Just to Play: A Conversation with Mario Rubalcaba and Earthless

by Robin Sinhababu

Photos by Pavel Mezihorak


Earthless Barracuda

Improv-based heavy psych band Earthless recently came through Austin, playing at Barracuda. Robin Sinhababu was on hand to take in the show and talk to drummer Mario Rubalcaba about his skateboarding career, playing with Hot Snakes and of course all things Earthless alongside his bandmates Mike Egington and Isaiah Mitchell.

Robin Sinhababu for Ovrld: Can you tell me about the first time you ever got on a skateboard?

Mario Rubalcaba: I was about six or seven years old. My uncle was a skateboarder in the ’70s, around the big ‘70s boom. So he always had boards laying around at my grandparents’ house, so I’d always go there – my grandparents were my babysitters. I would just kind of push around on my knees, learn to go back and forth in the driveway. He took me to some parks, I watched him skate, and I got to see some pros skate. I always checked out the magazines back then, so I was familiar with what was going on, but I just got into bikes for a while. Then a lot of people got their bikes stolen and got a skateboard again, and I’ve been doing it ever since.

Ovrld: What were the trappings of skateboarding in the ’70? I grew up in the ‘90s, so I have strong associations of skating with certain types of graphics, certain types of music, certain styles of dress. Were there these strong associations in the ‘70s, or was it more loose?

MR: I think so. I vividly remember looking at Skateboarder magazine and seeing all the Alva ads. Tony Alva, he was the biggest pro skater at the time, but he had the coolest ads at the time. He was 19 and owned his own company, the first to ever really do that. Had really striking, colorful ads. Another company called Kryptonics had really good marketing, which is what they call it now, but the ads were so cool. They didn’t even have to have a picture of a skateboarder on there, but they had cool bright wheels and they would do cool things with them.

Ovrld: Was there a certain kind of music associated with skating then?

MR: Well, there was still the classic rock thing going on. Guys were skating to Nugent, Blue Oyster Cult, Zeppelin, and Sabbath. But a couple of the younger guys that were coming out of the later ’70 started picking up on Devo and the Sex Pistols, and the punk thing started coming in. They started dressing more punk, so I picked up on that too. I didn’t get into it quite yet then, but later on, I was like , “Oh, I remember that guy skating with a Devo shirt on.” And then, you know, Duane Peters had the Sex Pistols stickers. So all that imagery has always stuck in my head, and it was always a big part of what boards I wanted to buy when I was a kid.

Ovrld: It seems a little more cooked, now, that skating is associated with certain kinds of music.

MR: It’s all over the place these days. Hip hop, rap culture is still around. Then there’s a culture built kind of around what we’re about: the more heshy, loud, psychedelic bands. Then there’s still the punk rock chapter of skateboarding. There’s a little bit of everything in the pie. Which is pretty cool. I dig it. It’s not limited. Probably, to me, it’s the most open skateboarding has ever been, as far as accepting that whatever you’re into, you’re into and that’s cool, just do your own thing.

Ovrld: You felt that it was more closed before?

MR: Yeah. In the early ‘90s, it was definitely like, if you weren’t one way, you were definitely an outcast. Like back then, you couldn’t skate skateparks and film a video part there. You would just get laughed at.

Ovrld: Because it was too mersh or whatever?

MR: It just wasn’t seen as cool. You were seen as a skatepark skater, and that’s all you could do. Like, “You can’t skate the raw streets.” It was just a different mentality.

Ovrld: What if you had a video camera out on the streets, would that have been looked down on as well back then?

MR: No, that’s what people were doing, more so. They would just go to street spots. Now you can go anywhere and it doesn’t really matter. If the skating looks good, then people seem to know.

Ovrld: Are you any good on ice skates?

MR: Can’t do it.

Ovrld: Can’t do it?

MR: Can’t rollerskate. That’s why I started skateboarding, too. I think my dad took me to go rollerskating when I was really young, and I couldn’t do it. So I saw a guy on a skateboard, and I said, “I want to do that.”

Ovrld: I have a very different concept of which one of those is harder than the other. Did you get involved with Hot Snakes pretty soon after Rocket from the Crypt?

MR: A couple years after, yeah.

Ovrld: Did John [Reis] ask you to play?

MR: Yeah. The original drummer, Jason Kourkonis, was playing with a band called The Burning Brides that had just got signed to a major label, so there was going to be some heavy commitment on his part, and John wanted to do Hot Snakes a little more actively. So Jason got let go of or whatever, it didn’t work out, so I replaced him, played for maybe a year or two, did a record.

Ovrld: I saw you say in another interview that that record, Audit in Progress, was the first time that Hot Snakes had really been a band – that before, they had always just sussed out the songs in the studio. 

MR: Yeah, before it was just John and Jason. John would have these songs, maybe 20 songs, and Jason would come out, they’d learn all this stuff, and record them. Then Gar [Wood] would put some bass over some stuff, but mostly he just played live bass. There was keyboards as the bass on the records.

Ovrld: It was all keyboards on the records?

MR: Yeah, that was all the bassy stuff.

Mike Eginton: I didn’t know that.

Isaiah Mitchell: We’re learning something.

Ovrld: Really. I thought Gar Wood just had a really low tone or something.

MR: Then Rick [Froberg] would do his vocals. He’d come out and overdub some guitar.  So the songs were never written in a room as a band until the record that I played on.

Ovrld: And to the extent they were before you, it was just John and Jason really?

MR: Before me, yeah.  Then they’d go on tour, and it would be all the guys doing their thing. But when we started, John and I and Gar would put the songs together. Rick came out and then we ended up writing a lot of the songs, the four of us together. That record’s a lot different than the first two.

Ovrld: It sure is. One thing that really stuck out to me – especially in that style of music – is that you ride on the toms a lot. There’s a lot less cymbals, especially compared to Jason’s playing. 

MR: Yeah, Jason’s a lot more straightforward.

Ovrld: Was that a conscious thing you did for that record, or is that just what you tend to do when you play fast?

MR: I think it’s just what felt right when the riffs were coming out and we were trying different things.  I just went with my gut and it seemed to sound cool and different, and they liked it, so I stuck with that.

Ovrld: Another thing that really sticks out to me about that record, is how often Gar Wood doesn’t play. He will sit out some entire verses, and then suddenly come in super loud.

MR: Yeah!

Ovrld: As a drummer, is it weird to play with a bassplayer who cuts in and out hard like that?

MR: No, when we were – I’m trying to think back to that timeframe – when we were writing that record, I remember that Gar would want to stand on my side there and be a rhythm section. He would play through a part and he would say, “What would you think if I just cut out here and then come in here?” The dynamics just sounded cool. He’s super aware of dynamics, Gar. He’s a thinker. He’s an engineer as well, for studios, so he has a really cool opinion on the big picture.

Ovrld: I’ve read the word “improv” many times in press and reviews of Earthless. How much of the content of your records could be fairly said to be improvised?

MR: Izzy, you want to take that one?

IM: Sure. I’ll just be fair and say it’s fifty-fifty. There are some songs that are structured. There are some songs where there’s a motif we’ll revisit,  and there’ll be a lot of improvisation more or less in the same key. Some of our songs are just one theme, and every night they’re going to be different from other nights and the recordings. Then there are songs with structure that will always be the same, but we might stretch some stuff out. We try to entertain ourselves and mix it up a little bit.


Earthless at Barracuda

Ovrld: Are your practices like that, too? When y’all get together to play, do you just see what comes, or do you find yourself practicing specific things?

MR: Well, a little of both. A lot of things happen by accident. It’s the three of us having the ear to pick up on those accidents, and one of us will say, “What was that? Let’s try that little thing you were just messing with.” A lot of it’s picking and choosing, but sometimes, Mike or Isaiah will have a riff that they’ve been playing at home, and we’ll just play on that for a long time and see what happens.

Ovrld: Do you all live in San Diego?

MR: Not anymore. We don’t really get to practice like we used to at all anymore. Most of the tours we do these days, we just step onto the stage. We have our structured riffs that we know we’re going to start with, and what it’ll go into over the hour or so, but like Isaiah said, every night’ s different. There’s always going to be room to give or take, and create something new. And we’ll know. No one else will know.

Ovrld: A friend of mine, who is not a fan, said of Earthless, “I wish I could get paid to record my band practice and put it out on vinyl.”

MR: Go for it! That’s the thing about our band, and we’ve said it before: you either love it or you don’t, there’s no in between. Fifteen years ago, when we started this band –

Ovrld: That’s when Earthless started?

MR: Yeah. Technically, we’ve taken some time off, so take a couple of years out of that fifteen, maybe. But we started this band out of selfish love for…just to play. We started jamming, and I think the jamming stuff came just from having fun. Playing covers was the start of it, and then we would jam in between these covers, and then we thought, let’s just keep doing that.

IM: If you can find people that you can do that with, it’s awesome, because you can’t play like that with just anybody. I’ve tried it with lots of different people, and sometimes it does not work.

MR: Jamming and improvising to me are two different things. Jamming, everyone goes and just kind of wanks on things, but they’re not really creating on the spot, I feel. They’re not that focused; it sounds like a song being played. That, I think, is the difference between jamming and improvising. There’s a higher level of concentration and focus, but it’s also composing on the spot. All the jazz guys, they just sound like they know what they’re fucking doing on those records. They’re just improvising. They’re so fucking in tune with their instruments, and they’re playing off each other. So, I’m a pretty strong believer that for us, we’re more of that mindset than like, just, the stoner rock “Bwow” [noise that sounds like slapping a bass or a KISS-style “dinosaur bend”]!” Take a hit and [same noise]!


Earthless at Barracuda

Ovrld: Let me pick up from what you were saying about jazz. On a lot of classic records, bop era or later, on the longer tracks you’ll hear the presentation of the theme or main melody, a long series of jams or variations, and then they’ll come back in and reiterate the theme. With some of your more repetitious stuff, where you hear a motif repeated, is it that kind of thinking? “Let’s establish this melody, then let’s work around it, and then let’s come back to it?”

ME: I think we have quite a few songs that are just one riff, really.  So definitely with that, I’ll typically be playing a riff, or variations of that riff, and then let these guys do what they’re going to do.

MR: One other thing to point out on our recordings: for me, personally, it’s harder for us to record because we have to fit that stuff into twenty minutes. Whereas live, you’re unchained to go off and not worry about the time constraints.

Ovrld: Are there compositions longer than the side of a record that you’ve wanted to record?

MR: The last record, we had a song called “From the Ages” that most of the time, playing it live, it was around 45 minutes long, straight. It was actually really structured –  probably our most structured song – because we definitely had “We’re going to this part at this time.” But when it came time to record the song, my one worry was, we weren’t going to fit it on tape. So we went the digital route, just in case we went over that time limit, and the bummer was that it would have fit in. But it still sounds good.

ME: That went on to the other side of the record: So we had to cut it in two.

Ovrld: Has the way you hold the sticks changed over the years?

MR: I try to practice- lately, I’ve been trying to play more traditional grip at home, just because it’s a different kind of muscle memory, I guess. At home, I’ll try to play half an hour, only with the jazz kind of way of holding the stick. I don’t think I’ll ever use that to play in a band; it’s just a different feel.

Ovrld: Are there times that y’all will mess around with more up-tempo music in Earthless?  I know there are sections of songs that are more uptempo, but do you all ever play shorter songs or different styles altogether?

IM: Yeah, we’re working on something right now that’s really up-tempo and very short, actually. We’ll probably play it tonight.

MR: It’s maybe two minutes long? Two and a half minutes?

ME: If that. It’s just fun to play.

MR: It’s really fun to play. I don’t think we’re – I say this sometimes to people, you never know if the next record will be a songwriting record with vocals. Isaiah’s an amazing singer; we have a couple songs that he sings on.

IM: Thank you.

MR: Not everyone knows that yet, but we might just make a record that’s a “song” record. I know we could do it, it’s just getting in the place and the right mindset for everyone to create that. I know we’re good songwriting band. We’re just doing this thing because it feels right; we’ve never tried to force stuff too much.

IM: Doesn’t work if you force it. Whatever it is, if we enjoy it, we’ll do it.

MR: I think that’s why we’ve lasted so long, to an extent, as well. We’ve never tried to just break down the wall, be adamant, and make something happen.