Meet Marc Ribak, UC Berkeley alum, ex-student co-op dweller, semi-retired guitar teacher, wearer of tighty-whitey underpants (on stage, no less), and composer of an extremely repetitive, but nonetheless catchy, trash rock anthem (the main lyric goes: bok-bok-bok, fried chicken, and the rest is too mumbly to decipher). Roughly ten years ago he founded the punk rock band Rock 'n' Roll Adventure Kids, which has undergone several personnel changes since its inception, but still attained remarkable longevity — the only thing that might surpass it is Ribak's newer enterprise, Skumby and the Disney Dads. Ribak wouldn't actually characterize it as "punk." He generally prefers the term "trash."
In fact, Ribak might be the staunchest defender of trash rock in the East Bay. He describes it as an appropriation of old-style rock 'n' roll (i.e., Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Phil Spector girl groups), albeit with the production values of garage music. "Trash" isn't necessarily a derogatory term; it's more of a metaphor. It means that most albums in this genre sound like they were recorded in a garbage can.
To Ribak, an unpolished but infectious sound should be a badge of pride. The Ramones presented themselves that way, as did The Kinks, as do a lot of popular Bay Area groups who fit within that decades-old trash rock lineage. Ribak has assembled many of them for a giant "Total Trash" Festival, which happens at several East Bay clubs this week, and continues later in the month at venues in San Francisco. It's the third iteration of an event he's trying to produce annually, and the most organized yet: This year, Ribak's even taken the time to make program booklets. He calls it "a cheaper alternative to Outside Lands."
That's a bold, but not entirely inaccurate characterization. The festival is indeed cheap, with shows costing $5-$10 a pop. And while some of the bands are rather obscure or have only a cult following, others boast genuine name recognition. Singer-guitarist King Tuff (aka Kyle Thomas), who headlines two trashy showcases this week, is currently signed to the indie label Sub Pop. Since Thomas is from Vermont, Ribak describes him as the answer to one of the main-stage acts at Outside Lands, Phish, which hails from the same state. Tuff said that might be an overstatement, but it's a nice way to set the bar. "You know, I'd like to give Vermont some rock 'n' roll cred," he said agreeably.
While no Total Trash participant questioned the festival's title, some of them were flummoxed by the term "trash rock." In this case, it's extremely nebulous. More than a dozen bands fill the Total Trash lineup, and they all fall on different points of the punk-rock spectrum. King Tuff prefers being poppy and accessible, and won't shy away from the term "bubblegum." Nectarine Pie harkens more directly to vintage mod-rock and country. The Trashies are an aptly named thrash band. If anything, the thing that binds all these bands together is that they're friends and fans of one another, and they play festivals together. Last weekend, most of them graced Pizza Fest in Seattle and Smmr Bmmr in Portland, which, King Tuff said, were essentially the same as Total Trash.
Shannon Shaw, whose group Shannon and the Clams plays Total Trash on Friday, said she didn't know "trash" was a genre. She likes the sound of it anyway. "I wouldn't even think of us as 'Sixties sounding,'" the singer mused, "though music of that time is definitely an inspiration." Shaw admitted that, growing up Mormon in a hillbilly part of Napa Valley, she listened to a lot of Beach Boys and Roy Orbison, because that's pretty much the only music her parents would allow. "I think that stuff just leaks into my subconscious when I'm writing songs," Shaw said, explaining why so much of her music follows a bubbly surf-rock pattern, which clashes in a not-unpleasant way with the singer's rough, throaty growl.
That's not to mention that, like virtually every band playing Total Trash, Shannon and the Clams eschew ultra-clean studio production. "I would hate to be 'polished,'" the singer said. "I would probably stop playing music if I ever sounded polished. I always want there to be a little dirt and scum in whatever we're doing."
Nor does King Tuff mind being a little rough around the edges. Known for his grimy fashion sense — long hair, baseball cap, tattoos, wifebeater tank tops with Coca Cola logos — he's apparently a big hit with the ladies. (So says Ribak, at least. King Tuff demurs.) And he plays with a rotating cast of backup musicians that includes the rock band Audacity, whose members he met at South by Southwest. Since Tuff now resides in Los Angeles, he taught Audacity to play his songs over Skype. "They sat down with their guitars on one end, and I sat down with mine on the other, and they asked me questions on how to play things," he explained.
If you're not concerned with polish, then that approach works rather well. Ribak is similarly permissive with The Rock 'n' Roll Adventure Kids, whose songs are all fast-paced, incomprehensible jingles that hover on one or two chord changes. They're addictive, ear-wormy, and gratifying in a way that a lot of deeper, more complicated music is not. Perhaps that's the real thrust of trash rock. It's purposefully tawdry, but offers a lot of pleasure on the surface. Just like fried chicken, or tighty whiteys.