Earthless's “Equus October” Is Just Another Example of Why They’re the Best Sober Stoner Band on Earth
Seriously. Those jams. No weed.
Noisey is thrilled to premiere “Equus October,” the only track from the new Earthless album From the Ages that’s under 14 minutes long. It’s an atmospheric sonic comedown perfect for late night parties when the bowl is almost empty and the participants are nearly incoherent.
Driven by a meandering bass line, the song features sparse drumming that builds into a syncopated beat accompanied by wigged out guitars that echo and drone. Tech talk aside, it’s the sound of a straining mind that knows it’s time to call it a night but is too stoned to let that last sliver of light extinguish from nearly shut eyelids. It’s soporific, mesmerizing and not recommended for listening while driving or operating heavy machinery. Like most of the band’s music, “Equus October” is transcendent and transforming, leaving even sober listeners under the impression they’ve been dosed. And also like most of Earthless’ music it was created with surprisingly little effort.
“Not to sound like I’m putting it down or making it sound like it’s not special, but it came out of a jam that we were going to throw away,” says drummer Mario Rubalcaba, who also plays in Off! And Rocket From the Crypt and has served time in Hot Snakes, The Black Heart Procession and other accomplished bands. “At first we thought the song wasn’t really happening. Then once we got to the studio, we felt like we needed something else, so we pulled out the riff from the old jam of ‘Equus October’ and figured maybe we’d use it as filler for a 30 second interlude. But once we went to mix it, we found a certain sound with it. We added some stuff to it and gave it a mood. And once that mood presented itself we were like, ‘Damn, this is pretty cool.’ And it worked well as a five minute piece before the closing track “From the Ages” comes in, which is a half an hour of constant banging over the head.”
In case you’re unfamiliar with this San Diego instrumental psych band, Earthless are composed of three elusive California dudes who swoop into the rehearsal room from time to time to concoct sonic sculptures as powerful as Heisenberg meth, then disappear as quickly as they came. Rubalcaba, guitarist Isaiah Mitchell and bassist Mike Eginton met in the San Diego music scene in the late ‘90s and started jamming together in 2001.
Their first full-length album was Sonic Prayer, which they released in 2005. It featured two songs, each just under 21 minutes long, which served as a droning, throbbing, hypnotic introduction to the band. Two years later, they followed up with Rhythms From a Cosmic Sky, an intergalactic odyssey composed of two more 20-plus minute songs (one divided into five suites) and a cover of the Groundhogs “Cherry Red.”
Which brings us up the present day. Six years has passed between Rhythms From a Cosmic Sky and From the Ages, but the four songs on the new disc prove that Earthless have lost none of the energy or psychedelic otherness that they first presented over a decade ago. If anything, they’ve transfixed time, creating an album that spans eons but never becomes dull regardless of how repetitive it gets. It’s like a more minimalistic Sleep mixed with Hendrix, Neu! and Black Sabbath, or a Led Zeppelin fed through the feedback of early MC5, the riffery of early Monster Magnet and the hypnotic drone of Loop. After a strong cup of coffee to counteract the sedative effects of the band’s music, I talked to Rubalcaba about the transcendent abilities of Earthless, the band’s creative process, the recording of From the Ages, why it’s dangerous to stand too close to Mitchell when Earthless are onstage and Rubalcaba’s former life as a professional skateboarder.
Noisey: Your last album Rhythms From a Cosmic Sky came out in 2007. Why so long between records? Do you spend years fine-tuning your songs to make sure every note and beat is to your liking?
Mario Rubacalba: Definitely not. It’s a mix of a couple of us being involved in other projects throughout the years. I’ve been involved in four to five bands that at one point or another were pretty active with touring and recording. And Isaiah, our guitar player, ended up moving to Northern California. It’s not like we were practicing every day at that point, but the times that we would practice to work on stuff, it definitely took that away. But really I would just say we’re the kind of band that goes in and out of shifts of creativity. We don’t practice a lot. We don’t beat the hammer down on the songs. They just happen when they happen. It’s a different chemistry than any other band I’ve ever been in. For this new record From the Ages, we really only practiced three times before we went in for recording.
Did you have songs written in advance or did you just take loads of drugs, start jamming and hit record until 15 to 30 minutes had elapsed per song?
Mario: We don’t smoke weed at all. [laughs] no weed.
Okay, what about other substances?
Mario: Maybe, like, some iced tea or something. We’re pretty boring in that respect. Two of us are dads and we’re all married.
So you’re not like the old Dylan Carlson of modern stoner metal?
Mario: No, he’s Earth. We’re Earthless.
So it’s Earth, but with less drugs?
Mario: Yeah. No drugs.
Is your name a spinoff of Carlson’s band Earth or the original title of Black Sabbath?
Mario: Neither. We took the name from a ‘60s garage psych band called The Druids of Stonehenge. They had an LP out and one of the titles was called Earthless. Mike and I are into mid to late ‘60s garage punk and garage psych stuff and before the band started we were always listening to that shit. And he found that name and thought, “Oh, that would be a cool name for a band.” It fit the first couple of jam sessions we had, so we just went for it.
I think Spinal Tap also borrowed from The Druids of Stonehenge.
Mario: Copycats. [laughs] I love that movie.
What has been Earthless’ greatest Spinal Tap moment?
Mario: It didn’t happen in the movie but Isaiah gets really bad gas and one time he farted during a performance and literally the crowd that was upfront on his side of the stage literally cleared out. This was at a small club, the Kasbah, in San Diego, and everyone smooshed over and tried to get away from that area because it smelled so bad. It was a like a chemical weapon had gone off.
What are some of Earthless’ biggest influences?
Mario: ZZ Top, Flower Travelin’ Band, Guru Guru, The Scientists, Can, James Brown, Black Sabbath, MC5, The Stooges, Blue Cheer. We also love the classics, like Hendrix, Cream, Led Zeppelin. I love Krautrock stuff like Neu! And Amon Duul as well.
A lot of great, psychedelic bands can make you feel like your high when you listen to their music even if you’re sober, and usually it’s because they were tripping balls when they were writing. How do you capture these mantra-like grooves without recreational pharmaceuticals. Is it a spiritual thing?
Mario: Yeah, without being religious. We’re not super spiritual dudes or anything, but we have a really unique musical connection. I’ve been in a lot of bands and there’s only been one other band where I’ve felt this. It’s almost like a telepathy. From the first time Earthless played, it was just so easy. It’s kind of unspeakable as far as being able to read someone and how they play and being able to know where things are going to change. It’s a unique thing to get in a room with people and not have to speak about time changes and how many measures a part is going to go before it switches. The more bands I’m in, the more I appreciate Earthless because it’s its own, organic, living thing. We show up and feed it. It’s like this demon that wants us to do its bidding and we’re channeling whatever it wants to be.
You said you practiced three times before recording For The Ages. Did you spend months writing the songs before that and did tracking the album take a long time?
Mario: No, we had the song that opens the album, “Violence of the Red Sea,” and we’ve been playing it live for the last couple years. Then our bass player Mike wrote most of the new bass lines. Him and I would jam when Isaiah was gone when he moved. Then when Isaiah would show up he’d lay parts over that. And when the three of us got together we’d form stuff on the spot and then we’d go back and say, “Hey, let’s replicate that or add that in.” The actual structure comes into place from there. But it always starts as a really simple repetitive part that we’ll play. And having a really solid bass player like Mike enables Isaiah and me to play around what he’s doing and do whatever we want. It opens up cool possibilities to try new things. It takes us a while sometimes to come up with something we really like. We can try to force riffs out, but those don’t usually last too long. That’s what takes the most time.
How long did it take to record For the Ages.
Mario: We did all the live tracks in a day. We took a second day to do extra parts. So it took two days total to record the whole thing. And we recorded it live in a room in San Francisco with Phil Manley of Trans Am. He has a good studio, Lucky Cat Recording, so we were able to record everything live and then go back in and Isaiah did some guitar overdubs.
Why do most of your songs end up being around 15 minutes long?
Mario: They just need that room to be able to breathe. That’s why the last song wound up being 30 minutes long. We didn’t record it on analog tape because you only get 20 minutes on reel to reel. And we thought, “Man, it would really suck to record the song and have it go really good and then get the two minute warning.” We had to do that on the first record. And on the second record we couldn’t really fully express what was coming out because we were throwing in a lot of stuff in there and improvising. It was a spur of the moment reaction. We just need to have that freedom. A lot of times that means repetition until it naturally either slows down or speeds up. That stuff takes time.
How do you know when to end a song? Does everyone have an intuition about when 15 or 30 minutes is up?
Mario: A lot of that relies on myself. At the very end of “From the Ages” we spent five minutes winding it down. And that just happens because you’re going from this heartbeat, breakneck pace for a while and it just can’t end so abruptly. For us it’s like, let’s trail it down and let the rope down very easy.
What’s going on with your other band Off!
Mario: That’s been on a writing break because Keith Morris has been doing the Black Flag stuff for this last year.
But him and Dimitri [Coats] have been writing some new stuff and we’ve been doing some shows wherever we can squeeze them in. And I’ve been doing shows with Rocket From the Crypt as well. We’ve all been keeping busy.
What about Isaiah and Mike?
Mario: Isaiah was playing in a band called Howlin’ Rain for a while, but that broke up. Now he had another project called Golden Void in Northern California that he’s in with his wife. He sings in that band. And then he has a solo thing he does called Black Elk Medicine Band. Mike runs a record store I used to be involved with as well called Thirsty Moon Records here in San Diego. And for a while he had a side project called Shaking Pyramid, but they haven’t played in a while.
Have Earthless ever considered hiring a singer?
Mario: It came up when we started [in 2001] but we never really talked about it too much. We figured if it ever gets to that point maybe we’ll have Isaiah do something. He has a really, really good voice. We’ve done a cover or two that he sang on [including “Cherry Red”] and we have a real song that he did vocals for, “Woman with the Devil Eye.” It was on a split with Danava and Lecherous Gaze. But we’ve had people hit us up over the years and want to audition for the band. We’ve never given it a second thought.
Would vocals ruin the vibe of 20 minute songs?
Mario: I haven’t really thought about it. We’re just happy the way we are. We’ve written songs before with vocals, we’ve just never done ‘em. It would definitely be a totally different dynamic from what people expect from us or know us to be.
You were a professional skateboarder in your youth. How good were you?
Mario: I entered contests and placed in the top 10 a few times. I also did demos and tours. That was back when Tony Hawk was winning every contest and Krishna Soy was getting second or first. But I had my own model board and I rode for Alva. In the ‘90s skateboarding definitely took a dive in terms of popularity and there wasn’t very much money in it so I started playing music more.
Is Tony Hawk a dick?
Mario: No. [Laughs]. I don’t think so. He used to come and skate our local ramp all the time in Vista, California. He always kept to himself and did his own thing, but he was never obnoxious. His son, Riley, though is a huge Earthless fan, which is funny. I think he just turned 21. He came to our show last time and bought a shirt. And we let him use some of our music for a skating video part of his. He’s a cool kid and great skater, too.
What was your worst wipeout on a board?
Mario: I grew up with Danny Way, who is like the Evel Knievel of skateboarding. When we were kids and the 540 first came out it was called the McTwist. He was learning that trick so I tried to do it as well. We were learning how to get the spin down. And I decided to commit and try to land it and I went and spun a 540 and it felt good, but before I knew it I had gone out too far. So when I was coming in, I landed on my hip on the metal coping, which sent me flipping into the ramp. That was the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced, and that includes breaking ribs. I didn’t actually break anything. But I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t do anything for almost a month after that. Playing drums is a lot less painful than that.
If you missed it, check out the spanking new track by OFF!, Mario's other band, from the Grand Theft Auto V Soundtrack.