The ex-Mars Volta low-ender explores his instrument’s sonic outer limits with short-scale axes, a huge array of pedals, and freewheeling playing on the debut album from his new band.
Juan Alderete really wants to get off the computer. Not in an internet-surfing kind of way, but for live performances with his new band, Halo Orbit. “I know it will always be there,” he says, “but I don’t want it to be the mainstay. I want the band to be a band, so we’ll see how it evolves.”
Evolution has been the hallmark of Alderete’s career ever since he gained recognition in the ’80s as a member of Racer X, the Los Angeles-based shred metal band notorious for its Musicians Institute-honed chops. After Racer X, and a brief attempt at appealing to the mainstream via rock bands like the Scream, he ditched convention, went back to school—at California State University, Los Angeles, where he earned a B.A. in English—and started reinventing himself in avant-garde musical projects that were more about personal growth than chasing the almighty dollar.
He abandoned the hair metal scene via the punk-pop of Distortion Felix, forged a singular voice on fretless bass and as a songwriter, and ultimately expanded his sonic horizons with Vato Negro by diving deeply into effects pedals. Such versatility is the backbone of the style that’s made Alderete a much-sought player in rock and hip-hop. And 10 years in prog-punk-psych outfit the Mars Volta, which won a Best Hard Rock Performance Grammy in 2009 for the song “Wax Simulacra,” enabled him to reach a wider audience while further developing his effects-driven approach. In 2012, he launched his own website on the topic of gear-based sonic exploration and whatever’s on his mind: pedalsandeffects.com. And though he may decry the use of computers in a live setting, his ability to lock in with backing tracks has been garnering him touring and recording work with cutting edge rap/hip-hop artists Deltron 3030, Jonwayne, and Dr. Octagon, among others.
But his songwriting comes to the fore in Halo Orbit, the band he formed with drummer Mark Guiliana (David Bowie, John Scofield), and guitarist/synth player suGar Yoshinaga (Buffalo Daughter). The group plays a unique brand of futuristic rock that draws comparisons as disparate as Battles and Portishead. Their eponymous debut is a 21st century burst of fusion, incorporating elements of electronic music, rock, jazz, funk, hip-hop, and soul. It also features appearances by guest artists Del the Funky Homosapien, Lisa Papineau of Big Sir (another Alderete project), Money Mark Ramos-Nishita, and his Mars Volta bandmate Marcel Rodríguez-López.
As Halo Orbit morphs from studio project to live act, Alderete is contemplating his desire to move away from the computer and a reliance on backing tracks. “I was on tour with Juliette Lewis last year, playing live the whole time, and every set is different, so you get a little more emotionally out of it,” he admits. “I love electronic stuff and we did tons of it in Big Sir, but after so many years of playing to backing tracks, I just feel stifled. So, with Halo Orbit, we’re doing our very first show with no computer.”
Although it was released just recently, Halo Orbit was actually recorded in 2012. Its four-year gestation period was due to circumstances that reflect the challenges of navigating a music career in the modern era. “Really this record could’ve come out at the end of 2013,” explains Alderete. “But because we didn’t have any money to mix it, we had to wait for Robert [Carranza]. He could only mix it when he had free time, which is almost never because he’s an in-demand engineer.”
Given the project’s zero budget, Carranza (Beck, Jack Johnson) mixed it as a favor. Digital recording technologies and the ability to share files via e-mail make cutting records easier and more affordable, but robust budgets from labels have suffered as a result. “Labels don’t give you any money to make records anymore, so you have to do it this way,” Alderete stresses. “You’re working on favors.”
Although Halo Orbit was recorded in 2012, it was delayed for lack of a budget. Engineer Rob Carranza mixed the tracks as a favor. “Labels don’t give you any money to make records anymore, so you have to do it this way,” Alderete says.
PG caught up with Alderete, who was at home in L.A. prepping for a pedalsandeffects.com clinic tour of the EU with guitarist Nick Reinhart (Tera Melos), to discuss his preference for short-scale instruments, the sonic underpinnings of Halo Orbit, and the challenges of being a pioneer of modern electric bass.
Halo Orbit opens with a cool bass sound on “Subump.” What are you using?
The “ba, ba” bass part on “Subump” is a sample of the DOD Meatbox. I was messing around with it one day and posted it on Instagram like, “Check out the Meatbox when you really distort it. It sounds crazy.” After I posted it, I was like, “I have to use that.” I tried to recreate that sound in the studio, but I couldn’t, so we basically took my Instagram video and sampled it—that’s that sound.
What about the other bass riff that opens that tune?
I wrote that entire song, but that riff is Paul Gilbert’s Jerry Jones Longhorn Bass6. I think he wrote the first Mr. Big single on it. That’s suGar playing that riff. I wrote it, she played it.
There’s a pretty wicked fretless solo in “Subump,” too.
I realized there was no real statement from my instrument, on a shock level, so to speak, so I was like, “Fuck it, I’ll throw a riff right here just to be like, “Oh, there’s the riffer who played in Racer X [laughs].”
In a former life, Juan Alderete was an ’80s shredder in the heavy metal band Racer X. Here he is in 1987 with fellow Musicians Institute-trained masters Paul Gilbert (left) and Bruce Bouillet (right). Photo by Neil Zlozower
What about “Warped Descent?”
That song was written after Mark cut his drum tracks, so it’s a drum loop. I was in my studio messing around with two pedals, the Chase Bliss Audio Warped Vinyl into the Descent Reverb by Walrus Audio, and I was like, “Whoa, that’s dope.” I threw up a mic and recorded it. No click—I just trusted my time. I threw it on my SoundCloud at first, like, “Check out these two pedals.” I kept listening to it thinking I should make something out of it, so I sent it to suGar, who dug it and added to it.
The bass tone on “Angels Flight” is huge. What went into it?
We recorded “Angels Flight” live, and suGar really liked that version, but I envisioned it being heavier, so I overdubbed my bass on it and made it a little tighter. Robert came to my studio and miked me up and put me through the DI and I overdubbed myself. I still don’t know if I did the better thing. There are still some characteristics of the live version, like my wah envelopes were tighter and cooler sounding, but the overall heaviness of it is bigger now.
What sounds like bass, but isn’t, is Marcel [Rodríguez-López] from Mars Volta—that’s his Moog Voyager. I already had the bass lines written. I just said, “I want you to play the synth like that.” He’s a genius when it comes to sound making.
“Love or Lost” reminds me of something Joni Mitchell and Jaco Pastorius would’ve recorded together.
The inspiration for that tune was a band I love: Deerhoof. Sometimes I sit around and say, “I’m going to try to write something that sounds like my version of Deerhoof,” or whatever. On the first Big Sir record, I was trying to write songs that were like my versions of Tortoise songs.
What basses did you use for tracking?
On “Love or Lost,” I used [Red Hot Chili Peppers’ guitarist] Josh Klinghoffer’s Hofner. It’s the guitar-shaped one, not the Beatles shape, with Diamond pickups and tapewound strings. That thing is dope. I overdubbed a Kala U-Bass on it, too.
How do you like the U-Bass?
I use the shit out of those on hip-hop. You pull that out on dudes bumping 808s [Roland drum machines] and they go, “What the fuck is that little dude?” They love it. I’ve used it on Jonwayne stuff—this rapper I work with out of the Low End Theory crew. I used it with Domo Genesis. He’s one of the guys from Odd Future, but he’s solo now and I used that on his record.
What do they like about it? That it sounds like an upright?
The U-Bass has way more thud and low end than an upright. It really goes back to the shorter-scale instruments. I always give props to Owen Biddle [formerly of the Roots], because he was the first dude I ever read talk about it. He had that CallowHill 30"-scale 5-string with tapewounds, and he talked about the low-end fundamental of a short-scale as opposed to 34" or 35" scale. The longer you go, the more taut the string, the more it sounds like a piano. You go the other way, and you can see it in the waveform in Pro Tools—it’s different. Maybe it’s not as defined, with the same articulation as a 34" or 35", but it’s huge sounding.
The Landscape bass I use with Jonwayne sounds like an upright. That’s the bass I have that sounds most like an upright. Everybody knows I don’t really play upright, so I fake it [laughs].
I’ve seen you play Goya basses, too.
Those are 30”-scale basses. I use them in Dr. Octagon and with Deltron 3030. They are great for sounding vintage. They sound even more vintage than a P bass with flats. A P bass with flats, the way I play, makes me sound kind of like a cross between [Motown’s] James Jamerson and [Iron Maiden’s} Steve Harris [laughs]. I hit too hard and Jamerson only played with one finger [Alderete uses two]. I always try to sound like Jamerson when I have flats on a P bass, but I don’t. I know I don’t. I know I probably sound like Steve Harris.
When you play a Goya with flats, it just sounds way more vintage-’60s Motown, because you can’t hit it as hard. You’ll put it out of tune. So you play softer and lighter, and it has more of that authentic vibe to it. And the pickups are kind of janky, so it sounds more ’60s. I still rock those on the hip-hop gigs.
What’s your objective at pedalsandeffects.com?
I’m trying to keep bass players in the game through effects use. That’s how you stay in the game. That’s why I play with a pick, fretless bass, fretted bass, Kala bass, short-scale bass, long scale, flatwound, tapewound, roundwound. You know what I mean? You give them tons of different options. That’s why these hip-hop gigs keep coming to me. Domo from Odd Future, Jonwayne, Deltron, Octagon. I played on their new records. I use weird bass sounds because they’re sounds they can’t get with synths. You have to have this, otherwise you’re limiting your opportunities to make a living. It’s transcending the fucker. You can hate what I do. That’s cool. But really, I’m here trying to keep everybody in the game.
So, it has to do with staying relevant?
I was in a band for 10 years [Mars Volta] that was going crazy with this stuff. We were trying to make something new happen. I’m still that dude from the ’80s who was trying to play fast because that was what was happening at the time. I was trying to evolve somehow and keep things interesting. But I got bored of that, so I got into fretless because I’d never done it and I wanted to see what my take would be. Then I got into effects. It’s constantly reinventing, because I’m just not the dude who’s going to stay there and play straight bass. There are a million dudes who can do that.
I guess ultimately you must weigh calls to the history of the instrument with where it can potentially go?
Jamerson might’ve hated the way I play. Or maybe he wouldn’t. Hendrix was playing blues-rock guitar licks and then he got on the Octavia and started playing solos with that. He would’ve constantly bought pedals. Guitarists have the Edge, Van Halen, but no bass player ever threw pedals out there where I was like, “Whoa!” There were guys doing things, but it was always just like an occasional chorus pedal, so I was like, “Fuck man, I’m going to try it.” That first Vato Negro record I did—there’s shit on there I don’t even remember what the pedal combination is. I could guess at it. It’s just gnarly, what I was trying to do, because I was literally going, “I want this shit to sound bananas. I want to be the Hendrix of the instrument.” I don’t consider myself that, but I wanted the same pioneering spirit. I wanted to do something that I hadn’t really heard before, but I thought would light people up. I am not one of those dudes who listens to his own music, but when Vato Negro pops up on shuffle or whatever, I’m like, “Man that is some out there shit [laughs].” And that’s my goal.
And now for something really rad: Halo Orbit onstage at the Airliner in Los Angeles earlier this year. Get an earful of the way Juan Alderete makes his bass speak in alien tongues, and how seamlessly the band integrates electronics and live performance.
Yoshinaga’s musical menu is based on Fenders and Gibsons, but she adds lots of effects-based spice. “I wanted to play weirdly like Devo and entertainingly and fun like Rick Nielsen,” she says. Photo by Yoshika Horita
suGar Yoshinaga’s Widescreen Strategy
suGar Yoshinaga may not be a household name yet, but she’s well on her way to establishing herself, with a broad skill set that also includes composing and mixing. Her work in those fields is an important component of the sonic tapestry that is Halo Orbit.
Yoshinaga grew up taking classical piano lessons from the time she was 4 years old, but gravitated to the guitar simply because she loved rock music and wanted to play in a band. She started playing acoustic when she was 10, and bought an electric by the time she was 12. Devo and Cheap Trick were her biggest influences at that time.
“I wanted to play weirdly like Devo and entertainingly and fun like Rick Nielsen,” she confides. “Jean-Jacques Burnel of the Stranglers was a big influence, too, even though he was a bass player.” She cites the late ’70s to early ’80s post-punk/no wave scene as her biggest overall influence. “I listened to all those bands on the radio, recorded them on cassette tapes, and listened over and over again.”
Since the early stages of her career, suGar’s interest in multi-track recording evolved alongside her development as a guitarist. In the beginning, she used a 4-track cassette recorder. In the ’80s it was an ADAT. In the ’90s, she gravitated towards Macintosh with Logic, which is the configuration she still uses today (albeit updated). “My first paid job as a professional musician was to make computer game music,” she recalls. “There were only three melody mono tracks plus one noise track at that time. That’s where I learned to compose.” Today, she composes soundtracks for TV, films, and commercials when not playing in the band. “I do mixing sometimes, too. We used my mix of ‘Warped Descent’ on this record.”
Halo Orbit features Lisa Papineau (Big Sir) on a few tunes, and since she’s not performing with them, suGar handles these vocal parts live, using a vocoder-like approach through TC-Helicon’s VoiceLive 2. “It was a new challenge, but it also created some interesting sounds and opportunities. I think it went very well. I'd like to explore more of it on the next album.”