From left: Larry Lalli, Mario “Boomer” Lalli and Tony Tornay
Larger Than Life: Casting shadows with Fatso Jetson
by Jay Babcock
A much shorter version of this piece was published Thursday, Dec 12 2002 in LAWeekly
Look closely at almost any significant rock band’s background—at its deeper, hazier context, at its place/space in its particular subcultural zeitgeist—and you will find someone who acted, perhaps unwittingly, as a crucial instigator: a subtle yet critical link without which the chain would not hold. Led Zeppelin had Roy Harper. Nirvana had King Buzzo. And Queens of the Stone Age, arguably the best American melodic hard rock band since Cobain exited in self-disgust, have guitarist-singer Mario “Boomer” Lalli.
“Boomer has this one quality that I’ve been searching for since the moment I saw him, and that is Boomer is un-heckle-able,” says Joshua Homme, the leader of the Queens of the Stone Age, who’s been watching Lalli play since he (Josh) was 14. “There could be a wide array of reasons to heckle Boomer—but it’s impossible when you watch him play. The second he starts to play, when he squints his eyes? I’ve never heard anyone go, ‘bleh, shut up!’ I’ve seen people not like it, but I’ve never seen anything thrown at him. Nothing. Because you believe it.
“It’s for real.”
* * *
Born in 1966 as “Mario” and quickly tagged with the impossibly appropriate nickname Boomer, Lalli was raised in Palm Springs, where his parents, a pair of opera singers, ran an Italian-themed restaurant called “Mario’s—Where They Sing While You Dine” with Mario Sr.’s brother Tullio. At Mario’s, which re-located to Pasadena earlier this year after three decades in the low desert, Mario Sr. and Edalyn lead the Mario Singers, a small group of performers, most of whom have other roles at the restaurant, in belting out two 30-minute shows (three on weekends) every night for the diners. (Now 80, the senior Lallis are still working/singing every evening, even on Sundays at 9.) [Restaurant’s now closed.—Ed., 2010]
“Our family has had a restaurant there for 30 years,” says Boomer. “For 20 of those years it was very successful, and summers off were just party time, just great. But now, it’s just changed. There’s a lot of big corporate money doing the restaurant thing there, so a unique little place like we had? It’s tough to make it work there these days. Our lease was up in the desert and we just thought What the fuck, let’s go for it in Pasadena.
“And you know, as great as the desert has been for our music, it was a terrible place to play music.”
Since he was 16, Boomer has been doing music in the desert that didn’t exactly fit the format at the family restaurant—or anywhere else.
“We grew up on Aerosmith, but that was fantasyland. Then we saw D. Boon and Mike Watt and the cats in Black Flag and the guys in Redd Kross and Saccharine Trust, and we saw these guys were guys like us! They‘re just dudes. And skateboarding too had a lot to do with it, because it was all about: Find a place. You wanna go skateboard? Find a pool, bail it out. You do all that work, you put effort into it, and then you’ve got this place. And that bled over into music.”
A turning point occurred when Boomer’s friend Dave Travis, invited Boomer and a pal to jam with him up in Pacific Palisades, where he lived.
“You couldn’t play around there,” says Boomer. “So we pulled off of Mulholland somewhere in the Hollywood Hills, into a turnout, near a silo or a gunnery site, unloaded his band and he started up this electric generator! And we just jammed, me, him and my friend Mike Glass. And that was like, Whoaaaa man. It was beautiful, it was really cool. But the problem was guys would toss a few back and they’d think they could go up that tower and get stupid. We just decided it wasn’t a great place to go.
“But in the desert, there’s all that space out there where you don’t have to worry about the cops and you can go and drink and just raise hell. I said, Dude, I got places at home where we can get 500 people out there when we play. A month later, he did one out there, and it just grew. I know now that it was nothing new—guys in the late ’70s, going out in the desert, partying with the generator and some rock bands—but we didn’t know those dudes then! So we’d be creative: we’d get a hundred feet of extension cord and a blue 100-watt floodlight and climb up in what one of the eroded dunes and place it up there, shining behind the band. All you needed were trash cans, a good generator, with a voltage regulator so it doesn’t blow everyone’s shit, some ice chests and some word-of-mouth. Cuz people are so fuckin’ desperate for something to do [in the Low Desert]. It’s nice and quiet and mellow, there’s a lot to enjoy there, but there’s no culture. You gotta make your own culture. It’s like cheese: you gotta make your own.”
Just 18, Boomer had already become a legendary figure to musically inclined teenagers in the Low Desert. One of them was 12-year-old Brant Bjork, who would go on to co-found a pre-Queens band with Homme called Kyuss.
“I asked a buddy of mine, who was a Kiss fanatic, who’s The Man in local music?,” remembers Bjork. “And he said, Mario Lalli. He’s the godfather of the punk scene, he’s the fuckin’ shit. So, Mario Lalli was already mystified back then! He was this bearded, dreadlocked, gnarly, pissed-off-looking burly dude in a trenchcoat that I’d see driving around the parking lot of the mall in his van with the name of his band ‘Across the River,’ spraypainted on the side. I’d hear stories about Across the River playing out in the desert, so it became was my job to attend one of these things. My first time was around ’85, and I just continuously went after that.”
Boomer had been in a series of groups before joining a guy named Herb Lineau and fellow-Low Desert fellas Alfredo Hernandez (drums) and Scott Reeder (bass) in an L.A.-based band called Dead Issue. (Although the three were the same age and from roughly the same area, they’d gone to different high schools.)
“When I moved to L.A., my point was to go make music,” says Boomer. “That was the only reason I moved there. I didn’t move there to go to school. I didn’t go there to do anything but play music. We all lived together in a little apartment in Culver City. And we befriended some guys that worked with SST. So we’d drive all the way down and rehearse there. Got to see those guys and hang out. That began this friendship.”
Lineau lost interest—Dead Issue died—and the remaining three formed a new band, Across the River.
“We played some shows with all the jam bands,” says Boomer, “the type of guys that would go and play the Dead shows’ parking lots—October Faction, Painted Willie, Saccharine Trust.”
SST’s Joe Carducci and Chuck Dukowski showed interest in releasing an Across the River album on the label (“the bassist played barefoot—always a good sign,” remembers Carducci today), but a combination of poor timing and miscommunication meant that it was not to be. Eventually, Boomer, Hernandez and Reeder all moved back to the desert.
“It just didn’t work out,” says Boomer. “I had to move home and things happened. I got married, I had a couple kids, and we got head over heels involved in the family business. So, priorities.”
Hernandez remembers Across the River as “a heavy thing, with a lot of bluesy-type beats, with a punk rock edge to it.”
“We bought our own generator and started doing our own shows here every three months,” says Boomer. “We called ’em ‘dust festivals’ cuz the sand would kick up and everybody would be in the middle of this cloud. We kept gigging, trying to get the sound out there. We had this van called the Provoloan we’d use for roadtrips, Black Flag style. We’d go to L.A., Phoenix, San Francisco. People would see us come in before we set up and be like who are these freaks and then we’d start playing and they’d understand why we looked like freaks. People would come up to say and you guys sound like Soundgarden. I’d be like well, I don’t know who that is. They were just barely coming in to the scene. I just wish we coulda hung in there…
“I dunno, maybe you could say we didn’t have the balls to shine. But by then? With kids? I’m not so sure months in a van is a good idea, you know?”
Across the River’s inability to tour meant that they were also extremely unlikely to ever land a recording contract. Unsatisfied, Reeder amicably left (leapt?) Across the River to join the Obsessed, a hard rock band recently relocated from D.C. to Los Angeles.
With Across the River broken up, Boomer and Hernandez started an instrumental band called Englenook. Then there was Yawning Man, another band with Boomer, Hernandez and Gary Arce. Boomer’s cousin Larry, son of Tullio Lalli and two years Boomer’s junior, joined on bass at some point in there, and Arce was in and out, playing guitar. It was this Boomer-fronted band that Homme, Bjork and future Kyuss vocalist John Garcia saw most often while they were teenagers. (Garcia, one year older than Homme and Bjork, had seen Boomer perform before, at an impromptu Across the River lunchtime performance on his high school campus.)
“Yawning Man was the sickest desert band of all time,” says Bjork. “You’d just be up there in the desert, everybody’d just be hanging, partying. And they’d show up in their van and just, mellow, drag out their shit and set up right about the time the sun was goin’ down, set up the generators, sometimes they’d just go up there and drink beers and barbecue. Sometimes it would be a scene; sometimes it would be very intimate. It was very casual and loose and while they’re playing, everyone would just lounge around. They were kinda like a house band. It wasn’t militant like Black Flag. It was very drugged, very stone-y, it was very mystical. Everyone’s just tripping, and they’re just playing away, for hours. Oh, they’re the greatest band I’ve ever seen.”
Hernandez: “We recorded two albums in Yawning Man but never did anything with ‘ em. If we really had of pushed it, it probably would have done something. But the situation then was not as easy, I guess.”
With two Yawning Man albums recorded but left unreleased, the closest most of us can get to hearing this band‘s music is on Kyuss’ final album, …And the Circus Leaves Town, at which point the band was composed of Homme, Garcia, post-Obsessed Scott Reeder and Hernandez. The album‘s penultimate track is a gorgeous cover of Yawning Man’s tranquility-in-the-sandstorm statement “Catamaran,” credited to Gary Arce, Alfredo Hernandez, Larry Lalli and Boomer. Placed next to the heavy testes-crushers that make up most of the album, it‘s a sign of respect, of making plain an artistic debt to some important template-builders.
* * *
But back to the early ’90s. Just as Kyuss was beginning its career in earnest and drawing attention to the desert-rock “scene,” Boomer had changed places again. The Lallis had stopped organizing generator parties after violence began to seep in, and played many of their shows in the L.A. area. And they were making a new kind of music: Boomer had formed an instrumental jazz group with Hernandez, Larry Lalli and Arce called the Sort of Quartet that combined Zappa, Dolphy, Miles Davis, Black Flag and South American rhythms.
“When all the bros in the desert were goin‘ to the parties to see Kyuss play, we were listening to jazz,” says Boomer, laughing. “I mean, my days burning doobies out in the wash and listening to Black Sabbath were when these fucks were still in high school! So I was like, Rad. Right on for them. But I had Thelonius Monk and Eric Dolphy in cassette player, I wasn’t listenin’ to rock. So we’d get up and go doo-doo-dee-doot-biddy-doo-did-do. And everyone’s going, ‘Whatever…’
Homme: “The Lallis have cleared rooms through the years like you wouldn’t believe. But only because they’re always two years ahead of everybody. They can’t help it! They just ARE. Those people that left will like it in two years, if they stumble on it again. This is the bittersweet side of what the Lallis are: they’re just playing because they love to play, that’s good enough, and anything beyond that, they’re thankful and they’re happy for. And that’s so inspiring.”
The Sort Of Quartet started playing shows involving artists operating at that exciting outer edge of ’80s punk where it rubbed up against experimental jazz and performance art.
Hernandez: “Zappa was a major, major influence on Sort Of Quartet. The band was instrumental, but it had a lot of structure. We were really into Universal Congress Of. Just soaking that up, bursts of energy. I went to MIT in Hollywood for a summer session, pretty much had taught myself playing punk rock, rock n roll music and then I hit a wall. I wanted to open up my ability. I learned jazz and all the South American music. And we were into Black Flag and Miles Davis. Pretty much combined the two. We had a trumpet player in the second album to do trumpet, just took it to another level.”
“The Sort of Quartet got a chance to enjoy the real underground music scene in Los Angeles,” remembers Boomer. “The only gigs we’d ever get were in those kind of scenes—playing at the Alligator Lounge, with Nels Cline, Joe Baiza, Universal Congress Of, Eugene Chadbourne. Now, that scene is all about making music. That’s all it’s about—there’s no thought about career, selling records, it’s all about fuckin’ makin’ music. And when you respect that, and you get respect from those people, it changes the way you think about the music industry and about music, you know?
“We immersed ourselves in it. I wasn’t going to rock shows much cuz I was really experimenting with a different music scene, if it makes any sense. That whole period, what rock shows would we go to? Maybe the Butthole Surfers, maybe Sonic Youth. I dunno, it was weird. We were detached.”
In the mid-’90s, while Sort Of Quartet was winding down, Boomer and Larry started another band, the rock-oriented Fatso Jetson, with drummer Tony Tornay.
“I’d come back to appreciate punk rock and rock n roll and just getting off on
the energy of it,” he explains. “Frankly I got a little bored of spending so
much time thinking about what we’re doing and not just getting into the energy
of it, which is where it started in the first place.”
Around the same time, they opened an actual club called Rhythm & Brews in the desert, as a way of joining their work experience with their artistic ambitions. Generator parties had become a nightmare.
“It had got very violent. Before, it was just the friends of the band and the people that dug music. Then it because just a party and the music had nothing to do with it—it was just a place to go fuck shit up and people were showing up with guns, and knives. There were cholos and skinheads. All this weird shit colliding. And I just stopped doin’ it. We had a big finale, we called it The Splattering of the Tribes, we had like 10 bands. It was just ridiculous, and there was like 1500 people there, Rat Sound brought a huge PA. In the first three hours after dark, guys were coming up to me, bloodied heads, ‘Where’s the First Aid tent?’ And my van was packed in with like 30 cars, and he’s going ‘You set this thing up, man?! You’re fuckin’ nuts! You shoulda had an ambulance out here!’ and I was thinking, ‘Oh, what did I do? Turned out some guys hit him on the head with a wrench and took his car. And I felt responsible, for the whole thing, you know? And we paid for it. Bureau of Land Management fined us two grand each.”
“All these people were taking acid and climbing up on these sandstone rocks and then they couldn’t get down,” says Larry. “Stuck up there. People freaking out…”
Boomer: “El Duce was lost in the desert for god knows how long. His friends thought he was dead.”
Larry: ” We thought he was a goner, just drunk and parched, lost in the desert.”
Boomer: “He showed up. But later he ended up doing the same thing out in front of his house and got hit by a truck.”
Larry: “He missed his fate out in the desert.”
Boomer: “After that we just said, You know what? Fuck this. All this shit we’re going through? We could open a place up instead. We had been booking shows around the desert for ten years before that. So at Rhythm and Brews, we were trying to do bands that came through L.A.: Melvins, Unwound, etc. But it just didn’t work, we couldn’t draw enough people.”
After all these years, Boomer and Hernandez were finally releasing studio albums, and they were doing it through SST, the very label they’d always adored. SST would release four albums by the Sort Of Quartet (Hernandez departed for Kyuss after the second Sort Of album). SST also released the first couple of Fatso Jetson albums.
“We did all of that with not touring,” says Boomer. “We’ve never been a touring band. The only times we’ve been able to tour is because Queens or Kyuss have taken us under their wing when it was summertime and we could split. A creative outlet was what was important to us. Selling records isn’t important to us. You can say, ‘Oh yeah, the guys always say that. The Art! But honestly, it’s like… It’s our thing. It’s what we do. It’s the only thing we do that really, where you feel at home, where you feel like I’m really do something here with my life.”
Homme: “So many people in the desert are so negative and bitter. They [the Lallis] never were. And still aren’t. They were so encouraging of any band of young people playing. Because that was the thing! And that’s so rare to see. It’s like spotting a diamond in shit: you just see it, instantaneously. The best description I can think of for Boomer is: benevolent godfather. Because for all these years, all these parties, it’s been just one generator. It’s Boomer’s. It was borrowed from him. That’s heavy for everyone that was there. When I realized that, which was a couple years ago, and I said that to Brant, Do you realize that it’s only one generator? Brant went, Whoaaaaaa…”
* * *
Ensconced in their new Pasadenan enviorns, these days the Lallis are now concentrating on powering up Fatso Jetson as a local presence. And, with Sort Of Quartet no more (at least for now), Boomer has re-activated Yawning Man with Hernandez and Arce.
After all these years, Boomer and Hernandez were finally releasing studio albums, through SST, which put out four records by the Sort Of Quartet as well as the first two Fatso Jetson albums.
Post-Kyuss, Homme has kept turning the spotlight towards Boomer. In June 1998, he invited the Lallis (and Hernandez, as well as others) to one of the Desert Sessions he organizes for a few days every few months, where artists gather at Fred Drake’s studio in Joshua Tree and workshed new material. One of the tracks they recorded at this session was the obscure chestnut “Eccentric Man,” a song of defiant, non-hostile different-ness by ’70s British prog-blues band the Groundhogs [hipped to the gang by longtime Kyuss/Queens soundman Hutch—Ed., 2010]. When you listen to Boomer sing, “Call me an eccentric man / But I don‘t believe I am / The people think I’m crazy / But I know I‘m wiser than all the sages,” and when Homme refers to the Groundhogs as “apparently they were the best band that opened for everyone and no one ever knew who they were,” the connection deepens. To have someone like Boomer Lalli—a 6-plus-foot-high mountain in thick-rimmed glasses, driving a hot-rodded purple ’67 Cadillac hearse and happily laboring in near-total obscurity for two decades—you see the conceptual maneuver Homme is pulling. Boomer doesn‘t just sing the song—he embodies it.
The same Desert Session—the fourth—resulted in the recording of Homme and Lalli’s “Monster in the Parasol,” which would be re-recorded for Queens of the Stone Age‘s major-label debut, 2000’s Rated R. The fifth session saw the debut of the best Lalli-Homme collaboration yet, “You Think I Ain‘t Worth a Dollar, but I Feel Like a Millionaire,” which was re-recorded by Queens with vovals by Nick Oliveri for the lead-off home amplifier-destroyer on the band’s Songs for the Deaf, released this past summer.
Finally, Homme is personally releasing Fatso’s fifth album, Cruel & Delicious, on his new Rekords Records label. (Previous Fatso labels besides SST were Bongload and Man’s Ruin). C & D is a typical Fatso album: expansive, knotty, heavy, melodic, and flat-out powerful affair for the trio, somehow weaving together psychedelia, punk, blues, Dick Dale and heavier metal with long prog unison diddles, lengthy jams and vocals that will remind some listeners of D. Boon. And then there’s the lyrics and song titles…
“No one’s better with titles than Boomer,” says Homme. “Kyuss always had strange song titles, and Queens did too in general—that comes from just being around Boomer, him just rubbing off on us. His lyrics are so good. There’s a song called ‘Vatos on the Astral Plane’ and the lyrics are so good—they’re about a guy who’s a friend of ours who went to jail for dealing speed. And he’s able to convey it. If you don’t know the guy, it’s a great song that conveys something to you. But if you do know the guy, it’s a real tearjerker.”
“We’ve been accused of being an in-joke band,” says Boomer. “It’s true to a degree. But you’ve got to have fun with this stuff. Everyone takes themselves so seriously, being in this human drama. But life is so whimsical most of the time. Devo was a teacher to us, an opener, with their reflections on being human, and how absurd and comical it is. How you’re always gonna be in a battle between your brains and your nuts.”
* * *
One final Boomer story before we go, this one from Mathias Schneeberger, producer and keyboardist for the earthlings?:
“Boomer calls me up, says Hey there’s this cool generator party, come on out, bring your guitar. He gives me these directions, I drive out there, up through mountains, on dirt roads. And I can’t find it. I’m in this dead-end street in this canyon and it’s totally dark. Totally Twilight Zone. I stand on the top of my car and listen for music. Nothing!
“Then I hear this guitar, off in the
distance. Then, for another 20 minutes, nothing. So I drive another 100 yards,
go back on the top of my roof. Finally around midnight, I make out a little
lightbulb in the distance, in the middle of the desert. I drive out there. And
here’s this plateau, with a full backline set up: a little PA, drums, bass amp,
a guitar amp… but there’s not a soul around! What the fuck is
this? So I take my amp, put it out there too, and start playing out the
blaster amp, in the dark, with no moon out, in the hot air. Then out of these
bushes come these two kids that I’ve never seen before—and they start jamming
with me! Who are you guys? Do you know Boomer? Yeah, he’ll be here, he’s just
making a beer run. Finally at like three in the morning Boomer comes back with
his Hearse full of people.
“And we jam for the rest of the night.”