Earthless interview with Mario Rubalcaba

July 26, 2018

Earthless interview with Mario Rubalcaba

“Music is such blessing, I’m so grateful that I’ve had it with me for most of my life”
Interview with Mario Rubalcaba of Earthless about their latest release Black Heaven, being on tour and record collecting.

Black Heaven was recently released. 
Yes, and I cannot believe how fast 4, almost 5 years went by since From The Ages came out. I was very busy with other projects but also Earthless was busy doing a bit of touring all over. It’s stunning how fast a year can zoom by when you play and tour with 4 different bands at a time. Throw in various recording and family life and BAM! – the year is over! Haha.
So… it came time that we started to talk about working on some new material and where did we think it could go? We had a few ideas that we were already starting to jam on at soundchecks and whatnot but how were we going to make a whole album and to have it really different from the last one? Also, we have been in such a different position as a band compared to when we did From The Ages, as Isaiah now was living up north closer to San Fransisco Bay Area. When we wrote “FTA” he was still down in San Diego and we were jamming a few times a week or a few times a month to build the pieces that would form songs like “FTA” & “Violence Of The Red Sea”. We had to have a little bit of a different ‘plan’ on this new album. It was a refreshing experience and we are happy with it and also surprised that it turned into this type of album as it wasn’t planned to have four vocal songs. We thought that there might be two but these ended up being the strongest ones.

Where did you record it? What kind of equipment did you use and who was the producer? How many hours did you spend in the studio? 
We went to Rancho De La Luna out in Joshua Tree. We had Dave Catching produce it. He plays in a bunch of bands but I became friends with him through touring with my bands OFF! and RFTC and he was with Eagles Of Death Metal. We talked a few years ago about Earthless recording out at Rancho, he just said to me that he had to be there. Then began the fun task of organizing schedules. That’s a feat in itself! It all finally came together though and the timing worked out perfectly as well to have a great engineer in Jon Russo, who I also met through Eagles. He kicked serious ass and was a real good guy to boot. Both of them together was an awesome team to work with. As far as equipment goes… hmmm… well for guitar stuff it was pretty varied and Izzy did not hold back on trying out and playing a bunch of Dave’s insane guitars that were all over the house. Whatever sounded best to us was what we went with to record. Bass was pretty standard to what Mike always uses, he might have had a couple different heads that he used though, nothing too crazy though and for myself, I used my Ludwig Legacy Mahogany kit that I had received from Ludwig maybe a year ago. It was my first time getting to record with it and I loved it. We were there for about 7 or 8 days and we would clock in around 10 hour days give or take. We did all of the basic tracking in like 2 /3 days? Drums were done in 2 days and then we went on to the guitar and vocal stuff, assorted overdubs and then rough mixing. The mixing we did after the fact as to have just a little time to sit with it and let our ears get back to normal but not too long as we were on a set timeline for a release deadline.

What was the songwriting process like? Black Heaven sounds a bit different than your previous albums and not only because of added vocals but in general you released more ‘song’ oriented album. 
It wasn’t too different but it was only in that we did have to set up times where Izzy would come down to San Diego for 3 days at a time every few months and we would just lock ourselves up at Ursa Polaris studio and jam and work on ideas and/or form new ones. We had to be efficient with our time and we would record our jams to be sure that we would be able to source any ideas. Izzy would take back home any ideas that we thought were cool and mess with them. He came up with a few basic ideas that had some vocal ideas to them and that was what we would focus on it seemed and what also just came together naturally while in the jam room. We just continued to build on these ideas and then a few just came into form in the room. “Electric Flame” was one of those and is my personal favorite of them all. It has everything in it and more. It was just a real surprise that this song kinda came out of nowhere and forced to what it became. I had remembered a riff that had been on a old 4 track tape from years ago and said “what about this lost riff?” type of thing, from there Izzy built the beginning lines around it and when we started jamming those couple things it just started to flourish and more parts started to happen but also the improvised stuff happened and we made parts out of that to be open when we play live. Came outta nowhere haha but that’s the fun part of doing this, Creating! The jam; “Black Heaven” was also around for a bit but only as a riff that we would play at soundcheck, once we started to really play it over and over did it form into the beast that it is. It’s a really fun song to play and when I think back to what it was when we would just mess around with it at soundcheck to what it turned into on the record, I have to chuckle and just be thankful it all worked out in such a fun and energetic jam. 

How would you compare it to previous work? 
I’d say it is more energetic as a whole, less spacey as a whole? Obviously the vocals are there, we always knew Izzy had a great voice and we have used it here and there on assorted projects but not like this. It was so refreshing to do this and just see how it would shape the ideas and sounds of what we were working on. 
Who is behind the artwork for your latest release?
We had Andrew Sloan draw the cover art for it and he knocked it out of the park! Mike found him on Instagram and we really liked his stuff he had on there (truth within time) is his Insta name. We wanted to tie in the style of skulls he was doing and we liked how he drew his trees and roots. Mike and I just wanted to mix what he was already doing but fuse it with our Joshua Tree mindset and experience. I sent him pictures of the trees that are out there in the desert and he drew those and Mike had loose ideas of the mountains and the psychedelic stuff going on in the front and leaving Andrew to go for it. I had a specific idea where I wanted the band to be up in the stars like astrology signs and playing our instruments. That idea came to me while we were staying at the band house up the hill from the studio which was a killer time. It was a cool house where we could cook and also chill after the studio time. There was a stereo and a bunch of records there and we would just jam the tunes and make food and hang outside and look for scorpions and stare at the stars. I was on shrooms and got the ‘band in the stars astrology/black heaven’ idea. There was also a sg bass that was in the ground as a tombstone there that I had to have put in the artwork. It’s small but it was such a cool thing that I took s picture of when we were there. I loved hanging out there and with those guys at Rancho. Went by real quick.
What would you say influenced you the most? Have influences changed during the years?
Hmmm… that’s a hard one to pin down for me in that yes – that they have changed but have also stayed the same really. We still listen to a lot of the same stuff but also get into so many different types of sounds and genres. It’s a big sonic stew for sure. We def don’t just look to hard and heavy stuff for inspiration, to me it’s just too confined and limiting. Our sound is our sound but what inspires each one of us is what keeps things fresh and lends to the stoke filled lands of discovery, haha.
Is there a certain concept behind each release?
No, not at all. It actual all comes together so last minute. All of it. The Song titles and Art are usually the very last things we do. We start with nothing and just keep adding the clay into some kinda structure. Keeps it interesting and fun. Maybe once it’s done it seems like it was a concept but it def is not thought about in advance in my opinion.
How was touring so far? You played at Roadburn Festival. Damo Suzuki and Ryu from Kikagaku Moyo joined you on stage.
It’s by far been the busiest Earthless has ever been as far as touring is concerned and we have been having a good time. Roadburn was such a special thing this year for us. It was such an honor to be the Artist In Residence and to collaborate with Damo and also Kikagaku Moyo. It was great to be able to play such different sets every night and the vibe was just top notch all around. We toured the US with Kikagaku and it was so awesome to see them every night and then to meet up at Roadburn and play together was just a real mind chopper. The Damo jam was just out of this world for me. It was surreal. It felt like it could have gone on forever… up and down… faster, slower … back to where we started… repeat. It was pretty magical to me. Damo is one of my absolute favorites and CAN is a huge inspiration of mine, so to be able to share that spirit with Damo was very special for us and he was such a humble and sweet soul. We hung out with him and his sweet wife after our show for hours and just had great conversation. 

In my interview (see here & here) with Isaiah, he told me that you and Mike showed him Flower Travellin’ Band, Blues Creation, Pärson Sound, Amon Düül II… How did you first get in touch with this kind of music? 
Ahhhh right on, I forget who turned who onto what these days but we are always sharing music and back then those bands weren’t as heard as they are now, at least in our surroundings and peers of the time. For me, I got into CAN in the early 90’s through friends and from there I heard Faust and NEU! and it just went on from there, digging deeper and the book “A Crack In The Cosmic Egg” came out and that just changed my Krautrock world! So many bands I would read about and would try to find. Back then there was no Youtube or streaming options. You had to track down boot reissues or know someone that had the lip’s or could make a tape for you or mail-order. Sometimes I miss that time of digging but then it’s also nice to have Youtube as a way to hear things that were once practically unobtainable. The Japanese stuff was the same way, you hear Flower Traveling’ Band and then it just snowballs from there and you start digging that hole a bit deeper. 
When Mike and I first met up and talked about doing a band (in 2001) we were very specific in that it had to fuse both Krautrock and Japanese Psych mindsets and energy. Somehow here we are still here and doing it.
Earthless are one of the most influential bands. There are many bands that started after hearing your first albums. Are there any bands you particularly like and know that they were influenced by your music? Also, is there any less known (local) bands that you would like to mention to our readers?
Well thank you, man the San Diego bands are all super great and it’s such a special little thing we have going here when I think about it. There have been some great combo jam sessions that have happened and the albums that these bands have done are great as well. I’m having a hard time thinking of newer bands but Petyr, Pharlee, Volcano come to mind. All have records or will have them out soon.
You played in many bands. Are you currently working on some other projects?
Parker from Radio Moscow and I formed a project called Alpine Fuzz Society a bit ago and we have recorded some stuff but we have only played 3 shows. Paul from RM played bass on the first 2 shows which were down in Mexico City and Izzy sat in on 2nd guitar as well. It comes from more of a 60’s garage rock mindset, it’s also hi energy too and short songs, basic in structure and very fun and different from what Parker and I do in RM or Earthless but also has those elements too. Parker is still doing these insane lead solos in the songs but then playing these simplified riffs that aren’t always so simple. We really wanna play more shows and get these songs out but both of us have been so busy touring and both bands released new albums pretty close to each other so that’s been a bit of a challenge. Super fun though!

Do you still go out and dig through piles of records these days? What are some of the latest finds?
Yep, there’s some good shops here at home and also out on the road I always go for a look. I’m not just about finding Originals but that is also welcome for sure. I’m just really into music and records. In the last few years I have also finally figured out that having a decent stereo set up makes a huge difference in my listening experience and I love it. Took a while to figure that out but well worth the effort. Doesn’t have to be super costly but of course it can be. Some latest finds have been the International Harvester box set which is amazing, Maggot Heart EP, Leong Lau from Australia is amazing. Also rediscovering bands like Ash Ra Tempel has been fun, it had been a bit since I had listened to some of their albums and they are great! Gila as well and Popul Vuh. 
What are some of the most interesting records in your collection?
I’m just pretty eclectic in my tastes. It’s all over the spectrum. Tons of Garage comps. A good chunk of old school death and speed metal. Lots of Kraut and psych of course but also lots of Punk and Hardcore too. Big Butt Funk and Soul. A good chunk of Zep and Velvets bootlegs. Nothing too crazy interesting but they are mine and I am always sifting through the collection and finding shit to zone in on. 
Is there an album that has profoundly effected you more than others?
Just depends on what time of my life and where I was at musically. Radio Birdman was huge in that at the time as a teen I was mostly into punk & metal and classic rock stuff. I heard RB and that got me into other High Energy bands like MC5. Hearing the Stooges first album had a HUGE effect on me in that it had such an attitude about it. It was so Raw and in your face but also had these drone elements to there kind of raw punk. That’s what gave me a real buzz and still does. Zep and Sabbath as a kid were huge of course, I was like 6 or 7 years old and just raiding my uncle’s records. They were super helpful in shaping my influences at an early age. 
Unlikeliest places you’ve found records? Memorable dollar-bin finds?
Flea Market/Swap meet scores are always fun, dollar bin finds? Hmmm 1st This Heat LP at a flea market for a dollar isn’t bad… I found an original Brain Police LP here for about $2 and that was by far the rarest record I have ever owned, it was a demo album and only a handful known to exist. It’s a great album but I did sell it. I’m happy with my reissue, haha.

And what are you spinning right now on your turntable?
As I was doing this interview I was spinning the Wilson McKinley’ Spirit of Elijah LP, Pugsley Munion LP, The Sunsets, and now Krautrock comp that are more on the Electronic side of things and very awesome. 
Let’s end this interview with some of your favourite albums. Have you found something new lately you would like to recommend to our readers?
That’s always a hard one but here are some long time faves.
Alice Coltrane – Journey In Satchidinanda
Sonics Rendezvous Band City Slang 7” but the various live ups as well…
Stooges – Fun House
CAN – first 4 albums
Groundhogs – Split
Dark – Dark Round The Edges
Spacemen 3
As far as new… been digging the band Crypt Trip Rootstock LP. They are from Texas and they sound like they are from Texas. I love that. It’s catchy and well played and the recording is a good sound.  Kikagaku Moyo is still on my turntable but I’m sure readers know them here, if not they are Japans finest for a bit and quite a but more from Japan too at the moment.
What are some future plans?
All Earthless. Back to UK/Europe in August. Mexico City and South America in October/November, more US touring and hopefully back to Australia, NZ and Japan again soon.
Thank you. Last word is yours.
Music is such blessing, I’m so grateful that I’ve had it with me for most of my life and that it has inspired so much of it, I can’t imagine life w/o it. That would seem so boring! Thank you for having me here for a chat! Much love to everyone that digs into the sounds and makes the rounds at the record shops and goes to the shows. Hope to see you all out there in the wild. Take care!

– Klemen Breznikar
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