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Chewing on You: An Interview with The Damned's Rat Scabies

The Damned were there at the beginning. They’re probably still on your bedroom wall.

With ‘New Rose’ (their ‘deathless anthem of nuclear-strength romantic angst’) and then ‘Damned Damned Damned’, they were the first gang on wax. Progenitors of punk, grand guignol goths and more besides. Behind the stool, Rat Scabies was laying down the tempo for an entire generation.

In 2018 he’s still hitting, still writing and has evolved into an unlikely renaissance man - with a slew of bands under his belt, a starring turn in the book ‘Rat Scabies and the Holy Grail’, a line of boutique cigar box guitars, and the release of a long-in-gestation solo album P.H.D. – Prison. Hospital. Debt (out now through Cleopatra Records). Careening wildly from genre to genre the album encompasses punk rock angles, glam rock stomp, breezy Americana slide and rising psychedelia into a surprisingly coherent and wickedly fun musical jaunt that is one of the true surprises of the year.

Suitably knocked sideways, I called Rat to talk about the new album, aliens, Atlantis and therapeutic afternoons on the porch. Wiser and more wizened, Rat peppers the conversation with a brilliant sly cackle that speaks of a man who has both seen and been many things.

I wanted to start with the new album. I wasn’t sure what to expect but it’s a really entertaining record. Very ambitious!

Ambitious in what way? (laughs).

In the number of instruments you play and the range you cover musically. There’s a whole bunch of different stuff going on there. How long did it take you to get it together?

It was stuff I was working on since the 80's and never had an outlet for. Either the band wasn’t working or it was just something that would be a pet project for me. A lot of times I’d be sitting upstairs in my studio or whatever, get an idea for a tune and then just elaborate on it - then I'd realise I didn’t really have anywhere to put it, so all the songs just sat on the shelf. It continued with songs I was writing pretty much up until the last minute. In fact, the week the album was due to be cut, I was still trying to put songs on it and change it. So really, it covers a period of time from the 80’s right up until now.

With you playing so many different instruments on it, how did you approach the recording? Did you have a vision for each piece before you began or was it more a case of building up more of a musical collage?

Just layering and doing a collage really. Inspiration comes from some funny places sometimes. It's nice when you wind up in a place you’re not used to being - that’s when it’s good fun. You start out with just a drum fill, then at the end of it you’ve kind of ended up with this whole piece of music that you never really knew you had in you.

The title 'PHD' references prison, hospital and debt. Those three in tandem are surely the ultimate education, right? What’s your best story about each?

(Laughs) Well, they’re the things that were running around in my head at the time and it was because of that I was thinking that I should be doing more with myself. I hadn’t picked up a guitar in a while, and that was really the only place I could escape to. Does that make sense? You know when you’ve just got a lot of stuff going on around you that you don’t like very much and none of it is good news? But there was always one thing I could do, which was mess around with music and try to make up a tune that I could feel good about. So, that’s where that title came from. I also just kinda liked the idea of a PHD, the supposition that you’re talking about your education and your education consists of those three things.

The variety on display on the record really isn’t surprising, considering that with The Damned you reached a bit wider than some of your contemporaries. Was that a conscious effort to prove yourself as more than just another three-chord band, or was it just something that was entirely natural?

It was very natural but also conscious. We were always aware of what our worst critics were saying - ‘Oh, they’re just a typical punk band, they don’t really do anything else’ - but it was just a natural progression and a way of moving forward. I think the criticism made us play with dynamics a lot more and realise how that could be applied to make things better. We only ever really made the records that we liked, with the ideas we had and the way we felt. There was never really that much preconception about what we were going to do next, but we did know what the parameters of doing that were.

Did you feel any sense of camaraderie with your contemporaries, or were you determined to do your own thing and forge your own path?

Well of course we knew The Clash, Pistols, Stranglers, Jam and all those guys. We were always on first name terms with them, but there was always a kind of whole ethic that would kick into gear where, say, if The Clash covered all their gear in paint, that was something we wouldn’t be doing. It was that whole thing of ‘we’re not the same’, even though we actually kind of were. We tried to be as individual as possible.

Can you touch upon the prevailing mood at the time of the band's inception? The factors that made the music seem so necessary and vital?

I mean it was kinda weird, 'cause people would release an album and there would maybe be one track on it you liked, and the rest of it you didn’t. The next thing would be that you would realise that you couldn’t compete with that kind of Jeff Beck musicianship or that technical thing that Emerson Lake & Palmer and King Crimson had. It didn’t matter how much I practiced in my room, I was never going to be able to compete with those guys. I think the essential ingredient of punk was people just turning around and saying ‘Fuck that! I can’t do that, but I can do this! And if no-one likes it, at least I’m doing what I wanna do'. That was the attitude I had about it anyway.

One of the highlights on the new record for me is ‘Floydian Slip’ and there’s a connection there, as you guys worked with Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason on the Music for Pleasure album right? That was certainly out of left field and you copped a lot of shit for it at the time...

He was really cool. He didn’t interfere in any way at all. The band was beginning to become a bit fragmented and we didn’t have very much live material. We were quite troublesome but Nick steered us through pretty well. He let us do our own thing, he didn’t make us try and sound like the Floyd or anything. I think our only regret about it is that everyone wishes we’d made the record a bit more psychedelic, but I think there’s so much going on with it anyway - it probably wouldn’t have ended up working. I’ve tried imaging it but I have trouble.

The track itself (Floydian Slip) obviously references extra-terrestrial sightings or encounters. Have you ever had any experiences of that nature yourself?

Yup (laughs).

Do tell!

Well there’s not really a short version of it. I spend quite a lot of time in Phoenix, Arizona. Area 51 isn’t far away and you have those big, clear desert skies. Nearly everyone that lives in that town sees stuff that doesn’t really have an explanation.

There was one time I sitting in the living room of the place I was staying… you see, the trouble with this stuff is if you tell people what happened it sounds like you’re a fucking nutcase (laughs). But I swear, I was with the guitar player of the band I was staying with at the time and this small black sphere, about the size of a squash ball, floated down the stairs at quite high speed, buzzed around the kitchen damaging everything, then back out up the stairs and away again at high speed.

It was one of those things that was such an outrageous event that we were both pretty gobsmacked about whether it had even happened. If it hadn’t been for the fact that the two us had seen the same thing, you’d put it down to some kind of marijuana induced incident (laughs). So that was one of the strangest things that happened. I never reported it or anything like that, but there’s a lot of stuff buzzing around out there in the sky that’s a mystery.

You’ve always had an eye for the mystical and the otherworldly, which kind of ties into your other passion which is the Holy Grail. That originated with your father right?

Yeah, it came from my parents really. My father was a wonderful atheist who devoted his life to researching the one percent of things that don’t add up or make sense. I had this whole broad left field influence when I was growing up, and a part of that was things like Atlantis and the Holy Grail and all these legends. Where do they come from? What are they based on and is there any element of truth to these stories? And if there is, can you find it? I find it quite fascinating, but at the same time I’m very rational about it. I don’t ‘believe’ in things like ghosts or fairies, but I like to observe and see if they're proven to me. Show me something that I can scratch a window with and say ‘Well, I’ve taken that leap of faith and seen it with my own eyes’.

Aside from music, you've been working on some other projects too. Can you tell us a little about the cigar box guitars and amps you've been making? I can imagine you used them a lot on the slide parts on the record, for example.

Oh yeah, anything that’s a slide is pretty much those; I think they’re probably on about four or five tracks on the album. I started making them when my son came home one day with a cigar box, and I just happened to have a piece of wood that was the right length for a neck and some old machine heads. I remembered the stories of how the delta bluesmen and people who didn’t have music shops, pianos or any money to buy guitars made their own instruments.

I just find it incredibly therapeutic because I can kind of problem-solve and work things out on them, like where the middle is, what’s the best place to have the bridge and that kind of thing. I’d never been good at any of that practical shit at school. I’d barely done woodwork or anything, so all of a sudden I was doing something I’d never really done before and that was good. When I showed the guitar to somebody they gave me three more boxes and said ‘Make me some!'. I made those, then some other people saw those and said ‘Can I have them?'. It all kinda grew from there. It’s something I like doing on a nice afternoon. I can kind of just sit, have a beer and make a guitar.

I have to ask… My favourite show of all time is 'The Young Ones' and obviously you guys were one of the most memorable guests on that show. I actually heard that the shift in tone and image that preceded the Phantasmagoria record was inspired by the horror get-up you wore when performing ‘Nasty’ on the show…

Totally! We realised that what we’d done on that show was what the Damned needed to be doing. At that point the Captain (Sensible) was doing ‘Happy Talk’, and doing very well in the wonderful whacky world of the Captain. We had a bit of an issue with record labels where they weren’t that keen on the Captain and Dave (Vanian) being on the same stage, because it was two different contrasting images I guess. So when we did that show, I looked at it and said ‘this is too good to ignore really’. I used to describe it as selling Vanian by the pound (laughs).

Yeah I still see a lot of people walking around with that hairstyle today…

The Pepe LePew look!

Has Barry Ryan ever thanked you for any royalties off the back of your cover of Eloise?

Nah, but he probably should do (laughs).

You also do a lot of spoken word engagements where you must be asked a lot about the original punk scene and the 70’s. I was interested to know what you thought about how that period has been kind of mythologised in the press. As someone who lived it first-hand do you see these gigs as an opportunity to set the record straight and demystify it somewhat?

No, not really. Setting the record straight is an impossible thing, and who’s record is it anyway that you’re trying to set? It’s not like I’m up there preaching, saying ‘Oh I invented punk rock and I never got the credit' (laughs). But I can talk to people about what I was going through and what happened to me at the time, and how it was seen and viewed.

I think part of the mythology of it is the idea that, with punk rock, the whole world changed overnight - but it didn’t. It really wasn’t very popular with other musicians. The old guard musicians didn’t like us very much, the media didn’t like us very much. There was maybe one journalist at each paper that would give us some time and write about us, but other than that we didn’t really set the world on fire. It’s only now that it’s built that kind of credibility for itself.

It must actually be nice to be talking about new record again.

Yeah, but it's hard work! There’s lots of talking about why I did it, and now I have to figure it out and ask myself ‘Why did I do that?’ (laughs). It’s okay, but it wasn’t really a thing I expected to do. I didn't make the record as a career move. It’s out there and if people like it, then so much the better - but I’m not thinking to myself ‘Oh great, I’m going to be able to by myself a Tesla from this'.

Are you thinking of doing any shows in support of the record?

No, not at the moment. The record company are asking me to do it but I’m not sure if I really want to. I don’t know. I’m still thinking it over but I’m not 100%.

You’d certainly have no shortage of people who’d want to play with you. You’ve played with so many people over the years from Lemmy to Donovan. Is there any collaboration you’d like to see that hasn’t happened yet?

I’m trying to desperately think of someone I would like to work with, but I don’t know. I play the drums and if I have a bass player and a guitar player that feel inspired, then that’s enough. They don’t necessarily have to be famous to be good. But what they do well is pretend to be famous I’ll grant you that!

I’ve just been recording a new album with a band called The Mutants which is the fourth record we’ve made together. It’s been pretty cool and I’ve really enjoyed doing it. I’ve also been working with a Californian band called Professor and the Madmen who have just released an album. It’s quite odd in a way, 'cause I put the drums down and then they got Paul Gray (former member of the Damned) to play the bass - so that was odd 'cause we hadn’t appeared on a record together since the 80’s.

But it's nice to be in the studio and wind up with something you like listening to once you’ve done it. Now when I’m cooking the dinner, I’ll put on one of the records and feel pretty good about it. I’ll be honest with you, it’s all about self-appeasement. I love being proud of the music I make; it’s all pretty self-indulgent, really. I do the occasional thing just for the money, but then again it’s often as a favour. Generally speaking, I don’t wanna do it if I can’t listen to it afterwards and feel good about it. When I have friends come around, I want to be able to put it on and go ‘What do you think of this? It’s my new album!'.

I love the way the new album takes so many turns stylistically, like it’s taking you to strange new places and then the way the last three tracks kind of ease you out of the experience, and have a coherency to them that bookends the whole thing.

The whole record is like a journey - every track sort of delivers you someplace you weren’t quite expecting to be. If I’d have written a whole load of bollocks, like some kind of two bob story, I could have passed it off as a concept album, but I wasn’t smart enough to put that one together (laughs).

Maybe next time.

Maybe next time.

P.H.D, the first-ever solo album from Rat Scabies, is available now.

Pre-order the album via Bandcamp.

Pre-order the CD and LP via Cleopatra Records.

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