Tony Malson has been a fixture in the San Francisco Bay Area hard rock and metal scene for many years. Tony is the lead singer of The Devil in California, who just released their second full length album, Burning Beauty. Now also the lead singer of legendary State Line Empire, Tony continues to cement his place in Bay Area music history. In addition to those duties, the 90s Seattle era tribute band he also fronts, Rusty Chains, is heading into the fourth year of their charity work for suicide prevention causes.
I’ve known Tony for some years and was happy to catch up with him recently over Zoom from our respective COVID-19 Shelter In Place bunkers.
Mojo: How are you man?
Tony: Doing alright man, just trying to juggle all kinds of wonderful moments.
“Wonderful moments” is a perfect way to put it. I see you have a Tool shirt on! Tool is my favorite band, of course you know this.
Yeah, I’m friends with Danny Carey, he is a ridiculously talented human being and the sweetest dude you’ll ever hang out with, such a big teddy bear.
You know, I find that’s true of so many musicians, especially in the hard rock and metal genres. My kids used to say ‘aren’t they scary, they have tattoos and look mean’ and I would tell them, no, these are the nicest people you’ll ever meet in your life, and they’re all so generous…. And you’re one of these people. Just a cool, generous, teddy bear dude.
Absolutely! We don’t wear cool extravagant symbols on our skin or on our clothing to be defiant in a way that makes people feel uncomfortable, what we do is we just want to make the world more colorful.
Well that, and just getting your shit out there so you’re not repressing it.
Exactly, and just being artistic and being yourself and feeling like you can express it.
So how are you, how are things going?
You know, just trying to live this wonderful shelter in place life with two kids, and trying to stay employed, and keep all of the band projects rolling in a positive way, and man, it’s just not fuckin easy.
No, no, it’s not. So you’re not working at home, you’re not furloughed or anything?
I’m doing about fifty-fifty working at home and actually working. I do loss and mitigation for a large construction firm. So for me, the construction industry is still rolling hard, it’s one of the essential businesses, even if you’re building a McDonald’s or something. The dollar bill tends to win in these situations, so what are you gonna do, you just keep on rolling with it. But dude, I’m so spoiled, and employed and I’m so humble, and stoked about the fact that I live in San Francisco and I still have income. I’m not complaining.
It’s a blessing. I’m not complaining either, I’m here with my family, I’m working from home. But we still have our own shit to deal with. We still have stuff — we have emotional baggage, we have life change. And we do need to talk about it.
Venting is a whole other thing, you know how you get together with your buddies, you talk with a friend, get on the phone and you’re just like ‘this is the shit that’s killing me right now.’ Even though I’m a total white privileged spoiled little brat, I still have my mental and physical challenges throughout this pandemic. It doesn’t mean that that disappears for me because I live in San Francisco, and have a house here, that doesn’t mean that all of that shit vanishes. It doesn’t mean that my kids are any different on that front as far as trying to get them fully engaged in online school and policing all of that. There’s so many aspects to it that are just real, it’s not you just bitching about anything, it’s like “hey man, this is what I’m dealing with right now.”
Exactly, it’s okay to say ‘hey my life’s upside down and I’m dealing with some shit.’ It doesn’t mean you don’t acknowledge that we’re lucky and privileged to still be working from home…
Oh my God yes. I have friends in New York who have two, three members of their families who have passed away. And I have musician friends who were falling by the wayside from COVID-19. I’m not claiming they’re all my super close friends, but here’s the deal — when you see people that you’ve high-fived on tour with, and you know, hung out with and given a hug to and they’re just like, these people are gone forever and they were just in your music circle.
Man, it really makes me take Shelter In Place very seriously. And I am a person that instructs my family and my kids in the same fashion, we will leave when necessary and we will do the right thing, with non medical face coverings and social distancing, and we will take all that into consideration. Like, when packages come to our house, it’s a huge thing. When groceries come to our house, it’s a throw down that lasts about an hour.
That’s even more than we’re doing. So you’re not going out, you’re getting groceries delivered and all that?
Mostly I’m getting things delivered but it’s such a crapshoot, because everything you order, if it’s not right in front of their face, they just substitute it or delete it. There are just some days where you get the groceries and are like well, I guess I’m going to make a meal with all this crazy shit.
But it’s also kind of awesome, sometimes you’re like, ‘oh sweet, I just got prosciutto, I didn’t even order that’. Now I’m going to make this Italian pasta salad with prosciutto… you know, like really good SF prosciutto.
(Laughing) I was going to get into that later, but we’re friends on Facebook, so I know you dig throwing down in the kitchen.
Well I can’t play music right now, so I’m just obsessed with cooking. you know so every night I’m planning shit like a motherfucker.
Are you like me, sitting at breakfast going ‘so tonight what do you guys want for dinner?’
Dude, the day before, I’m already going through the cupboards, pulling shit out of the freezer, thawing the appropriate things out, thinking, ‘am I grilling, am I smoking, am I baking?’ I’m so tragic right now, it’s hilarious. I’ve turned all my musician skills towards cooking.
I’ve said for many years that cooking and musicianship are very similar.
Thomas from Rusty Chains sent me a text last night, a picture of this tri-tip. He recently moved into his house, got a grill, and cooked this for the very first time in his life, and he was like dude, my first tri-tip! I was like congratulations, man, it’s such a watershed moment.
My approach to cooking is the exact same approach to making music and it always has been. You take this melting pot of ingredients which is the band members and the riffs and the music, right? And then you cook something up and put your flavor on it, and then when it’s all done and everyone in the group agrees, then you feed it to the rest of the people. And if you can change someone’s life and make them feel better for even five seconds out of their life, when you delivered them that meal of that musical moment, then you’re a success forever in the world. You don’t need to be a rockstar, you just need to change one person’s life musically.
I feel the same way with food, if I change someone’s moment and I just I see their face and I see that look showing they’re emotionally and physically affected, and it’s so similar to music. That’s why I see foodies a lot of times are musicians and artists, it’s all the same thing, the same melting pot.
I don’t know why but it really is. I’ve been cooking since I was like eleven or twelve. I love watching your feed going ‘what’s Tony cooking tonight?’
Yeah you and me both brother. I feel so weird because for me, before the pandemic, I didn’t really post a lot of food stuff. I was always like, that’s cool, but I just wanted to post family or music pictures. But then the family or music stuff kind of gets a little short. Now we’re in this pandemic and I’m looking at this stuff I’m cooking and it’s like the most amazing shit that’s totally getting me going, I’m like — I gotta post a picture of this amazing marinade! Here’s my grill moment! (laughs)
It’s also the thing that I’m also gravitating towards, because I don’t have as much music in my life. I don’t get to practice two or three times a week right now. My practice is in the kitchen. It’s this funny thing where I’ve had some really good fun baking with my kids and having fun in the kitchen with my kids, I love that. I don’t have recipes, it’s all in my head, I just do everything and throw everything together, so it’s just like music for me, it’s like — I don’t have a plan you give me the riff, and let’s just fuckin do this.
You’re creating on the fly, it’s your creative expression right now.
Yeah, I enjoy the off the cuff moment, I don’t like to look at a song sheet and someone tells me Tony, you have to sing this. Tony, you have to cook this. No, I don’t, I want to do something else! (laughs)
Yes I’m the same way — if I see a recipe, I’ll try to cook it the first time the way that it’s written and as I’m making it, I’m like I can do this differently, I can do that differently.
Totally, I’m halfway through and I’ve already changed six things. My forte is I can open up the fridge, and look at the condiments and the spice rack, see that we only have one can of garbanzo beans and one can of chicken stock and one can of tomato paste and I’m like dude, I’m making a feast! I love the tangent we just went on, I know it wasn’t musical.
It kind of is though! Okay, so what’s your favorite thing that you’ve made on break that was something that you haven’t really made before?
You know what’s funny, I haven’t really busted out a super solid meat loaf in a lot of years. And last night… There’s this butcher that’s off of Third Street in San Francisco, I can’t remember the name right now, and I order all this meat from them they send me all this cryovaced amazing stuff, and they do this 70% amazing ground sirloin. And I got like three packages of this ground sirloin, and I was like ‘what am I going to make, I’ve already made burgers and all this stuff’ and then I was like ‘oh my god I’m going to make some meat loaf that’s really going to change worlds, it’s going to change universes.’
So I took the bacon from the same butcher shop, they smoke their own bacon, I ground it up and added it to the beef, and then I did my meat loaf recipe, which is like you know, milk, eggs, crackers, onions… And my kids were so MAD, dude! They were like HOW COME YOU’VE NEVER MADE THIS BEFORE! (laughs) They ate it the next morning with eggs, they made sandwiches the next day, they were loving it.
But yeah, of all the extravagant shit I’ve made, because I’ve made a bunch, the best thing that I’ve made that had the biggest impression, was the fucking meatloaf, with the ketchup and mustard sauce. White trash at its best. (laughs)
Classic. Did you serve tater tots on the side? That would have been perfect.
If I would have had tots, I would have mixed them INTO the meatloaf. You can use a potato product to substitute to replace the bread crumbs or the crackers.
This is good to know, we all have to get a little creative right now because you go to the store these days and you’re like, well, they’re out of this, and out of that, so I guess I’ll pick up some of this and see what we can do with it…. Alright so let’s talk about music a little bit, you know we could both talk about food all night (both laugh)
So you’re fronting Devil in California, and you just dropped — I had it on my calendar to go to your record release party — you just dropped your second full length album, was it ahead of schedule?
(Groans) I know, so painful, we were going to drop it when we did our big CD release party. We were going to have CDs, and vinyl, and merch, and all this shit, and then our wonderful pandemic just said, no, you guys worked really hard to put this together but fuck you… So I made the call and with the consent of all my bandmates, we said just release the goddamn thing. No date, no fanfare, just get it released digitally and get it out there.
If we’re able to do something special later, then great, but in the meantime we just wanted to get it out, for our own sanity. We needed to have it out after over a year of messing around with it, it was just time. And once we got our release date and release party and everything stolen away from us, I was like okay, I’m just putting this up on CD Baby and whenever it drops, it drops.
The hilarious part of that is that we also put together and released a fun shelter in place video for Calisexweed.
Oh yeah I saw that, that was good!
Nice! And the ironic thing was that somehow this all came together and the video released on the same day the album did.
I thought that was totally planned.
I wish it was… I mean, yes of course, that was totally planned and I one hundred percent timed it that way! (laughs) The irony of the rest of the irony of our ironic world that we were in at that moment…
Spending a year and a half trying to get this record out and when it’s ready, we get the show cancelled. I mean dude, it’s been just one hit after the other, but also man, just listen to the record because it speaks volumes. That record is probably the best musical moment I’ve put out in my entire life.
So even though it didn’t have fanfare, even though we’re in the middle of a pandemic, The Devil in California – Burning Beauty, I’m telling you man, by the time it was all said and done, and by the time we figured everything out, it was worth its weight in gold. I listen to it right now and it still blows me away.
It’s pure rock and roll.
Totally. All recorded live.
So tell me, I fell in love with Devil in California when you guys opened for Motor Sister at DNA Lounge, I don’t know if you remember that night.
Yeah I remember meeting you at that show!
Here’s what I remember about that night, is that I had bought a beer and the Motor Sister CD and only had like $7 left and I came up to the merch table, and said I only have $7 but I need this album. And I just played that album in my car for two weeks straight.
Dude yes I remember that! I was like man, I don’t care if you’re $3 short, I’d give you the goddamn thing for free if you came up and said “I love your music, I don’t have any money.” I would have been like ‘here, take it, enjoy the music, spread the word.’ And dude you’ve been to many shows, and we’ve hung out at other shows outside of The Devil too, just running into each other, you know.
Yeah man, I remember hanging out with you and your sister at one show.
Totally! Corrosion of Conformity!
At Slim’s! Oh man, Slim’s is gone, can you believe that?
Dude, don’t even get me started….
Yeah we don’t want to go down that rabbit hole.
No we can’t even go down that road right now, we gotta talk about positive things! We gotta stick to the Devil music positive stuff.
Tell me about the evolution since Longer Ride Down, how have you guys evolved since then?
So the beauty of where Burning Beauty lies is that, you know, this band has been through a lot of shit. We’ve transformed through a couple of drummers, we’ve had some difficulties with some band members, and we’ve had some legal moments that were difficult. We had to take care of that, and it was what it was.
The bottom line is that we worked through all of that stuff, we figured it out and the positive moments prevailed, and the people that are full of love and positive energy were the ones who came out on the other side. So then we did the EP [This is Not for You], which was something we had to do to get through a certain legal situation, and now this album is the first free album that we have to give to the masses and promote.
And we’ve also written a bunch of songs for the next album, so this is like ‘let’s meet a stride and move on.’ We’re still totally in love with this album and we’re going to promote it and use it wherever and whenever we can, but we just needed to get it out to the masses and give people something. I wasn’t going to sit on a full-length album that’s completely done and wait for some other moment to release it. Even though there was no publicity and no fanfare, and this was unlike every other release we’ve ever done. So when all this dies down, we can pick up that torch, and we can push that even more, but for us, Burning Beauty was something that we just needed to have under our belt.
We’re already virtually doing pre-production for the next record. I’m not saying we’re discounting Burning Beauty, because this is like our opus! This record is unbelievable, I mean it’s one of those things like, we recorded this whole thing in a live atmosphere, and we went about it in a different way than we’ve done anything before. This is not separate tracks, this is us all in a room together recording this stuff, and this approach resulted in all the main tracks that were kept.
And so that is a very key thing to talk about, because when I did the vocals for that up at the Panoramic House in Marin, I literally waited until the last four hours of the week and in that four hours, one track apiece, recorded the entire track, front to back. Normally we record the verse, then we nitpick the verse, and we fix everything. Then we record the chorus, and we nitpick the chorus, then we fix everything. So here we went for One Take Jake (laughs). Like every single time, we went in with the attitude that we’re gonna kill this shit.
It put all of us musicians on point in a very different way than we’re used to. We did some overdubs, we did a couple of backups, but mostly my vocals were one full sweep of the entire song, and that was kept. And it was not AutoTuned, and it was not auto corrected. And we did the same thing when we did the guitars, the bass, the drums, all in one fell swoop, and I would sing a scratch vocal track when we were doing all of those takes, and we were all in the same room. Like Led Zeppelin used to do back in the day, like Led Zeppelin II and whatnot.
So when you listen to this record, I’m hoping everyone can feel the individuality and the live moment that happened, and the fact that all of those tracks were like these one take big sweeping moments.
Yeah it absolutely has that old school, rock and roll, recorded live, vibe.
Exactly, it’s what Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin had done, it’s what Thin Lizzy had done, it’s what all of our southern rock heroes had done, you know, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet, all these guys would record in a room live, and rock that shit out. So we were approaching it this way for the first time ever. Michael Romanowski, he’s an amazing engineer and producer in the Bay Area, he was pivotal too in trying to figure all this out.
The other cool thing that we’re doing with this record is that we’re producing the entire thing in Dolby Atmos, which is an immersive audio format just now emerging on the scene since last year. So Dolby Atmos crushes 5.1, it’s basically 7.3. We’re probably one of the first probably fifty bands approaching this, and that’s a really cool space to be in. To be in the first run of rock musicians. Because it works great for pop, and DJs, you know, like for Deadmaus and all those guys, they can use that shit, but for us, for rock musicians, the Dolby Atmos approach is a little different.
So Michael Romanowski, his original approach with us when I asked him to work on our record, was that I want to do The Devil in California in Dolby Atmos. So there’s another aspect of this record that’s coming down the pike. Dolby themselves have used our music in demos in their board meetings, to demonstrate how rock bands sound using Dolby Atmos. There’s a tie-in there, my buddy Tim who is a guitar player in one of our other bands, Monte Casino, is the head of new music at Dolby, so he’s helping facilitate a lot of this stuff.
When you sit down in a Dolby Atmos studio and listen to this music, it’s not just mind blowing, it’s life changing. It is so immersive, it’s unbelievable. So I’m really looking forward to that too, and Michael is going to try to get us in a Grammy category for this technical level stuff. It’s such a cool thing, and it’s something that I don’t totally understand, but, I’m looking forward to the future.
So you’re right there at the ground floor, that’s exciting! So speaking of other bands, I know that you’re now the lead singer of State Line Empire, I see your hat there, I know you’re in Rusty Chains, I’ve been to one of your benefit shows… How many bands are you in, anyway? What the hell? (laughs)
Well technically I’m in four, I’m in State Line Empire, I’m in Devil in California, I’m also in a little heavy weird rock pop project that I’ve been in for 15 years called Monte Casino, and I play drums and sing in that one.
I was going to say, I swear I saw you playing drums in something!
Yeah so in Monte Casino I’m the drummer, I’m not the lead singer, I sing some backups,and we just finished a full length album. State Line Empire, as soon as COVID punched us in the vagina, we were just starting our pre-production. But, we did a bunch of really cool one-take recordings like we were just talking about, and there is something that’s going to come out soon, a video’s been made. We’re going to do the demo because it turned out so fucking good, so State Line Empire’s got some cool shit coming out. Devil in California, we just came out with that shelter in place video, we have the new full length album out.
And Rusty Chains, that’s the hot topic right now, because we’ve just decided to do our entire next Chris Cornell benefit as a shelter-in-place virtual show. So this is a huge undertaking that we’re coordinating with about twenty guests from famous bands and some other famous people. We’ve got all of our rock and roll friends showing up. They’re all wanting to do it and it’s going to be an undertaking like no other, because we’re recording and doing video for an entire concert and we’re figuring out how to release it only to people who donate. So that’s the difficult part.
You know we sold out the Verde Club last year, over five hundred people, and made thousands of dollars for suicide prevention. And we’re thinking this year we might need to switch gears a little bit and maybe do it for Suicide Prevention but also do it for COVID, because this is what people need right now.
Of course there’s no denying that suicide prevention is important, and that’s always been our gig, but we think we need to raise some money for COVID relief. We’re working out who we’re going to donate every cent to. No one is going to take one penny for anything, as usual. The last time we did it, no one took a cent, none of the guests, not the Rusty Chains crew, we didn’t have to pay rent or anything. We gave it all away, and it was a very successful moment. That’s what we do with all of our shows, Rusty Chains, we don’t keep the money, we never have, so even the shows that we play in Walnut Creek, just hanging out, we take all of that money and turn it around.
There’s a lot of cover bands out there making money off the backs of dead rock stars, and we just don’t feel that way. Our love for the Seattle scene, and our love for the lost souls, you know, Chris, Layne, Andy, Scott, all those fools that we love, you know, whether you’re from Seattle or not, when you’re in the 90s scene, we just can’t make money off of you, we can’t do it.
Those are my idols right there man.
Yeah, we see eye to eye musically so much. So I know you understand that whenever someone hands us cash, we don’t go YEAH! We go ‘oh shit, where are we going to put this money?’ You’ve seen us through the years and you know we’ve done the fire benefit [for the Santa Rosa firestorm], we’ve done the SBCA, the Chris Cornell benefit for three years. This year will be our fourth Chris and Vicky Cornell Foundation benefit. We did the first one a month after he passed away.
We want to make sure that Chris’ music lives on in the world, one, and two, and any money we make off the music he worked his entire life to make special, that does not go in our pockets. That goes somewhere special and that helps other humans. We don’t want to make money with this. I mean we’re all in other projects — Thomas is in Burn River Burn, Matt and Randy and I are in Rusty Chains as well as the Devil in California, and all of us have been playing together for years and years. And I started Rusty Chains over a decade ago, before any of this was popular, before it was cool to like Chris Cornell, and it was hard to get gigs back then. We were like ‘come on man, we play Alice in Chains too!’ (laughs)
Just the love for it, you know. I’m from Washington, I was born in Spokane, I lived that whole moment while it was going on.
Oh I didn’t know that.
Yeah, I was there for a lot of it, and for me, it has a super special place in my heart. I met all of those fools several times, and created some great acquaintance relationships with the guys in those bands. Sadly, many of them are dead now, you know, my favorite bands from Mother Love Bone, to Screaming Trees, to… I was a fanatic for all of it, and all we want to do is pay homage and pay tribute, you know? And I think it shows in our passion toward their music.
I think that comes through, I think people get it. I think that people who’ve been to the show, everyone in the room feels that that’s what you’re doing, you’re not capitalizing, you’re paying tribute to some of the greatest artists that ever lived.
It’s one hundred percent based in love, dude. When I’m on stage at these tributes, there’s many moments that you’ll see on video, when I have a hard time hitting a little note or something because I’m choked up.
Trust me you’re not the only one, we’re out in the audience right there with you.
It’s a funny thing, I’ll see it on video, oh yeah I was struggling right there, trying to pull it off, and I have to slap myself a little bit, come on man, not that I can’t hit the note, but sometimes I’m fucking verklempt, man.
It’s a beautiful thing. And let me know when that tribute’s coming up because I’m absolutely there.
We’re going to release it in the same timeframe, around Chris’ birthday, which is July 20, The reason we had it scheduled for July 18 was because it fell on a weekend, but now none of that matters. There was a possibility that we were going to be able to play this out in July, but we weren’t willing to roll the dice in the hopes that we might be able to do it live. So we chose to cut that string early and do this virtually and start planning it now so we can guarantee that this benefit will happen.
I mean think about it, even in July, am I going to be able to get five or six hundred people to get in close quarters with each other? No, I think I’m going to have a better chance of making some money for the people that need it, virtually. So we’re going to figure out a way to deliver it to people that donate, and we’re busting our brains trying to figure all that out now. We’ve already got like ten or fifteen amazing musical guests in line for this, dude, Thomas and I and Matt and Randy are freaking out, like ‘holy shit that guy got back to us?’
Well I think this is all working in your favor a little bit because there are so many musicians who are used to being booked who are now at home going ‘I need something to do.’
Yeah, I mean unfortunately a lot of musicians, their tours got canceled. So originally, I asked Craig Locicero from Dress the Dead, and he was like, ’no man, I got these festivals in Europe…’ and now he’s like, ‘yeah that shit’s cancelled.’ So he’s in, and Dave Rude from Tesla, he was like ‘can’t do it, I’ll be on tour,’ now he’s like ‘no problem.’ So it’s cool, we’re getting some other fools involved, guys from Machine Head, and maybe some guys from Vio-lence, Willie Nelson’s son, some of Chris Cornell’s ex-bandmates… We’re so stoked and so humbled by everyone’s willingness to be a part of it, it’s going to be amazing.
That’s awesome. I think too, that by July, so many people who have pivoted from touring or gigging locally, to gigging online and doing Facebook Lives and YouTube Lives, by July it’s going to be almost the norm, people will be used to gigging and watching shows online.
Well even if clubs are open and people are pretending that they’re going to pack a show, my heart tells me I shouldn’t rely on that. All of us felt the same way. Other than that, man, we’re striving forward with music, and doing the best we can, and everyone is stretching their wings and learning how to record at home, we’re all becoming these crappy engineers, you know the ones that all engineers fear (laughs).
Oh I’m aware (laughs)
Dude I’m terrible, I can do it at my house and I’m like ‘is this good enough?’ to Thomas. I never want to be an engineer, I’m the artist! (laughs).
Hey man, it’s so good catching up!
Yeah you too brother, thanks for hitting me up and man it’s just good to see your face, that shit matters right now. It’s so nice just to be able to talk shit, ramble and have some fun and see a smiling face because man, it’s just not happening right now. It’s weird, where normally I would see you every few months at shows and be like ‘Matt what’s up brother!’ It was always just this easy thing that you took for granted.
That’s the thing, we all took all that for granted. And now we need to trade recipes or something. I want your meat loaf recipe! (laughs)
Dude just hit me up! it’s so easy.
Alright thanks again for doing this, enjoy your family, man, enjoy your weekend.
Much love homie, cheers!
Burning Bridges is out digitally everywhere.
Rusty Chains is playing a virtual show from Walnut Creek on Saturday June 26.