Mr Ratboy and Cowboy Mark
interviewd by Deniz Kozlov for Rock Is Dead (Prague, 2015)
I already wrote about Sour Jazz. A band with the unique combination of being good, contemporary and shockingly unknown. Lately I had a pleasure to converse with the people pulling its strings – Cowboy Mark Rubenstein and the World Famous Mr.Ratboy. In fact, that conversation turned out to be so pleasant, that I'll let it hang here for a while before writing a new post – so enjoy the read and see you in few months!
Let's start big: What's the meaning of life according to Sour Jazz and you personally? Seriously.
MR RATBOY: The meaning of life might be to discover the meaning of life. I haven’t figured that out yet but what I do know is life is short and if you’re not careful it can become quite dull pretty quickly. One of my goals is to avoid this happening to me.
COWBOY MARK: Bumbling your way towards the grave, making some horrible mistakes along the way, making some beautiful mistakes as well, and learning equally from both. I kind of like the epitaph on Malcolm McLaren's headstone -- "Better a spectacular failure, than a benign success."
Do I get it right, that the band's line-up didn't change after the initial auditions period and the departure of Sami Yaffa?
MR RATBOY: You are absolutely right
COWBOY MARK: For the most part, yeah. The four of us have remained intact from the go, but we've augmented the lineup with various people at various points. Jim Duffy has played keyboards on at least a few tracks off each album, and Steven Moses has contributed his trombone bits in the same way. Jim Jones played a bit of guitar on the last album, 'American Seizure,' and our producer, Daniel Rey, joined us on second guitar when we toured that album in Europe.
Who's where doing what at the moment? I know Mr.Ratboy is in Tokyo and Mark is into art-direction and design in NYC. The rest of the group? Is Splat still in Brooklyn? Mr.Popular? What are the day-time jobs and how do you feel about what each of you is doing besides the music?
MR RATBOY: I have been living in Japan for over 10 years. Currently I work in an Embassy in Tokyo. Even though it might seem quite different from what I was doing earlier, the size of the egos I have to work with nowadays is about the same as in the music business.
COWBOY MARK: Splat is in Silver Spring, Maryland, which is not very far from Washington DC, and Mr Popular is in north-eastern Ohio. So, yeah, the three of us are still living in reasonable proximity to one another. Close enough that, if one of us dies a sudden and tragic death, the other two would be able to make it to the funeral with fairly minimal hassle. It'll be slightly inconvenient, though, if Ratty dies first.
For myself, my proper career is as an Art Director... still a creative pursuit, but a bit more solitary than Sour Jazz, which is infinitely more of a collaborative effort. There's something about the collaborative creative process that still excites me.
Mark, besides design – do you actually draw/paint?
COWBOY MARK: I wish I could say yes, but... no. I have the ability, but lack the time. I see works by artists like Otto Dix, George Grosz, Raoul Hausmann, John Heartfield, Egon Schiele, Dali, and think, yeah, I'm not gonna bother. The greats leave me riddled with insecurity.
I know that a friend of yours is responsible for the cover artworks of Sour Jazz albums, which I consider their integral part in fact. Are there more of his works accessible online?
COWBOY MARK: We grew up together, Wax and I, and have been best friends from a very young age, so involving him with Sour Jazz has always been incredibly important to me. He is also insanely talented... we give him a general idea of what we're looking for, and he's always been able to run with it and produce brilliant results. As an Art Director myself, I never underestimate the importance of an album's design, so I'm really pleased to hear that you like how the music and artwork fit together.
Do you know an old adage that says you can't judge a book by looking at the cover? Early on, Rat and I had a great discussion about how we both believed you could judge an album by the cover, and we both felt strongly that our album covers shouldn't do that. And I think we've succeeded there. I once read a review of either our first or second album in which the reviewer said something about looking at the album cover when it arrived for him to review, and he immediately wondered why anyone would bother sending him a cheesy jazz album to review. He mentioned that it sat in the corner for months, being ignored, before he finally took the album out and gave it a spin and was absolutely shocked that the music was nothing like the album artwork suggested. I remember Rat and I being quite proud of that!
What is the story behind the fancy guitarist photo “I Live On A Street Called Rock & Roll” from the “Dressed to the Left” booklet?
MR RATBOY: One of my friends had taken this photo somewhere in Africa. I immediately thought this person was much more sincere than some of the professional musicians that were pretending to be broke artist types in the East Village. This guy is the real thing, he probably doesn’t even know it but he truly lives on a street called Rock & Roll
What “one year of Sour Jazz” is like, what does it consist of? Or four years if that should be the modular unit?..
MR RATBOY: Musically it consists of absolutely nothing, a big black hole, a perfect void. Socially, it means a million e-mails shared about anything and everything: music, books, jokes, personal parts, aging…Whatever, we’re friends. Every four years we try to get out of this routine, get together for real and record something. That’s when playing music creeps back in the picture. We do not always succeed in reviving the Sour Jazz corpse, we’ve been trying for a couple of years now, unsuccessfully.
COWBOY MARK: There's no paradigm, really. It can vary, and it does vary. In broad, general terms, we'll record an album, crawl back to our caves and lick our wounds, then tour it after it's been released. After the tour, it's straight back to our caves. This is probably why we're still a band, whatever that means... when we do get together, it's quite a special event... never a slog, never a chore, never anything less than spending time with very dear friends.
Along with Serj Tankian and Electric Six, within less than the last decade, Sour Jazz gave me the hope that something both original and worthy still can be done within rock-n-roll music. I grew up on the British hard/progressive sound of the 1970's, but this new hope is coming mostly from the States in fact. How does it feel from your side of the speakers?
MR RATBOY: Everything coming out of my speakers is old. There has to be new interesting music out there but I’m just not into looking for it anymore. There’s so much older stuff that needs my attention, I got no time left for the youngsters. Since buying a trumpet last Summer, I’ve been listening to a lot of jazz, Yusef Lateef is someone that will keep me busy for a long time.
COWBOY MARK: I'd love to believe that something both original and worthy can still be done within rock music, but I'm not convinced, because I'm not hearing it. The modern problem is, every kid with a computer in his bedroom now has a recording studio, mixing facilities, and a means of distribution and promotion. On one hand, that could be a positive thing. The reality, though, is that there's now far too much out there... no filter, and very little, if any, quality control, means that you have to wade through mountains of shit in hope of finding one tiny jewel. So, yeah, originality and worthiness might be out there, somewhere, but unless a trusted friend puts it under my nose, I haven't the time or energy to hunt for it.
I don't know much about it, but when thinking of rock music in the US, it is Detroit, LA, Seattle and the South (as one big phenomenon) which come to mind first. Any other regions with “the sound” in the States? Mark, still nothing going on around NYC since you last answered that question?
MR RATBOY: Being in Tokyo, I cannot answer this question
COWBOY MARK: Historically, yeah, I know exactly what you're referring to, but it doesn't exist any longer, apart from tired marketing ploys. Regional distinctions, musically speaking, began dying in the early 1980s, with the introduction of nationwide cable television and radio. Suddenly, the kids in Nevada were being exposed to the exact same music as the kids in Cincinnati and Brooklyn and Alabama, which had a homogenizing effect. When the input is the same, so is the output.
NYC? If there's anything going on here, I'm either unaware of it, or far too old for it.
Mr.Ratboy, what is the rock music scene in Japan? From what I imagine, it is the whole different universe, isn't it? Names, trends, genres, emotions; contemporary or within a historical perspective – would appreciate any details.
MR RATBOY: The music business in Japan is hopeless, just like the political scene. There might be an underground scene but it’s so deep below the surface that I don’t have the energy to dig it up. Anyway, most of the underground groups I was exposed to were either, silly, derivative, noisy or plain awful. In Japan, the entertainment business is one huge machine that provides the audience with a limited amount of idols that will play all the roles required. The same day, a popular “artist” could be seen in a variety of different settings. The morning news, a dozen commercials, a soap opera, a quiz show, a music video channel, a manga exhibition, a political debate…it’s endless, once “artists” access this level, they become like a virus, it’s impossible to get rid of them. As far as the music they play is concerned, it’s all similar since it’s all written by a few selected composers/producers who have been rehashing the same ideas for decades. It’s depressing.
One current Band I do like is Ra:IN http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rain_(Japanese_band)
My all-time favorite Japanese band is RC Succession http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RC_Succession
And what about the records prints? I was always wondering how the famous "Japanese Release" phenomenon was born? Those rock and metal rarities necessarily packed with tons of extra material.
MR RATBOY: I’m not sure how the “Japanese pressing phenomenon” started but I do know that, with the advent of CDs it has lost some of its shine. At the time of LP’s, the quality of the Japanese pressings were far superior to the other copies of the same record. We’re talking about not only the vinyl, but the cardboard cover being much thicker and nicely printed. With the added bonus of the “OBI” ( the vertical strip of paper with the name of the band/title in Japanese) you ended up with a pretty desirable item that cost a lot more than a regular LP. CDs being digital, they all sound pretty similar and the cover being a tiny piece of paper folded in a plastic case, there’s not much left to differentiate a Japanese CD pressing from a cheaper US or Euro version. Nowadays, the Japanese labels always insist on having bonus tracks on their releases, it has kept the interest going for the Japanese pressings of non-Japanese bands but the extra material is not always worth the extra money the CD costs…It depends on the bands, really, some older bands did sit on a wealth on quality unreleased studio recordings, and it’s always nice to get some of that stuff along with the regular album.
What I would really like to talk about is how is it to be a rock-n-roll band these days and where is all this crap going? How does the industry work? What are the options for the kids starting a band today? I know you've chosen yours, but I also believe you were in a somewhat different position (from many perspectives) when forming Sour Jazz...
MR RATBOY: Music is a great passion and hobby but a terrible day job. Unless you “make it”, the money is bad, at least for the musician. Everyone involved will get paid before you, producers, managers, publishers, engineers…You’ll only get paid if there’s some money left after they take their share. You will run into a million people who will pretend that they know what is good for you and will attempt to put you on the right track. To try to succeed you will have to compromise and will lose the focus you had when only you and your friends were involved. Along with the focus you’ll lose your enthusiasm, naiveté and probably the friends you were playing with when you started. If you’re lucky, you’ll end up with a lousy job.
When this band was formed we already knew all that, so first we made sure we enjoyed each other’s company before playing a single note. We didn’t really know what we wanted to sound like but we sure knew what to avoid. After Sour Jazz started sounding like something we could be proud of, we soldiered on and didn’t let anyone distract us from our original goal. Today, we still are friends and when we manage to get together, we still sound good, to me that’s invaluable.
Our non-existent touring schedule coupled with our reluctance to take part in the social media phenomenon has rendered us invisible. I personally don’t care since I’m proud of the music we have produced so far and hopefully will continue to produce. Some days, I do believe we deserve a Wikipedia page but I’m definitely not going to be the one starting it!
COWBOY MARK: The records that I've always loved the most, and the gigs that I've enjoyed the most, were all performed by artists doing what they did simply because they had to. I'm drawn to artists who produce only because they have it in themselves to do so, and need the release despite any potential lack of platform or success, critical or commercial. I'm excited by the individual, the one-offs, the artists venting some nameless something that's deep inside of them, whether it's Jerry Lee or Nina Simone or Bo Diddley or Ian Hunter. So, yeah, the only option for kids starting bands today is to honor your instincts, honor your gut, and respect the song.
How does the industry work these days? For the most part, we exist completely outside of the industry, but I do know that the industry is quite different this week than it was last week, and will change into something else entirely next week. When Sour Jazz started, it was still very much a matter of going on tour to promote a new album. Now, you put out an album to promote a tour. As a musician, you earn your living by selling t-shirts on the road.
Thinking about it - this industry thing is there for merely a hundred years, and twice less in its current form. Still the music itself is pretty much timeless - J.S. Bach and The Beatles share shelves in the same stores and keep selling. The larger and larger amounts of "a product" keep being added to those shelves and all the media every year, making it harder to find the worthy things, but somehow I refuse to believe the music will eventually get mixed and blurred into the uniform, tasteless but easily digestible grey mass. Optimists think that the Internet and the new technological revolution will bring arts into focus (it's worth noting that the Beatlemania would've been way less plausible without the television for one). What would be your guess on the shape of the music and associated business at the next milestone, maybe decades from now? And do you see the hope for the musicians to break the current system? In which way?
COWBOY MARK: I wouldn't even like to guess, really! My instinct is that music will become even more disposable in the future, and far less valued. But there will always remain a minority of people for whom music is almost a religion, and these people will continue to collect and consume with passion. I'd like to see the album make a big comeback... playlists seem to be the new albums now, which I find to be a flimsy substitute. I understand and sort of appreciate the personalization of the whole playlist concept, but I miss the lacking artistic statement.
As for the music business, the music industry, I can't imagine what it will evolve into in the coming years and decades. I suppose I wouldn't be surprised if it completely stops being a business. Or, if it does remain a business, I can see it resting completely in the hands of the musicians themselves, with the musicians themselves reaping any financial rewards. For Sour Jazz, though, none of us have the time or the energy or the inclination to dedicate ourselves to the business side of things. We'd much rather deal only with the production side of things -- the writing, arranging, recording -- and let the record label deal with the rest.
In short, I guess most musicians will have to keep their day jobs!
MR RATBOY: That a very difficult question…The business as we know it last century is dead, that’s for sure. People used to be ready to pay for their entertainment but the internet has changed all that. People now expect to get EVERYTHING for free, I don’t blame them but it has somewhat destroyed the music business as we knew it. Not a bad thing, really, it didn’t do much for the musicians anyway. Now musicians have to work harder to promote themselves and constantly adapt to the new tools available for them. As long as they can keep up, they might be able to keep interest for their music alive. The internet also gives them a direct way to connect with the fans and to sell them all kinds of crap (ringtones!) without having to use middle-men. I guess it can work for some people. The problem is that today’s musician spends an awful lot of time on his PC, describing his every move, meal, thought or fart, and the music suffers from that. With this new system, it looks to me that the minute the artist stops promoting himself, he starts disappearing… I hope I’m wrong but the music is now secondary to the popularity (how many “friends/hits/clicks”) one can achieve on the net. For that reason I don’t believe that much of today’s music will become timeless. I’m not really complaining about it, it’s just not a game I’m willing to play and personally I’d rather concentrate on the music and create cool stuff that sadly no-one will ever hear. I’m not trying to make money with music anymore but I still think that the best source of income for a musician is the money he gets for performing live. A lot of bluesmen realized that in the 60’s & 70’s (Chuck Berry!) and they started playing as much as they could without concentrating much on the recordings. Even the Rolling Stones do it these days, they tour without any new music, they do not need it, people just want to see them play the old stuff so they oblige. Dylan might be the ultimate example of that attitude.
And a chicken-egg question: is it the records or the gigs that come first for you? Regardless of what happens more often - what do you value most?
COWBOY MARK: We began as a live band who recorded, but quickly became a recording band who occasionally tours. For me, personally, I prefer recording to touring, because the studio is much more about the creative process than the road is. Recording is about creating, while playing live is about re-creating. Without that creative process, and the collaborative nature of it, I can't see much appeal to being in a band. I love the experience of transforming rough ideas into lasting pieces of music, often in the course of hours or a few days. And I especially love how a big part of that process, for me at least, still very much remains a mystery to me even after all these years.
MR RATBOY: The recordings last forever, most gigs are quickly forgotten by all the parties involved. For me, it’s definitely the records.
Although you've been partially answering this kind of questions before, I'd still love to ask each of you to list what you believe to be the truly outstanding rock albums. Records that you feel possess more than a personal appeal alone, one-of-a-kind LPs. As many as you'd choose to name, with or without your commentary.
MR RATBOY: Stooges “Funhouse”/ Lou Reed “Berlin”& “Coney Island Baby”/The Modern Lovers’ first album/Iggy pop “New Values”/ The Only Ones’ first album/Pere Ubu “Modern Dance”/Any Bo Diddley album/Chris Spedding “Hurt”/Rolling Stones “Black & Blue”/Graham Parker “Stick to Me”…There are too many to mention really
COWBOY MARK: 'Funhouse' by The Stooges... just about anything at all by Chris Spedding or Willy DeVille or Jerry Lee Lewis... 'Tender Prey' by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds... 'Here Come The Warm Jets' by Eno... for the most part, though, I tend to focus on artists, as opposed to albums. 'Funhouse' is so distilled to primal basics, I can't imagine anyone not responding to it one way or another. 'Here Come The Warm Jets' is quite special, in that it's one of the few albums that I always approach as a whole, never for one or two or three individual songs. The first album I ever bought was 'Desolation Boulevard' by the Sweet, and I still listen to it regularly.
As far as non-rock is concerned, I've been listening to a whole lot of old Jimmy Smith albums lately. For contemporary stuff, I pretty much only listen to my friends' bands -- The Jim Jones Revue, The Flaming Stars. My absolute favourite discovery from the last year or so is an album titled 'See,' by a gentleman named Pete Williams. A very classy affair... great songs, great performances, great production.
In a similar fashion, would you care to recommend some records based on my personal preferences (http://www.rock-is-dead.info/2013/06/the-list-of-recommended-rock-albums.html)? Not necessarily within the rock-n-roll scope. Mr.Ratboy, anything in particular from Gentle Giant?
MR RATBOY: Gentle Giant “Free Hand” & “Interview”/ Simon Dupree and the Big Sound/Crawler “First album” (1977)/Harvey Mandel “Feel the Sound” & “Shangrenade”/Pavlov’s Dog “At the sound of the Bell” & “Pampered Menial”/Ted Nugent “First Album”.
I visited your website again, we have lot in common. I'm a big Rainbow Rising fan (Dio!) and I also always thought that Magician's Birthday & Demons and Wizards were joined at the hip. I would put Salisbury on your list, that was my first Uriah Heep album and it still blows my mind today. How about Nazareth's Loud & Proud? Another nice Roger Glover production...
COWBOY MARK: For starters, you only have one Sour Jazz album on that list... probably an oversight on your part, though, yeah? Really nice to see 'Wonderful' by Madness on there... 'Drip Fed Fred' with Ian Dury was such a fitting and beautiful final chapter to Dury's life. If you haven't heard their follow-up album, 'The Liberty of Norton Folgate,' I can recommend it. And seeing a couple ELO albums on your list, if you haven't got all of Roy Wood's albums, especially the ones with Wizzard, you need them!
I'm striving to keep The List balanced, so the only thing I can say in my pathetic defense is that Sour Jazz has roughly the same percentage of studio discography represented as Led Zeppelin. (I do proudly own all of your studio CDs though!) For the same sake of balancing Salisbury and many other Heep's albums from the 70's are not listed - but they are incredible indeed. Loud 'n' Proud is great too - the first side especially, although I generally prefer later Nazareth, but it always amazed me how much their neighboring releases could differ. Didn't know it was produced by Glover - reminds of Sin After Sin which stands out so much to me out of the whole Judas Priest discography. And thank you for all the suggestions - many titles I wasn't aware of - quite exciting!
Mr. Ratboy, I did enjoy the solo album of yours available from sourjazz.com while researching for this interview, but didn't find much information on it. I figured you did the writing, vocals and most of the instruments - is that correct? Who else was involved and in which roles? Any details on the recording process and/or particular tracks?
COWBOY MARK: I designed the packaging for the vinyl version!
MR RATBOY: I sang, played all the guitars, bass and EML synthesizers. Screamin’ Joe Rizzo played drums. The guests included Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate) on vocals, Phast Phreddie Patterson on sax, Stellan Wahlstrom on harmonica and Jim Duffy on keyboards. I hope I didn’t forget anyone, it’s been a long time. I wrote all the music and the lyrics were mostly by Mark Phelan with a couple of things by Chris Barry. The only cover was “A Gift” by Lou Reed.
It’s funny you mention my solo album, I have a few songs I wrote for an aborted band here in Tokyo that I’m thinking about recording solo. If I ever find the energy, there might be new Mr. Ratboy solo songs available soon…
And is it already the time to reveal some details on the new Sour Jazz album?
COWBOY MARK: It's in the works, and eleven or twelve tracks have been partially recorded, but I wouldn't like to guess when it will be finished and released. There's a vague plan for a 2015 release, but that's going to require a bit of cooperation that's been difficult to get. I can tell you, though, that Daniel Rey is producing it.
Really happy to hear that and looking forward - count to see me in the line on the release date! Thank you so much for the interesting conversation and hope to keep seeing Sour Jazz in the limelight!
COWBOY MARK: You'll hear it before the release date, I can promise you!