Raucous, Unabashed Psych
Interview by Jack Gold-Molina
Isaiah Mitchell is known as the guitar player for Earthless, a raucous trio from San Diego that infuses punk, heavy rock, and psychedelia with unabashed, unadulterated musicality. He has been a figure in the California music scene since the mid-1990ís, playing in a variety of situations that showcase his versatility and creativity as a musician, working with some of the top blues, psych rock, and stoner rock players in Southern California and the Bay Area. The following interview took place in Portland during the course of a rare West Coast tour for Earthlessí LP and CD release of From The Ages.
Perfect Sound Forever: How did you get your start playing music?
Isaiah Mitchell: From my dad. He is a musician and music was always around when I was a kid. He was the catalyst for everything and he got me my first guitar when I was eight. I kept at it with little breaks here and there, but I started to take it seriously in junior high school. In the eighth grade, I started getting really into it and it hasnít stopped since.
I did take piano lessons when was four or five, and I was reading music then. It was fun, but I didnít stick with it for very long because you have to practice. Kids canít be told to do that stuff if they donít want to. They donít have minds like that.
PSF: Who were some of your early influences?
IM: Elvis Presley, Frank Zappa, Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Police, King Crimson. This is all stuff I remember when I was a kid. My dad would have band practice and a lot of those songs were played. I watched a lot of those videos at the house. Van Halenís ďRunning With The DevilĒ was pretty important. The music video of Joni Mitchellís ďShadows and LightĒ tour with Pat Metheny and Jaco Pastorious, Weather Report, all of that was from my dad. Then punk came in and other influences.
PSF: How would you describe your approach to playing early on?
IM: Early on, I wanted to play what I heard so I learned songs note for note to make it sound exactly like it does on the records. I was a perfectionist because I wanted to hear what I had already heard listening to Jimi Hendrix, Pantera, Minor Threat, and Bad Brains, so I tried to emulate it exactly. Whether it was sloppy or clean, I tried to duplicate exactly what I heard. I still have that trait, but I have eased up on it a bit.
PSF: How does that differ from the way you approach playing now?
IM: I am still a perfectionist, but I will let myself be myself a little bit more and take what I feel is my natural approach to something and make it my own. Itís great if you hear someone like Satriani, for instance. From my experience, he plays the exact solo live that he did on the record. I donít really like that. If someone is covering Hendrix, play the important stuff. Play the stuff that sticks out and is totally ear worn but you want to hear it in his phrasing, but donít copy everything note for note. I think most people do that. I just relax a lot more and not try to be a total mimic of what I hear. I let myself play a little bit more and let my own personality come through. I have grown in that way, I think.
PSF: Can you talk about some of the bands that you played in before Earthless?
IM: My first band, in seventh grade, was a band called Mortified. We played heavy metal covers by Slayer and Pantera and lots of Metallica, the early Metallica stuff. I played in a couple of punk bands in high school. God, I have played with so many different bands Ė reggae music, country music. I toured with a band called Drunk Horse. I never recorded with them, but that is one of my all time favorite bands still. Amazing songs. They are from Oakland, California. Then I played bass in Nebula.
The first serious band was with Mike (Eginton), called Lions of Judah. We only played in San Diego. That was a great band. I met the Nebula guys at one of our earliest shows. Lions of Judah opened up for Nebula, and they got in touch with me and asked me if I could play bass for a tour.
I played in a lot of blues bands. I toured pretty heavily with Candye Kane. She was an ex-porn star in the eighties. That was a really popular, very strong touring act, making records and winning awards. Another band in San Diego called Lady Dottie and the Diamonds, that was another blues rock band. That was a lot of fun Ė young white guys with, now, a maybe 70 year-old black lady singing. It was pretty awesome. I had never heard of that before, but you see that a lot now, younger white dudes with a black soul singer fronting the band. We did that a long time ago, but they are still doing it. They have been a band for a while. I played with my buddy Phil Manley in the bands Mitchell Manley and Life Coach, (for) a little bit.
PSF: How did Earthless come together?
IM: I was living in the Bay Area around 2001-2002. I was buddies with Mike because we played in Lions of Judah, and him and Mario (Rubalcaba) were buddies. I knew Mario from the guitar shop that I worked at because he was in a band with one of my co-workers, so I had seen him around. I was down (in San Diego) for Christmas holiday, and Mike asked me, ďHey, do you want to jam with Mario and I?Ē I am like, ďSure.Ē So we jammed at Mikeís garage. We all had a really good time, and we thought it was awesome. It was a dream for me to play with Mario because he was one of my all time favorite drummers. I would go to shows just to watch him play drums, like when he was playing for Thingy or Clikatat. It was a total treat. We jammed and we liked it, so we did it again and we played a show, and we kept going. I moved back to San Diego.
PSF: Earthless is known for its tours of Europe, for example having played Roadburn a few times and recording a live album there. How early in the bandís career did you start touring?
IM: I think it was probably 2006 or 2007. It all started when the Rhythms From A Cosmic Sky record came out. We started in 2002, but we only played locally. By that time, we went up to Los Angeles and played some shows. We did do that, (and) go to L.A. and maybe up to San Francisco, but very, very minimally. But then, when we put the record out, we got offers of playing festivals, like the CMJís and South by Southwest. All of that kind of stuff started coming, so we went for it. The first tour was with the Saviours. They are really good friends of ours. So, thatís a six-year touring career so far, going for it in Europe and Australia.
PSF: How do you think your playing has evolved over the years, given the kind of work that you have done with Earthless?
IM: I think I am getting more relaxed, and maybe becoming a better listener and a better phraser, and getting better rhythmically. I take the time to listen to what is going on and not be in so much of a hurry. It is always a question of being tasteful. That whole thing that Miles Davis said, that itís not the notes that you play, itís the notes that you donít play, I really like that train of thought when it comes to music because you donít need a million notes. It is usually the really tasteful ones that, used sparingly, are the most effective. Fast stuff is cool too. I think I am seasoning, getting better and ageing, taking it slower, and trying to listen more. I think I am getting better at that, but it is a fucking life long quest. Itís got to be. But, god damn, B.B. King had it down way early! He had it from the start.
PSF: Can you talk about some of your other projects like Golden Void and Black Elk Medicine Band?
IM: Golden Void is a project that I helped start with two of my high school friends, Justin Pinkerton and Aaron Morgan, and then my wife, Camilla Saufley-Mitchell, she jumped on board too. We needed a keyboard player and we needed help recording, to fill out the sound and it is nice to hear keyboards, so she joined the band. Justin, the drummer, writes ninety percent of the songs.
PSF: Does he write the lyrics?
IM: I write all of the lyrics. I did come up with all of the melodies on the last record. We will add stuff like bridges and we will tweak times to make it work out, but he brings in the skeletons, for the most part, except for ďAtlantis.Ē I will take credit for that. But he is a great songwriter. Itís great because the drummer is writing the songs. Itís pretty rad. I think it is a great dynamic. He has always been one of my best friends. Him and I were in our punk bands together in junior high school and high school, so we go way back. We have been playing music together for 20 years now. Aaron played in other bands that my bands in junior high school played with. Aaron also played with Justin in a band called Roots of Orchis.
That is a lot of fun and I get to sing in that. It is a good time. People like the record for the most part, which is awesome. It is nice to have gone out on a limb and do something else, and release something. People liking it, that was really good for confidence for myself. Iím kind of shy. It is good to see that you can do other stuff and people will like it. I love Earthless, but it doesnít sum me up as far as what I want to play. It is a part of me, but there is so much more. That is why we all play in different bands. There is so much music, so many styles.
Black Elk Medicine Band, my wife inspired me to do a solo thing. It started off being like a psychedelic surf record that I am still trying to finish. I have put out 7Ēs and did a tour in Australia, but itís a work in progress. I am still writing for the record. It is stuff that I want to play and write that doesnít really go into the world of Earthless or Golden Void. It wouldnít really fit there, so it is just another outlet. I have been attracted for a long time to Native American culture. Black Elk was a great healer and a great holy man, a great medicine man, and it is something that I wanted to connect with. There will be a solo record coming out soon, hopefully really soon. There is no rush, but I need to get on it. I need to finish it.
PSF: Do you have any musical prospects that you would like to pursue that you havenít already?
IM: Primarily just release my own full-length solo record. That is at the top of the heap for me right now. If people donít like it, thatís fine. Not everybody likes everything, that is a given. If people are stoked on it that is going to make me feel good and make me want to do more of it. That is definitely my goal for now.
PSF: What can you recommend for other artists who want to record and tour?
IM: Try to really know who you are in a band with. It is a lot better to get along with people than not get along with people. I have been in both boats. Currently, I am in a good boat with getting along with my band mates. Have as much fun as possible. Donít let peopleís opinions put you down. If you read a bad press review, you are going to get them, so the fuck what? It happens to everybody. Led Zeppelin got a shit ton of horrible press reviews, and they are amazing.
Try not to take it so seriously that you are going to be affected by what someone else thinks. You should do it for yourself because you love it, you love the people that you are in a band with, and you really like playing music and traveling and making music. Just love what you do. I have never been the type of person that it is about the party or it is about getting girls or any of that. That is not how it works for me. I do this because I love playing music. I love it that other people love what I am doing, and I feel really blessed. Find the love in it, find the enjoyment in it, hone in on that and stick with that.
If you are recording a record, try not to be too judgmental. Have other people there to tell you when you donít need to do any more overdubs, because it will wrack your brain. (Laughs) I could keep overdoing a guitar solo for hours. I have to have other people there that are like, ďNo, thatís totally good. That was awesome!Ē Cool, like, leave it alone. Donít overdo it. Neil Young is even like, ďTwo takes, thatís it. Weíre moving on.Ē Keep it fresh. Keep inspired.
Donít ruin your career. Donít be a total fuck up, donít be an asshole. Be grateful that people are coming to see you play and people that buy your records want to know what you think about stuff. Be grateful because it is a gift. Not everyone is as fortunate. Everyone is fortunate in their own ways, but I am just grateful that I get to do what I get to do. Be nice to people. (Laughs) Be grateful that we have electricity and we can play loud amplifiers.
See Isaiah Mitchell's homepage
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