By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — One of the most celebrated modern psychedelic rock bands, hard-rock power trio Earthless has been expanding minds and dropping jaws with their intense live shows ever since first coming together in San Diego in 2001. Formed by celebrated drummer Mario Rubalcaba (veteran of such bands as Hot Snakes, Rocket from the Crypt, Black Heart Procession and Off!), former Electric Nazarene bassist Mike Eginton and gifted guitarist Isaiah Mitchell (Nebula, Howlin’ Rain, Golden Void), the group got its start with an improvisational approach to heavy instrumental psychedelia that nodded to the jam-oriented grooves of Cream, Jimi Hendrix and live Led Zeppelin as well as the explorations of modern Japanese psych purveyors like Acid Mothers Temple and more obscure ’70s riff alchemists like Dust and the Groundhogs.
The group released its impressive debut Sonic Prayer on Gravity in 2005 and two years later followed up that effort with Rhythms from a Cosmic Sky on Tee Pee Records, an album that dazzled critics and fans alike. Locking into epic grooves stretching to 20 minutes and even longer without losing their dynamic upward trajectory, the band’s transcendent live performances have earned Earthless a reputation as one of the best heavy music acts performing today.
After taking a break so members could pursue other projects, The band reconvened in 2012 to tour and come up with material for their next studio effort, From the Ages, that came out the following year. The double album featured three sprawling epics. The title tune clocked in at over 30 minutes, while two other songs — the transporting opener “Violence of the Red Sea” and “Uluru Rock” — both stretched to 14 minutes of face-melting intensity.
While the band has toured regularly since that album, it has only issued a couple of new tunes in the interim, releasing the savage track “End to End” for free download in 2016. Only their third song to feature Mitchell’s vocals, the tune shows the band is just as adroit at crafting hooky concise rock burners as it is extended improvisations. Earthless also put out a split 12″ with Tee Pee Records labelmates Harsh Toke that featured the opiated Meters-meets-Eddie Hazel groove of “Acid Crusher.”
But the long wait for a new Earthless full-length effort finally comes to an end this month. Last August, the band announced that it signed to Nuclear Blast and would release it’s first new album in five years after recording sessions at the famed Rancho De La Luna studio in Joshua Tree with noted guitar hero Dave Catching (Eagles of Death Metal, Queens of the Stone Age, earthlings?) producing the sessions.
A marked departure for Earthless, the new effort Black Heaven features four vocal tracks with Mitchell singing and included far more songwriting input from the guitarist than past effort. At turns recalling classic-rock influences the James Gang and Thin Lizzy (on propulsive opening track “Gifted By the Wind”) or a diabolical melding of Zeppelin, Funkadelic and Hendrix (the monstrous instrumental title track), the new tunes may be the trio’s most focused and formidable yet. CBS SF recently spoke with Mitchell about what inspired Earthless to take a different approach to writing songs for Black Heaven and the trio’s upcoming tour with fellow psychedelic wayfarers: rising Japanese band Kikagaku Moyo and LA-based group Jjuujjuu. The tour kicks off in the Bay Area this week with shows in San Rafael and San Francisco.
CBS SF: I know some people will listen to the new album and think, “Wow! Isaiah can sing too!” But really you’ve been singing with Earthless and Golden Void for a while. One interesting thing in the press materials was that Mario mentions Mike bringing in a lot of the musical ideas that were the launching point for songs on the earlier Earthless albums, but he said that you had a lot more input for this album. Were you coming to the band with basic song ideas that you fleshed out together?
Isaiah Mitchell: For this album, I pretty much had a phone recording of the song “Gifted By the Wind” in pretty much the same structure as we ended up using. So I had that and another song, “Sudden End,” that was again more or less finished sounding very similar to what the demo was.
That was different. I’ve never done that before with any of the other records. It’s always been Mike starting off the song and we’ll go back and forth with ideas playing off of each other. This was the first time where I’d talked to our manager and she was like, “Yeah, try writing some songs.” And I’m like, “OK,” I got off the phone and — boom! — there was one song. I don’t know why I never did that before. Everything feels different since the band has taken on a little bit of a new direction in a way. It just feels like we’re doing stuff differently. Which is cool. It’s fun to change things up.
CBS SF: It does seem like the band for a long time was working in more of a spontaneous, improvised instant composition mode for the first 15 years of the band. That’s how things started with you back in 2001, so why not mix it up a little?
Isaiah Mitchell: Yeah, totally. It’s refreshing, that’s for sure. It’s fun to be able to do that. I felt like the songs that I’ve naturally written in the past might not always have been for Earthless, you know? I’ve got my own catalog of stuff that I write for myself and stuff that I’ll throw to Golden Void. But it was fun to be asked to write songs and be really thinking of Earthless and come up with something that fits for Earthless.
CBS SF: That was kind of my next question, whether you had a storehouse of songs that you were drawing from that maybe could have been for Golden Void, but you were definitely writing with Earthless in mind…
Isaiah Mitchell: Yeah. At least “Gifted By the Wind” was written with Earthless in mind. I literally got off the phone after talking to our manager and there it was. Another one I came up with while watching that Netflix series Thirteen Reasons that’s about this kid who commits suicide, It’s really kind of sad. So I was watching the last episode of that and the “Sudden End” riff started coming to me. Suicide is a very sad, dark subject and the riff kind of came out of the emotion of watching the show.
So I thought, “Oh, this could possibly be an Earthless thing too. I’ll just put it together and see what they think.” That song is the most un-Earthless song we’ve ever written. I’ve always been kind hesitant to bring stuff in, but I’m glad I did. Whether or not we actually play it live, whether or not people like it, it was still fun to bring it to the table, regardless.
CBS SF: I was thinking “Sudden End” is about as close to a ballad as you guys have come. It probably reminded me the most of any of the songs on the new album that I thought had kind of a Golden Void vibe to it with a little of the surf influence heard on Berkana…
Isaiah Mitchell: Yeah, there are elements of that. When I was arranging certain guitar parts for it…I wouldn’t approach any Earthless song the way that I approached this song in the studio. But that’s how I approach Golden Void songs. It’s interesting.
CBS SF: I don’t know the last time I heard a ripping guitar solo with talkbox like there is on “Gifted By the Wind.”
Isaiah Mitchell: I can’t think of one either. It was the right ingredient.
CBS SF: There’s a definite James Gang/Thin Lizzy feeling to it. When you wrote it, what was the genesis of the song? Did you come up with the riff first and then the vocal melody? Do you have a drum kit at home to do the basic drum parts on the demo or are you working with a drum machine?
Isaiah Mitchell: Right now it’s just a drum machine, but I’m going to get a kit. I’m way quicker at playing the drums for real instead of programming drums and using loops. But it was as I was talking to our manager that the chorus riff — the instrumental part — came into my head. And I was like, “OK, I gotta go!” I had to get off the phone before I forgot it. It felt like a really groovy riff I felt like I could get into right then and there with just the guitar.
So that was chorus and kind of like the hook of the song. Then the verse came out. It was something really simple with a “Johnny the Fox” kind of riff with the vocal on top of that. So the chorus came first and then the verse. Then I was thinking of a cool intro and came up with that descending chromatic line. And then I wanted to make the solo interesting. I like how ZZ Top modulates in their solos; they modulate to a different key a lot of the time. So that inspired us to do that.
CBS SF: The drums at the beginning remind me of this Thin Lizzy b-side “Black Boys on the Corner.” It has that same kind of high hat shuffle…
Isaiah Mitchell: Yeah, Mario came up with that idea. We were trying to figure out how to start it and that seemed appropriate.
CBS SF: I was going to ask if you recorded a new version of “End to End,” but as it happened, I had the original version of the song on my iPod and was able to compare the two. To me, it sounds like it’s the same recording, but the version on Black Heaven has a longer feedback intro…
Isaiah Mitchell: Nope. This is a different recording. I should listen to them together. We re-recorded it. That’s weird that the sound that close to each other.
CBS SF: That’s crazy. I was firmly convinced it was a different edit of the same recording.There are all these little nuances from the first one you managed to replicate in the new version. So that tune first got released a couple of years ago. Was the approach you took back then the same as you took with the newer vocal material?
Isaiah Mitchell: Yeah, pretty much. I think we were at the Oja Festival in Oslo, Norway. I was in my room and came up with that riff; again, it was the chorus riff, the hook part, that came first. Formulaically it’s very similar to “Gifted By the Wind.” I showed it to Mike and Mario and they liked it.
CBS SF: Of the vocal tunes on the new album, “Electric Flame” probably seems closest to earlier instrumental Earthless sound. I was wondering, with the longer songs you sang on, did you find there were some instrumental ideas you already had previously into the new vocal material?
Isaiah Mitchell: No, I don’t think so. Everything was pretty fresh. It was pretty much on the spot for each song, which was fun. I think “Electric Flame” is probably my favorite one. We wrote that together in one night or a couple nights when we were rehearsing in San Diego. It sounds different than the other three. I like this one mostly because we all had a hand in it. I think it’s a more creative song. It’s a little bit all over the place.
CBS SF: I also love that Earthless of all bands now has a two-minute instrumental under your belts with “Volt Rush.” It totally reminds me of the song “Ivory” by Dust…
Isaiah Mitchell: Is that from the first album that has “Chasin’ Ladies” on it?
CBS SF: No, it’s the second one with the Frazetta cover. “Ivory” is this two or three minute track that starts with a gnarly riff and done just as you’re starting to dig it. It also kind of reminded me of Blue Cheer’s “Magnolia Caboose Babyfinger” that Mudhoney covered. Was that the idea? Let’s just do a short fast one and blast it out?
Isaiah Mitchell: I don’t think so. I don’t think it was too conscious of a decision. I think there was no other place it needed to go. And when that thought was realized, it was like, “That’s awesome! OK cool! F–k it!” Again, it’s just something totally different. If for no one else, for our own personal amusement.
It’s the antithesis of what we are. We do 45 minute long single sets. To do something that’s two minutes, it’s a little bit of a joke. I mean, it’s not a joke, but it’s just kind of light and fun. If the song needed more, we would do more. But that’s all that was necessary. I guess I could see it as being a subconscious, kind of tongue-in-cheek thing.
CBS SF: So you had essentially the entire album written and rehearsed when you went into Rancho De La Luna?
Isaiah Mitchell: We had one other instrumental on the table, but it didn’t jell quite right in the studio. There were a couple of different things that we recorded, but these songs were the ones that stood out. They were the strongest. We thought we were only going to do one or two vocal songs. We didn’t expect to have four. That wasn’t planned. I thought we were going to have another longer instrumental, but it didn’t work out that way. But we’ve got stuff for the next record, so that’s good.
CBS SF: What was the experience working there with Dave Catching? I’m a big fan of his and have seen him a bunch with the early version of Queens of the Stone Age and Earthlings? and Eagles of Death Metal…
Isaiah Mitchell: Dave is a pretty amazing dude. He just puts you right at ease. The first time I met him, I got out of the car and he comes up to greet us on day one of getting to the studio — I’ve never met him before — and we just hug and it feels like you know the guy already. He’s just so comfortable and easy. That was a treat.
The studio is his house. Literally where the guitars are being recorded, that’s his bedroom. And the living room is the control room. It’s a really relaxed environment. There are these really cool knicknacks all over the place. It’s very vibrant. There’s a lot of life. It’s a fun place. And he’s awesome. He’s a kind dude. I like his style.
CBS SF: Given his talents on guitar, did you end up jamming with him or having him play on the album?
Isaiah Mitchell: We didn’t do much outside of the recording sessions as far as jamming or anything, but that whole feedback thing at the beginning of “End to End,” that’s Mr. Catching. We wanted him on there, so we gave him full reign. We gave him a few passes at chaos. He gets credit for feedback.
CBS SF: You had put out several albums with Tee Pee Records, but this marks your first for Nuclear Blast. How did that come about? They seem like more of a metal label than a heavy psych label, though I guess they have put out several Graveyard albums…
Isaiah Mitchell: They put out Graveyard and Blue Pills and I think Orchid is on there too. That honestly was a little bit of the reason we went there. It’s a much bigger label that has a wonderful reputation, as far as I know. Its a lot of heavier bands and at first we thought we might be the odd man out, but then we saw Graveyard and Blue Pills and Orchid. We’re friends with all those guys and we’ve played with all those bands. They’re more like us. So it felt like Nuclear Blast was opening their doors to not just heavy metal. That was appealing.
It just felt like they had the most to offer us. They were the biggest label of all the labels we checked out. It felt like the right step forward; the biggest step forward. It made sense to us to choose them. We’ve had some new changes. New manager, new record. I mean, if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. We can always go somewhere else. But it felt like it was the best thing to do for the band as far as making opportunities happen. And they treat their bands well from what we heard. Tee Pee was fantastic. They were a great label for us, but we all felt like it was time to see what else was going on.
CBS SF: How did you guys hook up with Japanese psych band Kikagaku Moyo for this U.S. tour?
Isaiah Mitchell: I could be wrong about this, but I think our manager Anna got wind of them being over here and starting to book a tour in the U.S. So we just decided to join forces with them and Jjuujjuu and put this package tour together. I’m a fan of the band and the other guys are fans too. So we just happened to make it work out. And Anna told us they were fans of Earthless and they’d love to do it.
So that will be great. It’ll be fun. Three weeks of seeing those guys and Jjuujjuu every night? I’m looking forward to it. And later this year at Roadburn [an annual heavy psych/metal festival held in the Netherlands] we’re artists in residence. One of the shows that we’re playing is an east meets west thing and we’re sharing the stage with Kikagaku. We’re going to do a set together. Of what we don’t know yet. I guess when we go on this tour we’ll talk about it. But I’m really stoked.
CBS SF: I’ve never been to Roadburn, but when I saw you guys were doing a special residency, I seriously thought about it. Aren’t you playing with Damo Suzuki from Can too?
Isaiah Mitchell: Yeah! That’s insane! I’m stoked. We’re all stoked. That’s going to be a trip. I don’t even know what to expect. I’ll just be in the moment on that one.
CBS SF: So what else is entailed in the residency? Are you sort of curating part of the festival?
Isaiah Mitchell: No so much. The first night is just going to be us playing by ourselves, the second night is with Damo and then the third night with Kikagaku Moyo. And I think some buddies from other bands, like Delilah from Japan and Ikuma Kawabe who was in Church of Misery is going to be onstage with us too. And there will be buddies from San Diego; guys from Sacri Monti, Joy, Harsh Toke and Petyr. I don’t know what’s going to happen!