Inside A Thick Metal Skull
The instrumental trio Yawning Man are the quintessential Californian desert rock band, though you might be surprised to hear guitarist Gary Arce discuss his influences today and find out they include almost none of the hard-driving stoner rock and metal for which the desert has become known in Yawning Man’s wake and are closer to those of an indie band hell-bent on atmospherics.
It’s a new context in which to understand Yawning Man, who’ve been together now for more than two full decades and who recently returned from a European tour that unfortunately did not include bassist Mario Lalli (Fatso Jetson) alongside Arce and drummer Alfredo Hernandez (ex-Kyuss) for health reasons, only to release a stellar new album in the form of Nomadic Pursuits. Longtime fans of the band revel in the spontaneous and oft-jammed feel of the songs, and as ever, Arce’s guitar tone is the core around which the band is built.
In the interview below, Arce discusses going to Europe without Lalli, recording Nomadic Pursuits and indeed shouts out the players who inspired him to pick up a guitar in the first place. Please enjoy.
You guys recently got back from a European tour. How were the shows?
It was really good. We played some really big shows, then right in the middle somewhere, we were supposed to play Russia, and it was kind of a last-minute thing, so what ended up happening was we couldn’t do it and we played some really weird gig in the middle in East Germany. We played a biker party (laughs). It was pretty trippy. German bikers. They didn’t speak a word of English, and then there’s us. The opening act, I don’t know who he was, but he was a German rock/folk singer that did covers of Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd, and he didn’t speak a word of English, but he’d learned the words. It was bizarre, dude. We were just sitting there, drinking beer, tripping out (laughs). He wanted us to be his backup band. Yawning Man. I don’t really do cover songs, I’ve never done cover songs, but I had a couple beers in me, so I went for it, and me and Alfredo [Hernandez] and Zach [Slater] ended up doing “Sweet Home Alabama” with this Germany guy doing vocals. I don’t even know the song, I was just improvising over the top of it. I wish it was on film, just to have it. That was the highlight of the tour, I think. Watching us do this song with this German guy. Trippy.
Who played bass on the tour?
Zach. Mario just didn’t feel well, and Zach was given short notice, but he pulled it off. He’s a great bass player, a great musician. I think a couple times he got kind of lost with me, because I go off on my guitar a little bit. I tend to improvise a bit, so I think he was kind of getting lost at a couple of the shows when I started jamming out. He was looking at me like, “Dude, where you goin,’ bro?” But Mario’s used to me going off.
Unfortunately, we’ve gone to Europe four times, and Mario’s only gone once. We went last year for a week. First time we went was with Billy [Cordell]. He went with us the first two tours, Mario went with us for the third tour for a week, and this last one was Zach.
You have so many other bands, projects and collaborations. Is there something special for you about returning to Yawning Man?
Yeah. It’s cool, because Yawning Man’s like the base band. Playing with Mario and Alfredo’s always really cool, because I’ve known those guys most of my life. It’s kind of the base band, but I’ve always got my head up—like that band I did, Ten East, kind of happened off the cuff. The first Ten East was me, Brant [Bjork], Mario and Bill [Stinson], and that whole record was done in half a day. It was just all jams.
Do you have a preference for how you work, going in and jamming out or taking more time to write? Which way was Nomadic Pursuits done?
Nomadic Pursuits was half and half. I had these ideas in my head and me and Alfredo would jam at his house, just me and him, for like half the songs. We worked out songs there at his house, and Mario walked in and he learned the songs in a couple days, and we went in off the cuff. We did each song two times, and we took the one that was the best. A lot of that record is improvised, just me and Mario going here and there. We work that way a lot. A lot of it is basically improvised.
Being in all these projects together, how has working with him changed over the years?
He moved out of the desert a while ago, so I’m a little bummed on that. Back when he was in the desert, me and him were jamming almost every day, but since he’s moved, it’s kind of hard now. Now when we record, it’s a rushed process. A lot of it is improvised because of that also. He works a lot, so when we go in, we have to do it right then and there, and we jam it out. When we did this last record, it was crazy. Our first day, we got there kind of late, and we jammed a little bit, and recorded it, and the next day, he showed up and he told me and Alfredo he could only jam an hour, then he had to leave, so we just went in and went for it. The whole record was pretty much jamming. We jammed half on ideas. It sounds cool though, I’m happy with it.
You get a good balance of energy and spontaneity.
You can hear it, the way it’s half improvised. You can tell, because there’s some parts I can hear where I’m lost (laughs), but I’m like, “Okay, where’s it going now?”
I always hate asking this question because I don’t want it to seem like I’m just asking what equipment you use, but your tone is like a signature. You can pick it out right away. Can you talk a little bit about how you developed your tone over the years?
I don’t know, dude. Honestly, I don’t know how I get my tone. I’m really into Bauhaus. Seriously. I grew up in the early ‘80s, listening to bands like Bauhaus and I’ve always loved the way that band has their thing, so I’ve always modeled my sound after them. I don’t know if you can hear it. The guitar player is Daniel Ash who later formed Love and Rockets. That guy’s an awesome guitar player, and he’s always had this tone that I’ve loved since I was a kid. When I finally got a guitar, I experimented around a lot with different effects and pedals, and I came near to what he does. I don’t want to sound just like him (laughs), but that’s one of my biggest influences, actually, is Bauhaus.
That’s interesting. I wouldn’t have picked that out. Ever.
If you listen to Yawning Man and you listen to Bauhaus, Southern Death Cult, Lords Of The New Church, you’ll hear it. Yawning Man always gets caught up in this desert rock, stoner rock stuff, and I’ve never really listened to that kind of music. I’ve never been into that kind of heavy doom music. I don’t know how Yawning Man got caught up in doom and all that stuff, because I’m the opposite. How it happened is a mystery to me.
I grew up in the early ‘80s, and I was brought up on hardcore stuff, and later I got into Bauhaus, like I said, but this whole thing with doom and this and all these bands, I’m just kind of, “Where did this come from, bro?” (Laughs)
Any other projects or collaborations coming up?
Not really. Right now I’m just concentrating on this whole thing with the guys in England. We just got back [from Europe], and that’s pretty much it for right now as far as music goes. I know Yawning Man’s going back to Europe in April.
Oh yeah? You doing Roadburn?
Yeah. I’ve talked with Walter and we’re invited to Roadburn, and we’re gonna work around that whole thing with him.
Is Mario going to go?
He said he’s going. When I spoke to him a couple days ago, he said he’s definitely going. He said this was the last time he’s going to miss a Yawning Man tour. That’s his last time. From now on he’s in the band and he doesn’t want to be left out.