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One summer during the early '90s, after I'd moved to New Orleans from Indiana to co-found the primitive rock 'n' roll combo, the Royal Pendletons, with several fellow Midwestern expatriates and one crazy Cajun, we returned to our homeland for a tour that included, among other things, an extended stay at the Hentchmen's Ypsilanti apartment complex, an appearance on an Ann Arbor radio show during which our drunken drummer nearly drove host Wendy Case out of her mind, a late-night gig at the Bank in Detroit (complete with a police raid) and the procurement of a cassette tape that immediately earned permanent rotation in our battery-operated boom box.
It was a live tape of the Trash Brats, and the gig from which it had come — an all-day punk festival in Indianapolis that was our tour's entire raison d'être — had been unforgettable. Under the stewardship of Hoosier punk lords, Sloppy Seconds, the Pendletons shared the stage with everyone from local late night horror host Sammy Terry to underground guitar god Jeff Dahl. But even among this glorious assortment of low-brow company, the Brats stood out, boasting killer power pop hooks and harmonies intersected with riotous lyrics, wailing guitar solos and an undeniable sense of humor. This was the kind of spirited and stylistic rock 'n' roll that hadn't been heard since the glory days of the Dictators, the New York Dolls or Wayne County & the Electric Chairs.
Formed in 1987 by childhood friends Ricky Rat (guitar) and Brian O'Blivian (vocals), the Trash Brats faced a brilliant problem right from the beginning: they just didn't care to fit in. Not quite metal, not quite punk, not quite glam, and not quite pop — yet a striking combination of all of the above (and then some) — their debut at Detroit's legendary Bookies punk club is fondly remembered for its "stage bound bottle missiles, spits of disgust and confusion, and macho grunts of Fuck you!'" that would also pepper their 15-year career. Nevertheless, musical masterpieces like "Teenage Suicide Story" (sung by bassist Toni Romeo), "3873 Marlborough St." and "Downtown Nowhere" just kept on coming, gaining the Brats one of the most fervent followings in the history of Detroit rock 'n' roll. Their upcoming reunion show — the Brats' first since they ceased playing in 2002 — is already heading toward sell-out status, with tickets being snapped up by fans from five different states and counting.
Metro Times: My favorite description of the Trash Brats is "The band for those who had no band to turn to." In the end, do you think that's what gave you such a loyal following?
Ricky Rat: For sure. When you don't have a crowd, you realize you just have to do your thing and hopefully people will dig it. We eventually got our own crowd, which wasn't just a punk crowd or a glam crowd or a metal crowd. It was a blend. Suddenly, we didn't have to worry about what scene to fit into because we were our own little micro scene. I also think if people know they're gonna have a fun time with a band, that's part of the draw right there. Some people might say, "Well, I'm not totally nuts about their sound, but I go there and there's people hanging out and there's girls dancing." I feel that in the Brats, we always had that element: It wasn't a negative thing, it wasn't a hipster "I'm cooler than you" thing. It wasn't an overly punk-rock "you're gonna get beat up in the pit" thing. People knew it was a fun thing. And I can't think of a [modern] band to go see right now where people think, "Wow, that's just a really fun band to see."
MT: Going back to the beginning, you guys really took some hits for being different.
Rat: People might look at pictures of the Trash Brats now and say, "Well, it's not that crazy" or "What's the big deal?" But you always have to put things in context, like remembering we were sometimes playing in front of a skinhead crowd who totally wants to kill us and then having to fight our way out of the club. But I like those extremes — I like the either-loved-or-hated extreme, 'cause when you're just mediocre, that's pretty bad. In fact, that's the worst. There should be no "just OK" in rock, but we're living in the era of "just OK"; everything's OK. Everything's so politically correct that no one's gonna whip a bottle at a bad band. And I'm not saying a band should have a bottle whipped at them — but there is something to be said for those days. Nowadays, everything's almost too sanitary for its own sake.
MT: So would you say that the Trash Brats loved to be hated?
Rat: Oh, yeah. When people are rippin' on you, it's as good as people loving you. That's something that drove the Brats in a lot of ways. Because we knew what we were doing and we enjoyed what we were doing and we weren't trying to cater. That's why we loved — some crowd that was totally adoring just as much as a bunch of stupid crusty punk kids who were flipping us off. That was just as enjoyable, as weird as that sounds. Just knowing you were getting to people that bad — because they weren't flipping you off and then walking out of the bar. They were staying there! I think that's another reason the Brats were such show-offs from the start. We knew it would get people's attention and at some point people would say, "Well these guys aren't just a bunch of clowns. These songs are pretty good." So having an extreme image can work in your favor!
MT: To quote Brian T., one of your most notorious and long-standing fans: "They probably would have made it bigger if it wasn't for their choice in clothing."
Rat: We know that our image did us in a lot, but the thing is we didn't care. Because we liked being flashy. We liked being silly. We didn't take it all seriously. It was almost like we were doing a send-up of all these glam bands. It goes without saying that it wasn't a joke-joke; we were never a parody band. But we weren't saying [assumes suave, deep voice] "Hey, ladies " and being serious about it either. We always noticed that all the hair metal bands were just jocks wearing lipstick; they still had a tough guy attitude whether they wore makeup or not. We were coming from a totally different place — more the Electric Chairs, the New York Dolls, that campy vein. But, of course, a lot of people didn't know that. They'd see the hair and the makeup and say, "Oh, look at this Poison, Mötley Crüe band." Well, did you really listen to the music? Because it doesn't sound anything like that!
MT: What was the most extreme audience reaction that the Trash Brats ever received?
Rat: We opened for Kid Rock once and that was something else! It was a sold-out show at the State Theatre [now the Fillmore] and people were throwing stuff at us. We were throwing beers back at them, jumping off the stage and getting ready to go after them over the barricades — it was out of control. The more we played, the more they hated us. But we played our whole set, we played it right through. This was in '95, a year or two before Kid Rock really blew up nationally, but he was already really huge here. He wasn't even rock rap yet. He was just rap so it was a completely wigger crowd. But we figured there'd be some open-minded kids in this crowd. And we came out and the guy videotaping it is on the stage and within about 30 seconds of the first song, you see this stuff start to fly through the air — whether it's cigarettes or spit or whatever — and there's great shots of him filming the crowd where the kids are just like, "Fuck you, you fuckin' faggots!" and they're just so enraged. There was so much hatred being rained down upon us. And we just loved it because it was like that thing we were talking about — loved or hated, it's still a reaction. And I just don't ever see that anywhere anymore.
MT: Having been around the Detroit music scene for a long time, what do you think of its current state?
Rat: I think Detroit's suffering from a garage rock hipster hangover right now. When the whole garage explosion happened, it was kind of clique-ish and there was some major attitude, especially when the White Stripes happened. A lot of bands who were just starting out seemed to be going for the golden ring, stepping over one another. It was really weird. And in my experience, Detroit was never like that [in the past]. Sure, once every couple of years, a band would get signed, be on a label and get dropped. But all of a sudden, [Detroit] was in the national spotlight. Meanwhile, the Brats were in our last years and none of that scene really accepted us, other than the people we were already friends with who were in it to begin with.
MT: The irony of it all is that, for all intents and purposes, the Trash Brats debuted on the groundbreaking local compilation It Came from the Garage back in 1986!
Rat: That was our first recording, back when we were called just Brat! But when the scene really took hold, I always thought that for it being rooted in such fun music, it became more of a "hipster" or "cool" person hangout. Our crowds were fun, out-of-control people who didn't care what your hair looked like. Up until then. Detroit never had a clique-ish attitude to it. Now that that stuff has calmed down, I think that things are better. But think about it. Two of the bands that led the way, in my opinion, were the Demolition Doll Rods and Rocket 455. When the shift happened, it seemed like those two bands were kind of buried, even though Rocket had already broken up. I remember going to see Rocket when there were people there and telling our circle of friends, "You've got to see this band." We would put them on Brats bills; we did one of our CD release shows with them. We didn't care whether some of our crowd got them or not. We still wanted them on the bill. We were similar yet different but it made sense because it was all rock 'n' roll.
MT: Have you seen any particularly inspiring bands in Detroit lately?
Rat: The other band playing our reunion show, besides Bootsey X & the Love Masters, is a young local band. They're called Lies Unknown — and you talk about being outside of the scene! I don't think they've barely ever played at the Magic Stick or the Lager House. They play oddball places like the Hayloft and the New Ritz — they're like in their own scene. And because they're young, they're mainly doing all-ages things. They're a four-piece and the main singer-guitar player is this kid named Justin Alexander, who, in my opinion, is one of the most talented kids I've ever seen. He's 20 now — he might be the oldest in the band — but when I first saw him, he was 17 and I just couldn't believe how good he could play.
I gotta be honest and say I grew partial right away because the kid found me on MySpace a few years ago and when I looked at his page, he was all into Teenage Head, the Dead Boys, the Trash Brats — this kid's 17 and yet he knows this stuff, you know? At the time, he had a punk band called the White Lies and he told me, "You have to come out and see us. We're playing this [college] hall party and we're covering a Trash Brats song." So me and my girlfriend go to this hall party, we're the oldest people there — and these 17-year old-kids come out and they did two covers: "Pirate Love" by [Johnny Thunders'] Heartbreakers and a Trash Brats song, "Hungry Eyeballs." It was nuts!
They're so polished already — to some people they might be too polished or too professional. But I like stuff like that, harmonies and just boom! It's all there. These kids are that good already. All the Brats stuff aside — them being fans and all — I'm really impressed with them. And they just keep getting better every time I see them. They actually have a following too. I went to one of their shows recently and there were at least 40 or 50 people in front of the stage, almost all of them were girls and they were singing along with the lyrics to their songs!
MT: It's amazing how many really good young bands there are in Detroit right now: the Pizzazz, the Smashed Windows, the Displays you can't say that about other cities.
Rat: Well, I'm not a White Stripes fan at all. Never was. But I give credit to them. Here was a band, and they were from here and they were huge so it was real acceptable to kids. And I think it got a lot of kids away from potentially being rappers or playing guitar hero or whatever. Raw garage is like raw punk — pick up a guitar, bang on it, anyone can do it. I think it inspired a lot of kids and the majority of them are so good I wasn't like that at 17.
MT: Yet you were writing killer songs like "3873 Marlborough St." Care to elaborate on that Trash Brats classic?
Rat: That's about an old band house and every word of it is true. We moved into this house with a friend of a friend 'cause we were just out of high school and we needed to live somewhere where we could rehearse the band. We were just getting started. So me and Brian moved in there with this guy who turned out to be a junkie. It was a pretty eye-opening experience. Here we are, fresh out of high school, kids from the suburbs — living with a junkie! People used to ask us about that song, "That's not really true, is it?" No, that's all true!
MT: Speaking of the old days, [Brats vocalist] Brian O'Blivian was telling me that the drummer you're working with on the reunion has a long history with you guys.
Rat: Troy [Toma, aka T.T. Bar] was in the band for a few years, from '90 to '91, but he's also an old childhood friend of me and Brian's, and the first person we ever played music with. So it's kind of come full circle. We're doing a second reunion show in Indianapolis on New Year's Eve with Sloppy Seconds and he's going to play that show with us too. So we're really looking forward to it.
MT: The Trash Brats and Sloppy Seconds in Indianapolis, now that's full circle!
Rat: I'm so glad that the Sloppy guys are still going! We've been friends with them for almost 20 years now! They did so much for us, putting us on those bills. They're true lovers of the music too, as you know — look at those bills and who they would put on with them. And their instincts were usually right on too. The kids who came out were into it because it was all high energy stuff. We ended up getting a really big following in Indiana on our own and that started from us playing with Sloppy Seconds. Talk about an underrated band!
MT: When the pop punk scene exploded in the '90s, it seemed that a lot of those bands were just a diluted version of what the Trash Brats and Sloppy Seconds had been doing all along.
RAT: Well, as far as marketing goes, we probably could have aimed it somewhere. But we didn't want to do that. We just felt that if this stuff is good enough, and enough people like it, that's what it takes. Some of our favorite bands of all time are bands that never really were that big. But it doesn't make the music or anything else any less meaningful. We felt we had something going between the music, the personalities and the show. It sounds cocky but we knew we were different and we knew we were special. We were kind of bullheaded. We had people that said, "You should drop your image." But what are you gonna do? It was the '90s so were we gonna wear flannels and combat boots? That just wasn't us.
Change is fine if you do it for yourself. But if you change for other reasons than yourself, it's wrong. I can't go watch a band of guys staring at their shoes with baseball caps on. From the time I got into music, KISS was my favorite band — so that influenced me toward the idea that when you're onstage, you put on a show. And that's how everybody in the band felt. It was just natural. We got misunderstood for that too. People said, "Oh, they suck as musicians. They can't really play. They're just going up there making spectacles of themselves." Well, are people having fun? Are people coming to the shows?
MT: What are you looking forward to most about the reunion?
Rat: We just want to inject a night of fun back into Detroit where people are going to enjoy the songs, enjoy the show, enjoy the crowd and enjoy one another. Again, I just think fun never goes out of style and if people are going to go some place where they know they're going to have fun, that's the key. After all, rock 'n' roll is supposed to be fun at its very core. And this is gonna be the fun show of the year, if I may say so myself. All false modesty aside, it's gonna be a blast!
The Trash Brats play Tuesday. Dec. 23, at Small's, 10339 Conant, Hamtramck; 313-873-1117. With Bootsey X & the Love Masters and Lies Unknown. For tickets go to smallsbardetroit.com.
This is the full transcript of the interview.
Michael Hurtt writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.