Posted August 5, 2007

Hot on the heels of the Bang! Records compilation of their early years, T J HONEYSUCKLE gets the lowdown from Seminal Rats member MICHAEL HARLEY.

Twenty years later, just the reading the song titles is enough to send a shiver down my spine.

This reissue set is a great package, compiling photos, contemporary reviews, some handbills and some extraordinarily expressive photos in a handsome, 36-page booklet, put together by Rats lead singer Michael Harley. You could maybe argue about the track selection- no versions of “City Slang” or  “I’m Eighteen” -  but really, there are 27 prime tracks here, including hard to find nuggets like their take on “I Need Somebody”, that clearly show their range and their passion.  It’s all very tough stuff, which goes way beyond any simplistic “Detroit wanna-bes” tag. Have a listen to Rats originals like “Spider Boy”, “Rat Race”, or “L.M.E.” for proof.

Harley was always a formidable presence onstage, flanked by Mick Weber and Rueben Pinkster on guitars, backed by Dave Balsamo and Todd McNeair on bass and drums respectively. Unpretentious? Oh, yeah- check out the beards, the flannelette shirts, the ripped jeans, and the  complete lack of hairstyles. They were a band that forged their image by having no image. They never took themselves too seriously, although they took the music very seriously indeed. A very sad set of circumstances led to guitarist Mick Weber’s death in 1999. And of the four remaining original members, only drummer Todd Mc Neair is still playing music regularly.

It’s arguable that they helped give critical mass to the scene that spawned Bored!, Hoss, the Powdermonkeys and Magic Dirt, amongst others.

It’s not easy for me to get a great deal of distance on this. They were a live favorite of mine, and I was fairly closely involved with the band for a period, including sharing the van on their first tour to Sydney March 1986. Most of my memories of that trip are mercifully dim in parts, but the show they played with the Celibate Rifles at the Venue in Dee Why was unforgettable. As was the experience of sharing a hotel with Fred Negro’s post- I Spit On Your Gravy outfit, the Band Who Shot Liberty Vallance.

Michael and his wife moved their young family out of the inner city several years ago. He is a relaxed and amiable guy, and still cuts an imposing physical figure. I caught up with him one cool winter afternoon at his home in the Dandenong Ranges, 40km outside Melbourne, a place where there are more trees than people. After warming up in front of the open fire - he was up at 8am, chopping wood- we retired down the backyard to his studio/shed, for a few beers, some reminiscing, and a chat about the seminal life.

Mick Harley flanked by Harley (left) and Todd.

"Mick, Rueben and Todd had formed a band called Skippy while they were still at high school. A mutual friend called Steve met them at a Celibate Rifles gig. You know that way you’d see the same people at the shows you were at and realize they had the same tastes as you, and get to talking.  Anyway, it so happened that they were they were looking for a bass player, and Dave’s name came up. For some reason I went along  with him to the audition, and they were jamming, playing songs I knew – Stooges songs and stuff- so I sang along, and ended up becoming the singer. Something I never thought I would be doing, by the way.

"It wasn’t always easy, we didn’t always get big crowds, but there was always a core of people of who were kind of our following. There was a period where we were the support act for anyone from Sydney- the Celibate Rifles, Screaming Tribesmen, Lime Spiders. We headlined our own shows, too, though, at places like the Prince of Wales. But that never bothered me, the whole billing thing, you know. Being on some of those bills at the old Greek Theatre in Richmond (600 capacity venue, now long demolished- TJH) was great. Nights like the Seminal Rats, Ollie Olsen’s band NO, and the New Christs, or when we played with Henry Rollins, or us, the Cosmic Psychos and the Butthole Surfers- they were great nights, regardless of who went on first. We toured a bit, went to Sydney every year for a few years. And down to Geelong, of course, that was our second home. That focus on guitar rock down there, the scene with Dave Thomas and Bored!, was just great. It was wonderful down there at times."

"Well, the guys from Bang! got in touch with me and it all happened very quickly. They got in touch via bloody Myspace, of all things. I set up a Rats Myspace, because I had digitized the records, burnt the vinyl across the computer, and I’m not joking when I say that the very next day after I put the site up, I had a message from Juan Marie (Bang! Records head honcho- TJH) who was keen to talk. It was one of those serendipitous moments. He’d been looking for us for a while, apparently. 

"So, yeah, he wanted to do something good with us, it was all his idea, really. He offered to do a two-CD package, with a booklet, but only stuff from the original line up with Dave on bass, and of course I said, yes, thanks very much. Once it started happening, I got the digital stuff to a guy I know who remastered all it and cleaned it up as much as possible. Rueben came over to help with that, it only took us a day. Dave and Todd knew it was going on, but putting the package together was pretty much my baby. They’re all just happy to have it all out there, and remastered too. It’s only tunes by the original lineup, so it’s all the studio stuff off vinyl with Dave, plus selected tracks from the double live album, and the Gore Street party tape, which was recorded by accident at a party in a Fitzroy house that Dave and I used to live in."

Rueben, Dave, Harley, Todd and Mick.

"First and foremost, I wanted – well, we all wanted- to do the collection as a historical document, and a tribute to Mick Weber, which does come through I think. It’s also for the older fans, who maybe have it on vinyl from the old days, and maybe also for younger people, who don’t have turntables, and can’t hear the vinyl. So when I got the chance to get the stuff off vinyl into the digital age, I jumped at it. And it kind of puts it all to bed.  It’s out there now, but you know, even if it sells really well, and someone asks us to reform on the back of it, it’s never gonna happen. It’s hard not to feel like we are part of that wave of old rockers who are reissuing stuff just relive our youth with a reformation tour. But the Seminal Rats was a band, and we can’t play without Mick Weber- that wouldn’t be the Rats, it would be a farce."  

"There was nothing that I had to leave off, that I wish I could have put on. Except maybe a version of “Smith & Wesson Blues” on the Gore Street tape, where some genius had hit the pause button for a second, right in the middle of the lead break.

"The bit of the reissue that I’m happiest about is the stuff off Grruntled (“ain’t Dead Yet”, “Honey Gorge”, “Tunnel Vision” & “Spider Boy”- TJH), just hearing them remastered. They really came into their own for me once they had their bottom end put back in."

"I’m interested to see what the reaction will be once it hits the shelves. I got sent some by the guys at Bang!, and I’ve sent a few out, which people seem to like. It’s kind of funny have a new 'old' record coming out though, but to be perfectly honest I was never really that concerned with sales figures back in the day when we were playing.

"Being popular was never our aim, we never tried to please anyone else."

"The Essential Seminal Rats" is available in August 2007 on Bang! Records