Today, I got a chance to interview with Mark Shenkel of the local, iconic band, Riff Rath’, that was known for rocking out clubs in the early 1980s and are still hitting the scene today.
How did you get into the industry of music?
I started playing saxophone in the 4th grade. I later joined every band in my high school, then quit all those and started playing gigs in 10th grade. In 1983 I entered the Recording Industry program at MTSU (Murfreesboro, TN) and started working in record stores in 1984, which was my first industry job. I later worked in video distribution, sound reinforcement, and artist relations and marketing for Gibson Guitars. Now I'm back to just making music with Riff Rath' and other bands - no industry jobs.
I see that your genre is considered Indie/Alternative/Schizo Rock. What exactly is “schizo” rock?
I use the term because we play so many kinds of rock. In a way, our repertoire has multiple personalities. My philosophy for Riff Rath' was to try to make nearly every song a different sub-genre of rock. I figured a three piece is going to sound sonically consistent, so why not vary the compositions. I'm also a fan of all musical genres. I would have been bored doing the same style over and over again.
You’ve been around since the 1980s. How was the independent music scene back then? Is Riff Rath’ going anywhere or will the band live on like legends?
I went to Murfreesboro in 1983 expecting to find all kinds of alternative/college rock bands doing original material, but couldn't find any, so I started one myself. By the mid-80s bands were coming out of the woodwork. We all supported each other, played in each other's bands, attended each other's shows. It was a great scene. Most of us were having a blast and simply trying to make great music and entertain each other and our friends. Few were looking for a "deal" or to "get signed." That scene and spirit seems to diminished these days. I never expected Riff Rath' to live beyond our college years, but people have remembered. Last year, we were asked to reunite and play a gig with another band from the era. It went so well we decided to carry on and have played several shows now. Next are new recordings. No idea what the future may hold, but we're going to go for a ride and see what happens.
An interesting note about the new line-up is that the bassist, Garry Todd, was the first bass player back in 1984 and the drummer, Sammy Baker, was the last drummer at the end of the 80s. Even though they are both original members from the original band 25-30 years ago, they never played together before until the 2014 reunion (I'm the only one who has been in every version of the band). So, the current line up is not only original and authentic, it is also brand new!
Since you have performed for so long, how is your personal support systems? Are they supportive? Do they think that you guys are just living a dream working in a band for this long?
Everyone who knows us knows we all have to make a living and have full and varied lives outside this band. We all play in other bands, too. I break even with music. Maybe one day I'll make a living, but I don't seem to be willing to compromise for the money. Bottom line: I love to play. We all do.
At one point, you were named Riff Raff…why the change to Riff Rath’?
The name Riff Raff had its problems. I wanted to change the name without losing our identity, so I searched for terms with a similar meaning and settled on “Hoi Polloi.” After announcing the name change to a full house at Mainstreet Music Emporium, a friend came up after the show, pulled a worn slip of paper from the recesses of his wallet, and presented the logo he intended to use for the band he was forming: Hoi Polloi (this Hoi Polloi never materialized, but a Christian rock band from New Zealand moved to Tennessee and used the name in the mid-90s. Coincidentally, I was their contact at Gibson Guitars when I worked there in Artist Relations). Back to square one, I thought about using “Riff Wrath” but decided it would make us sound more like a metal band than our current name. After poring through my 1947 dictionary, I discovered a nearly forgotten word which meant “quick, eager and speedy.” The word was “rathe” and replacing the “e” with an apostrophe gave us “Riff Rath’.” This choice proved to cause punctuation, spelling and pronunciation confusion, but we went with it anyway. What the hell, we were just trying to have fun and weren’t all that concerned about marketing or other aspects of the music business. In fact, we never made any attempt to garner label interest or secure a manager or booking agent. We were working students, with little time to spare.
What was your best show/performance? What was your worst?
I'm sure our worst was sometime in the 80s and nothing - even if I could remember that decade clearly - sticks out as being particularly horrible (I could cite some stinkers with some other bands besides Riff Rath', though). We have had an absolute blast since re-forming in 2014, and as far as I'm concerned, all these gigs have been the best we've ever done. We should be better after all this time, (laughs)!
What is your advice to indie artists who are just starting out? How can they keep the longevity that Riff Rath’ has?
Love what you do, appreciate your fans, and keep creating. If you think you should be a star, you've already failed.
What are some of your pet peeves?
Don't get me started! Just kidding, I really don't pay much attention to stuff like that. Life's too short.
Pick one of the following subjects and do a top 5: foods, cities, bands.
Neil Young The Residents Weather Report Taj Mahal John Lennon
These are personal favorites of mine, off the top of my head, but Sammy and Garry also appreciate these and other wildly diverse musicians.
Is Riff Rath’…the band, the music, the fans…is all a dream, a career, or a side gig?
All these things and more!
Thank you so much for chatting with me today, Riff Rath’. If you want to follow the band and their music, check them out…