If you've ever witnessed a set of the booze-fueled rock sleaze that has become the trademark of Durham quartet Rat Jackson, the words "family" and "community" likely didn't frame your first impression.
As the lanky Tad Jackson grunts out his sexual exploits (which never return to the same "Sexy Waitress" or hotel-bar lover twice, mind you), his brother Chester offers off-color support from behind the drum kit. Guitarist Steve Oliva adds over-the-top bravado, flailing and jumping around with cock rock enthusiasm, reinforcing the dirtiest bits with shouts of his own. The songs—"Sex All the Time" and "Summer Hummer"—are filled with the kind of dirty jokes 12-year-old boys are nervous their mom will hear.
It's a great gag, the kind of hard-rocking caricature that Spinal Tap might endorse. And while the audience generally chuckles along, writing Rat Jackson off as simple foul-mouthed tricksters—out for a laugh and nothing more—doesn't suffice.
"The things that we all like about playing rock 'n' roll—being on a stage and showing off and having fun with your friends and maybe drinking too much and maybe impressing a girl here or there—those are all things that I legitimately do like about playing in a rock 'n' roll band," Oliva says, nursing a beer at Durham's Broad Street Cafe. "The problem with the rock 'n' roll ethos is that sometimes people get convinced that those things can seriously define you as a person. I really, really like the idea of taking those things that we all do think are fun and saying to people, 'OK buddy, why don't you just dial it back a little bit, because this is what you're in danger of sounding like?'"
Sure, while the members of Rat Jackson are no strangers to a good party, there's a lot more to their lives than PBR and fast women. Oliva and bassist Rusty Sutton are fixtures of the Triangle music community—the former as a respected poster artist and the latter as a soundman who has worked in area clubs for more than five years. The band itself jumps on the bills for CD release shows again and again, and in the summers of 2008 and 2009, Oliva and Sutton planned Chapel Hill's The Club Is Open Festival, a weeklong local music celebration. This band's rock 'n' roll lifestyle, then, is more about the musicians they play with and watch every night than whoever they take home afterward.
The four musicians have been close since their childhood in Asheville. Tad and Chester are the stage names of real-life brothers Will and Curt Arledge; while not brothers themselves, Oliva and Sutton are roommates and nearly inseparable best friends who met in elementary school. Will and Curt still live in Asheville, and, indeed, it takes more than one crass concept to keep the long-distance band moving.
"I don't think it would be plausible if we hadn't all known each other for 10, 15, 20 years. That makes it a lot easier when we get together for one day to actually put it all together again," says Oliva. "I think that's why we're able to maintain this growth the way we do, living on opposite ends of the state."
The friends finally formed Rat Jackson in 2006 while at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Despite the hypersexual lyricism that now defines so much of Rat Jackson, the showboating Tad Jackson emerged after Sutton decided to call an unnamed instrumental "Pussy Fantastic" while the band struggled to put words to any of its tunes. In response, Curt contrived Tad's first bout of sarcastic boasting.
"Every come-on is either layered with some kind of self-deprecation or absurdity," says Curt. "Even the bombastic nature of the lyrics is itself a self-referential joke about four suburban white kids with limited sexual adventurism who sing every song about chasing tail like it's our central preoccupation."
Curt has built a multifaceted parody with Tad. The hound is known to roar in on a monstrous half-motorcycle/ half-horse, but he's also a grumpy old man who demands his "nine hours of rock 'n' roll sleep." Curt's words carefully reveal the man behind the curtain, allowing the audience to fully appreciate the ridiculousness of Tad's actions.
"It's kind of taken the weight off in a lot of ways because we don't have to worry about writing tunes that mean anything to anybody," Sutton says.
That doesn't make the band exactly stress-free: With every new venture, Rat Jackson has to negotiate the mountain-to-Piedmont back-and-forth, which surprisingly seems to limit their productivity very little. Last year they released Beer Y'all, a documentary of their first-ever tour in 2008, which they used as an opportunity to visit every microbrewery in the state. And though they tracked new songs for the soundtrack, the band wasn't satisfied with the quality. Recording in Asheville when schedules allowed, they retracked those songs along with a few others. Midnight Get Right, which they've decided to release themselves, was done just in time to be ready for this week's show.
"We live in different towns. We aren't full-time musicians. We write songs slowly. We're not settled in careers and locations. And we have never known how long the band will continue to exist," Curt says. "And of course, we're just not that professional—and very lazy."
But Tad, though? Tad never sleeps.