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."
The change in lineup allowed the band to become more versatile. "Zeth is able to do things on the drums that Tony wasn't able to. We're able to do songs that are a little more dynamic, where we have slow and fast parts, dark and light parts. The sound is a lot fatter now," says Schmaltz.
Finally, after six years, King Rat had evolved into a unit that could gel together musically. "We could all spend a lot of time together and see eye-to-eye and talk things out"--and, most important, says Luke, "get loaded." The band took the latter activity quite seriously during a California limb of their first tour, where they possibly strengthened the argument that players in rock bands sometimes lack gray matter. While driving through the Mojave Desert in a cramped van with no air-conditioning, the guys decided to embark on a little game of beer-bottle baseball. "We're talking major desert--rattlesnakes, cacti. I found this stick on the ground, and I was like, 'Throw me a beer bottle,' and I hit every one of them," says Luke. Unfortunately, in his efforts to be the punk-rock Mark McGwire, he sent shards of glass into his eye. Touchingly, Daigle and Schmaltz came to the rescue. "We ran up with a full beer. I grabbed his hair and pulled his head back and dumped the beer into his eye, and he's like, 'Don't waste it,'" Schmaltz says.
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The band did make their gig intact, and throughout that tour and those that followed, King Rat showed audiences what royal rodents sound like when they're inflamed with the desire to play. "Sure, it's fun and it's rock and roll," says Schmaltz, "but the bottom line is, there is nowhere else any of us would rather be but right there playing with everything we have, in front of strangers, friends, anybody. What I'm saying, what I'm playing--I mean it--this is pretty much all I have."
King Rat has been keeping busy lately, landing opening spots with old-school punk bands like the Dickies, UK Subs and the Adolescents. They're putting the final touches on a new studio release and a live CD, which they recorded recently at the Bluebird Theater. Schmaltz is also involved in reshooting a couple of scenes from the Frank Rich-directed feature film Nixing the Twist, a local production in which Schmaltz stars that made its debut last year at the Bluebird and the Lion's Lair. The other bandmembers also appear in the film, and King Rat contributes two songs to the soundtrack. Schmaltz plays a hit man who painfully deals with his fall from grace as a former wrestling contender. He and Rich plan on submitting the movie to the Sundance and Slamdance film festivals.
King Rat's vision of success stays true to its members' working-class ideals. "Success in the music business to me is not being a rock star and a millionaire and all that. Success to me is being able to call it your job and paying your bills by playing music," says Luke. Like the moment when the Cutters triumph in Breaking Away, the band did have a rock-star-esque moment in front of a large hometown crowd recently, when they opened for Mike Ness at the Ogden Theatre. "All I kept hearing all night was 'Where are you guys from? Who are you guys?'" says Schmaltz. "But the thing I'll hold on to the rest of my life [was when] we had just finished 'Jack Daniels' and I asked the crowd if they wanted to hear one more. Every single fucking person screamed, 'Yeah!' Regardless of what anyone else says, anyone who writes songs or plays music dreams about that moment."
King Rat, with the Dickies and the 45s. 8 p.m., Friday, August 13, Bluebird Theatre, 3317 East Colfax, $8, 303-830-6700.