To some, pedigree is everything. Exploring new bands comes down to scanning for what’s inside parentheses and seeing if any of those names are already up one’s alley.
All Souls—one of Los Angeles’ best unsung rock bands—aren’t short on their supply of highly respected affiliates. Guitarist and vocalist Antonio Aguilar and bassist vocalist Meg Castellanos, who are romantic partners, are also members of Totimoshi. (That revered alt-member band just announced its first gig in 12 years at Minneapolis’ Caterwaul Fest on May 28.)
Meanwhile, drummer Tony Tornay also has Fatso Jetson to his name, while new addition and guitarist and vocalist Alice Austin is the singer of Black Sabbath cover band Black Sabbitch.
For those who still aren’t sold on All Souls, look no further than the nifty nugget of noise rock they dropped in October. Ghosts Among Us, which the band self-released, is a sand-blasted blaze of desert rock. Yes, All Souls are an urban unit, but the handiwork of famed producer and Queens of the Stone Age collaborator Alain Johannes is ever-present throughout the band’s third release.
Shortly before All Souls issued Ghosts Among Us, Aguilar carved out a generous chunk of his time for a free-wheeling conversation with New Noise. Not only did he open up about the new LP and working with Johannes, he also shared some unforgettable stories from the band’s gigs with Tool and the Jesus Lizard.
Maybe most important of all, he also recounted in detail the troubling encounters he had with the Los Angeles Police Department—incidents that inspired some of the songs on All Souls’ first album. With inexplicably inhumane yet sickeningly commonplace video footage of police assaulting citizens they are supposed to protect, Aguilar’s stories drive home why so many of us turn to art: The weight of life can be too unbearable to shoulder on one’s own.
How’s your day going?
Good. Meg and I were up and we busy this morning getting things out on the internet (for Ghosts Among Us). We created our own label to self-release it.
More and more bands seem to be going that route. Are you also handling the merch table, publicity, management, et cetera?
We’ve always done all of that ourselves. Tony and Meg usually handle merch. The PR stuff is a band decision. The management stuff is kind of all of us, but mostly me.
Does doing all that take away from the music—if not in terms of time commitments then being in a business headspace instead of an artistic one so often?
There’s enough time in the day both. For me especially, because me and Meg own a rehearsal studio (Eastside Rehearsal). That’s our gig for making money. Meg is also a massage therapist. But I have so much time during the day and in the evening; it really isn’t beyond the realm of possibility to (handle business aspects for the band).
The music comes when it comes. Oftentimes, I write when I’m walking or doing other things. Something will pop in my head, and then I’ll have a melody or something like that, and then put I’ll that onto a guitar.
Then sometimes I’ll hear voice, the bass and the drum part as well. I did that for at least three of the songs… on Ghosts Among Us.
We’ll even write on vacation.
Yeah. During the pandemic, we took a lot of trips to Baja (California). Meg and I sometimes put everything in the car, take off and get lost. I think (her) lyrics (to) “Roam” are written about one of those trips. Oftentimes, a guitar is just too much to bring, because we have two dogs.
You always bring them with you when you travel?
Always. One of them came with us when we did some Tool dates (in 2019). He had a little laminate with his picture on it.
Awesome. Did Maynard James Keenan try to bring it out onstage? Sounds like something he would do.
Laughs. Maynard had a dog on tour as well, I think.
Do you spawn all the band’s songs, even if another band member writes the lyrics for it?
I come up with a lot of the ideas, and then I bring them in, and we “All Souls” them out with Tony and Meg in the studio. Tony wrote some of the riffs. Everybody puts in their two cents, and we figure it out from a lot of super, super hard work in the studio together.
That last approach was probably very difficult during lockdown.
We sort of made a little bubble during the lockdown, just the three of us. One of our original members (Erik Trammell) quit during the very beginning of the pandemic. A lot of people, during the pandemic, were having this moment of, “What do I want to do with my future?” Reshaping their lives. Erik seemed to have had one of those moments, and he just didn’t want to be in a band anymore. He just wanted to live differently.
It was hard for me to accept because I had felt like me and him had become a writing team. We always wrote together. Eventually, (I) accepted it. I had to; I had no choice. And then we just made a decision to just start writing.
At first it was hard, ‘cause it took a second to figure out what direction we were going to go as a three-piece. I had sort of stepped aside because I was singing mostly, and I wanted Erik to be the lead guitar player. And then I had to reshape my playing to be the prominent player. It wasn’t that hard, because I’d been playing for so long, but at the same time, I had to change my mindset and my approach.
Well, you must’ve adapted OK, because here you are, talking about the new record.
The adaptation was completely realized when we started working with Alain Johannes and were in the studio (playing together) as a three-piece. Alain ran a Line 6 Helix through my rig, so we were A-B’ing live. And then he put different types of effects into the Helix while I played through my normal effects through my rig. It showed me a different approach. He passed me the keys to the doorway, which was amazing.
In your mind, how does the new album sound from a musical standpoint compared with your other two releases (2018’s All Souls and 2020’s Songs for the End of the World)?
All three of them are definitely All Souls albums. There’s a very specific sound that we have. (Ghosts Among Us) is more melodic, but in a weird way. It’s still heavy, definitely. It was less of a concept album lyrically, because Meg wrote some lyrics, and Tony wrote some lyrics. But my approach was to make it less about something literal, like Songs for the End of the World was, and make it something a little bit more internally expressive. More Jackson Pollock, less figurative.
Did you tap more into the more introverted side of your personality, then?
Yeah. But, then again… there was some traumatic stuff that happened. I lost a niece, so there was some loss I was dealing with. Also, I decided to become sober completely, and that was making me deal with anxiety. And I realized during the writing process that I had hidden behind anxiety quite a bit. I didn’t use alcohol to dull it. That gave me everything to face: It was the pandemic plus the anxiety plus dealing with the trauma that the anxiety came from, which happened a zillion years ago.
So you sourced the anxiety and were maybe able to heal on a different level?
Yeah. That’s what “I Dream” is about. A long time ago, I worked at a cement plant for a summer, which is the place my father worked at for forty years. I spent a summer breaking away cement with a jackhammer that had accumulated for 40 years on top of a silo.
So I looked at that as a model for what I was doing: breaking away this accumulation of years and years of hiding this trauma that I’d never really addressed. Obviously, it comes out in anger or other emotional types of… It rears its ugly head in certain ways. But I just wanted to face it.
There’s still quite a bit of anxiety, and I’m still dealing with it. I think I’m getting to the point where I’m figuring out that massive amounts of exercise are helping me. So I swim laps. But it’s amazing what time does, releasing yourself from toxins.
How often and how long do you swim?
I try to go at least three times a week. Sometimes I go four or five. I try to do 45 minutes without taking a break.
Forty-five minutes swimming laps? Oh my God.
Yeah. There’s moments where I get so out of breath that I feel like I’m going to pass out. But then I try to jump right back into the water and keep going—and then make myself regain my breath as I go.
Do you swim in the ocean, then?
I swam in the ocean a lot in Baja, but I don’t in the Pacific so much because it’s just so violent. Meg grew up on the beach and loves being on the beach. So anytime we can be on the beach, we’re definitely into it.
Being in that relaxed state and being able to reflect on some things you normally wouldn’t if you’re constantly carrying and checking a device—I can see how that would provoke more creative stimulation.
It does, and it also allows you not to think anymore. All the turmoil during the Trump years and the pandemic, sometimes you just had to stop the brain. But you’re right, it definitely fueled a lot of the writing. I wrote a song called “The Grind” over there on a ukulele. The biggest pain in the ass was getting back and figuring out how to do that on a guitar.
How long have you been playing the ukulele?
Only a few years. I’m not really a ukulele player, but it’s a string instrument, so I can do finger-style stuff that I do with the guitar. A friend of mine whose wedding I ordained gave me a really nice ukulele as a gift. He was in Totimoshi for a bit; he was an ex-drummer.
You can’t exactly pawn off a gift like that to another friend. You gotta learn how to play it if someone gives it to you.
Oh yeah, man! And it’s the greatest little thing. It fits in a backpack. So I can take it anywhere and be writing anywhere, as opposed to a guitar.
Sorry if you’ve been asked this a million times, but are you related to the rancher hero Antonio Aguilar?
No, but I’m named after him. My mom happened to be married to a guy with the same last name, my dad, and she was absolutely in love with Antonio Aguilar. She wanted to name my older brother that, and my dad wouldn’t go for it. So I was the second (son), and she gave me the name. Apparently, she went to see him live one time and waited after and ran up and jumped on him and had to be dragged off him.
But yeah, when I was a kid, Million Dollar Theater was still open, and my mom and dad used to bring me and my (siblings) down to see the mariachi movies here in L.A. I grew up about an hour and a half outside of LA.
Is that why Mariachi Plaza is so important to you guys?
Mariachi Plaza is in our neighborhood. We live in Boyle Heights. That’s the center of Boyle Heights, and obviously, we wanted to include Mariachi Plaza in our video (for “I Dream”) and whatever else we do artistically.
This neighborhood has had such a huge influence on the band, for me. There’s a song called “The Ghost Is Flying Home” (from the self-titled debut); it’s about a 14-year-old who was murdered by (Los Angeles Police Department officers) down the street from here. He was spray-painting—He was a gang member, but he was a kid—and the police came upon him, and he started running, and he ran in front of an old Schul (a Jewish synagogue)… He ran there and tried to throw the gun over a fence. The gun hit the top of the fence and went off, and LAPD shot him dead right there.
And the worst of it was, the next day, they had officers basically doing PR on the streets and stopping people. They stopped me and Meg on the way to practice and asked us if we’d heard what had happened, how they had no choice but to kill him, this and that.
It’s offensive, man. I’ve been stopped, in my life, 11 times, on a bicycle. In Boyle Heights, the LAPD stopped me once and literally made up a bunch of stuff and threw me up against a wall and searched me for no reason. Another time, they stopped me directly in front of my house and wanted to search me. This is literally the house that I bought, and Meg bought, that we pay taxes on.
There’s a song called “Sadist/Servant” (also on the self-titled LP) written about that experience when I was thrown against a wall. We used to play it quite a bit in our set.
When did that happen to you?
Around 2016 or 2017. I had 30 minutes to go get dinner because I had bands coming to the (recording) space. I was literally going down the street to King Taco. I waited at a red light and, I rode across once it turned green. I dismounted and started walking up a sidewalk, and they rode up on me and told me I’d run a red light. And I said, “No, it was green when I rode across.” And they were, like, “Well, you didn’t have your lights on.” And I was, like, “No, I had my lights on and turned them off when I got off the bike.”
Then they told me to turn my front light on, and I did, and they, “You’re supposed to have a green one, not a red one.” And then they said something like, “You seem like a typical cop-hater.” And then they grabbed me and threw me against a wall. So I wrote a song for them.
Was Tony the one who provided the one for All Souls getting initiated in the desert rock scene?
Tony’s the only one from what people refer to as “the desert”—the Palm Desert, that area in Riverside County. He grew up with Josh Homme and is the drummer of Fatso Jetson, which are considered the granddads of that whole movement. Tony and I had met probably 20-something years ago when Fatso Jetson was opening for Queens of the Stone Age at the Bottom of the Hill. I’d gone to that show and introduced myself to Mario because I really liked that band. I slowly became friends with Mario. I started sending him letters and artwork ‘cause I used to do drawings back then. So we became friends and started playing shows with Fatso Jetson.
When I moved to LA, Tony and I threw out the idea of someday starting a band together. This went on for years—Totimoshi was still together at the time—and then our drummer wound up moving back to Kansas City. And then Totimoshi broke up. Eventually, I started writing with my friend Eric Trammel. I sent the songs to Tony and said, “Dude, check this out. This is really good.” He liked it and wanted to be part of it, and I wanted Meg to be the bass player, because she’s my favorite one—and my favorite traveling companion in the whole world.
So was it Fatso Jetson or Josh who put you in touch with Alain?
It was Tony. Tony knew Alain for years. I think he might’ve met him with the Desert Sessions stuff, but I have no idea. What’s funny is that I had been a fan of Alain for a long time. He does these guitar things online, these little jams that he does by himself. He did one where he posted this tuning, which is C-D-C-G-C-D. I tried the tuning out, and I wound up writing “I Dream” and “Who Holds the Answer” with that tuning—not knowing that Alain was going to be the guy recording us and the guy playing on those songs with us.
Was he pleasantly surprised with the songs?
He knew the tuning, and I said, “Yeah, I learned that tuning from you.” And he just kind of smiled.
What happened was… we really love Toshi (Kasai), and he had produced the first two records and three Totimoshi albums. So I have a really long-standing friendship and relationship with Toshi. But what started it was… We knew we had to record it as a three-piece. We tried to have another member join the band, but it didn’t work out. Alain saying yes after we asked him to do it was elating. We were beside ourselves. It was hard to tell Toshi, because I love the guy as a persona and professionally, and don’t want to stop working with him ever. But we all wanted to try working with Alain and had a good time working with him.
He’s the sweetest person I’ve ever interviewed, probably.
He’s all soul—literally. He’s completely a beautiful spirit.
Last question: Have you ever considered opening an “All Soles” store that sells sneakers?
(Laughs.) Yeah, man, we’ll sell anything. Haha. We sold panties on the Tool tour at their request—and they completely sold out.
All Souls play the Paramount in L.A. on March 3 and Heavy Psych Fest in Joshua Tree, California, later next month.