Californians Earthless have returned with a record that’s full of surprises… and reveals the true depths of their talents. Richard Holmes talked vintage vibes and new grooves with drummer Mario Rubalcaba.
Earthless are a band who’ve always done things on their own terms. Breaking out of San Diego with 2005’s Sonic Prayer, a kaleidoscope of vibrant, heavy psychedelic rock, the trio are a must hear (and must see) for anyone with a penchant for lengthy instrumental space jams, wild riffs and even wilder solos.
They’ve never had a ‘rock star’ profile, instead enjoying a cult status that’s born out in albums like 2008’s Live at Roadburn. They’ve even been dubbed ‘on stage masturbationists’, according to the band themselves.
But there’s always time for change. And after a five year wait – during which drummer Mario Rubalcaba manned the kit for Keith Morris fronted punk supergroup OFF! – here are Earthless, back with a new record, Black Heaven.
And this time around, a singer.
Yes, that’s right. Guitarist Isaiah Mitchell’s soulful vocals shimmer on tracks like Gifted By The Wind and End To End. And they add extra depth to an album that at times, owes more to Cream, ZZ Top and The Allman Brothers than the krautrock or Japanese psych-blues influences which permeate the band’s back catalogue. That’s not to say Earthless don’t let fly though (check out the title track), but the desert sun which beat down on the recording sessions – held at Rancho de la Luna Studios in Joshua Tree – has given Black Heaven a notably different vibe to its predecessors.
The presence of vocals on Earthless’s work isn’t without precedent: Mitchell leant his pipes to a cover of The Groundhog’s Cherry Red, which featured on 2007’s Rhythms From A Cosmic Sky. This time, however, they take centre stage on four of the new record’s six tracks.
Were the band worried that introducing some ‘traditional’ songwriting might be too much of a curveball for long-time fans?
“We knew going into it that there would be some sceptics or some that just wouldn’t dig it,” replied Rubalcaba. “But not to sound like a jerk – Earthless was started out of a selfish endeavor. When we began people didn’t always like or get where we were coming from.
“So, really it just comes down to the three members being on the same page to make things happen.”
He continued: “We love our fans and in the end of this record being wrapped up we felt that it was still the true Earthless being put out there. We hope that people give it a chance and let it really sink in.”
How much of change was it for the band themselves? “Really the only thing that was different was just emailing some structured ideas and then recording them a bit more to demo them with vocal ideas, but it didn’t change the mentality or attitude of what we have always done much.”
And the sticksman – who has also leant his talents to Rocket From The Crypt and Hot Snakes – is certainly happy with the results: “We thought we would have maybe two vocal songs and ended up with four!”
Rubalcaba is confident that in a live setting, the blend between the new material and Earthless’s dazzling psych-outs will be right too. The band, he said, have worked on a way to mix the vocal songs into the instrumentals so that it flows well and is not a ‘distraction’: “The focus and feel is the same.”
To Rubalcaba, the ‘classic rock’ feel which runs through much of Black Heaven – and especially Gifted By The Wind and Electric Flame – is a natural fit for Earthless, a part of the band’s DNA.
“We grew up on the classic rock stuff,” he admitted. “It’s always been there before we got into the more obscure stuff. And when I say ‘grew up on the classics’ I mean since we were very young, like five-years-old!”
Could Black Heaven – released on the band’s new label, Nuclear Blast – be a ‘game changer’ for Earthless? Perhaps it’s too early to tell.
But with more and more rock fans and metal heads being turned on to groove-heavy retro rock, and festivals like Desertfest and HRH Doom Vs Stoner becoming increasingly popular, it isn’t a bad time to be putting out a more ‘accessible’ album.
Rubalcaba, for one, says the band “are busier than ever”. And the fact that the desert/stoner/psychedelic rock ‘scene’ has grown so much across the globe in the last two decades puts a smile on the San Diego native’s face. “It’s pretty mind blowing actually!” he said. “I never really thought that it would be what it is today, but I’m pretty happy that there are these great feats happening!”
Black Heaven is out now on Nuclear Blast.