Words by David C. Obenour
Few genres are able to convey themselves so sonically succinct as stoner metal. Deep, sludgey riffs that find a groove and hammer it home through volume and repetition, when done well – these songs omit their own contact buzz from your speakers.
Doing it well is the trio of Marijuana Johnson who seem to have perfected their craft on Gem City Kush. If these titles weren’t enough to tell you already, any thought for subtlety is ground out quickly and what remains is some of heaviest hits from your favorite strains of punk, classic rock and even a slight edge of funk. Let her rip.
Off Shelf: It’s a weird time to be alive. Before getting into anything, I wanted to ask, how are you all holding up?
Matt Clark: We’ve been holding up pretty good. It’s been a challenge, keeping things going during the pandemic, but we somehow managed to write, record, and release an album—so, that’s pretty good.
OS: You guys do such a great job embodying it, I want to talk about stoner rock for a bit. First off, can I ask, what does the genre mean to you? What sonically draws you to it?
Ash Ashbrook: To me, it’s just modern “classic” rock. What drew me to it was listening to Hendrix, and Cream, and Sabbath.
Elliott Harrell: The modern stoner rock genre is kind of a worship/tribute genre for punk kids, rock kids, that lets us sort of honor those old bands.
MC: I agree with these guys, I think ultimately stoner rock is really just the extension of what rock music was doing in the 70s. So many new genres came out of that era, and obviously morphed into other things, but stoner rock keeps the loud, thundering groove going. What drew me to it, honestly, was the low end sound.
OS: What are some of your favorite stoner metal bands?
AA: Honestly, I don’t even listen to too much stoner rock right now. I listen to a lot of R&B, blues, and soul music.
EH: Bongzilla, Sleep, Boris…Actually, Boris was really the band that showed us you can play these sort of rocking, faster tempo songs but still be super heavy at the same time.
MC: Yeah, I’m the opposite of Ashley, because I listen to a shit ton of stoner, doom, and sludge bands. Electric Wizard, Church of Misery, Sleep, of course Black Sabbath. But I also spend a lot of time listening to new bands. That Bongtower record, Oscillator, was an amazing surprise. There’s a ton of new stoner/doom bands making great shit right now, so that’s exciting. There’s new stuff every week, it’s incredible.
OS: Loud seems like a real tenet of stoner rock. I’m thinking about huge stacks of Orange amplifiers. How important is loud to you and beyond it just being cool, why?
AA: Well, Matt and I are permanently deaf now because of Elliott’s absurdly huge drum kit…and that’s at practice. So we’re loud. We’ve gotta push that air.
MC: I didn’t need to hear anything other than loud music anyway. But hell yeah, loud is important! Motorhead was the loudest band in the world, and easily one of the best rock bands to ever exist. That “loudness” at a live show is just about bringing the audience into this crazy, sonic experience.
EH: This genre, with live shows, it’s really about feeling the music physically. Letting the bass and drums hit you in the chest—the heavy, repetitive riffs just letting people get into a groove.
OS: I was thinking this about fantasy metal the other day, how even if the music were instrumental you’d be completely transported to that world of sword and sorcery. I think the same could be said for stoner metal and all the images it conjures. What creates that connection that can be understood without even saying a word?
EH: Honestly, I think it just boils down to the riffs. The music is heavy, and so the aesthetic is heavy. And the riffage is really what connects all these bands.
MC: There’s definitely a “fantasy,” or even horror/sci-fi aesthetic in a lot of stoner rock and way, way moreso in doom metal. You could say Sabbath really honed that, or even Zeppelin when it comes to those Lord of the Rings-type fantasy images in classic rock music. Like El said, the heavy riffs just lend themselves to it. MJ kind of has its own vibe, but we touch on those elements. “Smoke Signals” was based on a dream I had after doing a bunch of bong hits. We climb a mountain and fight a weed dragon… so yeah, it’s a vibe.
OS: The production on Gem City Kush is just incredible. It really captures everything you could hope for with a stoner metal album – just sounding deep, heavy and dank. Can you talk about how you got that sound as an indie band?
MC: Well, number one, we had Shaun O’Shaughnessey at the board. That dude is super talented, period.
AA: Yeah, Shaun is 100% why the production on that album sounds so good. We just put our trust in him and he ran with it. This is the first album where we “re-amped” our guitar and bass tracks. At any given time, I had up to 27 guitar tracks going into that mix.
EH: Beyond that? It’s new gear. Matt bought a Rickenbacker 4003 and an Orange amp. I bought a big, orange Ludwig kit. And Ash has always had great gear, right from the get-go. But he got some new Orange gear, too.
MC: Also, we practice sometimes.
OS :I know performances are still awhile off. What do you find yourself missing most about playing out?
EH: I’m just waiting for MJ to get big enough to play The Tonight Show. We would only be playing late night talk shows and playing songs for movies and TV shows. Stoner celebrities, dude. Either that or the fun of playing for a crowd.
MC: Hell, I miss all of it because I still haven’t even played a live show with this band yet. It’s been a year and half or so since I joined. That sucks. Wash your hands and get a fucking vaccine.
AA: I miss our band fund having a comma in it, and being able to actually have the band be self-sustaining. All this gear, and all this weed, costs real dollars, friends. The kind of dollars you can spend right now at our Bandcamp.
OS: Are there any other types of music you find yourself gravitating toward when you’re high?
AA: I like both kinds of music, country and western.
MC: I just listen to Rocket From The Crypt and other Swami Records bands. If I’m not listening to something super heavy and sludgy, I’m listening to RFTC or Hot Snakes. Hot Snakes is great smoking music. Also, lately I’m really enjoying watching Heilung live shows on YouTube—they’re just wild.
EH: To be honest, Freddie Gibbs, Sade, Boris, and Nothing… those are my go-tos.
OS: Take these next two however they hit you. What’s your favorite part about stoner culture?
AA: The giant amplifiers. Guitarists like Wata from Boris, and Bob Balch from Fu Manchu, keeping rock and roll alive.
MC: My favorite thing about stoner culture is the weed.
OS: What’s your least favorite part?
MC: People who don’t corner their hits. Fuck those people.
EH: We do have some of the same problems other rock genres have, with some turds sneaking their way in. Most people who are in the stoner rock scene are rad, but there’s still work to do. We’re clear what we’re about: the first line of our album says “Pro-gay, pro-black, and pro-women.” Stoner rock needs more diversity overall.