After hearing about it for ages, I made it out to Dave Catching’s Rancho de la Luna studio in Joshua Tree. There’s a reason this legendary recording studio has produced countless hits. Their success is based on a combination of factors I’ll tell you about…
I got in late Friday night, just in time to hang for a bit at Pappy & Harriets, a music venue that’s been home to some amazing performances. For a small venue, the people who’ve played here is staggering. In 2006, Robert Plant showed up and jammed. Paul McCartney and plenty of other big name acts have squeezed in live performances at Pappy & Harriet’s. The club is a testament to the significance of the high desert music scene that’s just 2½ hours and a galaxy away from Hollywood.
The next day I woke up early because I was excited to check stuff out before our afternoon recording session. I had breakfast at the Natural Sisters Café with beautiful Natasha Marin (Cheech’s wife). Natasha is an accomplished classical pianist. Cheech and Natasha just bought a place nearby the restaurant and I’ve known them for years. Not everyone realizes this but Cheech was an established musician before he started doing comedy. He’s a fan of the Circle Jerks. And Natasha was the perfect person to show me around Joshua Tree.
Natasha explained Joshua Tree is a huge area with a national park. Artists and musicians have made the pilgrimage for years, inspired by the rugged rocks, stark desert landscape and the twisted, bristled Joshua trees. It’s almost otherworldly, affording time to breath, relax and vacate from city life. It’s quiet, especially at night! These features were not lost on drummer Fred Drake when he spotted a sign saying “houses for rent” just off Highway 62 over 25 years ago. Fred, along with some friends, had the vision to create a creative sanctuary in the desert where artists and musicians could contemplate and create. Rancho de la Luna studio was born.
Fred met musician/producer/artist Dave Catching at Dominion Sound in Hollywood. These guys share the DIY (“do it yourself”) attitude that’s associated with outsider art, punk rock and other genres of eclectic music. DIY was at the heart of desert rock band Kyuss — whose outdoor “generator parties” were a milestone in the emerging desert music scene. Over time, recording equipment was acquired along with a ton of bric-a-brac, swap meet collectibles and enough rare gear and vintage amps to make guitarists drool. Whatever latest and greatest technology Rancho de la Luna studio may be missing is more than made up for by Dave Catching and engineer Jon Russo’s experience pulling top tier sound out of the space.
Dave and I had been looking forward to meeting each other. Dave has a reputation for being a super cool guy with amazing studio talent. He said he kept seeing my drum set on display at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. Natasha dropped me off around noon when my band mates Kris Olsen, Damian Valentine and Chuck Cicirello arrived. I’ve been playing with these guys for around 18 months. Like any band starting out, we’ve had our share of soul crushing shows where the only person in the audience was the bartender. But I truly believe in the music; Kris is a wicked songwriter and performer.
It’s a treat to play with a bass player as solid as Damian. Chuck is our Swiss army knife, the kind of guy who can play keyboards and just about any string instrument on the planet. That opens up a wide range of sounds to our music, sort of a Doors meets Nirvana with an energetic drum beat. We didn’t book a lot of studio time, but we came in prepared.
There’s a Rancho de la Luna sound that’s hard to define. I want to say clean but dirty, if that makes any sense? It’s the reason bands like the Foo Fighters, Iggy Pop, Joe Walsh, the Eagles of Death Metal, Earthlings?, Artic Monkeys and countless others come out to what’s basically a house in the desert to record. The late Anthony Bourdain shot an episode of “No Reservations” featuring Rancho de La Luna studio. The studio was also the focus of the fifth episode of Foo Fighter’s HBO series, “Sonic Highways.”
When I talk with somebody like Dave Catching, I’m listening for a takeaway that might make me see or hear things differently or more clearly. I want to know his perspective. That pearl of wisdom of was dropped while Dave was showing me a rare original “Flying V” guitar he loves to play. Offhandedly Dave commented “no matter how cool the gear, it’s all about the song.” That emphasis on song craft got me thinking. It felt good to be at Rancho de La Luna studio with Kris, Chuck and Damian. I love the songs created. It will take a while to listen back to the session and mix the songs. There’s nothing like good music, cool people, a great studio and a no stress vibe to create magic.