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."

The third and perhaps most important principle is Rat's insistence that women can outrock men because, as puts it, "they can withstand more pain than guys. They can rock all night, man, and it won't even faze them."

To assemble the Laundry Room Squelchers, Rat randomly recruited four women who were regular audience members during weekly Monday night shows at Churchill's. Those four (Lucrecia Diaz, Ivy Guillen, Mindy Hertzon, and Julie Miller) form the heart of the Squelchers, whose regular lineup has since been rounded out by Ari Schantz, the drummer of the now-disbanded Brothers of Different Mothers; Dan Hosker, who also plays guitar with the Holy Terrors; and Steven Toth, a.k.a. Mr. Entertainment, formerly of the One-Eyed Kings. And, of course, Rat Bastard.

"They just liked music, and they didn't know anything about noise music," Rat notes of his female recruits. "So I approached them in my normal drunkenness, and the girls, were like, 'Let's rock!'

"So here are these girls who have never touched an electric guitar, and I would put this guitar over 'em with this incredible tuning on it and full-volume feedback, as loud as it could go. When you have four girls on that stage playing and they're hearing the amp and the power, they've never experienced anything like that. And they're breaking strings and going and going, and I just sat up there and it was like, woof!"

Needless to say, Rat was pleased with the Squelchers' debut. "I'm hearing all these obscure tones and things, and it's all making sense to me. That's why the Squelchers are a cut above Scraping Teeth."

Ah, Scraping Teeth. If there had been an annual yearbook for the South Florida music scene while Teeth was a going concern, the abrasive combo would have been a lock for Band Most Likely to Clear a Room, because that's exactly what they did every time they played.

Aside from taking his detuning public, Rat admits a big part of Scraping Teeth's raison d Which provokes the question: Scraping Teeth was a joke, right? "No, it wasn't a joke," Rat replies. "Scraping Teeth was authentic. They [audiences] didn't understand the music. That was the whole point." Rat is equally serious with the Laundry Room Squelchers.

The unique Squelcher sound has been set down on tape only once, a work recorded live at Churchill's in 1994 that includes the numbers "Speed Queen" and "Do a Load by Hand" (Rat's unplanned-song principle wasn't compromised; sound segments were randomly named after the recording was finished). And don't look for the work at your local record store. As with many of his other projects, Rat made just 30 or so copies and sent them to like-minded music lovers and 'zine contacts around the country.

The Squelchers are hardly the main focus of Rat's attention and energies. He also plays bass in To Live and Shave in L.A., a three-piece that's gained favorable writeups in various 'zines; they recently completed an 8000-mile tour that took them as far as Vancouver. Then there's Esync, the label Rat founded in 1985, which has released 36 albums, seven-inch discs, and compilations covering such acts as Quit, Harry Pussy, Kreamy 'Lectric Santa, Drive Choir, and King Felix. As a producer and engineer, he's worked on recordings as diverse as the Holy Terrors' power-punk Lolitaville and Brian Franklin's largely acoustic Suburban Hallucinations.

Above all, Rat will tell you, music is his life; a full-time job at Delta Airlines allows him to pursue his passion. "I go out and see bands, mostly," he says. "Sometimes I might not like the music, but I certainly like to hang out with the musicians."

As Rat waxes somewhat rhapsodically about music, the gorgeously melodic flow of the Red House Painters' Ocean Beach CD wafts through his one-bedroom South Beach condominium, where 2000 vinyl records line one wall and more than 600 CDs take up a good chunk of another wall. Rat quiets down momentarily as the lush strains of the Red House Painters' somber "San Geronimo" fills the air. "Real melodic stuff. People are like, 'I thought you were into noise music.' I don't listen to noise music, though I have some great relations [with some of the bands], but there's only a couple. The rest are boring, like everything else."

The Squelchers, Rat asserts, are not a noise band. "I consider them a rock band," he declares. "Noise is just a copout. People say, 'That's noisy,' because they don't want to understand it, they just want to classify everything. It's rock, man."

"When it comes down to it, you sit in front of a Squelchers set, you're going to be extremely affected. [We] do the most nauseating, nastiest, stupidest shit, or we just lock into something amazing. But never mediocrity. Generally, it's like, 'You guys were amazing,' or 'That was the worst shit I ever heard in my life.' And I'll be, 'Yeah, you're right, it was terrible.' But at least I can go home and sleep. I know we made an attempt to do something amazing.

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