Exclusive Interview – Tony Malson of The Devil in California

Tony Malson by Wyman Choy

Tony Malson (photo credit: Wyman Choy)

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.


The Devil in California
State Line Empire
Rusty Chains
Monte Casino

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Mojo’s Pick of the Week – Acid Communion by Bone Church

Bone Church - Acid CommunionDirty, fuzzy guitars? Check.
Riffy Black Sabbath influence? Check.
Ballsy, in your face energy? Check.
Heavy blues groove? Check.

The sophomore album from Connecticut proto-metal rockers Bone Church checks all the 70s-influenced stoner rock boxes and takes them up a notch. Jack Rune’s wailing, bluesy vocals fit perfectly with the Zeppelin-Sabbath heavy grooves laid down by guitarists Dan Sefcik and Nick Firine, rounded out by the battery of bassist Pat Good and drummer Rob Sickinger. Good stuff, go get it!

Out on Ripple Music March 2020

Standout tracks: Heavy Heaven, Witch in the Cellar, Acid Communion

Find Bone Church on the interwebz


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Exclusive Interview – Mariana Fiel of High Priestess

Mariana Fiel by Jusu Lahti

Mariana Fiel (photo: Jusu Lahti)

Mariana Fiel is the founding member of Los Angeles doom band High Priestess. She provides the band’s pulsing bass groove and shares lead vocal duties with guitarist Katie Gilchrest, while Megan “Whiplash” Mullins rounds out the trio with her thundering drums. Together they weave the hypnotic fuzz doom magic of one of LA’s great up and coming heavy bands. I was lucky enough to get Mariana to answer some questions for me ahead of the release of their sophomore album Casting the Circle, due out on Ripple Music in April 2020.

Mojo: Hi Mariana! Thanks for taking the time. Tell us a little about how you put the band together and what your hopes were for your project.

MF: The original concept for the band was to be a bass and drum duo. An ad was placed with some of the influences of the sound I was interested in developing and what I was looking for in a drummer. I believe there’s a tendency to think that playing drums in a doom band is super easy, but there’s so much to be said about filling in those slow tempos, keeping the time and making them interesting, that I find that it might be actually harder. Luckily, Megan saw the ad (by chance!) and filled up all those check marks and then some!

Meanwhile — even before I got the email from Megan — Katie was visiting Los Angeles and wondering what the music scene was about, so she was also searching band ads and saw mine. She responded with something along the lines of “I know you’re not looking for a guitar player but this sounds like my dream project” and sent along a couple of links to Arcane Lore (the band she was in back on the east coast) showing her guitar skills that everyone is now not only aware of, but that has grown to know and love, and I just couldn’t pass on that sort of powerhouse.

I feel extremely lucky that the Universe brought these two exceptional human beings into my life to make music with, because they strongly elevate and add so much more to the sound I was originally trying to achieve.

High Priestess Purple by C Jones

High Priestess (credit: C Jones)

I totally agree! Your debut album received a lot of well-deserved praise. What may be surprising to some is that you got noticed and signed on the basis of your self-produced demo, how did that come about?

Well, our songs were somewhat ready, so we decided to just go ahead and record the instrumental portion of the tracks at our practice space with Katie’s mobile recording studio. We originally intended it to be just a lo-fi recording, and were planning on professionally record the songs again in the future.

Katie has a masters in music technology, so she used her expertise to capture our sound, and just recording in our practice space turned out much better than we had anticipated.
The song Mother Forgive Me got a complete change on the vocal arrangements on the day we were recording vocals. I was singing the original arrangement and it just didn’t feel completely right, so i turned to Katie and asked “do you mind if i try something different really quick? Just to see if it fits?” and thankfully it fit and finally felt complete and finished.

Nice. It sounds like you recorded the new album Casting the Circle in record time, tell us a little about that.

We wrote a majority of the new songs before going on the European tour with Cities of Mars. While on tour, we incorporated those news songs in some of our shows, so we wanted to record them as soon as we got back, to have that “fresh off the tour” energy. Upon our return back to the US, we started fleshing out the Side B tracks, and before you knew it, we were ready! The basic guitar, bass, and drums instrumental was recorded in two back to back takes of each song and my vocals were split in two separate sessions (Side A – one session; Side B – second session). We also had a separate session for percussion textures overdubs, and from there, Katie locked herself in a dungeon for a month and a half working on guitar and keyboard overdubs, her vocals, mixing and mastering.

That sounds intense! How would you say the sound of High Priestess has evolved since your self-titled 2018 debut?

Hmmm… that’s a great question. It feels darker than the debut album. I feel like maybe on the first album there was a sense of impending doom creeping around the corner that could come in at any moment, while this one just has that constant veil of darkness draped all over the songs.

I can’t wait to hear it. Has being on the Ripple Music label helped your journey as a band?

Absolutely! They’re extremely supportive of our band and are constantly looking out for us. I had originally posted our demo on a Facebook group and Christine from Tridroid Records gave it a listen and tipped us off to Ripple!

We have some favorite bands in common, from Judas Priest and Sleep to the lesser known Messa, who are amazing. Who are some of your other favorites and influences?

OM… Al Cisneros just makes such beautiful trance inducing music with no frills. Every single note and every single tempo is just perfect. King Crimson (Late 60’s / early 70’s era). The Talking Drum will forever be on my top 10 of songs that I could listen to over and over again and never get tired of it. The constant crescendo on that track is just mind blowing.
Sepultura (Max Cavalera era) and it’s funny because I was telling Megan how much I love them, specially for Igor Cavalera’s balance between thrash and complex tribal grooves to it, and I really think Megan kind of channeled that vibe on this album but in her own way.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Emma Ruth Rundle, Tom Waits, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Harvey Milk, KARP, Ravi Shankar, PJ Harvey, Alice In Chains, Unsane, Soundgarden and Earth lately. Oh and of course, Kate Bush. I love her and some people don’t seem to understand that. The woman is absolutely brilliant.

That is an impressive list! Now, you mentioned that last year you did a European tour with Cities of Mars, I know you also played Desertfest in London, were there any highlights from that tour?

Desertfest London was absolutely a highlight! I got to see so many friends I haven’t seen since I moved to the US! I was extremely confused when I stepped up on stage and realized the room was completely packed for us. I had noticed a line outside but I honestly thought it was to the bathroom. That whole experience was absolutely the highlight of the tour. Another highlight was sitting at a green room in Chemnitz (Karl-Marx-Stadt), Germany, eating pasta and listening to Enya with Cities of Mars.

That sounds perfect! Speaking of tours, I love that you do slightly unusual and unique merch to sell at your booth — I have a High Priestess prayer candle for instance — and you offered your last album on cassette. Are you doing anything like that with your new album?

We’ll definitely have some more elaborate candles that I’ll be adding some magick to for the new album. We’ll also have cassettes again, done by the awesome Tridroid Records. We’ll have some more mugs, because contrary to what Marie Kondo might say, you can’t have too many.

Speaking of not having too many, you guys even came out with your own High Priestess Fuzz Pedal in conjunction with Gremlin Machines, any chance we’ll see more pedals in the future or was this a one-time thing?

Paul at Gremlin Noise Machines is amazing. We’ve had the pedal for a while and I’m still blown away by it. We’re not currently planning on collaborating on another pedal, but who knows what the future might bring?

High Priestess Graveyard by Jusu Lahti

High Priestess (photo: Jusu Lahti)

I feel like you are part of a Golden Age, both of heavy music and women in heavy music. How do you feel about the state of heavy music right now?

It’s pretty spectacular, isn’t it? It’s refreshing to see all these women / woman identifying heavy bands nowadays. It was so scarce before. You had Acid King, Subarachnoid Space and Bottom from the Bay Area, Grey from Seattle and a couple more bands around, but that was about it. Nowadays you have a stunning abundance of powerful, talented and creative women in the spotlight and as headliners of the stoner / psych / doom scene and it’s beautiful! Now we just need to drop the “female fronted” thing, because women musicians are not a musical gender.

Hear hear! Okay, last question – favorite LA restaurant?

This is probably the hardest question! There are so many great places in LA. It’s like asking what my favorite bar is… it depends on what you’re in the mood for!

I’ll say this though: my favorite place to eat is at home. I live with this fantastic woman (and her ok husband) that comes home from work every night and cooks a whole elaborate meal for us. I don’t know how she does it, because when I get home from work all I want to do is lay down for a second and center myself and leave the stress from the job behind, but she just slips into some comfy clothes and cooks us these amazing and delicious meals that are infused with love, and absolutely no restaurant beats that.

That’s awesome! Thank you Mariana for taking the time and I can’t wait to see you all on tour!

Casting the Circle releases on Ripple Music on April 10, 2020

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