Earthless is about as close as stoner-rock gets to workout music. The procerus, the zygomaticus, and all of the other face-scrunching muscles take a real beating when subjected to the San Diego trio’s unhinged psych-blooz-boogie-rock explorations. Earthless can do dynamics, shifting from hazy clouds of feedback to sludgy doom riffage, but they generally don’t. Instead the band starts at 100% speaker-cone-bursting ear-drum-rattling intensity and stays there for as long as physically possible. It’s sort of like doing level-4 hot yoga in the chamber of Tommy Chong’s bong.
Drummer Mario Rubalcaba—formerly of Hot Snakes and Rocket From the Crypt—recently spoke to Washington City Paper about Earthless’ new record, Live at Roadburn, the virtues of Japanese psych-rock, and how to give the cosmic nod.
Earthless perform Thursday, March 26 at DC9 at with Witch and Ostinato.
Washington City Paper: So, Live at Roadburn is basically your third record together.
Mario Rubalcaba: Yeah, our third record. We’ve been a band since 2001, though. It’s always been something we juggled around other bands. Isaiah (Mitchell) our guitar player was jumping in and out of other bands. I was doing Rocket From the Crypt and Hot Snakes for a few years, so Earthless would go for a year without doing too much. We just never had too much time to focus energy into it. That changed after Rocket and Hot Snakes broke up.
WCP: So what has changed now that you have more time to put into the band?
MR: Just mainly trying to, I guess, be more proactive as far as getting out of town. We got on Tee Pee (Earthless’ record label) and that helped get the music out there a little bit more. Just little things, playing SXSW, doing a week tour with Saviors, trying to get out more. Roadburn (an annual rock festival in Tilburg, Netherlands) was a really cool opportunity.
WCP: Was there something special about that show that made you want to release the recording?
MR: Probably just, you know, when we were there just the whole circumstances of evens that happened around it. Originally, we were supposed to headline smallest room of the event, which was a 250 capacity. At the last minute we were given opportunity to play on mainstage and play last on the best day. So we played to 2000 people instead of 250 and it ended up being one of our most memorable shows so far. We all had a really good time, the energy was good, and the reaction was awesome. We got the recording after we got back and we just thought that it was the most honest representation of our band. So, if you come to see us, that’s pretty much what you’re going to get at this point in time. If you can’t really dig what’s on that record, you might not like us I guess.
WCP: The first time I ever heard you play drums you were in an art-punk band called Clikatat Ikatowi. How did you get from that kind of music, which was sort of scrappy and wiry, to heavy psych rock?
MR: I’ve always been into this kind of music, even since back then. At the time none of my peers were that knowledgeable about it, though. Nobody had any interest in ’70s hard rock stuff. I guess, Clikatat and Earthless, for me as a drummer, those are the most similar bands that I’ve been in.
WCP: How so?
MR: Everything after Clikatat has been song oriented—just me following whoever’s songs. Clikatat was really the first band, as a drummer, that I had complete and total freedom to do my own thing. Earthless is the next step up as far as feel, just doing whatever feels natural.
WCP: How did you guys meet up?
MR: The bass player and I got together. I had just moved back to San Diego to join Rocket From the Crypt. We didn’t really know each other that well beforehand, but we had similar music tastes—German kraut rock stuff, even just ’60s garage stuff. Also, we were really into Japanese heavy blues-rock. We just kind of stumbled into playing a Japanese psych/kraut rock mix. We knew Isaiah, the guitarist, he came down to visit and we got in a room and played songs. We just jammed for a while, we would go through Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath covers and what ended up happening, we started melting these songs together—Sabbath would go to Zeppein and on and on for half an hour. It was almost supernatural, it just happened really easily.
WCP: Tell me about some of this Japanese psych stuff, which of those groups were you into?
MR: Oh man, specifically Flower Travellin’ Band and this guitar player, I think his name is Shinki Chen. Also, Garage Phase and Group Sound stuff [note: these are both genres of Japanese rock music], and this band Blues Creation. The Japanese bands really had a twisted take on classic hard rock. They kind of had their own weird interpretation of it.
WCP: Twisted in what way?
MR: A little bit more extreme—they would do Sabbath and Cream covers, but the vocals would be more sinister and the solos more extreme intense. It was a little more aggressive and out-there. We were also into all of these ’70s German kraut and hard-rock bands—they were doing things that no other bands were doing as far as combining space rock and out there concepts of hard rock.
WCP: How much of Earthless’ music is composed and how much is totally improvised?
MR: Um, it’s a little 50/50. To us it’s seems really structured, but even being loose, having stuff go on longer. If we let things ride, really loosely, we always know when it’s going to go back to structured riff part.
WCP: How do you know when to kick back in to the structured riff part?
MR: We have this thing we joke around about, we call it “the cosmic nod.” We just have this contact and we know when to go back to things.