In guitarist Isaiah Mitchell's hidden Hillcrest alleyway apartment, Ruben Romano settles down to talk about his ragtag collection of musician friends dubbed The Freeks. Romano is down from Orange County after a full shift at his day job to put in a quick night of rehearsing and recording with Mitchell, who's best known for his heavy riffage with San Diego's Earthless and as the No. 2 guitar-slinger for Lady Dottie & The Diamonds. The Freeks were never meant to be a real group; it was more of a fun recording project for Romano and a getaway for his friends with full-time bands. Now he finds himself coordinating mini-rehearsals all over the state in preparation for the band's first U.S. dates.While Romano's work with Fu Manchu and Nebula dabbled in psychedelic melodies under a heavier rock sound, he wanted to put something together that really showed his love for '60s kaleidoscopic stuff. Not wanting to actually start another band, he recorded basic tracks for fun and invited friends to contribute—members of Kyuss (Scott Reeder), Skin Yard (Jack Endino) and Zen Guerrilla (Carl Horne and Andy Duvall) and even famed Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell. They liked what they heard and started to come up with parts. Friends from as far away as Denmark sent in their sections digitally, and the California members met up at recording studios when they could.
“There was a whole thing with passing files around,” Romano explains. “It was the first time I ever worked that way. It was kinda fun, actually, because you'd send files to people and they'd say, ‘What do you want me to do?' and I'd say, ‘Whatever you want!' That was the whole intent and that's why it's Freeks with two E's because everyone was free to do what they wanted to do.
“Coming from these heavy bands, we threw people way off-track,” Romano laughs. “They were expecting some big stoner rock and we went way paisley.”
Sitars, swirling organs and backwards noises decorate The Freeks' songs, only to be split up by instrumental interludes jam-packed with spacey weirdness. Song titles like “Descent of the Yellow Chrysalis” and “Dance of the Moth Queen,” plus a slew of trippy album and poster artwork, further add to the notion of Summer of Love-type influences, but the band avoids actual hippie costuming.
The results were good enough for Nebula's record label, Cargo Germany, to want to release the project's self-titled debut album. In fact, they liked it so much that they invited Romano to do a short tour of Germany, Austria and Holland. That meant assembling a touring lineup to play songs that had never been performed live. Free from the pressures of their “real” bands, members of the all-star touring version of The Freeks found themselves happier than they've ever been on tour. Libations, pulsating oil stage projections and appreciative European audiences led to jamming, improvisation and even some onstage nudity at one show, courtesy of Mitchell.
“It was the funnest tour I've ever been on,” Mitchell says as he picks up a small flute-like instrument and starts playing “Little Drummer Boy.” “Having eight people in a van for three weeks and no one fights? That never happens. We just laughed the whole time.”
In addition to Mitchell, several San Diegans have come into Romano's fold, thanks to his many trips here. Longtime Casbah knob-twiddler and Bartenders Bible singer Jason Corbin has been the band's touring soundman for years. His trademark low-rumbling vocals are also perfect for the band's country-tempo dirge “Excuses.” And while Corbin was unable to do the European tour, he'll be behind the mixing board and on the mic for the band's upcoming West Coast tour.
“It's still totally weird to say we're an actual band,” Romano says of his new road-ready group. “People keep saying, ‘Freeks? What a stupid name!' and we say, ‘Well, it might be, but we're free to be stupid!'”
The Freeks play with Sassy and Pant Hoots on Monday, Feb. 9, at The Casbah. www.myspace.com/thewestcoastfreeks.