The Oral History of Rat At Rat R: The NYC-via-Philly Noise-Rock Heroes Celebrate the Re-issue of Their 1985 Debut, Amer$ide
Rat At Rat R: Somewhere beneath the dregs of downtown
"In my way of thinking, first there is Sonic Youth then comes Rat At Rat R then after that comes Swans -- that order was kind of their appearance in the New York scene. But Rat At Rat R just stumbled -- there was just a lot of bad luck. They'd get going and something would happen." Ron Anderson, punk-jazz purveyor of Brooklyn's PAK, is waxing historical about the band he co-founded with vocalist/singer Victor Poison-Tete and bassist Sonda Andersson in early 1980's-period Philadelphia: the apocalyptically bleak, dissonance-dripping art-rock colossus, Rat At Rat R.
Amer$ide, Rock and Roll is Dead, Long Live Rat At Rat R is available via Ektro Records; Ron Anderson curates two weeks at The Stone 11/1-11/14 and plays with The Molecules this Friday at 8pm and PAK Saturday at 10pm
In 1982, Poison-Tete and Anderson moved to the LES, guitarist John Myers followed suit (Anderson ultimately relocated to NYC but left the band to pursue other projects) and thus -- with its monumental move -- Rat At Rat R's singular vision bore the glorious dregs of downtown. Nearly three decades after its original release on Glenn Branca's Neutral imprint, Amer$ide, Rock and Roll is Dead, Long Live Rat At Rat R, its 1985 debut, finally receives the reissue/remastered treatment, courtesy of Finnish label Ektro and spearheaded by music scribe (and erstwhile Voice contributor) Jordan Mamone.
Amer$ide bleeds yesteryear's decrepit East Village grime; its music an epic prog-experimental dystopia reeking of desperation and darkness. From the terse, blackened song titles ("Plague;" "Assassin;" "Asshole;" "Rape;") to its grim-as-hell cover art showing an obscured-faced, disheveled and ostensibly pummeled Poison-Tete sprawled on the floor, it offers a graphic snapshot of 80's-era downtown. To this day, the image still spooks Anderson. "The photo was taken in Victor and Sonda's loft at 110 Suffolk Street," he recalls. "That is Victor in the photo, on the floor. I used to live upstairs on the fifth floor Victor was on the second floor. It does have that dark Lower East Side vibe that existed there at that time."
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The Stainless Steel EP followed in 1988 before their self-titled record in 1991 and the subsequent, untimely collapse of distributor Rough Trade portended the nail in Rat At Rat R's coffin. With that, Poison-Tete reached his tipping point. "I got fed up with the whole thing around '92 -- the business," he explains. "I don't like the business. It's just junk, ya know? The thing that really bugged me was the last record ("the Dragon Fly"), we were so excited because Purge/Sound League was finally a legitimate label and we had gotten Rough Trade and I love the Rough Trade thing. They were doing the Fall and the Smiths and they had worldwide distribution."
Sound of the City tracked down the elusive Poison-Tete living a quiet existence in Long Island (and who recently played one of Anderson's curated gigs at the Stone), Myers, who is currently in China studying an ancient Chinese instrument called the guqin (gu-Cheen) with musician Pei Jin Bao and local avant whiz Anderson to talk Rat At Rat R reissue (drummer David Rat, somewhere in South America, was inaccessible, as was Andersson). Read on for some Amer$ide reminiscing.Ron Anderson:
I actually took the first record -- the one that they've re-mastered -- and I put it on. I hadn't heard this thing (Amer$ide
) in 15 years, just to jog memory a little bit. This was put out in '85 so I played with these guys in '80, '81 and it was basically just Victor and Sonda. Victor and Sonda were a couple living in Philadelphia. I moved there around 1980. I think I saw an ad and it probably said something like "Experimental Rock." So I went and contacted them. Victor lived a few blocks from where we were living in a neighborhood called Northern Liberties, which like everything now, is all cleaned up and nice. But back then it looked like something out ofEraserhead
. That was the general vibe: if you can imagine warehouses, vacant lots with garbage and derelict buildings. So, I answered that ad and basically, we just got together, played a couple of times and we said "Hey, this is great. Let's do something." That was the basis of what would become Rat At Rat R. We did performances in Philadelphia and we lasted for about a year. Victor and Sonda picked up and moved to the LES; I followed about a year later and we ended up all living in the same building on Suffolk Street. Six months after I moved up, John Myers moved up, whom I met through Victor and Sonda. Everyone wanted to move to New York.
John Myers: Amer$ide was our first record. And we earned all the money to record it ourselves. No record label gave us the money. It was all DIY. We had waited our entire life to get a chance to do something special and we weren't going to settle for less. It was definitely a labor of love. I learned so much from that experience. But I was learning after the fact. We recorded one side of the album in December and the other half in February. The time in between was crucial for me because I had a lot of time to work out some great overdubs and textural parts. I had the time because I'd broken my foot and had a small cast on it and really couldn't get around very well. Despite this, when we went back into the studio I was feeling quite confident. I was at home. The B side was more experimental with songs like "Asshole" and "Rape." I did a guitar overdub in the booth and afterwards Martin (Bisi) wanted to know what I had done to get that sound. I had been bouncing things on the strings.
Victor Poison-Tete: Why Neutral? Because Lesson No. 1, in my opinion, at the time was a major breakthrough, I loved that record. So although, it was an honor to be on Neutral, it also came with setbacks. The fact that Sonda was Glenn's cousin, actually made it more difficult, for both parties. Also, the association with some acts at the time was negative. We didn't have a bond with anyone, and although enjoying some aspects of the "scene," we found it taxing to have anyone dismissed by preconceptions of Rat at Rat R, or vice versa. A lot of venues were not beyond saying, "Oh, we had such and such here last week and 17 people showed up and they sucked, we're not interested." So after resisting Glenn's initial offer on day one, we shopped it around and realized that Branca actually "Got it!" and was willing to work with us to achieve our vision as opposed to making us fit into some major trendy marketing scheme that the P.R. team out of college dreamed up, We didn't have to dress alike or style our hair or "be the next U2" as we heard repeatedly from the other labels. There was only 2000 copies of the first record and when that record was released, it was very frustrating because it sold out in six weeks and then there were no more. There was a time where I didn't have a copy of it and I had to wait for people to get tired of it and then I'd go to Sounds and buy a copy of my own record [laughing]. You had to wait for someone not to like it and put it back in the used bin. At the time, I think the record would have done better if there were more than 2000 copies.
Myers: I remember hearing that No Wave (No New York) record (Brian) Eno produced. I thought it had some fresh ideas, but I knew it wasn't exactly my thing. I'd only heard Branca's Lesson No. 1 when I moved to New York. I remember we attended a performance of Branca's Symphony No. 5. And that was quite inspiring. But I've never been inspired to copy anyone. When I get inspired by great music, it triggers more ideas in me and I will use that inspiration to take something a little further or in my own direction, or interpretation, or to explore another area. I went on to perform in Branca's ensemble and those performances were great and Branca's music is very powerful. But my musical mind and style are different. As an example, sometimes I'd come out of a Branca rehearsal where the music was very textural, but after an hour rehearsal my musical mind would be swirling with melodies. It's quite an opposite reaction and not very influential. I don't understand why or how it happened. (I try not to analyze my muse too much but just try to follow it) So as far as influence goes, Branca inspired me to be daring, to take chances, to push the boundaries, and believe in my own music.
Anderson: It's easy to romanticize that period (80's-period LES). It was good and interesting. And it also really sucked. Walking out your door, there was always a street vibe you had to deal with immediately and maybe that's why (Rat At Rat R's) music was so dark and harsh. You felt it but by the time of '86, '87, the LES already changed a lot from '81 or '82.
Myers: After the tracks were mixed, Marty Thau approached us and gave us a 32-page contract. We thought we'd hit the big time and were going to be famous, ha ha ha. But upon further examination of the contract we began to see how it wasn't in our favor. That's when I began to hang out in the library and read Music business books. My father had been a lawyer and I think his influence began to show then. I learned about contracts, royalties and copyrights. This was valuable stuff for any young musician stepping into those murky waters. Eventually Marty's contract fell through. I remember feeling a bit disappointed. Despite the contract falling through Marty had made a lot of money but we still had squat. It left a bad taste in our mouths. I didn't know what we were going to do. We were considering pressing it ourselves. So, when Glenn offered to put it out, it was a great relief and his terms were excellent and very fair. To me it was quite unexpected but so much better to be on the Neutral label. So I felt quite honored.
Poison-Tete: We were really big rock fans so we liked the idea that we didn't want to separate it and make it too visceral where if you went there (to see us) and all you wanted to do was head bang, then we tried to make it an event in that regard. I would still move and there'd be a direction it was going but it just didn't fall apart and become self-indulgent. That's why we always said there was a backbone to it.Myers:
What I love about Rat At Rat R is that we could totally fall apart and really mess up and then come back and turn on a dime and be so tight. I mean we had some awesome telepathy going on. That's what I mean by chemistry. I have some rehearsal recordings where we're just jamming and amazingly we'll all change key at the same time. It's not planned, there was no cue or signal, we weren't playing the Blues. We just felt it and trusted it. We always left some space in our songs for some short improv. We would have an extended section and then it was like "Well, what do you have to say today, right now? What can you create today?" But we always had a collection point or exit signal when we could come right back in together, back into the song. These were really fun sections because we all had to listen to each other intensely to catch the signal and yet we had to create something new while listening for that cue. You were out on the edge like walking on a musical razor blade.
Poison-Tete: We did a benefit at Wetlands one time where we kind of improvised the whole entire set, which was a lot of fun. We ended up doing a thing called "When Dreams Cannibalize Youth" because John would come in and say "I've been playing around with this lick" and he would basically run through it and say "That's what I'm gonna play" and we'd say "Okay. We're up with that" and then we'd build. Then whatever pissed me off that day or whatever what was on my mind that day, I'd basically be addressing those issues. To me, that was great.
Myers: There were many great shows. I loved opening for The Dead Kennedys at the Ritz. And opening for Nick Cave was awesome too. Playing the World on Second Street in 1985 was a great show that influenced a lot of musicians visiting from other cities. Playing CBGBs was always great because the sound was so good there. We did two shows at the Kitchen and I remember the last one we did. I think it was the first time we played "Larry Facedown" live, which is one of my favorite songs from the later years. But the one that sticks out in my mind was the small tour we did in Montreal at clubs like FouFounes Electrique. It was a high point for us. We had already recorded Amer$ide and we were on tour playing almost every night but we hadn't gotten too bored of playing every night. We still kept it fresh. And when you're at that stage, the music just gets better during a live show. We have some of those live recordings and we'll release them someday too.
Poison-Tete: We liked Barkmarket a lot and we used to hang out with Missing Foundation. We played with Heart Attack, Lost Prophets and we opened up for the Minutemen. We played with Flipper once, the Minutemen and we played with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds a couple times--that was at the Ritz. We played one time at the Peppermint (Lounge) with Flipper and one time with Minutemen and then we played Maxwell's with the Minutemen. That was '83, '84. It was really hard to get into Maxwell's, and at that time for bands, it was really hard. If you were English, you'd be able to come play Danceteria and it was really hard to play Danceteria. It was hard to play places that were like illegal. One of the few places that allowed people was the Pyramid Club and, of course CB's, if you wanted to go through playing on a Monday night at an audition showcase or you could try to find an alternative space and get enough steam to have CB's actually put you on another bill, if you pressed Hilly. Even things like the Pyramid was very, very difficult. One of the ways you could get into those was having the Minutemen say "Oh, well, we'd like to play with Rat At Rat R." We played the Sin Club where a lot of those bands started--Swans, Sonic Youth--they all started playing the Sin Club. It was basically a store front and it was two living rooms but it would pack in there.
Myers: I'd have to say Rat At Rat R then was a synthesis of many influences mixing, blending, and filtering into a culmination of a personal New York post-punk sound. Because we were playing around the same time as Swans and Sonic Youth, we were labeled as "Noise" along with them. Truthfully, I've never considered Rat At Rat R "Noise". I'm purely a musician and I strive for expression and sounds that evoke emotion and beauty. Some of our textures may have been noise to some but to me there was always purpose behind it--to create an atmosphere, a mood, a feeling, an aura, a backdrop, to set the tone per se on top of which a human voice could deliver a message. Being in the East Village during the early eighties, there was an air of great experimentation, a searching for new sounds and ways of doing things. It was really great. You couldn't help but be influenced by what other people were doing. In a sense it was like a collective unconscious where things could be picked out of the air. But, with so many ideas and experimentation going on, one needed to make sense of it all and give it some direction and focus -- make it your own. Musicians were still looking for purpose in their music, at least I was. I was and still have a strong underpinning of basic harmony and sonics and that doesn't necessarily come from studying music theory, but moreover comes from an intuitive knowledge of the pure physics of sound and the harmonic series. Anyone who has ears and plugs in an electric guitar at full volume can feel those physics with their own body. Rat At Rat R synthesized experimental progressive rock of the 70s, New Wave, Punk, rock and roll, with a dash of Avant-Garde classical music into its own original sound. Those influences came from each one of the band members at different times and the fact that we could synthesize them into some cohesive original songs that had great creativity, energy, and heart, while showing a flexibility of styles, is proof of the musical chemistry we were able to generate as a musical unit at that time.
Poison-Tete: It (the band name Rat At Rat R) is a bunch of crap [laughing]. The band before that was called XZV9. It's a mantra--it's all it is. If you look at it, it's abstract. You say "The Police," you say "The Jam," you say "Nirvana" and after a while, it doesn't mean "The Police" anymore. It's just something that you say, it identifies it. It's mathematics, a mantra, that's all it is. It's in 4/4 time--boom, boom, boom, Rat At Rat R, Rat at Rat R. We were also big Patti Smith fans--she had that thing, Art/Rat. We had to name the band something, ya know?
Myers: We all were quite happy with having Amer$ide reissued by Ektro Records. Although we were ecstatic to have Neutral Records put out the original Amer$ide back in 1985, I don't think we were 100% satisfied with the sound of the record. Martin Bisi did a great mix but we felt the bottom end and low mids were missing in the EQ. Although this became sort of a signature sound of that album, we still wished it could've been a better representation of the energy and sound of the band at that time. The process of having it re-mastered began in 2004 when I asked Eric Jacobs of the Audio Archive to do a digital conversion of the album. Three years later we asked Weasel Walter to re-master those digitized tracks. We told him what we wanted and he did a great job. I feel now that, with this re-mastered version, Amer$ide truly reflects the sheer sound, impact and visceral power that Rat At Rat R put forth onstage in 1985. We now offer this to all music fans for their pure enjoyment. I'm totally blown away when I listen to it now.
Amer$ide, Rock and Roll is Dead, Long Live Rat At Rat R is available via Ektro Records; Ron Anderson curates two weeks at The Stone (corner of Avenue C and 2nd Street 11/1-11/14 and plays with The Molecules this Friday at 8pm and PAK Saturday at 10pm
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