CBS SF Talks to Earthless Drummer Mario Rubalcaba (Part 1) – CBS San Francisco

By Dave Pehling

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Powerhouse drummer Mario Rubalcaba has established a reputation as potent, hard-hitting player of the course of an over 30+ year career as a musician, becoming a longtime key player in the San Diego scene.

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First coming to some notoriety as a professional skateboarder with Team Alva in the late ’80s, Rubalcaba added music to his activities by 1990, playing drums in punk band 411 and guitar in Chicano Christ, whose self-titled 1991 7-inch EP crammed a dozen blasts of hardcore into 12 minutes.

Near the end of 1993, Rubalcaba and guitarist Scott Bartoloni (from the recently defunct punk band Heroin) would found the influential post-punk outfit Clikatat Ikatowi that put out a pair of albums and an EP over the next several years before the group called it quits late in 1997. Rubalcaba would then relocate to Chicago for a few years, playing in the instrumental post/stoner rock group Sea of Tombs.

Upon his return to San Diego, he had had earned his stripes as one of the go-to punk drummers in Southern California, playing in indie group the Black Heart Procession and becoming a regular collaborator with prolific punk guitar maestro John Reis in a number of his bands including the long-running, horn-powered Rocket From the Crypt, the surf-tinged Sultans and Hot Snakes. Rubalcaba would also eventually be part of Black Flag/Circle Jerks singer Keith Morris’s all-star hardcore revival band Off! when it came together in 2009.

More importantly, Rubalcaba would co-found the epic psychedelic power trio Earthless with guitar hero Isaiah Mitchell and bassist Mike Eginton in 2001. Taking an open-ended improvisational approach to heavy psych rock that alternately recalls the jam-heavy exploration of Cream and Jimi Hendrix, Japanese psych pioneers Flower Travellin’ Band and Blues Creation and obscure ’70s riff alchemists like Dust and the Groundhogs.

Locking into epic grooves stretching to 20 minutes and even longer without losing their dynamic upward trajectory, their string of stellar studio albums and transcendent live performances have earned Earthless a reputation as one of the best heavy music acts performing today.

While Earthless has largely worked in the instrumental realm for the better part of over two decades of blowing minds and sonically realigning chakras, the trio took marked departure for its 2018 album and first for new label Nuclear Blast, Black Heaven. Featuring four vocal tracks with Mitchell singing, the effort also included far more songwriting input from the guitarist than in the past. At turns recalling the James Gang and Thin Lizzy (propulsive opening track “Gifted By the Wind”) or a diabolical melding of Zeppelin, Funkadelic and Hendrix (the monstrous instrumental title track), the new tunes were hailed as some of the band’s most focused yet.

The band toured extensively to promote the record, also releasing the live album From the West recorded at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco that documented intense performances of the new songs plus a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown.” Packaged to mirror a classic Trademark of Quality Zeppelin bootleg from the early ’70s, the ferocious recording was issued on vinyl via Sliver Current Records and saw CD release on Nuclear Blast with additional songs not included on the record version.

With the announcement in late 2019 that Mitchell would be joining a new line-up of the Black Crowes as their lead guitarist for an extensive tour celebrating the 30th anniversary of that band’s 1990 debut Shake Your Money Maker, there were some questions as to how the guitarist’s new gig would impact activity with Earthless. Those questions were answered when the coronavirus pandemic shut down all touring activity for most of 2020.

Earthless was able to reconnect just prior to the shutdown when Mitchell relocated back to the trio’s San Diego home base. The move gave the band a chance to play together more regularly than they had in years, allowing them to develop the extended songs that make up the band’s latest album for Nuclear Blast, the ambitious Night Parade of 100 Demons.

Inspired by a book of Japanese ghost stories that Eginton read to his young son who is fascinated with mythical monsters, the tale of the Night Parade or Hyakki Yagyō described an otherworldly procession supernatural creatures that would descend on Japanese villages, in some versions striking dead all who witnessed them or whisking hapless villagers away to the spirit world.

With striking cover art meticulously created by Eginton himself, the new album finds Earthless returning to sprawling instrumental epics with the hour-plus recording featuring just two songs: the intense two-part title track that features some of the trio’s most harrowing music ever rounded out by the over 20-minute closer “Death to the Red Sun.” Featuring arguably the broadest sonic palette the band has used yet, the record finds Earthless crafting a more intricate whole, with multiple restated themes making Night Parade of 100 Demons the band’s most cohesive effort yet.

Rubalcaba recently spoke to CBS SF about the band’s activities during the pandemic shutdown, the process that went into crafting the music on the new album set for release on Jan. 28 ahead of the band’s show scheduled for that weekend at the Cornerstone in Berkeley. Unfortunately, the live performance that would have been just two days after the release of the new album has been postponed to Feb. 20 due to a case of COVID.

CBS SF: I’ve been asking musicians I’ve talked to how they dealt with the shutdown, but Earthless stayed noticeably active during the pandemic between more intensive playing and writing with Isaiah after he moved back to San Diego, plus all the live streamed performances you did, including the Mojave Desert album and BluRay. Did you work with any of the other bands that you’re involved with during the downtime, or did you pretty much focus everything on Earthless?

Mario Rubalcaba: No, I think I pretty much focused everything on Earthless. The timing of everything has been unique. Just before the pandemic really hit — what, that came around in like March of 2020? Just before that, I had left Off! I hadn’t been playing with them for quite a while.

And then with Rocket From the Crypt, that’s not very active as it is; we play in maybe one or two shows [a year], or if something cool comes up we’ll do it, but that’s it. I can’t really say that’s a very active band in general. And then Hot Snakes, I’m not really doing too much with them anymore, you know? It just depends on the situation. So yeah, that really just kind of leaves me with Earthless, which is great.

When the pandemic life hit, as with many musicians, we were out of options for  touring obviously and staying busy like that. So I just kind of used the time to really huddle and take that time with my kids at home. At the time they were  one and three years old. Over the last ten years, I had just been touring constantly, so I was just trying to make the best of it being home and being an at-home dad and do Earthless stuff.

Once Isaiah moved down, that was like a game changer as far as being able to  get that chemistry of getting in a room once or twice a week and just letting the music kind of build itself as it has in the past. Because that’s what it takes; it just takes being to be able to play consistently, and the fungus and the mold grows off of that, you know? [laughs]

CBS SF: I was curious how much Isaiah’s commitments with the Black Crowes factored into the band’s planning as far as recording, especially with everything changing pretty constantly as far as what was going to be feasible during the pandemic…

Mario Rubalcaba: There wasn’t anything too crazy or that was a bummer from what I remember. We were working on  all this new stuff and I think at the time I didn’t feel it was quite ready yet. And then we set this goal to try and record…I think we recorded the record in April of 2021? And I thought, ‘Oh man, that’s soon.’ I didn’t know if we’re going to be ready, but then we just kept playing, because he was going to be leaving for the summer with the Crowes.

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But once we got in the studio, it was more about getting the record recorded and then all the other stuff around it, like the art and all that more Mike’s deal. and the logistics with the label, which was much easier to handle besides just getting the album recorded. I don’t remember it being stressful or anything like that. In a way, it was kind of a a kick in the butt to be like, ‘OK, we have a specific deadline that we’ve got to meet to get this record turned in by or recorded by.’ I think it just sort of made certain decisions happen that we had to really stick with.

CBS SF: I have to say, as much as I’ve liked everything you have put out in the past, I think the new album is the best thing you’ve done. It’s the most complex and varied and — at points — terrifying music you’ve made. A stunning piece of work.. The two songs really intertwine as far as the themes and motifs that get restated throughout the record. It definitely has a sense of cohesion and a more sophisticated structure than past Earthless recordings. As you were refining it, did you just realize how you could tie the songs together so the album came across as one larger piece? Was that something you consciously developed as you were putting the album together and do you see yourselves playing the entire thing front to back given that?

Mario Rubalcaba: The process of getting it, especially that first song in two parts, it built up over the main more rocking parts. We were just kind of playing those for a bit and we’re like, ‘Oh, that kind of has a really cool sort of a Blues Creation vibe,” or something like that. So we were jamming on that and I remembered an older jam session we had where there was this other thing we were doing that sort of reminded us of this Argentinian psych band called Pappo’s Blues. So we always just called it the Pappo’s Blues part. It was a more upbeat part that has this crazy lead phasing in the song.

So we were kind of just running back and forth with that stuff, and then Mike came up with the idea of using what’s actually our very first riff. Mike came up with this riff that was the first thing we ever played when we started the band, but we never recorded it and we never found the right place for it to be in one of our songs. So we tried that with it and it totally worked out perfect. We’d go into this slow, doomy kind of thing after playing the other upbeat stuff. We just kept playing around with that.

But then we had this other thing where we were noticing the song was ending at this certain part every time after the slow and doomy part. And we were like, ‘OK. Is that where it’s going to end?’ And we just kept going into the sort of “Iron Man” thing at the beginning of part two where it has that kick drum going over and over again. And that developed into this atmospheric piece of its own.

One thing that was funny was when I was mentally gearing up to record for the record, we were like, ‘Oh man, we’re going to have to shorten that part to try and fit the song on one side of the record,’ you know? Because we were already thinking that song was going to be one side of the album. So we’re thinking, ‘This atmospheric piece, we need to trim it down.’ But then Isaiah said, ‘Hey, it would be cool to just somehow figure out a way to just let it breathe and let it do its thing, and then come back in.’

So we’re like, ‘OK, yeah. F–k it! F–k it, we’ll do two sides! We’ll just let it do its thing and if it goes long, whatever, you know? We’ll figure it out.’ It was more natural for us to let it play and do what we do, like what we were doing in the practice room. It was different every time. So I’m stoked we ended up going with that, because it just wouldn’t have sounded right if it was crunched into like one minute, you know? It needed to kind of do its own thing.

When we end songs, they have to wind down. We can’t just stop. It has to kind of have this taming it down gradually sort of thing, we notice.  Then also to answer the question about playing it live, the last couple of shows we played in the last couple of months, we’ve done the whole record actually.

CBS SF: Awesome. At this point honestly I think that’s how I want to hear it. I want to get the full experience. And I think people might benefit from that, since some people that are going to hear it live on this tour might not have the record yet or have had a chance to listen to the whole thing. As maximal as the new album is, it’s also really uncharacteristically spare at the beginning in a couple of ways.

I’ve talked to Isaiah about this in the past, though maybe more in relation to Golden Void, but the opening psychedelic surf ballad intro has this Merman connection I hear sometimes in what he does. It’s really just him and some cymbal splashes during that atmospheric opening. It’s very spare and reserved. And then even when the initial main riff kicks in where you and Mike are laying down this propulsive foundation, he doesn’t really unleash the fury for a while.

Sometimes seeing Earthless live feels like getting strapped on the outside of a rocket and shot into space as far as the lift and intensity, but Isaiah really holds back through like a good solid stretch of the first part of the title tune. And then it finally takes off during the second half. How did that develop? Was it a conscious collective decision to hold back, or is that just how the song came together naturally?

Mario Rubalcaba: That’s just how it came together naturally. A lot of that was just Mike and I just playing the drums and bass; that kind of galloping sort of thing. We would just play on that for a long time and see what came out of it. We just thought it was a cool, kind of almost Can type vibe thing.

Usually when we start doing something like that, Isaiah just kind of sits back and observes before he starts building stuff around whatever we’re doing. But then once he came up with that riff, the more rocking thing that comes in afterwards, then we’re like, ‘Oh, OK!’ We were noticing those two fit together back and forth really well, Then we just keep playing them to death [laughs] and see what comes out of it.

CBS SF: You already referred to — besides using the first riff that the band ever wrote on this album — that you also had the Pappo’s Blues thing that ended up getting folded into the new material as far as bits that you’d played previously and realized that they could be incorporated. Do you have tons of old recordings of rehearsal jams? Do you catalog things that you come up with to try to keep track of ideas that might have potential, or is it easier to just draw on your collective memory as you practice now you’ve got over 20 years of experience playing together?

Mario Rubalcaba: We’re not super on top of it as far as that always, but  for a long time, I would record a lot of our jams on my four track, so there are quite a few tapes. But that’s from a while ago. Once iPhones and all that kind of stuff came in, that changed things. Like for Black Heaven, that was a different process of doing an album, for sure. Whenever Isaiah would come down and visit, he would set up a little just basic thing with his iPad and we’d record all the jams. And then for this record, we all used our phones and recorded jams that way.

It’s definitely important. because a lot of stuff just happens that comes out of nowhere and probably wouldn’t happen again. So that’s a key thing; we’re always trying to have something that we can go back and refer to. There’s tons of iPhone recordings of what’s built into this album.

CBS SF: Do you feel like the album mostly developed pretty much after Isaiah moved back down to San Diego, or were some of the ideas there before he came back?

Mario Rubalcaba: No, it all developed when he came down. One hundred percent. He moved down and we started jamming and making a dedicated effort to jam once or twice a week, whenever it was possible. Everyone was in a good space mentally. We were stoked to just be in a room, especially with the lockdown and all that kind of crap happening. We were just really happy and stoked to play music.

And I think it just gave us kind of a kick in the butt, you know? We always appreciated it, but we appreciated it even more to have that opportunity to just play [laughs]. There was nothing else going on. That was what kept me sane [laughs]. I look back and it’s awesome that we were able to get a record out of this.

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Part 2 of this interview with Mario Rubalcaba getting into some of the details of the recording process for Night Parade of 100 Demons will be published in the coming weeks. CBS SF Talks to Earthless Drummer Mario Rubalcaba (Part 1) – CBS San Francisco

Dustin Huang

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