Karma To Burn-West Hollywood, CA, 2011
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KARMA TO BURN
Look on any self-respecting list of classic stoner rock albums, classic albums period, for that matter, and you will usually see Karma To Burn’s self-titled masterpiece from 1997 lurking near the top. And yes, it is that good. Even now, there’s the sound of West Virginia thunder in there, the juxtaposition of claustrophobia and vast open spaces on dark, dark nights with nothing to do but heroin and moonshine. It sounds like the devil’s in there too, some of that old Southern voodoo and sinister superstition. Karma To Burn were the real deal and, appearing with perfect timing to fill the void left by Kyuss, they were all set to be massive. Except…well, it’s turns out, perhaps unsurprisingly, that they really were into heroin and moonshine. Before Karma To Burn even made it to the UK the tales of their madness were the stuff of legend: these wild hillbillies had driven at least two singers to insanity, finally revealing that they’d never wanted
a singer in the first place, but couldn’t get signed without one. After singers the band started dispensing with song titles too, whole sets full of tunes called ‘8’, ‘5’, ‘33’… And then there was the heroin and moonshine! By 2001 when Karma To Burn released their third album ‘Almost Heathen’ all three band members, Rich Mullins (bass), William Mecum (guitar) and Rob Oswald (drums) were so strung out on heroin that they were getting it Fed-exed to them on the road!
“Yeah, we were doing that,” admits Rich, able to laugh at it after being clean for several years. “It was just such a problem that we weren’t really practicing. We weren’t really doing anything other than trying to get heroin and we’d only get together when we had to get a song done, which meant only when we had a record coming out. We’d get together and do heroin, but that was about it. When we did Almost Heathen I don’t think any of us really remember it that well to be honest. The usage was really heavy, even in the studio, so that was a little bit slower than some of the other records.”
It’s a wonder you got anything done!
“You can actually get a lot done during the day,” says Rich. “You’ll have two days where you get a lot of shit done and then you’ll sleep through the third day, that’s usually the pattern. But you can be functional, it’s the whole not having any that’s really, really terrible.”
Eventually Rich decided that his only way off heroin was to split the band up and move out of West Virginia all together. He’d tried numerous paths to quitting, but they all ended back in the same place and the band were out of control.
“I’d tried to quick heroin three or four times in different ways and after the forth time I needed some change, so I thought if I moved to Texas that might work.”
Of course, there’s no heroin in Texas is there?
“Exactly!” laughs Rich. “That was a bad idea!”
Rich made further decisions that Stevie Wonder would have spotted as bad ideas. He joined a band called Speedealer, where ironically he was the only drug user, but they threw him out, leaving him by the side of the road after he stole from them. Then he moved to Holland (no drugs there, of course). Eventually Rich washed up in LA, homeless and still strung out he’d progressed to doing crack with his new friend Daniel Davies. They didn’t even have power in their apartment.
It took seven months of rehab for the pair to clean up and somehow, somewhere along the line they’d managed to form a fine band in Year Long Disaster. But part of Rich’s rehabilitation process was to right a few wrongs, cross a few bad deeds off the list like on My Name Is Earl, the karma list. Speedealer were on the list. And Karma To Burn were on the list.
“A couple of my and Will’s mutual friends just said “you guys should talk,” says Rich of the reunion with his former guitarist. “I needed to apologize for a lot of things and I really felt like maybe he would give me a listen. He was actually really cool when we finally got hold of each other. He was like “let’s just forget about the past and look at the future”, which was really nice. The age we met at, like 20 years old and you start something like we did, you have a weird, really strong bond. We did it for a long time, like nine years…”
It’s been about a year now since Karma To Burn got back together. They have a few drinks now and again, but none of them are doing crack or heroin or elephant tranquilizers or whatever the hell else they were doing. From experience Rich, was always a nice guy, always easy conversation and a great host, always with a smile, but nowadays you’d actually give him your real phone number, introduce him to your mum or something. What’s more, when the band reunited they found that they still had a solid fanbase, all eager to kick off where they left us. They sold out home town shows first and then toured the US before heading to Europe.
“It was really weird and we were totally shocked,” says Rich. “I expected no one to be at the shows and then when we got to Europe it was really, really good there too. We’re definitely gonna keep doing it! Had it been stale at all we wouldn’t have done it, but I think the new stuff came out really cool. I swear to god it sounded like where I thought we would sound today. The good thing was we didn’t have to go through any long work out periods.””
Even more shocking is that Karma To Burn’s new album, the brilliantly monikered Appalachian Incantation, is said to have vocals on a track!
“There’s two!” reveals Rich. “There’s a bonus disc that’s gonna come with it that has John Garcia (Kyuss/Unida) singing a song that we did in 1996 when he was actually living with me in West Virginia, this is before they released “And the Circus Leaves Town’. The only vocals on the first records were supposed to be this one song that we’re putting out now! And then on the new release Daniel came in and did a song with us and we were really happy with it so we put it on the regular record. It’s the only one with a name instead of a number too, it’s called Waiting On The Western World.”
Although many fans preferred KTB with a vocalist, Rich insists there was no peer pressure involved, the track simply worked. But when asked if it’s a sign of things to come from the band the answer is simple: “Absolutely.” They’ve even covered Sabbath’s Never Say Die for Metal Hammer, with Davies again providing vocals.
“That’s kind of how the whole thing with the vocals got started,” says Rich. “We went out and recorded that with Scott Reeder, out in the desert; he co-produced the whole Karma record and we were really happy with the way it turned. It’s one of the more upbeat rock songs that Sabbath have, it’s got a really nice bounce to it!”
So which band takes priority? Year Long Disaster or Karma To Burn?
“Well they’re both running simultaneously and they’re turning more and more incestuous,” laughs Rich. “I’m really digging that so we’re gonna see what happens, see if we can’t mold them all into one band.”
Year Long Karma Disaster?