The Rodent That Roared

This sounds like the setup to a familiar joke, but it really happened a few Thursdays ago: A guy walks into a bar and asks the bartender: "You got any music tonight?" "Yeah," the bartender replies, "the Laundry Room Squelchers are playing." So the guy, who is familiar with the Squelchers' oeuvre, says, "Yeah, but is there any music tonight?"

That exchange took place at Churchill's Hideaway, the Little Haiti rock joint where the Laundry Room Squelchers anchor the Thursday evening festivities every week. Now, you might expect that if you told the joke to a Squelcher, you'd run the risk of bruising a fragile artistic ego. But Rat Bastard, the long-time South Florida musician, producer, indie-label head, and all-around musical provocateur who conceived the Squelchers, exists on a different musical plane than most mortals. His previous band, Scraping Teeth (a three-piece Ybernoise combo) was judged to be the absolutely worst band in America by Spin magazine in 1993. So Rat Bastard, born 38 years ago under the name Frank Falestra, could hardly be concerned with what one person thinks.

"My music was not to challenge the audience. My music was to challenge me," he says, referring to his Scraping Teeth output, although the philosophy applies to all of his work. "The problem with the bands down here is they play what people want to hear. Who gives a fuck?" Rat's voice takes on a soft, whining tone as he imagines what the typical musician might say when asked why he or she plays music: "'We want to communicate. That's what music's all about.' Well, I communicated. I said, 'Get your ass out of here, you idiots.'"

Soon after the customer's barside musical critique, the Squelchers took Churchill's stage and turned in a typically unpredictable set. The band doesn't play songs per se, if one interprets "songs" to mean the traditional three-minute hook-stuffed gems that bands attach names to. Rather, a Squelchers set consists of one extended cathartic roar produced by drums, guitar feedback, primal grunts, and the amplified sound of any other instruments that may be lying around. While there is a core group of eight men and women who might be considered "official" members of the Laundry Room Squelchers, their performances are radically democratic affairs -- anyone can walk on-stage, pick up an instrument, and join in. No musical aptitude is necessary: Rat has the guitars specially tuned so that no matter what someone might play, he says, "it works."

The aural collage mutates through various tempo shifts as Squelchers and non-Squelchers swap instruments and take turns wailing into the microphone. The roar might last fifteen minutes or an hour, and eventually disintegrates whenever so many of the participants have wandered back to the bar that there aren't enough people on-stage to sustain the skronk. This evening the performance lasts about 40 minutes; halfway through the set, Rat abandons his guitar and stands in front of the stage with a beer in his hand, his body swaying to the aural cacophony. "There's a lot of melody," notes Rat who, it's probably safe to say, listens to music more intensely than your average Gin Blossoms fan. "It's packed full of it. But it's so dense that it's like, you know, too much, if you try to sit and absorb it all at once."

If you haven't figured it out by now, Rat Bastard is a blunt and outspoken sort who follows the beat of his own drummer. That strain of his personality emerged in the mid-Sixties when, as an eight-year-old living on New York's Lower East Side, he accompanied his teenage cousins to various underground happenings around the city. "It's hard to describe," he says of the scenes that left such an indelible impression on him. "If you've seen [the movie] I Shot Andy Warhol, it was like that."

Rat had three guiding principles when he formed the Squelchers. One is that of guitar "detuning," a mode refined by New York avant-garde composer/musician Glenn Branca in the late Seventies. Rather than employing the traditional guitar tuning that produces the traditional major and minor chords, Branca's radical tunings created a melodic dissonance between the strings that, when amplified, produced its own otherworldly effect as the sound waves collided with each other. Rat started experimenting with detuning in the early Eighties, long after he'd mastered the basic rock-guitar riff. "I was so tired of the standard guitar shit. I hated it, just hearing 'neeng-neeng-neeng-neeng-neeng'" he recalls, approximating the noodling one might hear at a Black Crowes concert. "It's so flat. I started playing with different tunings, and it was like, I don't know what I'm doing but I'm getting melodies that I would never have come up with."

The second Squelcher pillar is Rat's resolve to play only "on the spot" performances. "I decided never to play a planned song ever again," he says. "Like, what's the purpose? You end up playing the same songs for years and who wants to do that, except for people who just want to do it as a job? I would make the shit up: words, melody, performance, everything right on the spot."

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