Earthlings? Rewriting the Stoner Rock Rules

So the following is a live review from 1 April, 2017. Why so long? Good question. It was unfortunately rejected – *sniff* – by another publication. So here is my review of Earthlings?, Hoxton Bar & Kitchen, for your reading pleasure:

“Don’t get quiet, get weird,” states Kayley, the lead singer of tonight’s support band Sky Valley Mistress – a bluesy stoner rock band from the UK – and it pretty much sets the tone for the evening. She’s quoting Dave Catching, the guitarist and producer who comprises half of our headliners, legendarily eclectic and experimental oddballs Earthlings?. Known for his work with Eagles of Death Metal, QOTSA, Masters of Reality and pretty much every other great band from the Joshua Tree Desert scene, Catching is standing in the crowd tonight as Kayley tells us about recording their latest album with him at Rancho De Luna studios, a location with a semi-mythical status amongst stoner rock fans. That’s a genuine member of stoner rock royalty stood a metre away from me in the 300-capacity Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen, looking entirely inconspicuous with his majestic white beard, permanent sunglasses, and double-denim, nodding and clapping along enthusiastically. While, later, he’s clearly got more than a touch of the classic rockstar to him in his on-stage idiom, for now Catching is chatting amiably with the crowd, and looking genuinely chuffed to watch his young protégés doing their thing.

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It seems that Catching’s advice as producer pushed Sky Valley Mistress down stranger avenues than their usual straight-up ballsy-bluesy rock affair, with Kayley insisting that tonight they’re doing something different. Presumably this extra weirdness is the swirly organs, the squelchy synth, pitter-patter cymbals, and dramatic shifts from up-beat rock to plodding drone with an Arabian-Scale feel. The keys to their sound are Kayley’s voice, powerful, feisty, and confident, mixed with hard-hitting, strident rhythms from their drummer’s stripped-down kit – both aspects I enjoy, alongside the twists and turns of their songs. Clad all in white (which incidentally was how Earthlings? dressed last time they played in London, over ten years ago) with black boots, Clockwork Orange style, Sky Valley Mistress certainly mean business, yet I can’t help but think they might heed Catching’s advice and get weirder still to distinguish themselves from the plethora of quality stoner rock droogs around at the moment.

Earthlings? on the other hand don’t need to be told to get weird. Formed in 1994 by Catching, Pete Stahl (who played in Scream alongside Dave Grohl, and later founded blues-doom legends Goatsnake), and the late great Fred Drake (co-founder of Rancho De Luna) to whom one song is dedicated tonight, Earthlings? have been baffling and delighting listeners for over two decades. With just three albums and a smattering of EPs during this time, they combine the most robotic parts of Krautrock with surrealist blues, odd acoustic ditties, meandering cosmic explorations, quirky punk-rock, and whatever else they fancy chucking in along the way. Earthlings? haven’t played London since 2002, when I saw them playing the Borderline, Camden. That gig has now entered my personal mythology, and I’ve been tirelessly boring my friends with the tale for over a decade. It was a school night. I should have been revising. I was dressed, to quote This Is Spinal Tap, like an Australian’s nightmare. It was so bohemian that people were sitting on the floor and luxuriating in these halcyon days before the smoking ban. I may or may not have been standing next to Nick Oliveri. The band had all kinds of trippy stuff projected onto their white suits. Then it turned out it really was Nick Oliveri striding onstage – fortunately clothed in more than just a shit-eating grin – to play bass on ‘Stungun’, my favourite Earthlings? song. It was awesome.

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So my expectations were high for Earthlings?’ return. Did they disappoint? Of course not. But, like the Desert Sessions collective with which they’re closely associated, Earthlings? have always been an experimental kind of project, doing nothing predictably and making few concessions to the listener. So they begin with ‘Lifeboat’ from second album Human Beans (2000), a quiet, pretty, acoustic ballad. But it’s never that simple. Prior to this they’ve eased us in with much nob twiddling, blips, bleeps and drones – think ambient spacecraft interior – with Catching gurning a greeting to us in ‘Old London Town’ through his Talk-Box-wired Les Paul – clearly channelling his inner Slash – before segueing into Stahl’s delicate acoustic chords. And it is a pretty song – “You thought it was a lifeboat,” Stahl sings in his gloriously warm and smoky voice, “but you’re wrong” – yet it’s characteristically irreverent, too: “you thought you’d live forever/but you won’t/bet you won’t. I’ve got good news… not really/I just wanted to lighten things up.” And, yes, Stahl’s chords underneath are gentle, but Catching’s accompanying off-kilter, synth bass-lines are not. But somehow this all works, which is pretty much how I feel about everything Earthlings? do: it will be eccentric, often all-out batshit, and even slightly frustrating at times, but it’s their lovable unpredictability and slightly ramshackle charm that makes them so great.

For all of their pulp sci-fi aesthetics, quirky lyrics, and bizarre generic combinations, though, it’s easy to forget that Pete Stahl has an amazing voice, and is something of a wizard on the harmonica, not to mention a strong song writer. In his ‘day job’ in Goatsnake, stood in front of Greg Anderson’s monolithic guitar stacks, Stahl has more sonic space to demonstrate the full power of his voice. Both times I’ve seen Earthlings? they’ve performed their rather unlikely electronica-drone version of ‘Johnny B Goode’ – and this 12-Bar, rock’n’roll classic is a clue to the glue that bonds the rag-tag scraps of Earthlings? together, for pretty much everything Stahl does is infused with the blues. While hundreds of bands are built using the familiar bricks of the pentatonic scale – and that’s no bad thing – to me, Goatsnake are distinguished from many other doom bands by the feeling, the soul if you like, Stahl puts into his performances. And it’s no different for Earthlings?. For all of the extra-terrestrial alterity suggested by their name and the weirder, helium-voiced, Clangers moments of their albums, there’s a warm, human core that really appeals to me.

Tonight’s definitely a bit different to the last time they played London. For a start, their drummer couldn’t make this gig so Catching’s playing beats through his phone. This isn’t too strange, as they’ve been experimenting with drum machines throughout their career, something that adds an up-beat danceable quality to many of their tracks. If this starts off sounding a little cheesy sometimes then Catching’s crunching chords, tastefully eccentric lead, and sheer exuberance, mixed with Stahl’s chilled passion always win you over by the end. Earthlings? don’t play ‘Stungun’ tonight – a bit of a shame – or some other vaguely more straight-up rock tracks, probably due to lack of a human drummer. They were at least a three-piece last time – perhaps with Fred Drake in tow – if not larger, and I recall more accordions and cowboy hats. Tonight Catching and Stahl have a small arsenal of keyboards, effects pedals, samplers, and other miscellaneous noise-boxes alongside their guitars, and Stahl treats us to short bursts of harmonica every now and then, which makes for a different but no less interesting performance.

‘Gentle Grace’, Earthlings?’ closing track, is – despite Catching’s earlier injunction against quietness – a soft ballad with a touch of Pink Floyd spaceyness, and when Stahl croons his last lines, “How long ‘til I quit?”, we’re all hoping it ain’t so. It’s a shame the sound is hit-and-miss during both Sky Valley Mistress and Earthlings?, the support professionally playing through the cutting out of mics and keys, while the headlining duo’s nutcase orchestra was occasionally distractingly unbalanced. Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen, a kind of hipster black hole, is a suitably cool and quirky venue in some respects (I admit to eyeing up the art print vending machine) although this dodgy sound, mixed with the incongruous, Craig-David-clubbing crowd through whom we walked after the gig, haven’t exactly left me hugely enamoured with the place.

One of Earthlings?’ catchiest new tunes asks ‘Who wrote the stoner rock rules?’, and it’s a question we could discuss all day. But it’s clear to me that, not only have Earthlings? had considerable influence on writing said rules, they’ve really been rewriting them as they go. Because, let’s be honest, calling Earthlings? stoner rock seems a bit lazy – they’ve never been entirely riff-based, or pure psych-out improv, or doom-heavy. They sound essentially nothing like Fu Manchu or Nebula or Kyuss. But, listening to ‘Saving Up For My Spaceship’ or ‘Mars On Fire’ tonight, stand-out tracks from their self-titled debut, Earthlings? still evoke that sense of hazy, shimmering mirages, of surreal Peyote visions, and the drowsy expansiveness of the desert that’s so crucial to the genre.

Earthlings? are probably destined to remain a cult band, quietly, weirdly rewriting the rules, somewhere out there in the alien desert – and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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