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King Rat has found inspiration in the most un-punk of places--namely, the 1979 hit movie Breaking Away. The movie chronicles a young man's struggle with his identity as a "townie" in a Midwestern college town. In the film, the lead character faces obstacles as he attempts to realize a dream of becoming a cycling champion. The local band sees something of a parallel between their own efforts to achieve success as a rock band.
"The connection essentially is having a lot of motivation and inspiration and a lot of desire to accomplish something," says King Rat frontman/guitarist Luke Schmaltz. "What we have is a result that we have had to chisel out of stone, and like the Cutters [the main character's cycling team], we've had to build something out of nothing."
Since forming six years ago, the band has faced hilly terrain, from initially struggling to get gigs at Cricket on the Hill--a joint recently dubbed by Westword as the "Best Place to Enjoy Laughably Bad Punk Rock"--to lineup changes, to the toils of the road. Today, though, King Rat is playing packed houses and opening up for their heroes, including Mike Ness of Social Distortion fame.
Schmaltz formed King Rat with guitarist Tony Luke, who learned to play drums while Schmaltz handled all of the guitar parts. In early 1996 they recorded their first record, The Towne Liar, in San Francisco, at a studio owned by Ian Parks, an Albuquerque high school pal of Schmaltz's. Because Parks had done studio work for Kirk Hammett of Metallica, the band had access to state-of-the-art recording equipment, including Hammett's. "We did seven songs in two days. He [Parks] was making good money and spending a lot of it on recording equipment. He had a lot of Kirk's stuff there, a couple of Kirk's guitars," says Schmaltz. With the Metallica mojo on their side, Liar lashes out early Replacements-sounding straightahead rock and roll. Cuts like "21" show Schmaltz's potential as a songwriter with his pierced tongue planted firmly in his cheek. ("I'm 21, I'm having fun/I'm 31 and I have a son/Forty-one, I carry a gun/Fifty-one, I hate everyone/I'm 61 and I can't run/Seventy-one, I weigh a ton/Eighty-one, this ain't no fun/Ninety-one, when is it going to be done?/I'm 101, I don't have anyone.")
The disc helped solidify King Rat's position as resident band at the Cricket, which gave the act its first live shot. "The Cricket will book anybody," says Schmaltz. "When we first started, we weren't top-notch. We sucked. They were the place you could get a gig, regardless if you were farting into a loudspeaker or hitting a trash can with a stick."
Regular gigging gave the bandmembers a chance to develop their skills in front of live audiences, but Schmaltz and Luke still felt that they needed to improve their rhythm section. They went through a succession of bass players and eventually hooked up with Maine native Todd Daigle. "He's cut from the same mold as me and Tony," Schmaltz says of Daigle. "It wasn't 'I'll jam with you guys but I have to be in the office at seven every morning'; it was 'We'll jam till two in the morning, and if I have to deliver pizzas tired, that's fine.'" Daigle, younger than both Luke and Schmaltz, helped the band reach an audience young enough to be the offspring of Cricket legend Denver Joe. But his youthfulness also complicated things a bit, as he recalls having "to sneak into bars to play with these guys."
In 1997, the revitalized Rat released Knockin' Up Heaven's Whore on its own Hotshot Locksmith Records. This time the boys picked up the tempo and slashed and torched their way around with anthem tracks like "Burn It." With a marked improvement in musicianship, Whore leans more to the punk side than did the band's debut, and it displays the players' ability to pile-drive their way through the verse-chorus dynamic for maximum effect. Lyrically, Schmaltz comes through by slamming some of his favorite targets on "Cheating": "He's pretty tough, he's got the right stuff/He drinks micro-beers and has No Fear gear." "Breaking Away," inspired by the aforementioned movie, showcases the band's motto: "I'm a cutter/I'm from the gutter/I don't need Uncle Sam to hold my hand/I'll get by on bread and butter."
The band shopped the recording around to other labels, including Jello Biafra's Alternative Tentacles. Biafra passed, as did the rest. Undaunted, the group once again looked for ways to improve their sound. Enter Zeth Padulla, a veteran of such Denver stalwarts as Mean Uncle Mike, Social Joke and MK Ultra. A few days after the release of Knockin' Up Heaven's Whore, Luke approached Padulla at the 15th Street Tavern. Recalls Padulla, "I'm drunk off my ass at the Tavern, watching a good fucking show--some guy who put his drumstick in his ass and wiggled around." Padulla was taking notes at the time on how to improve his stage presence, "and Tony came up to me, and he was like, 'What do you think about jamming with us? I'm going to play guitar, you're going to play drums'--and that's how the four-piece happened."
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