K.C. Royal (guitar, vocals), Rickabilly (drums, vocals) and Double Dave (double bass) are The Ratrod Cats. They’ll catapult you back 60 years in a coupl’a strums and, before you know it, your feet tap ADD style. Their EP is in the making, but they play gigs frequently for rhythm addicts. Check their Facebook page for updates. Before you do that, hear what they have to say about the infectious beat of the ’50s, of which the receptors can be found deep down in any homo sapiens.
How did it all start?
K.C.: In short, I wanted to start a rockabilly band because I love the music and I posted an ad online and Rickabilly replied saying let’s give it a try. So we started fiddling and initially we got a bassist, which didn’t quite work out, so we put another ad online and Double Dave replied. We’ve been going with this line-up for about three years now.
Do you have a band philosophy?
K.C.: Don’t fuck up. (laughs)
Double Dave: Yeah pretty much.
Rickabilly: It’s really just about having a good time really. If we enjoy it, I think people who are listening to it will enjoy it.
Double Dave: We try to stay out of politics and the deep spiritual meanings of life. Rockabilly music is about having fun.
Rickabilly: We’re not one of those bands who stand up there and ramble on for about five minutes about what the song means, because it means fuck-all. Get up and dance and enjoy it and that’s it.
you’re not going to hear sloppy love songs, it’s all upbeat and fun.
When did you start listening to rockabilly?
K.C.: Rick? Don’t say exact dates here you might give your age away…
Rickabilly: I started listening to rockabilly when I was about four years old. My dad was spinning records on the turntable — Elvis, Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent — all those guys. Right from a very early age I just loved the music. I grew up with it with my dad and just got interested in it. I’ve always loved it.
K.C.: I started in my late teens with psychobilly. I kind of got into it after that. I then found out that I prefer rockabilly more to psychobilly.
Double Dave: My parents used to listen to a wide variety of music so I would listen to a huge variety of music.
Did you always know that you’d play in a rockabilly band one day?
Double Dave: I was sort of looking for a band when I saw the ad online so I thought I’d give it a try.
K.C.: You didn’t really set out to be an upright rockabilly bassist did you?
Double Dave: No, I played blues, I played punk…but it all fits in musically.
You’ve obviously been listening to it for a while. Do you know when the first South African rockabilly band surfaced and did you listen to South African rockabilly bands?
Rickabilly: Until I met K.C., I didn’t know there were any South African rockabilly bands. The rockabilly bands that are around now have only been around for maybe 10 years at best. It’s not something that South Africa has had a history with. The roots of it were started in the ’50s and there weren’t really any South African rockabilly bands back then. I think everyone is just catching on to that hype decades after.
K.C.: At the same time though, the reason why I wanted to start this band was because the South African psychobilly and rockabilly guys got me into it. Acts like Them Tornados and Martin Rocka and The Sickshop were the inspiration for me to get into it. I’ve been doing music for many years and I’ve always loved rockabilly and psychobilly but I never really wanted to pursue it. And then I thought, you know what, I’ve been doing the rock thing for a while let me look at this. So I gave it a try and it sure as hell worked out.
It was the local guys more than the overseas guys that made me look for this band.
Rickabilly: It’s always been a goal of mine to eventually have a rockabilly band. I’ve been growing up with the music since I was a young child, and somewhere along the line I started writing my own songs. Then I started thinking it would be nice to start something like this because it’s not being done anywhere around here. So when I saw K.C.’s ad I jumped on it because I didn’t even hear anybody mention the word rockabilly around here before. I thought, ‘That’s exactly what I’m after and if he’s on the same page then this could work.’ The right thing came along at the right time.
Would you say the scene is growing at the moment?
Rickabilly: This scene is definitely growing. And we like to believe that we’ve got some small part in helping it grow as well, because there are bands out there that are getting some sort of inspiration from us by being out there and advertising the music and saying ‘well this is what it’s about’. And more and more you see the term being used and the whole throw-back to the ’50s resurfacing around here.
K.C.: Even psychobilly. The psychobilly is doing well now. Psychobilly, especially looking at the scene now, wouldn’t happen without rockabilly. Psychobilly is the darker side. And don’t get me wrong, it’s awesome, we love it. Seeing the little resurgence now, with all the cool bands. It wouldn’t have happened without the rockabilly element, you know, the guys like Them Tornados. So there definitely is a revival happening now and it’s awesome to see, but it’s kind of a nice in-between thing — rockabilly and psychobilly mixed together. And there’s a bluesy side to it. Rockabilly is fast blues. You see a lot of the blues guys now, like Crimson House Blues, Ballistic Blues and Sixgun Gospel… it’s slow rockabilly, it’s blues but essentially blues is slow rockabilly. So it’s all tying in nicely.
Is there a rockabilly sound that’s unique to South Africa?
Rickabilly: Not really. I think our accents would be the only thing.
K.C.: I don’t think there’s anything from the dress to the tattoos to the actual music to the actual lyrics. I don’t think anything really differs to overseas. It’s all pretty much similar. Yeah, the only thing that I can think of is our accents. Everything else can be traced to overseas.
Rickabilly: Even that’s hard to tell when you’re singing.
So would you call yourselves a rockabilly revival band?
K.C.: What we’re doing essentially is called neo-rockabilly. Neo-rockabilly was started with The Stray Cats in the late ’70s. And it was a bit of a harder version of normal rockabilly. It wasn’t psychobilly, but it was kind of in-between. That’s called neo-rockabilly. So I think what we’re doing is neo-rockabilly. It’s a modern day slightly edgy throw-back to rockabilly. That’s what we would be classified as if we really had to dig deep.
Would you want the scene here to reach the stage that it is at overseas?
K.C.: We would love that. As we said before, we live the scene! In the sense that it’s Rickabilly and old motorbikes… and I have an old muscle car — we live this thing! So, the scene isn’t only about the music, it’s about the lifestyle. If we could see more classic cars on the road and hot rods, we would be very happy. If we could see more people getting their hair done and grease back that would be cool too. It’s about living, it’s not only about the music. And if we get five people that look rockabilly and the rest don’t, we don’t care. It’s cool to see those five people who are living and feeling it. We would love to see it grow like it did overseas, but it probably won’t happen because we don’t have that many muscle cars in South Africa. And we don’t have that many clubs to play in, but we can definitely see how far we can take it. And there need to be more bands, which is happening now so it’s becoming more accessible. More people from the punk genre are looking at psychobilly because they’re very close. And more traditional rock and blues bands are coming to rockabilly shows.
Double Dave: There are also other guys working on building the hot rod and muscle car community in Cape Town.
So the spirit will live on?
K.C.: I think it’s going to live on, it’s going to be — not necessarily niche — but it’s going to be true. The people who are going to come through will really enjoy it. And that’s going to grow, but you’ve got to read out the people who are just there to be seen because it’s the thing at the time. We’re finding a lot of people like that.
Double Dave: We wouldn’t mind it becoming more mainstream but at the same time we don’t want it to become just a fad.
K.C.: And don’t get us a wrong, we’re not saying we want to be niche. We want to be mainstream because that’s where people come in the door, that’s where we essentially make money as musicians. We want to expose ourselves to as many people as possible. We want to expose ourselves to people who appreciate it and get a kick out of it.
Double Dave: But we don’t want to compromise our sound to fit in.
If music changes in six months time, and in another six months time, and in another six months time, we’re still going to be making rockabilly.
Is rockabilly going to live on in the form that it is in now?
K.C.: ‘Rockabilly’ in inverted commas, the style, the music, the genre is going to live on. It’s not going anywhere. You’ve got people restoring and trying to maintain. If it’s lasted from the ’50s until now, then it’s not going anywhere. That’s what I say. Rockabilly was the first rock ‘n’ roll ever and if it’s still around, then it’s not going anywhere.
Double Dave: If you go to a club and they start playing ’50s music, people get on the dance floor and dance. If they start playing Elvis, people will be dancing.
K.C.: If you play Elvis to any person in the universe — be it the biggest hip-hop fan or the biggest house DJ — if you play Elvis to them they know the song. Everyone knows rockabilly.
Rickabilly: Even if they don’t know the specific song, they connect with the rhythm, the beat, the swing… those are primal things that you relate to regardless of whose singing it or when.
K.C.: And that’s something that’ll never go away because it’s fun.
So it’s kind of like an eternal genre that’ll always live on in its subculture.
K.C.: It is. It may never ever again be a mainstream thing but it will always exist. If you look at the United States where rockabilly was the only music in the ’50s and was kind of dead in the ’60s and ’70s and then kind of resurged again… but whatever happened, it never went away completely. But if you look at music scenes like disco, that died after how long? Or psychedelic rock in the ’60s? So much has died and never really resurfaced. Rockabilly has always been there and influenced so many other people. If you look at what The Beatles were doing in the ’60s, they got their influence from the guys from the ’50s. It’s not going anywhere. It’s going to stick around. Like you said, as a subculture or just under the radar, but it’ll always stick around.
Interview by Christine Hogg
Images by Diane Styger, Christine Hogg