Every now and then I find myself going back to my hometown musical roots in search of fantastic new music or simply just to check in on those local bands that I’ve enjoyed listening to and see perform live over the years. One such band that I found myself intrigued by was Rooster Ra. They had a somewhat eclectic and infectious sound and their shows were always lively and fun, self described as “Skank-a-billy glam ditch jazz”. “Terms like “Hillbilly Ditch Jazz” and “Psychobilly Cow Bop” have been thrown around to describe the sound, a strange melting pot of jazzy musicianship, groovy stoner rock and odd, if not downright comical, lyrics.” ~ VC Reporter
Starting off in 1991, Rooster Ra would enjoy the burgeoning local indie coffee house and bar scene along with releasing their first album ‘Trillion Dances’ before disbanding in 1998. In the early 2000’s they would come back together again for a brief period of time but ended up going their separate ways after the loss of a fellow bandmate. In 2009 Rooster Ra would once again come back together with founding member Ray Waggoner (vocals and guitar) and long time friend and music cohort Scott Hughes (vocals and upright bass) along with various supporting drummers. During this time they would record High Heel Rockets and in 2019 three more albums High Art, Burning Low and Under The Blinking Sky.
Today.. Torched Magazine is excited to introduce you to Rooster Ra as they dive into their unique sound as well as touch on their musical roots and more..
Did you grow up in a musical environment? When and where did it all start for you?
Ray: I didn’t necessarily grow up in a musical environment. My dads taste in music was very limited. He basically loved the hits of the 50s for the rest of his life and in a very peripheral way. My mom, on the other hand, loved music. She grew up in Kansas and was embedded in Country music. As I was growing up, she was listening to a lot of Patsy Cline, Ray Price, Dolly Parton, Woodie Guthrie and we were watching Hee Haw all the time. And then: She absolutely loved Neil Diamond! She also was relentlessly turning me onto old Hollywood flicks and I was exposed to those movie scores, musicals and Elvis. Eventually, she ended up buying a blue chip-dime store acoustic guitar and teaching herself basic triad chords. Subsequently, she taught herself easy songs she wanted to learn. She in fact, gave me my first guitar lesson, showing me all those triads and teaching me Puff the Magic Dragon by Peter Paul and Mary and Blowing in the Wind by Bob Dylan. I was set! Later, in the very first week of six grade, I had a somewhat religious conversion to rock ‘n’ roll one day, even though I’d been listening to Elvis for a few years. I arrived home after school to open the front door, as I hear the loud crackle of needle hitting vinyl and the opening bars to Led Zeppelin-Black Dog roars out. My sister, a senior in high school, at this time, was listening to everything rock. This is 1980. I stood motionless, almost catatonic in the front doorway as the song proceeded through the changes and the solo and to the end. A transformative very palpable moment. I felt vulnerable, excited and eager. I had changed in those 5 minutes. I went onto raid my sister’s vinyl, and seeking out new music anywhere I could find it.
Scott: Lots of 70’s FM radio, plus whatever my parents were spinning: Hippy mom – Beatles, Dylan, Neil Young. Beatnik dad – Miles Davis, Stravinsky and Bartok, and more exotic stuff like Ravi Shankar and the Bulgarian Womens’ Chorus; neither of them were musicians. In 3rd grade, I got into Kiss and decided I wanted to be a rocker. I was fascinated by the power of distorted electric rhythm guitar. Spit spraying from my lips, I mimicked that full guttural sound, and asked my dad, “what instrument makes THAT SOUND!” “Well pal,” he replied, “the low sounds in rock n’ roll come from the bass guitar.” So based on that misidentification, I became a bass player, buying a cheap no name bass from Unity catalog. It wasn’t until college that I got into playing upright bass, which is all I play on the new albums.
What was the inspiration behind your 2019 triple album release? Were there any differences between them and how do they compliment each other?
Ray: I Don’t really think there was any grand conceptual inspiration or design behind the triple album release. More like – we hadn’t recorded in 7 years, despite never stopping the writing and developing of composition and sound. So, we simply had a bunch of material (not all of it got recorded) and we lined up the songs in a way that made sense, or at least, negotiable between us. I see them as sister albums in a time sense, but again, not some conceptual thing with purposeful undertones. But the undertones persist. Scott had the idea for the title ‘High Art’ after we talked about the Pierre Brassau painting exhibit hoax experiment; ‘Burning Low’ is a title track and ‘Under the Blinking Sky’ was a lyric from a song called ‘Willow Tree’. Somewhat haphazard, intuitive macramae, in terms of the relativity of the albums and your question. In the end, it’s the same silly macro mini cosm sumpthins’ putting together inspiration; no matter the manifestation. How many times can one be split.
Are your lyrics generic or based on real experiences?
Scott: Both. Ultimately, I’m just looking for words that sound good (duh!), that joke and provoke, conjure, disturb, carry a charge. I love when lyrics can be perceived on multiple levels simultaneously. (Baby Blue can be heard as a break up song, but also as a lament for the Earth) Often if I try to nail down the meaning too much, it just stops the song from taking flight. Some of my favorite lyrics of Ray’s (for instance Golden Hills) make perfect sense to me, but I can’t really explain why. For me that’s a kind of lyrical magic.
Ray: I would say that my lyrics are instigated by ‘real’ experiences, but that idea or movement itself travels between gross-concrete to subtle depending on my awareness, I guess; the usual functions of incarnate mind and the imaginings of disincarnate mind persist. Yes, imagination being very real. Provocation, pain, absurdity, orientation, joy, disorientation, ordinary love, fantastic love, equanimous love, fantasies of physics and psychical research; my delusions attempting to reconcile the grand paradox of advantage. Hating it loving it Fuck it.
How would you explain the sound of your music and your process in creating a song?
Ray: Sound? I think we’ve always wanted to be eclectic and have our own sound. Ecclectic, as a synthesis, not a grab bag of styles, kind of band. Skank-a-billy glam ditch jazz I guess has persisted in the camp, but not to pidgen hold it. It all comes from Scott and mine love of a lot of different kinds of musics and wanting it all in there, whether for a beat or a bar or the entirety; seeking out new influence and implementation all the time. Process? Eye a rabbit in the bush; chase it, catch it and cook it.
Scott: Some songs we’ve described as Bartok Blues, others Skank-a-billy. We love really varied musics; and just want all those influences to meld. I suppose nothing is ever really new under the sun, but if we can manage to integrate those influences finely enough, maybe we can create the illusion of originality. We love richness and variety, and evolving in new directions, but we don’t want to sound like genre chameleons. When our tunes come on, we want people to say, “Hey, I think that’s that band Rooster Ra!”
How has your music evolved since you first began playing together?
Scott: It’s funny how musical sensibilities are always shifting and sometimes circling back. Early on, as 8th grade boys were prone to do, we bonded over early proto-heavy metal and prog rock, but as we continued to branch out, I think we kind of reacted away from the inherent nerdiness and butt-headedness of those roots. We wanted to mine hooks while simultaneously embracing improvisational fire, Turkish and African exotism, and rich 20th century harmonies. At the same time, an undercurrent of country and spaghetti western persisted and was increasingly recognized. Over the past decade or so, we’ve really been drawn in a more punky, glam direction, and on this latest trio of albums, more than ever before, I think we’ve allowed ourselves to re-embrace some of those once abandoned 8th grade inclinations.
Ray: The years have produced a simplicity in writing while deepening the resonance, in my opinion. I mean-our first tune in the fall of our 10th grade was 10 and a half mins long called ‘Tales of the Inner Mind.’ We’ve dialed that down a bit since then; both in time and title. We started out instrumental. Our singing came later. Very influenced by eastern euro kind of harmonies. I think we both like weird things and tones in music, while wanting a hook, whether it’s vocal or a riff or such. Our process has changed in the years. Bartok rock n roll.
So much has changed in the music business since you first started out.. Have these changes helped or hindered your creative process?
Scott: When we were kids, FM radio was diverse; you could hear Zeppelin, Willie Nelson, Devo and Elvis all on the same station. It’s a shame to see radio has grown so hyper stratified and genre based. Rooster Ra has never fit very well within those lines (not that we’ve ever had much radio play anyway, ha!) Fortunately, with Spotify and Pandora, eclectic play lists have kind of opened things back up again. It’s also been kind of cool to see the re-emergence of vinyl. It’s been fun putting out vinyl releases of our 3 new albums!
Ray: I know very little about the reality of the music industry. I know what most people know, but that is probably fairly pedestrian to true daily industry insiders. Content and Programming have always changed, I guess; and some things about it have stayed the same. I think Scott hits a great point here about the ‘stratification’. That said, having not relied on making it in the business and surviving by other means, the idea of hinderance and help is tricky for me. First-one needs to decide whether commercial, financial success is going to define your ‘output’ (of course it does.) I’m not saying what kind of output, but merely output. I have seen a lot of people, consciously or unconsciously, remove creative arts from their lives. No time. Artists need to decide whether they are going to make room for it otherwise; or not. Ultimately living in any way, really, is creative, but I mean the conscious pursuit of the meta plastic arts. Perhaps, not ever getting signed has given the time for a certain kind of development that possibly would not have taken the same direction for me. Who knows.? Actually, now that I am thinking of it; one thing that has changed in the music business from labels in my time is DEVELOPMENT. So important to longevity, in my opinion. What are you in it for?
Do you have any hobbies outside of music that help to rejuvenate your creativity?
Ray: Hobbies? Humor, diet, exercise, listening, talking, good medicine, letting it go.
Scott: Cinema, daily exercise, morning AND afternoon coffee!
Who or what are some of your creative influences?
RR: Cinema, picnics and the aina.
Bartok, Stravinsky, Ives, Debussy, Xenakis, Penderecki, Partch, Webern, Harrison, JSBach, Eno, Black Sabbath, Pantera, The Wailers, Beatles, Pink Floyd, Clash, Throbbing Gristle, Buzzcocks, The Damned, Dead Kennedys, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Nick Drake, Patsy Cline, J. CASH, MGMT, Guerilla Toss, Ali Farke Toure, Fela Kuti, Cachao, Buena Vista Social Club, Caetano Veloso, George Jones, Rush, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Thelonious Monk, Nirvana, Devo, Bowie, Charlie Parker, JOHN Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Dick Dale, Surf Guitar Central, Public enemy, Elvis, Waylon Jennings, Echo and the Bunnymen, Laurie Anderson, King Crimson, Yes, XTC, Lou Reed, Jeff Kaiser, Hedwig, Iggy, Vinny Golia, Bauhaus, Love n Rockets, Nels Cline, Pharoah Sanders, Kraftwerk, Pere Ubu, Willie Nelson, Zeppelin, Everly Brothers, Stanley Bros., Chris Isaak, DEPT., U2, Eugene Chadbourne, Simon & Garfunkel, Neil Diamond, Madlib(motha fkn madlib) Eric Dolphy, Manu Chao, GBH, Dirty Beaches, Louis Artmstrong, Rimsky Korsakov, Rolling Stones, The Shangrilas, Tom Jones, TSOL, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Bulgarian Womens Chorus, Bjork, John Cage, BeeGees, Hamza El Din, Peggy Lee, Alabama Shakes, Ty Segall, Thee Oh Sees, Slayer, Iron Maiden (especially the 1st 2 albums with Paul Diano!) Fred Neil, Sinead O’Connor, Loretta Lynn, Nina Hagen, Siouxsie, Talking Heads, Elton John, The Toadies, Peter Gabriel, Scorpions, Judas Priest, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Carl, Perkins, Duke Ellington, Emmylou Harris, Yma Sumac, Elizabeth Cotton, Frances Marie Uitti, The Doors, Joy Division, X, Lightnin Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Metallica, Gorillaz, Mississippi John Hurt, Material, Thomas Tallis, R.L. Burnside, Desmond Dekkar, John Zorn, Rova Sax Quartet, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Derek Baily, Hildegard van Bingen, Chopin, Mussorgsky, Messer Chups, The Ventures, Johann Strauss, Meat Puppets, Melvins, Motown, Harriet Tubman, Dr John C Lilly, Malcolm X, King Sunny Ade, Joan Armatrading, Joni Mitchell, Al Green, Otis Redding, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Link Wray, Toots and the Maytals, Blondie, The Pretenders, Lucinda Williams, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, Agent Orange, The Cramps, The Pixies, B-52’s, Man or Astro Man?, Nusrat ali Khan, Raga, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Glenn Gould, Miles Davis, Van Morrison, Dean Martin, Pinching Judy, Blimp, Sunny Erickson, Mitch Velasquez, Jeff Evans, Maheekats, J-Sun, Steve Reich, Raging Arb and the Redheads, Henry Cowell, Dixie Dregs, Hank Williams, Ray Price, Buck Owens, Judy Garland, Meredith Monk, Marx Brothers, Jane’s Addiction, Band of Horses
Do you have any plans for live shows? If so, when and where?
Scott: We should be announcing some shows in the coming months!
Ray: Yes and yes.
Is there anything else that you would like to share that I may have missed?
RR: Art: over sensationalized and undervalued.
Feature photo by Carrie Jaymes
All other photos courtesy of Rooster Ra
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