Close your eyes. Build a seat among the tangle of your thoughts and sit back — the journey ahead is long. Your feet (and maybe some earplugs) will have to make do in the real world, but in the expanse of your mind, the music of Earthless can and will take you on trips through sonic galaxies, riding on astral waves of rhythmic assaults and endless solos.
To put it another way, the music of Earthless is heavy psychedelic instrumental rock to get lost in, whether or not you're surrounded by a cloud of smoke. Amusingly enough, the band members do not partake, although they certainly don't mind having been embraced by riff-loving stoners the world over.
The group formed in 2001 in San Diego after they bonded over mutual interests in Japanese psych as well as obscure '60s garage rock. But at their first practice, the music showcased the more well-known side of their heaviest influences: They covered "Communication Breakdown," which turned into a 25-minute jam of their own, which turned into "War Pigs." It was during the in-between that they knew in those moments, already creating the kind of intuitively collaborative music they still make to this day.
They are also an increasingly rare example of a band that hasn't altered its lineup during its existence, although two of the members play in other bands and have had other ventures. Drummer Mario Rubalcaba in particular has been able to make a living out of music, so he has to play a lot by necessity. You may also recognize him as a former pro skater — he was on the Alva Skateboards roster in the '90s, but eventually chose to focus on music instead. He also plays in Rocket from the Crypt, Hot Snakes, and Off! Other bands on his diverse docket include Clikatat Ikatowi, Thingy, the Sultans, the Black Heart Procession, and Pinback.
Guitarist Isaiah Mitchell is also known for the progressive hard rock band Golden Void and too many solo ventures and additional musical projects and participations to name. (He also gives guitar lessons over Skype.) The seemingly overactive trio is completed by bassist Mike Eginton, who ran Thirsty Moon Records with Rubalcaba and a friend of theirs in San Diego for almost a decade. The store has closed now, but it specialized in their own specific interests, featuring hard-to-find albums and helping the band to grow their own taste as well as spread the music in the area.
During all this time, Earthless has been slowly but surely (and loudly) growing in both scope of audience and sound. Their existence has been documented by three studio albums of their own (2005's Sonic Prayer, 2007's Rhythms From a Cosmic Sky, and 2013's From the Ages), revealing their steadily expanding mastery of the modern psychedelic monster instrumental. In between these, various live recordings and other singles have trickled out, with the biggest probably being Live at Roadburn in 2008. Their most recent release is this year's Acid Crusher/Mount Swan, a split with fellow San Diego band Harsh Toke, to which they contributed the nearly 15-minute more deeply bluesy "Acid Crusher."
The songs may be long, but Earthless plays them so thoughtfully as to enrapture audiences quite thoroughly, and we are surely in for a massive treat when they arrive in Detroit. Metro Times spoke with Rubalcaba about all of this and more in a nearly hourlong conversation in advance of the show, a stop on their fall U.S. headlining tour, which launched in Chicago and concludes at El Club this weekend.
Metro Times: The split with Harsh Toke came out this year, but Rock of Ages came out three years ago now. Why tour now?
Mario Rubalcaba: Earthless [is] lucky in that the music we play and how we play it allows us to tour whenever we want. We don't have to tour behind an album. All the other bands I've played in always tour around albums, which makes sense in a lot of different aspects. But for Earthless shows, we incorporate things from the very beginning of the band. Every night is very different.
MT: What have you been doing with the other bands you're in?
Rubalcaba: Two days ago I just returned from a tour with Off! Prior to that, in October, I had two or three shows with Rocket From the Crypt. I did a couple shows with a band I haven't played with live in years called the Black Heart Procession. They were on Touch and Go for most of the 2000s and late '90s. I played very early on in that band. It's been pretty busy. [Laughs.]
MT: The styles of rock between those groups are pretty varied. How do they influence each other?
Rubalcaba: The music I listen to is all over the place, and it all has a hand in whatever project I'm directing my energy to. Earthless, specifically — everyone is into many different types of music. We're not just listening to hard rock or '70s heavy psych all day long. We like jazz and a lot of soul. Isaiah particularly loves a lot of old-style blues guitar-playing. When we get together, we make a sonic brew of all these things in our heads.
MT: You've made some comments about the difference between improvisational music and jamming. What can you tell me about that?
Rubalcaba: Improvising is like composing on the spot, whereas I think of jamming as more of tinkering, not really being in control of the instrument, just riding along. It's not as focused. When you're improvising, it doesn't sound like you're jamming. It sounds like you know what you're doing. It sounds like the song is written how you're doing it. Sometimes when you're improvising, people won't know because it sounds like it should have been there in the first place.
MT: When people talk about the three of you as a band and your connection, "almost telepathic" comes up a lot.
Rubalcaba: Yeah, that's been brought up before. I wouldn't deny it at all. It's a unique bond we have that we can do what we do and just take it to the stage, with no rehearsals. The last time Earthless played, we did a one-off show in Greece maybe a month ago, but before that it had been a couple months. We didn't practice for that show in Greece. We're not practicing for this tour. So yeah, I would say that there's some telepathy there that's on our side.
MT: Are you guys currently working on new songs?
Rubalcaba: We're getting started on it. We've got some things cooking. It's a process, one that we'll continue in the new year.
MT: Can you name a favorite show you've played?
Rubalcaba: A few stick out, but right off the bat, we went to Europe for a tour and one of the first shows was in a really small town in Spain called Guadalest. It was at the top of this mountain at an outdoor festival. Behind us was this other little mountain peak and there was this castle, lit up by its own lighting, but also the moonlight. It was incredible. The festival had a pretty amazing lineup: Graveyard, Witchcraft, and another local band from San Diego called Astra. We didn't get onstage until 3 a.m. We played for two hours. It was intense.
MT: To go back in your history a little bit, what first got you into music?
Rubalcaba: I was pretty young, and I'm lucky to have some uncles that had pretty decent music collections. When I was 5 or 6, getting baby-sat at my grandma's house. It was 8-track days, and there were two 8-tracks I would play all day long: this Deep Purple album with the first lineup and Grand Funk Railroad's We're an American Band. Those two drummers had such a big impact on my drumming. I heard them before I got into Zeppelin and all that other stuff. Then I got into Kiss, Van Halen, but I got my first drum kit when I was 5 or 6. Played for a few years, took a few years off, then I started skateboarding, and the punk stuff came into that as well. I've always been around it.
MT: What would you say is an unexpected influence on you?
Rubalcaba: I'm a huge Tom Petty fan, and this goes back to when I started playing with the Black Heart Procession. That was probably '97. All the bands I was into before that, they were really spastic, art-based hardcore punk. When I started playing with the Black Heart Procession, it was a very minimal, piano-based setup. Pall, the singer, would play guitar, but also played a musical saw ... Not all the songs had drums, but the songs that did have drums ... just needed solid drumming. What inspired me to get into that mind frame of playing for the song was listening to Led Zeppelin, and a couple early Tom Petty records. The drumming is so tasteful. You don't pay attention to it because it's just there but it feels good. If you do pay attention, there's a lot of shit going on that's subtle. It's just there when it needs to be there.
MT: What are three words to describe a live Earthless performance?
Rubalcaba: Adrenaline. Volume. Exhausting, in a good way. [Laughs.]
Earthless plays El Club with Ruby the Hatchet on Saturday, Dec. 17; Starts at 9 p.m.; El Club, 4114 Vernor Hwy., Detroit; elclubdetroit.com; $15.