Earthless Have Something To Say
Earthless’ Live at Roadburn album is one of those rare concert recordings that become canonized as an essential representation of the performer. It does for Earthless what No Sleep ‘til Hammersmith did for Motörhead and Alive did for Kiss – show the band in its clearest light, rendering the studio material obsolete in comparison.
With the exception of guitarist Isaiah Mitchell thanking the audience, not a single word is spoken on the double album's ninety minutes.
Mitchell has sung on a few tracks, some of them covers (2007’s Sonic Prayer and Rhythms from a Cosmic Sky featured a bonus cover of "Cherry Red" by The Groundhogs on the CD), but Black Heaven, Earthless' new album, might surpass the cumulative words sung over the band's last seventeen years. The new album features six songs and only two of them are instrumentals.
Some bands will shrug off accusations of massive changes actually being massive changes. The clichéd responses of this is just a natural evolution or this isn’t that much different than anything else we’ve done are bandied about by musicians downplaying seismic shifts in their sound.
Such pandering makes it especially refreshing to hear Mitchell concede, “Oh, it’s a big difference!”
He and the rest of Earthless sat on a well-worn white couch in the backstage area of Underground Arts, the Philadelphia venue they played mere days after the release of Black Heaven. The San Diego natives braved the chilly dungeon-like environment, letting their Chinese food get cold, to discuss what prompted the band’s newfound loquaciousness.
“Our band has always been a selfish endeavor,” explained drummer Mario Rubalcaba. “When we started people didn't always like what we did at all. If we want to jam for one or two hours, we’re having fun so fuck everyone! We all understood that there would be people who don’t dig what we do. We had so many people in the early days say, ‘can I audition for your band as a vocalist?’ We’re like, Isaiah can sing!”
“I just never did it,” Mitchell laughed.
Although metal labels are not known for meddling, musicians of all stripes can put internal pressures on themselves after signing such a contract. Nobody can say for certain whether signing to Nuclear Blast, easily the biggest label Earthless has recorded for, had an impact, even a subconscious one. Also, as much as shorter songs with accessible classic rock structures and, you know, lyrics, might attract new fans, such a change can also alienate long time supporters – on the YouTube comments for the video for “Volt Rush,” one fan simply posted “2:38???? It's not an Earthless song!!”
“It’s going to happen,” Mitchell admits. “For me, other bands that I've loved, they put out a newer record – If I don't like that record, I'm not going to hate the band or whatever, but people can do whatever they want. The live show is still very much how we have always done it. We just have some songs with vocals on the record. Whatever. If you make a big deal out of that then go for it.”
“The easier thing to do would have been to just do another jam record or something, with a 20 minute side or something. That would have been the easy way out,” says the drummer. “I guess an example is the last thing that we did, a split with Harsh Toke. I don't think that song [“Acid Crusher”] sounds like anything else we’ve done. It's more of a funky drone, fuzzed-out little funk jam. When people first heard that we heard some weird kind of stuff about it. ‘Oh, they ain’t doing nothing; they’re just playing the same thing the whole way.’ But then people ended up kind of liking it. It still sounds like us.”
It’s a safe bet that most will come around and agree. Black Heaven takes everything Earthless has always been known for and condenses it. Mitchell still plays his ass off (he still offers guitar lessons for $45 an hour via Skype) and the rhythm section is still locked in. The band still employs space rock tendencies without the genre’s patented meandering. This makes it far more accessible than anything they have done before.
Although they came into writing for the album with the expectations of having more singing than before, even its creators were a little surprised by the end result.
Mitchell recalled, “We were definitely shooting for one, but it just seemed like we wrote more songs that had vocals on them and they were the stronger songs versus the instrumental songs that we were messing around with and it just ended up that way. It was fun; it's fun to mix it up.”
The guitarist/vocalist had moved to Nicasio, California, which is a nine hour drive from his bandmates in San Diego. This was the first album where they had to deal with the distance. Initially Mitchell worked out ideas for “Gifted by the Wind” and “Sudden End” which both had vocals and he sent them to the band.
“We had those two things to kind of work off of right off the bat that already had vocals,” recalled Rubalcaba. “[Mitchell] would come down for like three days at a time every couple of months to work on stuff; that's when ‘Electric Flame’ came up in the [rehearsal] room.”
“That was rad,” affirmed Mitchell. “That’s like my favorite because we wrote it on the spot.”
Rubalcaba nodded, “that was actually spawned off of a really old idea. There was one riff that he and I used to play that's on a four- track tape that I had. I mentioned that riff that was kind of just left on this tape and he was messing with the riff and then came up with all these other parts and we just kind of made it at this [one] practice.”
Even the instrumentals on the album are atypical. Consider “Volt Rush,” the track that spawned the band's first video. The song only lasts two and a half minutes, which means that it ends before every other Earthless song is getting warmed up.
“That was another thing that was on a four track that Mike and I had,” said Rubalcaba, “this idea that we thought sounded like Sonic's Rendezvous Band, an MC5-ish kind of high energy thing. And we were listening to it when he came down one time and he misheard the riff slightly and played it how you kind of hear it now. Things just kind of seem to fall into place.”
Earthless has been known for merging the Japanese Psychedelia of Flower Travellin' Band (the first song on their 2005 debut was named “Flower Travelin' Man” in their honor) with experimental late ‘60s Krautrock. Black Heaven, in contrast, seems far more Anglophilic, the band’s take on the blues-based classic hard rock that they cut their teeth on.
“Classic rock is just the stuff we grew up on,” confirmed Mitchell. “Grand Funk, James Gang and ZZ Top [are] just the simple classics that I’ve listened to my whole life. The more obscure stuff came up a lot later. That’s what brought Mike and I together.”
This throwback to simpler times led to simpler tunes. It also meant that the band’s ratio of taking songs fully formed into the studio and spontaneously conjuring up new material on the fly leaned much more towards the former than the latter.
“Compared to what I think we're normally used to,” continued Rubalcaba. “On Rhythms [from a Cosmic Sky] or Sonic Prayer, we wouldn’t be able to really do the same take twice. There's a lot of structure, but there's a lot of parts in between the structure that you’re gonna get a different take on.
“From what I remember, I don't know if you had the leads planned out already ahead of time,” he said, motioning towards Mitchell, “but on certain takes in the studio, they just came out how they did. If that that sounds great, let's keep it.”
“Yeah, I’m pretty spontaneous with the guitar solo stuff,” Mitchell acknowledged. “If I figure out something that I liked or there’s something I'm going to say with it, then I'll do it. But ultimately it's like, I'll do a grip of ten and they're all going to be different.”
“It’s still never played the same,” bassist Mike Eginton chimed in. “It’s never the same notes.”
When the band hit the stage several hours later, this was definitely the case. Earthless offers a lot of unique extramusical entertainment. Set up off the stage is a deejay spinning obscure psyche rock vinyl between bands. Behind them is a shifting psychedelic light show projected onto the wall by Lance Gordon of Mad Alchemy, who did this sort of thing for the original Haight-Ashbury hippies in the early ‘70s. The colors are created in a manner making every show completely unique.
Regardless of whether the band were playing the newer tracks, older songs like the 20-plus minute jam “Godspeed” off Rhythms from a Cosmic Sky, or a punky version of Led Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown,” there was spontaneity which ensured this show would be markedly different than any other night of the tour. This unpredictability is not purely a result of the band’s influences; Earthless’ members truly know each other – the lineup has remained unchanged since forming in 2001 – and they insist that is how Earthless will stay.
Mario Rubalcaba could be voted most likely to secede since he is a workaholic. When not playing with Earthless he drums with several other projects including punk supergroup Off!, Rocket From The Crypt and Hot Snakes. Still, he makes no bones about where his main allegiances lie.
“This is the fucking triangle,” he said, punctuating the point by making his fingers into three sides. “If I can’t make a Rocket show then sometimes they get someone else to fill in. But we’re not going to have anyone fill in.”
“We’ve always had chemistry from the very first time we practiced at Mike’s house,” smiled Mitchell. “If the three of us don't feel what's going on, it’s not going to happen. That's why this record might have taken a long time to actually do because we just weren't ready to mentally try something like this. Now is just the right time because we're all on the same plane.”