Enigmatic California guitarist and songwriter Carlos Guitarlos compares his brilliant new long-player, Straight from the Heart, to a wall.
"It’s a wall of American music. It might not have all the bricks, but there aren’t any holes in it," said Guitarlos recently in a telephone interview from his Los Angeles home.
A quick spin of Straight from the Heart proves what he’s talking about. The disc begins with the Cajun rocker "Damn Atchafalaya" before moving into the Soloman Burke-styled "The Love I Want." Bassist Mike Watt joins Guitarlos on the heavy Motown groove of "Ain’t That Lovin’ You." The rest of the disc goes from Bakersfield country to Memphis soul to straight gut-wrenching Oakland blues. The record’s last cut, "When the Pain Stops Killing Me," is a gut-wrenching ballad that sounds ready-made for the Rolling Stones to cover.
But with all the genre bending, it all comes out as authentic Guitarlos. His voice is cracked and supple, like an old leather jacket. His guitar playing is fluid. His songs are real-life slices of life that discuss hard drinking, hard lovin’ and hard livin’.
"It’s all different parts of my life. But they’re all true stories. I used to introduce my songs by saying ‘Here’s another true story from my miserable fucked-up life,’" Guitarlos said.
It’s easy to imagine why Guitarlos would call periods of his life miserable and fucked-up. After gaining a level of fame with the band Top Jimmy and the Rhythm Pigs, he fought substance abuse and he spent a lot of time living and playing on the streets of San Francisco. But now he’s clean and sober and supporting an album he likes.
"I’m not crazy and drunk anymore and all screwed up. I’m taking care of myself," Guitarlos said in a telephone interview from his Los Angeles home. "I was talking to Caesar Rosas (from Los Lobos), and he said ‘You’re not a crazy asshole anymore! You’re just an asshole!’ I said: ‘That’s good!’"
Guitarlos (born Carlos Ayala) began playing in 1960, when he was 10 years old. By the time he was 13 or 14, he says he could play just about anything he heard; by the time he was 17, he was writing songs. He has written more than 3,500 songs since then. Straight from the Heart is his third solo record, but it’s the first that he’s completely pleased with. He’s backed by a full band and horn section, and Dave Allan and John Doe make guest appearances along with Watt. The musicians who play with Guitarlos speak highly of him.
"He plays with a lot of heart. He’s got a huge vocabulary," said Mike Watt, who plays bass on one track on Straight From the Heart. "God, he’s got a knowledge of all these kinds of variations of blues and soul. He’s a trippy cat."
Watt said Guitarlos was an exacting bandleader on the cut he played on, "Ain’t That Loving You."
"First he had me play like a Led Zeppelin lick in unison, and then I think he got a different sense," said Watt, describing the part he ultimately played as a "chugging" part reminiscent of Motown genius James Jamerson.
Guitarlos remembers that session, too.
"He was starting to be Mike Watt, and I wanted him to be more straight, instead of wandering around." Guitarlos said. "I told him ‘Play like a fucking dummy’—and he’s not, that’s why he’s able to grasp it."
Whenever he plays with other people, Guitarlos knows what he wants.
"When I write songs, I hear every note from the start. I hear what the bass does, every stroke of the drums, the timing, the tempo in my head. I know what the tempo’s going to be. I can write the parts down and check it against a metronome and it’s just right. I know every volume, everything. I don’t have a life," he said.
Vince Meghrouni, a harmonica and flute player in Guitarlos’ band, says that knowledge exists at a gut level.
"It’s not contrivance. It’s not mining the Smithsonian for old forms and sprucing them up. It’s the real deal," said Meghrouni. "There’s no bull about it. It’s really rockin’."
All those years of hard street living taught Guitarlos a few things, like how to fill the space in a song with his guitar.
"It directs the band more precisely. It helps good players be centered, and great players just get free, within the context of what I’m doing. That’s the way you want to do it, really. I mean, democracy in the band? I don’t know. I just get players that know how to play and let them play with me, and I play with them," he said. "I can make good players sound great and great players transcend."
There are 17 songs still in the can from the Straight From the Heart sessions, and he’s been back in the studio and recorded 19 more songs with the hot-shit rhythm section of Don Heffington and Bob Glaub. Guitarlso says he’s enjoying the prolific recording.
"I’d like to put out two-a-fucking-year, because I’ve got so many songs," he said.