Left Coast Out

There must be a thousand people inside the Cameo Theatre, and this is long before the popular DJ-dance happenings currently occupying weekend nights at the venerable venue. This is way back when live concerts were the Cameo's bread and butter, the mid-Eighties, and the Ramones are set to take the stage in an hour or two. Currently up is one of South Florida's hottest bands, the Drills, pounding through a set of semi-metallic, punk-tinged hard rock. Sweat. Volume. Rock and roll.

Those days are long gone, and so are the Drills. "We were all living in a warehouse in Hialeah, all of us in this tiny warehouse," recalls the Drills' Roger Deering. "We played the Cameo once a month, and a few other gigs. We wanted to grow musically. And we were tired of playing for fifteen-year-old skinheads flipping us the bird because we were trying to do something other than thrash music." Deering insists it was higher musical pursuits, not the ol' we-need-a-label-deal saw, that sent the Drills packing to L.A. There is sonic evidence that he achieved the former. It's a stone fact that the latter happened, practically on a ladder.

When singer-songwriter-bassist Deering and Drills drummer Kerry Furlong went west in 1988, it was the height of Guns N' Roses' heyday, and the Drills were discouraged, Deering says, "by just how uncreative most of the bands were." Seeking the least expensive housing available, they made the mistake of moving into downtown Los Angeles, near MacArthur Park, a neighborhood Deering refers to as "a real gnarly area, one of the worst out here." Deering's car was stolen two months later, although he jokes that it was tough finding a parking spot anyway.

Deering and Furlong soon moved to Hollywood, and landed a new guitarist, with whom they continued to perform as the Drills. After about two years he left, and Deering found a replacement, Brendon McNichol, right next door. Actually, even closer. "I started jamming with my roommate," he says, "and we decided to go out as a trio, with him on guitar."

Also in 1990, Deering ran into a neighbor, Jeffrey Muendel, an organist. "We hit it off personally," Deering recalls, "and our first rehearsal together was happening." Because they had already developed a reputation with the old line-up, Deering and Furlong continued to use the Drills name for a few gigs before rechristening their outfit Rattlebone. They also continued working day jobs, Deering in construction and Furlong in phone sales, a popular choice of employment among L.A. musicians due to the job's flexible hours and easy cash.

Deering met some people who led him to work renovating recording studios. His cohorts passed his name around, and one day Deering got a call to paint some guy's house. "I was there a week, painting," Deering says, "and I knew who he was, I was a fan of the stuff he'd done." The guy was producer Dave Jerden and among the stuff he's done is Jane's Addiction, Alice in Chains, and Social Distortion. "Eventually we got to talking about music," Deering continues, "and he liked my attitude. Then we started talking about my band, and he asked for a demo. I said I'd get it to him right away." Eureka! Except for one thing. Rattlebone didn't have a demo. "We rushed around," Deering says, "and got a Tascam eight-track portable, set it up in our practice studio, mixed the demo on Sunday night, and gave it to him Monday morning."

Jerden, Deering says, "flipped out." The noted producer offered to record the group, and to help them land a label deal, which they soon did, with Hollywood Records, which recently issued a five-song CD and cassette and will follow with a full-length album, also featuring the knobwork of Jerden. The EP, despite the fact only three of the five songs are originals, provides a full-spectrum X-ray of Rattlebone's ability to mix it up without sacrificing the arena-sweep power at the heart of their approach.

The group's big sound -- where guitars sound like trains and the rhythm section like landslides -- gets its best representation in "X-Ray Eyes," a melodic but metallish rocker. The first single, "Society Dog," much more recalls the Drills' punk-oriented style, with an aggression Iggy himself would endorse. And the racing "Panther Sweat" combines vintage metal with the speedy modern forms within that genre; bring the oxygen tank quick.

These three Deering-penned tunes make it easy to get a handle on Rattlebone's sound. So the group closes the tape with a curve ball: a grooving, almost sweet cover of Isaac Hayes's "Do Your Thing." The temptation for many bands would've been to stick in a power ballad, but the soulful Hayes piece accomplishes more. "I brought that song in one night," Deering says, "and we started jamming on it. It crept into the live set -- we'd do twenty-minute, half-hour versions. We weren't going to put covers on the EP, but Dave didn't want to use the songs on our demo for this. He wanted to save them for the album, so we wouldn't repeat anything from the EP on the album. The attitude was to show people where we were coming from and what direction we were headed in."

With blazing lead guitar lines, cool tempo shifts, and a wealth of solid harmonics, the Bone certainly shows something in the other cover, Blue ™yster Cult's "Cities on Flame." Deering says the band had been playing the tune live for a couple of years. "It's a cool song," he explains. "And it fits into our philosophy groovewise and lyrically. So we had been playing it live for a while when the city really did break out in flames. That was a really strange feeling."

The song led to another interesting encounter: B.O.C. drummer Albert Bouchard, who co-wrote it, heard Rattlbone's version and called Hollywood Records to find out when the band would be playing New York. He wants to sit in with them. "Our influences are really diverse," Deering says. "Pink Floyd to Sabbath to Marley to James Brown to Curtis Mayfield to Grand Funk. Whatever was cool to us growing up finds its way into this band, although we put our own identity on everything. And we love to play with our heroes, it's the biggest thrill of all. Like in Miami, opening for the Ramones and Dead Boys, and out here, with Johnny Thunders and Ron Asheton from the Stooges. Sharing a stage with guys like that makes it all worthwhile."

Deering is articulate and soft-spoken, especially for a purveyor of such energetic music. So it is a bit surprising that producer Jerden considers him "the angriest person I ever met." Deering says he was surprised himself. "I am bitter that it took us so long before someone took notice," the frontman offers. "I saw these other bands getting opportunities, and my opinion was that they didn't have as much to say and hadn't paid dues as much as we had. But what is rock and roll without anger? I look at it as a positive, channel it into the music, so it doesn't burn out of control and ruin the band. Dave's seen a few, so if he considers me the angriest, I consider that a compliment." The band's record deal, Deering adds, won't threaten that feeling, at least for a while. "Even with the deal and the producer, we're still as broke as ever. No joke. We had to quit our day jobs to make this happen, to tour. We have no income, just barely enough to pay rent, so there'll be plenty of edge for a while. We have enough to rant about to last a couple of years."

The Bone is setting out on a two-month tour, playing one-nighters across the nation, cruising in a rented camper with two roadies. "We begin recording the album in March," Deering says, "and after eight weeks of one-nights we'll be tight as a rat's ass. Unless we end up killing each other on the road."

The road trip brings Deering and Furlong home, when the band plays Washington Square this Friday. Deering dispatches the well-worn debate about whether original-rock groups can land a deal out of Miami, opining that it all depends on the band. In L.A., Rattlebone practices in what once was an MGM office building, renovated with studios and a basement pool parlor that's open 24 hours. "We're right next to a crack corner," he says, "and we've seen gang territorial wars over that corner, so it's weird in that aspect. We've been rehearsing there a couple of years and don't pay attention to that stuff any more. We just hope a bullet doesn't come flying through the window. When we're done jamming, we go down and hang out in the pool hall. There's always a couple of the [Red Hot] Chili Peppers there. And there are a lot of Miami people out here. Whenever we play live, a bunch of them come out. It's sort of like the early Flynn's scene. We always loved that Miami scene, the people there. We only left because we couldn't grow as a band any more."

The scripted-in-Hollywood success story of the band's big break might not have come to pass here, but who knows. "I think it was just the fact that a producer heard it," Deering says, "and decided he wanted to do it. The usual thing is to put together a demo, find a manager, shop the demo, do the business grind. This literally fell in our laps. Everybody wants a deal, but I can honestly say this band was initially put together because of the chemistry, and to make some cool music. I'm glad we were more-or-less discovered by Dave, rather than by some jerky record company guy. Most A&R guys are scared shitless. They're all waiting for the next Nirvana." And someday, they might be waiting for the next Rattlebone. "We're already seeing," Deering says, "some copycat bands out here trying to do what we're doing."

RATTLEBONE performs after 10:00 p.m. Friday at Washington Square, 645 Washington Ave, Miami Beach, 534-1403. Admission costs $5.

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