David Rat is a celebrated New York avant garde recording artist, author and political-animal rights activist. He is currently a foreign national living and working in Brazil. Drummer for Rat At Rat R, No Wave, Post Rock Pioneers, David became known for his brutal, aggressive and passionate Drumming style, as well as his performance art which often was on the verge of near violent protest.
In the 1980´s to early 90´s (along with cohorts Swans and Sonic Youth) Rat At Rat R helped pave the way for Art Rock-Experimental music as we know it today. David also released a poetic memoir entitled “Happy Ending.” A bittersweet history of the horrors of Heroin addiction and a charmed life turned sour on the streets of lower Manhattan.
Interview by C A Seller
C.A. Seller: We have known each other over 30 years and I call you my brother. Can you tell us how we met working for the slumlords in NYC’s Lower East Side?
David Rat: I remember the day we met quite clearly….I had been in NYC only a few months….and this cat named LTD fronted me 100 hits of purple microdot (acid)..I was trying to sell it on 11th street and this kid snatched it from me and ran into a hole in the side of the building…I was about to go in after him when I heard your voice from a stepladder above… “Don´t go in there”… I was all like “But this kid stole my drugs” …
You assured me that my drugs were gone and if I went in there chances were I wouldn´t return alive…
so I firmly believe you could have possibly saved my life that day…So thus began our adventure as partners in a world of dope decadence drag queens OD´s petty crimes, etc. I remember stealing copper pipe out of burnt out buildings to buy breakfast…Hanging at St. Marks Bar and Grill with your dog and people buying the dog beers but not us…the time we were in a DOORS video together…you were my main man so if got high we got high together..if we were dopesick we were dopesick together…I´m amazed we are both alive and both landed on our feet…we were troublemakers..often living by our wits..In squats..Trying desperately to hang onto the last great Renaissance Period in Art History…our beloved Lower East Side…
CAS: You have been in bands for over 40 years, would tell us about your early days?
DR: My Great Uncle, Gordon Malie, was the original Drummer for Lawrence Welk… He split mid career to play pro golf and gave me his drum kit as a legacy…so I started real young and due to my Uncle´s influence my parents were real supportive..when I hit my teens I started to jam with local musicians like
James Gates and Brad Rudolph…But John Myers ( Rat At Rat R/ Glenn Branca ) was my hometown friend since I was 5..So in our teens we jammed on a lot of Prog, Avant Garde stuff anywhere from King Crimson to Pere Ubu…We met Victor Poison-Teté and Sonda Andersson in the late 70´s..they were a little older and higher evolved artistically and turned us on to Eno, Roxy Music, The Velvet Underground…all kinds of out of the box visual and musical Art..eventually we all ended up in the village together and were adopted by the other more popular Experimental artists…Together with Swans and Sonic Youth we formed an unholy triumvirate and ruled New York for a time…
CAS: In 1979 you lived in Mechanicsburg during the Three Mile Island nuclear melt down. How old were you then?
DR: Christ, I must have been 19…One of us (Ahem) wrote graffiti on the state capital building “We´re Not Guinea Pigs” and “Industry Kills”..They kept us completely in the dark while the media went nationwide with the story…Ironically the people most affected by the release of radiation were the Amish..in Lancaster..downwind from us, who shun all modern ways…they experienced many cancer outbreaks, stillbirths, etc…It wasn´t Chernobyl…but it was a total cover up and a bad scene…Later we did a photo session in front of the defunct reactors..was freaky.
CAS: How did this event influence your music? You appear to have become more “radical.”
DR: Well I certainly learned not to trust the government at a young age…RARR was extremely political..We were angry…Many of our performances were just chaos and political unrest. Maybe, as a result of Three Mile Island I learned that my country was an illusion and experts at revisionist history..so we began to fight back…through our music…poetry and even Victor´s presidential campaign only thing I regret is we never offered any solution…only anger… which is a great motivator but never resolves anything.
CAS: You have played extensively and collaborated with some big artists in the “underground” music scene, would you care to name drop?
DR: I guess the highlight was performing with Allen Ginsberg at Thompkins Square Park shortly before his death…I´ve played with everyone from Yo Yo Ma to Nick Cave to Bo Diddley.. Motorhead..Lydia Lunch..Dead Kennedy´s, Buzzcocks..Neubauten and many more…
Nirvana opened for RARR as did White Zombie..Of course Sonic Youth and Swans..I´ve been lucky in that respect..The first gig with Nick Cave was canceled because he tried to buy smack in Washington Square Park , got busted and deported..I should have gave him your phone number Ha!
Photo: Edie Johansen
CAS: You told me years ago you are a pulse drummer, what does this mean and who are some of your biggest influences?
DR: I was never a great drummer..Never had the chops..My secret was I just hit the damn things harder than anyone else…My influences were Jay Dee Daugherty from The Patti Smith Group..Scott Krauss from Pere Ubu..Dee Pop from Bush Tetra´s, and Gun Club..And man Doug Scharin from Codeine has the most beautiful powerful minimalist vibe…he takes my breath away.
CAS: Your band, Rat At Rat R, an incarnation of XZV-9 from your Philadelphia days , were contemporaries of Sonic Youth who toured extensively, why didn’t you tour?
DR: We did some tours with Sonic Youth..we played in Montreal (remember Jeff St. Louis from Dead Brain Cells?) and the northeast..As Trouser Press wrote we never really made it out of our neighborhood..But to this day I get mail from all over the world…so somebody was listening…
CAS: David, you had opportunities to play with many bands, would tell us who some of these were and why you didn’t?
DR: I turned down the Swans…Gira called me every day for a week begging me to come down to the studio..I didn´t because there was some bad blood at that time between the bands…and it would have been too much of a slap in the face to RARR who I had grown up with and were truly family…I made other stupid decisions..mostly out of loyalty…Blew off Type O Negative ‘cause they wanted me to play double bass which I detested…Dunno…was never very career savvy..still ..I made my mark in music history and I will continue to do so….
CAS: Is it true that Rat At Rat R guitarist John Myers was robbed while working as a parking attendant and the perpetrator took his pants?
DR: Yeah John had a job in Philly where he kept getting robbed…I think he had his pants torn at one point… could be an urban legend though I´m not so clear…
CAS: What projects are you working on now? I know you are singing. How old are you?
DR: How old am i? You honestly think I would divulge that in a public forum? Too old to rock and roll and too young to die I guess…Now is a pretty exciting time for me…
My first solo album is due out on vinyl in a few months…made possible by Ryan Walsh of Neg Fi and Stereo-Neg Records..and mainly with the help of Julie Dulak…My co-conspirator and the fiercest animal rights warrior I know…She runs her own self funded TNR program and is a great inspiration to me…
The album was produced, mixed, and mastered by Damien Colaprette at Estudios Abismo,
Buenos Aires, Argentina …Damien has an absolutely brilliant ear and really brought the music to life..
Buenos Aries is the new epicenter of the avant..so much amazing art happening there…I´m working on new material with Claiton Marcio of “Egonírico” and Gustavo Antonio de Nadal of “Criancas Lunaticas”…who are extremely talented composers and performers…I´ve been very fortunate finding like minded artists in a faraway land….100% of the proceeds from all my work is going to PAWS animal rescue and other charities…
IMHO Art and Money don´t mix….Bad Combination …
CAS: You have a son in the UK, I know he is a very big concern of yours. How has he influenced your life?
DR: He´s made it worth living…Taught me what True Love is…He is the Root of my Heart and my Art….These insane bordered pieces of earth tore my family apart…let´s think…we are a fragment of a millisecond in time…too small to even have a name…so we divide ourselves into 192 different countries and square off against each other…I am a true Anarchist…I say tear down the borders, turn the weapons into scrap..and appoint Neil Young as the Prime Minister of the world…In the future the only viable form of currency will be Hugs…
CAS: You wrote a book called Happy Endings about your heroin use. How do you think heroin affected your music?
DR: “Happy Ending” is selling like never before…I wrote it during a rough time as an alternative to suicide…The name has a hidden meaning…Happy that Life is Ending was what I was trying to say…It´s maudlin as all hell..I always tell people to buy it for their mortal enemies with hope it will cost them thousands in therapy…but it´s got great reviews and has made it into the libraries of some rehabs…so that´s cool….I´m more of a poet rock and roller than a writer..However if you´re a person who enjoys a good cry, with a little bit of hope between the lines…you can purchase it here:
CAS: What advice would you give someone strung out on dope?
DR: Meetings…only thing that ever worked for me…I ain´t got no Religion and Psychiatry failed me..only people I trust are other addicts who are winning a seemingly un-winnable war..you may find it corny or whatever but I owe my life to the 12 steps…you align yourself with people who are getting clean – successfully getting clean – and learn to pick up a telephone instead of a bag…stay away from people places and things associated with drugs…if you´re strung out you haven´t been doing a great job keeping your life together..so listen to someone else for awhile…and find faith in something.. I don´t care if it´s Jesus or Satanism…or in my case…as a Buddhist..I have faith in myself and the law of impermanence …everything WILL change if you let it..
CAS: When we were kids we used to tell junkies, “Hey, can we follow you and watch you puke?” Do you regret that? After 20 years of heroin use I think it’s ironic. What do you think about that question now?
DR: I regret joking about about the suffering of others…But I was young and stupid and strung out so….seriously I wouldn´t wish that misery on anyone…Heroin is the Queen Mafia Bitch of all drugs…once you´re in…you rarely get out…We did a lot of stupid shit when we were young…luckily it only takes one giant act of Love and Compassion to change lifetimes of bad karma….
CAS: You are an ardent supporter of animal rights rescuing dogs and cats in your hometown of Chapeco, Brazil. You released an album from which you donated all the profits to animal rescue. How much did you raise?
DR: The vinyl release is set for end of summer…But I´ve spearheaded several campaigns … “Artists without Borders.” “Authors for Animals” and so on…not sure the amount but it´s significant…I only do art for charity…Because even if it sucks and you hate it…It still has meaning…Lady Miss Kier of Dee Light posted about me in her blog..The title of the article was “I´ll not Dirty my Art with your Money” which I won´t…
CAS: You moved to Brazil and married Lucy Luz. You are a professor teaching conversational English mixed with political commentary. What are some of the greatest challenges facing Brazilians today in respect to their views of American life?
DR: I think much of South America has been poisoned by the media…Many tend to believe it´s all Hollywood and Disneyland…The shock on their faces when I tell them we suffer from poverty, homelessness, the rapid loss of our personal freedoms and civil rights…The whole world suffers from miscommunication and revisionist history and no true understanding of each other’s cultures…I´d say one of the best ways to achieve world peace is to travel, and learn American English, the international language…really get to know people from different places..have open and honest dialogue… I have faith in our children because they are far more intelligent than we are…I predict they will pick up the pieces of this world we have nearly annihilated…
CAS: In closing, where do you see the future of music going what with Taylor Swift and Kanye West? I pine for the days when the only band that made me cry, Rat At Rat R, played The Pyramid Club and other venues like The Peppermint Lounge and The Ritz. There was magic in your music. Do you still feel that magic?
DR: I do..but not from mainstream media…Now that there is not much of a “Music Business” left… We have paved the way for the DIY age…and Christ there is still a lot of amazing Art happening…You just have to search a little harder for it. ”The Internet is the new CBGB´s” as Patti Smith says…we have to take chances…move outside of our comfort zones… as far as my creations I try to act as a radio antenna and let the music write itself…like (very loud) jazz I suppose…rock and roll will never die…music is the path to Peace…It still has the power to heal…to motivate…”we are the music makers…and we are the dreamers of dreams (Willy Wonka) and with music and art we can dream our way to a peaceful and compassionate world…I for one will never give up that dream….
From the LP “The United Hates” to be released on