On The Line with Juan Alderete

Juan Alderete is well known as the bassist of Racer X and The Mars Volta. Outside of playing in an eclectic group of bands and projects, he has a genuine love for the bass guitar and musical gear. That’s all showcased on his website, Pedals and Effects, which just celebrated its third anniversary. With all that said, I had an enlightening conversation with Juan as we talked about his undying love for Van Halen, his eclectic influences, visiting Ireland, his favorite concerts and more.

Alex Obert: You recently had a clinic in Dublin at Musicmaker. What do you enjoy about the area and the culture?

Juan Alderete: I love Dublin. From the first time that I was there in 2003 to now, it’s like a different country in a lot of ways. It rains so much there, so it’s just insanely green. (laughs) I live in LA, there’s never rain there. I feel that Mexican and Irish cultures get along really well, they’re both devoted Catholic cultures. There’s just a lot of similarities. And of course, Mexicans and the Irish both love to drink. I remember being in New York City in the nineties and there was a St. Patrick’s Day parade, there was a whole section just for Mexicans marching with the Irish. I just love the Irish people, they’re cool. I get along with them. A difference between now and 2003, the food culture has gotten so much better. And I’m a big foodie, I’ve been going to a lot of great restaurants over the last five, six years. And musically? Come on, man! Thin Lizzy! (laughs) I’m a big Thin Lizzy fan. I’m an old school dude. And there’s other great bands that have come from there. U2, that was one of my favorite bands as a kid. I saw them on their second tour. I’m a gigantic, huge U2 fan. I don’t really care for their newer stuff though, but those first four records were pretty solid. Definitely my jam.

Alex Obert: Which bands did you really get into while growing up? Which bands helped shape you? Did progressive rock have a hand in that?

Juan Alderete: I didn’t really grew up being a huge prog rock fan or a huge metal fan. There were bands that I liked, but I listen to more new wave bands than any other genre. I listen to Van Halen, but I don’t consider them metal, they’re more rock or hard rock. Same thing with AC/DC. Listening to those first couple records with Bon Scott, I thought they were punk. They put bagpipes on the record! They were just balls out punk and I really dug them. Those were my mainstay bands: AC/DC, Van Halen, U2, Zeppelin. Yes was my favorite band, but they were my older brother’s favorite band, so I just became obsessed with them because he was. I had heard them so much. I really do love them, it’s pretty out there. I never sounded like Chris Squire, the bass player, I never tried to sound like him. I just knew he was great. I tried to sound like John Entwistle because I was a huge Who fan. I tried to sound like Entwistle when I first started playing and then it just kind of evolved from there. I liked Emerson, Lake & Palmer for a few records, they were pretty progressive. My brother wasn’t into King Crimson, so he wasn’t into it, I didn’t listen to it. I didn’t get into Crimson until later, I got into them on my own when they reformed with Adrian Belew. Then I went back and bought their older records, then I was like, “Okay, these are pretty awesome.” But it’s so hard to because there’s some things that didn’t necessarily age well, there was stuff that absolutely went over my head. But even over time, I got into it even more. In the Court of the Crimson King, I really got into that as I got older in the nineties. I’m an older dude. I kind of missed them, but I found them again. I was also kinda like that with Floyd, my first Floyd album that I really felt like was my own was Animals. I loved Animals, I know every note on that record. I’m one of those dudes that gets obsessed with a band and held it really closely. Even though I was listening to a lot of them, I couldn’t be obsessed about every band I listened to. I own every Van Halen record except for the Sammy Hagar era. I owned every AC/DC record up to the album after Back in Black, they had such a great run. I was a huge Bon Scott fan. Stevie Wonder, I absolutely own everything he’s ever put out. Jesus Lizard, I own every one of their records. But there’s not a lot of bands that I do. So fair enough though, I played a lot of prog music. Racer X was kind of speed prog at times. But I want to play something more like U2. (laughs)

Alex Obert: What else did you discover in the household?

Juan Alderete: I grew up in a family of five, so I always had brothers and sisters who were listening to their own music. I had an older brother who was into prog and classic rock because he was the older brother. And then I had a sister who was into Elton John and Queen, so I got into them. I own every Elton John record and I own every Queen record, I took them as my own. I had a sister who was a year and a half older than me and she was the new wave punk girl, so I listened to what she listened to. Our favorite band together is U2, she went with me to the show on the second tour. We stayed up all night to see their first television performance broadcast in the United States. She was also into a lot of different punk bands. My little brother was really into hip-hop and he got me into hip hop. I was hearing it and I was liking it, but it wasn’t my element. My little brother was just constant with it and I was listening to early hip-hop when I joined Racer X in ’86. And then I got into hip-hop. (laughs) What my family got for me was definitely Van Halen and probably AC/DC. I guess that would be it, really. Those were my two bands. I could pretty much fall in love with playing in Racer X because it had the heaviness that I dug. (laughs)

Alex Obert: When you played with Paul Gilbert in Racer X, did he always made his signature faces while playing the guitar?

Juan Alderete: (laughs) Pretty much! He’s awesome, man. I don’t get to hang out with him as much because he’s Dad now, we just don’t see each other as much as we used to. That’s what happens when you get older, your life just evolves into other things. But he’s always been cool. And I’m telling you, if I got in a room with Scott Travis, Paul Gilbert and Jeff Martin and we were doing another record or something, we’d all be in tears laughing the whole time we did it. That’s just our chemistry. It’s always fun, it’s always funny and it’s just a great time whenever I’m around those guys.

Alex Obert: If you had to pick between Van Halen’s debut album or 1984, which one would you side with?

Juan Alderete: Debut. Debut. Debut. Debut. Debut. Debut. (laughs) In every way, the debut. Women and Children First comes a close second. Fair Warning comes a very tight third. The second record’s good. And 84 was my least favorite. That’s when they were just getting sloppy in you could kind of already tell the band was about to fall apart.

Alex Obert: So as a big fan of Van Halen, did you get a chance to listen to the live album that recently came out?

Juan Alderete: No, not at all. Like I said, I was into Van Halen up till 1984, then I stopped listening to them. I saw him on the second tour they did. They had wrapped up the first album tour, went in and cut the second record and immediately started doing shows. That first run of shows they did, they were playing smaller venues and they were all sold out everywhere. I got to see them literally fifteen minutes from my house in a small theater called the Marin Civic Center. It was life-changing. I think what happened was that I saw a pioneer, a trailblazer, an innovator. I just went “This is what music’s about!” I saw The Edge in the same way. I saw U2 on the second album tour, which was October. You’re hearing the sound out of the guitar and you’re like “This is what I wanna do with myself, I wanna sound like no one else. I want it to be undeniable that I sound like The Edge or Van Halen, but on bass.” I always thought Entwistle had more of the sound than Townshend did. Don’t get me wrong, Townshend wrote great songs and I love The Who to death, but when you hear The Who, who really defines ’em? It’s just undeniable to me.

Alex Obert: Have you had people say you’re the reason that they picked up a bass guitar?

Juan Alderete: Yeah, I do get that. Now in the world of social media, you definitely get that feedback more because it’s so easy to reach out to people. Whether it’s my playing, my sound, the albums I’ve made, my website, I get really positive feedback one way or another. I’m pretty stoked on it. You never know how long you’re gonna be able to do it for a living and I know I’ve actually outlived a lot of people I came up with. And it’s that thing I keep going back to, I just wanna be an innovator. I think if you keep playing the same style, you could have success of that, but you could also find yourself not being relevant. I don’t do it to be relevant, I want people to put on something I just did and go “Woah… How did you do that? Where did that come from?” That’s what excites me, man. I just want that same excitement that Van Halen gave me for so many records. Everybody was dying to see what Eddie was gonna come up with each record on the first four or five records. After that, you just had to be a big fan of his to really get into it. But for four records, man, there was something on each record that made you go “Woah! What’s that?” The Edge still does it, man. Great riffs, super great songs, it’s just mind blowing to me.

Alex Obert: Do you feel that the younger musicians are getting caught up in getting signed to a record label these days? American Idol seemed like a make it or break it situation to aspiring musicians and it’s come with mixed results. The show was recently announced to be coming to an end. What are your thoughts?

Juan Alderete: Good riddance to the end of American Idol. Hopefully the rest of those shows will go away. It’s kid’s stuff, man. It impacted our culture because it definitely shot some other artists out, but I would’ve loved to have seen these artists do it in a more organic fashion than to just be skyrocketed through a television show. Who knows how great Kelly Clarkson would have been had she not gone that route? There are probably certain artists that would’ve been even further along than they are, but you don’t even hear about them anymore because people look at them as has-beens that were on that show. I’m sure there are some of those guys that you don’t even hear of anymore that could have done better if they wouldn’t have done that show. I was never a big fan of the show. But I am friends with Randy Jackson! (laughs) I know him!

Alex Obert: Did you ever have a moment where you realized you made it?

Juan Alderete: I don’t ever think of that. I don’t even think I’ve made it. Maybe for getting to do what I do for living, it is awesome that I don’t have to have a day job. I get to make music or do music-related things. I get stoked with my clinics because it’s not me showing scales or anything, I’m out there to go play wild sounds and kids trip out on it. I’m stoked, it’s more of like a performance. I’m lucky dude. I keep getting to do it, my luck is still here. Thank God, for sure.

Alex Obert: If you could attend one musician’s clinic, past or present, who would it be?

Juan Alderete: I did attend a Jaco one, so I can’t really saw any others! I would’ve loved to see a John Bonham drum clinic. Then again, I don’t want to see people in clinics, I’d rather see them in a solo performance. That’d be tight. I’d love to see Bonham in a solo performance. And Hendrix in a solo performance. I don’t want ’em talking, I just want them to play.

Alex Obert: What would you say is your favorite Hendrix album?

Juan Alderete: I’m a bigger fan of Band of Gypsys than I am of Experienced. That usually gets people hating on me, but I don’t care. I would put on Band of Gypsys in a second over any of his other records. I love that Band of Gypsys record.

Alex Obert: What’s your favorite track off of it?

Juan Alderete: Machine Gun’s pretty loud, it’s pretty wild. That’s a tough one. I don’t know, man. I couldn’t pick one. Changes is dope. It’s all great. That’s a tough one, man. Good question! (laughs)

Alex Obert: So I understand you have a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English Literature. What are some of your favorite books that you’ve read throughout the years and really took something out of?

Juan Alderete: It sucks that my Spanish is really bad because one of my favorite writers is Octavio Paz. I had to write one of my big dissertation papers on something that he wrote. I was way into him, but he’s a Mexican writer, not an English writer. I would obviously read translations of his stuff and it would be different than if I read it in Spanish. But I still loved him as a writer. I wish I could understand some of the writers better. I wish I could have understood James Joyce better, but you’ve just gotta have a high level of comprehension, education and intelligence to really understand that guy. I read it and thought there were things in it that were awesome, but I don’t totally make the connections. But I do know that Joyce is a force. He’s probably one of the last great writers to walk this earth. There’s been so many different literary explosions that have happened, it’s really hard to keep up. Had I followed that path, I’d probably be able to give you better examples of writers. I was in it for like four years, I was way into it, and then I dropped out. I got back into music. (laughs) Then I stopped reading and it was all about music.

Alex Obert: Do you ever see yourself writing an autobiography?

Juan Alderete: Nah. I’m a bass player and I understand that people get excited about vocalists. Then probably next would either be the guitarist or the drummer. It’s weird, with YouTube and everything, it seems that drummers get more attention than guitarists do. (laughs) But bass players are probably the least interesting people in the band, as far as people understanding what we are and what we do and the role we provide. I don’t really think anybody would care what a bass player has to say. Robert Trujillo did this unbelievable movie about Jaco Pastorius and he’s been raising money to get it finished. He’s put a ton of his own money into it. I really thought one of those movie companies would come in and give him a bunch of money to finish it because the story is just an American story. It’s somebody who grew up in this country and struggled to do what he wanted to do, his passion. And he had issues that he had to deal with. To me, it’s interesting, but I don’t know if people really care. “He’s a what? A bassist? Electric bassist? What does that do? What does that instrument do?” (laughs)

Alex Obert: I’ve always seen them as the intellectual of the band.

Juan Alderete: I don’t know, I’ve seen a lot of smart drummers and smart guitar players and smart frontpeople. I don’t know. But I know that we’re never, ever in the big spotlight so we just kind of observed and watch things on a perimeter. This singer is always getting stared at and objectified and criticized. The guitar players can get that. The drummers get it. But bass players, man, it’s rare if I ever got a mention in a review. I don’t care, that comes with the instrument and the role. I don’t really care. I just know that without bassists, it ain’t as funky or cool. I do love electronic bass and synth and hip-hop though. For any other genre of music, you’ve gotta have a really solid bass. It gives things soul and life.

Alex Obert: Combining bass guitar and hip-hop, are you a fan of Bust A Move featuring Flea?

Juan Alderete: Of course. My friend Mario recorded that. I asked him a bunch of questions when Flea did that. I still think that’s Flea’s funkiest bassline. I have some Chili Peppers records, but I still think that’s his funkiest bassline that he ever played. The thing is awesome! It’s my favorite bass tone of his. He just killed it on that track!

Alex Obert: I agree! Before we wrap up, can you fill in readers on your website, PedalsandEffects.com?

Juan Alderete: The site has been up for three years this month. I really wanted to have an outlet for my obsession with pedals and creating sounds. I taught a lot at music schools and I’ve done a lot of school myself, so I just thought it’d be nice to have an educational area. Kind of getting more out of that and getting more into entertainment. (laughs) But I really wanted to do a website where you can go and just check out sounds that most people are covering. People on the internet, at least at the time I started the website, were mostly guitar players doing the same thing and it was really boring to me. I decided to give people a different angle, a more out there angle. More stretched out, wild sounds. I believe that at least seventy percent of what I do is pretty out there and not for everybody. But if you want to see the extremes of pedal sounds, my site is pretty strong. It’s one of these things that I’m glad I started. I wasn’t really sure when I started it and every year, I realize it’s awesome and I love that I get to do it.

Alex Obert: And how do you feel about your social media pages?

Juan Alderete: I like Instagram. Facebook, eh. Twitter, eh. Twitter just seems like such a marketing tool, it just bums me out. But I know a lot of people don’t use it that way. When I’m watching sports, I just go to Twitter and watch the funny things that people say. It’s pretty funny. My favorite is Instagram because I’ve got these little videos where kids get to see me blast out some wild stuff. It should just be about me and who I am. I do pedal stuff. I love food, there’s tons of food. I love biking, so there’s tons of biking. I travel a lot, so I have stuff from all around the world. I love my cats. I love my wife, but my wife doesn’t like me taking photos of her that go up on the internet. (laughs) So I don’t take photos of her, but other than that, it’s everything that I love doing. I’ll throw it all up on Instagram and it’s just awesome. And it’s not a big commitment, I don’t believe it’s as obnoxious as a lot of other social media sites.

Alex Obert: Some people can get a little carried away with Instagram, but if you use it wisely, then it’s great.

Juan Alderete: Yeah, totally. I agree, man.

Alex Obert: I’d love to thank you so much for your time and a great interview. Very informative and insightful.

Juan Alderete: For sure, man! Thank you for having me.

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