Spotlight: Garcia Peoples

Richard Gehr on December 12, 2019
Spotlight: Garcia Peoples

Photo by Ethan Covey

If you happened to see Garcia Peoples slam into “The Other One” at New York’s Nublu last March, then you might have thought you were listening to the latest high-octane Dead cover combo to come cruising up the New Jersey Turnpike. But, in fact, that brash blast of vintage acid-rock—performed alongside Chris Forsyth—marked one of the very few times the supple Brooklyn sextet has dipped into the Dead’s repertoire.

Meanwhile, all signs are pointing increasingly to the experimental beyond for Garcia Peoples, who were playing short, sharp Minutemen and Misfits covers in a Manhattan dive bar a decade ago. Compare and contrast that with the Peoples’ latest audio missive: One Step Behind’s title track plays hide and seek with the bardos over the course of 32 pulsating minutes. The band’s third release in only 14 months, One Step Behind follows Cosmic Cash and Natural Facts— albums packed with tightly composed tunes, full of subtle dodges and feints that the band has subsequently expanded into multiflavored jam vehicles.

“Back then, it was about making sure the changes were tight, parts were interesting and songs were as shiny as possible” guitarist Tom Malach says while sitting at The Sweatshop, a Brooklyn rehearsal dungeon. “Now we play about four songs in an hour-long set—but that wasn’t in our initial DNA.”

Garcia Peoples started out in Rutherford, N.J., where Malach and fellow guitarist/ songwriter Danny Arakaki attended high school together. Danny’s brother Cesar started playing drums with them and, soon after, bassist Derek Spaldo, who now lives in Chicago, joined the gang. Andy Cush crushes the bass on and off the stage these days, and keyboardist Pat Gubler, of PG Six and Wet Tuna fame, has since been promoted from studio guest to full-fledged band member. “I get five bucks every time I show up,” Gubler jokes, “whether it’s a rehearsal, lunch or gig.”

The evolution from the Peoples’ songier albums to One Step Behind’s extended-release pleasures reflects much craft-honing. “We wrote most of the songs on Natural Facts and Cosmic Cash probably seven years ago,” Danny says.

“We had a good three-year period where we weren’t really playing shows or on a label,” Malach says. “We were meeting up, practicing and writing songs weekly, getting everything down. Now we’re getting to the tail end of that material and we’re on a label [Beyond Beyond Is Beyond], playing a lot of shows and learning how to expand things. If we hadn’t played as many shows as we have, we wouldn’t have thought to do ‘One Step Behind’ as a long piece of music rather than a six- or seven-minute tune.”

“One Step Behind” opens with a double-helixing saxophone duet reminiscent of minimalist pioneer Terry Riley. Those horns were overdubbed by jazz saxophonist Bob Malach, Tom’s father, whose career began with stints in Philadelphia soul bands The O’Jays and The Stylistics and went on to include sessions with Madonna, Barbra Streisand, Steve Miller, Stevie Wonder and other hotshots.

“He was a session guy, a road dog—the whole shebang,” Tom says. “When we started thinking about making that song a longer piece, it seemed like a good way to play with him—and a good way to get eight minutes of music that’s pretty low-effort on our end,” he adds to his bandmates’ amusement.

“And he works cheap, too,” Gubler notes, to more laughter.

Since Bob Malach’s horns were added to previously recorded tracks, father and son didn’t actually perform together until an early-October record-release show at Nublu, where they stretched “One Step Behind” to nearly 48 minutes of combined Malach madness.

Tom Malach grew up immersed in great music, of course, and his father has provided plenty of musicindustry guidance that he says might be summarized as don’t do it! “His advice was to become an undertaker because you’ll never go out of business. He always encouraged me to play music, though, and now he’s like, ‘Be sure to take care of yourself financially,’ and all that stuff.”

While Malach and Arakaki’s guitars can joust and lilt like the Dead’s, they also snarl and explode in ways reminiscent of Television, Sonic Youth and The Velvet Underground. Malach may have spent months at a time listening to the Dead exclusively (hence lines like, “We’ll follow you into a dark star,” on Cosmic Cash’s opener, “World’s Illusion”), but you’re more likely to hear them covering relatively obscure Krautrockers like Agitation Free. Their name, in fact, derives from hearing a loopy rando repeat the phrase: “You’ve gotta listen to Garcia Peoples,” approximately “500 times” over the course of a long evening. He was actually mangling somebody else’s moniker, but it didn’t take Deadheads long to suss out the group’s deeper ties.

As far as classic j-band influences go, however, the Dead are essentially it. “We like other bands that jam, like Can,” Andy says, referring to the influential German combo. “They jammed, but you wouldn’t call them a jamband.”

Garcia Peoples’ slant toward the San Francisco-‘60s source has also led them to improvise music for a series of Acid Testlike Brooklyn happenings. While Cesar describes the music at these “Back to Buddha Nature” happenings, organized by friends of the band, as a meditative progression from tranquil ambience to “this raucous thing,” Danny simply calls it “the Acid Quiz.” And at the end of the day, not being a cover band themselves gives Garcia Peoples the license to go for the unexpected.

On the other hand, “We see that band High Time every time they play,” Tom says. “They’re very faithful, musically.”

This article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more subscribe below.