Rat Scabies,
The TVD Interview

PHOTO: JASON BRIDGES | One of the best-named drummers of the original punk wave, Rat Scabies remains busy with a handful of projects these days, including the new one from The Professor and the Madman, Séance, due out November 13 on Fullertone Records. The band combines Alfie Agnew of the Adolescents and Sean Elliott of Mind Over Four (who was also in D.I. with Agnew), with Scabies and a bandmate he had in The Damned on a series of albums, bassist Paul Gray. Scabies, who is also in the instrumental duo The Sinclairs and plays with the psychobilly band 69 Cats and the goth Nosferatu, also makes the occasional solo album.

No longer the shirtless maniac of his youth, the former Christopher John Millar is a more thoughtful but no less passionate player at 65, though he speaks of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Drummer. We spoke to him via Zoom from the attic of his home in the Brentford district of London, and talked about days in The Damned, how perfection is overrated, his work with Joe Strummer and Ginger Baker, and how good things can come out of a Bad Christmas Sweater Party.

With the pandemic shutting everything down, has it been a long time since you’ve played out live?

I haven’t been on a big tour for a long time. The last tour I did was with The Members which was a lot of small bars in Europe and was pretty good. I have to say, touring Europe as opposed to England—where the band that shows up to play that evening is regarded as a pain in the ass and something that makes the stalls life a little more difficult—in Europe, France, Germany and like that, they’re actually quite pleased to see you and make you tea and chocolate when you arrive. You feel much more appreciated. But now nobody’s getting to go on the road at all.

In actual fact, it’s turned into quite a blessing because most of my work is studio-based, so during lockdown, I regard myself incredibly lucky that I can still function and work and make music without being dependent on going on the road, whereas most of my friends have absolutely been killed by the whole thing. It’s tragic. It is what it is, but I just really hope we can get some kind of recovery from it. Everything public, not just this business but football, rugby, cricket.

This album was recorded much the same way with previous albums by Professor and the Madmen. How does that work?

Well, apart from the distances and the problems with work visas, it’s one of those things where actually technology, as much as I am a Luddite—“No the old ways are by far the best!”—works well. I like being able to send the drum takes from the studio and by the time I get home by train they’ve got them in California and they’ve already emailed me to say yeah, these are OK, that’s pretty good. So I have to say I really enjoy that.

And the recording process is generally always been one of laying the drums and then everybody else kind of works around that. Dropping and overdubbing. So the process is actually for me very much the same it’s always been. I guess the thing I really miss is having a band there—people in the background making comments and farting. That kind of thing where you can tell when you walk into a room whether you’ve done a good take or not, whether people are happy.

I’m turning into my catchphrase this year: the Loneliness of the Long Distance Drummer. I’ve done a couple of albums like that this year. And it’s kind of weird, because they’re turning me into an engineer. The judgmental call of whether it sounds right, or whether it sounds good, that suddenly all gets thrown on me, when I’m used to being the drunk guy who says, “I’m going to go out for a cigarette while you listen to this and tell me if you want me to do this again.” It’s shifted the whole way I think about what I do.

So when you get the tapes from California, do you do it by feel or have you talked with them already about where you come in or do something big there.

No, I’m pretty bossy. I kind of choose my own moments instinctively. I’m not a gifted arranger or anything, I just kind of listen to the song and see the dynamic that’s going on with the lyric and the guitar and think—is there an event that needs to happen, and I’m either big and loud and change the mood or do I need to join in gradually or whatever. It doesn’t really matter what it is. Like I say, I have to listen to it and think of it as a member of the audience, if you like, as opposed to a musician. It’s a very different process between timing and tuning and hearing it as one big thing. The hardest part is hearing it as an overall piece and not just the individual components.

Are there retakes?

I think I get to boss them around quite a lot because they’ve never sent anything back. I think sometimes they’re not quite sure whether they should send it back, but they never do.

I think their musical background, which is they’re actually great writers, makes their music very easy to follow for me. You can understand the dynamic. And they’re such big Damned fans, and the influences of not only that but other things all come into play. I think we’ve got a lot in common in our musical backgrounds, so it isn’t that difficult. It’s not like Robert Fripp sending me “20th Century Schizoid Man” and saying, “Can you put some drums on this thing Ratty?” It’s much more song, much more tune, much more melody.

You hadn’t even met The Professor and the Madman until you happened to be at this 2015 show with these guys in California?

Show? It wasn’t a show! It was in a bar, in a club. It was a Bad Christmas Sweater Party. Something I’ve never seen before. It was quite a unique experience for me. I’d never heard of such a thing. And this was just after my first Thanksgiving dinner, which I spent with Warren Fitzgerald from the Vandals and his family. So that was my Thanksgiving, with all of the Fitzgeralds in one room at once. That was a great night.

My next experience was the Bad Sweater Party where I just couldn’t believe there were these people wearing things that kept flashing with gnomes and reindeer and Santa Claus and presents. It was almost surreal. And there were these two saying, “Hey Rat, we’re really big fans! Want to come up and jam? We got lights inside the drum kit!” Why not?

Then we kind of got talking and got on okay and Alfie invited me to his house the following day to just go and hang out. I ended up putting drums on a track for them, he had a setup there, and I did. And from that it was just, “We really like working with you, we think you’re a cool guy, would you like to do some more recording? Here are the files.” And literally, it’s always been in small pieces that gradually evolved into being a bigger thing.

It’s interesting to think of The Damned being so influential to L.A. punk. You were the first UK punk band to play there, so they devised that fast, aggressive style from The Damned and relate so well to you now. Did you recognize your influence in their sound, either in this band or in their previous one, D.I.?

Um, I’ve never really paid any attention to the Californian punk scene, really. Here’s the difference, I think—an English musician aspires to his hero. So if Pete Townshend is your favorite guitarist, then as much as you have to, you play like Pete Townshend. You don’t say, “Wow, now I can do other things. There’s more that I want to be.” It’s much more of a commitment to a style. Whereas American players learn to play, and then decide what band they’re going to be in. It’s a very big difference.

In England, we lived it, we were it. We didn’t have a choice. Nobody had money. In California, it’s very difficult to believe that punk rock had a place where the sun was shining all the time, everybody had big cars, and you could pluck fruit off the trees as you walked down the street. Seeing that kind of poor, poverty, working class thing that we had very much in England was a lot less evident in California because even the poor people in California looked great! They were all tan…

It seemed like American bands who emulated UK punk bands lacked that ingredient—they had to be rich enough to buy import records that were twice as expensive, and often had instruments their parents bought them.

We relied on the technology of cassettes, because, as you say, The Damned never had a record released in America, until quite recently. None of those albums were ever domestically released. We realized that whole cassette thing, where people were taping our albums, because the imports were twice the price as anything else and you could only buy one import. And suddenly you realized there was this actual part of the L.A. society that were like: “No, I actually taped it; I couldn’t afford it, I taped it.” It was kind of surreal, because at some of the shows you’d end up signing these [homemade] cassettes all of the time. They’d say, ‘’There’s only two of your tracks on here, but could you sign it anyway?”

What was it liked to be in the first English punk band to tour the States?

Well, nobody knew what was going on. I mean, in England it was still so new. Punk wasn’t very popular when it arrived in England. It didn’t suddenly take over. It was it a very small, marginalized group of discontented youth. We didn’t suddenly take over from Emerson, Lake & Palmer and get their gigs. Or, “Robin Trower has been cancelled, so we’re going to put these bands on instead!” It didn’t happen that way. It was a much slower process.

When we went there for the first time, it was kind of weird. The first show we did was CBGB’s and that was almost like an Andy Warhol concept, as opposed to the kind of background I was talking about. It was only later on when we met the Ramones and Blondie, that they were very, very genuine people. But everything else around it, the way CBGB’s had drawn attention to itself actually seemed very manipulated.

I remember going to Max’s Kansas City the night we arrived. We couldn’t wait to get going because we’d only ever read Punk magazine. And we got in there it was kind of like these metalheads with flare trousers and waist-length curly hair at that bar. This wasn’t what it was about. I remember the band that was playing, the singer ate worms. That was supposed to have made them a punk band. I was thinking, you really are missing the point.

It’s not easy being a drummer in a punk band. Even more surprising is that you’ve kept up your speed and precision all these years. Is it because you had training earlier in other styles?

No. I’m self-taught all the way. I had lessons in 1989 just because I got bored with playing. But yeah, everything I do was about misdirected energy and anger I suppose. The energy that you have when you’re 18 years old. Nothing’s impossible. I had been around the school orchestra a bit, playing the trumpet but they never let me play the drums. “They all want to be drummers, son!” So I had a grasp vaguely on how to read music. I knew what an orchestra did, or what a military marching band did, and the way those different things worked—that was a great education, the [military] band was the best because of the bandleader. There are some people who can just turn a marching band into swing and I mean, real proper swing.

I remember we’d do the marching up and down playing the boring military marches and on the way home, we’d play the St. Louis Blues march and the bandleader, there was something he did with the way he acted and everybody picked up on that. And that was when I realized that groove was something and the way you felt about what you did, the feeling you put into playing was absolutely vital. And it meant much much more than the notes you can play. So yeah, I had some of that background in playing but nothing you could write down in a CV.

If anger propelled you as a young person, what gives you that energy now?

I’m still kind of angry! I am! There’s just as many things that upset me in the world today that always did. Whether I have the same physical energy is a different thing. But it’s all in the mind really.

I remember when Ginger Baker got back together with Cream before he died, and it wasn’t nearly the same speed or intensity. But you’re close to the top of your game.

I worked with Baker a bit. I set his drums up a couple of times. I used to go out and see him play. I remember seeing him in a drum battle with Elvin Jones because he was one of those guys who was everywhere.

It’s interesting that you say that, because he was still playing the same things, but just differently. It’s interesting. They showed the reunion at Albert Hall gig on TV, and then straight afterwards they followed with the original Farewell show. It’s exactly what I’m talking about when I say feel and swing. They played the same, they pretty much played the same solo parts, it wasn’t far removed in the notes, but it sounded like someone had programmed it in a Midi.

Did you have heroes when you were starting out?

I’d emulate al the easy ones…like, um, the Dave Clark Five. Dave Clark! The greatest man in show business! And Sandy Nelson. Again, I could kind of understand what he was doing. And he was brilliantly melodic. The drums played a song. It was like wow, you didn’t need as much of a band as he had.

You’ve got the two man band, The Sinclairs, that does surf rock instrumentals. Is that the same kind of approach?

The approach of that really is that me and Billy [Shinbone] have worked and known each other for a long, long time. We were sitting in his kitchen one day and he said I’ve always had this idea of doing a surf punk album, what do you say? So we got a couple days in the studio and went in and put it down. And actually, it was ok. But it just sounded like two guys who could play. It didn’t have that much sparkle, as we ended up calling the album in the end.

And then we left it alone for a couple of months and then he turned up in my house with a tiny, tiny Korg synthesizer that cost £30. It’s got little buttons and you can’t preset it, you can just mess with it. He gave me one of those, and he bought this set of hideous old bass pedals from an organ that he’d found in a swap meet somewhere and he said, “Rat, why don’t you just have a go with these?” And the thing is, when you’re not particularly proficient with music, and you’re working with a synthesizer and your hearing isn’t exact, you kind of come up with stuff that sort of works, but there’s something slightly wrong about it. When you actually add that to two blokes who can play, you get some theremin and some low end things happening, and all of a sudden it takes on a different character that becomes slightly unnerving—Ronald McDonald with stitches on its face.

I didn’t know you played the synthesizer on that.

Some of it. Some of it. And some of the bass parts. Because I am very unmusical, but I kind of go, I think we should be doing that, so I’ll learn how to do that, rather than—I’m a competent musician that applies himself to that piece of music, I’m like, well I hear it in my head, how can I recreate what I’m hearing as opposed to a scale you need to learn.

Perfection is overrated. The bits I like best on all records are the human elements and the bits that aren’t quite right and aren’t quite correct. It’s one of the things I dislike most about modern music, this quantized perfection of Pro Tools. If I want perfection, I’ll look at a bubble. Or a laser beam. We like perfection and we like drum machines on the dance floor; there they work really, really well. But when you have that thing of playing with four guitars and a drum kit, that actually isn’t what it really is. I know what’s been repaired and replaced.

Do you do your recording there in the attic?

Yeah. It depends. I mean, there are my electric drums which I use for some of my remix stuff and things like that. Because, for the neighbors, it’s too much having a real kit. So when I record proper drums, I always go into a studio with microphones.

There’s a lot of different approaches on the Professor and the Madman’s new album Séance. Some of the tracks are long, too.

It’s really good, because I can pretend to be other drummers. It’s like there’s a certain section that comes up and it reminds you—that’s a bit like Pink Floyd, so in this bit I can go Nick Mason. Then on other tracks, you can go yeah, now I can be Chad Smith [of the Red Hot Chili Peppers].

The point of it is, the variety that’s on that record isn’t something that I expected, judging from the previous albums we’d done. I was expecting much more not one-dimensional, but more in the vein of the previous album, which was pretty much straight-ahead all the way through. So it was very eclectic and at first I was thinking, they’re just treading through their old demos. But what I didn’t know was that it was a complete concept record, because there were no lyrics on it when I got it. So what I had was just la-la-la-la, because I need the vocal lines. So I had no idea it was a pre-written tale.

Had you known what the songs were about would you have played them differently? Some of them are kind of sinister.

I like that. I gotta say, I like the idea of a song being written from the stalker’s perspective. It’s a refreshing change.

The apocalyptic themes on the album seem pretty up to date. Did they write it since the pandemic hit?

I don’t know. I don’t think so. I know every time we finish an album, they always talk about starting writing songs for the next one. I think that was one of the things they have in common with The Damned, which was every record we made we wanted to progress. That’s why you learn to play a musical instrument. It isn’t so you can play the same thing for the rest of your life, it’s so you can always get pleasure from playing music, and you can only do that through writing new music and playing new music. It’s a no-brainer.

So as far as I’m aware, they were going, “Hey, you know what, it’d be kind of good to do something that’s kind of like The Monkees,” and progressing, and understanding that your audience progresses with you. Again, that was the big thing with The Damned—when we went from Damned Damned Damned and then Strawberries and Machine Gun Etiquette and Phantasmagoria, they were all very, very different musical stages for the group—directions we wanted to move in to keep ourselves happy as musicians and players and keeping ourselves entertained.

The great fortune with that is our audience was also ready to do the same thing. And I think that’s what Professor and the Madman are doing. Because I think this album of theirs, Séance, sounds very grown up. It’s mature… Also, I’m getting old. Death’s very close. And a lot of the topics on the album are about making contact from beyond the grave.

You mentioned Nick Mason. Wasn’t he the one who produced the 1977 Music for Pleasure album you hated causing you to walk away from the band?

Well, that’s not strictly true. I walked away from the band before the album, because I didn’t think we had the material to make another album, and I let myself get talked into it. We really wanted Syd Barrett to produce it.

Did you actually get close to getting in contact with Syd?

Oh yeah. We had the same publisher as Pink Floyd; we were well placed. But Syd just wasn’t well enough to do it, he just didn’t have the health. I figured I was going to quit anyway. But I totally understood the business reason of having one of Pink Floyd produce your record. And also, Nick Mason was there taking acid with the rest of them when they made all those great records. He was just as fucked up as the rest of them. He understood psychedelia.

But what he did, I think, was play a shrewd card by not interfering with what the band was doing. Because I think if he had done anything that was influential, he certainly would have been criticized for that. He just let the band be the band. And made sure with the production quality you could hear everything, which may not be the best thing but it was how it was. I like Nick anyway.

Your working with fellow Damned alumni, bassist Paul Gray, though I guess you’ve been so far putting on your individual tracks and not touring.

Well, he lives like nearly 200 miles away. The band was very nervous about asking me if it was OK if Paul did the bass parts originally, but I said it’s not my record, it’s their record, they can have anyone they want play the bass. It has nothing to do with me. They’re paying for it and they’re doing it and it’s up to them. But actually, it was a really good thing. I’m really, really pleased they got Paul to come in and do some stuff. We had a chance to build some bridges, so that was good. And also I had forgotten what a great bass player he is. He’s good at it.

You do your parts first, so do you imagine what he’ll put on top of it from his own studio in Cardiff?

No, no, no, no. That’s where the empathy is and why he and I work well together. We have different places where we feel we should accent and pick our spot to do something. We don’t go for the same spots. That’s one of the reasons we work well together, because he’s a very flamboyant player as well so when he picks a place where he wants to do something, he makes it count. And what I do is I show people where the next chorus or the next verse or the next middle 8 is—all kind of a cue for the next bit.

When the guitar solos go in—I always play with the guitars—that’s my favorite instrument, that’s what enthuses me. But while that’s going on, you need someone who can hold down that melody underneath that bit where that goes off. You need the anchorman in there who is still holding the song together. That’s one of the things that Paul’s really great at as well. So yeah, it was nice to work with him.

What do you hope to happen with this band if the pandemic allows for touring again?

I really don’t know. I mean when we did that one show at The 100 Club in London [in August, 2018], I said to Sean at the time when he asked if I want to do it, “Mate, you’re both coming to London, you’re both paying the airfares, why do just one show? You could easily do 10 shows and you could probably pay for your airline tickets,” and he said, no, just one. And it’s something you have to get your head around. Okay, we’re only doing this one. It’s not like you have the buffer zone of “Well, we’re going to do 10 shows, it doesn’t matter if the first one is not very good because you’d be better on the second, or the third…” Suddenly it becomes a very, very intense proposition. Wow, I’d better make sure I get this right. And if I can’t get it right, I better make sure they understand what I’m trying to do at least.

And you were recording it too for an album that came out in January 2019.

Yeah. And filming it. I sort of changed my opinion of recording and filming and capturing when I was working with Joe Strummer—not to name drop but it was his concept. What he said was, when we do those things, they’re a snapshot in time. There is a photograph of that exact time; that’s what we are at that exact minute. To try and change it into something in the future that wasn’t at the time was kind of fraudulent. I always thought that was such a brilliant observation. It was like saying, you don’t touch a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh because there’s a new acrylic paint that’s come through with a better color. These things are a creation of the moment and that’s where they belong, and that’s where they should stay.

When were you working with Joe Strummer?

[It was] ’96, ’97. We had a very brief thing. We were working for Walt Disney doing a movie called Grosse Pointe Blank. Me and Joe worked for about eight months in Westlake Studios in Hollywood. It was one of the greatest periods I ever had. Everything about it was great. Because Joe is really not what you expected him to be. He’s very, very funny. A wonderful sense of humor, and he wasn’t afraid to use it. Whereas usually the impression of Joe is that he was kind of dour. But actually we’d go for margaritas in the place opposite it, about 6 o’clock and he’d just run gags with the waitress. “Hey, tell the chef his mother’s a whore!” “This is nowhere near hot enough!” None of the sort of comedy you’d expect from him. No, it was one of the best summers I’d ever had. And it was a great learning process. He wasn’t afraid to try anything.

Do you think you’ll be playing live anytime soon in the States?

Yeah. I like playing live. The last time I toured was America with a band called The Mutants, which was probably about four years ago I think. We had the wonderful Sean Wheeler [of Throw Rag] with us on that, it was great, and Chris Goss [from Masters of Reality] and Dave Catching [of Eagles of Death Metal]. That was the last tour I did with them, in Vegas.

And you have some other things coming out?

The Sinclairs have a Halloween record coming out on the 30th called “Halloween Wings,” featuring the magnificent Paul-Ronney Angel from The Urban Voodoo Machine, he’s taken over singing on that, because The Sinclairs is an instrumental band. We wanted to make a Halloween record and thought it’d be nice to have a singer on it, so we got Paul-Ronney Angel to do it for us.

So that’s coming out at the end of this month, along with 69 Cats. It’s a pretty international band—the guitar player [Danny B. Harvey] is from Austin, the singer [Jyrki69] in Finland, and who cares about the bass player? That’s coming out on Halloween as well along with an English goth band called Nosferatu that are also putting out a new album, also on Halloween, [titled Lord of the Flies].

I guess the thing about not having to tour is that you can be in a lot of bands at once.

Including my own—well, after Halloween I’ll have seven albums out. That’s not because I don’t want to join a band, but that’s just how it kind of worked out. That’s why I say I’m so lucky during this lockdown, I’ve been able to have that amount of work coming in my direction. I’m a lucky boy.

Séance by The Professor and the Madman is due out November 13 on yellow vinyl, CD, and download by Fullerton Records.

The Sinclairs’ single “Halloween Wings” is out October 30 via Cleopatra Records.

Nosferatu’s Lord of the Flies (Special Edition) CD is due out October 30.

The 69 Cats’ cover of Post Malone’s “Hollywood’s Bleeding“ was released October 21.

Since this conversation, a July 2021 UK tour has been announced for the original lineup of The Damned, featuring Brian James, Dave Varian, Captain Sensible, and Rat Scabies.

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