It takes a commanding stage presence and a very specific personality type to turn the cello into a masculine instrument. Rushad Eggleston succeeds on both counts. Well, sort of. The lithe, five-foot-six, fine-featured thirty-year-old began playing Bach Suites a full two decades ago. He went on to study at Berklee School of Music and serve in a well-known bluegrass band called Crooked Still. Now he prefers spastic punk rock.
Eggleston lives on the upper floor of a handsome, four-bedroom house owned by retired Oakland A's left fielder Ricky Henderson. There's art on the walls and a huge cache of Playboy magazines, all inherited from someone's father. There's a fully alphabetized record collection. There's a bed in the living room where Eggleston used to crash, before he found permanent digs in a small closet on the upper floor. There's a blood splatter on the wall beside the bed, from a time Eggleston bumped his head out of excitement. Four housemates occupy the bedrooms — among them Scott Manke, who plays drums alongside Eggleston in their new band, Tornado Rider. Henderson sometimes comes by to do maintenance. He trimmed all the hedges outside one week before getting inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Tornado Rider practices in the basement, which has just enough room to fit Manke's trap set, a small trampoline, and the Marshall cab for Eggleston's cello — plus the cello proper, and their third bandmate, bassist Graham Terry. For a three-man operation, they pack a formidable wallop as the Riders demonstrated on a recent Wednesday afternoon.
"Ear plugs — do you have any?" Eggleston asked, grinning mischievously. He'd placed a small striped sock atop the tuning knobs of his cello. ("It creates action," he said.) He wore an elf hat, tilted at a raffish angle. He commenced to bowing.
The notes that spilled forth — in wild, hurly-burly cadenzas — were part of a Bach Bourée that Tornado Rider occasionally repurposes for the rare lulls in its stage set. Eggleston played the Bourée once through. Manke joined in on the second round, supplying a raucous backbeat. Terry gave the bass a double-time feel. Eggleston made the last note crackle.
"We're just fucking around," he said.
The three band members launched into a song they'd been working on that day called "Jig of the Sneth Fairies." It began as a brisk Irish folk dance. Manke pounded his ride cymbal. Eggleston bowed his cello with the perfect, clipped motions of a trained classical musician. He made the last phrase screech, then paused a beat.
"A one, a two, a one two three!"
Eggleston switched to an electrifying minor-key riff that could have been the basis for a surf-rock song. Terry answered on bass. Manke pummeled his drum set. Eggleston sang in a thick, scratchy treble. He fought hard as the cello and bass threatened to choke off his voice. The song pushed forward, with Eggleston stabbing at his cello strings, while pinched harmonics squealed through the speakers. Then came the breakdown: quiet, dramatic, pizzicato. It was classical music in power-trio form.
It turned out the second piece, "Search Warden," was part of Eggleston's musical-in-progress. "It's about these fairies," said Eggleston, who is clearly a fairy enthusiast. "They get their wings stolen by this kind of evil dude. And they look up the Sneth registry, and they're like, 'Oh, search warden. Let's go find him.' So they travel across the desert and find this dude, Bill Bargenson." He sings: Wild Bill Bargenson was a/Wild and crazy man/Dancin down the highway with/Lightning bolts inside of his hands
Naturally, it's odd for a cello to play the part of an electric guitar. And that's not the only bedeviling thing about Tornado Rider. For starters, there's an odd gulf separating the three band members in terms of experience. Eggleston played cello for roughly twenty years before forming the band in 2008. He'd begun fooling around with distortion, and developed an odd fixation with punk-rock power trios. Neither Terry nor Manke knew how to play their current instruments. Both had musical pasts though. Manke played banjo as a kid and spent part of his adult life repairing and fabricating guitars. Terry played violin and a little guitar. Still, Tornado Rider was, in many senses, a grand experiment.
And that's not to mention the weird costumes, stage antics, bizarre song lyrics, fairy stories, sampling of Bach Bourées, or the band name being a singular noun. Even at a glance, the three band members make a strange mixed-marriage. Eggleston is small and elfin, with sausage curls. Fine bones and sharp muscles allow him to leap over hedges and scrabble up trees. He describes himself as "an agrobat" and brags about the time he climbed a redwood tree by Lake Merritt on a heavy dose of salvia. Manke is tall and sturdy. He studied ceramics at UC Santa Barbara and often paints in his spare time. Abstract prints adorn his living-room walls, like a series of Rorschach tests. Graham is slight and soft-spoken. He speaks fluent French. Last Wednesday, all three of them showed up to rehearsal in matching Vans sneakers. They said it was an accident.
Tornado Rider released its debut album, Do You Have Time...? in 2009, and produced a spate of new songs in the ensuing months. Among these were a driving surf-rock track called "I'm a Falcon," and "Mountain Rider," which begins with a low, grinding bass; a huge, protracted drum roll; and a dirge-like cello solo. The music veers from medieval folk to worldish thrash.
Over two years, Tornado Rider gained renown both for its music and its hugely operatic stage shows. The three always arrive in costume. Eggleston wears a wireless mic so he can dangle from ropes on the ceiling, or pogo around the bandstand. Terry pulls out his iPhone and shows a video of Tornado Rider playing at "Sand by the Ton," a huge beach party in Oakland's American Steel warehouse. He's suspended high above the stage from an aluminum rig, still holding the cello, still bowing ferociously.
"Do you have a video of the failure?" asked Eggleston. Apparently, the first time he tried that aerial stunt, the rig snapped. Eggleston fell six feet and landed on a monitor. He kept playing the whole time.
"It was amazing," Manke assured. Eggleston beamed. He said his brother is a pro-skater and they inherited the same durable bone structure. "I've seen that dude bail so fuckin' hard," said Manke. "You see him go down, and he can just roll out of it — any normal person would have a broken arm."
One thing is for certain: You'd never see such exploits in the classical world.