The three members of RT & the 44s sit inside RT Valine’s farm house drinking whiskey at 12:30 PM. Perched on a steep, hidden Highland Park hilltop, RT tends his chickens and goats and busks around town with his band for a living. On this particularly dry and sunny February Saturday, the band will continue leisurely emptying a bottle until nighttime, then play the final set at the Echo Country Outpost. RT has a voice reminiscent of Johnny Cash. Swimmy plays the washboard and Brendan plays a standup bass made from a washtub, a drum head, and a few nuts and bolts. The band’s country bar sing-alongs stir up devils, toddlers and grandmas alike. This interview by Daiana Feuer.
Did your common fashion sense play a part in the band coming together?
RT Valine (vocals, wood ‘n’ wire): I think it’s ‘old shit.’ We play instruments cobbled together out of garbage and wardrobes cobbled together out of garbage. This was my gay uncle’s jacket. [To Swimmy] Did your lady get you that one?
Michael ‘Swimmy’ Webb (washboard): I found this one up in Arrowhead at the Pendleton store.
Brendan Willard (banjobass): I stole this vest from a 3-year-old’s birthday party. It was a dress-up theme. I think the buttons are elk.
How is ‘old shit’ new again?
BW: Old shit’s been happening for a while but we noticed that the response became much easier. We’re the perfect band for the recession. We’re not going to turn anyone away because their guitar only has two strings on it. We’re probably more inclined to invite them to play with us.
RV: I like that about folk music or whatever this whole thing might be. It’s inclusive. You’re trying to involve people, and that’s where it gets special. You’re not just playing to other musicians. You’re playing to people that aren’t necessarily interested in hearing something exclusive. Maybe that’s what is refreshing. If it is connecting with people, maybe it’s because it’s simple and basic and dictated by the parameters of being flat out broke. Can’t get crazy with a Korg and make beats when you’re somewhat limited by finances. They hear the music that’s being processed in music factories and it’s nice when someone can take it back to a little more basic, and experiment with that.
Where you get your microphone cans?
RV: You can make a microphone out of a can and a little Piezo transducer with a sprickler. Trying to bring DIY to every element of the group. Trying to keep it simple. I guess there it gets a little more complicated.
BW: Here’s another good thing about the band. I’ve been in a lot of bands I wouldn’t expose a 3-year-old to or my mother. We’ve been doing a lot of busking and we regularly have little strollers roll up. It can be rowdy bar music or we can play a preschool.
RV: We have old people buying the record too so we have to tell them, ‘Hey, there’s a couple unsavory phrases there.’
How do DIY principles create an inclusive environment?
RV: It lets people know that everyone can do this. You don’t have to have a $1,200 Martin guitar. You can play that dime store guitar that your grandpa gave you, even if it doesn’t stay in tune. You can still have fun. I didn’t feel good playing a lot of these songs in L.A. before. I’d go out and play ‘Nine Pound Hammer’ and ‘Wrong Side Of Trouble’ and people weren’t that receptive to it. Ten years ago, there was a different thing going on. A lot of people were image-conscious and self-conscious and not necessarily going to start singing along. But lo and behold people let down their guard. Some crowds are still tough—they don’t want to sing along and you really got to break them down. But then other folks are more receptive and that’s where the magic starts—when you get everyone involved, and it’s not just a dog and pony show: ‘Aren’t-we-cute?’
Brendan, do you tune your bass with a wrench?
BW: Yeah. I use a box wrench but I always lose them at the end of the evening after we play ‘Stiff Drink’ and someone passes whiskey around.
Swimmy, how long have you been playing washboard?
MW: Almost a year. I’d done the DIY thing a little and played bass and tinkered on some other things and RT was like, ‘We’ve got this Cold Springs show that Brendan booked for his birthday, and he asked me if I wanted to play washboard.’
BW: We’d been at it like a week or two, and I thought, ‘We might as well book our first show.’ That’s as far out of town as we’ve been. RT has all these animals to take care of.
RT: It’s tricky to get away from the critters.
Does your lifestyle and music stem from some particular philosophy?
RV: Things are overcomplicated? It’s nice to simplify things and try to be, again, inclusive, not exclusive. I read this Mao quote the other day—about this frog at the bottom of a well only being able to see the sky at the top of the well. Only seeing this one thing. I like that concept. It’s about perspective. Sometimes we’re only seeing things through a certain eyehole, so to speak. I believe everything is relative. Everybody has got a bad day. Some people’s days are relatively worse. Just take joy that we get to be on this planet and be a human being here and not get too caught up in why or who put us here—‘Did I pay up my insurance policy on the afterlife?’ It’s a pretty good opportunity just to be humans, so enjoy it. The fact we get to taste and smell and we have cannabinoid receptors in our brains.
MW: I just like to keep my life as simple and uncomplicated as possible. I like to work as little as possible. I enjoy my free time as much as possible. I try to keep an open mind about as much stuff as I can—music and philosophies. Kind of really take in influences from bits and pieces of everything.
RV: The goal of entertaining people is to make them feel happy, not try to impress them necessarily. Some groups have a different agenda. There is no agenda with us aside from giving people a good time, break down any guards—maybe that includes getting them drunk first or during.
BW: After the grandmas and kids are gone.
RV: That also thrills me. The kids love it. They don’t understand the words—thank God, cuz half the songs are about death. But all the way from the toddlers to the grandmas, we’re making people happy.
BW: A little girl in South Pasadena the other day, she heard half a song and soon as we finished, she rolled right up and pointed at my instrument and said, [impersonating a sassy 4-year-old girl] ‘What’s that?! I like what you guys play.’
BW: We had her, the 2-year-old in a stroller and the 90-year-old woman in a wheelchair with a blanket, who listened to the whole 50-minute set. We set up at a crosswalk by the Metro Gold Line, so the train comes through and we hold people hostage. People can’t cross the street so they’re forced to listen for a little while, and if we can draw the kids in, then they control the parents. We’re the drunk clown at the moon bounce. You hire the clown and he smells like whiskey.
Why is death a recurring theme in your songs?
BW: It’s not something to be afraid of—maybe to embrace that a little. A lot of these songs about death are catchy. You sing along, stomp your foot. That’s the way I see it. Death is not such a big deal.
RV: It goes back to trying to appreciate the chance we’re given here, for whatever reason. It’s a great opportunity to love each other and have fun with each other. Death isn’t that scary because in the meantime we’re all together and we all have to take that trip so might as well enjoy it. We should only take care of the people we care about—the people we love.
BW: That’s the beauty of this scene that we’ve been around lately. All these people doing great things coming together supporting one another. These shows at the Outpost—a whole community is there, building up.
Who is the live audience on ‘Stiff Drink?’
BW: That was at Hyperion Tavern. We thought it was better with the live energy.
RV: You really need the people clinking their glasses. The Hyperion show was special. People were swinging from the rafters. There’s a few live ones on the album but the rest of the tracks we recorded in the house. We tried to do it exactly as we play it. No added tracks.
Are the live ones from memorable shows?
MW: They’re all memorable shows. Except the ones we don’t remember.
RT & THE 44s RELEASE SHOW FOR THEIR SELF-RELEASED, SELF-TITLED ALBUM ON FRI., APR. 1, AT THE ECHO COUNTRY OUTPOST, 1930 ECHO PARK AVE., ECHO PARK. CONTACT VENUE FOR DETAILS. ECHOCOUNTRYOUTPOST.COM OR LAFOLKFEST.COM. VISIT RT & THE 44s AT MYSPACE.COM/RTNTHE44S.