Halo Orbit: An Interview with Juan Alderete
Juan Alderete is the king of pedals and effects, and he’s proven that once again with his new group Halo Orbit. The band, which includes Japanese guitar whiz suGar Yoshinaga and drummer Mark Guiliana, released their debut album earlier this month and it’s filled with the bassist’s unreal tonal palette.
Halo Orbit’s self-titled debut is Alderete’s first full release since 2012. In the meantime he’s been honing that palette and educating others with his website PedalsandEffects.com, not to mention touring the world with the hip-hop all-stars in Deltron 3030.
We reached out to Alderete to get the low down on Halo Orbit, the new album, and how he practices.
What’s your playing time like around this new band’s release?
I’m practicing, for real. I’m not saying I don’t normally practice because I do to learn stuff but just to sit and play and not learn somebody’s music… I just haven’t done it in a long time. I’ve never had the time, so I blocked out the month of February to focus on my band. We’re going to Japan for three shows, and Japanese audiences can be pretty tough. Unless the audience is a built-in punk rock crowd or a noise crowd or whatever, you’ve just gotta be tight. I’m figuring they’re going to expect us to be pretty tight so I’m trying to relearn the intricacies of the songs and stuff like that.
I always practice on my acoustic bass because it’s pretty hard to play when it comes to a fretless. It makes you work harder. Some bassists may not think fretless acoustic is harder, but it really is. Fretless is a million times harder than fretted. It’s almost a different instrument to me because your left hand is doing way more work. That’s why I had a lot of bouts of tendonitis because you’re just jamming on stuff. It takes way more mind-to-hand connection than just hitting frets. I mean, there is some of that in the fretted bass, but you can get away with way more. I find whenever I play fretted, I’m thinking about technique, where with fretless I’m thinking tone and articulation and my voice in it.
So anyway, I have this Japanese bass called Landscape that I bought years ago at a NAMM Show. The company never got big because I don’t think he ever got distribution here, but I got one of the first ones. It’s just perfect. I’ve never had it worked on, and I’ve just been ripping on it. So I’ll practice hard on that and then switch to my electric fretless because it’s way easier. As far as what I’m practicing, I’m just getting my ideas back together. I find that when I don’t practice I just play the same stuff, you know what I mean? It’s like, “That arpeggio lick has been used on five Big Sir records, I’d better get off that.” [laughs]
As far as Halo Orbit goes, putting the band together and making it work is all about lean nowadays, right?
Yeah, it’s small and lean. Mark lives in New York, and suGar lives in Japan. We correspond via email, whether it’s merch ideas or vinyl ideas or artwork or tracks. Mark has been pretty laid back on this because he’s so busy with all the David Bowie album stuff and his own projects. So he let suGar and I mix the record, but he was definitely involved in the album, and he continues to be very involved in the project. He just doesn’t do anything half-assed. It’s not like, “I made this record, whatever.” He makes a record, and he wants to make sure it can do as well as it can. That’s how we’re approaching it.
I really love the album overall, but the song “Love or Lost” has a bass line that immediately caught my ear.
You know, that’s awesome you say that. Japan didn’t take to that one, and the label here didn’t take to that one. The funny thing is that it probably could have been a Big Sir song. I did everything: I programmed the loops, I played bass, I played guitar. Lisa [Papineau] sang on it, and I sang on it, too. SuGar didn’t want to play on it. She said, “It’s perfect the way it is.” I did do a take of it with Mark on the drums, too, but suGar was really adamant about keeping the drum machine because it was weirder. It’s literally a little Casio beat, and I was flying in the drum fills.
The bass I used on that song is actually [Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist] Josh Klinghoffer’s bass. He has this old Hofner that’s not the Beatle bass; it’s more like a Precision looking one. It’s a 30-inch scale, and it has the famous Hofner pickups with tapewound strings on it. This bass is so funky. It’s hard to play because it’s 30-inch and the strings are really wobbly, so it takes a lot of work to play it, but I think I did a fairly good job. That bass line is one of my most lyrical. I know that it’s just a bluesy groove, but it’s very hook-y to me.
The album has lots of hooks, but it’s super diverse. Is that something you were shooting for or is it just music that calls to you?
It’s probably a little bit more scrappy than that. Basically, I met suGar in the mid-90s when I was in a band called Distortion Felix. Her band, Buffalo Daughter, and my band were opening up for Girls Against Boys. We became friends; then I met my wife in Japan in 1999 when I was in Japan playing the Fuji Rock Festival. As my wife and I continued to communicate during the first year of our relationship, we’d talk on the phone, and I found out that she was super close to suGar. I mean, suGar and I have gone to Oregon to get tattoos together. We’re buddies. We always wanted to get a project together, but it never made sense.
When Omar Rodríguez-López and Deantoni Parks and I were doing Vato Negro in Japan, suGar and I were like, “Let’s do a record together.” We committed to it, and we each had three songs, so it wasn’t really a collaboration in that sense. I might have had more songs that she didn’t like and some that she did like. All three of her songs I loved, so we just started making the record from there. Then we did some improvisation songs, like “Trieste,” which is 90 percent live improv. “Brothers and Sisters” is another jam where we had Adrian Terrazas Gonzalez on Sax and Money Mark Ramos-Nishita on keys to fill it out. It was a three piece jam in a studio to start with.
What I set out to do with Halo Orbit is to… One of my favorite modern bands is Battles. They were the big inspiration for doing the album the way we did where it’s some instrumental and some vocal. Battles doesn’t have a singer anymore, but they had guest singers, so that was a big inspiration on it. I would write these songs and go, “Man, it’s a shame these songs are instrumental because I think a vocal would really lift it and make people want to listen more.” I don’t know if that’s actually the case, but I’ll tell you that our whole record was going to be instrumental. Every song you hear that has vocals, half of them got altered for the vocals. The one Del raps on was going to be instrumental, but we got Del to throw his lyrics on. I think we maybe tweaked the arrangement a little, but that’s mostly the way it would have been.
We might put the album out as an instrumental as well to see if it vibes. But I felt like the songs were so strong that we had to put vocals on. I love Lisa and so does suGar, which is why we had her on. Lisa and Del are the only vocalists. We treated her voice to try to make it sound different from Big Sir. We wanted it to sound freaky, so we treated “Love or Lost” and “Warped Descent” with effects and it doesn’t even sound like a singer. It’s like she could be an alien or something. Then there are a few where she actually sings her natural vocals.
What is touring in Japan like for you?
It’s awesome because my wife is Japanese and it’s where I met her. I love that country. It’s so beautiful, and I’m just excited. But to be ready for it, you have to get your stuff together. There’s no half-stepping with them. You’ve got to be good.
I think when we went over with Vato Negro, Deantoni drove the energy and improv, so Omar and I kind of rode on his shoulders. With Halo Orbit, it’s going to be three people pushing out their very best. When you talk to those Mark and suGar, they’re incredibly confident. I’m a little more neurotic, but they’re like, “We’re gonna be great.” It is what it already is to them, where with me I’ve gotta work up to it. They probably play more than me anyways because I’m always doing my pedals and effects honing, but Mark and suGar’s chops are always up. It’s a different kind of work ethic. [laughs] I’m worried – I’ve gotta build a pedalboard. I have to build one that I can fly with and be able to handle. It’s going to be hard because there are so many sounds on that record that I need to be able to make with a limited amount of pedals. If I can’t take a particular pedal, I have to find a sound I can create that will satisfy that sound.