Robert Malta of HUGElarge

At long last, I’m happy to share an interview with Robert from HUGElarge. I had a great time spending most of the day in the band’s studio up in Santa Rosa, CA. I can’t say enough good things about their recently released self-titled album.

CORDTANGLER: Tell me about your background.

Robert: First there were the surf bands—those were the first “garage bands.” Then there was the whole British explosion, and surf bands started adding singers, and that’s when I started. I was in a couple bands: The Little Kings, which had been a surf band, and then The Gates of Eden as things got more psychedelic. We played Pandora’s Box right when the Sunset Strip riots were starting. I wasn’t old enough to play that club; so they would say if the cops come in, this is where you need to hide. It was a big yard, and it was the start of the cops arresting kids for curfew. We opened for a bunch of bands that you’d see in the Nuggets box sets.

It’s funny, you made the same amount of money then that you do now (laughs)—but it was worth more back then. There were also more places to play that weren’t clubs. I think it was to keep kids out of trouble. The City of Hawthorne or the City of Inglewood, every area had a place. Really good bands played at those places. That’s where we played with the Seeds or Steppenwolf. It would be 600 kids on a Friday or Saturday night—we were playing to big crowds.

CT: I know your band opened for Love. Did you ever get to hang out with Arthur Lee?

R: No. I was pretty young, so I’d give people their space. Before we played with Love, I did hang out in front of Bido Lido’s and listen to him from outside. Love was the band at that point. At the time, I even remember one of the Doors saying in an article that they just wanted to be as good as Love.

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CT: So would you consider yourself more of a guitar player or a bass player?

R: I definitely consider myself more of a bass player, I feel confident playing bass. Guitar, I’m just winging it.

CT: How good are you at chording?

R: Primitive. I’ve always liked to play bottleneck slide. You know, it’s just one finger (laughs). I love the sound of it. I remember really liking Ry Cooder and the whole Performance soundtrack. “Memo from Turner” was a great song.

I also cheat a lot. I play guitar like a bass, and I use the top string as a guide. I’m sure there are songs on the record where the guitar player was originally playing an A minor diminished or something. Because I’m singing, people recognize the song. There are no rules, really.

I think the right hand is the most important. It’s the rhythm that counts. Hitting the one with the drummer or whatever one it is. You can even be low volume. If you are connecting, it sounds pretty good. I’m lucky I have a good right hand and an ear.

CT: When did you make the jump from singing to playing an instrument?

R: Well, I took a big break from music. I had just turned 30 and made the move up from LA to San Francisco. At that time, I was hanging out with Penn and Teller. They had a show on Broadway called the Asparagus Valley Cultural Society with another partner that was doing really well. I had a cheap guitar, I think a knockoff Les Paul. So, Penn was over and he said, “Hey, let’s form a band and you can play my bass.” He’s a really good bass player. We got together at their theater and formed a band called The Dummy Heads with Penn and Teller’s friend, Elliot Freeman, on uke. So I played Penn’s Rickenbacker 4001 bass and he played my guitar and we had a blast. I realized that I loved playing bass. It had always been the main thing I heard when I listened to music. Teller played the theatre pipe organ and, believe it or not, sang.

At the time, all the bands I was digging, like the Nuns, were really young. At 30, I thought I was too old to really pursue it. A couple years later, I moved up to Sonoma County. After a while I got bored, stopped caring, and finally decided to learn bass. I got this great little Musicmaster bass, it was like the one that Ko [Melina] plays. I ended up meeting Rob Turner, who started EMG. I was telling him about my bass and he was like, “Oh, I’ll make you a custom pickup for that.”

CT: Wow!

R: It made that bass sound really good. I got into a band pretty quickly, just with some friends goofing around. I ended up forming pawpawblowtorch with a guy who had just moved to San Francisco from Chicago.

CT: Pawpawblowtorch, isn’t that a song?

R: Eno had a song, “The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch.” We found the name in a book on circus freaks. He was David Bowie’s favorite freak—a fire-eater from Paw Paw, Michigan.

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CT: What was the most memorable show you have ever played?

R: That’s hard! Back in the day, my band played with the Seeds, the Standells, and Iron Butterfly.

When I was in Bermuda Triangle Service, we played a show at Penn’s house that he put on called Slamstock. He calls his house “The Slammer.” The show went from noon one day to midnight the next. Kind of a Woodstock. They had all these bands, including Extreme Elvis. If you haven’t heard of him, he’d really push the audience and get them to be pretty fearful. In the end, he’d eventually be completely naked. Penn really loved him. Extreme Elvis had a really good review, a great band. He was extremely overweight. On top of that, he had a micro penis.

CT: Whaa?

R: And he’d still get naked. He showed a lot of bravery, I respected that. That was a great show.

With HUGElarge, Matt and I have played some great shows. We opened up for Blowfly. We had a great show opening for the Supersuckers.

Overall, though, I’d have to say Slamstock [was the most memorable]. They flew us in, we played, and then we flew home without ever sleeping.

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CT: Do you have a guitar or bass that you really regret selling?

R: I regret not having some of my old basses, but I’m the opposite of most people. I like to settle on one instrument and then bond and play the heck out of it.

As I mentioned, I had that Musicmaster that I traded for a Steinberger because I saw Devo playing one. Tina Weymouth was also playing one, but I never warmed to it. I traded that for a ’70s P-bass with a jazz neck. That was traded for a Gibson EBO that I used for a long time. I then moved to a ’62 reissue P-bass that I used for pawpawblowtorch and Bermuda Triangle Service.

CT: Is there another musician you were really excited to meet?

R: I’d have to say Pete Townsend.

CT: Wow!

R: I met him through a friend in Oakland. Pete ended up putting out a generous invite that if I was ever in England, I could stay at their studio. I ended up staying at their Eel Pie studios for a week. They were on tour, but it was really nice. I remember calling a cab from his office while staring at the original painting from Tommy on the wall.

Another one was Mike Watt. He is the real thing. He is someone I would want next to me when WWIII happens. He is the guy. I saw him standing around before an early Firehose show. I mentioned that I hadn’t started playing bass until I was 36 years old and that he had been a huge inspiration to me. He just grabbed my hand in a soul shake and said, “BASS!” (laughs) That was all he said. After the show, as I was walking out, I noticed he was getting mobbed by all these kids. As I got to the door, I thought I heard his voice so I turned around. Then I heard him yell out “BASS!” as his fist was rising up from behind the sea of kids. (laughs).

CT: What do you remember most about the early San Francisco scene when you first moved up?

R: The Mabuhay [Gardens] started up fresh when I was in San Francisco. I saw the Talking Heads there, I saw Blondie. I missed the Ramones but saw the Dead Kennedys. My band played with Klaus Flouride and his band Five Year Plan. He was playing a Fender VI. He is really funny and supersmart.

CT: What part of your experience has influenced you the most?

R: That’s hard—probably the big British change. I experienced that change from adult culture to youth culture in the ’60s. Everything went upside down. It’s tough being older, but I had prime time for all that stuff. The first time I saw the Kinks on TV, one of the guys had hair to his shoulders and I remember how freaky that was. I was a little kid with my mouth hanging open.

I also have to say the Ramones. With HUGElarge, I think you hear that a little bit when we take a doo-wop song and go four to the floor.

CT: Tell me about how you met Matt.

R: I met him in Santa Rosa. At the time, he hadn’t played drums in a while. He was pretty burned out on touring with AMC [American Music Club] and had left the band. When I told him that pawpawblowtorch needed a drummer, he agreed to join. We got signed to a label and put out a 7-inch. But when we started to talk about touring, he said he was out. Our last show ended up being at the Hotel Utah—we just fell apart after that and our singer Scott moved back to Chicago.

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CT: How did HUGElarge start?

R: Well, I wanted to play something a little harder and I hadn’t talked to Matt in while. He lives about a half hour away from me and has become a winemaker. So I called him up and asked about getting together just to play.

He said he didn’t feel like carrying a bunch of drums around, so I suggested a cocktail kit. I had seen Treat Her Right, which was Mark Sandman’s [Morphine] first band. They had a cocktail kit. I thought Mark was pretty innovative. I tried playing slide bass once but struggled with all the strings. When I saw him playing with two strings, I thought, “Oh, that makes sense.”

Before we started playing, Matt said, “We need a guitar player” and I said, “I’ll play guitar.” When he started to laugh I said, “I’ll just play it open tuned, who cares.” Then we started playing shows and it went from there. We only like to play about six shows a year. We can’t play from August through November, usually, due to the wine making.

CT: What led to the recording?

R: Karl Derfler [Tom Waits and Roky Erickson, to name a few] is one of my best friends. He has been in music since he was a kid living in Europe. He has the wildest stories. He liked HUGElarge a lot and said he wanted to record us. He said he’d be down at the studio on Sunday doing some beta testing for the new Pro Tools. We are pretty fast, and Karl and I like to work together. We usually don’t do more than two takes—we record live and then I do vocal overdubs. Most of the time, I double the vocals. When we mix, sometimes we’ll think, this needs bass—so I’ll add bass going direct.

First we did a little five-song EP we would hand out at shows. We ended up doing three different sessions and have now put out a full-length on Highway 61.

I also have a side project with Karl called Paleophone. I play everything, but he triggers drums and stuff. He is quite a good drummer on the computer. We have a blast hanging out at his house and we’ll just record something.

CT: How do you pick your songs?

R: First off, I have to be able to play it or at least fake it. Second, we both have to like it and see if it fits with the HUGElarge sound. We’ve tried playing things we never played live, because they didn’t quite translate.

Matt is from the East Coast, Johnny Thunders era, and being a drummer is also into Zeppelin. I’m earlier; I’m into the Nuggets stuff.

CT: Let’s talk about your HUGElarge gear.

R: I’m playing an old Teisco Rodeo I bought from Fat Dog at Subway Guitars. I got it for like 250 bucks. I was so thrilled to have a guitar again and use the open tuning. The pickup sounded great, it’s a gold foil. I also found a Silvertone amp at a garage sale.

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CT: What model is the Silvertone?

R: It’s a 1482. You can still find them around for about 400 bucks, but I think I got it for a couple hundred. I used that one on our first recording and then got another one. For pedals, I bought a Boss DS-1, the cheapest possible distortion I could get. I then scraped the paint off of it and Karl modified it for me. I don’t know what he did to it, but I can get a Marshall-on-fire sound out of it.

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CT: I noticed you’re also playing an SG?

R: I know I mentioned the one-guitar thing, but that thing happened where I always wanted an SG Junior and it was relatively cheap. I love the pickup. I put a Wolfetone in it. The guy from Wolfetone is a great guy. He makes three P-90 versions. I have the middle one (the Meaner) as far as hotness goes. It sounds really good. The Teisco pickups are kind of like it—a really hot single coil.

For our third session, I bought an Eastwood H44. It’s a reissue of an old thick-neck Harmony Stratone. Some friends introduced me to Charlie Musslewhite, and he told me that the Stratone was a great guitar. I ended up finding the H44 for a great price on eBay. I didn’t really bond with it though.

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CT: What about any bass on the recording? What did you use?

R: I used a Danelectro. I bought it when they did the first reissue out of Korea.

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CT: What about Matt?

R: For the first recording, Matt used a Slingerland cocktail kit and then started playing a Peace kit. It’s a pretty inexpensive Korean kit. Actually, Matt is building a new kit. He said it’s costing him so much that he has to use it. He cut a big kick drum in half. It’s going to be this gigantic cocktail kit.

CT: Can I ask about some of the specific gear and where you recorded? I love the production.

R: Karl actually put together a little list:

The first two sessions were at Bayview Studios in Richmond, CA. Recorded on a ’69 Trident A Range board, #1 or 13 made, it’s an analog class-A console. Same board used by the Beatles on I Want You (She’s So Heavy).

Mics: Room: Ghetto Blaster, no limiter, fed direct for ambient sound. Drums: Kick: Neuman U47 on top, AK8 D112 on bottom. Snare: SM56. Overhead/cymbals: KM84. Amps: SM56 (’60s) and Sony C37 (’50s). Vocals: SM7.

Amps: First session: Silvertone 1482. Second session: Two Silvertone 1482 amps (positioned on either side of the drums).

Cocktail drums: First session: ’50s Slingerland. Second and third sessions: Peace.

The third session was at Jackalope Studios in Santa Rosa, CA. Recorded through Karl’s portable unit, which includes: Two channel API 2020 preamps and four 1073s (secondary set with two 1083s).

Mics: Amps: Sony C37 and Royer 121.

Amps: Silvertone 1482 and Marshall solid-state combo.

Mixing: The Shack (Karl’s home studio) using a Melbourn Neve and Pro Tools.

CT: Thanks so much! It’s been great to meet you!


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