Just when you think you’re burned out on rock and roll, that all the good riffs have been played out, and all your heroes are either dead or revealed to be lowlives, you can always count on Earthless to drop another stone-cold collection of acid jams and remind you that life is occasionally sweet. Black Heaven might take a few unawares but there is no shortages of excellent grooves and bewildering soloing to be found in its wax, plastic, or what-have-you, so naturally we persuaded axeman and vocalist (gasp!) Isaiah Mitchell to initiate us into their magical world.
It’s always great to have a new Earthless record, and Black Heaven is absolutely killer; really not what I was expecting at all. Why did you decide to take things in this direction?
Honestly, we had just a couple songs with vocals in the beginning. We wrote another one, and then ended up putting vocals on it – it was never a planned thing. We just took the songs that we did into the studio, along with a longer instrumental as well, but these were the songs that felt the strongest so we were just, “Alright, that’s fine. It’s fun and different so what the hell – let’s mix it up a bit.”
The songwriting is much leaner and more compact. Was there a different approach to how you put the songs together?
I don’t live in San Diego, I live in the Bay Area so our time was a little more limited for writing. We’d been working on the song “Black Heaven” for a while; whenever we got together in San Diego, we worked on it as a three-piece, though I know Mario (Rubalcaba, drums) and Mike (Egington, bass) were working on it on their own as well. We weren’t together a whole lot, so I tried writing songs myself, getting some ideas together and bringing them to the guys. We’d then decide to change this, or lively up that, and then there was another song. Instead of us just banging it out and jamming our hearts out like we’d done primarily for every other record, this one had a lot more individual input brought to the table. We all wrote “Electric Flame” together at one of the last practices before we went to record, so that came out different in that we wrote it together, in the old way – just bashing it out.
Most people are used to that jam-based material, especially live. Do you see there being any difference in the live shows coming up, particularly with the new material?
We’re on tour right now and we’ve been playing four tracks off the album on the live set, and people seem to really still seem to dig the show. I think it’s more of a challenge for us, trying to keep our classic live experience together instead of saying, “Okay, here are some shorter songs”… are we going to stop them completely? You’ve got to keep it interesting to keep the flow going like we’re used to. I don’t think anyone is going to notice too much of a difference, except for the vocals. It’s still very much an Earthless show.
People often ask about your guitar influences, but what about vocally?
I don’t know, there’s so many… Jack Bruce is one of my all-time favourites, Steve Winwood, Sam Cooke, Paul Brady, Peter Green, Leon Russell, Johnny Winter, Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton… there’s a million.
Having vocals as part of the repertoire, do you feel that you can bring something more to Earthless now, or express yourself more fully?
It’s just something that I wasn’t bringing before and now it’s like a little bit more firepower. I think that they can complement each other if you use them right and I think you can serve the music better; give a little more of what you can do. It’s more dynamic, and it’s more interesting to do that sometimes, but I love just playing guitar. It is fun to add vocals to the mix as well.
Do you remember what your first guitar was?
It was a Peavey Tracer and it was a bright yellow guitar. I was really into watching Mötley Crüe, Poison and Def Leppard on MTV when I was a kid, and they all had bright, pointy guitars. I saw that Peavey Tracer and I was like, “I want that one.” My dad said, “No no, we’ve got to get you a Strat.” I didn’t want that so I got my Peavey Tracer, but I eventually got a Strat and only like to play Strats. I guess he knew right away.
What’s your current set-up like in terms of pedals and amps?
It can tend to vary but the fixtures on my pedal board are SIB Electronics, out of San Diego, who have a two-power delay called the Echodrive, which is a really nice delay pedal, very warm; Echoplex EP-3, another delay – it has spillover, so when you take it off the delay just slightly decays. I really like that pedal. My buddy Tim Brennan in Brisbane, Australia, made me a custom fuzz using a Triangle Big Muff circuit and a Colorsound Tonebender circuit – we call that one the Seaweed Fuzz. I like that a lot. I’m a big treble booster fan and I like the Diaztreble booster, the Texas Ranger; that’s one there, and I’m a big fan of Crowthers Audio Hotcake overdrive… there’s a Cry Baby mini-wah; I have a Strymon Flint reverb, three different tremolo circuits too, a harmonic trem on there. Echoplex is my main tremolo when I’m home, the EP-3; Earthquaker devices makes great pedals, and right now the touring board has a few of those guys on there.
Was it Earthquaker you did a session for?
Well, Earthless did a session and then I got together with them and did a run-through of what pedals I was using on a house up on a hill, and that was pretty fun. They’re great people and they make great pedals.
The location looked great for that. Have you played in many strange places or venues over the years? Beaches or the like?
We’ve played some cool places in Spain, like we played in Guadalest. It was this beautiful outdoor festival and we were playing under this castle. That was really beautiful as they had these sulphur lakes – like extremely blue, bright turquoise lakes and the castle on the hill lit up as we played out. That was pretty cool, and we played at 2 in the morning which was great. We’ve played out in the desert here in California but no beaches yet. I really hope that’s on the agenda soon as I like the beach.
Do you skate or surf?
Yeah, I surf – well, I think I surf. I like to say I do. Mario was a pro skater, and Mike likes bombing hills. I liked doing that when I was a kid but I wouldn’t think of doing that any more, but I used to be a little more reckless. But yeah, surfing is nice and the ocean is great. Waves are fun, sharks are bad…
They’re good for the ocean, I just don’t want to get touched by one.
How do you feel that your style has developed over the years, as a guitarist and as a vocalist?
It’s interesting because from time to time I’ll go back and listen to an older live thing that we did and think, “God damn, I was better then!” Sometimes I feel, like on a few occasions on this tour, where I’ve had a good show and there’s been a lot a lot of focus, a lot of relaxation, and I feel like my listening is better. I can sit in the pocket better or just be more relaxed. I feel like things get refined over time. Like I was saying, I listen to some stuff from 8 or 10 years ago and it’s really fast, and fluid and clean and creative; now, those moments are still there and I don’t know if I got better but I look for different things. I try to listen better, be more relaxed and that’s what I tell my students when they ask what I do for better soloing. Just breathe. When you have a conversation you have to take a breath, so do the same thing when playing guitar. Try not to be obvious about it but try to make it a fluid motion.
You tour pretty extensively, so how do you stay healthy and happy when you’re on the road?
Well, I don’t drink any more, I gave that up. Currently on two weeks of no smoking so I’m going to go ahead and call it out, I’m done with that. You gotta take care of yourself. You can’t burn the candle at both ends. That’s what I would do when I was younger, just fuckin’ party and party, but now I just go back to the hotel after a gig and not go out. I love home, I love my wife and where I live. I just have a strong sense of home wherever I am and really know what it is I’m doing back home. Keep in touch, be healthy, meditate, go slow and eat healthy, because everything catches up to you eventually. I’m starting to notice it. You’re not going to be a saint all the time when it comes to health, but don’t wear yourself out, don’t get sick because you’re partying or being stupid. Do that, take your vitamins and you’ll be alright. Call home every day and you’ll be home eventually.
Was it a different feel with Golden Void where you had your wife with you on tour anyway?
That’s the only difference, and the people are different. It’s still tiring, you’re still busting your ass, playing and going to bed late, driving all day – it’s exhausting, but having my wife there? That’s awesome. We get on great when we’re not together, like when I’m on tour, but when we’re doing something that we both love, it makes it that much more fun. That’s how we met, through music. We met at Roadburn Festival and we both understand what music is, we both love it and of course being together makes life easier. That’s a given, but obviously you’re still going to get on each other’s nerves or say something stupid – it’s like being at home. We’re actually in Las Vegas now, driving to Joshua Tree, and I will see my wife in a few hours as she will be there.
The only time I saw you with Golden Void was at Roadburn so is that a special place for you?
I think that is our spiritual European home – 2013 in Tilburg. That’s where I met my wife, I think that Live At Roadburn was very helpful to us in getting our music out to people. I think Roadburn is very responsible for some of the band’s success and we’re doing our ten-year anniversary there next month. Roadburn has given us a lot. Walter (Hoeijmakers, Roadburn artistic director) is like a family member and he was invited to our wedding, but he couldn’t make it.
When you’re playing, or even listening back to previous records and shows, are you much of a perfectionist or is it more about getting the feeling right?
I think most important is the groove, or the way the music can make you feel. We’re not really reinventing the wheel with any of this but the one thing that can’t be denied is a good groove, or a good riff. If you can get inside of it, it makes you move; it’s probably been played a million times already but if you can get inside of it, it’s undeniable. That’s my favourite thing about writing, it’s the feelings that you get from it. It doesn’t have to be perfect or polished, if it makes you feel something then go with it. At least start there, don’t complicate it by trying to make it go a certain way.
The three of you have this uncanny synchronicity, especially live. When did you realise that you all had that level of connection?
I think we would all say it was the first time we jammed. We just had a really good time. We played forever, a good half hour or whatever, and our very first jam/practice sounds kind of like an Earthless jam session. Mario playing some interesting beats, Mike following along and keeping a solid spine for the music, and me doodling on guitar on top – all three of us just painting. We all had a good time and decided to play a show. Did one show and then, “Hey, that was fun. Let’s do another.” Kept doing it and it was fun. I think we all knew right away or we wouldn’t have booked that show. It wasn’t some huge epiphany, like there was lightning and God struck us.