Music by VICE

Desert Rock Pioneer Gary Arce Really, Really Hates Heavy Metal

We talked to the guitar jam maestro behind Palm Desert acts Ten East and Yawning Man about his new record Skyline Pressure, which debuts here today.

by Gary Suarez
Oct 11 2016, 4:10pm

With all due respect to Kyuss, the music scene that formed out of Palm Desert, California arguably wouldn't have been possible without Yawning Man. Ask anyone who was there at the time, and you'll hear stories about the legendary jams produced by these desert rock godfathers. Yet guitarist Gary Arce remembers the mid-1980s differently, fondly but with a humble caveat: "We were kids!"

Like other seminal desert rock bands, Yawning Man spawned subsequent projects like Fatso Jetson and Ten East, even itself evolving into a comparatively jazzier ensemble called The Sort Of Quartet, which recorded a handful of albums for Black Flag founder Greg Ginn's SST Records in the 1990s. A fixture of the scene, Arce had a part in all of these bands at one time or another, not to mention credits on Kyuss' ...And The Circus Leaves Town and Brant Bjork's Jalamanta. But despite his noteworthy place in the glorious lineage of American rock music, there's one major strain of it that he really can't stand.

"I'm really vocal about metal and how much I hate it," Arce says. "There's nothing about it that's soulful, nothing that's honest." He surely appreciates the irony of being associated with and cited by hard rock artists in the U.S. and Europe. Back in the day, Yawning Man even opened for doom metal legends Saint Vitus.

Still, the instrumental and jam-centric Ten East might be the truest to Arce's ideal vision of music, one born of riffage and fueled on collaborative improvisation. Despite his aversion to metal, previous iterations of the band included Scott Reeder of The Obsessed and Goatsnake, Red Fang guitarist Bryan Giles, and the aforementioned Greg Ginn himself, whose band practically invented sludge metal on the second half of 1984's My War.

The latest version of Ten East teams Arce and Yawning Man drummer Bill Stinson with Erik Harbers and Pieter Holkenborg of the Dutch hard rock act Automatic Sam. That ensemble produced Skyline Pressure, premiering via stream here today. The record contains eight impressive jams, from the hefty sprawl of "Daisy Cutter" to the atmospheric grooves of "Planet Blues" to the psyched-out wah wah bliss of "Sonars And Myths." It's a testament to Arce's talents and his commitment to the Palm Desert spirit.

I spoke with Arce about the thought process behind making the new Ten East record, his affinity for both Miles Davis and Greg Ginn, and why he really, really, really doesn't like heavy metal.

Noisey: So you're in Copenhagen now to be with your wife?
Gary Arce: I'm flying back to California at four o'clock in the morning. I gotta head to the airport, which is a big ouch. We just started doing this. My wife lived with me for a year and a half in California. She missed her family so came back to Copenhagen. This is a new thing we're trying. I just got off a month's tour with Yawning Man. After the tour I figured, I'm here [so] I might as well spend time with my wife.

I lived in Copenhagen years ago. It's a great place to be, even if just for part of the year.
I'm thinking of coming back in a couple of months, spending more time here and trying to play more music. Because Southern California, it's really hard there. It's kinda hard where I live. I live up near Joshua Tree in kinda like a desolate area. And the kind of music I play, a lot of the musicians there aren't really in my genre. I don't really have a vibe with [them] I guess, musically. Down here in Copenhagen, there's a lot more musicians that are more up my alley, as far as jamming goes and what I grew up on.

There's this phenomenon of a European appeal for the kind of music that originates from the Palm Desert. I wonder, because you've spent all this time in Europe personally and professionally, why you think that this music connects so well with these audiences?
You know what? I've had this discussion with all my friends and we just don't know. After spending a lot of time in Europe, I'm seeing it not like a process; it's more natural here. The radio and TV isn't shoving stuff in your face like in the States. The U.S. is so mainstream rock. It's so radio rock. And here it's just the opposite. I don't understand. I think people here are just more down to earth musically. People here like the jamming more. They like the improv. They like the arts more. I went to school in Southern California, and there was no music for kids. There was no funding for arts. It was all cut out of the schools. Here in Europe, they throw money at the arts, at groups and venues. I think it's important. Because music is like a mediator for everybody—especially instrumental music. No matter what race you are or where you come from, it translates. If it's good, it's good. If it's not, it's not. It just vibes with people on a human level.

With a record like Skyline Pressure, because it is purely instrumental, it can appeal to an audience beyond the pop rock ones that are so verse-chorus-verse focused and perhaps limited by language.
We rehearsed for half a day with some loose ideas. We went in the very next day and just jammed our hearts out. We took the best of the best and made a record out of it. I always like doing music like that. To me, it speaks from the heart. It speaks off the cuff. We overthink stuff. It's like a painting. If you do a painting and you keep painting on it and painting on it, it loses its focus. But if you go with the moment, throw some splatters, go with it and walk away from it, there's this improvised feeling. You can always go and go a new one with a new feeling. If you sit there and you focus on one painting, and you try to dissect it and fine tune it, it loses its energy and its heart. I look at music like that. I approach music like that. I've always been that way. Go with your gut. Go with honesty.

That seems like it could be a challenge. With a project like Ten East, over your different records you've had different collaborators you'd worked with. How do you find like-minded people who get that and can work with that in a studio setting?
They approach me, usually. When Yawning Man, my main band, plays live, guys will approach me. 'Hey dude, I play guitar. I play bass. I play drums.' They're always like, 'Hey, let's jam sometime.' I'm like, yeah I don't live in the Netherlands but I'd love to hear what you do. [laughs] I peek at some files and some musicians I like and some of them I don't. I can usually pick out musicians I like by [their] live bands. If I see a band live, I might like the drummer, I might like the bass player. In my head, the rest of the band is non-existent and I'm matching that bassline. I'll start thinking of a guitar melody. That's kind of the way that I think. I'll block everybody out except him. If was playing guitar on that, I'd be doing this over that bassline or over that drumming.

That makes sense for somebody who has been improvising and jamming for as long as you have. Is there a methodology that you follow or tools you use to challenge yourself in these settings to get a jam where you want it to be?
Not really, no. Usually it starts off with me writing a riff. I'll throw the riff at a bass player and see what he comes up with. Whoever else is involved, I'll let them have their anarchy with the music [and] run with it. I do get a little weird about the beat. The drums have to be a certain tempo. I always think that the tempo of the song paces on the notes almost. On each note that's dropped, it needs its little universe. I always tell the drummer, dude slow down, let it just sit, let it have its word for a couple seconds. I just think that everything takes time and has a pace.

A term that gets used a lot when talking about your discography is jazz, at least going back to The Sort Of Quartet days. How does jazz motivate you as an improvising artist? Are there particular jazz musicians past or present who influence or continue to inspire you?
Miles Davis, obviously. I love the way he approached music. If you listen to "Bitches Brew," that one groove goes for like half an hour. [mouths "Bitches Brew" bassline] There's a method; it just builds up. It's kind of like walking down the street. There's one house and then there's a dog barking and you walk another block. Then you walk three blocks and an ambulance walks by. Music is like a walk, jazz for sure. I like the way they approach the notes and melodies out of nowhere.

Personally, I hate rock music. I can't stand heavy metal. I hate heavy metal. To me, it's the most ridiculous music ever. I can't stand it. I grew up on hardcore music, Bad Brains, D.O.A., and Black Flag. With me, heavy metal kind of ruined it, came and reared its ugly face and ruined punk rock. All these cool punk bands were organic and pure, then [they] went metal. It took away all that innocence.

Obviously people come to your music from so many different perspectives. Some come through punk rock, some through a hard rock or metal approach. It's interesting to me that you see certain aspects what intermingled with punk as having been toxic to it.
I do love early hardcore punk because I grew up on that stuff. I embraced jazz as well. I think Black Flag really fused jazz and punk towards their last album. I mean, The Process Of Weeding Out is probably the most important record that's ever been considered punk. It's like John McLaughlin meets Greg Ginn. You can tell where Greg's mind is opening up to a whole new world of music.

Those later Flag records don't get fully appreciated for not being punk rock shout-alongs. That extends into your time on SST Records. It bums me out that the Sort Of Quartet stuff is out of print. Are there any plans to get it back in print or onto Bandcamp or something?I'm not sure. I'd have to talk Greg about that. Me and Greg are good friends and talk quite often. We're on good terms, and whatever Greg wants to do I'm cool with. We were kids and Greg signed us to SST, which I'm grateful for. It was a great label with great bands. There's never going to be a roster of bands like that ever again. You got everything from Black Flag to Always August to Ultra Natives. The Ultra Natives, craziest music you'll ever hear! People like me and you know these bands. These metalheads are stuck with Ronnie James Dio and Judas Priest. There's no honesty in it, just leather and bar chords. Very mundane mediocre music. Me and Greg have talked about it at length many times. Greg understands what I'm saying, [but] Greg's more lenient to the metal stuff. He loves Dio. And I'm like, okay dude stop talking. [laughs]

I can see how you two would diverge on that point. Greg put out some classic metal albums through SST from Saint Vitus.
When Yawning Man first started playing, one of our first shows was with Saint Vitus. This was a really weird lineup. We played in Palm Springs with the original lineup with Scott Reagers on vocals, Yawning Man, and Always August. I mean, what a weird lineup! We were kids, so what I first met Saint Vitus I was really scared. They walked into the club like bikers, like Hells Angels guys. And we're these little punk rock kids playing whatever Yawning Man was. A punk rock Grateful Dead? I don't even know what we were. Then there was Always August, these hippies from Virginia. Vitus walks in and everyone's quiet. They started talking to us and they were the sweetest guys on earth. Ever since then. we were buddies. We're still friends.

I know you're on your way back home to California. Are there plans to get out and tour with Ten East for Skyline Pressure?
We just got with a booking agency, Yawning Man did. So we're going to start touring the U.S. as Yawning Man. I'm coming back to Europe in two months to record a new album with the guys I recorded Skyline Pressure with. Pieter [Holkenborg] and Erik [Harbers] want me to come back and record more music. They want to book some shows in the Netherlands. I gotta start playing more and touring more.

Gary Suarez is under pressure on Twitter.

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