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Interview: Middle Class Rut - Unshackled Justice

Zack Lopez at the Pub Rock in Scottsdale, AZ, on May 3, 2013. Photo by Jeffrey Olsen

After a false start with DreamWorks Records 13 years ago, Middle Class Rut’s Zack Lopez discusses their new LP, Pick up Your Head, and celebrates the freedoms and confines of the guitar-and-drums format that finally yielded major success—including mainstream radio success and gigs opening for Alice in Chains and Weezer. PLUS! Lopez details his crazy three-rig touring setup.

Aunt Betty by Middle Class Rut

Since forming in 2006, Middle Class Rut—which consists solely of guitarist/vocalist Zack Lopez and drummer/vocalist Sean Stockham—has carved out a reputation as being one of the most bombastic duos on the scene. Their latest release, Pick up Your Head, looks beyond the confines of the duo configuration and takes an “anything goes” approach. During the recording, layers of additional colors—like bass parts, Morello-esque Whammy-pedal quirks, and percussive splashes—were spontaneously added as the album evolved. The result is a fresher, fuller sound for MC Rut.

Faced with the prospect of having to recreate a larger sound when touring in support of the new album, MC Rut had to find a new game plan for their live shows. “It’s a whole lot easier with just two people, on one hand, but it limits you on another,” says Lopez. Both he and Stockham were vehemently opposed to laptops or sequencers, so the other option was to hire additional musicians. Although they’ve flirted with having help onstage before, adding new members to the fray was not a decision they took lightly.

Scars remain from what happened with Leisure, Lopez and Stockham’s previous band, which was signed to DreamWorks Records in 2000 but then saw its dream quickly turn to nightmare. “We just couldn’t find the right dynamic with other people,” Lopez recalls. “We’d spend a couple of years building a thing with a singer, and then it would fall apart and we’d have to start over again. It was a revolving door of people—we had six different singers by the end of it. We were the only two consistent members, and we swapped a lot of people out up until our early 20s. It took us a long time to realize that maybe this wasn’t going to happen with other people.” Leisure disbanded in 2003, and Lopez and Stockham were so burnt and jaded from the experience that they both abandoned music and found day jobs—Lopez became a construction worker and Stockham became a studio runner.

Zack Lopez plays a ’57 reissue Les Paul Jr. through an Orange rig—an MKII Rockerverb 100W head driving a 4x12 closed-back cab. His pedalboard features a DigiTech Whammy, Boss DD-2, MXR Carbon Copy, MXR Micro Amp, and an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff. Photo by Jeffrey Olsen

After about three years, the two realized they much preferred power chords to power tools and teamed up again. This time around, however, they were adamant about not repeating the same mistakes. “When we got back together, we knew we couldn’t look for a singer because we’d end up in the same boat. We decided that we’d try our hand at it ourselves,” says Lopez. “We figured the only way it would work is if we didn’t have to involve anyone else. Instead of trying to convey your ideas to someone to hear what you want to hear, you just do it yourself. I don’t know why it took so long to come to that realization. It took a lot to find the confidence to decide that we can do everything from start to finish, but once we did, everything became a thousand times easier.”

Thus Middle Class Rut was born and signed to Bright Antenna Records after their song “New Low” was picked up by several radio stations, including the now-defunct Sacramento station KWOD. The song hit No. 5 on alternative radio and got more than 4 million hits on YouTube. In 2010, MC Rut’s demo was released as No Name No Color, an album that garnered the band serious buzz as the next big thing. They’ve since shared the stage with the likes of Alice in Chains, Linkin Park, Papa Roach, and Weezer. SXSW 2013 marked the debut of the band’s new touring lineup for its just-released sophomore effort, Pick up Your Head, which adds another guitarist, a bassist, and a dude bangin’ away on automotive parts. “It’s so much easier now,” says Lopez. “Before I would stress out, like, ‘How am I going to do this?’ Now there’s actually another human I can play with. We’re going to be bringing out older stuff that we can now do. It opens up more doors.”

That newfound freedom hasn’t just made it possible to do older material previously deemed too difficult to pull of as a duo—it’s completely rejuvenated the band in its preparation for the Uproar Tour this fall with Alice in Chains, Jane's Addiction, and Coheed and Cambria. “We’ve got a new excitement that we didn’t have before,” says Lopez. “We were pretty fried at the end of the last record—on touring, on everything. But at the show we did a couple of weeks ago, it felt like, “Holy shit—this is fun again in a way it hasn’t been in a while!”

Pick up Your Head has a very live feel to it. Do you write collectively in the studio or do you individually bring ideas to the sessions?
We do both. Anyway we can get a song down, we bring it in that way. The best ones are the ones that are already mapped out when we bring them in, because they come together fast. For the most part, if a song doesn’t come together super fast, we’ll just throw it in the back and work on something new. We’ve always felt that there are enough ideas floating around so we don’t have to get too strapped down to finishing every single thing. It’s like, “Why are we stressing on this? Why don’t we just write something better that comes together easier instead of forcing it?”

As songs start taking shape, do you impose limits on overdubbed parts so you don’t have to worry about duplicating them live?
No, but I knew the record we were making wasn’t a two-piece record. [Previously] I always had the thought in the back of my head, “Oh shit—eventually we’re going to have to figure out how to do this [live],” but I didn’t necessarily want to stop the way I was going about the songs. Some of the first songs for the record were written around bass lines that I had. Right away, that made it fresh to me. It was like, “Now I’m not stuck with just a guitar. Now I can write.”

It sounds like you still kept the album relatively straightforward, though. It wasn’t like you added an obscene amount of layers.
Not at all. You know, we’re still the kind of band where we’ll play a riff for like five minutes and I’ll sing 12 different melodies over it. We still stuck with the groove-based stuff, but a lot of the guitar and bass parts don’t go together in terms of having to sing and play—I didn’t want to think about it this time. I knew we’d figure it out when the time came, and we’re playing out now as a five-piece.

What led to that decision?
We have to, because this new record has a hell of a lot more going on and we had to find a way to do it live that wasn’t about using computers. In the past, there was literally no bass—it was just a guitar, drums, and vocals. We’ve just done our first round of shows with these extra dudes. The guitarist is Evan Ferro. He’s a super-good guitarist and also sings backup, so he can help me out with the harmonies. The bassist is a guy named Harris Pittman. He’s someone we found through our management. He’s the newest guy, and we didn’t have any association with him before. The other guys we’ve known. Then Adam Barker, the percussionist, is doing all the pots and pans and shit that you hear throughout the record.

He’s bringing pots and pans to the shows?
Yeah, anything clinky and metal. I sent him some songs off the record and told him that we needed someone to build a crazy percussion kit that sounded like what was on the tracks. He really ran with it. He showed up with this insane kit—it’s got, like, brake drums off a car, a keg, and trash can lids that are stuck together with a broken thimble. He was able to make a freestanding kit. It’s stuff that I could have never conceptualized, but I’m really glad we got a hold of this dude because it sounds exactly like the shit you hear on the record.

MC Rut guitarist Zack Lopez (left) and drummer Sean Stockham (right) have added three band members to flesh out their live sound for this tour. Shown here at Pub Rock in Scottsdale, AZ, on May 3. Photo by Jeffrey Olsen

There are enough ideas floating around so we don’t have to get too strapped down to finishing every single thing. It’s like, “Why are we stressing on this? Why don’t we just write something better that comes together easier instead of forcing it?”

But as you’ve experienced in the past, adding more people can complicate things.
If you’re trying to tell someone you want to hear something a certain way and they’re not on the same page, it’s never going to work. Sean and I have always clicked when working together. Once we started singing, we were like, “Oh shit, this is where it’s at.” It was way easier just to have two people to tour. Now it’s logistically a nightmare—all the extra gear and everything. But then you figure that’s how bands have done it forever. A traditional band is a four- or five-piece, so if everyone else can figure it out, certainly we could, too.

After this tour, will these additional guys be involved with the next album, or will you guys remain a duo writing music with the knowledge that even complex arrangements will be playable live?
It’s hard to say, man. Which way do you go? They weren’t involved in the writing process—Sean and I did everything by ourselves. I think it’s good because these guys were brought in after the record was done so we all have a goal and we know what it’s supposed to sound like. We finished the record and it was, like, “Okay, now let’s figure it out.” We don’t really have a plan in terms of going forward. It’s still relatively new.

Do the benefits of having a larger group outweigh the headaches?
It’s like a weight has been lifted off me. There are two guitar parts going on in almost every song. Now I won’t have to be the bass player and the guitar player and the singer. I mean, there are songs that we have on old EPs that we still never ever played live because we couldn’t play them as a two-piece. So now there’s a chance that people that have been into the band for a few years are going to be hearing shit they haven’t heard before. It’s, like, “Oh man, they never played that song live!” Well, it’s because we couldn’t.

How were you covering some of the parts in previous tours?
The rig I had was pretty crazy—I ran three guitar rigs all at once. I would have my low end running through the bass setup—I got the guitar to sound a hell of a lot like a bass—then I’d have two separate guitar rigs that I could mute in and out.

Would you switch off between guitars or just use the same one through the changing rigs?
I had a couple of different guitars, but I usually stuck with the same one, depending on the tuning. It would all be run through a series of pedals.

Could you have used a more compact setup with something like a Fractal Audio Axe Fx?
I don’t think it would be the same. The way I bring things in and out—it’s pretty hands on. That setup was good and definitely served its purpose, but obviously I don’t have to truck that rig around now.

What are your main axes?
My favorite one is a ’57 reissue Les Paul Jr. That’s my main go-to guitar. I got it back in ’01. We were doing a Leisure record with [producer, mixer, and engineer] Joe Barresi, and he brought by a bunch of guitars for me to try out. I fell in love with this Jr. and was, like, “I gotta get me one of these.” He had a deal through Gibson and he got me one from their custom shop that had a massive neck. From there, I was pretty much sold on it. I loved it and also got another identical one back in ’08 for the different tunings. Whatever tree they used to make this one was a lot lighter, and I never liked it quite as much. Up until then, I only played Fenders. Our tech actually built me a custom T-style guitar with a P-90 in it—I’m a P-90 guy all the way around.

Fenders usually aren’t as beefy as a Les Paul—did you write differently when you played them?
Yeah, big time. In the old bands, I was pretty much only a Strat guy. I had maybe three different Strats. I’d be playing with pretty hot humbuckers on them.

The rig I had was pretty crazy—I ran three guitar rigs all at once.

But with the two-piece, when I played guitar it sounded like a guy without a bass player. I knew I had to craft a whole new sound for this band. That’s when I bumped up and started exclusively using the Jr.—I built my rig around the sound of that guitar.

What acoustic did you use on “Dead Eye?”
The acoustic strumming through that song is the main thread. It’s probably some super-cheap Fender. We had two Fender acoustics that we had to get at the last minute, maybe a couple of years back. It’s definitely not an amazing guitar by any means, but it served its purpose.

It’s just something off the shelf from like a big chain store?
Yeah, it’s a super low-level guitar.

What about amps?
Anybody that sees me from now on will see me with all Orange gear. They’re a company I’m somewhat new to working with. I have the MKII Rockerverb 100W head and just a basic 4x12 closed-back Orange cab.

What effects do you use?
I still have my same effects rig on the floor. It’s just not as crazy as before when it was a six-foot-long board. I’ll use a Big Muff on some of the leads. I have an MXR Micro Amp that’s super good—it’ll blow out your cleans. It’s similar to a Big Muff but it doesn’t chop your tone as much. I’m always using delays, too. I have two of the super basic Boss delays and I use them for different things. I also have an MXR Carbon Copy delay that I use sometimes.

What about the sound effects in “Weather Vein?” Is that the DigiTech Whammy pedal?
Yeah. I use the Whammy pedal all the [expletive] time. The leads on that one are kind of reverse leads—they’re backwards. I wrote those leads forwards and then I reversed them. It was trial and error, just playing what I could come up with that sounded the best when it was flipped backwards. And then once I flipped them backwards, I learned to play them forwards. I just flipped them after the fact. Once you track it down, it was easy enough to flip your single guitar track. That’s how I experimented with it. When it came time to play it, I just learned to play it that way. That pedal has got a really good octave setting and a really good harmony setting.

Did you use that for the harmony guitar parts on “Take a Shot” or did you record those parts on separate tracks?
That little lead section? I just tracked the harmony for it. One of them was more of a straight-to-the-board kind of sound. Super crunchy versus, like, a normal distortion.

But now, with the added guitar player, you can easily do these types of parts live.
Yeah, we would just play it together.

Zack Lopez's Gear

Gibson ’57 reissue Les Paul Jr., Custom T-style with P-90s, Fender budget acoustic

Orange MKII Rockerverb 100W head driving an Orange 4x12 closed-back cab

DigiTech Whammy, Boss DD-2, MXR Carbon Copy, MXR Micro Amp, Electro-Harmonix Big Muff

Strings, Picks, and Accessories
Dean Markley Blue Steel .011–.052 string sets, Dunlop .88 mm nylon picks, Mogami cables, DiMarzio interlocking straps

If the new guys bailed mid-tour and you had to go finish the tour as a two-piece band, could you revert to your three-rig setup—or a variation of it—and pull off the new set live?
We couldn’t do this new record justice as a two-piece—no way. It wouldn’t sound like the record. It would sound more like a garage band trying to play something, y’know what I mean? I don’t think we have any interest in having an earpiece in and playing to a bunch of pre-recorded tracks. That would be lame.

For only two guys, we carried around enough gear for a five-piece. It’s just something that built up over time. I would need more low end or I would need this or that, and I would keep adding to it. When we’d travel or do one-off radio shows—like, when we’d go to Europe—it would be really hard. Most people can just rent an amp and they’d be all set. I couldn’t do that, because it was such a specific rig that I needed. I’m looking forward to scaling it down. We have a tech that’s been with us maybe four years now. I think he just finally figured out my rig—and that’s when I switched it out [laughs].

YouTube It
To see and hear Zack Lopez in action with Middle Class Rut, check out the following clips.

MC Rut guitarist/vocalist Zack Lopez gets an impressive array of sounds—including major low end—out of his Les Paul Jr. in the intro of “Busy Bein’ Born,” performed overseas in Germany.

After some off-camera technical difficulties delay the beginning of this MC Rut set from 2012, drummer/vocalist Sean Stockham handles the hiccup perfectly with some self-deprecating humor and a well-received reference to Jägermeister. He and Lopez then proceed to own the stage with a ferocious version of “Thought I Was” from 2010’s No Name No Color.

Middle Class Rut’s new five-piece incarnation performs one of the newest tracks from this year’s Pick up Your Head on The Artie Lange Show.