The Fort Wayne psychedelic collective known as Heaven’s Gateway Drugs have been honing their mix of sixties psych pop, 70s glam, and cult-y freakdom for a few years now. Despite personnel changes and the ups and downs of keeping a band up and running over their tenure, the core of Derek Mauger and Ben Carr have remained true and steadfast to delivering the HGD message of love and rock&roll. With the current line-up being Mauger, Carr, original bassist Josh Elias, and drummer/studio guru Jason Davis, HGD is at their most gloriously freaky and musically powerful.
The sound of HGD has evolved and gotten more all-encompassing since the beginning. Their last full-length, 2016s Rubber Nun, seems like a lifetime from their newest and best album to date, the sly and slinky Slab City. This new 9-track long player sees Mauger and Carr putting HGDs best foot forward. The album is the loosest and most fun the band has put to tape.
And all of this started with a potentially bad decision singer/guitarist Derek Mauger made to take a solo trip into the California desert. Mauger explains:
Slab City is essentially a squatters paradise in the middle of the Californian desert where due to some legal quirk no laws apply. That’s the story the locals like to tell anyway. It is a hotspot for artists, Snowbirds, transients and generally people who just want to be off the grid. The album was written during the run up to, and immediate fall out from the last presidential election and I, like a lot of people, was doing a lot of soul searching. It was and has continued to be a constant barrage of bad news so I was sort of fixated on escapism in a literal sense, where would somebody go if things went belly up? The songs are told from the perspective of someone going through some sort of dilemma, so the song “Slab City” became the unofficial tourist jingle for somebody who is leaving it all behind and needs somewhere to go. Much like the actual place, the song “Slab City” sounds good on the surface but once you get there (or in this case, follow the lyrics) it maybe isn’t all it is cracked up to be. In essence, we created an existential crisis road trip concept album.
Like I mentioned earlier, the actual process of making the record ended up being a bit of a slog and it really got to my head. After Jason(Davis, studio engineer and HGD drummer) talked me back into finally putting the record out, I had another moment of panic – what if I got Slab City all wrong? I’ve watched documentaries and read up on the place but I had never actually been there. Sitting in a hotel room by myself in San Diego last summer I made the impulsive and potentially dangerous decision to drive out to see Slab City for myself. It was surreal and a little intimidating but weirdly it was exactly like I had envisioned it. The art is beautiful and strange, it is desolate, dirty, hot, and no one seemed to mind me. I figured while I was out there I would drive to Bombay Beach on the Salton Sea, which is another place that has always fascinated me and has made its way into a couple songs over the years. I only spent a handful of hours at Slab City but I feel like the song and by extension the album, does capture the feel of the place. To anyone reading this who finds themselves compelled to go, take a friend and plenty of water.
So “Slab City” is sort of this mecca in the California desert for the freaks and the free thinkers. A place where creative types can let their hair down and be as weird as they want to be. You’ve heard of people “dropping out”? Well their forwarding address is C/O Slab City. According to Derek Mauger, Slab City is Heaven’s Gateway Drugs’ “existential crisis road trip concept album.”
I call shotgun.
One of the absolute highlights on an album full of them is the trippy and driving “Fear Happy”. With an almost motorik beat, the song feels like a dusk drive thru the desert. This is the place I always hoped to see and hear HGD work towards; hazy grooves and attitude for days. It’s like the Stones got hip to La Dusseldorf before they did Graham Parsons. Speaking of the Stones, we’re treated to a lovely country jangle in “Black Roses”. The pedal steel of Kyle Morris gives this track a beautifully rich and aged feel, like some lost Flying Burrito Brothers track found locked away in a southern California desert vault. Once the piano comes in, the song almost morphs into a Zombies outtake.
Elsewhere the spirit of T. Rex makes its presence known on the groovy stomp of “Pygmalion Pursuit”. “Sweet ‘N Low” puts me in mind of early Spacemen 3 and Primal Scream. Very Factory Records-esque. Of course, those background vocals temper it with 60s paisley visions. “Dream” starts out on a wistful vibe but quickly lets loose with the fuzz pedal and drops into something resembling Hit to Death in the Future Head-era Flaming Lips.
The beautiful and head-spinning “Thoughts and Prayers” closes the album. This track seems to waver like heat coming off hot asphalt, like Jesus and Mary Chain trying their hand at dream pop. This is also the most open and thoughtful piece of songwriting we’ve heard from HGD. Derek Mauger is speaking to current events, and speaking loud and clear.
Slab City is the culmination of 2 1/2 years of writing and persevering even when things looked grim for Heaven’s Gateway Drugs. Lucky for us the band pulled through, as Slab City is their best album yet.