San Diego's newest hardcore band, Rats Eyes, has been together fewer than six months, but Jason “Blackie” Blackmore, the band's guitarist, greets me at the Turf Club decked out in slippers and a bathrobe like he's already made the big time.
'I don't own pants,” he jokes, “I can't afford 'em.'
Blackie lives in an apartment above the bar, and I follow singer Gabe Serbian and bass player Jimmy Armbrust upstairs. (Drummer John Cota is in Japan.) Blackmore tells me that in spite of the band's short lifespan, Rats Eyes has racked up an impressive number of shows at punk-rock haunts across the city, from the Tower Bar to The Casbah. And later this week they'll embark on a West Coast tour, 11 cities in 11 days, to support their debut 7-inch from Cavepunk Records.
“I think we've done too much in the short time we've been together,” Blackmore says, cracking open a beer. “We'll probably break up soon.”
The Golden Hill apartment overlooks the intersection where Rats Eyes was born. It started with a chance meeting between Blackmore and Armbrust. Old friends from Kansas City, Mo., they'd played together in a rock band called Gunfighter and had toyed around with the idea of starting a cover band called Grand Punk Railroad.
They shared a love of hardcore bands like Black Flag, Circle Jerks and Battalion of Saints, bands they'd grown up listening to in the early '80s. They'd talked about forming one of their own for as long as they could remember.
'When are we going to start our punk-rock band?” Armbrust asked that night when he met his friend at the intersection of 26th and C.
“When we were trying out singers, and there was that young kid,” Blackmore says to Armbrust, “you made him a compilation of different bands that we loved in the '80s. A lot of older stuff. And he was, like, ‘I've never heard music like this before.''
It's not surprising. Hardcore has been splintered into dozens of sub-genres, each proclaiming its newness to the world. Rats Eyes are refreshingly straight-forward—both on the stage and in person.
'We're not trying to reinvent the wheel,” Blackmore insists. “It's total early Black Flag / Circle Jerks-style hardcore. And that's what it is. It's not rocket surgery. It's not brain science.”
You could be forgiven for thinking that Rats Eyes are a cookie-cutter hardcore band full of spit and swagger and little else, but you'd be mistaken. The music isn't derivative. Sure, it's inspired by tradition and infused with a kind of nostalgia that feels almost reverent as they crank out simple, easy-to-play songs that could have been written 20 years ago. But Serbian, who also plays with hardcore freaks The Locust, makes it clear that this isn't a sentimental journey.
“It's just about being pissed off or hating shit,” he insists. “I'm not going to preach to people or tell them shit they already know. I'm not trying to make you change the way you fucking think about anything.”
History tells us that when shit goes bad, hardcore flourishes. It's no coincidence that American hardcore first spread during the Reagan regime. Things are easily as bad now as they were then, and California, with an aging, ineffectual governor on a tired power trip (sound familiar?) has never been worse off. Hardcore may very well be the solution for the value-conscious listener. Think of it as musical belt-tightening: everything you love about punk rock, only louder and faster. In fact, think whatever you want. Rats Eyes don't care, Blackmore least of all.
“We've got, like, a 20-minute set. We just blast your fucking face off and then we're done.”
Typically, hardcore is defined by what it's against. Rats Eyes buck the trend with an intense, tightly focused set that isn't so much about being in opposition to the world beyond the stage as being in tune with those on it.
“It's all about the energy and the fun,” Blackmore says. “Just getting together and guys having a good time playing. And that's kind of bringing it back to what it's all about, in my opinion.
Rats Eyes play a record-release show with Prize Country and Loom at Radio Room on Thursday, Nov. 12. www.myspace.com/ratseyesratseyes.
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