CLASSIC UB INTERVIEW: TRENT RUANE, THE MUMMIES
BY OWEN PENGLIS
Originally published in Unbelievably Bad #3, 2006
The eighties managed to screw up a whole lot of things for everyone. The list is practically infinite. Garage music sits in there as a fashion parade with the shitty up-to-the-moment production techniques sucking the life out of nearly anything redeemable in nearly every case of music.
Along with a resounding “FUCK YOU” came four mummies (or guys dressed as mummies, it doesn’t matter), who gave the entire world the middle finger and somehow managed to create the basest form of garage music ever.
Trent Ruane, organist, vocalist, and head mummy rose briefly from his crypt to speak to me, fifteen or so years after The Mummies were laid to rest.
The Mummies started sometime in 1988 – was there any kind of precursor to the band, or were you in any earlier groups?
Yeah, we were all in bands prior to The Mummies. Just like Pete Best-era Silver Beatles only without being in 1960s Hamburg, and with less pussy.
What exactly were the origins of the band, and where did the whole mummy thing come from?
Maz [Kattuah – bass], Larry [Winther – guitar] and I knew each other from school and we all started playing in bands at around the same time. And around this time, like in 1986 or so, I used to go check out mod shows where I would see this crazy Chinese guy who was always screaming at the top of his lungs like some kind of sino-Dave Aguilar with tourettes. That was Russell [Quan], who became the drummer. Anyway, me and Russell got along really well and started hanging out. When he learned I had a beat up old Farfisa organ he invited me to join a garage band that was just starting up from the ashes of a previous one he had been in. That lasted for a couple of years until the four of us were just floating between bands. The mummies gimmick came about during this time. Maz and I would go on shoplifting runs and hit all the local thrift stores. We’d hit different parts of the Bay Area throughout the week, which entailed a lot of driving. To pass the time on these runs we’d toss around ideas for the dumbest possible idea for a band. One day, I came up with the idea of dressing like mummies. It got the most laughs, so we ran with it. You have to understand this was the eighties, and humour was a bit different back then – what with Reagan and Bush and all. This was actually funny shit in its day. The other thing to keep in mind was you could score some really great shit at thrift stores back in those days. We would take turns getting jobs at thrift stores, and working there for a week, just to decode their secret price codes. These are typically letter codes they write on items just in case you removed or swapped a price tag – and each store had it’s own homebrew code. Anyway, Larry was the only guy around that we knew of who was into playing surf guitar and shoplifting, and so I tapped him. We were a three-piece at first, with me playing bass and Maz on drums. I asked Russell to join, and since Russell’s never been one to pass on a chance to do something stupid, he was in. We gave Maz a bass, sat him in front of a “Learn guitar like Chet Atkins” record, and there you have it: instant mud bass in thirty-six hours, and The Mummies.
I’ve read about there being a bit of a garage scene in California at the time, is this a journalistic lie or were there really likeminded groups together at the same time? Are there any forgotten groups worth tracking down?
When we started, there wasn’t a garage scene in California to speak of. In Southern California, you had bands covering garage tunes as an excuse to put on a fashion show – and as I mentioned, up here in the Bay Area there was a pretty big mod scene in the eighties, which was about as close to garage as you were likely to get. Our very first show in fact was at a mod thing (which did not go over too well with the crowd). In the early days, we were lucky to have more than a club’s personnel show up to one of our shows (and they were getting paid to be there). This pretty much summed up our amazing potential to draw large crowds until we went to Seattle for the first time. For some unbeknownst reason, we went over in a big way up there. A lot of the local bands took a shine to us, which endeared us to the general show-going populace. From then on, we were considered “cool” in Bay Area booking circles. In fact, immediately following our sojourn to the great Northwest we were often mistaken for actually hailing from there. (This offers great insight into the complex mind of your typical club booking agent.) Soon there was a very short-lived, extremely frenetic climate in San Francisco, as we had inadvertently caused a scene (in the literal sense). This was 1991. There were a lot of really good shows for us that year, especially at a little (and I mean little) hole in the wall called the Chameleon (which like a lot of good things, is no longer extant). Unfortunately, like anything that takes off, all the fucking losers suddenly come out of the woodwork. Soon everyone’s in a garage band, all covering the same songs. Everyone’s band has a gimmick, like costumes, or using thrift store instruments. Not that any of this is necessarily bad, taken at face value. The problem is no one has enough balls to try any of it until it’s been proven to work. No one wants to play shows where there are more people in the band than in the audience (and we were only a four-piece).
The Mummies were renowned for using shitty shitty equipment, and I guess that’s how you got ‘that’ sound. Did you figure a lot of the greater sixties garage bands were forced to live by the same ethic, and got stuck with that sound that is now considered characteristic?
In a way, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it an ethic. Besides, back in the sixties, this equipment was pretty state of the art. Transistor organs? Shit, that was like high-tech. Anyway, it was all about the sound for me. The guy in the Fabs played a Farfisa. If you wanna sound like that guy in the Fabs, you go and find a Farfisa. For me, the sound on those old records was ninety-nine-percent of the appeal. The playing’s generally shitty, as are most of the songs.
What kind of equipment did you record on, and what kinds of reverbs and the like were you using?
We recorded nearly everything we did on a rack-mount cassette 4-track. Despite those four tracks we recorded things live, and mostly premixed on two tracks. By premixed I mean I would manually ride the mixer during the recording, and adjust levels on-the-fly, like boosting the guitar track during the solo (or turning it down when it sucked). That made it pretty damn easy to master stuff later, as there wouldn’t be a whole lot you could fix or twiddle with. Also, it left two tracks open to use for things like reverb. We used outboard reverbs and echo boxes occasionally, but the best reverb always came from room acoustics. We always recorded wherever we could make noise for a few hours. The only time we ever recorded in a legitimate recording studio was at the BBC when we were in London. (Incidentally, this was the last time The Mummies ever recorded. You can blame John Peel for that.) Anyway, Mike of the Phantom Surfers used to work in this huge concrete and steel furniture warehouse, which is where the first couple of singles were recorded. Later on, our rehearsal space (which was the other place we tended to record) didn’t have the best acoustics, so we’d record, then blast the recording through an amp in a bathroom or hallway with a strategically placed mic, and re-record a spare reverb track. And we always had Fender outboard reverb units sitting around, since three quarters of The Mummies were in the Phantom Surfers at some point. We also used Echoplexes on a couple of tracks, and I had this really great Kay reverb that sounded like complete horse shit (I gave it to Darin from Supercharger years ago when I was through with rock and roll). I think that’s what we used for the guitar solo on “A Girl Like You” (but cranked through an amp in a very large bathroom and re-recorded). My advice is to save your money, and fuck them expensive reverb units: that’s the Budget Rock way. It’s this re-recording method that gives you that sound that’s on the verge of completely falling apart into utter oblivion. It’s priceless, and at the same time, worthless.
When choosing material to cover how do you work out what to do? When I want to cover stuff I try to avoid tracks I really like cause I know I’ll fuck them up and never want to listen to them again.
Well, I think you’re naturally inclined to pick songs you like. The trick is to be objective about how your version sounds, and that’s hard. If you can bring something to the song, like a really unique sound in the recording, or totally fuck up the rhythm or something, then that’s worth it in my mind. Our very first recordings were attempts at capturing that sound from those original garage 45s, though not necessarily one for one. That is, we’d try to get the drum sound from one record and maybe the guitar sound from another in our version of a completely different song. Or our take on “Come On Up”, which was suitably different enough from The Rascals’ version, made it worth doing to me. It’s a godawful boring song, but fun to play – and easy, so you can really fuck around on stage while still managing to play it. After a few singles, there was a big shift in our recordings. I wanted a sound that was completely “us”, and not some attempt at aping the past. It certainly didn’t mean going into a studio and doing things “the right way” either. I wanted something that was as close to what we sounded like live as possible, and that’s when you get to the sound on the Never Been Caught LP. That’s the quintessential Budget Rock sound. That’s the sound that all the lo-fi garage bands that came after us tried to ape – or in a lot of cases outdo. Again, a case of The Mummies making it safe for bands around the world to sound like shit.
After “making it safe for bands around the world to sound like shit”, what happened to The Mummies? Where exactly did those covers come from? Which English rock-guy bought the Mummies budget rock mobile? How exactly do you tour Europe the budget rock way? And who the fuck is Rick Rubin? Find out next issue of UNBELIEVABLY Bad, Fuck the Mummies – part two.