Photo by Jason Finkbeiner
Some facts about a man named Rat Bastard: Born Frank Falestra and unceremoniously given his current moniker by a shitty punk band he recorded 20 years ago, he lives in Miami, three blocks away from the thong-riddled shores of South Beach. He’s 50 years old and nearing a nice retirement from a job he’s had at an airline since just after high school. He’s recorded Blowfly, Marilyn Manson and the Spooky Kids, the Silos, the Mavericks, Harry Pussy, and the Eat, none of whom anyone gave a queef about at the time, and he currently runs a recording studio in his tiny, immaculate, one-bedroom condo. He’s been playing improvised noise on guitar and bass and electric violin in an unsavory part of town at a lovable shithole called Churchill’s pretty much every Thursday night since 1983. As legend has it, one night a patron fed up with Rat’s incessant rumble stormed the stage and put a gun to his head. “Go ahead and pull the trigger,” Rat told him, “’cause I ain’t stopping.”
There’s no such thing as enough for this guy. He released a CD containing 36 hours of sound called Drunken Empowered. His longtime band, Laundry Room Squelchers—which consists of him and whatever hot chicks he can rope into playing with him (for the last couple years it’s been noise babes Val Martino of Unicorn Hard-On and Leslie Keffer)—surge through the audience with their instrument cables wrapped around their fists like they’re ready for a street brawl. Shows always end in dog piles, bruises, and blood.
Always after more, the purest of the more, the absolute nut of more, five years ago he started the International Noise Conference (“That sounds important, right?” he says), a free weekend-long festival of the most obscure harsh-noise acts you’ll find in the country who play 15-minute sets max on two separate stages so there’s no downtime between bands. The only rules: “No laptops, no droning, no mixers.” This last February more than 100 bands performed, 60 of ’em on the last day. It’s like a three-day rave for art-damaged dirtbags who comb South Beach for pretty shells, spare change, and drugs, partying nonstop except to crash on the sand or in Rat’s condo. Entertainment is the main emphasis—we have Rat to thank for the insurgence of chaotic performance art involving pizzas and balloons in a scene that for the last ten years mostly just sat there and stroked its graying beard, gently nodding its head to an imagined beat.
I met Rat when I joined the band To Live and Shave in LA in 1999 (and left shortly thereafter). I realized what kind of man I was dealing with during our show in Baltimore when almost all the guys—Tom Smith, Weasel Walter, Nondor Nevai, and, of course, Rat—were smacked out on a now-illegal body-builder bulking speed called Ripped Fuel (half of them also tripping on acid) and a local neo-Situationist group attacked the stage with chairs, pitchforks, hammers, ceramic plates, and figurines. Stuff was being smashed all over the place, even up my crotch; bodies were flying everywhere. The group kidnapped Weasel off the stage and tried to stuff him in the back of a pickup truck waiting outside. I helped him claw his way back to continue the show. We were all ready to begin again. Rat had never stopped, though. He was still rolling around onstage, scribbling on his electric violin, completely oblivious to anything that had just transpired.
Leslie Keffer’s post-Squelchers black eyes. Photo by Val Martino“The first time I saw Laundry Room Squelchers, I was cowering in a corner waiting for the chaos to end. I still got banged up amid the tumbling wires and falling bodies and amps, but the next night, something let loose in me. I jumped right in and picked up amps and picked up Leslie Keffer and seizured in euphoria on the floor. I just let go, that abandonment of fear was new to me, and I was sober during it all, a moment in time that gave me courage for the rest of my life.”—ANDREW BARRANCA (AKA GAYBOMB), To Live and Shave in LA contributor
“Our third show on the 2006 tour, a guy was sitting on the floor and he realized he was not in a good position there. He got up and smacked the back of his head into my face. I played the whole set to the point where I couldn’t stand up anymore—I was really sick. I could see a tennis-ball-size bump over my eyebrow, and I said I had to go to the bathroom. ‘Whatever you do, don’t look in the mirror and you won’t puke,’ Rat told me. But of course I looked in the mirror to see what happened to my fucking face! And I puked everywhere. He was totally right. I had two black eyes for five or six weeks.”—LESLIE KEFFER
“Rat’s the coolest person I’ve ever met in my life. From the day I met him he’s completely supported what I do and that I do it. The fact that he saw something in me that could add to his band—and still lets me be myself—has made me a more confident performer. I think he likes really strong women. He likes women who’re sexual but not willing to give it up. I felt like he completely trusted and respected us and encouraged us to do our thing.”—VAL MARTINO
Vice: Where does all your energy come from?
Rat Bastard: My thoughts.
Really? You’re motivated purely by your mind?
Of course. If your mind says move, then you’re gonna move.
But most people get tired. People half your age go to bed before you do.
I’d rather roll around and look stupid than sleep.
You play at Churchill’s every week. Is it just an unspoken agreement at this point?
How did it start?
I would go in there and play.
You’d just walk in with an instrument and plug in and play? And nobody stopped you?
No. Usually all the bands had played already. They were done. The owner doesn’t care what’s going on. He’d rather have something going till close than nothing.
What made you want to go up unannounced, no invitation, and just jam?
I do it all the time. I just wanna play.
Can’t you do that at home?
If you’re in a rock bar and people are there, you’re performing, whether there’s 20 people or two.
Your noise conference’s motto is “No laptops, no mixing boards, no droning.” What’s so bad about those things?
If you’re forced to perform for 15 minutes—only 15 minutes—and you have to use any of that, then you’re a self-promotional piece of shit and I don’t want you. I don’t care what you’re doing, but come up with something and you can’t use those three things because they’re fucking boring! You want to see a blue face or a green face staring at a screen for 15 minutes? Do you like that?
No! But what’s the problem with a mixer?
They’re just moving their hands—they can’t rock! How’re you going to entertain staring at a fucking mixing board? Any jackass can do that!
How did you start Laundry Room Squelchers?
Guys lose their attention span. After a while they get bored and walk away. They play like they’re trying to compose something. But girls have more intensity, they play like they wanna kill everything. They don’t care if they don’t know anything about instruments. I’d prepare the guitars—give them an open tuning—and I’d tell them they could do anything they wanted with ‘em. They sounded great.
How did you find these women, and how do you keep finding them?
They’re just sitting there at the bar, drinking beer with a jerk. I’m like, “Hey man, wanna rock? Grab a guitar! You don’t have to know how to play, just look like you know how to rock. Play your ass off!”
In theory, it almost sounds exploitative. Why would they trust you?
They just want to go up onstage and get their cigarette lighters out and slide them on the guitars.
But what do you get musically out of playing with young girls who may never have even held an instrument before?
I get this nice stage full of sound that I can’t get out of a regular four guys. The Red Hot Chili Peppers couldn’t get this sound—no way they can achieve that intensity, no fuckin’ way. But I got this incredible sound around me, girls screaming and strumming all around, and I compose my guitar into that, along with that. The result is something I wanna listen to.
Refresh my memory about your old improvisational band Scraping Teeth.
In the 1980s I was in bands, three or four guys trying to play music together. It wasn’t necessarily good or well practiced, but they were always like, “Hey, let’s try to play that song again. Let’s prove we can actually write this stuff.” I go, “We played it! If we played it once, we can play it. If we play it twice in a row, who gives a shit?” It wasn’t as challenging as playing music right off the top of my head in front of people. So I started stretching it to sound instead of song with Scraping Teeth.
Was Spin calling you the worst band in America in 1993 the confirmation you needed to know you were right? Like, you didn’t need to play the songs again, because no one even liked ’em the first time?
That didn’t have anything to do with anything. I was right on the fact that we were so good because we played everything off the tops of our heads. Some people would swear we practiced that stuff because we were so tight. We would play for hours and hours in front of people and we never practiced. We played twice a week in front of an audience—and only in front of an audience—two hours a night. We would record a lot of the stuff. Those guys wanted to try to remember some of those parts but I didn’t. They got bored with it—it was going nowhere, which I liked, but they wanted to make it more of a “band” thing, more structured. What for? I thought. We’re just going back to the wrong direction. So then I was left alone.
Photo by Mindy Hertzon“ He is meticulous on tour. He can sleep while driving. The planning, the cost, the mileage, the time, the contacts. He keeps a log, knows our +/- $ balance at all times. He can pack amps and gear like a Tetris champ. He has rules about who drives and when to pull over. No pot in the car. He folds his socks. His album collection is arranged alphabetically, with dividers.” —BEN WOLCOTT, To Live and Shave in LA
“ There’s a list of Squelchers rules: No couples on tour is the number-one rule. No feedback, no pedals onstage (pedals are for pussies), no merch, don’t get off the highway unless you can actually see the place you want to stop at, no drinking water in restaurants because of the bacteria, so we don’t get sick. We can drink Coke, though, because the carbonation and the sugar kill the bacteria.” —VAL MARTINO and LESLIE KEFFER
“ On tour, he almost always insisted on sleeping in the most uncomfortable places—someone would offer him a mattress and he would pick the floor instead. I think he said he liked concrete floors, as though it was good for his back. He’d say, ‘I’m good right here!’ and spread out on a single cotton sheet on a kitchen floor. He would use his hat as a pillow and his sunglasses as a blanket. I’ve never seen someone sleep on a chair before—not in a chair, but on it—laying out across and sideways, hanging stiffly over the sides. I saw a picture of him once, sound asleep, using a single tiny couch cushion as a mattress—he was curled up and shivering in a corner with his shoes on.” —ANDREW WK, occasional To Live and Shave in LA contributor
“ A few years ago Rat took me out for a joyride on his boat. First he gunned it full-throttle due east, straight toward the deep waters of the Atlantic. Then hard south, down Biscayne Bay, keeping the distant shoreline to our starboard. After several interesting high-speed maneuvers in the open water he took us back to the shore and slowly into a smaller bay, where we trolled along hammocks of thick mangrove trees. He pulled alongside a small pier and we found refreshments at a dockside watering hole. On our way back to the boat we were followed by a teenage waif, who silently stared as we boarded the boat. It hit me then that Rat has this… well, pied-piper quality and that no doubt someday this young woman would become another cog in the Squelcher machine. As we pulled away from the dock she just stood there, dreaming.” —DON FLEMING, producer, occasional To Live and Shave in LA contributor, and longtime friend
“Rat is a true enemy of music! He loves to piss all over the mediocre musicians of the world by being king of shit. I think it’s hilarious. I just like that he’s here to ceaselessly drown this pathetic, oversaturated market of crappy, egotistical music with the most unlistenable bullshit. He takes this sad attitude that most musicians have and shoves it right back down their throats tenfold. I think it’s a really great statement, even if very few people realize it. Rat is a well-adjusted, happy, fun guy and I hope to fuck I’m one-eighth as cool as him when I’m his age.” —WEASEL WALTER
“My first impression of Rat was that he was the ultimate music-head, he was the Byron Coley or Thurston Moore of our town. He used to DJ with 2 DAT tape players in like 1989. He had this huge book of typewritten pages with thousands of songs rated and marked with timecode numbers and a suitcase full of DAT tapes.” —SYD GARON, film director and longtime friend
For the Scraping Teeth reunion tour you asked the promoters in every town you played in to book you with the worst bands in each city.
Yeah, in their opinion.
We were considered a really bad rock band. I wanted to see what each city had to offer as a bad rock band. They did a pretty good job. Some had been playing about a week—they wrote a song like last night. For some, it was the first time they’d ever played. It was amazing. There were some really interesting bands.
Some people would think that’s a really cruel joke. Did the bands know why they were being booked?
Some did, I’m sure. One show was canceled because the bands found out about the setup and they were so upset. They didn’t want to be embarrassed in front of their fans because they were serious, so we booked ourselves somewhere else.
But that makes sense. It’s a mean joke.
I know the owners of the bar, we were all laughing. They go, “We’ll just tell ’em to go to hell.” But I didn’t want them to lose money and I didn’t want to ruin the band’s chances. I don’t want to ruin anyone’s chances.
At what point did you realize that you’re a weirdo for life?
I don’t think I’m weird at all. I think the music is weird. I think my techniques are weird. I think a lot of people I hang out with are weird. I do some stuff that is perceived as “this guy is outta his fuckin’ mind,” but if you listen to what’s actually happening there’s a reason for it. After a while don’t you get tired of listening to sound coming from in front of you? When I design a lot of stuff I’m doing now, I want the sound to come from everywhere.
Do you see it as an attack?
It’s more of a compositional interaction with the audience. If anyone’s getting attacked, it’s usually us.
When did the whole thing with music start?
In high school I was in a band called Myrin and the 2 Wotz. We’d take a really goofy song and try to rewrite the lyrics. It was sorta like punk, but prepunk, really bad versions of popular songs like “Cat Scratch Fever.” The great thing about pop music is no matter how bad you play it, it’s recognizable.
I think that’s your main motif: You take something that started off with a pure intent and ended up going mainstream, then you twist that to make it bad, and then you proliferate it.
Someone tapes two contact mics to two concrete blocks and scrapes ’em together and adds amps and it makes this loud noise like “Whsshkkkk!” And then a week later some jackass goes, “Oh, I could make that sound on a laptop.” And you’re like, Well, OK, to hell with this sound if they could do it on a laptop. So let’s do something else that they can’t do on a laptop. Take the cinder block and hit yourself in the head with it. You can’t do that with a laptop!
Sometimes the stuff that you think is good just isn’t. And most people would agree it is not good.
Right. But I know it’s good because I know where it came from, what it took to make it. It’s all about the vibration. When I do my music, there’s a vibration that’s good. It’s not cheap. You can’t do it on a laptop or using a mixing board. We’re not just tuning frequencies; we’re making dents in something. The sound is being pounded out.
How many recordings do you have at this point?
Oh, I don’t know. In hours? Hundreds and hundreds. I don’t waste my time naming or artistically labeling anything. If I wanted to be a poet I’d move to Easthampton. Everything that Laundry Room Squelchers has recorded is on the internet for free. What, I’m going to sell 100 copies if I’m lucky? I’m trying to keep us out of the self-promotional aspect of things.
What about self-promotion chafes you so much?
If you’re good, people will make a point to come see you and listen to you. Nine times out of ten an artist I’ll stumble on will be much more developed and interesting than some jackass Wire magazine stuck in my face on page 26. So I keep trying to stumble on stuff. And I want people to stumble on my stuff too.
“ I remember one time I was complaining about some 45 RPM single being terrible and Rat told me it wasn’t that the record was bad, it’s just that I didn’t ‘know how to listen to it.’ He told me to listen to it again at 33 +8. Maybe that is the secret of Rat Bastard: It’s not a bunch of noise, you’re just listening to it wrong.” —SYD GARON