Yawning Man Interview with Gary Arce: The Intuitive Chemistry of the Desert

Yawning Man guitarist Gary Arce doesn’t consider his long-running outfit a stoner rock band, but they’ve certainly inspired enough of them over the course of their time together. Their sound, and in particular his pastoral, spacious guitar tone, has launched a thousand riff-happy players on long and sometimes blatantly derivative careers, yet Yawning Man‘s own output has been limited over their over two decades together.

Thus, their 2010 album, Nomadic Pursuits (Cobraside Distribution) is all the more special. Not only does it mark a new beginning in Yawning Man for Arce — who has been plenty prolific outside the band in projects like Dark Tooth Encounter, Ten East and the stunning Yawning Sons — but it also reunites the guitarist with bassist Mario Lalli (Fatso Jetson) and drummer Alfredo Hernandez (ex-Kyuss), and their chemistry together makes for one of the year’s most gorgeously woven albums. Stunning to realize, as Arce describes, how much of it was improvised.

When we spoke for the interview, Arce was recently returned from a Yawning Man European tour which Lalli had to sit out owing, as alluded to in the conversation, to health problems. Filling the bassist slot was Zach Slater, who by all accounts held the position as best could anyone other than Lalli himself. As the likes of Billy Cordell (Brant Bjork) have filled that role in the past, he’s in good company.

In the Q&A to follow, Arce discusses writing and recording Nomadic Pursuits, working with and without Lalli and Hernandez, future projects (including a second Yawning Sons release) and the unforeseeable source of inspiration for his signature guitar tone. Please enjoy.

You guys recently got back from a European tour. How were the shows?

It was really good. We played some really big shows, then right in the middle somewhere, we were supposed to play Russia, and it was kind of a last-minute thing, so what ended up happening was we couldn’t do it and we played some really weird gig in the middle in East Germany. We played a biker party (laughs). It was pretty trippy. German bikers. They didn’t speak a word of English, and then there’s us. The opening act, I don’t know who he was, but he was a German rock/folk singer that did covers of Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd, and he didn’t speak a word of English, but he’d learned the words. It was bizarre, dude. We were just sitting there, drinking beer, tripping out (laughs). He wanted us to be his backup band. Yawning Man. I don’t really do cover songs, I’ve never done cover songs, but I had a couple beers in me, so I went for it, and me and Alfredo [Hernandez] and Zach [Slater] ended up doing “Sweet Home Alabama” with this Germany guy doing vocals. I don’t even know the song, I was just improvising over the top of it. I wish it was on film, just to have it. That was the highlight of the tour, I think. Watching us do this song with this German guy. Trippy.

I bet you get some crazy phonetics with the German guy who doesn’t know English learning the lyrics.

Yeah, he didn’t speak a word of English, but he would get up there and so these songs and sing them in perfect English. I was told that he learned the words, but he didn’t know what he was singing about. He just learned the words. That in itself was baffling. I was sitting there, having a couple beers, and going, “Let me get this right now. This guy doesn’t speak a word of English, but he’s doing cover songs from Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd, but he doesn’t know what he’s singing about,” and the guy goes, “That is correct” (laughs).

Who played bass on the tour?

Zach. Mario just didn’t feel well, and Zach was given short notice, but he pulled it off. He’s a great bass player, a great musician. I think a couple times he got kind of lost with me, because I go off on my guitar a little bit. I tend to improvise a bit, so I think he was kind of getting lost at a couple of the shows when I started jamming out. He was looking at me like, “Dude, where you goin’, bro?” But Mario’s used to me going off. Unfortunately, we’ve gone to Europe four times, and Mario’s only gone once. We went last year for a week. First time we went was with Billy [Cordell]. He went with us the first two tours, Mario went with us for the third tour for a week, and this last one was Zach.

You have so many other bands, projects and collaborations. Is there something special for you about returning to Yawning Man?

Yeah. It’s cool, because Yawning Man’s like the base band. Playing with Mario and Alfredo’s always really cool, because I’ve known those guys most of my life. It’s kind of the base band, but I’ve always got my head up — like that band I did, Ten East, kind of happened off the cuff. The first Ten East was me, Brant [Bjork], Mario and Bill [Stinson], and that whole record was done in half a day. It was just all jams. Basically that first Ten East record was me and Mario had an idea to do a jam album, and Brant was in town, so he called Brant, and Brant was there at eight in the morning. Basically we just walked in there and jammed out. It wasn’t even mastered or anything, we just let it go (laughs), and that’s how the whole record was done. It was never mastered, the very first one. It was pretty crazy. We just jammed out for half a day and that was that. It was a done deal. There’s a couple songs that sound like they’re worked out, but they’re really not. Basically I’d come up with a riff and Brant would watch my hands and he’d just start going at a bass note or the root note, and that was that. He just watched me the whole time, watched my hands, and Mario just sat there in the background, and that was it. The other one we did was more structured. I had all these songs in my head and I showed Mario the songs, and Bill, so that one was done differently. And Dark Tooth Encounter was done in the middle of all that. What had happened is, we were recording at SST in Long Beach, and I got burnt out, so out of the blue, I started writing all these other riffs, and Mike, who was behind the board, started taping them all, and we went from there. We did backwards drums and weird bass lines and more experimental stuff with Dark Tooth. That whole record was done in a week, and I came back and I finished up the Ten East. That was a weird time in my life. A lot of alcohol, beer, partying. I was in a fog half the time.

Do you have a preference for how you work, going in and jamming out or taking more time to write? Which way was Nomadic Pursuits done?

Nomadic Pursuits was half and half. I had these ideas in my head and me and Alfredo would jam at his house, just me and him, for like half the songs. We worked out songs there at his house, and Mario walked in and he learned the songs in a couple days, and we went in off the cuff. We did each song two times, and we took the one that was the best. A lot of that record is improvised, just me and Mario going here and there. We work that way a lot. A lot of it is basically improvised.

Do you come up with guitar parts beforehand and say “I’m going to bring this in and try it out,” or is it whatever the mood brings?

It’s whatever the mood is. I walk in with ideas in my head, and I’ll show Mario, “Hey dude, this, this and this,” and he’s pretty fast on the bass. He’s awesome. With Mario, he just watches my hands, and boom, he’s got a bass line already, and we take it from there.

Being in all these projects together, how has working with him changed over the years?

He moved out of the desert a while ago, so I’m a little bummed on that. Back when he was in the desert, me and him were jamming almost every day, but since he’s moved, it’s kind of hard now. Now when we record, it’s a rushed process. A lot of it is improvised because of that also. He works a lot, so when we go in, we have to do it right then and there, and we jam it out. When we did this last record, it was crazy. Our first day, we got there kind of late, and we jammed a little bit, and recorded it, and the next day, he showed up and he told me and Alfredo he could only jam an hour, then he had to leave, so we just went in and went for it. The whole record was pretty much jamming. We jammed half on ideas. It sounds cool though, I’m happy with it.

You get a good balance of energy and spontaneity.

You can hear it, the way it’s half improvised. You can tell, because there’s some parts I can hear where I’m lost (laughs), but I’m like, “Okay, where’s it going now?”

How about working with Alfredo?

Alfredo is a rad drummer. He’s awesome. He’s just a motor. He doesn’t stop. He keeps the beat and he doesn’t move away, which I love. He keeps it going. I’ve played with guys in the past that’ll start going fast, slow, they’ll stop, and Alfredo keeps a rad beat, and they’re always really cool, and he just stays. It’s really cool. He’s a big reason why the band works. He keeps that beat going. I’m not going to mention any names, but I’ve played with guys in the past where the beat goes fast, then it’ll change up in the middle of a cool jam, and it ruins it. But with him, it’s just a constant beat, and that’s really cool. And Alfredo’s really into Latin music, so he’s always got these really rad beats. And it’s loud.

How involved was Matthias Schneeberger with the overall sound of the record?

He was our engineer, and he doubled up on melodies with me. That’s pretty much what he did. I would write these melodies on the guitar and he would learn my notes and double up. That was done in overdubs. Just trying to experiment a bit. That was it pretty much. I played a Moog as well on the record, which gives this weird, almost ambient kind of sound. I did some overdubs on that too.

I always hate asking this question because I don’t want it to seem like I’m just asking what equipment you use, but your tone is like a signature. You can pick it out right away. Can you talk a little bit about how you developed your tone over the years?

I don’t know, dude. Honestly, I don’t know how I get my tone. I’m really into Bauhaus. Seriously. I grew up in the early ‘80s, listening to bands like Bauhaus and I’ve always loved the way that band has their thing, so I’ve always modeled my sound after them. I don’t know if you can hear it. The guitar player is Daniel Ash who later formed Love and Rockets. That guy’s an awesome guitar player, and he’s always had this tone that I’ve loved since I was a kid. When I finally got a guitar, I experimented around a lot with different effects and pedals, and I came near to what he does. I don’t want to sound just like him (laughs), but that’s one of my biggest influences, actually, is Bauhaus.

That’s interesting. I wouldn’t have picked that out. Ever.

If you listen to Yawning Man and you listen to Bauhaus, Southern Death Cult, Lords of the New Church, you’ll hear it. Yawning Man always gets caught up in this desert rock, stoner rock stuff, and I’ve never really listened to that kind of music. I’ve never been into that kind of heavy doom music. I don’t know how Yawning Man got caught up in doom and all that stuff, because I’m the opposite. How it happened is a mystery to me.

Blame Kyuss.

I grew up in the early ‘80s, and I was brought up on hardcore stuff, and later I got into Bauhaus, like I said, but this whole thing with doom and this and all these bands, I’m just kind of, “Where did this come from, bro?” (Laughs)

I interviewed Mario a little while ago about the Fatso Jetson record, and I interviewed Brant Bjork earlier this year, and they both talked about how small an area the desert actually is. It’s amazing to me on the other end of the country, the scene that came out of there. So locale might have something to do with it.

Oh dude, where I live, it’s really a small little town. There’s one gas station here. There’s one liquor store. It’s a really small town, and it’s hard to believe that back in the ‘80s, ’81, ’82, there was a hardcore scene here. It was weird. There were punkers here back then. Me and Mario were a part of it. We were kids and we were into hardcore punk back then. The desert is a really strange place. Personally, on my end, punk rock probably ended in ’84. It ended, and after that, we were these kids that were bored and we started jamming out. Stuff came like Yawning Man. We were just bored here in the desert, and we’d wake up every morning and start jamming out. It’s weird how our thing evolved. It was a natural thing, though. It’s not some weird Hollywood thing. It’s a natural thing that happened here.

Is there going to be another Yawning Sons record?

Actually, it’s funny you ask that, because yeah. I was contacted a couple days ago and those guys want to do another album, and so we’re gonna start another Yawning Sons probably in a week. They want to do half Yawning Sons and half — me and Mario did eight songs about a year ago — so it’s gonna be half them, half me, and half Mario (laughs). Because Yawning Sons was basically, I went out to England, and we jammed. It was pretty cool. We started writing songs the first day and went in a week later and laid down all those tracks in a day. I love that record and it really hasn’t done much. Not that many people really know about it. I kind of blame the label that we put it out on. The label didn’t do much with it. I was bummed on that.

Would you put another one out on Cobraside?

Yeah, I’m talking with them about it right now. I’m trying to get the first one released with them as well, and this other one, I’m trying to have them help us out too. It’s a great album, and I was just bummed that it just sat there. That first song, with Wendy [Rae Fowler]. That chick can sing (laughs). She’s got some lungs on her. Great singer, man.

Any other projects or collaborations coming up?

Not really. Right now I’m just concentrating on this whole thing with the guys in England. We just got back [from Europe], and that’s pretty much it for right now as far as music goes. I know Yawning Man’s going back to Europe in April.

Oh yeah? You doing Roadburn?

Yeah. I’ve talked with Walter and we’re invited to Roadburn, and we’re gonna work around that whole thing with him.

Is Mario going to go?

He said he’s going. When I spoke to him a couple days ago, he said he’s definitely going. He said this was the last time he’s going to miss a Yawning Man tour. That’s his last time. From now on he’s in the band and he doesn’t want to be left out.

Yeah, it’s got to be sad to watch the rest of your band go tour Europe.

He dropped us off at the airport too.

That’s heartbreaking.

(Laughs) Yeah dude, we spent the night at his house and we had to wake up at four in the morning, and he drove us to the airport at 4:30 or five in the morning, and he sat with us on line, and we got our e-tickets, and he was with us every step of the way, then he just watched me and Alfredo leave, and he was bummed. I was bummed. Me and Alfredo were like, “Dude. What happened? Just come on, let’s go.” We were trying to talk him into it. He just couldn’t do it, he didn’t feel good. It was bad, but we came back, and he got us at the airport too, which is worse.

You’re telling awesome tour stories about backing German folk singers and all that.

Yeah, we just walked off the plane and we walked out of the airport, and he was there waiting for us, and it was weird, because he’s been a part of the band since the ‘80s, so it was a very odd thing. Zach’s a rad bass player too, though. A monster on the bass. Billy’s good too. He’s really good. He played on our other album, Pot Head. Billy’s unreal on bass. But I’d take ‘em either or on a tour with me. Great musicians.

That’s what I’m saying. It’s a small town with a lot of people out there.
It’s pretty unreal out here, dude. There’s not much going on, but as far as music goes, there’s a lot.

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Live Yawning Man photography by Christophe Muller. Check out his Flickr page here.

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One Response to “Yawning Man Interview with Gary Arce: The Intuitive Chemistry of the Desert”

  1. Mathieu says:

    After The Swans and probably Sunn O))) another name for Roadburn 2011, nice way to receive this name, internet puzzling

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