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Outside the Lines: Interview with Earthless Drummer Mario Rubalcaba

Photo by Ulysses Salazar, courtesy of Ludwig Drums

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Drummer Mario Rubalcaba has played with bands like OFF!, Hot Snakes, Rocket From The Crypt, Clikitat Ikatowi and many more — his resume reads like a sailor on shore leave, out to wring every ounce of life out of time that he has at hand. But these days, Mario docks his drum throne in a musical port called Earthless — a hypnotic yet deeply soulful heavy rock band you’ve got to see to believe. 

Born and raised just north of San Diego, Mario’s musical roots trace back to an uncle who tinkered around with guitar and “had a killer 70s SG guitar and an Aims amp that’s a monster - loud as hell - which I still have to this day. I would see him playing that as a kid.” His uncle’s deep classic rock record collection had an influence on Mario. On his first musical memories, Mario says “I was part of that group of kids who saw KISS on TV and was drawn in by the imagery but I gravitated towards the music - it was high energy. I was five years old, and ‘KISS Alive’ was the first record I ever got. I was an ultimate KISS kid.” He bashed on a homemade kit that his mom made for him out of pots and pans until he got his first toy kit, and then, eventually, his first real kit at age six.  Mario has been in San Diego his whole life, with the exception of a few years in Chicago in the late ‘90s until his stint in Rocket From The Crypt brought him home for good. 

In the same way our own Norman Collins did, Mario does not approach things by any standard measure - and he brings out the best in his collaborators. He is deeply entrenched in the Southern California rock, punk, hardcore, and psych scene. It’s no wonder that he’s in such demand - he is the embodiment of musicality, style, and one of the coolest dudes you’ll ever meet. Looking at his myriad musical exploits, we couldn’t help but want to talk with Mario about the Southern California rock scene and his life in music. 

SJ: Let’s talk about San Diego and its unique musical landscape. Early 90’s hardcore was a very specific, straightforward thing, a pretty basic meeting point between punk and metal. What was it in the water in San Diego at that time that made everything so OUTSIDE THE LINES – where instead of metal chugga-riffs, everything was this crazy twin-treble attack; instead of hoodies and baggy jeans; it was tight pants and white belts. Why was the most unlikely “arty” city in America suddenly this ground zero for this total art-rock post-punk zeitgeist?

MR: Yeah, that was definitely there, yeah. That said, there WAS the hoodies and chugga-chugga bands - if you went a little farther south to Chula Vista, there was a big straightedge hardcore scene and I had gone to a lot of those shows. But there were also bands like Pitchfork and Fishwife that had more of a melodic twist. They were more from the beach area. Then you had a band like Heroin that started out as a pure hardcore band influenced by more midwest stuff (like Squirrel Bait), and DC hardcore. The DC hardcore scene really, really influenced another big group of people out here, and that’s what spawned even more of the more arty side of the post-hardcore scene. When bands like Heroin and Antioch Hero started, they took influences that were more outside of the normal the hardcore genre and put them into that. When Clikitat started, we weren’t listening to hardcore — we were bumming people out, hanging out together at whoever’s house, listening to Birthday Party, Neil Young, Hendrix, and Grand Funk Railroad. We weren’t listening to hardcore. People were like, ‘What the eff are you listening to this crap for?’

SJ: So why San Diego? How and why did all these influences converge there?

MR: For me, when I really noticed the change in the way people dressed and consciously made a move to change their musical direction, I gotta say — it was Nation of Ulysses. When that band was around and playing, there were people that followed them around. To a tee, people started dressing like them — wearing the black jeans, the white belts, the dyed black hair, even sometimes the suits. It was a fashion thing.  To me, that’s who people were trying to ape, and they took the music even further.

In Earthless, Mario’s musicality and adaptability is in full effect, as he draws on his myriad influences to incorporate the different styles of music that give shape and purpose to the extended compositions and improvisations that define the trio’s music. Mario had moved back to San Diego when he joined Rocket From The Crypt, and bonded with Earthless bandmates Isaiah Mitchell and Mike Eginton over a love of all manner of psychedelic rock, from Japanese psych to German krautrock.  Take these two elements, and add a combination of the classic heavy Sabbath and Zeppelin riffage with the modal explorations of Jack Johnson-era Miles Davis, and you’ve got the base for Earthless’ sonic stew. 

Just as Norman Collins derived inspiration from Japanese artists into his unique style, Earthless has continued to add to that blend of influences on the Southern California rock scene by drawing on a shared loved of the aforementioned ‘70s Japanese psych bands like  Flower Travellin’ Band and Blues Creation. “It’s kind of why we formed. At the time, we didn’t know anyone else who was really trying to buy that kind of stuff or listen to it. We bonded on that stuff and krautrock.”

SJ: So what’s up with Isaiah Mitchell (Earthless’ guitarist)? When I saw you guys play last week, I kinda knew what I was getting into, but I swear to god that dude might be the shreddingest guitar player I’ve ever seen.

MR: Yeah man, he really is. I’ve played with the dude for fifteen years and I still think he’s one of the best guitar players in the world. And not even just how he plays with Earthless - he’s so varied and well rounded. I’d known him for a few years but never really heard him play before we got together. One of my first memories of getting to know Isaiah was when I rolled my ankle skating and Isaiah gave me a ride home in this giant pimp-looking Cadillac. I’d only heard about his prodigy guitar playing, when we got together I was like, ‘This kid is insane!’

 (Note: Into this vibe? See our previous Sailor Jerry feature on Bay Area Psych for more on Isaiah and his other band, Golden Void.)

Earthless straddles a line between structure and composition versus freedom and exploration in their approach. Mario likens Earthless’ improvising to composing on the spot, as opposed to simply jamming, which he feels implies more of an aimless noodle-fest.  Their chemistry has developed to an almost telepathic level over the past decade and a half. “I’m so grateful that we have this unique chemistry” says Mario, “that we can get together and go straight into it. The first show of this tour was a huge festival show and that WAS our practice.”

Meanwhile, Mario is no stranger to the Sailor Jerry. His band OFF! played their very first show at a Sailor Jerry SXSW showcase in 2010. OFF! was formed out of the ashes of the Circle Jerks when Keith Morris assembled his dream band to make a record. Keith had seen Mario play with Rocket From The Crypt and saw how much style and feeling he can put into a more straight-up hardcore thing. Morris describes OFF! as “a party band. We would like to invite you to the dark party. Anti-establishment? Yes.”

"I'm always willing to listen to somebody else's ideas…because we can always learn more."

-Norman Collins, Aug 12, 1971

SJ: Thinking about your many different musical projects, what, from your perspective, is the connective tissue between all of your different bands?

MR: Besides them all being loud rock-type bands, I would say that in all the bands I get to play in at the moment I am really fortunate to have a musical situation where I am able to play how I like and also come up with my own stuff. I make it my own thing on the drums but I always keep in mind the song comes first. What's unique about each? I have a very eclectic bag of tastes, and I also get bored of playing the same stuff kinda easy, so to have four very different musical projects that I can lend my style to is something I'm very appreciative to have. [Ed.: see sidebar]

Making his living primarily from being on the road fuels Mario’s drive to give it 110% every night. In reflecting on this, Mario says “I feel so fortunate that people come back to see any of my bands when we come through town. That's a big deal to me. How easy is it to NOT go back and see a band? It means a lot to me that people go out of their way to buy a ticket in advance, maybe drive a few hours out of town, bring a friend that has never heard of the band, buy merch etc., for one of my bands. I have to give it everything I got. Six years ago I was laid OFF! (sorry, couldn't resist) from my last job, and I was in a position to either get another 9-5'er quickly or make the decision to go after my dream of making drums my life. I'm not at the age where I could make that decision in ten years. If I wanna be a lifer, then I gotta give it all I got.”

MARIO BROTHERS: A QUICK GLANCE AT MARIO RUBALCABA

A glance at a list of Mario’s projects is almost dizzying: 411, Chicano-Christ, Metroschifter, Clikatat Ikatowi, Thingy, The Black Heart Procession, Rocket From The Crypt, Hot Snakes, Earthless, Sultans, OFF!, and Spider Fever. Mario provided us with an abridged, guided tour through a few of those projects…

Earthless is free form improvisation, looseness and groove maximus and I get to control a lot of where that rollercoaster is going in that if I make the musical call to speed up and get "lost" for a bit then that’s where it's gonna go and I have FULL trust in my mates that they are gonna take that musical ride with me to the fullest.”

OFF! [encompasses] all of my youthful angst that I grew up with skating and is just another side of adrenaline that I fully enjoy behind the kit.”

“With Hot Snakes, when I came on board it was the first time that the band actually was a "real band" in that we all practiced and wrote the songs as a whole and not just kinda pieced together in the studio. I'd like to think that my playing on "Audit In Progress" shows a different direction than on the previous albums. Whether people thought it was a better or worse direction is none of my business but I'm just sayin’ that I had a lot of fun writing and playing those songs.”

Rocket From The Crypt is straight forward RNR but with some pretty interesting dynamics. High energy stuff for sure.”