Drummer Rat Scabies, who seems to always be involved with multiple projects, took time out from his busy schedule to discuss two of his latest releases: Sparkle, the debut album from The Sinclairs, a wild, stoner-esque, two-man instrumental ensemble, which came out in early-May on Cleopatra Records; and the next installment from Professor And The Madman, Séance, whose release date is not yet set. He also dives a bit into the early days of the first wave of English punk and his monumental tenure as drummer for The Damned.
Let’s talk about Sparkle first. How did this even come about, the whole project?
Well, I met Billy Shinbone [nee Jesse Budd of Flipron] quite a few years ago. When I used to own a recording studio, he came in, this impoverished musician and asked me how much time he could buy for a hundred bucks. So, it ended up, three years later, five years later, we were still working together. We were just sitting around one day, and he said, “I’ve always wanted to do a kind of instrumental guitar kind of surfy record with you.” So, it was like, well, why not because I always liked the way he thinks and I like his ideas, and he’s one of the nicest people on the planet anyway. So it was, “Sure, let’s give it a go.” At first it didn’t really work. It was weird. It sounded just like two blokes who could play a bit, which was all it was, and then we kind of started introducing weird synths and other instruments. And I realized my lack of musicianship really works sometimes because you can play some notes that aren’t really right but actually they are, and you end up with kind of more of an unnerving quality. All of the sudden we had this sort of direction that emerged. We were kind of quite sweet and melodic and ‘50s sounding but with kind of a tip of the hat to synthesizers and discordancy.
Right. I was gonna mention that you have a lot of different cool sounds and feelings going on—0therworldly and some spaghetti Western-type stuff. It’s just what came out naturally and not thinking too much?
Here’s the thing. The notes that we played were really totally dependent on the theme of the tune because there are no lyrics. It was just the melody line was just what the song would be about if somebody was writing. For me it was kind of quite a bit of a head trip really because [it was like,] “this really reminds me of flying saucers, I wonder if I can get any flying saucer noises.” And it was a real fun thing. We’re not looking at this as a career move. We’re looking at this as a record that was going to be a fun experience. And Jesse, I love him dearly but when I worked with him before with his previous band, he’s quite anal about where things go and how things sound and there should be a proper ending. And I was just like, “Jesse, you’ve done all that. Let’s take a walk on the wild side. Get random.” And it kinda works in a way. You have to sift through a lot of stuff to make it work, but you can make it work.
You mentioned fun. Just listening to it, it sounds like you guys had a lot of fun putting it together and just exploring…
There’s no point if there’s no fun. Anybody can be miserable. That’s really easy. The real problem is financial. Would I love to do that again? Would I like to try something more experimental but I can’t quite afford it. But luckily in the century we’re in, it’s kind of much easier. I mean, the turnaround point on this album was when Jesse arrived at my house with a 30 quid synthesizer, and some old bass organ pedals he found in a swap meet or a junk shop or something. So, you’re in a position where you couldn’t actually program or control it so you had to play it instinctively as an instrument and then go through and decide what works and what didn’t afterwards. So, it’s a very creative place to have to be. And that was sort of just done in my living room, with kids coming up and pulling on my trouser leg and demanding food and crisps and things, wearing a pair of headphones. But actually, all of those things add up to the end result, so it was fun. We laughed a lot while we made this record.
Well, that’s good. And even that you’re involved with so many different projects, so it was a different type of thing… A different type of approach? Or not really… [Laughs]
Well, I kind of play the way I play. I pretty much do the same thing on every record, just at different speeds. I’ve been playing for so long that much of what I do is instinctive now rather than how I used to be which was trying to structure what I was gonna do and working out things for every riff. And you just get to a point where you learn that the best process is to listen to what’s going on around you as opposed to being self-conscious about what you’re doing yourself, if that makes sense. And that way you can actually be a part of what’s going on rather than something that doesn’t always necessarily fit in because you’ll become too focused on your own critique I suppose or what other drummers will think of you. [Laughs] That’s sort of my philosophy at the moment, not to really try very hard. [Laughs]
So back in the day was it more like that, where you were thinking about what people would think?
Yeah, it was always a lot more structured. The thing with punk rock was there was a lot of criticism aimed at it about its lack of musicianship and its lack of ability, which was kind of very true in a lot of ways, but that sort of lack of musicianship and that lack of ability, really kind of came around and made you very aware you kind of wanted to get it right but on your own terms. So that was—you sort of made sure you had it right, the dynamics were there and you worked a bit harder. But that wasn’t until 1978. [Laughs]
Right. Yeah, but even you then, when did you start playing drums?
Personally? Or with The Damned?
I was about eight years old. It’s not a decision any 8-year-old should make but I decided I wanted to be a drummer. So, I nagged and I nagged, and I finally got a drum kit and I broke it. Then they got me another one. And then I just kept on trying. And kept on trying. I got lucky, I guess. I managed to end up in a band. I never thought I’d ever make a record. I never really thought I’d have my name in the papers or I never really thought I’d be on tour and playing the places that I played. So, it was kinda like I always put it as when you don’t have anything to lose, you can only win. I just didn’t really think anything was ever gonna happen with me in terms as a musician, so everything was like a bonus, and everything that happened was kind of a good point. It was always a plus. I wish I was a bit smarter to appreciate it properly, though.
Oh man. It must’ve been a whirlwind, to be at that place at that time…
The thing, with the benefit of hindsight, it was marvelous. But really at the time you were just getting through every day like we do now. You just keep going with what you’re doing and hope it gets better. Or hope something that happens is good.
Like you said just looking in hindsight it’s crazy what [the initial wave of punk] became. The whole revolution that it brought…
And you know what? It was never meant to be that. Nobody ever sat down and planned anything like that. It was only ever—it really was kind of a bunch of misfit kids. We were given guidance and a direction and encouragement from the older generation, I’ll say that much. There were people around, the Malcoms [McLaren, Sex Pistols manager] and Jake Rivieras [Stiff Records head and Damned manager], people who kind of encouraged what we were and understood how youth revolution and the importance of it worked. And I think that was really vital. I don’t think we would’ve done it as kids on the street. I think we were lucky that people understood what was going on, the sort of frustration we had. But what it’s become is something else. Like you say, revolution. It was like, really? [Laughter] I didn’t really notice it. It was a very slow thing as I remember. There was still a lot of King Crimson fans out there who didn’t really accept everything we did. The majority of music fans at the time were heavy Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
You’d get harassed for having short hair or something.
Well, yeah. The funny thing is, it was sort of the next generation that took to punk. It was the younger brothers that didn’t really necessarily want to be into what their siblings were into, or the other people who were dictating what was fashionable. The next generation wanted a voice. The only way that voice could emerge properly was to be the complete antithesis of everything that had come before. That’s exactly what we did. It was about dressing cheap and looking good.
But also like you said you started playing drums when you were eight. What about just getting into the first wave of this new—sorry, I’m going there. I’m on the phone with you so I have to. How about even getting into the scene in the first place?
You mean the punk scene?
That was a piece of cake. That didn’t take much doing at all. The thing is I was really frustrated with everything that was going on. I had too much energy. I got thrown out of local bands because I decided I wanted to play fast songs. I wanted to make a lot of noise and that wasn’t what they wanted. When I hooked up with [guitarist] Brian James, it was like finding this absolute kindred spirit. So, it was kind of something I already was, if you know what I mean. I didn’t really work at being me, it just was. I had trouble fitting everywhere else. Then to suddenly discover a small group of people that were the same kind of misfit that I was, so it was easy to be a part of that. We were all the same in a lot of ways, everyone came from broken backgrounds—poverty, and not really being into what was going on around us. And fed up with decadent rock stars. Things like that. Fleetwood Mac had spent two years in the studio making their album, I can’t remember which one it was. Two fucking years! You know, we had two days [laughs]. When you observe things like Emerson, Lake & Palmer going on tour with three trucks with one of them for each member of the band with their names written on the side, you just go, “You know what? I don’t really enjoy that. And, you know, I don’t really enjoy their records very much, either.” And none of those groups really had anything to do with me. Then suddenly there I was with a group of people that we all agreed on those same things. We were kind of aware of the MC5 and The Stooges. Lou Reed was a big noise. And the fact that he was incredibly unpopular with the modern—as it was then—the modern music scene because he sang flat, his songs were simple, and everyone just regarded him as this heroin addict who got a record deal. Whereas today people rejoice in the simplicity and the honesty of what he did. But at the time it was people like Lou Reed and The Stooges, it carried a bit more identity and the realization you weren’t the only one that thought that way.
And like you said, it was getting so decadent. This is just me reading books and, “Oh, it was going back to the two-minute rock songs without the excessive guitar solos…”
Yes, there we go.
I mean, Cream. God bless them they were really brilliant at being Cream, but dude, do you really need a 20-minute drum solo? And I love the drums. But it was all about virtuosity and self-indulgence. And the thing is we weren’t that and we weren’t capable of being that, really. So, for us it was, well, you know what? [Laughs] We could just play that whole thing in three minutes, because we couldn’t get any further.
Then just thinking about your first album [1977’s Damned Damned Damned]with the whole [cover] photo. [Laughs] Yeah, this is what we’re doing. It’s so funny even now, you know what I mean? And just having fun.
There you go. Again, the whole thing of every other band in the world looks good. And here was a complete destruction of image and glamour. The thing with The Damned was, I don’t really include myself in this, but it wasn’t a bad-looking band. So, to take Dave Vanian who is an obvious kind of pin-up and an obvious kind of sexy sort of guy and Brian James, the same sort of thing, to take that and destroy that was a much more important statement. Because we could have them looking good any time. But actually, it was much more fun to sort of say, “You know what? We don’t need to do that because we’ve already got it.” But that also sounds quite arrogant. [Laughs]
Was this true? I forget where I read it, but people thought in the beginning that you guys sped up the tapes. “People can’t play that fast.” Was that real?
It was real they said that? I played those songs.
Of course! No, I mean was it real that people had that thought.
Oh yeah. We were also accused of being able to play [laughs]. And we were cheating—not that we were a proper group. We just did our best. And we could play good compared to the others. But we weren’t ever going to put King Crimson out of a job.
So, people thought that too. OK, so, anyway, a little more about The Sinclairs, do you see it as a one-off thing or you might do more or it’s up in the air…
Well, we discussed the difference between having some fun and a career move. I said to Jesse I don’t really wanna have a career out of anything at the moment unless it was really worth doing. So, we kind of decided between us if there’s enough interest in it and if people want to see more of it or hear more of it, we can easily go in and make another album. But we don’t really want to do that whole playing in a lot of small clubs and bars, mind you with Coronavirus we might not have a chance. It’s just we’ve both been doing it for quite a long time. And the thought of going out for not much money and not very much else going on. We do things that are special and interesting or unique. We don’t really plan to ram it down everyone’s throats. But we will this week [laughs]. It comes out this week. Perhaps I should have answered that differently and said, “Yeah, I see a really bright future for the band.” […] We get on really well. We enjoy working together We love the record. We’ve got loads of other songs and things we wanna do. It’s kind of likely we will carry on. But it’s about money and how much it costs to make a record. We don’t really wanna be vanity publishing. We’d rather be able to make enough money where it’s self-sufficient.
I did see the one show you were set to play is Rebellion, but who even knows if that’s going to happen! It’s crazy.
I know. It’s so frustrating. We’re a new band and there’s only two of us so I said we should try to put on more of a spectacular show. We had giant locust puppets planned and sort of magic tricks onstage and things, just to make it cool for people watching because it’s quite a stoner sound we’ve got. So, we should put on an old-fashioned Pink Floyd stoner show. It’s a real shame because we found puppeteers who were going to do some really cool things. There were going to be hands floating across the stage to play the guitar solos. It was just gonna be more of a one-off event that people would remember, because it’s the only one we’ve got—or had. So, it’s a real shame if that doesn’t go. To be honest with you, we’re working on it now. We’re trying to do something else that might be good. So, we may be up to doing something at a venue that may have things going on, and get it broadcast or something. If Rebellion doesn’t happen, then maybe I’m quite optimistic and maybe with the lockdown lifting then people can go into studios and do shows and stream it. So, I’m hoping there might be a way of that going on. They’re saying in the news today that there’s not going to be any festivals any time soon at least. Technology has to kick in here, in a way. So, we’re working on it and thinking about what we can do to try to make up for it. Yeah, that’s life.
Yeah, like the one around here, Punk Rock Bowling, they rescheduled for next year. In the beginning they thought in the fall, but now it’s next year.
Yeah, they do it every year anyway. I’ve been to that a couple of times. I love it. PRB. […] That’s kind of the link to Professor And The Madman, the California punk scene. I can’t remember the brothers that run Punk Rock Bowling…
Oh yeah, Youth Brigade, the Sterns.
They’re from Orange County, which is where Professor And The Madman are from. It’s another part of America where I spent a lot of time, so that’s kind of how I met up with those guys.
Yes, this is a good transition. [Laughs] So I actually interviewed [vocalist/guitarist/keyboardist] Alfie [Agnew] for the last record, Disintegrate Me, and that was great. And you and [former Damned bassist] Paul [Gray] were on it. But you didn’t record together. You each did your own thing.
Here’s the thing: they asked me if I’d play on the album and I said yes and did the drum parts, and they all sounded really good. And because they’re such big Damned fans, they went, “We want Paul Gray to play bass on this as well,” and I just thought, well, that’s a real shrewd idea. So, I thought it was good anyway. And the thing is, modern recording, you very rarely sit in a room with the musicians anyway. So, even though we didn’t record together, yes, we are playing together. I’d forgotten what a good bass player he was as well. We did do a live show in London at the 100 Club. That was really good because I played with Paul, there was a lot of water under the bridge so a lot of that was all kind of forgotten. Everything was very positive about the whole thing. I really like the records I made with those guys.
I haven’t gotten to hear the new one, I haven’t gotten the promo, I don’t know about you…
No, I haven’t heard the finished thing yet, just the first track.
So, I’m just saying that last one was so good, so many different sounding songs. I liked that a lot.
Yeah, some great dynamics going on with it. And the thing is, they [Alfie and vocalist/guitarist Sean Elliott] do write some great tunes. They’re both really talented. It was kinda weird playing live with them because I didn’t know which one did what. So, I didn’t know who did the vocals and who did the guitar parts. It was interesting. Working with them on the live thing was good because they really are a double act. They really do promote each other’s strengths and cover the other guy’s weaknesses. And it’s like falling off a log playing those tunes because they’re very Damned inspired.
Yes, that’s what [Alfie] had mentioned. [They] were so inspired by the Damned, it would be amazing [to get] Rat and Paul. He mentioned that he met you one time in California and started talking about it and you were into it.
Well, it was worse than that. It was around January and we were in Costa Mesa. And we don’t do this in England but in America you have these parties with terrible Christmas jumpers with reindeer… So, I went to this bar and there was about 30 people in there wearing these fucking horrible garments. It was like a yuletide nightmare. And Professor And The Madman were playing, and of course we got talking and they invited me up to play a tune so we played a song. It was kinda just funny, surreal. Just imagine being in this cheesy bar and all these awful jumpers with people with their camera phones out. And these guys played “Smash It Up,” and they played it perfect. It was like, “You can do this.” So, then they called me the next day and invited me down to Alfie’s place where he has a small studio and we did a track, and it just went on from there really.
And then did you do this [new album] similarly to last time where they had most of the songs written and you add your skills to it?
Well, kind of. Actually, what happens after a few recording sessions, they give me less and less [directives] now. [Laughs] “Here you go, Rat, you know what to do.” I like working in that way because I get a lot of freedom. Sometimes you work with other artists and they try to program you and they say I want you to do this bit here and I want you to do this bit there. And it’s like you don’t want me to play. If you get me to play on your record it’s because of the way I do things and you have confidence in my instincts. And if my instincts are wrong and wrong for the tune then I fucked up and I didn’t get it right. You don’t hire me if you don’t want my ideas on your record. So, after a certain amount of recording with them, they’re like, “Yeah, go on Rat, we don’t really need to worry about you too much.” [Laughs] “We’ll just let you go on with it.” I tend to get vocal lines and lyrics like [singing in garbled melodies], they just put down vague ideas. It’s really good, it works for me, because it gives me great freedom.
They come with the song structure but I didn’t know if even the vocals were done. But they add that after, then.
Well, some of it yeah. I’ve always been a guitarist’s drummer, so I always play with the guitar as opposed to the bass. So that’s why me and Paul are kind of unique. I’m not quite sure who he plays with but I’m definitely not playing with him. [Laughs] But somehow I think we let the guitars take us to what we’re supposed to be doing, so that’s how that sort of works out.
So, was it cool when they brought him in too? Or what?
I thought it was a very smart business move because it’d be interesting hearing me and Paul working together. But also on an artistic level it works so well because he’s such a good bass player. Yeah, I thought it was good all around. It made the record better, and it made the whole thing. It healed a few things, and we got on, and it was nice.