Tom Smith and Rat Bastard
by Steven Garnett
A baker’s dozen years ago I wrote a musician’s profile for another publication, opting to give considerable space to the musician’s own words – direct quotes in lieu of my wry commentary. The piece was unreturned for my corrections; rather, an editor embellished my writing. I was paid. I made some noise. And if so-called noise/music is your thing, not my grumbles but speaker rumble, feedback, howls, whispers, volume, drone, glitch, tension/release or pure unease, then prep for an overview of two Americans who’ve stayed busy recontextualizing “noise music” for nearly four decades.
So, have you heard of Tom Smith? What about Rat Bastard? What about To Live and Shave in LA? International Noise Conference? Let me begin with Herr Smith and some name-dropping to whet your blade and wet your whistle. Smith performed with Pussy Galore and recorded with Mike Stipe. With Mr. Bastard, Shave iterations have included Andrew WK and Thurston Moore, and Smith made a film with the legendary Doris Wishman. Its title? “Dildo Heaven”. And Rat Bastard is the King of Miami. Ready for ‘sup? Good.
Smith’s personal and professional history will largely frame this feature. Rat’s truncated tale will also be told. The frame is askew, as if a Suprematist woodsmith prostrate under barbed wire fencing was stretching for the pasture cubensis then realized his left index finger was MIA. Gulp.
But seriously, read commentary about Smith, or Rat, or by Smith and Rat, and Imagism crosses words and puzzles. In my case, loose ends were tied and the breadth of their collective work better understood.
Upon Smith’s upbringing in Adel, Georgia in the ’50s-‘70s, and early fondness for sound:
My dad was a skillful mechanic and he cobbled a car, driver and small team together. I was six or seven. Those quarter-mile figure-eights were so extraordinarily loud. The announcer’s voice would sputter through the threadbare PA system. Cones wired to utility poles, basically. That’s a holy text for me. That, and the hum of a high-tension line about 60 feet from my bedroom window on High Street, and the mournful hiss of tractor-trailer tires on wet asphalt. Highway 76 to Nashville, GA. Those were divine revelations.
Then splitting Georgia for NYC with Adel friend and noted producer Don Fleming:
Don and I, and doubtless thousands of others, felt the change was coming. In ‘76 I left university and drove straight to CBGB, like the hayseed naif I was. The door was open. Lenny Kaye was inside. True. We talked about “Nuggets” and “Horses.” That was my intro. I stayed for maybe half a year until I was totally broke and had dropped to about 145 pounds from having too much fun!
And eventually back to Georgia, Athens to be exact. Fertile college town that it was, Smith found collaborators and instigators and so Boat Of came to be. When we corresponded mid-March, Smith had news of Boat Of, his first band and the (if I do say so long-awaited attention to these fictive and latter-day recordings:
Right now – this very sec – I’m prepping the Boat Of comp cassette for Hitomi Arimoto’s label in Osaka. I haven’t listened to these recordings so fully in decades. There’s some crazy good stuff in there. Humility check and all manners noted. Still, pretty decent! Hitomi is a noise freak and he wanted the more outré material – the stuff that in retrospect might be described as proto-noise. About 65 hours whittled down to 60 minutes. That’s my ambit. I’m looping segments from each tape to create composite windows into the various moments. 1979-1983. I was tasked with the limitation of a 60-minute cassette, so I went through all the extant recordings and turned all of them into non-static, two-minute loops, reflective of our initial aesthetics.”
Let’s say the reader missed Boat Of. What were they about?
I got to Athens in ‘79. I’d known Mike Green since maybe ‘76, but we became pals in ‘77. I was working at some dopey pizza joint at Emory Square and I was wearing a red sweater backwards. We started talking, and stayed in touch. I heard of a vacancy at 270 Cobb, aka the Cobb Institute. What a rogue’s gallery. Mike lived there, as did the David Gamble and Vic Varney (aka Method Actors). A cast of characters passed through on a daily basis. We lived a very debauched existence – it was wonderful. Concurrently, Mike and I were working on Prepared Party, which soon became Pre-Cave (summer of ‘80). Carol Levy joined us in May; Stipe in late summer. By autumn we were called Nest (adj.) – our first gig (40-Watt Club, October) featured Carol, Stipe, my then-girlfriend and me. Sadly, we forgot to record it. A good turnout, maybe 85 people? We stayed Nest (adj.) through the new year.
Our second gig was at a Valentine’s Day party at the Cobb Institute (also unrecorded). We took another break while Mary and I played at being married in a snug log cabin lodge in south GA, but reconvened in May for our debut as Boat Of, again at the 40-Watt. Me, Carol, and Mike Green. This one was recorded, as were all subsequent others. No more name changes followed, even though the original notion was to switch out the moniker with each performance. It was a conceit which crumbled as soon as we were asked back to play a venue a second time!”
During our electric conversation, it occurred to me that Smith’s philosophy of “PRE” (more to follow) was too ambitious, or maybe even a lark. It was neither, rather being an example of American underground music the sort escaping the pages of Trouser Press. I wondered aloud about the formality or informality of the sonic world he crafted, one informed in large part by Marcel Duchamp and Henry Miller. Lee Perry’s “Super Ape” and Roxy’s “Editions of You.” As Smith qualified, “That’s really all it took.” So I pressed:
It may smack of arrogance, but these sounds have always been with me. Willful, demonstrative, and intuitive partners help hone one’s attack. We (Boat Of) weren’t mimicking the WJIZ / WBIT / WCUP spots and programming, but were rather excited by their de trop formalism. In other words, they hewed to downmarket formulae, and this seemed a glaring, blaring metaphor for our conception of dub and musique concrète, as we attempted and, in retrospect, routinely we were distancing those notions from context. The tape edits and manipulation played a big part in it as well. I had no role models, as I was using cassettes, but of course I knew of Cage, Schaffer and Henry. When I heard Holger Czukay’s “Canaxis” for the first time, about two years after Boat Of morphed into Peach of Immortality, I realized that the sort of looping I did was really nothing new; aesthetic linearity is def a thing. The germ drifts, regardless if you’ve never rubbed up against its initial host. There’s a lot of turntable work going on in Boat Of. I loved Boat Of so much, but after years of struggle and never catching a break with releases, management, proper tour planning, etc., the key membership drifted away. The last two DC gigs were just me (with local guests), perplexing the fuck out of the Dischord / Tiny Desk Unit types with ‘beautiful music’ loops…”
At this juncture you may wish to hear Boat Of. Link included to Smith’s own Karl Schmidt Verlag label. Given the Boat Of releases and June 2018 To Live and Shave in LA tour, please explore. Smith was also a founding member of Peach of Immortality, a Washington, DC band which shared rehearsal space and tour dates with a very young Pussy Galore. Nothing comes between me and the promised link: tomsmithksv.bandcamp.com
Onward … To Live and Shave in LA formed after Peach of Immortality. Those aware of South Beach’s Rat Bastard and his sensational International Noise Conference, near-residency at Little Haiti’s Churchill’s, Laundryroom Squelchers, and various other Miami/South Florida musical endeavors may know Shave. Way back in 1990. TLASLA got busy. The Fates provided me several opportunities to see the original line-up of Smith, Bastard, and Ben Wolcott. ‘94-‘97. And I reviewed Shave releases for the late Muckraker zine, a Midwest noise/improv magazine, as well as Ink 19. See, hear:
A partially-instinctive list of modifiers for the Shave sound: corpulent, Sweet 16, hybridized, id, ego, superego, perspiration, pyloric, swoled, La Brea, homiletic, authentic, AT&T&T&A, long distance runners, diplilatoric, “grease trap”, your mom.
In their 27-year run, the band has overturned convention tables in near-circadian fashion. Band membership has varied save for Smith and Rat. One of the few constants? These two make a sound that’s the computer error in the programmer’s mind, correcting itself with twice the confidence of HAL.
As Rat remarks concerning TLASLA’s M.O.: (We are) “proving where music can exist forced and not forced at the same time.”
Shave was just an exposed raw nerve in those days. The absence of reserve embarrasses me now, but at the time our ire seemed essential – at least to us. It’s far more refined today, but at least we never succumbed to stuffiness, proselytization, neuralgia, runny nose, scratchy throat… I met Rat on one of my first visits to South Beach, pre-move, maybe autumn 1990. I don’t have a lot of my old docs and address books here – most everything is in storage Stateside. Rat had a tiny record shop on Lincoln Road Mall, adjacent or attached to his studio, Sync. I came to MB for love. Friends hooked me up with an audio gig at Telemundo (where I moonlighted nights in the production lab – I edited and EQd the first Harry Pussy LP there, as well as remastering lots of unissued Peach of Immortality albums, projects for various labels, proto-TLASILA material, etc.) and a substitute teaching assignment at Miami-Dade in their film department.
I started recording at Sync as soon as I had a bit of money coming in. This was pre-DAW, pre-Internet, even pre-CD burning. The engineer originally assigned to me was a decent bloke but slightly behind the aesthetic curve and not really up to snuff on the gear. I worked through a lot of material nonetheless, and in that first year we completed five or so pieces that would end up on “30-Minuten Männercreme”. Rat came aboard in the fall of ‘92 after I’d finally given up on the other dude. We knocked out the “Spatters of a Royal Sperm” EP in two sessions. We’ve been together, including quarrels, spats and hiatuses, for 26 years. He (Rat) helped change my life.
These fellows do not sit still for long. The TLASLA record release output manic. Live (peep) shows 20 minutes and that’s that. I asked Rat about the contrast in to-the-damn-point live shows and richly considered studio work.
As Rat sees it, “balance is the key to everything” and as for one foot in front of 1,000,000 others’, he adds: “[We move] always forward and blow the moss out of our way.”
Please open links, ye seekers:
Smith’s archival skills (and output) with and beyond Rat’s collaborations exceed. Dig into this buffet to better understand salted and sugared soundbites and trust me.
I’m hardwired with these aesthetics. There’s been little deviation. Push, push, push, push the damn thing ever forward. Away from the moorings. Rat wouldn’t describe our processes similarly – he’d quite likely not describe them at all. But he’s always felt it and got it and he’s been a remarkable partner and ally. Genre is obsolete, but limitations are perennial. I never wanted to plant a flag.
I just wanted to grow into me. Ever forward, away from the comforts and nicely unholstered stylistic digs to a less well-groomed but infinitely more rewarding plane of yearning. Of unknowing.
PRE is that trust in oneself.
The liberation that leads one to aesthetic abandon. The freedom to channel the signal directly from the source.
On Karl Schmidt Verlag, Smith’s imprint, home to books, outside music makers, varied Smith aliases:
OK! I thought I’d ask you to consider my German trio, Merkwürdig Riechnerv. (Pronounced M’airk-voor-disch Reek-nairf. It means “odd olfactory nerve.”) We’ve been at it since 2012, and in our new lineup since early 2017. Lots of releases, some touring. Check out last November’s “Spit It Out Versions” 10”. Rat cut the entire run on his lathe in Miami Beach.
And “Approach to Fear: Regeneration.” That was an international-ish response to the rightward tilt, and prob the largest overt protest project of 2017. Quite the wee meow in terms of sales potential, but more than a few decent souls were moved by it.
Requisite tour info and Cracker Jack surprises follow. Let’s say you’ve read this because of the earlier name-checking. You cringed or mobilized. Maybe even were lost for an hour or so in the Smith and/or Rat links and mole holes. That’s cool. Smith knows something that might encourage the reader if she/he could not shake the “what ifs”:
Of course, one must remain social! Mingling and mixing and fidgeting and ruminating – there’s nothing more satisfying. It’s our species! As for the art bit, though, if you’re not messianic about it, absolutely dead sure about yourself and what you know to do – well, it’s likely complete rubbish, isn’t it? PRE is the backlight that one must extinguish. Others less adept will pore over speculative contexts. TLASILA’s job, my job is to obfuscate, to encrypt.
Check local live listings as TLASLA may play your town in June or July 2018. Smith’s Wavefarm DJ sets are spectacular, a rain-glazed Bobcat scraping through the muck to di-ahhh-mons – wavefarm.org/archive?q=R.E.M.&sites=&types= – and most recently To Live and Shave in LA’s “The Death Truth” album just got picked up for release by Independent Woman out of New Zealand. TLASLA will tour east of Mississippi June and July 2018.
Cover photo by Walter Wlodarczyk, www.walterwlodarczyk.com
To Live and Shave in LA: https://toliveandshaveinla.bandcamp.com/