Before iPods and Zunes, before smart phones with radio apps and headphones that keep track of the distance covered on an afternoon run through the park, there were only albums and unadulterated performances to satiate the music portion of the brain. If you were seeing the Philharmonic, maybe a folk singer-songwriter, you’d be guaranteed a top-notch aural sensory experience. Not the case for the fledgling punk scene, where the reputation was carnage and chaos, amps left in pieces, sound techs left whimpering in the corner. But Dave Rat wasn’t afraid. Charging headlong into the no-holds-barred scene of the 1980s, Rat revolutionized punk rock from behind the scenes, building an empire along the way.
At the age of 17, Rat began building speakers and gear in his garage, taking beer and a few bucks as payment for working friends’ parties. As his reputation among local musicians grew, he found himself the go-to guy for the underground punk rock scene.
“I did a show at Venice Beach with Social Distortion, the first time that Mike Ness ever sang,” said Rat. “We put my two speakers on little tables. I didn’t have a mixing board, I had a cassette deck that I used instead. After 45 minutes, the tape ended and the deck turned off and so did all of the sound. I have an old cassette tape where all you can hear are the vocals of Mike Ness and the bass player.”
Being able to fix problems on the fly came as a result of Rat’s post-high-school career at Hughes Aircraft, testing missiles against heat, moisture and sudden impacts. He applied this knowledge to the rough-and-tumble reality of a punk rock show, one of the few instances in which speakers and missiles need to withstand the same amount of stress, and founded Rat Sound, his audio rental and engineering company based in Ventura.
“My job at Hughes was as an environmental test tech. We would test parts of the missile systems for everything they could possibly experience on planet earth. We’d drop them, put them on giant vibration tables, put them in big freezers,” said Rat. “I saw how stuff broke, so I applied that knowledge to sound systems so that they were virtually indestructible. After that, punk rock shows were no longer an issue.”
Three decades later, Rat Sound’s systems are used in intimate venues, massive arenas and utilized for festivals such as the Coachella Music Festival. Rat’s acted as the touring sound engineer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers for the last two decades, and supplied sound for Rage Against the Machine, Metallica and the upcoming Soundgarden reunion. But his favorite memories are of his stint as the engineer for seminal punk rockers Black Flag.
“I grew up in Hermosa Beach and lived about three blocks away from where Black Flag rehearsed,” said Rat. “Chuck Dukowski, the bass player, called me and said, ‘We want to tour, and we want a full sound system!’ It was the scariest point in my life, but really awesome, too. We did 112 shows in 120 days.’ ”
Rat developed the techniques and devices that would catapult him into the sound design hall of fame while on tour with Black Flag. Recently returned from Boston, where he spoke of his experiences and expertise to sound engineering graduate students, Rat realizes the difference between himself and those with whom he shares his knowledge. Rather than learning from a book or classroom, his encyclopedic knowhow came from the road, which sometimes proved a harsh professor.
“The punk rock movement was considered to be anti-establishment, and the police, wherever the shows were, they decided they were going to stamp out the ‘punk disease,’ Rat said. “They would send the riot police in with shields and batons and beat the kids. They had zeroed in on Black Flag and would figure out where they were playing and send out warnings to the local police departments. Because of that, there were no published itineraries. We’d find out where we were playing the day before the show, drive in with no directions, find the center of town, then try and find the cool record store — because they always knew where the band was playing. That was the underground.”
Despite the constant threat of raids, Rat always found a way to keep the show alive.
“As soon as we would see the police, we’d blend into the audience. I set up the sound system so that even if they shut off the soundboard all that would happen is that the vocals would go away and the drums got a little quieter. I always tied in the electricity for the room before the main switch for the building — which is kind of dangerous — so they could shut off the power for the entire building and the only thing that would still be on would be the band and the lights. The cops would panic and the band would still be rocking like no tomorrow. It was so good.”
Things are different now. Instead of policemen with batons, hipsters with PBRs swarm the venues where Rat stages his gear, but he’s still applying his meticulous professionalism to every show, giving concert-goers the best sound experience regardless of whether or not the audience knows it.
“Live rock shows are about creating memories. The first show I ever went to was Led Zeppelin in 1977, the second was Black Flag and The Ramones. Those are memories. If I mix a show and someone walks away and has that kind of memory, that’s a win. Give them goosebumps and people have something to hold onto for the rest of their lives.”
Read about Dave Rat’s experience on the road with the Red Hot Chili Peppers on his blog at www.ratsound.com.