An Interview With Dave Catching
The Guitar Lord of Desert and Swamp
Dave Catching, the guitar legend of desert rock, is also the guitar legend of swamp rock*. Dave is better known for his prowess as a guitar player, producer, and engineer in the desert rock scene of California. Queens of the Stone Age, Eagles of Death Metal, earthlings?, and Mojave Lords are bands that he has founded and/or plays in—just to name a few. As for the swamp rock scene: Dave is also a large presence among the rock musicians of New Orleans that have been playing in each other’s bands for decades. It is there, in the late ‘90s when his fabulous beard was merely stubble, that I came to know Dave Catching. Little did I know, however, that he had this double life across different terrains, nor did I really understand the caliber of his revered stardom. Just around the time we were wondering where he was: Dave would descend onto the Big Easy and—poof!—he was on stage playing that mean guitar.
Fast forward to 2019: I catch up with Dave for this interview. He is busy at his studio, Rancho de la Luna in Joshua Tree, California, putting out records, putting out a brand of mezcal(!), and he continues to rock out with his bands—desert or swamp. Dave also shared stories about how he started playing the guitar, about his studio in the desert, and three records that deeply influenced him.
*the term is loosely used here for its contrasting effect, and not to be confused with the actual genre
―― Where did your musical inspiration come from?
My older brother Jack was a musician and so was my uncle David—who I am named after. My family liked music when I was a kid and always had great records, but my brother was in a band, and that is what made me want to get into music. Watching their band play—they were really great and always super happy—so I thought it was a cool thing to do.
―― How old were you when you first started playing the guitar?
I was fifteen. I used to sneak my brother's guitar out from under his bed when he was gone, and he caught me one time. He showed me some chords and I was immediately hooked. I took an advance on my chore money, which was cutting lawns, etc. for my mom, and I bought a guitar. I started rehearsing a lot and learning more from my brother and friends who played guitar and banjo.
―― How was the Memphis, TN music scene then?
I started playing out around '77 and punk was just hitting the shores. There were some cool clubs in Memphis around that time, like The Well. I got a fake ID and used to go see my friends play there a lot. It used to be an S&M bar before, and then it became a country & western dive bar, and a couple of my friends had told the owner that they played country just to get gigs, and once they got the gig, they would do whatever they wanted to do. My band started playing at The Well, and that eventually turned into the Antenna Club—lots of really cool bands played there. That was around 1979-80, the beginning of new wave, and there were a lot of great musicians playing around—lots of great stuff was happening in Memphis.
Video: “Antenna” documentary trailer
―― How did you go from Memphis to New Orleans to Los Angeles?
My band Modifiers opened up for a band called the Gun Club, on my mom's birthday which was July 29th, 1982. Our friend was playing guitar with them, and they asked us if we wanted to go to LA and play a show with them. So we ended up opening a show in Hollywood, and we all kind of fell in love with it. We ended up moving there in 1985—I was about 24 then. I lived in LA until 1993, playing with a lot of different bands. In '92, I met Jimmy Ford from New Orleans and he took me to a really cool bar there. It turned out that they needed someone to take over the kitchen and the venue of the place. He talked me into doing that, so I opened a restaurant and moved from Los Angeles to New Orleans in 1993. The venue had the late night thing going: starting our shows at 1 or 2 am in the morning, where people getting off of their venue gigs would come and get something to eat and watch bands play. So we had this awesome restaurant for about 9 months, but one night there was a gas leak—it was a really old building from like 1890—and we had a fire.
After that, I got a call from my friend Hutch, who invited me to be the guitar tech for the band Kyuss’s European tour. While I was still at the restaurant, to back track a bit, my friend Fred Drake had called me to become his partner for a recording studio (in Joshua Tree, California), which was interesting because I was still living in New Orleans... but, our friend was selling his gear for very cheap, so we ended up buying it and starting the studio. When the restaurant burnt and I came back from Europe, Fred and I started recording together and started the band, earthlings?. Recording gigs were trickling in, and we would buy gear little by little and fix up the house it was in. So that is how we started the studio, which I'm still at. That is how it happened.
―― Were you ready to do something different when you were asked to do the restaurant?
Yeah. I had a band called the Ringling Sisters, and we got signed to A&M Records, and our producer was Lou Adler, who produced Cheech & Chong, Rocky Horror Picture Show, and The Mamas & the Papas and what not, and we made this awesome album. We had this record company behind us, and we all thought we were going to be huge stars—it was perfect—but then the day before the album came out, A&M fired a lot of their people—mostly, people working on our album—so, we just got lost in that shuffle. That was 1990. So I kept trying to do stuff in LA, but it was time to move on.
Honestly, New Orleans was so cool at the time, I already had met a lot of people there, and I just love that town since I was a kid. So it was an easy decision. It sure changed things a lot: moving from LA, and playing with a lot of bands every weekend, to just having a restaurant—I wasn't even going to play—but Jimmy Ford and I started playing together. Playing with people who are great musicians and fun to hang out with, immediately got me back into that.
―― Tell me more about your studio Rancho de la Luna. What's the magic there?
There is something about this studio. Everyone that's been here and recorded here feels it, so there is something to it. Maybe it's just all the love that's here from over the years. People do freak out about the drum room: they say it's the best drum sound they have gotten—even the engineers.
I first went through Joshua Tree on my very first trip to LA with my band Modifiers, that I was talking about earlier. We drove through the park in 1982, and it was really a great place. Once I was living in LA, I started going back a lot for day trips and camping—at the time, the place was only 2 hours away—it's gotten longer now because traffic has gotten worse. When Fred moved out here in 1992, I used to come to stay at this house. So, I already knew the place and there is definitely something magical out here.
This area has grown a lot and things are a bit different—like all places—but when we first moved out here, we were getting about 70, 000 visitors to the Joshua Tree National Park annually, and this year they are expecting 3.5 million. That shows you how different it is. I am five minutes away from the park. It's gotten cool with more restaurants and all, and the music scene is great out here. Pappy & Harriet's have great shows and cool people are coming out here, so it's not a bad thing—it's just different, you know?
―― What is vinyl to you?
No one can deny that vinyl sounds better! I also love vinyl because I like being able to hold it and the artwork looks way better. Especially now with streaming services, you can barely see the album cover and the credits are not as interesting as they are on albums. There is something about looking at a 12”x12" album cover. It's like a piece of art, and pulling it out of the sleeve, putting it on, instead of just hitting play—there is something really great about doing that.
I just had a band out here not too long ago, and they had never put an album on a turntable—they didn't know how to do it—I had to show them. They were kids!
―― What was your first vinyl?
The first album that I bought with my own money was Tommy by The Who. I am not sure why I picked that, it just seemed like the thing to do and it looked cool because it was a big box with a couple of albums in it: a double album.
―― Your solo album that came out in 2017 was only in vinyl and download format
Correct. Not many people I know listen to CDs anymore. Basically, it doesn't sound much different than the mp3 downloads, and just being able to put 10,000 CDs on your phone—it takes up a lot less room in your house—so I think everyone is doing that now.
―― What was the inspiration for your solo album: Shared Hallucinations Pt. 1: Sonic Salutations From the Venerable Vaults of Rancho de la Luna 1972-1984?
It was just writing songs and having a lot of super cool friends that said that they would sing and play on it. I am very lucky that I have so many friends and people that come to the studio. I would just play a song for them and say: "I don't have anyone singing on this yet," and they would reply: "Oh, I'd love to do that!"
So, the first song on the album is called Bought and Sold, and my friend Liela Moss from The Duke Spirit was here one day, and it was supposed to be for someone else but they were just dragging their feet on getting it done, so she was here visiting, heard it and loved it. She wrote lyrics and sang it in like an hour and a half. A lot of it happened like that.
―― Do you have any new music coming out this year?
We are working on the new Mojave Lords album which is almost done, the new earthlings? album is also almost done. I am working on my soundtrack album, it's just songs that I want to pitch for soundtrack music that I am doing as a follow-up to my solo album—it's all instrumental stuff. So, those three projects, and I continue to work on tons of bands out here. I also just launched our mezcal, “Rancho de la Luna,” so we are traveling a lot to introduce people to the mezcal, which is doing pretty good.
Video: Bought and Sold by Dave Catching (Liela Moss on vocals)
―― Your new album is a follow-up to Shared Hallucinations... Pt. 1?
Yes. It is going to be the Shared Hallucinations Pt. 2. Hopefully, somebody will hear it and want to use it for cinematic scores. I am aiming to put it out towards the end of the year.
―― Tell us more about your mezcal named after your studio!
It's really delicious. We are working with a really great family in Oaxaca to bottle it. The mother of the family was very instrumental in getting mezcal legalized—before that it was illegal for a long time and it was kind of a bootleg thing—and she worked for a law firm and helped make it legal throughout Mexico. We are now in four states in the US and shooting for a couple more.
[3 Record Picks by Dave Catching]
―― Please share with us three albums that have impacted you or is important to you.
■Here Come The Warm Jets by Brian Eno
I love this album because there are so many layers to it. 40 years later, I still hear things that I'd never heard before. As an engineer and producer, I see that there is so much involved in it, and it’s really something about the way everything was recorded—just incredible. The songs are super cool and weird—the textures and tones—it's stuff that people still try to do and can't really recreate. I don't know, it was a magical time. That is why I love this album.
■Maggot Brain by Funkadelic
I love this record because my brother's band used to play Maggot Brain, so he had the album. It was one of the first super weird albums I heard when I was a kid. It is very psychedelic, dark and it starts off with that song that's just three chords and a solo over it—it's really crazy—and the rest of the album is funky. This album is important to me because it definitely opened my mind up to a lot of things other than what I was hearing on the Top 40 radio.
■Like Flies on Sherbert by Alex Chilton
This album is super rough, raw and freaky. This was one of those first albums done by somebody that I knew and had played music with—I was friends with Alex. He was kind of a champion of the bands I played with in Memphis: he had big Top 40 hits like The Letter with The Box Tops, and he had six or seven other giant #1 hits. When he put this album out—it was when I was already getting into Eno and weird stuff—you can tell that Alex was just getting studio time, probably for free, and they were partying and going in to record: very very loose and ragged. So for me, it was more like: "Well, fuck, if he can put out this record, maybe at some point I could do something like that!" The song, Like Flies On Sherbert, reminds me of the song, Here Comes The Warm Jets by Eno. It's kind of a weird Phil Spector-y production. The cover photo is by a Memphis photographer William Eggleston and he is one of my favorite photographers. He used to be around the scene—the first dude that had a video camera, and he'd come to shows and parties and film stuff. I think that was a big part of it: this was something that people I knew had put out, and it made me feel like I could also do it. I think that is why I like this album so much.
As an original member of Queens of the Stone Age, founder of stoner-rock band earthlings? and current guitarist of Eagles of Death Metal, Dave Catching—owner and resident of famed Joshua Tree, Calif., recording studio Rancho de la Luna—is lucky to call the most talented people in the industry friends. Foo Fighters, Iggy Pop and PJ Harvey have all recorded at Rancho, as well as others too numerous to list. His 2017 solo album: Shared Hallucinations Pt. 1: Sonic Salutations From the Venerable Vaults of Rancho de la Luna 1972-1984 (Dine Alone) features recognizable collaborators like The Duke Spirit’s Liela Moss and Screaming Trees’ Mark Lanegan. Many releases involving Dave Catching to be anticipated in 2019 including the instrumental sequel to his solo album.