Garcia Peoples :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

New Jersey’s own Garcia Peoples open Nightcap at Wits’ End with an arch, vaguely evil-sounding riff that signals what’s to come: a set of songs that would feel equally at home soundtracking a backyard hang, a rousing game of D&D, or a solitary night at home considering the universe. “Gliding Through” offers a balanced blend of menacing prog theatrics, feel good boogies, and heady aphorisms: “Everything you visualize is coming true/Although you may feel bad, you may feel blue/Love your neighbor just as much as they love you/Cause you and I my friend, we’re just gliding through.”

It’s a work informed by years of consistent gigs and productivity. The band’s fourth album in the last two years, Nightcap finds guitarists Tom Malach, Danny Arakaki, and Derek Spaldo, bassist Andy Cush, keyboardist Pat Gubler, and drummer Cesar Arakaki manage to synthesize the song-oriented approach of Natural Facts and the loose psychedelic sprawl of One Step Behind. There’s room for new ideas too: “Altered Place” coils with lush, baroque pomposity; “One at at a Time” rides a striking AOR groove; and then there’s “(Litmus),” a brief but righteous Amon Düül exhortation, utterly blown out.

Of course the band is already at work on a follow up, working things out in a post-COVID world and wondering how and when live music will return. But before that, we caught up with founding members Danny Arakaki and Tom Malach to discuss the band’s songwriting process, learning how to feel at home in the studio, and progressive rock. | j woodbury

Aquarium Drunkard: Thanks for taking some time to talk about this record, guys. There’s a lot happening on this record. Did the expanded lineup facilitate where you wanted to go with this one?

Danny Arakaki: The lineup, not such much. We’ve been recording as if we had three guitar players since the beginning, at least from Cosmic Cash on.

AD: The second side almost feels like One Step Behind, but it’s not one long song—there’s a distinct feel to each of the songs included, even as they segue into each other.

Tom Malach: There’s some weird improvisational aspect to some of the tracks, there’s an acoustic thing…listening to that second side, it has a lot of variety in it.

AD: I’ve never even seen you all live yet I’ve experienced so much of your live music via videos, tapes, and all that. Did you want the record to feel like a show?

Danny Arakaki: Definitely. In that aspect, that definitely brings out the six-person aspect of the band. Once we start playing live, anyone can take over. There’s a bit of that going on there.

AD: There are some proggy passages, grooves, and freakout stuff. You have all these different modes. Has the feel of the band “organism” changed, or does it feel like a natural outgrowth of what you two started?

Danny Arakaki: Both. [Laughs]

Tom Malach: It’s just a “go with it” kind of thing.

AD: Balancing six dudes in a jam is one thing, but there’s a lot of detailed interplay on this record. Has the band always operated with something like a general plan?

Danny Arakaki: This is the first one where we’re stepping away from the plan. Cosmic Cash, Natural Facts, and One Step Behind were planned and definitive from the get-go, going into the studio. Those records were all a batch. Nightcap and this one we’re working on right, they are part of the different batch.

Tom Malach: Like “season one,” “season two.” With this one, we’ve got to thank Jason Meagher—who didn’t engineer this record, Jeff Zeigler did—but Jason brought us up to Black Dirt to do a session with Hans Chew awhile back, then he brought us back to do a Godz cover. We had two really good sessions that weren’t high stakes. We went in without a plan. It was very in the moment, in the studio, and we liked what we ended up making. For Nightcap, Danny suggested we do that second side all going into each other. That was suggested in the studio and we just made it up as we went along and it worked. I think there’s a confidence thing we now have the we previously didn’t.

AD: You guys often write lyrics in the studio. How often are you not sure what the lyrics “mean” in the moment? Is there a willingness to have it be a little amorphous and have the meaning develop as time goes on?

Danny Arakaki: It always has to at least “mean” a couple things. You have to put yourself into different personalities, in someone else’s shoes when I’m writing. But as soon as it’s down, that’s that. Pick up the pieces, you know?

Tom Malach: From doing interviews and talking with people, it’s been interesting what people think about the tone of the record or the themes. I guess I’m too in it to really comment on that stuff. We’re not sitting around talking, “These are the themes of the record,” that’s not really a conversation we have, but it’s interesting to see what meaning people get.

AD: It feels like there’s this exploration of skeeved out paranoia everyone has right now. We live in a world where it feels next to impossible to cut through the constant distortion and weirdness. “Passing Through,” there’s that line, “amusing and distressing lies.” That’s so accurate: things would be so much funnier if they weren’t so dire. These last couple years have been a head trip. How has that made it into the record?

Danny Arakaki: I think that’s been a part of it for me since the beginning. Everything that’s been happening has been happening for awhile now.

AD: A song like “Altered Place” feels like a different space for the band to occupy. It’s very ornate, kind of like Love.

Tom Malach: I wrote the music for that one and working title was “Medieval Amongst Us.” That was the hardest tune to nail down in the studio. I was supposed to sing it but I couldn’t come up with anything I was liking so I asked Derek to give it a shot. The next day he had that ready. I think that song is different from a lot of the songs on the record—musically, lyrically—but I like the way it come out. I don’t think I even know what “countenance” means…[Laughs]

AD: Were you guys in any bands together before Garcia Peoples?

Tom Malach: We were in a band called Harpoon Forever together. A jangly indie rock kind of thing.

Danny Arakaki: In 2008, 2009. We were super influenced by the Clean, the Verlaines, New Zealand stuff. That’s where I learned to play with people. It was the first time I played with more than one other person.

AD: Did that band ever “jam?”

Tom Malach: That came later, although I think we had one song where we’d play one chord for three minutes. [Laughs]

Danny Arakaki: Improvising didn’t enter my mind until way later. Stuff like Can is what led into improvisation for me, and then listening to the Dead, stuff other than the greatest hits and Aoxomoxoa.

AD: The band’s name is always going to inspire Dead thoughts and discussions but on this new record, it doesn’t sound like any Dead album necessarily. But there is a sort of Terrapin Station kind of intricacy on this album. Is progressive rock a communal reference point?

Tom Malach: I don’t know if anyone else is a fan, but I played a lot of Steve Hillage in the van. I don’t know if anyone liked it, but I played a bunch of it.

Danny Arakaki: We listen to Rush. [Laughs] That kind of prog. Stuff like Mahavishu Orchestra.

AD: I’ve been obsessed with the Santana/John McLaughlin record, an old favorite I’ve been returning to so much.

Tom Malach: For years hating on Santana was my thing—”Ah man, Santana sucks, he’s terrible.” I made a Facebook post, but now, after meeting so many people through playing music who all have such great taste, they know everything about music, I had a bunch of people sending me some really great Santana music. After listening to that thread of music, I was like “Santana is great, I was completely wrong.”

AD: In underground circles, you can talk about being into Genesis pretty freely. But Yes starts to move in a direction for a lot of people where it’s like, no thanks. And Rush, I mean, people definitely downplay or hate Rush.

Tom Malach: How old are you?

AD: I’m going to be 36.

Tom Malach: I think that’s people who are older than us. They went to high school with people who liked Rush who were total dicks. That’s an experience we missed out on—for us, Rush is just another band to listen to. Yeah man, “Limelight” is good. That’s a good time. That being said, we’re not bumping Rush all the time.

Going back to Santana, I think all music hatred stuff is performative on some level. It goes in and out. Sometimes I don’t want to listen to the Grateful Dead, sometimes I do. You’re allowed to take breaks, you’re allowed to do whatever you want with music. I think shitting on things, there’s some personal things going on there. I doubt people are like “I payed $60 to see Rush and they sucked now I hate them because of that.” That’s a valid reason.

AD: Garcia Peoples has been so open to playing with other people. You’ve done stuff with William Tyler, Chris Forsyth, and others. One of my favorite things I’ve seen all year is you all playing that Psychedelic Sangha happening with Sarah Louise. Playing with other people and having it work out—especially when you’re talking improvisation—that speaks to the band’s cohesion. Is the confidence pretty high these days?

Danny Arakaki: In terms of that, yeah. I think we can go in and as long as we like the person we’re working with, that carries over. We’re going to be excited about the whole thing and try our best.

Tom Malach: It’s been pretty fun to work with other people, have another person come in and play with us. That’s how Pat got involved in the band; now he’s full-time. Letting Pat do Pat’s thing, you know, we’re comfortable having someone there with us. It’s always, “Let’s see what happens, it’s going to be cool.”

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