The Rotten Apples: Beach Party at the Orchard
The Rotten Apples, "the tightest out-of-tune band in the world," had an antecedent in guitarist Keith Waters' Belmont High School band (Belmont is a town just north of Boston). Even that early evolutionary ancestor of the current band blew effortless attitude in the face of the powers that be. Waters remembers playing a party at the Romney estate in town. "We didn't like the party and we didn't like Romney's kids, so we left early and got back in our van." The van was boxed in on the driveway, though. "We tried getting around the car in front of us but there wasn't enough room." They ended up leaving the vehicle on the grass and coming back for it the next morning.
Seeming ineptitude charged with a buoyant message is what they deliver. The Rotten Apples are a party band. You won't hear them covering songs from any particular decade. However, there is a constancy to their work that skirts fashions of the moment and forges forward across the beaches of rock music like an ancient crustacean, a horseshoe crab, little changed in its time of existence except for adaptive modifications to its exteriora darkening of the shell, say, to blend in with a darker environment.
Like any good attraction to a good party, they start conversations: they play together sharp on the beat, but what about those clashing, dueling guitarsis that some kind of calculated atonalism, or are they just messy? Say they are messy. So what? Maybe that's part of their freedom and jubilance. Do they ever tune their instruments? On top of everything, the four members blend into any happening like any of the guests. There is no barrier between them and fan. Rather, there is a seamless continuum spiriting them right into the thick of the social mood while still onstage, and offstage afterwards, too as they mingle and impart their accumulated countercultural lore.
But wait a minute. What if, instead of a horseshoe crab, The Rotten Apples are an Alaskan king crab? Looked at more closely, the music has a lyrical complexity to it. Again, what underlies this complexity is the people aspect, in this case the interplay of band member personality. Drummer Paul Guercio is the disciplinarian, keeping the strong beat like a John Densmore or a John Bonham. Guitarist and saxophonist Keith Waters is a quiet, wise John Lennon type. Guitarist and Singer Ryan Riehle is a sexy, masculine but androgynous type who gives the band its glam cachet. Singer Muffy Brandt is the eye of the hurricane, seemingly in the background but bursting out with intensities defined by a tight charm that is never harsh.
The band's roots are nebulous, with many chance encounters among members. "I met Ryan at WZBC [Boston Colllege Radio] about ten or 12 years ago," remembers Waters. "We briefly did the group Dirty Rainbow for while. Then we did Dream House together." Sound like a Cocteau Twins-style unit? "Kind of, but a little more wild." Brandt is from Pittsburgh, "a hellish little enclave" west of the city. "I met Keith and Ryan briefly at Fort Thunder in Providence, R. I., in 1999. Ryan and I met on the street in New Orleans when we were each on different road trips in 2000." "We were passing each other trying to find a place to stay," remembers Riehle. "I even saw someone get stabbed... I slept in a graveyard, and then a university before the cops kicked us out." "I ended up at my friend's relatives' mansion," remembers Brandt, "and on the bedside table there was a Sotheby's Jackie O. auction catalogue with the items circled that the aunt had bid on. And we were so dirty!"
"Me and Keith met through Massachusetts College of Art," says Guercio. "I didn't go there but my roommate did. Me and Keith both met Ryan at the same time. Me and Ryan were in a band called L.A. Drugs, which we did for a few years. The Rotten Apples actually came about from a show that Dream House was asked to play. Me, Ryan and Keith started playing together and decided to form a band together." There was no first Apple, though. The decision to go on together was formed as if with one mind. "When we were doing the previous band, Ergot Rot with Muffy," continues Guercio, "we did this T. Rex thing for Halloween. We even had some recordings but they stayed in the basement and never found their way out."
Characteristic of the group is the process of going out of sync, of clicking and then not clicking, and then clicking again. "We're all tight friends," says Guercio. "We have an understanding between music and where things are going with a song." As the drummer he is behind all this. He remembers a quote from Ginger Baker: "A mediocre band with a mediocre drummer is just a bad band, but a mediocre band with a good drummer could get something." "I've never had a good time onstage before this band," says Brandt. "This is the first time that, from the opening notes, people would like the song and start moving to it. And I was like, 'Wow! They want to see this. This isn't some self-indulgent shit show that I'm doing. We like doing this, they like watching us, cool.'"
Waters favors mathematical concepts to delineate the dynamics of the band, like a bow-and-arrow image to represent the dynamics of foreground and background. So there are many layers to their music.
Riehle explains the band's evolution: "If you let a baby shriek and bash its head out in a cave somewhere, with no food or water, and then finally start to feed it a little bit then the thrashing stops." "We don't fuck around anymore, says Waters. "If we want to jam, we jam. If we want to play oldies, we do that. You play more and more, and you feel out more and more how the instrument does its thing."
The band has almost come apart at times. What keeps it together is love. "For any band to get anywhere," says Guercio, "you need to be able to get along with people. These three people are the ones I want to be with more than anybody. This band is just the most fun." They are both people and music makers, and you can't separate one from the other in what they do.
The band never stays in one place. "I remember when I've watched bands that have been around for decades do a song they've done a bunch and I think that's got to suck," says Brandt. "I mean, how many times have The Rolling Stones done 'Brown Sugar'? Maybe the first time I ever played in a band with friends was a Dream House show in 2003, in Providence. Ryan was talking about the elements and props and saying how the conditions were really good for us to experiment and jam. This band when we play a song we've played before, it's really active and fun, sort of like deliberate amnesia, where you get to have the same good conversation again and again. It's not inert, it's like going to one of your favorite places at the beach. It's a psychological destination."
Having fun and partying with the people who listen to them is part of who the band are. "Most of our fans are our friends," says Guercio. "But anyone can like us." Brandt recalls a recent show at Flandrew Fleisenberg's Flopera House, where the emphasis was on abstract improvisation. "That was a different crowd and it was great." "Even when we go on tours," says Guercio, "we're friends with a lot of people in other cities and other states, so it's like friends in the crowds when we go on tours too. We're still a new band here, too. We're just learning to speak!"
They are starting to get recognition, though, and sometimes in the strangest ways. "We were touring the West Coast in a 2-1/2 ton Vietnam-era military box truck," Guercio recalls, "painted entirely in camouflage. We pulled up to a rest area to get gas, stretch our legs and what not, and this lady who happened to be in the same parking lot came up to us. She saw all the people looking out of the back of this truck. She was amused and amazed. She came up and started talking to us and we were all very pleasant and very nice, and she came back over and asked us for our autographs. We were on the 5 coming back through Oregon, on a tour with The Fagettes. No one had ever heard of us before out there."
Their passionate roughness is reminiscent to British '60s band Pretty Things. "I love The Pretty Things," says Guercio. "I was just listening to them today." The Pretty Things never made it as big as many bands they were just as good as. "I don't think it matters how big a band makes it," says Guercio. "Business ruins it. You can say Pearl Jam's a good band but you can still listen to whoever comes underneath them or whatever. Pearl Jam sucks."
Brandt talks about what keeps the band together. "I think we keep being on the same frequency. I was in Oakland staying at my friend's house a year ago, and they were here doing album art for the next CD. I was reading an interview with the guy who did the cover art and they used the image from the same book. I feel like we're often exploring the same questions and curiosities and listening to the same things that wouldn't even be apparent in listening to us. Those interior dialogues get to expand, by having them with each other."
Every band has influences, and The Rotten Apples deal with theirs. "You try being next to Ryan onstage with a dress on," says Brandt. "I think our influences come a lot from outside music," says Guercio. Favorite bands change from time to time. Elvis, Cream, The Coasters, Soft Machine, Wanda Jackson, Betty Davis, George Harrisontheir taste is impeccable. "There's a store in Allston that sells all kinds of records," says Guercio. "We just go in their and get all kinds of crazy stuff." They have a wide palette now. Brandt likes top forty, and Waters likes muzak. "I like how we influence each other as people," says Guercio. Discriminating as they are, though, they are open to anything new to them.
From left: Muffy Brandt, Keith Waters, Ryan Riehle, Paul Guercio
Their mad sound is a mystery, sometimes lyrical, sometimes noisy. They do tune their guitars, but it doesn't always sound that way. Sometimes they sound like Sonic Youth. They get all kinds of comparisons from their audience. "I love it when they do that," says Guercio. "Every time we play at a show there's always someone throwing out a bunch of band names they think we sound like. I can see all of them. Anyone who says The Shaggs or The Rolling Stones, I'm just like, 'Yup.' Then I get some obscure ones. 'You guys sound like Royal Trux and The Doors!' It's also cool because anything thrown at us is also stuff we listen to."
The Rotten Apples listens to everythingand everyone. Their ideal is a community-based one. Though they might love The Who as much as anyone, rock monarchies are not for them. Neither are the rock-bottom fates of so many stars. The four practice healthy living with occasional puffs of peach tobacco out of a hookah, and they are avid bicyclists. Like any self-taught band their learning curve has been steep, but there is no stopping them. They are an essential part of the American rock and roll ecosystem and never stop seeing themselves in the context of rock history's big picture. They are a big picture themselves, a bay window on the current scene of so many great grassroots bands whose music will still be good decades from now.
The Rotten Apples , As Is (100% Breakfast!, 2011)
All Photos Courtesy of The Rotten Apples