Rat Scabies – Interview

Rat Scabies is best known for being the original drummer for class of ’76 Punks The Damned. He left the Damned in 1996 leaving a legacy of brilliant music. Since the Damned Rat has been drumming, producing and writing music. He hunts for the Holy Grail, and as such is the subject of the book ‘Rat Scabies and the Holy Grail’. He also builds and plays Cigar Box guitars.
He recently released his first solo album ‘P.H.D (Prison, Hospital, Debt)’ which we reviewed and thought was a great record.

Fighting Boredom sat down and called Rat to talk about the record and the other things he is doing and has been a part of. It’s evening and Rat sounds content.

I’m alright, I’m very well indeed actually. Dinner was nice, I’ve just eaten, got a glass of wine, it doesn’t get any better than this.’
I imagine every interviewer in the world has asked the next question but I still ask, what should I call you Chris or Rat?
Whatever you’re comfortable with really. Even my mum calls me Rat, I wouldn’t worry too much. You know which way you swing on this one, it’s an open call. 
I stick with Rat, I’ve known him as Rat for around thirty five years in my head. I tell him I’ve listened to the album, reviewed it and thought it was great.
Okay, you sound surprised?
I explain that I was more surprised that it was coming out rather than how good it is. That when I got an email about it I requested a review copy there and then. I was surprised by the variety of music on the record, the lack of vocals across some of it and that one track doesn’t even have drumming. I assumed that the track without drums was the cigar box guitar?
Oh the Cigar Box guitar is all over the album. There’s no getting away from it. There’s something about that instrument that changes everything about the way you perceive music to be constructed and where you perceive it to be valuable. It’s a very weird thing, because when I made the first one I only did it really because my son came home from work and gave me a cigar box. I had a piece of wood and three tuning keys and I remembered the story that was what poor people used to do in America, and that was kind of the birth of a lot of the slide in blues guitar styles. I thought well that’s kind of really interesting. So I looked at this box for a few days and then worked out how you do could do it, put strings on it and everything and make it work as an instrument. Then the realisations that came along with that were really quite phenomenal, because you lose everything that we regard as being technically proficient. In terms of, you don’t have tuning, you don’t have a piano to tune to or anything else that does it. So actually what you do is you just tighten the strings up until they sound good. And when you play an instrument like that with this kind of slide thing it’s so much more of a cerebral kind of experience because you have to listen to what you’re playing. It’s not like a guitar with frets where you know where the notes are. It’s something like a saxophone where you’ll know where the notes are, but you have to get to them. It sounds a bit artsy fartsy really, but actually, you have to have a different kind of consciousness to play an instrument like that because you have to be more aware of what’s going on around you. Which is all kinds of performing. To forget about what you’re doing and only focus on what’s going on around you. 

I ask if he’s going to be performing the album
I just had quite a long conversation about exactly that. I am really not sure. It’s tough really because there’s so much of me on it. Yeah that kind of element does kick in a bit and also I don’t want to just go out and do some kind of crappy promotional gig. I’d like the audience to leave feeling that they’ve seen something that they were surprised by. A bit like when you listen to the record you’re not really expecting it to sound the way it does and the tracks to be the kind of tracks that they are, and my hope is that everybody listens to it and thinks ‘I wasn’t really expecting that, that was pretty good. I’d love to do the same kind of thing if I did a live show. That the people would leave saying ‘well you know what, I thought that was just going to be a bunch of old lags jamming but actually I’ve been quite entertained!’
I’m agreeing with Rat and he goes on to say
Yeah the thing is you’re like a counselor really aren’t you. If only I had a  couch we could go through this as a therapy thing. Funny, actually it has actually just given me a slight realization. Much of this thing about interviewing and talking about this is, in a funny way, a kind of therapy.
I talk about the other interviews I’ve done and that leads to me explaining how I got into The Damned in the first place. I was a fifteen year old Heavy Metal freak and my friend from up the road gave me three Damned albums.  He gave me Machine Gun Etiquette, Best of the Damned and The Black Album which I devoured and never looked back, it opened me up all sorts of music.
It’s a funny thing with The Damned you know. The band did have such a broad sense of influences. In so many ways and you know what you just said about when I used to be a metal fan and I heard that and, well, there are elements of the Damned that sort of took an influence from a metal attitude. They were almost like, excuse my sarcasm here, like a small cultural bridge. Yes. that’s a way I’ve never viewed the Damned before. But I think I may do so again.

I ask Rat if he’s proud of what he did with The Damned.
Oh very much. I think we made some fucking great records. It’s funny you know, I carried the hang up about something that you’re so close to and it’s only when you remove yourself and give yourself enough distance you can come and review what you really were. You know I think I’d have been a Damned fan even if I wasn’t in the band, because there is something that that band manages to achieve. I was talking to a friend of mine who worked for record companies and stuff like that. We were talking about learning. Now we’ve both been in the business for a while. He was saying that actually when we know nothing at all we are at our most creative and most likely to be at our source of genius. And it’s funny when you kind of think of that statement and then of the  fact that nearly every band’s first album is usually their defining record. It’s the one that everybody rather cornily says ‘Well I liked their early stuff’ about. There’s something about that naivete and lack of understanding of how things were done that definitely gives you an advantage and once you’ve learnt those things, once you’ve had those lessons and once you understand how it works it affects the way that you perceive what you’re doing. You know not necessarily in a big conscious way but in a very subconscious way you kind of are more aware. It’s a bit like when they talk about red light fever in a recording studio. Yeah. You know you’re in doing rehearsals and everything’s fine but as soon as the red light goes on. Well now now we’re actually making a record, there are some people who kind of freeze up and can’t cope with that and I think that’s synonymous really.
I say I think I know what he means but I wouldn’t say that the first Damned album is my favourite.
Ah but what you have to realise is that when, if you like, the Damned were reborn you know beyond the second album. That was pretty much our first  record as that band. The first album was very much Brian, the second album we joined in on some of the writing. But then when we move down the road a bit, we kind of understood a bit more about how to do it, how it works and what we could do then actually it was a totally new group and the same thing happened when we moved on to Phantasmagoria. The Rebirth of the band.. that sounds so Spinal Tap.
I talk about my Phantasmagoria being a great album and that my favourite is Machine Gun Etiquette. 
Again a very different line up  of the band. And also a band that hadn’t really got an image together as such. Even though we were very fired on the image of us all being individuals. We hadn’t really nailed it commercially which we did do for Phantasmagoria. When the captain left, probably you know one of the strongest pillars in the band, when he left it shifted everything in the band again. It was one of those things, well here we are, this is day one again. We have to do things in a different way because they’re no longer the same as they were a week ago.

I say that in the film you say it was time to start selling Vanian by the pound.
Yeah I love that quote. it was true, because we did The Young Ones the captain was there and he was very busy doing Happy Talk, being Captain Sensible and being very successful. We tried very hard to keep it together. But the truth was he was less and less available and getting increasingly difficult to function with him. We did the Young Ones and I looked at me Roman, Bryn and Dave and it was like, it’s about time we had people to support Dave , instead of competing with him for mike time and the spotlight. It was really, this kind of adds up. And also don’t forget we’d been doing it since ‘76 and we’ve never really earned any money out of it all or any of those Rock star trappings or success things. So we thought, you know what guys, we’ve been doing this too long now let’s not fuck about any more. 
Also the other thing with the Damned was we didn’t mind commercialism. We didn’t mind pop music, we were brought up on The Sweet and Dave’s tastes of the fifties commercial thing. We were all actually into the top twenty kind of records. There is an element in that that says ‘Well you know what. It’s actually okay to be commercial’. You’ve done the kind of real left field angry punks, angry young men that want to see revolution, then we went through the alternative, this kind of different groove to take over from being angry, and then it became, well lets change it into something that has a commercial kind of vibe instead.

I tell him that I enjoyed the film but found it quite upsetting at times.
When somebody says they’re going to make a movie about you, you feel very flattered and you feel that at last the true story of the band is going to be told. But actually as it progresses you realise that it’s Wes Orshoski’s film about the Damned. He gets to choose the ending. He gets to chose what people say in the film and actually, it’s not really much to do with me at all, it’s to do with Wes and his perception of what the Damned was. That’s okay because he paid for the movie to be made and if I want to tell the story that way then I should pay for a movie to be made. 
I ask as it’s a while ago since The Damned why it’s taken him so long to get this album out.
I never really looked at that as a career move. They’re all songs that I’ve had that I’d written that for one reason or another never saw the light of day, not because they were bad songs, but because either the Damned weren’t functioning. It was the wrong kind of tracks for the Damned at that time, or because we didn’t need a track. I’ve always written made music, only really and truly as a way of entertaining myself as much as anything. Sometimes you do something and people say oh that’s pretty good. I never really saw myself other than someone who’s going to play the drums. So I really only ever saw myself as a drummer as my first job and writing music and making music as kind of an entertainment.
And a bloody good drummer I add
how would you know?  
How would I know? Because I’ve seen enough of them over the years I tell him.
He chuckles, I couldn’t help that.
I tell him that I think on the new album ‘My Wrists Hurt’ and ‘Sing Sing Sing’ sum up his drumming for me.

Well yeah you know the funny thing is that people often think that because you’ve been in a famous band as a musician that’s kind of all you ever did. They don’t realise that you joined that band because you were a musician and even if you hadn’t had been famous you’d have still been playing. And even now you’re no longer in that band you still continue to play. You know that’s what I do, I’m a drummer. I don’t have a choice in that. 

I tell him the I played the Louis Prima track to a friend and they said that it sounds like something from the fifties.

Yeah. I like that. Originally I was going to record it and put a big band on it and then when I put it down with the piano I thought you if I put anything else on the top of this it’s gonna fuck it up, and the song is so strong. The arrangement and the parts, there’s so much there. I was really lucky because we kind of bashed it out, it was just one of those one off moments that really worked. 

I asked him about his hunt for the Holy Grail and the book about it, ‘Rat Scabies and the Holy Grail’

It’s a really good read you won’t be disappointed. I didn’t write it so I can say that, I’m off the hook, I will say  pretty much ninety eight percent of that book is literally true. Christopher Dawes is a great writer. It makes a very complicated subject very understandable. I was brought up all that kind of Atlantis in ground folklore and there are so many stories in the world everything that’s kind of left field be it flying saucers and stuff, the Holy Grail or hidden treasure it only takes one grain of truth. You know like flying saucers, it only takes one of those stories to be true. And the whole thing is verified, I find that kind of fascinating.
I ask where he’s been searching for the Grail
A lot of France, Scotland and a few other places. The thing is it’s not about an object right. Even though they say it is. it’s actually about the journey. About the adventures you have while are you looking. It’s not about finding, it’s about the things you discover about yourself, about the world and other people while you’re on that quest. Well I think it is because first of all there’s a few major problems with the story. Firstly it was the cup that caught the blood of Christ, well the first thing I’d say is there’s not one scrap of evidence to support Christ’s existence on earth. None at all. not one birth certificate or death certificate or anything so that knocks a really big hole in the story. Secondly the thought that somebody’s bothered to keep the cup from the last supper the night before and take it with them to the Crucifixion. I mean that’s the action of a Newcastle drunk on a fucking Sunday morning. I’ve still got the same pint pot that I started with on Friday night. It doesn’t bear witness does it and for those two reasons I’m skeptical. Let me put it another way, I know the location of at least four items which match the description of the Holy Grail with the provenance to support that they are at least 2000 years old and come from the middle east, each one with provenance to claim that it’s the grail and vessel of Christ. I have to say, that’s three too many. But it’s a brilliantly fascinating subject.
I ask about if the grail made it onto the album and that the UFO’s certainly did.
Well yes.. ‘Floydian Slip’. yes. Sure that was kind of a must because I’ve always loved the UFO phenomena and it keeps on going. It is that gift that keeps giving. Yes it’s very stylized very formatted and I found that interview with those guys. Because I didn’t have a singer I started spinning in dialogue and because I’d found this documentary about these UFO hunters and it was just so brilliantly kind of Mike Leigh comedy. Well, it isn’t, those guys are actually for real. It’s that weird line that when they made that documentary back in the seventies, which is when I think it was done, they made that documentary as fly on the wall real stuff. Those people, they didn’t know as much as we do now, so when we hear a guy says ‘scan over towards Dorking because they hide in the clouds’ at the time you were like ‘hey well this guys done this before’ but now we’re like what the fuck? Like I say, it only takes one of those to be real. It would change everything on our planet wouldn’t it. Suddenly Religion would become completely meaningless. Then there would be a different set of claims about who God is. It would absolutely throw us into turmoil and in a way it would uncover what religion and government are because who’d give a shit about government anymore it would be like ‘you know what, you ain’t the boss of me no more’. Or think what it would do for DNA and ancestry, am I descended from the gods? I love that whole kind of fantasy stoner concept. Anything that triggers a thought process like that is quite inspirational and it removes us from the drudgery of the news. It’s a strange thing, you wake up, put the radio or the TV on and it’s the news. I mean there is no more depressing fucking programme on the planet than the news. Hearing about other people’s misery while you’re trying to eat your cornflakes. We are being, and without subscribing too far into conspiracy theories, shown, everything we see on TV makes you actually feel quite lucky and that life could be much much worse like it is for all of these other people were shown you on our giant 32 inch flat screen TV.
Rat says that he’s rambling but I’m just enjoying listening, I ask if the album’s title, ‘PHD (Prison, Hospital, Debt), is autobiographical.
Yes. Firstly I liked it because it’s funny. Because Rat Scabies is probably the last person that would have one of those. In fact that or an MBE or uttering the words ‘Guilty your Honour’ you know none of those apply. But those are the things going on in my life. Life isn’t about what we have and what we plan. It’s about what happens around us, and those were the things that were going on around me. Music was actually the only escape I had. Where everything else was so maudlin that to be able to play a guitar and feel good about creating a piece of music, doing something or making a sound that was kind of inspirational really. Without sounding too depressing about it. It was cheap medicine. 
I add that I think lots of people use music as medicine and how it takes you away from yourself, especially records you grew up with and go back to.
I think it’s funny because when you go back to records they sound totally different but never lose their meaning. I’ve done that and heard things and thought oh fuck I used to love this when I was a kid. My god I bet it sounds like shit now. But actually, they do still resonate. Yeah even though they do sound different. 
I ask if he listens to much new music nowadays
No not a lot. Who’s that band that said ‘let’s loot Aldi’? I quite like them. Fat White Family I think, they were pretty cool in a kind of rebellious way, you know I’m pleased they’re there. But other than that it’s just pretty much bands I know and work with . There’s very little that made me go ‘Ah I got to get onto this.’ I listen to new music and I just hear the Pro tools engineer at work. Everything is so perfect. Everything’s so deliberate . That’s okay if you’re on a  cocaine binge and that’s what you’re looking for in life. But I’m not, so I just find it really quite tedious. The melodies are good but then again, so what, so are everybody else’s. I’m not hearing much passion these days. This is the problem with the music industry now. The small money has left. it’s not there anymore, because there isn’t any money. There isn’t like a small singles market. You used to get a band turn up who were quite good. Somebody would give them a deal with a small label for a one off single with an option for an album. They would go in and record it. The studio would be happy, they spent money, the record company would be happy, they got a band that they knew they could sell two thousand singles and the record plant were pleased because they had another order of 2000 and that kind of topped up the turnover. And so all that small money has now kind of disappeared and there aren’t the small labels, there ain’t the small manufacturing. You know they made 2000 singles, they did gigs and fans would come down and they’d be able to say I got a record out and they’d take out a small ad in the paper. The whole thing was a self generating enterprise and it never made a lot of money but it broke a lot of bands and it made a lot of great bands who evolved through exactly that process. Now that’s been taken away, no not taken away, that sounds pretty harsh, now it’s no longer there. I think it’s virtually impossible to be recognized without having skills in you know social media and networking. You can only really do that literally on a Ground Zero now. You see in the old days, say a Damned song like Smash It Up with that intro that lasts for what about a minute twenty or something, it’s long. Now today nobody would bother to listen to that intro because they’d press the button on their phones, the song starts and they’re either immediately engaged with it or they’re not. So many producers and record makers now are just going okay, so we press the button, the song comes straight in with the first hook and it’s got it’s biggest chorus. So now that’s just the way that people make music. The way you think about songs and arrangements. It always was you had a nice intro that picks up a bit to be more interesting then it gets to the verse.. but now you’ve just got to cut straight in otherwise they just click the button and you’re gone, disposable.  I always remember there was album by a band called Egg and the end of the album was the sound of a dancette arm lifting off of the vinyl and it was brilliant because you listened to it and then you. But I mean now what a meaningless thing to have on a record but at the time it was the coolest thing that anybody could have done. 
I talk about locked grooves at the end of records too and how the Damned did it on Machine Gun Etiquette.
Every time we used to do something like that I always imagined the listener passed out drunk at one AM and would then wake up at like four AM feeling like absolute shit with just this horrible noise just carrying on in the background that they hadn’t asked for. But you could do all that with vinyl, it was good fun. I had to seal up a lot of vinyl in plastic bags. So for two years it’s just been all  sealed away so I never play any of it. In the meantime my deck has seized up. 
We chat a little more about the Damned and an incident I remember well but he doesn’t. Say goodnight and I hang up. Rat Scabies, an absolute Gentleman, one of the best drummers I’ve ever had the pleasure of throwing myself around to. The record is out now. 
Rat Scabies website is ratscabies.com, he is also on Facebook and Tweets as @Rat_Scabies.
You can get the album from his Bandcamp page.
All words by Adrian Bloxham.

Adrian Bloxham

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