By the time you’re reading this, Haverhill, Massachusetts’ The Radiator Rattlers will be less than 24 hours from the official release of their newest studio full-length. It’s called Hold On, and it’s due out Saturday (September 29th) and it makes the group’s first full-length since their self-titled debut dropped back in 2015. Now, if you’re saying to yourself “wait just one good god damn minute…who are the Radiator Rattlers?” well…that’s partially my fault. The octet — that’s right, there are eight Rattlers — have been slowly and steadily building up a following in the area north of Boston over the last half-dozen years, playing a souped up version of good-time punk rock run through a rockabilly-Hank Williams-cowpunk filter that’s ways that could only come from a band that includes a washboard player on vocals, a mandolin player, a banjo player, a stand-up bass player, and a pedal steel-playing pirate among its ranks.
One recent weeknight after work, yours truly took a ride into the working-class heart of the Merrimack Valley to catch up with Rattlers’ guitarist/vocalist Frankie Piessens (pictured above) at the tattoo shop he owns and operates in order to shed some light on Hold On. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been a patron of the shop for years, and Radiator Rattlers’ vocalist/washboard player Kenny Turner did my most recent piece. As fate would have it, Piessens just happened to be finishing up a sleeve on Rattlers’ original bass player Mike Bastek, which gave some pretty good insight into the history of the band. Here’s a quick recap:
It all started out six years ago. Piessens, Bastek, and Rattlers’ mandolin player Travis Boucher lived together in a multi-family house affectionately known as South Central in Havehill, Massachusetts. Having all been in myriad bands throughout the incestual Merrimack Valley music scene for more than a decade at that point, the trio figured playing music together was a no-brainer, at least as a way to hang together after work. What made this project different from previous bands, however, is that 2/3rds of the lineup didn’t know how to play their instruments. “It started basically because Mike got a stand-up bass and wanted to learn how to use it,” explains Piessens. “We started covering Stones’ songs, Pogues’ songs…just fun songs so they could learn their instruments, because Travis didn’t know how to play mandolin either.”
As time went on, more people were added to the mix. Matt Pepp on banjo. Carla Pierce on acoustic guitar and, at times, accordion. Kenny Turner on vocals and, because he didn’t play a stringed instrument, washboard. Luke Williams on percussion, which is generally drums but has also include various household objects including but not limited to a suitcase. “At one point or another, we all lived in the same house. We didn’t even have a name,” says Piessens. “We were hanging out in this living room, drinking beers and playing songs. It was an old house, and everybody that lived in the house was people that we knew and worked with. We had gotten to the point where we were going to maybe play an open mic just to get it out of our system. And Jed, our neighbor upstairs, he called when we were practicing one night and he was like “yo, man, you guys are like totally rattling my radiators right now.” And it was like “there’s the band name!”
The seven-piece played their first open mic at a venue called the Chit Chat Lounge in their hometown of Haverhill. Having received a modicum of positive feedback, things progressed in a natural, organic fashion. The band played parties and other open mics, and started to develop a local following, without having any pretense that they’d turn into the next big thing. “We all have careers, we all have shit that we want to do,” Piessens explains. “But for us to get that feeling of playing music like we used to when we were kids and having fun, that’s what we were chasing.” Eventually the band decided to start recording original tunes and to narrow down a sound. Enter: The Pirate.
Jonee Earthquake, that is. Earthquake is a bit of a local legend in the southern New Hampshire/northern Massachusetts music scene. He’s been playing in bands and recording music and putting on shows in the area since 1979. For comparison’s sake, that’s also the year Bad Religion started, and the year I, your resident old Boston-area fart, was born. Earthquake joined the Radiator Rattlers about a year after the band started, taking on the role of pedal steel player. He recorded the band’s music, and brought with him a sense of professionalism (well…it’s punk rock and he dresses like a pirate, so professionalism might be an overstatement) that got the now eight-piece to focus. As Bastek interjects: “You don’t want to disappoint the pirate!”
As Piessens figures, the band started to hit their proverbial stride after two or three years as a unit. They recorded and released their self-titled debut full-length in 2015. They also recorded enough material for a second full-length, including a few songs that ended up on their 2015 Summer’s Over 7-inch. “We recorded the last one and this one at the same time, and just knocked out as much as we could,” says Piessens. There was only one problem: “the computer shit the bed,” he explains. “We lost everything. The only shit we still had was the two songs that were already on the 7-inch. We had to go back and record everything else again.”
The result of that follow-up session is Hold On, which is due out tomorrow on Earthquake’s Spiral Records label. It consists of ten tracks that find the band refining slightly their garage punk/alt-country/rockabilly infused sound, a natural occurrence given that the band’s members (Bastek has been replaced on bass duties by Jimbo Ritchie) have all learned how to play their instruments. Most of the band’s songs start out with Piessens working on a song or a riff at his house. Once the basic structure is cemented, Piessens will bring the song to the practice. “There’s a bunch of wild cards!” he exclaims. “Usually I’ll work it out with the “core group” – the drummer, Carla the acoustic guitar player, maybe a mandolin or a banjo. Then we’ll bring in the rest of them and they add their own little flavor to the song. Jonee especially, when he adds the pedal steel over that shit, it just changes completely where the song goes. Once a song goes through the eight members, it might totally change what I thought it was going to sound like.”
At the end of the day, the Radiator Rattlers are still a punk rock band. A large, multi-instrumental punk rock band. “You’re throwing as much as you can at a wall and seeing what sticks,” Piessens explains. “They’re all cowboy chords, really, so they’re pretty open to going in either a punk rock direction or a country direction or whatever. We can cover anything from Johnny Cash to CCR to Ramones or Minor Threat or Fear. It’s all shit we like, it doesn’t matter if it “fits the band” or not. It’s punk rock, you can smash that fucking square peg into a round hole.”
It bears mentioning that the listener and/or showgoer should not let the number and type of instruments fool them into a preconceived notion of what the band sounds like. The Radiator Rattlers’ sound owes more to the sound of Hank Williams than it does to fellow Boston-area band Dropkick Murphys. Piessens explains: “We all come from bands where we have Marshall stacks, and we can’t have Marshall stacks in this band…A) because there’s not enough room on stage, and B) because you can’t have eight Marshall stacks on stage…this isn’t fucking Motorhead!”
While nobody in the band seems to have delusions of grandeur surrounding the Radiator Rattlers becoming a full-time operation, there does seem to be a sense of pride – and relief – that Hold On is now seeing the light of day. “We’re all happy with the lives we have. We’re all happy with the musical things we’ve done in the past,” Piessens says matter-of-factly. “It would be great to play on a bigger stage so we could all fit comfortably someday. That would be sick! I wouldn’t even give a fuck if it was opening up for Hootie and the Blowfish or something. It’s cool to be 35 and to be able to play music like I was when I was a teenager. And to put records out? It’s fun!”
The Radiator Rattlers’ play their record release show in Haverhill tomorrow (September 29th) with a stellar lineup of local heavyweights that includes Tigerman WOAH and Michael Kane & The Morning Afters. Head here to pick up your own copy of Hold On…and stay tuned. “We’re slated to record a new album December 1st,” explains Piessens. “We have the songs ready to go, and we’ve got a new 7-inch that’ll be coming out. We take all the money we make from one record and put it toward what comes next.”