NICK MARTINO, staff writer.
It is approx. 1:35 p.m. on Thursday, May 8th, 2014. The day of Wesleyan University’s annual Spring Fling concert has arrived. The clouds hang heavy and low. The sky looks concrete. A feathery curtain of rain falls, half-evaporated by the time it reaches ground. The air is blanketed in a certain wooly wetness- everywhere you go it feels like you’re under one of those tented theme park misting stations that crowd in the summer. Pooling in a slow group outside Beckham Hall, we watch the black steel and crenelated stage contrast an empty Foss Hill. The greeny tumble seems semi-luminous and unearthly. Andrus Field gleams like an empty plate; there are very few people out though it is already the early afternoon. A dead-eyed woman with rectangular glasses glides beneath an oily rain slicker yawning into her walkie talkie. 25% of the Wesleyan student band all-caps LADD, bassist Bennett Gelly, stands in a circle with his friends drinking Natty Lite out of a can. He seems to be taking the shitty news he’s just received in stride: the set all-caps LADD was slated to play after winning the previous week’s Battle of the Bands contest at Eclectic has just been cut due to technical difficulties. The show they had spent weeks practicing for, jazzed up about, ruminating over, daydreaming about, biting their nails for, drinking to, chitchatting about, calling their moms for, and so on, cancelled because of some rumored ineptitude and a rain that not so much falls as mists from an apathetic sky.
The story goes that in mid-January of 2005 a farmer and his son in Saru, Estonia hit cryptozoological paydirt in a sandy hollow beneath their house: the Rat King, a clutch of rats woven together by their tails and hopelessly glued to each other by a combination of feces, food waste, blood, dirt, and ice. Upon disinterment, the sixteen-strong Estonian cluster bruxed and seethed in all directions like some lurid carousel, pulling the dead weight of seven of its ensnared compatriots until the farmer’s son killed the remaining nine rats with a stick. Before 2005, five such specimens had been trapped alive or else found mummified in fireplaces, every once in a while showing up in embalming jars in macabre museum exhibits around Eastern Europe. All of the Rat Kings studied and documented consisted of the black rat Rattus rattus, whose long and flexile tail was prone to entanglements, binding the creatures inescapably to one another like the madcap invention of a cruel taxidermist.
Your humble narrator, as it goes, was plumbing the depths of Reddit one morning when he happened upon an article about this verminous hydra. Rat King seemed like a relatively apropos and gritty name for a particular Wesleyan student band, a band that was seeking a new name to accentuate its sound, a sort of guitar-driven, sand-in-your-teeth verve that shakes and rattles like a poorly oiled M4 carbine. Something about the aggregation of many encrusted bodies into one organism seemed to suit the band (who now goes by the name all-caps LADD), maybe because they’ve gone through considerable changes in sound, membership and title over the years and needed a name to represent their multivalence and bite. But the Rat King also presents an idea of paralysis and a certain stuckness that the band is very familiar with, an entangling design that seems to haunt them even as they make considerable strides in establishing their sound and atmosphere.
Your humble narrator must confess here, early on so as to preemptively address any claims of bias, that he is quite familiar with the band and in fact went to high school with several of its members, and might even go so far as to call them his best friends. Your humble narrator was there while at least one of them lost their virginity, in the next flea-bitten motel room over with a stethoscope to the wall and a severely lacking respect for personal privacy. Your humble narrator was there for the genesis of one the group’s earliest transfigurations, “Cheenis & the Romp,” a name born from an awful nickname for your humble narrator thought up by one of the band members. Your humble narrator’s clunky 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo can be heard ungainly and prattling in the background of Cheenis’ first-ever song ‘Jackfruit,’ recorded on the way back from a friend’s cabin in the pine-scented and mosquitoy northern woods of Florence, Wisconsin.
While you, gentle reader, might not see the point of this meandering, your humble narrator wishes to make it known that since he grew up with these guys for most of their young adult lives he might claim to know a thing or two about their scope and trajectory. He’s been there as these guys form a band, self-destruct and reincarnate in new groupings. High school was filled with similar reimaginings and regenerations. He’s watched the metaphoric Rat Kings burrow and scrabble, teethe and amass. He’s been there for the birth and death of many Rat Kings, their grimy enknottings and disentanglements. It’s been a wonder to watch these creatures brood and propagate, and he hopes that this article will adequately document the genealogy of the Rat Kings so that you, gentle reader, might one day see their name emblazoned on some grand marquee and say ‘Hey, there’s that Rat King of a band. I guess all their tails got loose.’
Like many bands before them all-caps was not hatched clean from one egg but came about through a myriad intertangling of many different species of band. Back in the early noughts two brothers haphazardly picked up some instruments and decided to play music together. Bennett Gelly and Piers Gelly, Wesleyan yrs. 2015 and 2013 respectively, jammed under the moniker “The Stikes” and released a 14-song album when they were 11 and 9 yrs. old. Meanwhile Jack Ladd ‘15 was playing music with several of his friends as “Borderline”, a band name that might go down as one of the worst in all of middle school band-dom. “Borderline” was a particularly unstable establishment, and the comings and goings of its finicky fleet of members eventually brought about the band’s demise.
So when Ladd and Bennett began to play music together in high school under the name “Cheenis and the Romp,” with Ladd on guitar and vocals and Bennett on guitar, it seemed like the band might not have a particularly long shelf life. But the duo have remained persistent, making music together ever since, adding Piers on drums and Sam Wheeler ’15 on guitar. Since then the band has had many names, evolving from “Cheenis” to “Snape Wig” in which all of the members wore black shoulder-length wigs except for Piers whose hair already resembles Snape’s. From “Snape Wig” they became “Barack Barack,” and as this name was born and began to fade it was then that I suggested “Rat King,” which was thought to be too fuzz punk for their more straightforward guitar-rock sound and tossed aside. Eventually the group settled on all-caps LADD, a name that has understandably led to a lot of misrepresentations and misprints and now serves as a running joke for the band.
As the names have changed the sound has as well. “Cheenis” began with a twangy twee-pop ethos. One song called “Ze” chronicles the adventures of an androgynous Wal-Mart employee, and some of the other songs were written to ask girls to homecoming dances. But the band’s taste in music began to change, specifically Ladd’s, who became more interested in bands like Radiohead, The National, The Strokes, and Wilco. His lyrics became more introspective and the group’s sound began to pick up a dark energy. Where before the songwriting was more collaborative, in his sophomore year Ladd began to take more of a leadership position within the band, bringing a melody or a guitar part and a vision for a song into practice that the rest of the band would help to craft, adding their own ideas along the way. “Sometimes I’ll take pieces of an old song or old recording and it’ll work,” Ladd says. “Sometimes it’s just purely that song, and new parts will stem from just that song…But for the most part these songs have come from working this year. These [recent] songs are less a conglomeration of different parts and more just the evolution of a song from working on it together in practice.”
But the driving and furious pace the band moves at now was not always the case. During their first two years in college the band experienced a series of glitches that Ladd attributes to poor prioritizing: “We were mostly focused on recording freshman year. In hindsight that was probably a mistake,” Ladd says. “We weren’t very good at our instruments, couldn’t play a song all the way through, things like that. We got better, but I think that year helped us deal with a lot of adversity.”
Adversity is a term the band is particularly familiar with, especially at the spring of last year when Ladd’s room was broken into and both his and Bennett’s laptops were stolen. Along with both computers they lost all the recordings the band had been working on for most of the year. This was particularly painful, especially given the fact that a similar mishap involving water damage destroyed many of their recordings the previous year. But the group’s failings helped push them in new directions. As they became repeatedly stuck, wasting time on false starts and sticking fast to each other like the doomed Rat King, Ladd realized they needed to divert their energy into playing and less so into recording. “Last year we started working at it a lot more,” he says. “We had to experience a lot of the failures and problems that we would inevitably run into in order to get here.”
Your humble narrator walks down a flight of rickety stairs into the basement of 69 Home Ave. where all-caps LADD has spent the last few days practicing for their Spring Fling appearance. Piers is on the drum set in the corner nestled between a cast iron boiler and a folded dining room table. Around us, mortar and brick crumble; tubes and copper piping lie exposed in the ceiling. The words ‘hovel’ and ‘derelict’ come to mind. Old paint cans stack on the wooden stairs. Three bare bulbs hanging glumly from the ceiling cast a watery light over the basement’s washing machines and hot water heaters. The band whips up again, launching into their song “Be Mine,” a tune that moves like a dark wave over Ladd’s low growl. Ladd’s vocals always start deep and grumbly, quiet in a sort of lower-register groan, building shakily in volume and tone. As his voice gets higher his confidence seems to build as well. At its zenith, Ladd’s voice lilts and curves sweetly over lyrics of snatched conversations and images meant to evoke less meaning and more emotion. When he yells it doesn’t feel forced, sounding instead like a gravelly but natural continuation of Ladd’s voice.
Like Ladd’’s voice, all-caps’ songs move all over the place as well. The band stands out most in their songwriting ability. While they themselves admit that they aren’t the most finely attuned musicians, each of the members has a knack for taking their energy and moving it into unflinching and innovative places. While other Wesleyan student bands might stand out for their glossiness and musicianship, all-caps feels much more human, as the extension of a particular dusky and serrated sonic landscape, a catharsis of throat and metal teeth. Ladd weighs in on this: “There’s a certain disorder to our sound that we like,” he says. “It’s not the most fine or polished.” And he’s right. all-caps has a little of that industrial crunch that all the great garage bands of middle school yore boasted. But they don’t stop there. Instead, they push the boundaries and prove themselves to be a genuinely Good band by showing off their ability to write catchy hooks and interesting guitar parts that never seem stagnant or paralyzed.
Throughout the past few years a spate of rats have come and gone. Band members have gotten older and adopted new monikers, added new members and fluxed through a mass of influence and inspiration. They’ve experienced adversity and obstacle, but never allowed themselves to get stuck for too long. In the Rat King that is all-caps LADD, the band’s sound has warped and waxed into a thrumming grit that shines darkly and spurs them to new heights.
The name “Spring Fling” implies a certain of lightness, a sort of school’s-out celebratory gambol and jump and jangle, a fugue of bright orange tornado klaxons and wind chimes. But this year’s Spring Fling was anything but light for all-caps, whose last minute cut set seemed a devastating blow. Still, your humble narrator likes to think of this shitty blue-ballsing in an optimistic light. The show that all-caps could have played would have felt like a culmination for the band, a sort of be-all-and-end-all especially given the nebulous state of things now that Piers is preparing to leave the Wesleyan campus. Instead we are left with a vacuum, a hole notoriously unfilled that almost demands recompense. If the cut set pulled the Rat King into tighter static misery, then we as avid listeners are hungry for the loosening that’s sure to follow. all-caps may be well versed in getting jammed, but that means that they’re also well practiced at disentangling the Rat King. Let’s watch them do it.