The Damned Screening

Free State Fest: Rat Scabies Interview

Tonight, as part of Free State Fest, a screening of the documentary, “The Damned: Don’t You Wish We Were Dead” will take place at the Lawrence Arts Center. The event begins at 6:30pm and ends at 9pm. After the screening, a Q&A with Wes Orshosk will occur, followed by a live performance from Mike Watt. In anticipation of the screening, our former Programming Director, Jake Waters, interviewed Rat Scabies.


Jake: I guess I’ll just start in on the questions then if that’s alright?

Rat: Yeah, sure. That’s quite alright.

Jake: Let’s start talking about the film first. What is your opinion about having a film made basically about your life? Did you ever think that would happen?

Rat: No, I never ever thought that. Well, I thought at one point maybe because you’re always being interviewed for things. People always have documentaries where they want to take you into a backroom and talk to you about stuff. I thought some day somebody might do it. I was hoping it would something with a little more bite to it rather than the usual music docs where a lot of people sit down and praise the subject of the documentary. To answer your question, no I never really did think it would happen.

Jake:  So after having probably seen the film several times now, what’s your opinion on it? Do you think it’s accurate?

Rat: Yes I do, I think it’s accurate and I think it’s fair and balanced. Everybody else agrees with me, even the guitarist so it must be great. Yeah I think it is pretty balanced. I think he did a great job capturing the personalities of what makes the Damned work. I think he even went the extra mile to try and paint an accurate picture especially when you have a band that has had such a full career that’s had so many people and so many opinions and so many challenges, you know record companies and managers and everything else. It has all the let downs and it’s quite a feat to keep it all together but I think he’s done a great job.

Jake: Yeah, what was your relationship with the director before the movie? Had you seen any of his work beforehand?

Rat: I saw the Lemmy movie which I thought was pretty good. I think they did a great job of actually getting inside of the character instead of having a bunch of people talk about how great  and special he is and stuff like that. So I thought he had done a pretty great job with that. I hadn’t had any contact with him until he showed up to a gig I was at with the guitarist Brian James, the original Damned guitarist, and he said that I’m making this documentary and I want to film you and I said no. He begged and pleaded and came to the gig and afterwards came out. This guy was to be reckoned with. Eventually, the more I got to know him…I was very cautious with signing anything off for him or give him the rights to use anything until I knew what he was up to. The more I got to know him, the more it became obvious that he wanted to make a good film. Am I the subject of the documentary or am I secondary? It’s a strange thing, the film is about your band and what you’ve done but actually that’s only a small part of the film. The film that we’re making, the light and the color, the story of the film is far more important than the subject of the film. That came as a shock because originally I was like oh they’re making a film about me when actually you realize that that’s mostly ego when the reality of the situation is that it’s a film that’s being made by someone who is a filmmaker for other filmmakers and the public alike. You know you’re just kind of a part.

Jake: So and you kind of talked about this earlier but there’s kind of a fine line especially in documentaries about people of finding the right balance between praise and going to far into an exploitation type of thing like that Kurt Cobain documentary that just came out where it’s all just home movies of him and he doesn’t really have a say in it. Do you think that…well I guess what I’m trying to ask here is was that one of your biggest fears and why you wouldn’t sign off on it at first? That you might feel like you’re getting exploited in some way.

Rat: It wasn’t that, I just didn’t think it would make a good film. It would be just fighting and bitching about each other all the time and complaining. I don’t think anybody was going to find a resolution or anything like that. I was more interested in leaving that stuff in the past. I thought what was important was that people met the band and that the Damned were unique individuals. It sounds odd now but people have stayed with us.

Jake: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that. Now, in hindsight, you guys were one of the innovators of punk music and everybody talks about it and it’s a historical thing but at the time did you understand what you were doing would be talked about so many years later?

Rat: Absolutely not. The thing is we kind of knew that we were different to everyone else musically and how we wanted to look and there were very few people with short hair. Punk magazine was coming every week and so we had seen photographs of Blondie and Richard Hell and the Ramones but none of them had had a record yet so we had to guess what they sounded like. We absolutely had no idea, you don’t. At the time we just thought we were lucky to have somebody tell us that you’re going to make a record. We’re going to record you and I remember thinking that was quite enough. That was a place I never expected to get to. You have no idea when you go to make a record what the repercussions of that are going to be. You have no idea that in forty years someone is going to talk to you, even if you know, it’s beyond comprehension.

Jake: So you guys, even though you were in the punk scene, you seemed to be a little different than the bands like the Sex Pistols and things like that at the time that were very interested in tearing down the older bands at the time and just trashing them. You guys seemed to not be as interested in that and kind of embraced those bands and took those ideas further. I was reading earlier about how on your second album you wanted to have Syd Barrett produce it which is something that I don’t think any of the other punk bands would have thought about at the time.

Rat: That whole thing was a way to try and move on musically and not just be a one-note band. I’d be honest and say when you’re doing one of your earliest gigs and Led Zeppelin walk in and like what you do, it’s very difficult to not be friendly to them. So when it came to the old guard, we received a lot of animosity from the previous generation, other musicians were kind of intimidated by it. At the same time, you didn’t have to be an asshole when you met them or if somebody offered you an invitation or called and understood where you were coming from but a lot of them didn’t. So you never really knew. So you had other bands tearing down the older bands and things like that but it was never really personal. Just like everything it was always to do with, if you attacked them it would cause a controversy and obviously your career would get furthered. Most of it was just anger really. Most of the old guard that we met were completely cool with us and would later go on to play on our records like Nick Mason of Pink Floyd. We did the album with him and he kind of got us. He made us comfortable with an uncomfortable situation. We were just four nervous kids, it would be intimidating to have had not much luck with anything in the world and then suddenly there you are in the studio with someone from Pink Floyd. It’s kind of a mind game.

Jake: Yeah the Nick Mason connection. Also, didn’t you guys open for T. Rex on their last tour? That’s like another case of the old meets the new in a way.

Rat: Well Marc was totally cool. We met him a couple of times. The first time we were just about to do a gig and Captain didn’t have any bass guitar strings.  We got to the gig and Marc was there and said that bass strings were just guitar strings so try that. So that was a new one, so we kind of liked him. He was going out on the road and we had been fired by the Sex Pistols from the Yankee tour and Marc offered us to go on with him. We thought it was great because we could try and find a new audience and he was such a sweet guy. We traveled with him on his bus and it wasn’t just Marc there, Gloria was there too and she was cool. The band he had was tight, they would play a 1,000 a room section with the greatest players there had ever been so he was a little past the whole thing. Sorry, I’m just getting a little nostalgic. You never know what’s going to trigger it when you talk about things like that.

Jake: I was going to ask, when you were touring with them, how did the T. Rex audience and fans react to you guys? It must have been pretty different than what they were doing at the time.

Rat: Surprisingly not, the fans were receptive and they were never going to outnumber the Marc Bolan fans so they weren’t going to take over the show. It was kind of cool because a lot of Bolan fans, since Marc had sanctioned us they also sanctioned us so we definitely benefited from that. To be honest, if Marc hadn’t of died so tragically he would have definitely produced the next Damned record that’s for sure.

Jake: So staying on influences here, what were some of your guys’ biggest influences when you first started out? T.Rex or Pink Floyd, stuff like that. What were some of the things that people maybe don’t realize that you were listening to and absorbing?

Rat: Brian James was a very big jazz fan, he was into the kind of avant-garde players. The Damned was his first love but Brian would listen to Miles Davis and then immediately afterword would listen to the MC5, to him he felt the same thing. Captain was a huge prog rock fan. He was more interested in Fred Frith and the more underground players that were pretty different from the Soft Machine and things like that. He wasn’t listening to Yes or Emerson, Lake and Palmer or anything like that, it was the more underground stuff.

Jake: Yeah I couldn’t really picture you guys rocking out to Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

Rat: I was always more of a pop fan. I liked the Small Faces, The Who, T. Rex and Slade, those kinds of groups. I didn’t have much use for the music from the 1950s, trying to cash in on the music they played at the fairgrounds when we were kids. So you had all of these different influences and when the band got up on stage, you could sort of tell at the show.

Jake: Yeah that’s interesting, you can definitely pick up on that. Especially since you guys were friends with Lemmy who was in Hawkwind before who were kind of doing the space rock thing. Speaking of Lemmy, what was your relationship with him? You know how there’s like a fifth Beatle, I always kind of saw him as a fifth Damned member.

Rat: Well I don’t know about that but we used to drink in the same pub and we went in there one afternoon. Lemmy was always in there and I think Phil Taylor was away. Lemmy was a big MC5 and Stooges fan, much more than kind of heavy metal or heavy rock, which was pretty cool. He used to hang out in the arcade and there he was playing the slots, you know he was always around. I guess he got the Damned so we started to hang out. Eventually he came and played, we didn’t have a bass player so Lemmy came and helped perform and record some demos for the next record. Here’s some trivia.

Jake: Yeah.

Rat: Lemmy secretly loves alcohol.

Jake: [Laughs] Ok, let’s see, there was two different incarnations of the Damned. There was the first incarnation that did the first two albums and then you guys split for a little bit before reconvening. What triggered that first breakup?

Rat: I did, very very boring answer. It was just surrounded by negativity, it was done. I’m talking about 1976, 1977, that time period. We seemed to be doing a lot of traveling and not a lot of fun. People changed and we got in a rut and relationships kind of shifted. I don’t know, I don’t want to get to caught up in that sort of thing but people were kind of leading us on and it started to fizzle out. I just wasn’t enjoying myself. It didn’t seem like the place to be. I was quite done and I had enough of it and it was really time to go on to something new. That something new that I went on to ended up being a failure.

Jake: What was that new thing?

Rat: It actually wasn’t a failure, it really wasn’t that bad. I was suddenly writing all of the music. It was quite an uncomfortable feeling for me to all of a sudden be running a band, telling people what to do which was the opposite of the way it had been before where everyone was determined to do their own thing without asking what to do or you telling them what to play. If someone wasn’t playing something, you already got it covered and that was something exciting you got in that band whereas it was more of my responsibility in my band. Again, it wasn’t setting the world on fire. I mean we had some pretty good songs but it wasn’t in the same league as the Damned. With Captain he was in a similar kind of story, never working together. I remember talking to him one night on the phone and he said how’s it going, I said not that great and he said not that great so I said let’s work together. It’s not that we wanted to reform the Damned at all, we just wanted to write some songs together and carry on it music. When it came time to get a singer, we had a lot of trouble finding someone to sing the songs, finding the right person. It was just…

[Skype call disconnects]

Jake: The call got disconnected for about 30 seconds, I kind of missed a little of what you just said. I’m sorry about that.

Rat: I was just mumbling, you didn’t miss anything.

Jake: Oh no, no, no. I’m sorry to ask you to repeat, can you go back a little bit?

Rat: What was the last thing I said?

Jake: You were talking about how you originally weren’t going to reform the Damned but you couldn’t find anybody that you liked.

Rat: Really that’s pretty much as simple as it is. So we decided to ask Dave if he’d be interested. Really it was more of an experiment because none of us had really written songs for that long, so it was more of an experiment. So we were stepping into the dark, we didn’t know how but we all knew it was an opportunity to kind of try on ideas and see how it goes. We were lucky that we decided to make a record where we could really be encouraging since it was a studio. We did demos and picked songs that we thought were great and laid them down in the big studio.

Jake: Let’s see, I just want to ask maybe one or two more questions. What’s your opinion on the music scene today, do you think bands have more opportunities to succeed than when you were starting out or do you think everything is more fractured because of the way the Internet is set up now?

Rat: Yeah I think it’s…what do I think? This is such an odd question because it’s a world I don’t really understand. With the Internet and YouTube and everything else, I don’t understand how you draw attention to yourself if you’re a new band. The world I grew up in was much easier. There were four newspapers and the newspaper you read came out every week. You didn’t have to go search to find what you wanted to find. I find it all a bit Big Brother if you ask me. I think YouTube is a great thing for discovering new bands and stuff like that but at the same time none of us are getting paid for it. If you want your band to be noticed you have to do it for free. It makes it limited for those who want to pick up the guitar and spend all those hours you have to spend to learn how to play it. My biggest dispute with the music scene today is not that there isn’t anybody good out there, it’s that it’s very difficult to get noticed in the industry. To be honest, it doesn’t seem that good to do it yourself. It’s interesting, I just came back from Japan and the biggest thing in Japan in vinyl. Everybody has records now, it’s all coming back.

Jake: Vinyl has seemed to pick back up again in the past few years. It’s suddenly become cool again.

Rat: The thing about vinyl that’s interesting is that say you got some friends coming over and you play what you think is a great band, they have to wait nearly 80 minutes for the CD to finish. It’s a long, long time. With vinyl, the fantastic thing is you got 18 minutes a side so if you hated the thing, it’s over so soon so you can look through someone’s record collection and find something. You have 18 minutes to be able to say, I want a say in this and I want to hear this. It was more about music integration, there was more going on on the sleeve, bigger artwork and stuff of that nature. You didn’t have to try and find out who did the sleeve, it was quite easy to read. I understand why it’s back, there’s a different way of connecting with vinyl. Buying vinyl is like becoming a junkie really, the same way that they get off.

Jake: I guess my last question for you is do you have new projects you’re working on, do you have anything going on?

Rat: I’ve got a couple of things, one of them is an English band called the Mutants and we just got back from Japan. What we do is we make records for specific markets. What we did is we made an album that we thought the Japanese artists would like to work on. We then recorded a dozen or so Japanese artists to perform on the record.

Jake: That’s cool.

Rat: Bands like the 5, 6, 7, 8s, The Ichigos, bands that can really rock on the guitar. The kind of people that nobody in the west has heard of because they sing in Japanese. The idea worked because we played a really fantastic show there and the Japanese artists were really fun to work with. I’ve worked with this English actress, Jane Horrocks and recorded a couple of songs with her. We just came together in the performance art scene, dances and live performances. So we just started doing that.

Jake: Awesome, so is there anything else you would like to add before we wrap this up?

Rat: I’m still looking for the holy grail.

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