Interview with Karma To Burn: The Mountain Kings

Reunited West Virginian instrumental stoner rock outfit Karma To Burn have just released their first album since 2002, the straight-ahead screamer Appalachian Incantation. Taking all the sans-bullshit rock and roll they could muster and putting it right to plastic, the trio of Rich Mullins (bass), Will Mecum (guitar) and Rob Oswald (drums) called on amigos Dan Davies (of Year Long Disaster, with whom Mullins also plays) and John Garcia (formerly of Kyuss, currently of Hermano) to contribute vocals on two tracks to the Napalm Records debut, and as Mullins confirms in the interview below, have a ton of plans for more good stuff to come.

At the time of writing, Karma To Burn have kicked off their first U.S. tour behind Appalachian Incantation, having recently returned from a stint in Europe that also included two sets at the legendary Roadburn festival in Tilburg, Netherlands. Looking forward after that to stints with New Jersey’s own Monster Magnet and new school metal mavens The Sword, plus more recording, Karma To Burn are nothing if they’re not industrious. Thinking about it now, I’m surprised Mullins had the time for the interview which follows below.

You’ve certainly been active the last couple years, with the touring, splits, DVD, signing to Napalm, etc., but with an album out now, do you feel like the reunion is complete?

Yeah. We kind of just went straight into ‘We’re a band again’ mode anyhow, so it really doesn’t feel like we were waiting to be like, ‘Oh, let’s see how this goes,’ and all that kind of stuff. It’s just been like, ‘Let’s get to work.’ We’ve just been trying to keep that ‘Let’s just keep working’ line to it.’

At what point did you actually start writing again?

It came right from the start. It was crazy, because we just got together and I was really curious how it was gonna sound and the second day of practice, we accidentally started writing ‘41.’ It was like, ‘Oh, that’s cool,’ and then it was done (laughs). One thing, we hadn’t seen each other in seven years (laughs), so when I picked Will up at the airport, I was nervous. Also, when I first plugged in my instrument, I was like, ‘Okay, I haven’t played with these guys in seven years,’ and I wanted to make sure I could still play like I used to. I’m pretty sure we all felt like that. It’s a weird thing, you know. I’m sure everybody’s been there (laughs). Similar situation.

It’s a strange thing to be tentative about, because before that, you’d done it for so long together.

And you’re brothers. You’re within two feet of each other every day for nine years.

By the time you got to recording Appalachian Incantation, what was the vibe in the studio like? Obviously that weirdness is long gone by then.

In the studio it was actually pretty relaxed. We usually have a lot of fun. We’re musicians; it’s really a great job. Being in the studio is probably one of the funnest parts. That’s basically what we do, just go in, be relaxed, have fun.

How long were in you in the studio?

When you’re doing instrumental records and it’s just a three-piece, I think, including mixdown, it was eight days. It’s just basically set up and go. Music is really simple in its core. It’s just melodies, and we’re like, let’s express them really cleanly—and by cleanly I mean you can hear the notes of the melody and don’t try to hide it under reverb (laughs). Of course, you do do some things that you hide here and there to give it little moments of odd character.

Speaking of little moments, what’s the dog sample at the beginning of ‘46’ all about?

(Laughs) That’s Rob’s ringtone. His Chihuahua. He got one. It’s not like the Paris Hilton Chihuahua. It’s probably one of the more unusual looking dogs I’ve ever seen. I don’t want to use the words ‘skin disease,’ but it’s a very bizarre looking dog and he’s got it trained to do a bunch of things, and that’s his ringtone. It actually went off, so we just moved it so it comes in in time with the beginning of the song. There it is.

How was Roadburn for you guys?

It was pretty crazy. Both times we played, we were really fortunate. Especially the second time, because John Garcia was doing the Kyuss thing next door, and we were like, ‘This is the weirdest fill-in time slot we’ve ever had,’ but the room ended up being filled and we had a good time with it. There was like 100 people that couldn’t get in outside, and that’s probably just a testament to how great that festival is. Great atmosphere. Karma To Burn played SXSW in 1997, and when we did that, it was us and Fu Manchu playing this weird place and SXSW kind of had a little bit of that vibe, where you could walk outside and it wasn’t so ‘Monster Energy Drink Presents…’ with this chewing gun, with this pair of jeans, it wasn’t like that. And Roadburn is still not incorporated, so it has all of the good parts.

You guys had done Europe before too since the reunion, and I know you’re doing U.S. dates, but have you noticed a different response in Europe as opposed to the States.

Obviously we’ve played Europe more than we have the States, so our crowd over there has doubled, which is great. Unexpected. In fact, it’s tripled in some places. It’s really cool to see us becoming a larger band over there. Then we come back to the U.S. where our crowds are the same as they were the first time we were back here, so we’ll see what we can do. I think we’re gonna do a tour with The Sword in the Fall in the U.S. too, so that will be good for rock fans everywhere.

I heard a rumor about Karma To Burn merging with Year Long Disaster.

Actually, Karma To Burn plays as Year Long Disaster now too. We do both things. And we are going to put Daniel in the band and do some vocal songs and do a new record before the end of the year, just because we’ve written so much stuff. We started writing with him and we’re really happy with the way it went. He’s a great guy, easy to work with, so why not?

Is that where ‘Waiting On The Western World’ came from?

Yeah. We all live together, so that makes it easy, too (laughs).

So, you were already pulling double duty, but at a Karma To Burn/Year Long Disaster show, everyone’s just up there now.

Yeah. We’re just playing for like two hours (laughs). It’s just an excuse to play longer.

Do you stop in the middle and say, ‘Okay, now we’re Year Long Disaster?’

We put on moustaches (laughs). We have to become more hipster for that band. People understand when the moustaches come in.

How does it feel to be finally working with vocals in Karma To Burn? I know it’s not the first time, but you’re doing it on your own terms now.

It’s cool. Honestly, we started out trying to do it, but we just couldn’t find the right person. Now it’s much better. And then, actually, to make it even more confusing, we’ve been talking with our friend John Garcia about a couple songs too. We’re gonna do that in September.

Is there a difference for you in writing songs for vocals?

I’ll be honest; it’s a little bit easier. It’s harder in one sense, because you’ve got to really trust the vocalist to hold their end, but at the same time, you don’t have to write as many riffs for one song. You have to save room for the vocals.

Would the material with John Garcia also be Karma To Burn?

Right now, the way we’re looking at it—this is all very tentative, because we just talked yesterday—is we’ll do one song with him that he’ll put out on his Garcia vs. Garcia, then one song that we would do as Karma To Burn.

And Karma To Burn and Year Long Disaster are still going to be two separate bands?

Yeah. We have two separate sets.

Does everyone live in California now?

If you called Will, you’d call a 304 area code, but he stays with Will and I in Laurel Canyon at the house there.

So the West Virginia thing…

Well, our hearts are there because we lived there for 30 years (laughs), but I’ve been out in L.A. now for five years. It’s always a big part still, but we don’t live there anymore. But Will does, kind of. When he has time off.

What are the plans for after Europe with Year Long Disaster? Is that when you’re doing the next batch of recording?

Yeah, we’re gonna finish writing the vocal record. We’re gonna work on it for a month straight and that should get it all wrapped up. We’re gonna go play it live for a couple months, then try to record it either right before the Sword shows or right after. We’re hoping near the end of September. After that, we’re supposed to do a Monster Magnet tour in Europe. I hope we get to do it all.

Appalachian Incantation is out now on Napalm Records. For more info, check out