Interview By Matthew Hutchison
Harvard & Stone, Hollywood, California
May 23, 2019
Tour Date 7 of 9
“You know, one thing I’ve noticed since being out here is how nice Americans are in general. I’m not talking about those we meet at the shows, just everyday people,” del-Toros drummer Tony Gaarthuis comments as we walk into the dimly lit managerial office, the DJ’s music muffled as the door shuts behind us.
“Yeah, it’s as if we don’t know if you’re serious or not,” guitarist Guido Bruin chimes in.
As the cultural commentary continues, bassist Sicco Roukema darts to the nearest couch to seat himself and his beer. A deep exhale from the guy signifies his state—likely the state of the others too. It’s now 30 minutes into May 24, which means its 9:30 a.m. over in Alkmaar, North Holland, the band’s hometown. Factor in that time change and the 5,000-plus mile trek to be here tonight, and it’s understandable that they’re tired. Then there are the long drives and intense traffic they’ve endured for the 10 days they’ve toured through California. Welcome to the Golden State, guys!
The alt-surf trio are on their first U.S. tour, a California exclusive made possible by an invitation to play Stoned And Dusted in Joshua Tree during Memorial Day weekend. Looking at the event poster, they’re the small fries among names like Mark Lanegan, Acid King, Yawning Man, Black Mountain, and the others. Still, they were selected to be here, and that show is their tour’s pinnacle, the reason they undertook this costly venture. They still have to get through their Redwood Bar show in Los Angeles tomorrow night before they trek out to Joshua Tree.
Tonight’s show went smoothly it seems, much better than Cafe NELA, their Los Angeles debut the week prior…
Cafe NELA, Los Angeles
May 17, 2019
Tour Date 3 of 9
del-Toros go on at 8:30 p.m., the proverbial “fuck you slot.” It’s either that or no show at all, so the choice is obvious. There are 10 people in the room. This does not faze them, but some hiccups occur.
They entered Los Angeles in need of a repair to one of Gaarthuis’ drums; a visit to the neighboring Highland Park neighborhood solves the issue. Upon arriving at 8:25, they’re tuning up and exchanging greetings. They’re in work mode and about to go on, no time to catch up right now.
The bill is stacked with SST Records alumni and surf rockers: Insect Surfers, Lawndale, Joe Baiza, and del-Toros. Opening the night in true “paying your dues” fashion, the band kick off a half-hour set with gusto. Two songs in, Roukema’s bass goes silent, prompting him to investigate his guitar and his Sunn amplifier head onstage mid-song while Bruin and Gaarthuis improvise sections to buy their bassist time. After a few minutes, the bass cabinet bounces back and the show continues uninterrupted for a few more songs.
However, the situation becomes dire a few seconds into the concluding song, “50 Knots,” as Roukema’s cabinet falls silent again. This time, from the look of confusion and frustration on his face, the problem seems to be more extensive than the bass head. Gaarthuis and Bruin do their best to extend parts of the song, again buying time for Roukema to rebound, but visibly agitated after a second inspection, he puts the bass guitar down and the song concludes without him. Not the way anyone would want to introduce themself to this town, however not a deal breaker for the band, as they have three shows around the city to deliver the goods. They’re resourceful, and this undertaking proves that they’re resilient too.
Harvard & Stone, Hollywood, California
May 23, 2019
Tour Date 7 of 9
San Francisco was next, then a last-minute show on Los Angeles’ westside at Timewarp Records, followed by a trip up north to Ventura, all leading up to tonight. Talking to the three before their set, their vibe is calm, serene almost—a much different vibe from the one after their set at NELA.
The billing at Harvard & Stone is a heavy lineup; the structure’s stone walls won’t help anyone’s ears tonight. A misunderstanding between the opening band and venue leads to a cancellation and, thus, an earlier-than-anticipated start time for the remaining two groups: The Freeks and del-Toros.
The Freeks are up to bat. The hometown heavy psych rockers tear through a set that takes advantage of the bar’s structural environment, sonically speaking. In short, it’s really loud in here! The members of this band have reputations, having done time in such groups as Clawhammer, Fu Manchu, and Backbiter, and as such, seemingly don’t know any volume level lower than 10. Going through choice tracks from their past LPs—such as “Uncle Jack’s Truck” from 2016’s Shattered and “Big Black Chunk” from 2013’s Full On—and cuts like “Hypnotize My Heart” and “American Lightning” off their more recent Crazy World album from 2018, they set the stage for del-Toros to follow in loud fashion.
After 45 minutes of deafening rock, The Freeks wrap it up and tell the audience to stay longer to see del-Toros, and after a short changeover with what sounds like the Las Vegas Grind! compilation coming from the DJ booth, del-Toros come up to bat.
They open their set on a comedown note with the drowsy-sounding “072-South,” a cut off their first release, 2010’s del-Toros, before going into material from Ten Stories High, released in 2018 via Down At The Nightclub Records and Shiny Beast: “Octowave,” “Halloween Theme,” and “End of the World.” It makes sense the band are touring California exclusively; their music has a feel befitting the States’ environments, a surf-staccato style mixed with the low end heard in the desert rock subgenre. How to describe this? Imagine Dick Dale sparring with the robotic riffs that round out The Desert Sessions Volume I. Volume II—something like that. The room has that feel tonight: there are no technical mishaps to dampen the vibe, the crowd is getting 100 percent of these three, and people are into it. The band pick up steam as they reached the tail-end of their set, which includes the high-energy surf track “50 Knots,” the lysergic-sounding “Static Ejection No. 10,” and the brooding “Die Cast.” It’s the kind of set they deserve, and they deliver full tilt.
After the set, Roukema runs to the merch booth for a few minutes to man the table while Gaarthuis and Bruin break down their gear onstage. DJ Del Scorcho, the host of the night, runs up to the stage to inform them that they don’t need to tear down now and clears us to go upstairs. As we ascend the stairs, the opening riff of “Bundle of Joy” by The Dean Ween Group starts from the turntables Scorcho mans and the aforementioned cultural commentary about friendly Americans ensues.
The four of us make our way through the steel doors of the office to chat, but first, here’s some background for the uninitiated:
del-Toros have been around since 2008, and no two records from their discography sound the same. Across four LPs and a handful of singles, they traverse stoner, surf, punk, and heavy rock, progressively crossing and combining genres with each new album. It’s their instrumental work that stands out from the rest, each composition suited for a low-budget cult cinema flick set in the Southwestern United States. It’s a strongpoint of their songwriting and one they fully utilize on their newest LP, Ten Stories High. However, their decision to tour here predates this album’s release, due in part to a chance opportunity to release music alongside Southern California’s own Fatso Jetson in 2016 as part of a 7” split for Shattered Platter.
Reflecting on how this opportunity to tour the U.S. came about, Roukema explains, “We had an idea to do this a few years ago, but at the time, it was a pipe dream, because we didn’t know anyone or have contacts here to pull it off where it would be sensible.”
“Yeah, that was the case at the time, but it wasn’t until we did a split with Fatso Jetson a few years ago that we really became serious about doing this,” Bruin adds. “They’ve been to Europe quite a few times, and meeting them and linking up with [vocalist and guitarist] Mario [Lalli]’s other band, Yawning Man, played a big part in this as well. Through Mario, we were added to Stoned And Dusted this year—however, the lineup switched quite a bit on what day we were actually going to play,” he laughs. “When I saw the poster, though, it was like, ‘Fuck, we’re on it!’ It’s surreal, of course; hearing all the stories about the generator parties that happened out there in the ’80s, it’s cool for us over there to hear. Now to get to play one, that’s totally different—also with the lineup they’ve put together! It’s very surreal to be here, like a total dream for us to be able to do this.”
This tour is currently the farthest the band have gone together since forming. Stretches across Europe and into Scandinavia are included in their past conquests, but this is their biggest undertaking. “We didn’t really expect much of anything coming into this. We couldn’t and just want to keep a realistic mindset. So far, it’s been more than what we imagined it could have been,” Roukema explains.
“Another thing is the high standards we’re seeing regarding the bands we’ve played with,” Bruin adds. “They raise the bar for us. The Freeks are a good example of this. We don’t play with a lot of groups back home who make us step up our game.”
Ten Stories High is another way del-Toros have taken their game to new heights. It’s their first entirely instrumental record, a process that takes different brainwork than traditional rock songwriting. Bruin shares how the concept came about, noting, “The first riffs we ever made were the instrumentals on the first album; that’s where we started out. The rest of the songs on that album are just hard rock songs with tons of reverb. When we started tossing ideas around on how to go about with Ten Stories High, we were 50-50 on what to do and ultimately decided on it being an instrumental record. We’ve written in this style before but never to this extent. It’s a different workflow than the traditional songwriting sense of verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge. The only thing that makes it easy is there’s no vocal job involved.”
Gaarthuis goes more in depth with his insights. “Initially, I was uncomfortable and hesitant with the idea, because I felt it was a big step to take from what we had in our old set, which was great and very raw,” he says. “That’s how I felt about it on a personal level. However, when we all decided this and started the process, it just kept growing and growing and my confidence and belief that this really would work improved as well. When we started writing this album, we noticed there were lots of bass notes in the songs, more than what is on the other albums, which were written like a traditional rock record. We extended those basslines, and that made things exciting with the rest of the songwriting, and it plays out as such. Looking at the album and our process behind it from a big picture, this was the right thing to do, and it really progressed our abilities.”
“Honestly, I can’t remember our old set anymore, because we’ve been doing this one for some time now. Even the people back home who come to see us remember it more than I do,” he laughs.
“I think I speak for everyone when I say we didn’t want the monitors anymore,” Bruin humorously remarks. “It’s a barricade, really, between you and the audience. Instrumentals are something we like to do and put a lot of effort in when the time comes to record one for a record—or in this case, 10 for an album. We’re fans of soundtracks as well; you can hear that influence with the John Carpenter cover, [‘Halloween Theme,’] we put on this album. Also, the Simple Minds cover, [‘Theme for Great Cities’], is another one we’re fans of—such a great song. The obvious is also it makes our jobs easier; we can focus on just playing and not worry about vocals. No multitasking happening makes things easier for everyone. I believe this is the best set we’ve ever had because of it.”
It’s clear the band like to be challenged from all angles: touring, writing, recording, and even who they play with. They’re very humble about it as well, and their respect for each other’s contributions and work ethic is due to their longevity. They’re realistic and take things in stride, and it’s starting to manifest as new opportunities and doors opening.
How will this trip to the New World play out in the next album?
“We’re already writing songs for the next record. There are no breaks here,” Gaarthuis laughs. “Sometimes we talk about how we should make it sound, and we’ve got some new ideas about that. I think it would be really nice to make it sound more of a ‘trippy’ album, but we’ll see how it works out when the songs are ready. We have no limits or restrictions to what type of music we want to play. If it’s OK with us—I’m talking for myself here and hope I speak for everybody—if it feels right for us, we’ll put it on the record.”
del-Toros show patterns of things to come with each release. Ten Stories High featured a slight break from the instrumental aspect with some spoken word by Peter te Bos of Dutch cult rock band Claw Boys Claw. “Beatnik Surf”—is that a genre yet? Perhaps this is a sign of things to come for del-Toros…? Only they know, and we’ll have to wait until then.
Get some sleep, guys, ’cause if you three were back home at this moment, you’d be at work now.
Photo by The Biarritz Boys