Though Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats play music inspired by late-’60s metal bands, frontman Kevin Starrs takes his timbral cues from Neil Young. “He’s got the best guitar tone I’d ever heard,” says Starrs, “and I immediately set off on copying it after seeing him.” Photo by Tim Bugbee
Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats initially appeared as a mysterious musical spectre with a self-released corker of a debut album in 2010. That album was simply titled Vol. 1 and existed exclusively in the form of torrented downloads and burned CDs for a long time. The only things most fans seemed to know about Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats were that they were British and they had a really refreshing take on the burgeoning proto-metal style of the late ’60s, as defined by artists like Black Sabbath and Alice Cooper. Vol. 1 sounded and felt like it may have been the work of some forgotten, esoteric band that was present at the moment when rock ’n’ roll crossed over from the Summer of Love’s psychedelic daydreams of utopia into the bad trip nightmares of nascent heavy metal. Uncle Acid’s musicwas lo-fi without being kitschy, raw and rough around edges in an organic way, and made by people who’d studied the underbelly of late-’60s outsider rock deeply enough to capture its energy beyond the basic tonal palette, riffs, and fashion.
Uncle Acid’s ringleader and primary sonic architect is Cambridge-based songwriter/frontman/lead guitarist Kevin “K.R.” Starrs. Accompanied by an ever-changing cabal of Deadbeats, Starrs has allowed the shroud of secrecy to slip over the years and with subsequent successes. Blood Lust (2011) was recorded in a literal garage and also initially self-released, but took off in a way that earned the band a proper record deal and ushered them into an opening slot on Black Sabbath’s (first) farewell tour. That record has since developed into a cult classic that’s revered for both its groovy, melodic take on early doom-metal sound and its horror-show lyrics.
The band recently released its fifth LP, Wasteland, an album that sees Uncle Acid’s sound honed into a razor-sharp ritual knife that, despite being forged in the fires of metal’s primordial past, seeks to draw fresh blood to serve as an antidote to the lack of melody and harmony Starrs feels plagues contemporary music. Despite its fair share of catchy hooks, Uncle Acid’s records have all centered thematically around things like the occult, actualcults, serial killers, and the violence that’s part and parcel of such subjects. Wasteland is a similarly gruesome concept record. This time around, Uncle Acid tells a tale of a dystopian state populated by re-programmed amnesiac humans-turned-automatons who have been enslaved by technology and experience life via “propaganda screens.” Inspired in equal parts by Orwellian fiction as it is by the status quo of 2018’s smartphone reality, Wasteland finds Uncle Acid’s gritty proto-metal presented with a clearer, expanded production aesthetic than past efforts. Wasteland also sees a heroic dose of melody laced into the band’s catchy, fuzzed-out rippers.
Starrs’ unique vocals and guitar work are at their most incendiary to date on Wasteland. The record boasts fiery, unhinged solos and leads, heaps of lyrical riffing and economical phrasing, and plenty of hammering rhythmic chunk. Surface listeners may only hear the heavier side of the late ’60s on Wasteland, but the truth is Starrs takes influence from far-flung places, including his musical hero Neil Young, the fleet-fingered fretboard histrionics of Iron Maiden’s Dave Murray, and the spooky side of the blues as imagined by Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. Tracked entirely to tape at the legendary Sunset Sound in Hollywood with engineer Geoff Neal (Nine Inch Nails, Motörhead), Wasteland also features performances by Vaughn Stokes, who’s been the band’s touring bassist for several years and is responsible for the thunderously substantial bass performances on the album.
Stokes, a well-educated guitarist, has also jumped into the role of Starrs’ guitar foil in touring situations. Stokes’ influences are also wide-ranging and unique. On bass, his number one influence is James Jamerson and he used one bass on the entire album—a Nash ’63-style P-bass replica with a Lollar pickup. “More recently, my main influence has been Blake Mills,” Stokes shares. “When I’m looking for real guitar inspiration and the kind of feeling I like to hear from the instrument, I turn to his stuff. Anything of his I can find—live videos on people’s phones, all of the records he’s recording himself, and everything he produces. If I had to check one player that I find truly inspiring these days, it’s him.”
Premier Guitar met with Starrs at the Hollywood Roosevelt in Los Angeles a few weeks after Wasteland’s completion to discuss the making of the new record, his unexpected and out-of-genre influences, the charms of well-made, simple gear, and optimizing the raunchy side of vintage Fender tweeds.
“Wasteland” is one of the most ambitious songs in the band’s catalog and edges into prog territory with its longer structure. Could you walk us through writing that one?
We generally track everything live as a band, so all of the rhythm guitars, bass, and drums are done live and in single takes until we get it right, but that one was a little bit different. I already had the first part of the song recorded with just an acoustic guitar and a vocal, and I explained the outro idea to the guys and told them where I wanted them to come in. I originally only wanted just a short outro section, but it sounded really cool as we played it and we felt like it had to keep going and build up into something more. So we built it up playing together live as a band, and eventually we had four minutes added to the back end of the song. It sounded really good, but I thought adding a reverse-tape solo to it would be perfect, so I went back into the live room and played a solo and asked the engineer [Geoff Neal] if he knew how to do a reverse-tape thing—like the old Hendrix-style ones. He’d never done one before, but he was down to try it and we did that and then fed it through the old echo chamber that Van Halen had used on their first few records, which is still at Sunset Sound where we tracked it!
What’s the story with that echo chamber?
There’s a secret echo chamber inside the studio that’s got these amazing microphones in it from the 1950s that we used to track that solo. Then we flipped the tape to do the reverse thing after capturing the sound of the echo chamber. I think it came out awesome!
Wasteland, Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats’ fifth album, was engineered by Geoff Neal at Sunset Sound in Hollywood. The studio features a physical echo chamber, which Uncle Acid used for sounds on this album’s title track. This legendary chamber was also featured on early Van Halen and classic Doors albums.
What was the acoustic guitar you used on that track?
That one was a 1947 Gibson LG-1, which has a really small body. I also bought one of Neil Young’s acoustic guitars when he was selling off a load of shit, and I obviously had to have that. I used that for the second acoustic guitar on that track to layer it. It’s some little old Martin and it sounds really strange being such a small-bodied guitar, but it cuts through the mix really nicely.
You favor tweed Fender Deluxes, which is an unexpected choice for a metal band. Is that amp choice also a nod to Neil Young?
That’s exactly why I use a tweed Deluxe! Seeing Neil live was what started that for me. He’s got the best guitar tone I’d ever heard and I immediately set off on copying it after seeing him. He was selling off a few amps in that same auction last year, but I just picked up the acoustic. I figure you can’t beat having a guitar that he may have written something on. For the basic rhythm tracks, I just plugged straight into the amp. I have a few different fuzz pedals I used once I started building up second guitar parts and lead parts.
Wasteland has that “tweed Deluxe on the verge of a meltdown” tone that’s always been a building block of Uncle Acid’s sound, but things are distinctly bigger and clearer this time around. Was that a conscious decision? And how did you go about expanding things without sacrificing that sound?
That’s more a product of how we mixed it, but it was deliberate. For the mix, it had to be different because for the previous album, the Night Creeper, the mix was meant to be very narrow and quite claustrophobic and muddy. That was to represent the dark streets and alleyways the record’s story takes place in. I wanted everything to be cloudy and foggy last time, so you can’t quite pick out details in the mix. For Wasteland, it’s a completely different concept and everything had to be clearer, so it has a bigger stereo field and you can really hear the details much more than on the previous album.