Despite living and performing in New Orleans most of his life, composer, pianist and singer Ratty Scurvics refuses to skip to second base by mentioning the city every 16 bars. From his work long ago as the musical director for End of the World Circus, to his astounding one-man-band Singularity, to his award-winning theater work, Scurvics (born Christopher Stone) does not tell you where he is from or who he is. He shows you. As evidenced on In Time—the first of Scurvics’ 40-plus albums to see official release—Ratty and his new Black Market Butchers ensemble emulate no one.
In his latest incarnation, 37-year-old Scurvics covers his entire shaved head in white makeup and straps dynamite to his chest. The name Ratty Scurvics and the ghoulish stagewear styles he’s adopted over the years are far stranger than his anthemic piano rock, infused now by big guitars and horns on In Time. Of the album’s three movements, the first is the most challenging, incorporating drums machines and other purposefully distorted sounds into otherwise relatable songs. Recent OffBeat cover girl Meschiya Lake sings the downbeat introduction piece “Stormy Conscience”, and a little later, “Organarily” uses voices purely as instrumentation. Halfway through “Brokedown”, the sky cracks open and rains a second act of powerhouse rock sung in Ratty’s aggressive radio-ready rasp. The heavy, groovy staccato horn blasts of “Waste” aim for the gut despite twists in structure and tempo, and the third act alternates between more big rock and several intimate solo piano songs.
But Ratty, a visual artist as well, also concerns himself with your eyes. “In Time is the soundtrack to a stage production,” explains Scurvics, “with the songs sequenced to the current show we perform.” A September Black Market Butchers performance at One Eyed Jacks was split into the album’s three movements: costumed Ratty first sang to the audience over pre-recorded backing tracks, while his five Mimes of Terror—also painted white and similarly wired to explode—taunted a maniacal, bloody butcher played by actor Chris Lane. The Mimes of Terror also feature members of Fleur De Tease burlesque troupe, including Ratty’s wife, aerialist Oops the Clown, and Fleur De Tease mastermind Trixie Minx. A gigantic band later crowded the stage to recreate the album’s rock songs while Ratty either pounded on or climbed atop his baby grand piano.
Intermittently, his minions were sent to the wings while Scurvics played the album’s piano numbers. In terms of dynamics and theatricality, David Bowie and Queen are fair references. “Nothing drives me more crazy than a long show where the tempo never changes,” says Scurvics. “It’s great if it’s a funk club and you just want to dance all night, but I’m taking people through a journey or experience, so I want that dynamic intensity.”
Ratty recorded and produced his first 40-plus albums, playing all the instruments, though you can’t tell from listening. His albums have intermittently appeared in our mailbox and those of our Bywater friends, but they aren’t available in stores. This is partly because Ratty’s shark-like artistic compulsion to constantly move forward is so consistent and determined it prohibits him from stopping and promoting himself. As a solo artist, he has also lacked a band with which to split the cost of pressing a record.
All these years, it’s mostly just been a matter of finances,” admits Ratty, who forgoes W-2 forms and lives solely off of his creativity. “For this record, I had the financial support of Rookery Studios.” The Rookery practice and recording space is sometimes known as Upper 9th Records, a small label that has released albums by R. Scully’s Rough 7 among a very few others.
Just as the label was readying to fund Ratty’s recording session, in next door to the Rookery moved John Porter, a British producer who has recorded everyone from Billy Bragg to B.B. King. Porter won Grammys with Los Lonely Boys, Buddy Guy and Ryan Adams. He served as an auxiliary member of Roxy Music, recorded the first three Bryan Ferry albums and produced most of the Smiths’ singles. Porter even played the famous slide guitar part on “How Soon Is Now?”
“As a musician, everything I’ve ever loved came, in a roundabout way, from New Orleans,” says Porter, who recently wrapped his third recording with keyboardist Jon Cleary. “I love the syncopated R&B with the horns, and the first band I played in was a so-called jazz band in the New Orleans style. I’d lived and worked in California for 20 years, but the thought of living in L.A. for the rest of my life after my kids left home and the record industry collapsed, it scared me. Then my wife and I were here visiting Jon Cleary and we saw this house for sale in the Bywater. We made the deal to buy it on the phone on the way to the airport.”
Once the neighbors had met, the choice seemed obvious. Ratty, however, was skeptical. “I was really against having a producer at first,” says Scurvics, an adept recording engineer. “But Oops and I went out to dinner with John and we all really hit off. I didn’t work with him because of his credentials but because we really liked each other immediately.”
Porter felt the same, especially after the sessions. “As far as talent goes, I put Ratty in the category of Clapton or Jeff Beck,” says Porter, who has worked with both artists. “Ratty knew exactly what he wanted and guided me to it. The album took only three days at Studio in the Country with Ben Mumphrey engineering, then some overdubs back at my place over the next few weeks. Ratty doesn’t screw around.” Porter describes Ratty’s tough-to-describe music as, “Very visual and very theatrical. Musically, it encompasses all kinds of strands and pictures. It doesn’t have one style, so it’s almost like a modern vaudevillian. I would definitely say it’s New Orleans music, but really it’s a specific product of the Bywater neighborhood, with all its crazy art and music.”
In Time is also Ratty’s first recording with a full band. The 11-member Black Market Butchers group is populated with punk-influenced New Orleans performers, many of whom have played Jazz Fest and graced OffBeat‘s cover. The band’s core is lifted directly from R. Scully’s Rough 7, for whom Ratty also plays piano. It includes avant-garde guitarist Rob Cambre, rhythm guitarist Scully and drummer Mike Andrepont, both of Morning 40 Federation. Meschiya Lake sings three of the album’s songs, and a chunk of Slow Danger Brass Band rounds out the horn section. With such a powerful array of talent at his disposal, Scurvics seems poised to stake his place in the canon of great New Orleans artists. It only took 20 years.
At age two, Scurvics lived in the French Quarter across from Armstrong Park in what is now a Rampart Street hotel. Chasing his own musical dream, Ratty’s famous father, singer and pianist Vince Vance (who recently celebrated his 40th anniversary as leader of the Valiants), brought his very young son on the road. “I was always surrounded by tons of musicians,” Ratty says. “And for every costume that the band wore on stage, my mom would make me a little version. Backstage, I’d watch my dad and his band change really fast, then they’d run out on stage really fast, so when I first learned to dress myself for school or whatever, I thought you were supposed do it as fast as possible, and that you had to have a different outfit for everything you did. And really, I never learned the difference between regular clothes and costumes,” admits Ratty, a not-particularly-feminine guy who generally wears a slip of some sort, rather than pants.
Full disclosure: I’ve played guitar in a couple of Ratty’s pick-up bands, but to say that’s why I’m writing this story is to put the cart solidly before the horse. Surrounded by musicians since I was 15, I believe Ratty is possibly the most talented I have known. And though I know him well, and have talked to him deeply about his music for many years, his father—whom I’ve never spoken to outside of hellos and goodbyes—corroborates without my prompting many hypotheses and theories I’ve long entertained regarding Ratty’s music.
Vance agrees that Ratty’s name and visual image might mislead the uninitiated to think that his music is overly avant-garde or challenging. “As counterculture as he looks, he has studied the classics,” Vance says. “Ratty taps into a common idea of beauty. A lot of the music he makes could bring the common denominator up.” We also both agree that Scurvics should be more widely considered a true voice of the city, as his art reflects New Orleans in a more naturalistic, less self-conscious way. “I myself am a rote composer, very, very derivative,” Vance says. “What’s important to me is to make a living. I am not courageous or original like Ratty. I am strictly Tin Pan Alley. I tried to make Ratty that way, but he re-wrote Tin Pan Alley.” Vance adds, by way of stressing his son’s importance, “Who decided that the voice of New Orleans would forever be Dixieland or whatever? So many of these celebrated New Orleans figures are great musicians, but are they making anything great? You are not a great New Orleans artist unless you are coming up with something great now.”
During Ratty’s early childhood, Vance was so busy he had no time to teach his son piano. “Dad was always touring,” Scurvics says. “And when we’d come back, he’d feel the need to be all about rules, making us go to bed at a certain exact time and whatnot. One night, I was just defiant. I sat at the piano and said, ‘I am not going to bed until you teach me some chords!’ So he sat up for several hours showing me things on the piano.” Scurvics ran with this knowledge in the complete opposite direction of his dad. “At first I just wanted to play classical piano, which he didn’t understand. He thought that was extremely square. Then after that phase, I had revolution on my mind and didn’t want anything to do with any musical traditions.”
In his first real band, the giant, psychotic noise tribe Coprolingus (which some locals recall as reminiscent of Crash Worship), Ratty learned the basics of what would become a habit: touring. “Coprolingus toured three to four months a year,” he says. “We ate out of dumpsters on a regular basis. We’d go to pizza shops after they closed and beg them for whatever they hadn’t sold that day. We also learned that in a really small town—and this only works in a very small town—you can convince them that if they don’t give you gas money, you will stay there and live in your van. Eleven freaks would pull up—and we weren’t hippies; we were maniacs, living in a bus full of mannequin body parts. People who sewed their lips shut on stage and anything you can imagine—and we’d say, ‘We like this town! We’re gonna stay!’ and the sheriff would come out and sign a gas voucher to get us to the next town.”
Ratty later aborted a stint studying painting at the venerable Chicago Art Institute to become the musical director of New Orleans’ Know Nothing Circus, which toured the country in the ’90s. “That was a lot more financially stable gig,” Scurvics says. “A rock band might be hit or miss, but people everywhere were really into circus sideshows.” It was during that time, at a warehouse party in Atlanta, that Ratty began a long-time friendship with then-circus member Meschiya Lake. “I remember meeting him and he had this crazy light in his eyes,” she says. “Really intense.” Her first band covered Ratty’s song “One Bright Moment”, which she also sings on In Time. “He is a mad genius, the most captivating performer I’ve ever seen, famous or otherwise. When we were roommates, he would regularly stay up till four or five in the morning composing and sweating over every minor detail. He most definitely has something that other people don’t.”
During that same circus tour, fate asserted itself in Billings, Montana, when the whole circus band quit to go to work at Burning Man. “I had to figure out how to provide music by myself,” Scurvics says. “I’d fucked around with one-man-band scenarios before, so I tried to play all the instruments at once. I had so much fun! I was actually kind of disappointed when the band came back later. Right before a festival gig, they showed up and were like, ‘Hey Ratty, why do you have all the instruments set up with your gear? Dude, that’s fucked up.’”
In 2000, when Know Nothing Circus ended, Ratty stayed in New Orleans, where his ferocious one-man-band Singularity thrived for many years. The equipment set-up evolved into Scurvics playing bass and snare drums with his feet while his hands pounded several keyboards with a ferocity to scare Jerry Lee Lewis, and soul to challenge Dr. John. And unlike most one-man-bands—and most theatrical rock shows—Singularity, while definitely a spectacle, was most impressive for the songs. Singularity’s charging backbeat could whip a few hundred people into a sweaty mess, but you could also just sit at the bar and contemplate the chord changes and lyrics that often dealt with death and the acceptance of it as a beautiful, natural part of life—a theme in some of the Black Market Butchers’ material as well, though Ratty stops short of gothic. Then, in 2009, Singularity became the only one-man-band to ever break up. “I had explored it all the way,” he says. “The interest in it waned, and I wanted to do something a lot more grandiose.”
In this case, his “grandiose” project was getting married—in a big plastic boat in City Park’s Storyland, with a Bywater brass band playing one of Ratty’s songs they’d learned as a wedding gift. Along with her role in Fleur De Tease, Ratty’s wife Oops the Clown leads her own Feral Kitty Cabaret and Mystik Ponies Aerial Troupe. Oops was often the only other human on stage during Singularity shows, dancing and wearing-out her hula hoop, often topless—whatever it took to rile up the audience. “When I felt a stasis of Singularity,” says Ratty, “Oops reminded me there was hope and a future. She made me want to continue to expand and create wonderful things to do with her.”
During the musically purgatorial time that followed the end of Singularity, Ratty and Oops constructed the elaborate, long-form, multimedia puppet performance art musical, “The Legend of Suzy Sidesaddle,” which the duo turned into a play for Fringe Festival and later performed at the Voodoo Experience. The script by Scurvics follows a lonely man who buys an elaborate, futuristic sex doll, only to find it haunted by the ghost of a woman he’d accidentally killed years earlier. Pursuing his theatre leanings, Scurvics went on to write 22 songs for the play “Crimes Against Nature,” win Best Original Score for “Madwoman of Chao,” and star as Mack the Knife in “The Threepenny Opera,” which sold out Marigny Theatre every night of its run and won awards from Gambit and Ambush magazines.
December 4 sees the end of Tulane’s production “The Skriker”, a play about an ancient fairy and shapeshifter surrounded by creatures of the underworld. Ratty Scurvics created original music for the play, and he will get his giant Black Market Butchers ensemble polished for a December 16 performance at One Eyed Jacks. After that, he hopes to take the show on the road, but as with everything he does, Ratty has strong ideas about touring. He understands the pitfalls of traveling with such a large production, but he refuses to settle for a smaller road version of his vision. “This has to be done the right way, the way it was imagined,” says Ratty with no levity. “I will not compromise on this.”