San Diego’s CHON writes intricate, ultra-linear fusion-inspired math rock, but with a twist. You can dance to it. Their toe-tappin’ tunes conjure the classic, laid back Southern California vibes of their hometown, complete with sunshine and palm trees, but are punctuated with twitchy, kinetic outbursts of manic energy more akin to hyped up video game soundtracks than the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Since the release of 2015’s Grow, they’ve toured relentlessly, taking their chops-heavy brand of instrumental rock as far as Austrailia, before returning home to begin work on their sophomore album with engineer / producer Eric Palmquist (The Mars Volta, Trash Talk, Bad Suns).
The result, titled Homey [out June 16], is more about branching out than planting roots. Having previously shunned effects pedals in the studio and on the road, the band turned to Eric Palmquist and his stunning collection of gear to lead them to new sonic territory, embracing new sounds, and allowing happy accidents to guide them to a looser, in-the-moment set of jams.
We caught up with guitarists Mario Camarena and Erick Hansel shortly after tracking had wrapped to discuss the making of the album, and find out how they fared upon entering the Wide World of Effects Pedals for the first time in the band’s eight-year history.
Aaron Rogers: So, you guys are working an album.
Mario Camarena: We actually just finished a couple weeks ago.
Erick Hansel: Not completely finished, but yeah…
MC: We finished tracking and everything.
AR: Still waiting to mix and master?
MC: Yeah, we should be getting the first mix back today actually, so I’m stoked on that.
AR: What’s the album called?
MC: It’s called Homey.
AR: What’s the significance of the title?
MC: This whole time we’ve been touring I’ve realized how much I love living in Southern California. I’ll be on tour and thinking about being back at home, and what comes to mind is typical Sothern California things, like the beach, palm trees, all that. That’s the vibe for this album.
AR: Did you work with a producer?
MC: Yeah, we worked with Eric Palmquist. He actually did our first album as well. He was just the engineer last time. We had all the songs ready to go. But this time, we wanted to have him be more involved in the writing process, and see how that went.
AR: What was that process like? Did you bring completed songs to the sessions? Or did he work with you to develop riffs into songs?
MC: We did both. We had eight instrumental songs that were like the crazy instrumental songs we always made. And he gave his take on those. We also had a bunch of song ideas, just random riffs and stuff that we expanded on with him.
AR: I talked to Jonathan Hischke [Dot Hacker, Norah Jones, Marnie Stern] at NAMM and he was saying that he was just about to come in to record some bass parts with you. What was it like working with him?
MC: It was chill. He’s a super nice dude. It was fun. He came in and had some bass ideas for a couple songs and we just collaborated on them for a day. It was cool. We did a couple songs on bass.
AR: Did he do any crazy effects pedal stuff?
MC: He played it a little straighter, but there were a couple parts where he went kinda crazy.
EH: Yeah, there’s a crazy expression pedal that he had. . . I don’t remember what it was.
AR: Are there a lot of pedals on the new album?
MC: Yeah. That’s why we went back to Palmquist. Before we recorded our first album, we weren’t into effects pedals at all. All of our shows where just going straight into our amps, for like 8 years. Then we worked with Palmquist, who has a bunch of EarthQuaker pedals, and he introduced us to the world of effects pedals. And so, this album, we knew we wanted to go heavy in that direction. Palmquist helped us navigate our way through all that stuff.
EH: It really helps all the songs. We wrote the songs thinking about that in mind. How the effects should affect the song . . .
AR: What new sounds are you the most stoked on?
MC: There’s a song where I do a lot of rhythm stuff - backing chords - and I use the Organizer a lot and it sounds so crazy. It sounds really huge, and it’s way different than anything we’ve done. That song is super sick.
EH: There’s a part in one of the songs where I’m like, not playing in key, and because we have the Rainbow Machine goin’ off, going crazy, going up and down, these crazy note patterns, almost like the guitar’s talking to itself, and then I break into a solo after one measure, and we’ve never done anything like that before. So that’s pretty cool.
MC: We actually have noise parts now in some of these songs.
AR: It sounds like the effects led you in a direction that you didn’t see coming.
EH: Yeah, they made us think outside the box. We weren’t trapped in writing - like, oh this part needs to be clean - like how the old songs used to be.
MC: They opened up a totally new world. They put you in a different place when you’re playing with them and it inspires something new. That happened a lot with the album.
AR: What changes will you make in your rig to recreate the sounds on the album?
MC: We’re bringing out a couple of pedalboards this time. Pretty big pedalboards. We’re building a big effects chain so we can start incorporating all that stuff live. I’m super stoked on that. We haven’t really done that before. After our first album, we started taking out the Warden, which is really cool. Palmquist showed us that pedal, and we were like, “Dang, we need to start using this live.” So that was the first pedal we used live. Now I’m stoked to just go crazy with pedals live.
EH: There’s a lot of parts than can be amped up. The pedals don’t necessarily hinder the part. They make it more energetic. There’s some parts in our songs with a bunch of downtime, and it just makes everything a little more interesting. It’ll be cool to experiment with all the different sounds that we can get and make the songs the best they can be.
MC: It’s gonna be fun playing with ‘em, because we don’t have any set parts for effects. We’re not like, “Okay, I’m gonna use this reverb here and all that . . . we’re just gonna mess around.”
EH: Yeah, we actually wrote some parts where we don’t have to play it exactly the way it’s played on the recording - like, “Oh, I’m playing the backing guitar this time and Mario’s playing the lead.” The backing guitar is like, this weird chord that’s like two chords in one, so I can play either one, and it’s the same with pedals - it doesn’t necessarily need to be the same as the recording.
MC: But we actually do have some parts, like the Organizer part . . .
EH: Yeah, that’s set in stone. That’s written for that part.
MC: it’s gonna be a lot of fun and it’s gonna take the live show to another level.
AR: It sounds like the effects interject some spontaneity . . . you guys are really tight live, and now with pedals there’s an element of chaos. Sometimes you step on a pedal, and maybe it’s not set like it was last time and you respond to that in the moment.
MC: Yeah, definitely.
EH: Also a bunch of mess-ups. We’re preparing for that.
AR: If you do it twice, it’s on purpose.
EH: Yeah. [laughs]
AR: What’s the craziest sound you’ve gotten from an EarthQuaker pedal?
EH: Probably when we used the Disaster Transport. When you turn up the delay, there’s this crazy sound like an alien spaceship in the background, and it just does that forever.
MC: We got a lot of crazy sounds. [laughs]
EH: When the Organizer hits it’s like a huge fuckin’ organ is just harmonizing in a bunch of octaves and that’s cool because it makes it sound huge for a second then it’s back down . . . so it punches you in the gut real quick and goes away.
AR: Did you process any unconventional sources with effects? Drums? Anything else in the mixing stage?
MC: Palmquist has a bunch of crazy hardware. I don’t even know what most of it is. He has so much stuff. We got some pretty crazy sounds from his stuff. There’s something he has, I don’t even know what it is, but he made it sound like, I would hit a chord and it sounded like a bunch of stars were exploding in key with the chord.
AR: What do you think makes EarthQuaker Devices different from other effects pedal companies?
MC: Personally, when I think of EarthQuaker, I think of super unique effects. When you hear it, you know what it is.
EH: Like, “Oh, that’s the Arpanoid.” You could play that arpeggio, but no, that’s an EarthQuaker Arpanoid. Or the Rainbow Machine - all those weird, cool sounds you can’t get anywhere else.
MC: Even the Warden [compressor] has a unique sound.
EH: Yeah, or like, we have another EQ / Boost pedal, but we used the Arrows in the studio, because it didn’t hinder the tone at all. [The Arrows] made the part more articulate instead of muddying it down with more bass like our other boost was doing.
AR: So what’s next for CHON?
MC: We have a co-headlining tour with Dance Gavin Dance . . . for a month. Then we have a couple months off to prepare for the album release. We’ll be doing music videos and all that stuff. And then we have a headliner booked . . . a really cool headliner. We have an epic lineup for that in June.
AR: Since you’re about to leave on tour, what’s your best tour story?
EH: Nothin’ too crazy. Getting new gear on tour is always fun. I’ve never won anything… Australia was sick. We stayed in this fuckin’ sick-ass suite. That was cool.
MC: Hangin’ out with kangaroos, too. That was sick. We went to a kangaroo park . . .
EH: Huggin’ a koala . . .
MC: And then we played a show after that.
EH: Koalas are just super baked all day. That’s how they live.
AR: It sounds like you guys are pretty nose to the grindstone. Like, “we’re gonna get up, chill with koalas, play a show, and that’s it.”
MC: Yeah, pretty much.
EH: When we’re on tour we have it dialed in.
MC: A few of us play Super Smash Bros. competitively, so last tour, we hit up a bunch of pros and invited them to our shows, and ended up playing Super Smash Bros. with random pro Smashers. That was pretty cool.
AR: I had no idea professional competitive Super Smash Bros. was a thing. What’s the official platform for that? Nintendo 64? Wii?
MC: We play the Wii. And [Super Smash Bros.] Melee [on Nintendo GameCube] is still huge.
AR: Besides Super Smash Bros., what are your influences?
MC: We’ve been listening to a lot of electronic music, like beat producers and stuff. You wouldn’t be able to hear it right away . . .
AR: Would you hear it more in the production than the composition?
MC: I think both. We took ideas that they use and put them in the CHON format. They’ll do a lot of buildup / drop type things, so we did our own version of that. Besides that, we still have a lot of jazz and fusion influences.
AR: Who are your favorite jazz and fusion players?
MC: Hiromi Uehara, this Japanese pianist . . . she’s super cool. One of my all-time favorite artists.
EH: [Hiromi Uehara’s bassist] Tony Grey . . . Guthrie Govan, Return to Forever . . .
MC: There’s this dude Tigran Hamasyan . . . he’s like the Meshuggah of jazz fusion. He’s super sick, dude. He’s been a big influence. I like a lot of weird rhythmic stuff. Like, rhythmic tricks where he’ll play something in a certain rhythm and make you think it’s in a certain time signature, and then he’ll modulate the rhythm so it reveals that it’s actually in 4/4. He does that all the time.