Words by Andrew Ryan Fetter
Earthless has been bringing their own brand of trippy psychedelic rock for two decades now. Each of their records will take you on its own specific journey and after each one, you’re never the same. After making Black Heaven in 2018, a record that saw the band trying new things (vocals mainly, as well as shorter songs), they’ve essentially returned to the Earthless we all know and love with Night Parade Of A Thousand Demons, which consists of one 40 minute song based on an old Japanese folk tale about exactly what the title describes. I had the chance to speak with guitarist Isaiah Mitchell about the origins of the tale and the transition the band made to the sound that makes them who they are.
Off Shelf: So at this point, it’s almost cliche to ask but I’ll ask anyway. How have the past couple years treated you?
Isaiah Mitchell: I think for me I’ve been fortunate in that our main livelihood has always been touring but I was able to still make ends meet. I teach guitar lessons so I was able to take on extra students. Up until 2019 I was living in the Bay area then moved back to San Diego pretty much Day 1 of the lockdown. So I was able to reconnect with my family and be in an area where I spent a lot of time as a kid and that reconnection felt really healthy for me. Being out in the country I was basically only around family, and I could just focus on teaching and playing. It was hard, there were some lonely bits, nobody knew what was going on and not being able to play live music for a couple of years was kind of intense. But I feel like I fared pretty well in the grand scheme of things.
OS: What was it like to write and record during a pandemic? Was it that much different than normal for you?
IM: It was more like the old way we used to. We’ve never put pressure on ourselves for our last record, Black Heaven, because I was living up north. But we put a time constraint on ourselves this time where we booked studio time even though we didn’t have a full album’s worth of material. When I moved to San Diego, we didn’t play or even see each other for 4 or 5 months. But once we got into a room together again, music just started coming and next thing we know, we’re like “Oh shit, we’re kinda writing a record.” We didn’t plan on it but the music was just happening and it felt very natural and easy. Like our earlier records were just written and came together so quickly.
OS: And that’s a key component of your songs, the “jamming” aspect of them. There are these parts that repeat then split off in different directions. I’ve always been curious how you write in that particular style, but I imagine it happens exactly how it sounds.
IM: Pretty much. We’ll find these parts that we play with it and find a way to connect it to something else. And if we want to revisit them, we do. We like to have room for improvisation and looseness. Also for reinterpretation of any time we return to an idea. The bridges or stepping stones to get you to these places and that creative mood to set things up. We just feel it out and don’t try to put anything too much into a box.
OS: I read that on this album you have the first Earthless riff. How did that come about?
IM: It was a riff early on that Mike wrote that we would usually play to start our shows. We just never recorded it. We needed a bridge in between the main riff into the tribal drum part in “Night Parade Of One Hundred Demons” and Mike thought this would work in that section. We tried and realized it was perfect. It kind of slowed everything down and then transitioned perfectly right into the next section.
OS: What was it like to see something from your early days, come around full circle?
IM: I thought it was pretty cool. I never thought about that riff at all, but Mike definitely held onto it for a long time somewhere in his mind. There’s something special about bringing back something from the early days that was left for dead and then finding a home for it. I feel now like it has more of a purpose then it did before. And I could see us using older riffs again like that down the road. There’s a nostalgia to it, when you think about how long we’ve been a band. Like I said before, it’s just really special.
OS: You’ve essentially returned to what you and also your fans are familiar with in terms of style and songwriting. Black Heaven saw you taking a slightly different approach, even though it still sounded very much like you. What made you decide to go back to a more “traditional” Earthless sound?
IM: Well for me personally, once we finished Black Heaven I had already decided the next record I didn’t want to have vocals on it. I wanted our usual one song per side form. It was a fun record to make, and I’m all for changing and evolving things. But doing that made me realize instantly that I wanted to go back to those first two records. Because I feel like that’s us, that’s our true character. And that’s how people know us. But ultimately that’s how our world started, the three of us. Something inside of me wanted to go back to that. And the other guys were on board as well. When we were writing “Night Parade…”, we weren’t thinking about it too hard. I had considered putting vocals on it, but I felt there was enough melodically to convey what we wanted and it sounded “vocal-like.” It just felt right and I know we were all happy to naturally, without forcing it, make an instrumental record again that was in our style.
OS: You based the album and the artwork on a Japanese folk tale. What was the experience like translating that story musically? How did you initially see that story being told in the style of an Earthless album?
IM: Mike’s son – who found the story – knows more about Godzilla and other folklore than anyone I’ve ever known, and he’s only 9 years old. Mike himself has always been interested in Japanese culture and architecture. And you pick up on it musically too with him and Mario. There’s a Japanese element to Mike’s whole world. I’ve always seen it. So when we were writing the record, we weren’t quite sure what it was. But it had this vibe to it that was an homage to Japanese bands like Flower Travellin Band and Blues Creation. So when Mike brought the story in, it just instantly fit together. And that re-shifted the way we were writing and we decided that it was going to tell this story of a peaceful village and these demons that just come and raise hell. And there’s this parade with all this chaos and mayhem. So it was a lot of fun writing it to follow that narrative. We’ve never done that before.
OS: I feel like you capture the overall mood of the tale really well. There are moments where you can hear ambient noise that just adds color to the story. How are you hoping your way of telling this story will translate to the listener?
IM: I hope they can hear what we’re trying to put down. I feel like anyone with some background knowledge of the story they’ll get it. It’s not so dense or cryptic that it would go over their heads. Just trying to create the different moods and scenes. So I’m just hoping that they can get the mood and feel of the tale playing itself out.