The sinewy young tough with the skull tattoo etched into his bicep is beating a hasty retreat from Washington Square. On his way to the door, he passes under the white board across which is scrawled, in multicolored lettering, "Wednesday, March 3, Worst Band in America!"
"What's the hurry?" someone standing outside inquires innocently. The edgy reply: "Scraping Teeth goin' on, man. Those cats are dangerous."
From inside the nightclub, a bizarre and frightening cacophony builds, a rhythmless, dissonant, bloodcurdling tidal wave of metallic angst, unfettered by the strictures of melody, harmony, or rhyming lyric.
"It all comes together as a sort of dense noise that if you mentally peel away the layers of distraction, contains surprisingly smart and compelling melodies (and, yes, hooks)." ,Greg Baker, New Times, November 14-20, 1990.
"Ten years from now, when this becomes pop, we'll be able to show people our tapes from ten years ago and say, 'See?'" - Frank Falestra, New Times, November 14-20, 1990.
"It's headache-inducing stuff." A Mark Blackwell, Senior Editor of Spin magazine, March 12, 1993.
Being judged the worst band in America might, for many musicians, be a dubious, if not embarrassing, distinction. But the members of Scraping Teeth are made of heartier stuff. For them the citation is a great thing. It means both national attention and confirmation that they have attained their primary goal of touching a nerve in their listeners. Frank Falestra (a.k.a. Rat Bastard), the founder, guitarist, and guiding light of Scraping Teeth, is particularly excited about the potential ramifications of such an "accolade." "First, it means we're doing something right," the Rat says. "We're affecting people. We're causing them to have a strong reaction to the music, which is what rock and roll was all about originally. Taking chances. Not playing the same old crap because it worked for Pearl Jam or Nirvana. Second, it means a possible tour. Exposure. Everybody's going to want to see the worst band in America."
"They definitely created a reaction," affirms Blackwell, the Spin honcho who dreamed up the Worst Band in America contest. A small mention in the "Flash" section of the magazine's August issue led to a veritable deluge of entries. Appropriately enough, the tapes were stuffed into seven king-size, extra-strength trash bags. Account manager Fred McIntyre and contributing editor Jonathan Bernstein joined Blackwell in sifting through the morass of hopeful losers, a task that, thanks to the overwhelming response, delayed publication of the results from autumn until the soon-out May issue.
"After a while, it became really horrible A white noise," confesses Blackwell. "We began asking ourselves, 'How did we get into this?' In the context of all this, Scraping Teeth stood out. About 40 percent to 50 percent of the entrants were obsessed with shit A literally, as in lots of scatological references. While Scraping Teeth have a little of that, like the song 'Blow Me While I Shit,' it's just one component of their awfulness. Then we had the jokey stuff, i.e., They Might Be Giants. There was a lot that was vulgar for its own sake, and there were bands that probably weren't really bands, but just a couple of kids getting together in someone's basement and making a tape for the purpose of entering the contest. But Scraping Teeth had all the elements, bad in all categories. They were by far the most well-rounded bad."
Physically, there's a vaguely rodential cut to Frank Falestra's features, but the Rat Bastard persona is based more on Falestra's state of mind than on his looks. Rats and bastards are unwanted creatures. Falestra identifies with them, and Scraping Teeth's sound is a direct reflection of that identification. Abrasive by design, their music erupts like magma roiling up from the darkest recesses of the id.
Falestra has a notoriously low bullshit tolerance. The man can play traditional cock-rock guitar fairly well when the spirit moves; he knows all the popular cliches. When he fills in on lead for a band like Myrin and the 2 Wotz, he plays more than competently. But a steady diet of rehashed Chuck Berry, Keith Richards, and Jimi Hendrix riffs would do for him what a bucket of water did for the Wicked Witch. If there's one thing it's safe to assume Falestra hates, it's repetition, which he equates with mediocrity. Better to burn out.
"Rat used to do Wednesday nights at the club on a regular basis," reminisces Kevin Cornish, Washington Square co-owner. "His idea of success is how many people leave the club while he's playing. One night they [Scraping Teeth] were so loud that everybody A bartenders included A went outside and waited for them to finish."
There are 32 patrons inside Washington Square when Scraping Teeth takes the stage at 3:00 a.m. Within the first ten minutes of the band's set, that number is down to 24 (a full 25 percent reduction). By Scraping Teeth standards, that's not bad.
Many of the listeners are seated at tables not far from the stage. They are either blessed with Kevlar eardrums or are already experiencing the advanced stages of tinnitus. Scraping Teeth are not afraid of volume.
"We used to have a night at Beirut called 'The Noise' where Rat and three other guitar players were in the corners of the club, each facing his own amp, just playing as loud as they could," remembers Doc Wiley, current musical director at the Square and former Club Beirut manager. "There were also a couple turntables and a CD player going simultaneously. A Beach cop, driving by in his car, heard it and it drove him so nuts he came in with his hand on his gun, shouting for them to turn it down or he'd arrest them."
"He was very agitated," recalls Rat. "I was in the sound booth when he came in. He started beating on it with his flashlight, screaming for me to turn it down. The thing was, I had turned it down, brought down all the faders on the turntables and CD. But the guitarists were each in the corners facing their amps, with their backs to everything. He was fuming. He had to tap each one on the shoulder to get them to quit. But within two minutes after they stopped, he'd calmed down. He was the nicest guy. The music made this guy go nuts."
The flatfoot was not alone in his instinctive evaluation. "Another time Doug Adrianson, the Herald's music critic before Leonard Pitts, heard us at Churchill's and started screaming at [the club's owner] Dave Daniels, 'Why did you let those guys go on?' Very upset," recollects the rodent. "He called me the next day and apologized, said he'd never reacted like that to music before." Adrianson went on to learn more about the underground scene and became a familiar face in local original-rock venues.
Perhaps an afternoon in a locked room with Scraping Teeth is in order for Mr. Pitts.
Fifteen minutes into the set, and the gutty 24 are showing signs of fatigue and shell-shock. Their eyes are slightly glazed over, their jaws slack. They are not sleeping, yet it would not be accurate to say that they are completely awake, either. They look like they've fallen under some kind of mysterious spell....
She will not allow New Times to use her name, but she and a group of her friends were at the Cameo Theatre in July of 1989 to attend a Flaming Lips concert. Scraping Teeth, the opening act, had draped a huge white sheet over part of the stage and begun playing, creating an other-worldly ambience. Massive quantities of pot smoke filled the air. Someone announced that Flaming Lips would not appear. A few women, friends of the band's, led by former performance artist Tina (of Dirty Girl Revue fame), began dancing naked behind the sheet. Tina began droning, "Where's my ball? Get my ball" over and over, possibly referring to a beach ball near the stage. The young woman relaying the story to New Times swears the combination of smoke, Teeth, sheet, and repetitious chanting hypnotized the entire audience. Falestra says it was all unplanned, but he does not deny the possibility of the crowd's collective arrival at an altered state.
Drummer Dimthingshine has been a Tooth for several years and has seen it all before. But the bassist this Wednesday night is Demonomacy guitarist Jamie Avery, who has never played bass before. Ever. She is bewildered at first, perhaps intimidated by the wailing wall of sound erected by the Rat's idiosyncratic, antimelodic guitar work. Maybe no one has told her that this is how the band's first gig went, too, no rehearsal, no beginnings, middles, or ends. Occasionally drummer Dim will hold back, shift gears, give her a chance to catch up. But soon Avery's cutting loose, more than holding her own, pitching out her share of ideas and shaping the polymorphous, evolving sonic assault with her own distinctive input.
The Rat Bastard smiles. Briefly. Enigmatically. Like Dylan A just a flash and then it's gone so quickly you can't be sure whether you saw it or imagined it.
Scraping Teeth do not play songs. Some would say they do not even play music, but that's an ignorant cheap shot. As Falestra is quick to point out, the Teeth probably grind out more hooks per minute than any other rock band in the world.
The Rat is as much a visual treat as he is a sonic one, thrashing about in his black specs, T-shirt, knee-length shorts, New Times hat, and white socks that rise to mid-calf. Falestra punishes guitars, flailing at them more than strumming, his right hand a blur of frenetic picking, his left a tangled knot of unconventional chordings.
No rock guitarist, living or dead, has a higher broken-strings-per-show ratio than Falestra. But even more amazing than his propensity for breaking so many strings is his habit of simply incorporating the broken strings into his playing, rather than pausing to change guitars or restring. During this Wednesday night's performance, Rat: A) breaks his high E string 30 seconds into the set, B) wedges a screwdriver between the fretboard and the strings to give his guitar a more psychedelic sound, and C) eventually breaks all but the middle two (G and D) strings of his ax with no stoppage of playing. That's nothing. He once snapped the neck of a Gibson SG because of string tension brought about by one of his bizarre alternative tunings.
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"The important thing to remember about Scraping Teeth is that they are serious musicians," asserts Spin editor Mark Blackwell. "They didn't create this music to try to win our contest. They've obviously been playing for years. I don't think they meant to be bad. I think they meant to fit some mysterious category of their own, like Skinny Puppy or the Swans, with all the things that make those bands interesting removed."
"We've achieved the ultimate reaction," assesses Falestra.
"I wouldn't be surprised if they got some sort of mediocre record deal out of it," continues Blackwell. "Maybe MTV News or even a shot at Letterman."
"I've got a feeling we'll be doing lots of interviews," says the illegitimate vermin in agreement. "I couldn't believe it when they told us we made it to the final three. It's pretty hard to get that kind of recognition."
He's right. After all, there are millions of musicians out there. But there's only one Worst Band in America.