was a great punk comp. And it had the first two Venom albums!
In ninth grade I got Kill ‘Em All. In 10th grade, I went on vacation with my parents to England. Ride the Lightning came out there a month before it came out here. It was in the top 40 in the hard rock section of a record store, and I gave my parents this spiel about how it was from the Bay Area and how I had to have it. That was right before I broke my leg and got the guitar. That’s how it all started.
I was into metal and punk locally, until the late 80s, when a lot of the Bay Area bands started getting really fucking cheesy. There were bands with really good musicianship, but they didn’t sound *sketchy*.
Maelstrom: That’s an interesting word to use.
John Gossard: I started losing interest. I wanted to know more about Black Flag. I saw this band that nobody knows that was a huge influence for me: The Mighty Sphincter, this underground band from Phoenix, Arizona? Or maybe New Mexico? They were halfway Black Flag and halfway Bauhaus or Crimson Death, or something. I started liking more obscure, weird music. GGFH was another one.
Then I started hearing about death metal from Europe, like Entombed and Dismember, and the American stuff... I was pretty amazed that metal had made this huge move to being darker, and I had missed it while I was paying attention to these other styles of music. I had heard stuff about black metal, but I didn’t know any way of obtaining any of it. Around ‘93, I first went online and met some people who had Burzum and Darkthrone... Thergothon was another one. Rotting Christ was another one. I started tape trading again. All of a sudden, I discovered that there was all this great dark music.
In between, I had played in a joke thrash band, called Vomitorium, when I was in high school. I was really into the music of all the thrash, but I couldn’t deal with how stupid most of the lyrics were: sort of joke-y, half political (but without taking a stance), “oh, my god! Chemical waste is going to kill us!” kind of stuff. I could not take it seriously. I was more into absurdity than morbidity at the time. The more I played that, the more I got interested in weird things you could do with harmonies, to make stuff that sounded dark.
Then I played in a punkish death metal band when I lived in Santa Cruz, called Dripping Mary. It was more serious, but less musically serious. We’d play parties and the focus was to become the best party band. But I realized there was something more cool about doing something that was more emotionally real.
Maelstrom: How about the beginnings of your recent band involvement?
John Gossard: When I came back to the Bay Area, the scene here was full of shit, as far as what I wanted to play – there was other kinds of music that I liked, but that wasn’t what I wanted to do. Then, Weakling started around ‘96. Weakling originally started out as Black Goat, which was a band that was started just to play metal. The material we came up with seemed like too many people coming from too many different angles.
Maelstrom: Didn’t Black Goat continue after that? (And put out a record or two?)
John Gossard: Yes. They just re-formed. But I was in it before it was called Black Goat. We wrote some songs, a couple of which went into Black Goat, one of which went into Weakling (“This Entire Fucking Battlefield”)
Maelstrom: Talk more about this infatuation with music that’s “sketchy.”
John Gossard: Well, I don’t only like things that are sketchy. I now like cheesy power metal. But personally, I think cheesy power metal is sketchy, ‘cause anyone that would play cheesy power metal is not anyone to be trusted. The people that take that as truth are weird and crazy.
Maelstrom: What were the events that led to Weakling breaking up?
John Gossard: In order to get into it breaking up, I’d have to get into it starting. I moved back to the Bay Area and was going to S.F. State. I was not really interested in playing with people. I kinda had a drug problem. I wasn’t meeting anyone who wanted to play the same thing as me. I didn’t get along with people who played Bay Area thrash; no one had the right energy for what it used to be.
When I got off drugs, I moved into a house with two roommates, who were both in The (Fucking) Champs. They were always playing or listening to music. For the year that I lived there, someone was always playing guitar and writing crazy riffs, but we never played music together. Then one night, me and Josh (Smith – of The Champs) realized we’d never played music together, so we decided to plug in the amps and write something. The very first time we jammed together, we wrote the end to “Disasters in the Sun.” We had it on a tape and were listening to it for a couple weeks. I hadn’t been that inspired for years. I didn’t want it to be some bullshit, I wanted to form a band. But we didn’t know anyone who was even capable of playing black metal.
While the Champs were on tour, I saw (local band) Sangre Amado, and I saw Sam (or “Little Sunshine,” Weakling’s drummer) playing drums. When I saw that, I was like, “holy fucking shit. This guy is nuts; I want this guy to play with us.” I talked to him and gave him a couple tapes me and Josh had been working on. I told Josh about him. Josh knew Sara (Weiner – Weakling’s future bass player), who was trying to get him to let The Champs have a bass player so she could play with them. I was kind of against having her play with us, because I thought a chick wouldn’t be able to play black metal... But I said I’d give her a shot. But she worked out great. So we worked on writing stuff with her. After a month and a half, Sam decided he wanted to do it He didn’t have much free time, but he would find the time somehow. I was the only person who was only in one band, which was fine, and I wrote most of the music. Everyone was really into it.
Maelstrom: So you recorded Dead as Dreams in ‘98. When did you break up?
John Gossard: ...’99?
Maelstrom: And the record came out a year afterward. How did that feel, having the record come out a year after you broke up?
John Gossard: I felt very... unemotional. I felt very disconnected to it. I still do.
Maelstrom: You must have some notion of how much of an impact this record has made. Or do you not?
John Gossard: I don’t know. It feels really weird. When we recorded the album, we put as much as we possibly could into it. We were pretty proud of it. And nothing happened with it. And then people quit the band because of other obligations. I spent a little effort shopping it right when we did it. I got a couple responses from people who thought it was ok but weren’t interested. I don’t think it was an honest feeling. There were legitimate reasons for people to quit, but at the time, I felt betrayed, and that it was a pipe dream, or something. I felt like I was becoming arrogant or egotistical, thinking that the album was even any good.
I mean, I got responses from friends who said it was great, but I’ve always had people tell me things that I knew were complete crap where great. But now I have people telling me it’s great, and I can’t tell the difference between... I also know people have bad taste.
Maelstrom: You made it, so you’re the worst judge and the best judge, all at the same time. Invariably, when I ask bands what they think of their cult status, the answer is, “I dunno...”
John Gossard: Part of it is my own love for cult music. I like music that I don’t know where it’s coming from. Heh! I know where *my* music is coming from!
Maelstrom: Ah! Before I forget, there’s something I wanted to clear up. There’s a band called Demonic. I think they’re Norwegian.
John Gossard: Oh, yeah!
Maelstrom: There’s a riff on one of their albums (Lead Us Into Darkness, the song is called “Nĺr Mřrket Faller”), that’s almost the exact same riff as the one on “This Entire Fucking Battlefield.”
John Gossard: I can tell you *exactly* how that happened. [“This Entire Fucking Battlefield”] was written when I was in Black Goat. Me and Jim wrote that, and he gave me a riff that was not the Demonic riff, but it was pretty much based on it. I don’t know if I had the record or not, but I definitely didn’t remember it. Then I wrote a variation on what he was playing. And then I quit Black Goat and started to play with Weakling. And I wanted to revive the song. And then I bought a demo of Funeral Winds/Demonic demos, and heard basically the first riff in that Weakling song, and realized it’s almost the same. I think it’s a different time signature, but the chord progression is exactly the same. But I figured I had been playing it for a year and a half, and if anybody calls me on it, I’d give my respects to Demonic, because it’s a killer riff.
Maelstrom: Are you still on speaking terms with Josh?
John Gossard: Yeah, but I’m not good friends with him anymore.
Maelstrom: He’s sort of disavowed the whole black metal thing since, hasn’t he?
John Gossard: I don’t know. I don’t know Josh’s personal feelings on black metal. He’s definitely THE best guitarist I’ve ever played with. He’s musically brilliant. He discovers something new that interests him, and obsesses on it and learns as much as he can for a short period of time, and then moves on. But his core of interest (early rock) remains the same.
Maelstrom: I kind of got that impression based on the mystique about The Champs. So it was curious when they released V, which was more of the same stuff on IV and III.
John Gossard: I think The Champs were extremely experimental up until their first album, and after they were successful with it, they felt they should sound like that. But who am I to say?
The Champs got a good record deal, a much better tour manager, booking agent, and a long tour. And distribution. Josh had been in The Champs for seven years before Weakling. It was his band. Weakling was *me* and Josh. He was aware that he had a waning interest in what I was into, and hinted that I should eventually find another guitarist. I had been playing music in the Bay Area since I was a teenager, and I had never played anything this rad before. I knew I couldn’t just go out and find another guitarist that clicked like Josh did. We all clicked: Sarah and Sam... we has this way of working together that just worked great.
Sam physically could not play drums (in Weakling) and do his job – he’s a bike messenger. And he was in two bands. He said he’d quit as he had been in Sangre Amado prior to Weakling. He left first, and were unable to find a replacement. At that point, I was so scared that I didn’t want to fucking play with people.
Maelstrom: I think Wrest (of local act Leviathan) would really like to see Weakling get back together. Had you spoken to him about joining? Would you ever do Weakling again?
John Gossard: I wouldn’t do it for a couple of reasons. One, I’m not the same person.
Maelstrom: How are you different?
John Gossard: I realize that no matter how much I drink, I’m not going to die by the time I’m 30. (Gossard is 34 at the time of this interview)
John Gossard: Two, 2000 has passed. There’s no longer a looming thing over an entire millennia. Now, nobody knows what to expect. I think a huge amount of any of the extreme artistic style that came prior to 2000 was hugely affected by the concept of apocalypse. It would be hard not to. Anyone knows someone – friends, accomplices, co-workers – who believed in the Judeo-Christian thing that something really heavy was coming. And even if you didn’t believe it, just one of these people being more tense at work could affect you. And if it didn’t affect you, then you’re some sort of master of meditation. And if you’re a master of meditation, you’re probably not playing sketchy metal.
Maelstrom: Do you think Weakling greatly benefitted by only releasing one album?
John Gossard: Weakling could have been shitloads better. Weakling is not over because I’m past 30 and the new millennia is here. Weakling is over because it was a concept that I grew into with people that really gelled with all of it. A huge amount of it was me, but to say that it was only me and that I can re-claim that thing with some other people? That’s a load of crap. I will continue to play black metal. I may or may not release it. It may or may not be good. But it’s not going to be Weakling.
Maelstrom: The name “Weakling.” Was that inspired by the Swans’ song?
John Gossard: It was. I bought a compilation in 86-87 that had the Swans on it. It was the first time I ever heard the Swans. Their track on there was the heaviest of the comp, and one of the heaviest tracks I’d ever heard.
Maelstrom: Let’s talk about your vocals. The story that I had heard was that you had looked for a vocalist for a long time and couldn’t find one. So you said, “fuck it, I’ll do it myself.”
John Gossard: That’s... sort of true.
Maelstrom: I remember first listening to the album and thinking, “god, this guy is the worst vocalist I’ve ever heard.” And then thinking, “this guy is the worst vocalist I’ve ever heard, and I couldn’t imagine anyone else being on this record.” It soon became inseparable.
John Gossard: I was very into screaming black metal vocals, and not caring about that being ridiculous, and finding it interesting that people were freaked out by it. I used to scream at people like that in traffic. (Laugh)
We had the first couple songs written, and we wanted a vocalist. We didn’t want a lead singer – we only wanted screaming. I couldn’t do it and play guitar at the same time. I also didn’t want to be a lead vocalist. The vote within the band was, either we wouldn’t have vocals, or I’d try to do it. The longer it went on, the easier it got, and the more I liked doing it.
About the whole thing of playing music and getting tired of understanding what I’m doing: when you play music and do vocals at the same time, it’s much more bewildering – especially those vocals. My objective was not to think; to be visceral and to touch the darkest thing I could touch. It’s ridiculous, and it’s something few people are going to try and do, because you look like a fucking idiot.
Maelstrom: But the vocals on the album provide so many memorable moments. I immediately think of that utterly crushing voice breaking about 13 minutes into “This Entire Fucking Battlefield.”
John Gossard: Earlier in my life, I lived with someone who was a linguist. I was influenced by the impact of emotional sentiment stated through languages I don’t speak in black metal. And frankly, I don’t even pay attention [when the lyrics are in English]. I might look at the lyrics for bands that have had more poetic things to say, like Darkthrone or Burzum, I’ve been fascinated by the concept of telling a story you have to tell; a feeling, and emotion... but not relying on a set poem that are the lyrics. Weakling always had a couple sentences here and there, generally one per section. I would have a concept what the section was about. On one day, the first line about a story about war was, “we are going to war.” And the last line may be, “and my family is dead.” The next day, it might have been, “I killed your family and I am victorious.” It was open-ended. The concept is war – vague things. Things that kids that are into metal always think they have the answers to. I’ve never been able to commit myself to thinking that I have the answers. But I understand the force of what you feel about those things.
The passionate argument is the moving thing. I could be singing about killing Jews, or killing niggers, or killing whitey, or killing corporate America... it’d be equally valid or invalid. My point has nothing to do with propaganda.
Maelstrom: Will Weakling lyrics ever be available?
John Gossard: I have no idea.
Maelstrom: Do you have them recorded somewhere?
John Gossard: No. They’re all in my head.
Maelstrom: Did you make stuff up as you went along?
John Gossard: I had certain stuff memorized, and I made up a lot on the spot. The farther I get away from that time period, the less I even try to remember it.
Maelstrom: Do you ever listen to your old recordings?
John Gossard: I used to a lot. Now, when I do, I mostly focus on what I don’t like about it. I recently found a tape of three of our songs and riffs we never used from prior to our having keyboards or vocals. That was really exciting for me, ‘cause it was hearing us in a different context than I’m used to.
Maelstrom: Again, your perspective as the creator is so close to the product, that in a sense it’s unfair to try to relate that to anyone who is on the outside looking in. There’s no way you could listen to it the way I do, and vice versa.
John Gossard: If I sat down with anyone and went over the riffs one at a time, I would say things like, “I wrote this one five minutes after I heard this particular album.”
Maelstrom: Yes. I’m aware of that quality of the knowledge of where the ideas came from as dispelling the power that the finished product has over me. Like, when I asked about the lyrics being available, if you had said “yes,” my next thought might have been, “would I really want to know what they are?” What they really are may not be as cool as what my imagination can come up with.
John Gossard: That’s sort of the whole point on not having complete lyrics. It’s quite simple that my lyrics aren’t printed because I don’t know what they are. If you listen to tapes of us live, the lyrics won’t be the same as on the record. A lot of times, what I’m saying isn’t even words. Often they are, as far as I can tell. The concept about the song is always the same.
I was trying to do something that would prevent me from being in the same mental state whenever I played the song. Because then I’d be in something routine.
Maelstrom: This makes me think of Obituary. They have sort of a lyric sheet on Cause of Death, but the lyrics run throughout all the songs. Something like two sentences for each. I think that’s all he had, and went off on it.
John Gossard: I’m aware of that. For me, I was focused on writing good lyrics. I was aware of what I’m talking about, but I don’t know how to say it. And I’d rather not pretend to be the spokesman. I didn’t like being the vocalist. I didn’t like being in that position. I just felt that if we were going to be playing this kind of shit, this is what I should be doing. I don’t remember what it was like being on stage. But it was not comfortable.
Maelstrom: But wasn’t that so important to the success of the music? Your pain in being the vocalist came through in the vocals. That’s what was part of the truth of what you were doing.
John Gossard: I don’t know if I was aware of it enough to have thought about it.
Maelstrom: There was an article written about tUMULt (the label the Weakling album is on). A lot of it had to do with the release of Weakling. The take in the article was about how super keen you were on the record being super cult. For example, to make one copy and give it to some kid at a festival, or to make a treasure map for each album, and so each buyer would have to go hunt for and dig up their record.
John Gossard: I was very embarrassed by that whole thing. I don’t know what Andee’s (Connors, tUMULt’s owner) take is on this, but the propaganda that got started obviously came from him as he released it. But it’s ridiculous. I make ridiculous wisecracks about that shit all the time. And I do honestly think it’s funny to come up with the best album ever, and give it to the guy who’d be most into it, and never tell him what it is. But that concept was just a passing joke. And the whole association with the Champs’ name led to the notion that Weakling was a joke side-project of the Champs. And that bums me out. When Weakling existed, Josh was very adamant about not connecting Weakling with the Champs. He knew that people wouldn’t be able to deal with the fact that you could be serious about totally different things.
Maelstrom: So what’s embarrassing about this story? That it wasn’t really that big of a deal?
John Gossard: It’s not that good of a joke! But it was presented like a mainstay of Weakling.
Maelstrom: I thought the treasure map idea was pretty cool! Impossible, but funny.
John Gossard: Combining the name of the band, along with its location, and joke after joke after joke, and it seemed like a joke band. And the reality is that there’s a lot of stupid fucking crap about black metal, but it’s not a joke!
Maelstrom: What kind of stuff is stupid about black metal?
John Gossard: People who are obsessed with the image of black metal: corpsepaint, spikes, being anti-Christian. I know plenty of people who are anti-Christian, but don’t know what Christianity is all about. I know people who wear corpsepaint who think it looks pretty good when you play live. The point of it to me has nothing to do with that. Not that I’ve worn corpsepaint before or would let anyone put it on me. I’m not into black metal for other people’s rules.
Maelstrom: Track one is called “Cut Their Grain and Place Fire Within.” It intrigues me. What’s it all about?
John Gossard: The way to sustain the troops and population is food. People live off grain; cows live off grain. If you can make your way into a country you’re fighting and destroy the food source, you no longer have an enemy.
Maelstrom: Your final thoughts about Weakling and its accomplishments.
John Gossard: We got to a point where we got our claws into the edge of the cliff of the best shit. We were never able to pull ourselves up to the top of it. But if you had given us time between the first album and whenver the second album would have been, we would have gone farther than the top of the cliff. But then there might have been a point where we were no longer edgy or sketchy... I don’t know if that would have been true. It’s a personal flaw of mine never to want to stick around long enough to see if that’s gonna happen. Everything I love artistically in music is guaranteed to fail by the second to third album.