Roadburn 2008, Friday 18 April, 013 (Bat Cave) Main Stage

Imagine that you’re in a relatively small band, taking your first tentative steps outside your own country. You’re playing at a cool festival: in the smallest room, but that still means that a couple hundred people will watch you play. You’re having a smoke in those last 10 minutes before your show, when suddenly, the head honcho of the whole festival steps through the door and tells you that, newsflash, you’re headlining.

How would you react? You’d probably be wondering what the hell they put in the Netherlands weed. Surely that’s what Earthless guitarist Isaiah Mitchell and bassist Mike Eginton also thought when this exact dream/potential nightmare scenario happened to them in 2008. Earthless 2008 is firmly rooted in Roadburn lore as one of “those” shows: where just having been there gives you bragging rights forever, and Earthless more than rose to the occasion and put on the performance of a lifetime on the Main Stage. But let’s rewind a little bit, and try to piece together how they got to this surreal situation.

José Carlos Santos

“It was simply a stroke of fate,” explains Walter, Roadburn’s artistic director. “We had booked Isis to headline and play an extensive two-hour set, but unfortunately they ended up having to cut it short to roughly 45 minutes, and leave right after. By that time, we didn’t have any other bands scheduled in the Main Stage anymore, as all that time had been reserved for Isis. There was a band already playing at the Bat Cave [the smallest venue at the 013 before its redesign a few years ago], and only Earthless remained after them. Me and the production went a bit nuts at that point, because we were very afraid of 2.500 people trying to cram into the Bat Cave for Earthless, as that was going to be the only show taking place at that time.”

It’s one of those situations that people who don’t organise festivals rarely think of: it isn’t a simple matter of just choosing a band and a venue – you have to predict and control the flow of people, so that potentially dangerous circumstances are avoided.

“We completely panicked – myself, production, stage managers: we all quickly realised we needed to have something, anything, happening on the Main Stage, or we’d be left with a couple of thousand people who had nowhere else to go,” Walter remembers. “I really didn’t know what to do. In desperation, I ran to the loading dock, just to see if I could spot someone from a band, any band, that would be willing and ready to play. Production were shouting in my in-ear communication system, and all I remember is going a bit crazy because time was ticking, and I needed a solution, now. I felt like I needed some air, so I walked back up the stairs – and I ran into Mario.”

This Mario was none other than Mario Rubalcaba, the drummer for Earthless. Mario was, by a delirious stroke of luck, walking around the venue, and he was the right man at the right time.

“I was on my way up to the little Bat Cave, ready to go set up my stuff,” the drummer recalls, still amused at how everything went down. “On my way there I ran into Walter, who was… I wouldn’t say he was in panic, but he was in a kind of state like that, I could tell there was something going on.”

Make no mistake, Walter was indeed in a panic.

“I asked Mario, “Do you guys want to play in the Main Stage, right now?”, Walter laughs. “He said yeah, but that he needed to check with the other guys too, so I ran to their dressing room, where I saw Isaiah [Mitchell, guitar and vocals] relaxing with a little smoke, and I asked him and Mike [Eginton, bass] the same thing, and I didn’t even give them time to answer. I just told them, ‘You have to get downstairs now: you’ll be on the Main Stage in five minutes. They were stunned, just looking at me like, ‘Dude, what?’”

Walter laughs, though no one was in the mood for chuckles back then; though Mario seems to have taken it all in his stride. “I was like, alright!” he laughs. “Regardless of a lot of people at the time not knowing who the band was, I saw it as a good chance to see what happened in that scenario, so we just went for it and did it. It was a lot of fun!”

But Walter’s panic mode, while subsided, wasn’t over yet. “Next I went to talk to the 013 tech crew for the Main Stage – the light guys, the sound engineers, the backline techs and everyone,” he recalls. “I told them what had happened, that the band who was going to play last at the Bat Cave had agreed to help us out and switch to the Main Stage at the last minute, and they all agreed that we would treat them like royalty!

“So they got everything: the best possible backline we had, the best sound and monitor engineers, the crew helped them as much as possible with everything they needed, full monitors, huge visuals, absolutely everything,” Walter continues. “While they were setting everything up, I headed to the office upstairs and printed a few A4 pieces of paper that said, ‘Earthless now playing in the Main Stage’, and I glued them on the doors of the Bat Cave, the Green Room, and in other strategic places. I was like a madman, running all over the building, putting papers up. If only we’d had Twitter back in 2008!”

And then, as all of us who were lucky enough to be there remember, magic happened. Even with Walter’s paper runs, not that many people were there at the beginning of the show, but when that supreme power known as word of mouth starts rolling, you don’t need Twitter. After just a few minutes, the room filled up from a couple hundred to a couple thousand people, all based on the jaw-dropping, mind-expanding jams that Earthless, just those three dudes, were letting loose on that humongous stage.

“I definitely remember the room filling up as we played, and kind of quickly too,” Mario says, thinking back. “At the time we were playing really new material, we had a song called From The Ages that we had just started to play live, it hadn’t been released yet and it would actually be a couple of years until the record with that song would come out: Roadburn was sort of its live debut. It was great to be able to do it without anyone knowing what it was, just watching it translate to a huge crowd and seeing what effect it had.

“I remember the sound on the stage was really good, I was stoked on the gear too,” he continues. “I was lucky to use J Mascis’ kit that he has stationed over there in Europe with some relatives. At the time he was playing this really big 28” bass drum, and he let me borrow his drum set. Everything sounded incredibly good, and I totally forgot it was getting recorded! I only thought of that when we got home. I’m so happy we had that show recorded, because it meant a lot to me and to the band. To come home and a few weeks later get the recording, and thinking about putting out that live record – especially since at the time the Live At Roadburn records weren’t common – was really special.”

Walter remembers that, “at the beginning there weren’t more than 400 or 500 people in the room, but it was obvious from the start that they were a phenomenal band. It was instant impact – boom! They floored everyone straight away, and the place filled up really quick. Everyone started texting one another, calling their friends in, and people went nuts. To this day, this show is the stuff of legend at Roadburn.”

For that reason alone, it deserves to be a part of this prime selection of Deep Dives. But Earthless 2008 also became a lot more than that. “In a way, it was a show that helped us unite the several scenes – psych, post-rock, post-metal, the more dark and experimental metal stuff like Neurosis: everyone was together at that show,” Walter remembers. “That’s the moment that I can pinpoint when Roadburn really started to feel like a scene itself that could unite all these little scenes, a gathering of like-minded people, a safe haven for all the underground misfits that all came together at Roadburn.”

It was also a learning curve, as two years later, because of that damn volcano, Walter and the staff would not only have to find an extra headliner to fill a few hours, but replace over half the festival lineup while it happened. It was panic mode x1000: but at least they had some experience in crisis management.

Finally, a kinship and an ongoing relationship developed from this starting point between the band and the festival, with mutual benefits to be reaped from both parts. “Roadburn was firmly rooted in Blue Cheer/Hawkwind, in the past,” Walter says. “But these two editions, 2007 and 2008, culminating in this unbelievable show by a relatively unknown band, made us realise there was a whole world of current bands, here in the now, doing new and exciting stuff, and that we had to turn ourselves to the future too.”

“It’s just such a cool thing to have,” Mario gushes. “Walter and everyone at the festival have been, since day one, the best people to work with. Just the whole vibe of the festival, I’ve been lucky to have been there five times and I’ve always been lucky to play, but even if I was just hanging out I would be completely stoked anyway. Each year, it’s the festival that rises above, keeps it fresh, and people keep digging it.”

Walter puts it simply: “Earthless and Roadburn became kindred spirits.”