Longevity is rare for teenage garage bands. So when high-octane East L.A. rockers The Shag Rats realized they were coming up on their 10th anniversary, the band conceived and launched a star-studded summer’s worth of riotous shows in the darkest heart of the Sunset Strip to celebrate the milestone.
On Friday, they’ll appear on a bill with renowned King of the Surf Guitar Dick Dale, followed by a July 15 show with Eastside legends Cannibal & the Headhunters and The Premiers, and climaxing with a rare blast from San Jose psych-garage spearheads The Chocolate Watchband on August 14. All of these will go down at the Whisky A Go-Go and, as summertime attractions go, it’s an impressive presentation of rock & roll royalty that’s as good as anything being offered by such big-time show biz pros as Goldenvoice, Nederlander or Live Nation.
The Shag Rats started at Bravo Medical Magnet High School in Boyle Heights, as a half-cracked fantasy cooked up in the feverish brain of 18-year-old guitarist Rex Rock (aka Martin Mendoza). “I was a senior is high school, still just a kid.” Rock says. “I was drinking, partying, wanted to get chicks. And I knew Lewis [Cabada], he was a couple of years younger, but, he was just like me, full of energy. So we started putting the band together. We were playing Slaughter & the Dogs covers and it just went from there.
“I was really into Eater,” Rock adds. “In fact that’s where the band’s name came from, the Eater song 'Get Raped': ‘You make me sick, and you make me ill/You think you’re a shagrat, ‘cuz you’re on the pill/Well you’re not.’”
Cabada, who now goes by the stage name Lew Skywalker, didn’t hesitate to join in. “I was 16, I had a white bass and I looked like Dee Dee Ramone. Rex looked just like David Bowie, real skinny, he had the hair. We were really into the whole 1977 thing. I was more New York and Rex was into the London bands. I didn’t even know how to play, but neither did he. We just did it for fun, learned how to play in the garage and on stage.”
Their music, self-described as “swamp stompin' primitive punk,” quickly transcended their influences. It’s exciting, dirty and always genuine. Their biting mix of old-school punk, blues funk and angular garage trash radiates heat and tension, even as it celebrates a deliciously profligate, just-for-the-hell-of-it philosophy. That, of course, is an elemental dynamic in rock & roll and they ably surf through a lurid tsunami of that quality every time they hit the stage.
Before long, Rex switched to bass, handed Lew the guitar, and the Rats really came into their own. Their rep soon extended beyond the Eastside and into Hollywood. They also found themselves exerting unlikely influence in the careers of several significant forebears. After The Premiers' original bassist and the wife of frontman Lawrence Perez each died within a week’s time in 2011, the Rats turned up at a memorial fundraiser concert.
“They were the youngest guys there,” Perez remembers. “And it was like, 'What are you doing here?' They had heard on the radio that this was going to be happening and they came. They were dancing around, came up, introduced themselves, said they were big Premiers fans. And it was The Shag Rats and that's how we met 'em.”
The long inactive Premiers (best-known for their mid-'60s hits “Farmer John” and “Get on This Plane”) were subsequently resuscitated when they agreed to let Skywalker and Rock fill in on a series of well-received shows (and, of course, the upcoming Whisky date). The following year, when long dormant '60s garage rockers The Sloths reunited for a one-off gig, the Rats again inadvertently had a hand in it.
“When the resurrected Sloths played our first gig, these cool dudes were there.” Sloths singer Tommy McLoughlin says. “They invited us across the tracks to share the bill in their East L.A. turf. The reception that we got from their fans was what caused us to not go back to the grave. We owe them our lives.”
The Rats have taken their lumps as well, losing original vocalist Boots (McLoughlin filled in as a temp). But they recently discovered the ideal replacement in Chris Medina, a cousin of Skywalker’s wife.
“Chris is amazing, full of energy. I am so glad the chemistry is back.” Rock says. “You can feel it, it pumps through your veins, I see it in the way the people move. It’s authentic Shag Rats.”
Authenticity is the key, and it pours from The Shag Rats like mid-summer perspiration. Their songs are undeniably live-wire contemporary compositions, and their bandstand presentation is an always irresistibly frantic display of rock & roll abandon.
“The Shag Rats rule.” McLoughlin says. “I'm as stoked as any garage-rock fan would be. But also, as part of the founding fathers of the '60s Sunset Strip scene, we're proud as hell of our boys. They honor the past while creating an ass-whoopin' present for this music's future.”
The Shag Rats open for Dick Dale at the Whisky A Go-Go this Friday, June 19. They also play the Whisky on Wednesday, July 15 (with Cannibal & the Headhunters) and Friday, Aug. 14 (with The Chocolate Watchband).