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An Interview with Isaiah Mitchell of Earthless

Earthless is back with a new full-length release. As ever, Mike Eginton brings rock solid, meandering bass lines and Mario Rubalcaba combines hits and breaks to create frantic and engaging beats. However, Black Heaven is different from their previous releases in a few ways. Most notably, there are lyrics on about seventy percent of the album, and guitarist Isaiah Mitchell  doles them out soulfully.

The opening track, “Gifted by the Wind”, introduces big fuzzy bass to lay a foundation of rumbling bedrock for the drums and guitar to dance on. The songs are shorter on Black Heaven, with outlier “Volt Rush” running a short and sweet two minutes. “End to End” showcases Earthless’ proclivity for drama, contrast, and screeching solos. The instrumental title track opens with a riff that kicks up and down in pitch, in and out of sixteenth notes, making it sound sporadic and trippy. These are the kinds of themes that make Earthless so adept at holding the listener’s attention without having to use words, although the vocals certainly don’t hurt. Much of the lyrics on Black Heaven are post-apocalyptic in theme, specifically “End Over End” and “Electric Flame” each paint stark pictures of the end of days. “Sudden End” is a somber song is which Mitchell laments about loneliness as the bass ambles along, carrying a heavy burden. The closing track features lots of cymbal crashes in the instrumental reprise and toms under the vocals, illustrating how Rubalcaba contributes in setting the mood throughout the album.

I was offered the opportunity to pose some questions to the band via email, and you can read guitarist Isaiah Mitchell’s responses to them in the exchange below.

Indy Metal Vault: It seems like you’re making it into the studio with better frequency now, considering From the Ages (2013) incubated for six years following Rhythms From a Cosmic Sky (2007). Is this a trend we can expect to continue? Which is more of a limiting factor: your creative flow or your personal lives?

Isaiah: Haha – I’m surprised it took us this long to make Black Heaven! I swore to myself it would be another six years before we made our next record. We cut it pretty close! I’m sure we won’t take more than a few years to get onto our next record. Our biggest limiting factor is our personal lives and the distance I live from Mike and Mario. They’re in San Diego. I’m north of San Francisco. That’s the biggest issue, but whenever one of us has a song idea we can email it to each other. We’re starting to use technology that we never used before.

IMV: Your songs come together very organically, and the ease with which you, drummer Mario Rubalcaba, and bassist Mike Eginton read each other as musicians comes through your sound clearly — you have great chemistry. Did the three of you click immediately when you started jamming together in 2001, or was there a warm-up period where you felt each other out? How did you navigate that, and what were key moments when you knew you had something special?

Isaiah: I feel that we knew right away that we had a chemistry. After our first jam session weekend, we booked a show at the Casbah in San Diego. We kept going. We enjoyed what we were doing and no one else was doing what we were doing then, at least not on our radar. Everything was very easy and natural.

IMV: Of course, lyrics and vocals are the biggest change from previous albums. Did introducing lyrics force your songwriting to be more structured and less improvisational on Black Heaven?

Isaiah: there wasn’t any intention to have the majority of the songs on the album have vocals. We just wrote songs and shaped them how they felt most natural. And the majority got vocals.

IMV: You sang in Golden Void with your wife before bringing lyrics to Earthless. Was holding off on vocals for Earthless a matter of building confidence or the course of a natural evolution of the music? Do you think this will broaden your fan base? Are you concerned you won’t be able to release a future instrumental album without backlash?

Isaiah: I’ve sung in bands ever since I was in junior high school. Playing guitar and singing isn’t anything new for me. In Earthless we loved playing long instrumental sets, so that’s what we stuck with doing. But we felt why not add another instrument if it can serve the song. So that’s what we did. I know we’ll make some fans and we’ll lose some as well. Can’t make everyone happy, and that’s none of our goals. If we like what we’re creating, then we’ll share it with people.

IMV: You describe your music as a living, breathing thing that is more felt than heard. Is the ability to tap into this creativity and play from the heart and soul innate or learned, and how did you develop it or what was a formative moment for your creative life?

Isaiah: I think to tap in you just have to relax and ask for it to happen. Quiet yourself a bit. Music is one of the many vehicles. To me, painting, surfing, and meditating get you to the same place. I’ve had some incredible moments where you’re tapped into this energy and you see everything around you shift and change form. You just have to be open. Meditation can help you get there. When I first felt that energy in my later teens, it set me off to try and find that place every time I play. It’s not always easy to get there. You have to be open and clear.

IMV: How do you cope or adjust when there is not enough freedom or room for a song to breathe? Would a forced time constraint or limited creative license kill an album, or do you think it would force you to grow in a new way? What is something (influence, sound, instrumentation, etc) you’ve thought of experimenting with but haven’t yet for one reason or another?

Isaiah: Time constraints are tough for us, haha! It depends on the song ultimately. We’ll sometimes start off a live show with an improv jam and we’ll say “let’s try not to go too long because we need to fit these other songs in and there’s a hard curfew,” but we’ll be having such a great jam and we end up playing twenty minutes to kick off the set instead of ten, haha! Having the flexibility to go with whatever flow is happening at that time is great for us, so we don’t have to think and we can just let go and play. But time constraints aren’t always a bad thing. It will make you play with a certain edge that no constraints won’t offer. I’d like to try recording songs using acoustic instruments or instruments from the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe, India…something different. I’m sure we will.

IMV: You rely heavily on improvisation and feeling the moment, following the music. We hear (and luckier fans have seen) the magic when this approach is successful. How much of your live show is improvised? I find it very appealing to consider that no two Earthless shows will ever be the same. How would you explain the difference between “jamming” and “improvising” to the uninitiated? Can you relate a time when it didn’t go well? How did you recover and what did you take away from it?

Isaiah: The live show is very structured, but the solo sections are never the same. They sometimes will be longer or shorter depending on how we’re feeling. At the beginning of our sets, we’ll start off with a warm up improv jam. Jamming and improvising to me mean the same thing: you’re creating on the spot and trying to create something beautiful and musical instead of making a bunch of noise and boring everyone, including yourself. Sometimes noise is beautiful and that’s the route that’s best taken. Sometimes we get in tune with each other and are creative in the moment musically, and sometimes we’re not. I feel a lot of the creativity is on me in those times because I’m the melodic instrument in the band, where the melodies come from. If I’m feeling off, and it happens often, I try and figure out what could’ve led to feeling that way. But sometimes you’re just off and there’s nothing you can do. It’s hard to be constantly inspired and creative. Sometimes before a show, I’ll feel super excited and ready to go have a great time, and then I end up having a shit show. Sometimes I’ll feel exhausted and sick as a dog, and have the best show of my life. It happens when it happens. Everyone has off nights. Just accept that that WILL happen and go have fun. There’s always going to be another gig.

IMV: It seems like the Mad Alchemist liquid light show has added an extra dimension to your performance. Can you speak a little to how that has changed the live experience for you and the fans? Will those light shows will be a staple in future tours?

Isaiah: Lance and his crew are awesome and they enhance our live shows immensely. I love going to a show where they’re doing the lights and just zoning out to the visuals and letting the music carry you away. I think it changes our live show in the simple fact that it’s easier to tune out and forget whatever’s going on in your life. Speaking from experience watching their light show to other people’s music, the show just makes me forget what’s going on in my life. It’s a meditation. Primal like staring into a fire when you’re camping and it’s dead silent. It’s soothing to the ears and eyes. It makes your night out more of an experience. They compliment each other perfectly. I hope we do a lot more with Mad Alchemy. I’m sure we will cross paths again.

IMV: You’re currently on the road with Japan’s Kikagaku Moyo and LA’s Jjuujuu. How’s that going? Who are some of your favorite touring companions?

Isaiah: Both Kikagaku Moyo and Jjuu Jjuu are amazing bands and everyone in both touring parties are great people. Everyone is so easy and friendly. Perfect touring party.

IMV: I’ve read you’re influenced deeply by krautrock (as well as ZZ TOP, Cream, Coltrane, and Flower Travelin’ Band, among others). I’m unfamiliar with the German psych scene; can you give me suggestions for albums to listen to and why they are influential?

Isaiah: Listen to Ashra Temple, Ashra (Correlations,New Age of Earth) A&R Machines, Guru Guru, NEU!, CAN (), Amon Düll’s Yeti (I think that how you spell it), Cluster, Parson Sounds…you can’t go wrong with these in my opinion. Just dive in and see what you like.

IMV: You also have an affinity for Japanese psych rock. What turned you on to that scene and what differentiates it from American psychedelic music?

Isaiah: Mike and Mario turned me onto Japanese psych and kraut rock. I’m forever grateful. Life changing music. Japanese psych to me has this intensity and freak out quality that not many American bands have. In some ways, I feel that Japanese bands take something that’s already been done and raise the bar and do it better than anyone has ever done. They reinvent the wheel, which is really hard to do! They give me a fresh perspective on what’s possible with music. I always get inspired by Japanese bands it seems. So saying that, I’m stoked to get to watch Kikagaku Moyo every night haha! Other Japanese bands new and old that kick me in the pants are Blues Creation, Flower Traveling Band, Acid Mother’s Temple, Shenki Chen, Mainliner, High Rise, Church of Misery, Green Milk from the Planet Orange, Boris, Eternal Elysium…

IMV: You’ve stated that recording at the Joshua Tree studio, Rancho de la Luna, heavily influenced this record. With the influence of recording location in mind, where would you like to go next? It also seems like you had good synergy with Dave Catching (Eagles of Death Metal), who owns the studio. Did he have an influence on Black Heaven as well, and will you work with him again?

Isaiah: I feel like I would personally like to record in remote places where you stay at or near the studio instead of going home every night. I love the feeling of being totally surrounded by creating a record and not letting too much of the outside world in. There’s a place in Stinson Beach that has amazing studio gear, and it overlooks the ocean while it’s in the forest. Beautiful spot. I’d like to do an ocean-inspired album, but the desert offers a wonderful atmosphere you can’t get anywhere else. Dave is amazing. He’s a lovely dude. Super chill. We’d make a record with him anytime. His studio and presence absolutely inspired the sounds and playing on the record. He and Jon Russo, the engineer, were great to work with.

IMV: Eyes are a common theme in your cover art (as seen on the Harsh Toke split and From the Ages). What is the significance there? Who is the artist, and how closely do you collaborate with him or her? I’ve noticed you have a penchant for monochromatic color schemes as well (RFTCS is purple, FTA is red, and the split is green), and BH takes it a step further by going black and white. Was this a conscious decision? I think the multi-colored splatter vinyl will look amazing with this art, and I can’t wait to get my hands on one.

Isaiah: Our bassist Mike is the main artist for Earthless all these years. Eyes are the gateway to the soul, so it seems fitting to add eyes. Lots of religious art from the East have third eyes. Eyes see all and tell all. For theBlack Heaven album art, Mike and Mario saw a guy’s art online and hit him up about doing the album art. I’m sorry but I don’t know his name right now…I love that he did it in just black and white. It came out great! I think the color choices go with the album title nicely.

IMV: After releasing your last few albums via Tee Pee, you’ve made the move to Nuclear Blast. How did that come about, and what have been some of the benefits and drawbacks of that change?

Isaiah: We felt like we needed a change. Things were good but we were at a plateau. You never know what’s out there for you unless you make some decisions to go look around. Get out of your comfort zone. When you do that, change happens. It was time for us to make a new record and we wanted to see who would be interested in signing us, since we were no longer under contract to Tee Pee. Nuclear Blast approached us, and they felt like the best fit for the band. Tee Pee has been great to us and we’re forever grateful that they took us on and got us out into the world. We just felt it was time to see what else is available to us out in the world. You gotta shake up your world a bit from time to time and allow growth and change. If you don’t you stay stagnant. We don’t want to be stagnant, so we’re trying out something new. So far, everything has been great for the band. There is a business side to making music, unfortunately. Just stand by your truth and know where you’re coming from, and all will work itself out.

Get your hands on the new album, Black Heaven, available Friday 3/16 here, and check the tour dates below to catch a psychedelic sound and light experience like no other.

  • 3/1 San Francisco @ Great American Music Hall
  • 3/2 San Diego @ Casbah San Diego
  • 3/3 San Diego @ Casbah San Diego
  • 3/4 Los Angeles @ The Teragram Ballroom
  • 3/5 Santa Cruz @ The Catalyst Club (The Atrium)
  • 3/7 Las Vegas @ Beauty Bar Las Vegas
  • 3/8 Pioneertown @ Pappy & Harriet’s
  • 3/13 Cleveland @ Grog Shop
  • 3/14 Toronto @ Lee’s Palace
  • 3/15 Montreal @ L’Astral
  • 3/16 Brooklyn @ MARKET HOTEL *official album release show*
  • 3/17 Boston @ The Sinclair
  • 3/18 Philadelphia @ Underground Arts
  • 3/20 Washington DC @ Rock And Roll Hotel
  • 3/21 Richmond @ The Broadberry
  • 3/22 Nashville @ Mercy Lounge
  • 3/23 St. Louis @ Blueberry Hill
  • 3/24 Chicago @ The Empty Bottle
  • 3/25 Chicago @ The Empty Bottle
  • *: with JJUUJJUU only

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