Published on April 10th, 2015 | by The Beige Baron0
Interview: Mario Lalli
For a period in my early 20s, Kyuss scratched an itch no other music could. Lasting friendships—entire social circles—were essentially based on mutual enthusiasm for getting as high as possible and listening to Blues for the Red Sun in somebody’s weed-choked back yard.
The music became a part of us, as much cultural shorthand as a well-timed Lebowski reference — an opening riff for your mate’s cool new band, a road sign for making friends and an unbreakable tether to old ones.
It’s kind of cool to think that only a few years earlier, on the other side of the world, the guys who would form Kyuss were bonding over and performing alongside their own heroes, Yawning Man and Across the River—although in considerably more pleasant surroundings.
The Palm Desert generator parties the band was a part of in the late ’80s and early ’90s helped inspire the music of Kyuss as well as giving them one of their earliest platforms.
“Yawning Man was the sickest desert band of all time,” former Kyuss drummer Brant Bjork said in a 2002 interview with LA Weekly. “You’d just be up there in the desert, everybody’d just be hanging, partying. And they’d show up in their van and just, mellow, drag out their shit and set up right about the time the sun was goin’ down, set up the generators.
“It was very casual and loose and everybody would like, while they’re playing, everyone would just lounge around. They were kinda like a house band. It wasn’t militant like Black Flag. It was very drugged, very stone-y, it was very mystical. Everyone’s just tripping, and they’re just playing away, for hours. Oh, they’re the GREATEST band I’ve ever seen.”
But almost a decade passed before the rest of the world could take a seat around the bonfire, as Yawning Man never properly recorded these epic outdoor jams. For stoner rock fans in the mid to late ’90s who weren’t lucky enough to be there, the music of drummer Alfredo Hernandez, bass player Mario Lalli, and guitarists Gary Arce and Larry Lalli was tantalizingly out of reach until 2005, when the band’s first studio album Rock Formations was released—a wandering, reverb-soaked epic channeling the spirit of surf rock, psychedelia, and Latin rhythms.
Rock Formations—and the sudden international focus on the Palm Desert scene following Kyuss and QOTSA’s success—helped fan the flames of interest in one of Mario Lalli’s other projects, Fatso Jetson, a punky, surf-cum-desert-rock collective that released its first record Stinky Little Gods in 1995.
Driven by Lalli’s melodic guitar hooks, heavy-riffing breakdowns, and raw, soulful vocals, Fatso Jetson had a hit in 2002 with their outstanding LP Cruel & Delicious.
And it’s with track one, side one of that album I open my conversation with Mario Lalli after he graciously agreed to chat with me over email.
The support I had when things in my life got gnarly were absolutely from my family
BNU: So, my wife and children kind of saved me from myself. When I had kids, I had trouble adjusting to the responsibility. Your song Pleasure Bent off Cruel and Delicious helped me come to terms with the fact that things change, you gotta let it go, and that you just have to try your best. Despite your flaws, it’s important to be proud of yourself. How did you adjust to being a dad, what changes happened to you, and who gave you strength when you went through big changes in your life? Because it’s kind of scary for everyone, right?
ML: You nailed the thing I was trying to express in the song Pleasure Bent. Not only as a new father struggling to adjust to that incredible life change, but also as a son in a very close-knit family with expectations and honestly a standard of work ethic and balance that when I became an age where it was time to step up and reflect all that by being a loving solid father and husband, it was—and still is—something I struggle with every day.
It’s a good problem to have, if you face it with courage and heart. However, while I’m proud of who I am as a father and a son, I have been overwhelmed and needed help. I have been saved from myself several times.
I have to take action, get up, get out, and physically make something happen. It can’t be done from behind a keypad
The support I have had when things in my life got gnarly and out of control were absolutely from my family, my wife, and my son and daughter.
I would say that when I’m on my feet, it’s music that keeps me balanced.
Up until the Internet happened, the music industry was all about radio and about getting signed. Now it’s all about how you can exploit twitter to get people to look at your bandcamp page. What’s common is that a lot of bands that end up being heard arise out of communities of musicians, out of scenes. I wanted to ask you, do you think anything has actually changed? Is it still just about getting kids together and playing loud?
A lot has changed in obvious ways. The Internet reaches an infinite audience without borders. The impact it has made on every aspect of our daily lives is another adjustment I am struggling with… you actually reminded me that Fatso should probably pop a tent in bandcamp… but I think about this a lot.
We never really thought about bigger things or recording, touring… We were in the moment I guess
The work that I do in my life that stays with me and becomes part of my life experience is just that it is work; I have to take action, get up, get out, and physically make something happen. It can’t be done from behind a keypad or finger-fucking my phone.
We probably would not be having this exchange of thoughts without the far-reaching rays of the Internet’s fountain of exposure and information, however, I know that if I had come of age with this thing in my house, and I was 17 years old with a phone that brought the world to my stumbling thumbs, I’m not sure the music community that I grew up with would have ever existed.
We fed off the energy of each other, positive and negative. It is work to organize people to gather and give them something to gather for, so in that way it was about getting kids together and getting loud, and still is.
But the drive, the simple mystery, the motivation to connect and be part of something is now being satisfied by this distant, powerful, instant satisfaction of pics and posts and pages and likes and plays.
I am part of this… just so I am not misunderstood, I am not preaching to “get off the grid and go surfing… ride a bike!! Play your guitar!! Make a flier!! Start a band!! Support your scene!!”
It’s fun and scary and cool, and then it can become something that really defines you as a person
The thing is, the “live” part about playing music with people for people when a kid is just discovering that is really unique to rock ‘n’ roll. It’s fun and scary and cool, and then it can become something that really defines you as a person, something you need to be happy.
Growing up playing and setting up shows was pure expression for me and for all the guys I played with. We never really thought about bigger things or recording, touring… We were in the moment I guess and just exploring. All of that was the focus, not a career or record deals, press, all that. We played for many years with out making a serious effort to record. It was just so much about playing and jamming… for me it still is.
I wanted to ask about you and the relationship you have with the landscape you grew up in, and how it impacted on the music you make. If you take, say, English post-punk, there is this iciness in the sound you can feel. But the music you play—especially with Yawning Man—there is space between the notes, an atmosphere, evoking the desert.
Yawning Man’s sound was really the result of our first experiments with improvising as musicians. So the nature of the music was less structured and more flowing and grooving. The structures that came out of the jams still retained that space and search.
I think that our open mindset to that reflects where we grew up… it has to, because we all loved the icy punk rock from England and all the angst-fueled rock from those days. Yawning Man was kind of letting go of influences and genres and just let the music happen. Fatso Jetson is influenced by all this as well. To me, it’s all our music… the band names are fun to come up with, but we just play what is in our head.
We had band like The Melvins, Rancid, D.I., Kyuss, Dick Dale, and all the local bands
I want to ask you about what it was like to start your own business. I understand you started a restaurant, or took over a restaurant, or a club? What was it like to take on that responsibility? Also, you seem a man with integrity and have never attempted to cash in or cheapen what you have achieved and helped others achieve. Has the temptation ever struck you to be someone you are not in order to get money?
My family has been in the restaurant and nightclub business since 1952. My mother and father were opera singers that started a singing restaurant back then called “Mario’s—Where They Sing While You Dine”. So I grew up in this weird mix of cultural show biz/restaurant nightclub thing.
In 1994 my wife and cousin and I opened the first rock ‘n’ roll club in the desert, it was called “Rhythm & Brews”. The club was a great thing for the desert at the time. It was all-ages but we sold beer and pizza, burgers. I was booking all the local bands, touring punk bands, and all kinds of unique rock ‘n’ roll. We had band like The Melvins, Rancid, D.I., Kyuss, Dick Dale played several times, he lives in the high desert, and all the local bands. Rock, punk, blues… it was great, but short-lived. We only lasted two years.
Ironically, the Coachella festival would have its first show just three miles from where our location was… so things have changed a bit in the desert.
About the reputation I seem to have of being a man with integrity and humility… I am grateful that people think of me in this way. But I have struggled with all this stuff like anybody would. I have never felt that I was holding a position to cash in on anything, so I guess I have tried to be this way handling my business relationships ethically and offering and sharing whatever I had.
My first amp was an Airliner 20-watt 1 x 10″ combo. Volume and tone… two knobs.
But I’ve made some bad choices and mistakes too, and hope to learn from all that.
Your tone is killer. Can you tell me what the first guitar, amp, and effects pedals were? You don’t strike me as a gearhead, but you clearly learned how you wanted to sound on guitar and bass, and I wondered when it was you went, “Yep, I found it, this is it”.
Well, the first electric guitar I ever had was given to me by my brother-in-law Fred Harmon, it was called an Aloha. I think it was from Taiwan … kind of a Strat-ish thing from the mid ’60s. I smashed it and spray-painted it, it’s still in pieces in my garage. It’s more of a decor piece now [laughs].
My first amp was an Airliner 20-watt 1 x 10″ combo. Volume and tone… two knobs. I guess tone-wise on guitar would be my ’92 Telecaster with Seymore Duncan “Jerry Donahue” pickups, my old ’80s Mesa Coliseum 300 head; I have an old ’70s “Road” cabinet with vintage 30s, and for FX pedals I’m using Dr. Know’s overdrive and a Black Magic Bass fuzz.
My main distortion pedal for over 20 years has been an original Expandora 2000 I bought in ’94. I love old Boss analog delay, but right now I’m using a TC Electronics Alter Ego vintage delay modeler. I also use a Fender Blues DeVille for small gigs and a ’72 Twin JBL series as well.
Alfredo Hernandez. In so many bands I love, this guy is at the back pounding it out, making every song fly while the guys at the front soak up the glory. I would love it if you could share some stories about Alfredo, because he simply is the best—a player who has touch and feel and soul and well as being a human metronome.
I met Alfredo when we were 15 years old or so. It was funny, because we had both gone to a local punk show thrown at a warehouse in his neighborhood in Palm Springs and I was there with one of my friends from Palm Desert.
We were checking each other’s jackets out because we both really got into making our own custom jackets covered in art, band logos and so on. He had this badass trenchcoat with all these bands that I loved too hand-drawn on the back and the sleeves. Alfredo is a great illustrator; he did so much art for the punk scene and almost all for early Yawning Man, Sort of Quartet, and Across the River fliers.
Alfredo is a great illustrator; he did so much art for the punk scene
We hit it off and at some point at another party where we both playing in separate bands, and we decided to start playing together. After high school, we moved in together and went up to L.A. for a year or two, then moved back to the desert and lived together for almost 10 years.
Alfredo—although he grew up on punk rock, new wave, and classic rock—has a natural feel for percussion. When we all started to explore jazz- and Latin-based music from Cuba, South America, and Africa, he just had it in him somewhere. No one showed him that stuff—he just felt it.
As a drummer, he is the guy that I can play intuitively with whether on guitar or bass. He will always be one of my favorite drummers to play with. I have been super blessed to play with many great drummers through the years, Tony Tornay, Rob Peterson, Bill Stinson.
Alfredo and I discovered so much together, musically we grew together. His taste and insight into music of all genres is something that makes playing with him special and unique. From hardcore punk to cumbia to be-bop and heavy rock, soulful improvising, to tight and minimal, he’s a machine.
The universal language of music is no bullshit, I’ve seen it, lived it.
When I was a kid, my cousin played me Kyuss and that was it. I kind of followed every root and branch back to Black Sabbath and it was a wonderful journey, I found many a great band. What band did you love, and then kind of trace back to the source, and what did you find along the way?
I guess for me it was very similar, but I started at Black Sabbath and traced it back to garage rock, early ’60s psychedelic stuff, surf music, early electric and folk blues from all over the country.
Also, all those discoveries had their own branches and roots.
The “punk” stuff I got exposed to also led me back to lots of unique art-based expressive music, more experimental sounds.
You’ve traveled the world and toured and played with some incredible musicians and met many people. Do you think that music has the power to subvert propaganda and politics, actually connect people and break down barriers?
With music, there are no barriers if your mind is open and the music is the relationship.
The universal language of music is no bullshit, I’ve seen it, lived it. It’s when people let in all the other stuff where boundaries surface and lines are drawn.
The Internet as I said before can help bring people together with things like this, but it can also make [music] passive and homogenized.
The greatest musical experience of your life? Was it listening as an observer, or playing?
Playing with my son, my daughter, cousin, and my best friends… there’s been moments that I just could not believe were happening.
In 50 years, a kid flicking through a rack of ancient “CDs” finds a Fatso Jetson album. It’s filed under “American folk”. What would you like Fatso Jetson to be remembered for?
That would be awesome to me. I guess I would like to be remembered as a honest expressive artist with a sense of humor, and that goes for any of the bands or collaborations I’ve ever been a part of.