The Linus Pauling Quartet has been around for almost 20 years now, and in an age where the music industry and music fans have become increasingly fickle, their longevity as a band is something that countless acts should learn from (regardless of the genre). Certainly, few acts have lasted as long as the LP4 while remaining committed to happily thwarting expectations and defying easy pigeonholing – and with such a goofy, nerdy sense of humor. Or it may be their mutual and undying love of Dungeon and Dragons, video games, pot and beer. (After all, those things are truly all American, right?)
In January 2013, the band and their label, Home Skool Recordz will be releasing an epic 3 disc retrospective compilation titled, Assault on the Vault of the Ancient Bonglords. With their last release of original and new material, Bag of Hammers which was released earlier this year – er, I guess at this point I should say 2012? – it marks a rather productive period for the band.
In this Q&A with Linus Pauling Quartet members Ramon Medina (guitars), Clinton Heider (vocals, guitars), and Charlie Horshack (vocals, guitar), we talk about the forthcoming release of Ancient Bonglords, the key to the band’s longevity, their influences, their formation, as well as a few other subjects. And always with their signature, quirky sense of humor.
At times absolutely hilarious and interesting, I think that this interview may be one of the more interesting interviews to date. Check it out below.
WRH: How did the band meet?
Ramon Medina: We met back during the psychic wars. We’d been living on the edge so long where the winds of limbo roar… I was young enough to look at and far too old to see that all the scars are on the inside… I wasn’t sure if there was anything left of me. So Clinton [Heider] said “Don’t let these shakes go on; It’s time we had a break from it.” [A]nd thus we left our outpost and formed the band.
Clinton Heider: Ramon actually tricked me into joining. But seriously, Ramon and I have known each other since we were kids – and Larry [Liska] went to high school and college with us. Steve and Ramon worked together, they decided to start a band, and found me and Larry. Charlie joined a couple years later after a guest saxophone appearance turned into more than he ever bargained for, and that was that.
Charlie Horshack: I actually joined the band about three years in. They had all been living on the edge so long where the winds of limbo roar. Since that time, the winds of limbo roar in my ears too, but that may well be acute tinnitus. When they asked me to join, all they wanted was a translator, but I was a mapmaker by trade. Then we saw a bunch of airplanes in the desert that had been lost decades previously, and I was all “WHAT IS THIS??”
WRH: Of all the people to name a band after, why Linus Pauling? And was it an automatic thing where everyone went “yeah, Linus Pauling Quartet is pretty awesome” or was it something that came about after playing with different band names that just never seemed to fit right?
RM: Our original band name was Linus with umlauts over the U but later other bands challenged us to the name. Their lawyers were tall and mighty and we, still weary from the wars, could not defend our name. We then moved on to the names Linus Van Pelt or Linus Pauling. [Charles M.] Schultz was still alive but Dr. Pauling had recently passed on so we figured he was easier to take head-to-head. Plus, we are all science geeks so it was a good fit.
C. Heider: [W]hat Ramon said. I’d add that the great Linus Pauling once was asked how he had so many ideas, and he answered: “I have a lot of ideas and throw away the bad ones” which I think is similar to our creative approach as a band. Dr. Pauling was one of the last of his kind – a genius, a crazy old crank, and a mad scientist all rolled into one. It’s hard not to find that inspiring.
C. Horshack: I had suggested the name “Tesla” but it turns out it was taken.
WRH: How would you describe your sound?
RM: I can’t speak for the rest of the band but the sound is the kind of loud, heavy stuff that comes out of every American garage when there are Marshall stacks and a cooler full of beer. It’s chimp music….this primal, reptilian part of your brain made into sound waves.
C. Heider: Like Ramon says, somewhere between garage rock and heavy rock, with a little psychedelic moon dust thrown in…
C. Horshack: What sound? All I hear is the constant high-pitched whine in my ears.
WRH: Who are your influences?
RM: Geez there is so much. You name it and we’ve likely borrowed from it and not just music but books, TV, [f]ilm, etc In the end, we’re just this amalgamation of all the things we encounter and enjoy. I could cite Sabbath and MC5 in there sure but there is a bit of Adventure Time with Finn and Jake in there too and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Jaroslav Hašek, Stanley Kubrick and Carl Sagan as well. Not to mention all our friends who affect what we do. I know my guitar playing is as much influenced by my friends Jim Otterson and Hearts of Animals’ Mlee Marie for example as it is by Jimi Hendrix. I dunno, we’re just a big glob.
C. Heider: For me, lots of late 60s and early 70s heavy blues, and also some 60s psych rock. But also a lot of punk and new wave stuff too, like Bauhaus, the Butthole Surfers, Scratch Acid, the B-52s, Black Flag… and then more current heavy bands like High on Fire or Black Mountain.
WRH: Who are you listening to right now?
RM: Right now? Wo Fat’s Black Code. They are this incredible trio from Dallas that words cannot do justice. You just have to listen to it and see them live. Brutal guitarist and an unbeatable rhythm section! Alabama Shakes’ Boys and Girls is this dope band from Alabama that just kick-ass. And Charles Bradley!!! Fuck, that dude is amazing!! I love old soul and after hearing his song “Heartaches and Pain” I just was hit with the same sense of “What the shit?!!!” I got when I first saw Otis Redding’s Monterrey Pop live footage. Just a[s] cool as you can get cat who deserves recognition! And speaking of soul music Houston‘s Grandfather Child….you got to pick up a copy of their debut! Soul that can make your mama weep and a whole lot more!!!
C. Heider: Actually been listening to a lot of country… Townes Van Zandt, Robert Earl Keen, old school stuff like Willie [Nelson] and Ray Price. Been getting a lot into the Black Angels and Dead Meadow, and of course all my standard 60s and 70s skull thumping hard rock. And plenty of blues.
C. Horshack: Gosh, all kinds of stuff. I was listening to the re-mastered version of Massive Attack‘s Blue Lines this morning, and last night there was some Ali Akbar Khan, El-P, the Rolling Stones (Aftermath, specifically), and John Lee Hooker. I like variety.
WRH: The band will be celebrating their 20th anniversary in 2014, if I’m not mistaken. In your time together, you’ve seen the music industry become more fractured, niche-orientated and fickle. What do you ascribe to your longevity? And what advice would you give to independent artists?
RM: We just do it for fun. We’re friends and have never had expectations of commercial success so for us it’s like going to poker night every Tuesday. We sit around, drink beer, talk shit, and then, eventually, get around to making music. I’ve seen great bands come and go but, somehow, we never stop and I think it’s because we’re all good friends, nobody has a big ego, we keep it DIY, we have no commercial aspirations, and we have fun.
C. Heider: Exactly what Ramon said. The biggest mistake I’ve seen bands make is the idea that if they do the right things, they can “make it”. (A) It’s very difficult to enjoy yourself and the process of being in a band if that’s what you’re concerned about, because “making it” involves making a lot of shitty sacrifices for something that may or may not happen, which brings me to (B) the single biggest factor in “making it” is largely luck. If you want longevity, just remember it’s just for fun, you’ll probably never be remembered for it or lionized for your contribution to the musical landscape, and the most important thing is to remember you’re only one part of a unit that is comprised of several people with their own viewpoints and approaches. The best thing about being in a band is the fact that you’re rewarded for suppressing your ego and being part of something that ideally should be greater than the sum of its parts.
C. Horshack: The only advice I could give would be to remember that the people who come to see you are there to have a good time, not to see you futz around with your gear, stare at your socks, or mumble. Put on a show for them and kick out the jams. Try to be professional, respect the venues, the other bands you are playing with, and your fans.
WRH: The band is releasing a 3 disc retrospective box set on December 18th. [Ed note: From what I understand, the release of this 3 disc retrospective has been pushed back until January, 2013.] How did that come about? And how did you all decide which songs appeared and in what order?
RM: This was actually the label’s idea because so much of our old back catalog is out of print. We just let Homeskool’s Bubba Hightower select the songs because we didn’t want to fight over what songs would make it and which ones wouldn’t. If you were to ask me right now what songs are on it, I couldn’t tell you.
C. Horshack – Yeah, it’s not really our thing, but I have to say I’m really happy we’re doing it. It’s been an enormous pain in the ass getting this thing done, and we’re all a bit tired of dealing with it, but given that so much of our older material is out of print, this is a great way to get out the best of that stuff, and throw in a nice bonus to boot.
WRH: I’ve listened to the box set, and I’ve noticed that even on the songs where the material is at it’s most densely layered and complex there’s a free-flowing jam-like air, and at times a mischievous, playful sense of humor. That can be so difficult to maintain that balance. So how does the songwriting process work for the band? Are the ideas fully fleshed out as you’re about to hit the studio? Or is there a basic idea that gets fleshed out as eac member contributes their ideas?
RM: We are a pretty ADD band so we constantly shift what we do based on our mood. We have three guys who sing, we’ve done albums that are more improvisational, others more psych, others more metal, others more pop… there really is no method to the madness. We just toss-out ideas into the machine and see what comes out the other end. Sometimes there are fully written ideas and other times it’s just a riff that’s expanded upon. It’s very dynamic and we all go in cycles if I’m not generating material, then Charlie or Clinton will. The thing is whatever you bring into the studio will likely come out different than what you expected because everyone puts their spin on it.
C. Heider: We work different songs in different ways… we do have some songs which are mostly written by one of us before they get to the band. But they always come out sounding completely different, or one of us will put in a little accent or something that turns an average song into a great song. Other songs we come up with all together, more or less at the same time. Sometimes one of us will write all the lyrics, or be inspired by a particular line or idea from someone else in the band. The biggest thing is to let stuff happen and see what everyone does with it. We have played together for so long that we can tell pretty quickly when something is working, or something isn’t.
C. Horshack: Again, variety. I think there’s nothing more important. Few things bore me so much as a band that only does one thing.
WRH: The band is known as a stoner rock band in a sense. However in your material, there’s this sense of refusing to be pigeonholed. Is that a conscious and deliberate thing or does that happen naturally?
RM: It’s actually natural. Like I said it’s very ADD here so we’ll do one thing, get bored with it, move on, and then come back to it. The reason we get stuck in the Stoner rock category is because we do a lot of that kind of stuff and we’ve been doing it since before it had that moniker but we also do softer stuff, more melodic stuff, or more improvisational stuff but no matter what we do outside of the heavy stuff, people always remember the heavy stuff so there you have it. If that’s how people see us that’s fine, and I’m glad they dig that stuff but it does leave me wondering, “OK I’ve got a quiet melodic song or a pop punk song here… will the stoner rock crowd not dig it?” But in the end we just follow our muse and let the chips fall where they may which is why we have little expectation for success on any huge scale. We’re too rock for the punk crowd, we’re too goofy for the metal crowd, and we’re too geeky for the indie crowd. At heart, we’re just the same old Sci-fi reading, D&D outcasts from high school except that now we just have loud guitars.
C. Heider: There’s no telling what we will come up with…yet I do think there is a consistency to what we do. I like a lot of different kinds of music… do I have to start a new band to try something out? No, because even if I have a country song I can come to LP4 and see what happens. If it works, then so much the better. We know it will still sound like us in the end, we can’t help it.
C. Horshack: It’s an easy label, and at least a decent portion of the time, it’s fairly accurate. We do a lot more than that, and I enjoy it whenever someone acknowledges that, but I know that sometimes you just have to sum up, and go with something that captures a feel in as few words as possible, and that seems to work for most people.
WRH: Sadly, I’ve yet to catch you live. How does the loose, free-flowing jam sound translate to a live set? And what would I expect to see at a live show?
RM: We’ve been more song oriented in our shows over the last few years but those shows have become more elaborate. We know Lori “Surfer” Varga and she used to do films for us (she used to do films for the Butthole Surfers too) but when she moved to California, we started doing it ourselves. By the time we had 3 projectors and all these lights, we finally had to put away the 16mm films and go digital because it was starting to take up as much space as the amps. So, yeah lots of lights and moving pictures – perfect for that new law in Washington [S]tate.
C. Heider: I think our live shows have become pretty high-energy – there are still a lot of dynamics, but in recent years we have probably focused more on playing a traditional rock & roll type set. There’s been a general trend towards shows with more bands and shorter sets, which can constrain the longer, jammier songs a bit. But every once in a while we can get loose, and even in our more structured songs we try to arrange space for some improvisation.
C. Horshack: Yeah, it’s less about loose and free-flowing these days, but it could be next time. Who knows? We contain legions, yo.
WRH: What is your favorite venue to play? Why?
RM: Oh for us it’s Rudyard’s Pub in Houston. There are a lot of other awesome clubs here in Houston but it’s been our home almost from the get-go. We know the staff and the owner well, the sound man is amazing, and their Rudz Burger is a classic…just don’t try to eat one before a show and think you’ll have enough room in your belly to sing loud.
C. Heider: Yep, what Ramon said – Rudyard’s Pub: great sound, great venue, great people and great food.
C. Horshack: Yep, again, Ramon nailed it. It’s our home away from the practice space. And the burgers kick ass.