WHITE BOY & THE AVERAGE RAT BAND: RATTLING MY CAGE
Photos courtesy of White Boy & the Average Rat Band
But for all the times it’s been burned, blogged, and mp3’d, White Boy & the Average Rat Band’s 1980 self-titled debut LP would be a late (and possibly the last) entry in the Greatest Post-Punk Albums Nobody’s Ever Heard. Supposedly a) recorded by early 80s Baltimore punks nobody in Baltimore remembers, b) part of the pact of a late 70s Toledo death cult whose members obligingly killed each other off or c) left by sportive aliens at a roadside Piggly Wiggly near Bluefield, WV, this slab was actually done by a staggeringly talented friend of mine from high school. Richlands, Virginia’s own Roky Erickson, Mike Matney was making the Appalachian hollows roar with his Gibson while I was scribbling my first obscenities in the school paper. We both partook heavily of what passed for rock ‘n’ roll subculture in a town with few teenagers and several thousand heads of Baptist standing between you and the next good time. Mike now lives on a farm Back Home where he dabbles in painting and tinkers in his home recording studio, but the original “White Boy” and a reformed Rat Band will be onstage at the fabulous Whisky a Go Go this Saturday night. Here, for the first time ever, is the singular weird story of the deepest of all deep-underground rock albums. This interview by Ron Garmon.
Since I was living in a literary hallucination even then and used to see big stacks of punk shit at Record World, I always assumed yawl’s band name was a riff off ‘White Man at Hammersmith’ or suchlike. And that naked-lady AWB record everyone was still playing back then, of course.
What happened was, when I first got out of high school, I was 18 and had been playing in a lot of bands in high school. I wanted more than anything to go to Nashville. My parents helped me and I went to Nashville, and within a couple of weeks down there I got involved in a band called Taboo. Taboo was an all-black band. So I was the only white guy in the band. That’s how I got the name White Boy, playing in an all-black band in Nashville. The guitar player’s place that I took in Taboo—he was a white guy too—his name was Ron Keel. When I took Ron’s place, Ron went out to Hollywood and got with Gene Simmons and had several hits on MTV, was a singer for Yngwie Malmsteen, he did really good. I got hungry after six months and went back to Richlands and got a job at Record World.
Holy crow. How did you get into music as a kid?
My mom was the piano player, organ player in church. I started taking piano lessons in the first grade. I can remember walking across the street by myself to see the piano teacher. I switched to guitar at 6 years old. The piano teacher’s sister taught guitar. Then I stole my Uncle Bill’s electric guitar when I was 7 or 8 years old, never gave it back. I just sort of took to it from there.
Who were your influences?
I can remember Billy Gibbons, that Tres Hombres album, used to learn it and practice on it. You know what I’m talking about—ZZ Top, right? It was great. Mahogany Rush. Of course Judas Priest. I was a huge Judas Priest fan.
Your voice gets compared to Rob Halford’s.
He’s great, Rob Halford is my hero.
There was a Judas Priest cult from the git-go in Richlands, I recall. Tell us what you remember about Ebb, the guy who ran Record World.
He was an old war vet, he was a tank commander. He ran the record store in town and had the little studio next door. He said he always wanted to be into it. He was an old guy, way older than us, but he just loved music. He made his tapes. He would put together mix tapes of the latest hits on cassette and give them to us out the back door.
I remember that! People would drive miles from the hills for his shit.
Work was hard to find and Ebb let me work for him in exchange for recording time in his little studio next room over. You literally pulled a curtain back to go into it and the control room set in the store front. He had an old TEAC 4-track reel-to-reel and a reverb unit. Ebb would come record me some nights but he had a lot of health issues being a one-legged tank commander from the war and all. Recording sessions consisted of me laying the riff down on guitar first backed by a drummer then I would go back and add tracks.
How long did it take to make this record?
It was over a pretty good period of time. I think it was probably about six months or so over the course of 1980. I worked there, Ebb let me record off and on. He got progressively worse; he got less and less involved toward the end. It was six months, for sure. Really it was only me and two other drummers. I’m often asked about how I got that guitar sound. It was an old Osborne tube amp I overdrove and constantly played around with different mic settings. I used my old Les Paul Custom on the whole thing.
What was the reaction?
Nobody noticed. If I could describe this I would call it the ultimate underground album. You have underground rock, underground metal, and this is nowhere near the surface. We only played out a few times as White Boy and the Average Rat Band. We had 300 copies and we were giving these things away.
At what point did you hear your record had this sort of independent life you’re talking about?
Well, my friend John Allison lives in Richlands. I grew up with his boys. John is from England and was and is an avid collector of blues and metal. John once suprised us while we were jamming in the basement by bringing Henry Vestine from Canned Heat over to the house in Richlands mind you. I was jammin’ in Mom’s basement with someone who played at Woodstock! OK, I get a call in Nashville in the mid-90s from John saying, ‘Hey Mike, do any of your friends have copies of your old album? I’ll give you 50 dollars apiece for them.’ Well sir, I gathered some up and took them to him. He showed me a collectors list from all over the world where people were selling my album for $150 a copy. I hadn’t made the first dime. Not too long back I started to notice fan sites—online sites with thousands of hits—and no idea who we really were, but they liked the album. I found out then the album had been bootlegged by Roach Records. I started calling around to different record stores. They knew who I was at Concrete Records in New York. They knew who I was in Chicago. The record store I called in North Carolina, the guy quoted words back to me off the album cover. Copies now sell for as much as $500.
Where did yawl press the actual non-bootlegged record?
We saved up money and took it to Nashville. I remember my car broke down on the way back from Nashville. We had to go to the Marion, Virginia, bus station to pick them up. They supposedly printed 300, but we got 250, and we came back over the mountain with them and we were just talking and I said to Tommy, ‘If you run over the hill, these things will still be around,’ and he just looked at me. A few weeks later Tommy got hit by a car outside Chasers in Princeton, West Virginia, and died.
Didn’t anyone ever tell you the kind of music on this record will send your soul to Hell?
(Laughs) You know, that’s a very good question, Ron, and I’m glad you asked that. I’m very much a Christian and a lot of that stuff can be interpreted a couple of different ways. And that’s the way I intended it. I intended for it to cross over. Mr. Allison—that fellow I told you about from England—he’s kind of on the dark side. I wrote stuff to appeal to both sides. I’m a Christian and that’s where it comes from and ultimately what it gets back to, but it takes you the long way around to get there.
In your case, this type of music did not in fact lead your individual soul to ruin, so such would be an incorrect interpretation of Scripture.
Not at all, there’s a positive message in my lyrics, it’s just you have to find it. It’s not trying to hit you over the head. I am trying to get to those people that would listen to the darker side and would think about what I’m saying. The music had to be something that I could express my rebellion in, yet at the same time I had to let my parents hear. Of course, people thought playing that kinda music around here was, well, wrong, and yes some of my lyrics were a little edgy but that was me rebelling against my situation. Rattling my cage so to speak.
That’s the basic primal impulse for rock ‘n’ roll art.
There’s no outlet for it around here. Even though you are making the music, you realize there’s no way it’s going to go anywhere. If you want to play country music, you go to Nashville. If you want to play rock, you go to L.A., you go to New York. Here in Tazewell County, for the kind of music I was doing, you’re just hitting your head against the wall. We sold to a couple of record stores. We got as far out as Beckley, West Virginia, for a radio interview. That was the big time for us.
I think that one of the reasons people like this record is its isolated, alienated quality. It’s not an expression of anybody trying to get anywhere. Rather, it’s a raw power urge to make rock ‘n’ roll—a pure thing.
That’s right, that’s like right out of my head. Thank you!
It’s rock ‘n’ roll cut loose from any megabuck impulse. Just the will to do it and nothing else. I think that makes it punk as well as metal—an impossibly early hybrid of both.
When I set out my whole intention was, and my whole intention and philosophy is, I’m not making any money anytime, but if I can make a mark … If I can just make a mark, if I can just squeeze by, if I can just feel a little, know what I’m saying?
What was your post-White Boy career like?
Flash forward a few years, my friend Chris Famous got me a job with David Allan Coe. He was his keyboard player at the time and called me a week before and I had a week to learn Coe’s songs. Like 23 albums at that time! Our first show was opening for Waylon Jennings. I remember meeting him backstage. Long story short, Coe gig was over in two weeks.
How did you get to play the Whisky?
So, what we’ve been doing is we’ve got a little blues band, we went out and played some restaurants, some shows, and we’ve gathered up money to come out there. We call ourselves the Coyotes back home, but we’re coming out there as White Boy and the Original Rat Band. We’ve been rehearsing really hard doing the original stuff, the rock stuff.
One last thing, and quite important—do you still have the master tapes of your one album?
WHITE BOY & THE AVERAGE RAT BAND WITH HERALDS OF THE SWORD, SWEET MOJO AND ARMY OF THE SUN, ECLIPTIC FALL AND NOAH BENARDOUT ON SAT., FEB. 4, AT THE WHISKY, 8901 W. SUNSET BLVD., WEST HOLLYWOOD. 7 PM . CONTACT CLUB FOR COVER / ALL AGES. VISIT WHITE BOY & THE AVERAGE RAT BAND AT MYSPACE.COM/WHITEBOYANDTHEAVERAGERATBAND.