It's a Thursday afternoon in a dark, windowless room by the 5 Freeway, and Mario Lalli is standing with an electric guitar. His eyes are shut tight as he slashes a jangly, agitated riff with his band, Fatso Jetson. With flannel on his back and a dark soul patch on his chin, he leans into a microphone to growl a sordid tale of love gone wrong called “Died in California.”
“He told us all a story, the one about the girl,” he sings. “When she came to town, the town that blew her mind, she fell right through the floor ... No one loved her more.”
Lalli is known as “Boomer” to friends, including Joshua Homme, leader of Queens of the Stone Age, who recorded two songs co-written by Lalli on the albums “Rated R” and “Songs for the Deaf.”
Lalli was a central figure in the original desert rock scene, the creator of all-night “generator parties” amid the canyons and sand dunes miles outside Palm Desert, which spawned Queens, Kyuss, Eagles of Death Metal and many others.
Lalli still keeps the volume up with Fatso Jetson, founded in 1994, but now spends most of his nights behind the bar at Café 322, a 100-capacity club and restaurant he owns in Sierra Madre. During an interview there last fall, original Kyuss drummer Brant Bjork nodded in Lalli's direction and made a point of noting, “There is a 98% chance that without that dude over there, there wouldn't have been a Kyuss.”
In recognition of that, the guitarist and his son, 15-year-old Dino Von Lalli, were invited to join the reunion band Kyuss Lives onstage at the Wiltern last November, where they performed Lalli's “N.O.”
“I was really stoked for my son,” Lalli, 46, recalls of the show. “I was nervous — way more nervous than he was. It was cool, man.”
At Café 322, Lalli keeps a gleaming white piano, and along one wall are reproductions of Toulouse Lautrec paintings, while another is covered with old jazz posters celebrating Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. He remains a rocker by nature, though his roots go back much further.
His family has been in the music and dining business since the 1950s, when his tenor father, Mario Sr., opened his first restaurant, in Aspen, Colo. Mario's ultimately landed in Palm Desert, where Lalli grew up. “There was never a night where there wasn't music,” he remembers.
On a recent afternoon at Café 322, Lalli sits at a table by the small stage, after returning from a performance by his daughter, Olive, a 20-year-old singing student at Citrus College. Behind him is a bookcase filled with binders labeled with titles from the opera and musical theater: “La Traviata,” “Tosca,” “Pirates of Penzance,” “Kiss Me Kate.” Opera is performed weekly at the club.
Lalli eventually embraced a different sound. In the 1980s, he turned his modest desert house in La Quinta into a cultural oasis for young rockers. The garage was set up as a rehearsal space, and among his crowd of friends was a group of teens who would later become the bands Kyuss and Queens of the Stone Age. “We threw parties all the time,” he says, “a keg in the bathtub.”
The live shows moved onto the desert landscape, powered by gas generators at an abandoned nudist colony. Kyuss played some of its earliest shows there. They were a hit. “It got so popular it got out of hand. Then weirdos started coming — gangsters and crazy high-desert … freaks with their guns,” he says. “Somebody set a fire one night.”
Soon, Lalli and his cousin Larry created Rhythm & Brews, a 250-capacity club that hosted ear-shattering shows by the Melvins, Rancid and Dick Dale. Business was uneven, and police were frequent visitors. “We had the vice squad walking through our place every single night with flashlights and vests,” Lalli remembers. Rhythm & Brews closed in 1995.
Other venues came and went before Lalli and his father attended a show at the Pasadena Playhouse, where they noticed an elegant restaurant space sitting empty. “Six months later, we were packing up four households and moving to Pasadena with my parents” from the desert. A relocated Mario's (“where they sing while you dine”) opened there in 2004.
When it turned out that theater-goers with entertainment plans for the night were not necessarily looking for live music with their meal, Lalli opened Café 322 in Sierra Madre. At 88, Mario Sr. still sings opera there every Sunday. Other nights offer live jazz, rock and blues. The first Saturday of every month is roots-rock night with Tremoloco, occasionally joined by the likes of David Hidalgo of Los Lobos and Lucinda Williams.
The family musical tradition continues, as Lalli always planned. Aside from Fatso Jetson, he performs in a loud and heavy trio with his son called Auto Modown, described on its Facebook page as “Instru-metal Blues Prog Nail Bomb Fudge.” The band is about to spend a month on a tour through Europe, within days of Dino getting out of school for the summer at Pasadena High.
Lalli's son is being molded into a rocker. “He wasn't buying it for the first half of his youth. He was skateboards and video games. Then he picked it up on his own and that was it,” he says with a laugh. “He loves it even more than I did when I was 15. That's a lot. He's obsessed.”
Café 322, 322 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre, CA 91024; (626) 836-5414, cafe322.com