Mario Rubalcaba Interview
By Wez Lundry
I first met Mario Rubalcaba because we both rode for Alva. We first ran into each other at one of those NSA contests or just skating pools in SD with TM Dave Duncan. It was the Alva glory days, so he had dreads down to his ass but was still quite the young gun. He wasn’t shy, but he was quiet, and when he did pipe up something hilarious usually came out of his mouth. But he also ripped vert (in its waning days), mini ramp (when that was an actual contest category) and street. He was an early all-around ATV. He turned pro for a couple years during some lean times, and his skate career eventually came to an end. I kept seeing him around, however, in his music context—first in smaller bands playing DIY and all-ages shows and later in some bigger bands playing proper venues. One of the reasons for his success is his ability—he’s an amazing drummer—but also his ability to play in such different styles, from HC to stoner metal. I’m always stoked to see him and his bands. He plays with Steve McDonald and Keith Morris in OFF! for fuck’s sake! I was stoked he agreed to get a few words down for this interview. Ladies and germs: Mario Rubalcaba.
Where are you from? Where'd you grow up?
I'm from Vista, CA. I've been there my whole life, as far as I can remember. It's a small, lovable shit hole, but it has always been home for me. I still love V-Town and it has quite a few burgeoning spots to eat, drink, buy records, a killer skateshop and soon two new skateparks. Vista’s not lookin' so bad.
What came first for you, punk rock or skating?
Skating came first. I had an uncle that was an amazing skater in the '70s era. I would ride his boards around in the driveway at age six or seven. I never took it beyond that at that point and when skating died and the parks went away I got into BMX bikes like a lot of kids at the time. Fast forward a few years into 6th grade: my bike gets stolen; bikes aren't cheap—or at least the racing bikes that were in the mags—so I got a complete Santa Cruz Red Dot set up. One of my BMX buddies was Brennand Schoeffel. He had just got ahold of a skateboard as well and before you know it we were makin’ quarter pipes and jumping off benches and getting more into skating. Ned Hadden lived up the street from me as well and we heard that he skated which leads into me getting into punk rock. I was already heavily into metal, like the first wave of death/speed/thrash metal thanks to KMET 94.7 and DJ Jim Ladd. His metal show name was Lucifer LaRock! Ned made a tape of all the classics like GBH, Discharge and Anti-Nowhere League and from there we would go to our local record shop and drool over all the records, but we were too broke to buy them. So we hatched a plan of saving our lunch money and we would go in on a record together. We'd share the record since we lived down the street from one another, so that was my foray into the punk world. Shortly after I started a band with fellow skater Marc Hostetter. I took a break from playing drums during the BMX years but I had been playing since I was a wee little tike.
Mario’s first band photo in the mag, with Committed in August ’91
What was the band you were in with Marc? You guys both skated for Alva. Did you form the band prior to getting on Alva or after? How'd you guys meet?
Growing up in Vista and in our circle of skaters, Marc was already a legend. He was probably the first sponsored skater that we knew of in town, but besides that he just flat out ripped anything; he was really good at all terrains. He was the first one I ever saw do an "ollie-flip." That's what we first heard kickflips called. I had never seen anyone ollie as high as him before. We were at the skateshop and I think I overheard him saying to one of his friends that he wanted to start a band. I might have offered up that I played drums or someone else told him that I did. Either way we started talking about trying to get together to jam sometime. Keep in mind that I was 13 or 14 at the time, so getting to wherever we were gonna jam wasn't as easy as I thought it was gonna be. I had no drums and I had to ask the parents for rides, so this was way before the Alva days. The band we ended up forming was at first called Dismembered Youth. I still have the shirt somewhere. We then changed the name to Committed. Fast forward a few years and Matt Hensley used a couple of our songs for his H-Street Shackle Me Not part.
Seems like music and skating for you went hand in hand after you picked up skating. What other bands were you in?
They definitely went hand in hand. For a few years it was just Committed with Marc, but we never did anything besides play parties and record a couple times, so it wasn't very productive as a real band. I was really focused on skating for the most part. I had gotten sponsored by Alva and was just trying to do it. That was my dream back then: riding on a team with my buddies and the older Alva dudes. It wasn’t until around 1990 or ‘91 that a strange connection in friends ended up changing my musical path. That was all due to the man known as Chuck Treece. Chuck would visit from Philly, stay at Marc's house and hang out at Tracker/Transworld for a few weeks. We were without a bass player at the time and Chuck would sit in with us. I remember cracking him up because back then I was into all this grindcore shit that at the time was just treated as a complete joke. Like first-album Napalm Death years. I took it seriously and dissected the drum shit that was heavier and would show him what I liked, then it would turn to 1,000,000,000 mph blast beats and he'd laugh like crazy, just wondering how this guy could play like that. Chuck also had ties up in the Orange County hardcore scene and was doing a 7" with Dan O'Mahoney, who was in a band called No For An Answer. Dan had just started a new project called 411 and was looking for a drummer. Chuck referred me, phone numbers were exchanged and before you know it, Dan drives down from OC to Vista, picks me up and we go back to OC, jam and then next thing you know I'm in a new band in OC called 411. That changed my life. I would take the train up to OC and practice every weekend with those guys. The rest of the bands started coming a bit later, but 411 was my first real band that recorded in a real studio, released an album and did a full US tour. I've been hooked ever since.
You're discography is insanely huge. Some of the bands you've been in have been on a smaller scale: Chicano Christ, Clikatat Ikatowi, for example—but you've also been in some pretty big bands: Rocket from the Crypt, OFF!, Earthless. How was the transition from playing in bands in front of a couple dozen people to playing huge shows at festivals and being driven around in a tour bus? What are the pros and cons of each?
Yeah, my discography has somehow grown out like a wretched weed! Time flies. I used to think that I wasn't being productive enough musically, and I still do feel that way. I guess I'm thankful, though, for that hunger to make and play music. I get sick of playing the same stuff over and over again as well, so I think that’s also why I tend to get involved in a few different projects. The smaller bands you mentioned Like Clikatat Ikatowi were also very early on in my career and we were not really anything that would have been bigger than the scene we were in at the time. It was such a big noise that we made. When I joined Rocket from the Crypt, that was definitely the biggest band I had ever been a part of up to that point. It was definitely an eye-opener going from playing very small clubs to playing something like Reading Fest in the UK where there were thousands of people. There is also such a different mindset and responsibility that I never knew of prior to playing in a bigger band like Rocket. I've done a few bus tours back in the Rocket days and sometimes still today but really OFF! and Earthless are still pretty ground level touring bands. OFF! travels in a van with a trailer and we stay in hotels every night because those guys are older and crankier, but that's fine with me. Earthless still likes to stay at buddies’ houses all over the country. The days of staying at the local crust-punk palace are indeed over, although those were some good times. Pros of being in somewhat bigger of a band are: much less things to worry about, like, am I going to lose money on this tour? Am I going to be able to eat today? Is there going to be anyone at the show tonight? In music, nothing is ever guaranteed, but at least some of these things don't happen as much as opposed to back in the early days. Back then we'd worry if the show was even gonna happen. Would we make enough money for gas to the next gig? Do we really have to stay at Johnny Crusty’s punk palace full of people that just wanna party all night when you really need to get that two hours of sleep before you drive 11 hours to the next gig? Oh yeah, and am I gonna eat today?
Dressed as King Diamond for a Hot Snakes show in PDX in 2004 Photo: Hammeke
Mario behind the skins and keeping the beat with Steve McDonald (of Red Kross)
Getting back to skating, how did you get hooked up with Alva? Any good stories from those days?
When I was 15, Steve Steadham used to live in Vista and built an amazing ramp. There was a contest coming up in Las Vegas and he asked if I wanted to skate in it. I said, "Sure," but he said I would have to skate for Steadham Skates, though. Also, I would have the luxury of riding in the back of the truck the whole way to and from Vegas. Very tempting—my good buddies and bandmates Marc Hostetter and Shane Halliday just got sponsored by Alva a few months prior and were also going out there to Vegas. I told them about the Steadham offer and they said not to go for it. I was already a full-blown Alva boy; it was my deal. I rode the boards and had the dreads. So they let me cruise with them and we at least had a camper on the back of the truck! Luxury! Dave Duncan was announcing the contest as well and he was the Alva team manager at the time. I'm pretty sure I took first or second place at the contest and he was stoked that I was so stoked on Alva. He gave me his card—which I still have to this day—and said to give him a ring. I never forget getting my first box of goods from Alva. I was so hyped! Fast forward a year and I get an offer to go to Australia and Japan with Dave Duncan and John Fallahee the owner. So there was me, a 16-year-old kid, with Drunken Duncan and Fallahee. I still to this day don't know how in the hell my mom let me go on that trip. It was insanity! Duncan really taught me how to party. I think our bedtime was always around 7 or 8 am on that trip. Being one of the younger dudes on a team full of older ragers was pretty fun. They always took care of me. I definitely saw and did a lot of things most 16 year olds didn’t, at least back then. Everyone’s crazy now, though.
Mario’s first Alva ad, in the vein of Alva glamour shot ads of yore, with mandatory dreads – April 1990
Mario’s first skate photo in the mag, November ’90, in a feature called “Bad Moon Rising.” Not sure what’s going on here besides grabbing tail and some trippy lighting
How was the transition for you when Alva turned into New School? You were always pretty well rounded in terms of skating. But was that period tough, when vert took a dive, pants got big and wheels got tiny?
The change as a whole wasn't as rough for me as it was for the previous generation of primarily vert skaters. Man, I remember Gator coming to Vista and trying to go street skate with Hensley, me, Danny and bunch of the VSL gang. He was getting so frustrated the whole day, throwing his board, yelling and screaming. His body just wasn't at all trained to move in the way that street skating was going. It's hard to describe but the simplest thing like an ollie over a trash can or shifty over it, he couldn't ollie that way. You know where you have to bone it down forward. He would ollie high but it was always with the tail dragging down, which was stylish but you ain’t gonna clear cans that way. He lost his whole career when our generation came in and killed skating in the early ‘90s. Skating died and went through that major shift of companies and styles. I really disliked it when Alva started changing to what was seen as cool at the time. I was all about dreads, denim and leather, chasin' ladies and skating whatever fell into my path. What it turned into went directly against why I wanted to ride for them in the first place. Alva started doing really corny, cheese kiddy graphics. Finally T.A. and Falahee parted ways. I stuck with Falahee, as I had to make some kind of money if I wanted to keep the dream going. I hated the name New School. I was totally against it but went with it and tried to do what I could with it. When the super-small wheels and big pants came in was probably my least favorite time in skating ever. Probably the only time in my life where I questioned skating. Then I saw Donger skating and he was still riding 52mm wheels, which was huge at the time compared to 35mm, and he was sticking to his guns. He didn't even bother to try the little shit. That re-inspired me to just do my own thing. Around this time I think I was at the end of my band 411 and then shortly after started the band Clikatat Ikatowi. That’s when I really started to shift into playing music much more and got lazy with skating.
The New School writing was on the wall, and the grades were coming in. February ’91, dumpster livin’ in one of the final Alva ads, and by July ’91 New School had emerged
I know you still skate today, what kind of stuff do you ride? How's skating now compared to then?
I still love skating. I want to be able to have ten-to-15 tricks that I can always do until I can't walk anymore. I mostly skate curbs and parks these days. I'm on tour all the time and don't really ride on the road, but when I'm home I'm always down to go cruise. Skating is always evolving and progressing at such a rapid pace. It's amazing what is being done but also how well-rounded and open-minded the trick selection is these days. I never would've thought out of all tricks from the old days being done it would be Texas Plants. I think that’s awesome.
Pivot fakie at the dawn of the new Millenium at the Simparch Bowl in Chicago Photo: Hammeke
The bands you play or have played in are pretty varied, all kinds of styles. What kind of music are you listening to these days? What are your favorite bands? How about favorite live bands?
Man, you are probably one of the few people that might remember what I was into back when we met. In retrospect, I was pretty closed-minded. I only listened to thrash/speed/death metal and punk/hardcore music. I grew up on classic rock. Thank the rock 'n' roll gods that I discovered Radio Birdman and through them was able to find out a ton of their Influences that ranged so far back into the ‘60s and tons of high-energy rock 'n' roll. I listen to so much different stuff these days. It doesn’t always make sense but I just like what I like. Some recent listens have been a lot of Ethiopian jazz/soul. I discovered in the early 2000s this series of CDs called Éthiopiques. It sounds like nothing else and it is so beautiful in its purity and also under the circumstances in which it was made. Also, a bunch of incredible bands from Zambia, Africa. Zamrock was a thing and it culls from a range of Western influences: James Brown mixed with some harder rock stuff filtered through the primitive instruments and recording gear of the times and you get a very unique sound. Check out Witch or The Peace. Some favorites are Sonic's Rendezvous Band which had members of MC5 and The Stooges after they both broke up. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Mudcrutch, which was pre Tom Petty, and Free are also faves. Also Deerhunter, John Coltrane, Spacemen 3, Zep and the Kinks. Live Bands? Man, I just wish I could go back in time and see The Velvet Underground, Can, Mott the Hoople, The Faces and vintage Alice Cooper live.
Thanks for taking the time to do this, Mario. Anything we should watch out for in 2018?
Thank you and thanks to anyone that has taken the time over the years to come to a show, bought a record or a shirt or supported my bands in anyway. I am so grateful to be doing this somehow. Both Earthless and Hot Snakes will have albums dropping early in the year and I will be touring pretty heavily in support of both projects. I'm very excited that Earthless is going to collaborate with legendary vocalist of the band CAN at the Roadburn festival in Holland in April 2018. That is a musical life hammer for me! Otherwise I hope to be doing slappies and kickin’ Madonnas when I can, cruisin' record shops and devouring tacos as per usual. I'm grateful for the opportunities that skating and music have blessed me with for such a long period of my life.
Mario behind the skins for Earthless
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