By Eleni P. Austin
Two founding fathers of the desert scene, Mario Lalli and Zach Huskey, along with their bands, Fatso Jetson and Dali’s Llama, have joined forces and recorded a split LP, Desert Legends Volume 3. Although more infamous bands receive the ink and attention, these guys are responsible for creating the sound known throughout the world as Stoner Rock.
Mario and Zach each began making music around the time puberty hit and quickly struck up a friendship back in the early ‘80s. Along with Herb Lineau and Sean Wheeler, they basically invented the first truly organic music scene to spring from this hot and dusty landscape.
Mario started his first couple of bands, Dead Issue and Across The River while he was still in high school. When they attempted to book local shows, bars and nightclubs were less than hospitable. So, Mario opted to create his own clandestine venue by heading out into the open desert (plentiful in those days), with a couple of generators, plugging in. Initially, just friends were invited. As word spread, subsequent shows included other bands. pretty soon, flyers were passed around, and a surreptitious scene was born. An abandoned nudist colony in the wilds of Desert Hot Springs became the ideal location. By the end of the decade, crowds had swelled into the hundreds.
By the early ‘90s, he brought the music inside, when he and his cousin Larry opened Rhythm & Brews an all-ages music club in Indio. At this point, he joined Yawning Man and was fronting Sort Of Quartet. From 1993 to 1995, Rhythm & Brews spotlighted local bands as well as future superstars like Bikini Kill and Rancid. Of course, it was too good to last.
But from the ashes of Rhythm & Brew rose Fatso Jetson. The trio included Mario on guitar and vocals, Larry on bass and drummer Tony Tornay. Initially signed to the legendary Punk label SST, they released three albums via that imprint.
In the ensuing years, Fatso has released three more studio efforts and a couple of live collections. Occasionally, their ranks have swelled to include other well-known desert musicians like Gary Arce and Brant Bjork, but the core trio remains. These days, the current iteration includes Mario’s son, Dino Von Lalli on guitar and Vince Meghrouni on saxophone and harmonica.
Zach also cycled through a series of swinging musical combos during his teens, including Blue Sunday, Cloudy Daze and The Next. Simultaneously, he began dating Erica Faber. Following high school graduation, the pair relocated to L.A. to pursue higher education and Rock & Roll stardom.
There, Zach fronted a couple of moderately successful bands, Long, Dead & Gone and My Pain. During their downtime, Zach taught Erica the bass. They returned to the desert in 1993, intent on forming Dali’s Llama. Originally a three-piece, it included drummer Johnny Moreno. (Over the years, the band has gone through more drummers than Spinal Tap).
Their first three albums mined a Power Punk/Pop sound that was crisp and economical. Since then, their music has taken on a thicker, sludgier, down-tuned flavor. Meanwhile, Zach and Erica have managed to balance music and family life. Dali’s Llama has released 12 long-players, two EPs and a retrospective. In the last 30 years, the line-up has remained fluid, with Zach and Erica as the only mainstays. Currently the band includes guitarist Joe Dillon and drummer Craig Brown.
Fatso Jetson quickly takes possession of Side A, delivering a compelling four-song set. A couple of instrumentals dot the record, “Night Of The Living Amends” which is the opener, and “Todas Petrol Blues.” The former kicks into gear with a chunky backbeat, spidery bass, clangorous rhythm riffs and thick, fuzz-crusted guitars. The slinky lead guitar notes that sidle through the mix, hew more closely to the synchronized swing of Jazz Fusion than the primitive SST Punk sounds that inspired their earliest musical aspirations. The arrangement is lean and unfussy, managing the neat trick of being pithy and complex, dense yet concise.
The latter is fueled by morse-code riff-age, searing and shuddery rhythm guitar, thready bass lines and a thundering back-beat. As the action accelerates, Tony pounds out a triple-time tattoo, guitars sting, sway and bray, darting through a knotty sonic soundscape, deftly navigating the arrangement’s calibrated chaos.
As brilliant as the instrumentals are, the stand-out tracks feature vocals and lyrics from Desert Rock legend and longtime compadre Sean Wheeler. First up is “Angels Flight.” Shivery guitars and feathery pedal steel partner with angular bass and a tick-tock beat. In the tradition of John Fante and Charles Bukowski, Sean offers up a nuanced, noirish narrative as he walks L.A.’s mean streets; “Took the steps down Angels’ Flight to Hill Street down below, then I walk down Broadway South where the transplant palms all grow, five o’ clock on the 110 S. cars are moving slow…” The expansive arrangement makes room for this cryptic cautionary tale; “Listen man, there’s a Golden State that just goes dark and it doesn’t make sense, pretty luckless in a sunset town, we don’t need the sun to stick around.”
Their set closes with the final Fatso/Sean collaboration, “One Of Seven.” Buzzy guitars lock into a Tilt-A-Whirl groove atop thrumming bass lines and an insistent shuffle-rhythm. The inherent heaviosity is leavened by Sean’s velvety rasp, but aggrieved lyrics take a tyrant to task; “Get it down to what you really are, heavy weather is all you want to talk about, face the waves that send your brother crashing, holding down the darkness you’ve earned.” Guitars singe and slash, ricocheting through the break before powering down and stopping on a dime. Side B belongs to Dali’s Llama. The band gets right down to business, opening with “Coyotes In The Graveyard.” Like the Incredible Hulk splintering through a door frame, the song hurtles out of the speakers with a punishing efficiency. The see-saw melody is anchored by roiling bass lines, molasses-thick guitars and a bludgeoning beat. Zach’s vocals are appropriately feral, as playful lyrics track the wily activity of a hearty band of survivalists; “Just like some men, too proud to beg, they’d rather steal, you tell yourself, it’s only rabbits, it’s not your loved ones.” A squally solo on the break splits the difference between spiraling Psychedelia and primitive Garage Rock. Although they yowl with delight at dinnertime, these pack animals are being edged out of their ecosystem, and have acquired some 21st century skills; “Yes, I’ve seen them burning candles at night, what are they doing? They don’t have thumbs, what are they brewing? Coyotes grooving.”
“Lizards” is suitably reptilian, matching sulfurous guitars and arid bass notes to a cantilevered beat. Forget that decrepit “P.S. I Love You,” song from the ‘70s, this catchy number would make a perfect 21st century anthem for Palm Springs. It truly tells it like it is; “In this land there’s no time at all, everything cuts, bites or stings…where I’m from, there are no wizards, where I’m from there’s only lizards, oh yeah.” Zach’s snarly vocals hug the guitars’ indolent riff-age. On the break a face-melty solo is buttressed by corrosive chords. As lyrics reel off the city’s attributes, “We’ve got scorpions and lesbians, weed is legal and the snakes they sing…” it becomes abundantly clear that the town is no longer just about celebrities and golf.
“Rarefied” is the set’s centerpiece. Throbbing power chords strafe atop buoyant bass and a hopscotch beat. Radio-ready and Rock Steady, this song is a perfect fit for a free-form format, if terrestrial radio wasn’t co-opted by corporate America. Enigmatic lyrics are cloaked in Zach and Joe’s pedal-to-the-metal guitars, Erica’s vroom-y bass lines and Craig’s kinetic kick. Midway through, the song pumps the brakes. Phased and dusted guitars, menacing bass and a hi-hat splash are supplanted by rootsy banjo. Rather quickly, banjo and guitar lock into a modal taqsim. Shapeshifting once again, revving guitars connect with a pile-driving beat and a final, scorching guitar solo is unleashed, driving the song to a feedback-tastic finish.
The set concludes with “Hypnotic Wind.” Distorto guitars are wed to torpid bass lines and a blustery backbeat. The melody starts out as a bit of a drowsy dirge, enveloping lyrics like; “I’ve got the dune lung woman, and it’s better, better than you, having the dune lung’s better than being with you, than sleeping with you, than being with you,” that are equal parts petulant and possessive. Of course, Jethro Tull had “Aqualung” and Loretta Lynn’s coal miner Daddy had Black Lung, but before the listener can even contemplate the meaning of a “Dune Lung Woman,” the whole arrangement jumps the tracks. Freight-train guitars ride roughshod over thumping bass lines, a hint of cowbell and a locomotive rhythm locking into a syncopated ‘70s Southern-Boogie groove.
For Fatson Jetson’s set the four-piece was joined by Sean Wheeler, who provided vocals and words, along with Mathias Schneeberger on keys and Gar Robertson. Dali’s Llama’s line-up was augmented by Mikael Jacobson who added banjo and co-produced the songs with Zach and Jake Sonderman.
There’s something kind of magical about this split LP. Imagine if The Stones and The Who went halfsies on a record? Or Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa & The Mothers Of Invention? Decades ago, these desert icons created a music scene out of thin air, out of cacti and creosote, and don’t you forget it.