Interview by Kylie Obermeier
Drug rings, armed robbery, hookah stashing, cat burglar outfits and gopher snakes with broken necks–professional audiophile Dave Rat’s life is made for an action-packed biopic. Dave got his start recording bands like Black Flag and the Last on cassette as a high schooler during the LA punk scene of the late 70s and 80s. Since then, he has created speakers used at shows worldwide through his company, Rat Sound, and has mixed sound for countless bands. If you’ve gone to rawk shows, you’ve probably been to a show that used Rat speakers. Dave–who’s now based in Camarillo, CA–sat down with me to share incredible stories and wisdom on the morning of a work day ‘cause you can do that when you’re the boss. Fellow SB contributor Maddie Keyes-Levine accompanied me to provide snappy one-liners and remind her dad about the ridiculously high standards of today’s job market.
Kylie Obermeier: I know your job involves lots of different things—can you go into more detail about what exactly it is that you do?
Dave Rat: I pretty much look at what I do from three different angles. One is that I mix shows. I used to do sound for lots of different bands, but I’ve pretty much narrowed that down to mixing for just Red Hot Chili Peppers now. I started originally recording, and trying to work in a recording studio because I didn’t even know there were sound man jobs. So I started by recording, and then I didn’t like recording because I would get bored in the studio doing the same thing over and over and over again. And so a friend of mine taught me how to build speakers. That’s what I really like to do, is designing and building speakers—or think of something and then make it. And so I started doing that. And then in order to build more speakers and have money, I started renting them out, which started the business side of it. There was also a demand for someone to operate the sound system, so I learned how to set everything up and mix and that became the engineer side.
I never really wanted to be a sound engineer, but that’s kind of the fun exciting part.
All three fit together. I think that puts me in kind of a unique position compared to most other speaker designers—they don’t mix, or they don’t own the company. ‘Cause company owners don’t design speakers and mix, so I’ve kind of got a nice balance between—and I’m maybe not the best at any of them, but the unique perspective gives me an advantage in some ways.
K: What led you to this career?
D: Initially, the process of elimination of all the things I didn’t want to do. I really didn’t do well in school, I couldn’t stand sitting in one spot for any period of time. Either the classes were moving too slow and it would drive me out of my mind or they would just say a bunch of things that I didn’t fully understand and I felt I was either really smart or really stupid ‘cause I would have a million questions. But I didn’t understand, and unless I understand, I forget. So I ended up doing a lot of like solo research and figuring stuff on my own.
I got a job across the street at Winchell’s Donuts- it was the night shift. I met some really nefarious characters there, you don’t get the cream of the crop at a beach donut place between 2 and 6 am. I befriended—I wish I had pictures of them—I befriended some really interesting homeless people. One guy was really nice- I would always give him free donuts. And one day he came by and asked me if I wanted to buy a hookah. I said “Well maybe I dunno, what do I need a hookah for.” And he was like “$5.” “Oh $5, well let me see it.” So he unwraps this dirty blanket, and he pulls it out like *angel choir noise* It’s brass, hand carved, rosewood–one of those things that you want but don’t need. So I gave him $5, and he gives me the hookah, and I hid it in the back room. And it’s time to go home and I hadn’t thought this all the way through. [Winchell’s] was walking distance from my dad’s house, like three blocks away, and I’m like “Where am I gonna put the hookah?” My dad’s not going want the hookah, he’s not even going to want me to have the hookah. So I hid it in the bushes.
There were these guys I hung out with across the street. I showed them the hookah, and they wanted it so bad. They had a better storage spot at their house. So they said “We’ll trade you for microphones.” They all worked at AKG Phillips. And the microphones were even shinier to me than the hookah. So I got the mics, and then I had a cassette deck. Up the street was this church. Half the church was hippies, and half was punkers. The hippies had the front half and they made like little tapestries and love bracelets. And the punkers made loud obnoxious music. There was a band Red Cross, and the Last, and Black Flag and a couple other bands. So I used to go hang out with them a lot. I brought the cassette and mics there and I started recording rehearsals. And then I said “Hey, can I record your show?” And they said “That’d be great.” So I was getting into these shows for free.
Then I got a job at Mattel Toys fixing games. I met this guy who lived below a recording studio. In the recording studio he had two speakers. The whole wall was speakers, like *angel choir noise*. He turns this thing on and it was the loudest thing I’ve ever heard in my whole life. He said, “Do you wanna help me build some more? I’ll teach you how.” So I saved up some money and we built four floor monitors. He got two and I got two. And I bought an amplifier and some other gear. I started doing parties. [I’d say}, “Give me 20 bucks and I’ll do a little band playing the backyard.” And then I got more speakers, and just kept getting more! *laughs*
I went from Mattel to Hughes aircraft- same thing. Some guys at Mattel said “Hey we just went to Hughes and got jobs.”
Maddie Keyes-Levine: Wow, the job market was really something. Now you need a college diploma to work at like…Ben and Jerry’s.
D: Probably the most difficult decision for me was when I worked at Hughes. That was a real job–it was during the Reagan administration, during the mandatory military overtime for the Cold War. They had all kinds of stuff they were needing to build. I was 18 years old and making $19 an hour in 1980. I had medical insurance, I had retirement. It was pretty much a career people would do for the rest of their lives. And meanwhile I was doing sound system stuff where I was working 3 or 4 days a work renting out sound systems. I was leaving work early again, burning up vacation and sick leave time, and it reached the point where I was either gonna get fired or I had to quit the sound business. I decided to quit Hughes.
When I started the business, I lived very poor for a long time. We used to live in the warehouses. You know when there’s a house in front and there like a little back house? Well the first place, in Hawthorne, was like that except the front house had burned down years ago. So I had a tiny back house and just this huge front yard that was all crab grass. I had all the equipment in the house.
I lived there and we got robbed. It was armed robbery with Brian [Rat’s former business partner] and I. Five guys came by with a gun, held us up, forced their way into the house. I tried to slam the door. They punched Brian in the stomach and said get in the house. I went in the house, Brian lingered, he shouldn’t have lingered. I slammed the door, and as it slammed, the gun barrel was the only thing that stopped it, and it diveted the door and the jam. Then they kicked the door open and tied us up. It was kind of a rough neighborhood. Took the keys, cut the phone lines, ransacked the house, loaded all the sound equipment into the van and stole the van.
K: So then you had no money and no sound equipment?
K: So what did you do then?
D: It was difficult, to decide whether to continue or give up. And we eventually decided to just try to rebuild it again. We needed money. Actually I went to my dad, it was the only time I ever borrowed or took money from my dad. He said “Well, you never spent your college money,” so he gave me like $18 or $20 thousand and I started buying gear again.
K: But like . . . how did it go from that, basically starting over, to becoming a very big business?
D: Oh, I dunno. *laughs*
M: I feel like it’s not exactly applicable to today. Not that it’s extremely different, but people want more qualifications.
D: People did then too. If you didn’t have a college diploma, you were worthless.
M: Like five different people hired you without a high school diploma.
D: Yeah, but the entrepreneurial side of things today is unlike anything in history. Back then, it was like every school just taught you how to fit into the generic mold of what society presents. Are you going to be a doctor, a lawyer, a secretary, a delivery person? There’s a set of jobs, and then you just have to pick one and work towards it. You either went to the work experience-type thing or you went to college depending on which job you were training for, and it was very defined. Anything outside of that was completely outrageous, unheard of, absurd.
Whereas now it’s like, shit, you can write an app and be a millionaire. And that’s okay. You can become a dog walker. Everything back then was corporate structure, and if you didn’t fit into that structure- there wasn’t crowdfunding- you couldn’t come up with an idea and get money. We didn’t borrow any money for the first 18 years of Rat except for the money from my dad. Banks would never loan us money because we didn’t have credibility. We would go out and get paid cash and save money to buy equipment. We had no investment model or loans. Now if I want money, I can write up something. I learned that later. I’ve taken investors to buy equipment. You just write up a real nice brochure, say a bunch of stuff, and people are like “Oh, yeah.”
So I think that in that light, it’s different. On the other side, since the entrepreneurial side is more open now, there’s more competition for it. Back then, what I was doing was so absurd and unheard of, there was so much resistance to it, that I could be unique in doing it.
When I started the company, it was a hobby that I could never possibly imagine I would make money doing. When I made enough money to survive and quit Hughes, even to starve and eat mac ‘n cheese–we went to a place called Oakie Dogs and Brian and I would split french fries–with ketchup, mustard, and mayo so we’d have a fully balanced meal–we were happy just to survive. Just to be able to eat food and do something. Doing what I enjoyed was all I wanted. I would rather be poor and happy than make a bunch of money doing something I hate. I looked at what my parents did, what most people did, they would make a bunch of money and work hard and be miserable their whole life to retire and be happy later, and I said I’d rather just be happy now and poor and figure it out. And so it was kind of just blind–I didn’t care, I didn’t have a plan, I didn’t say I was going to be successful. I just did it anyways ‘cause I wanted to do it, and I just had like this blind faith of like, “Hey, if I do it and I do what I love to do, I’ll be happy, and I don’t fuckin’ care as long as I don’t die.”
And then it didn’t get better for a long time. I mean I started with the speakers when I was 17, and then I worked at Hughes, and that was until ‘80 and then I was 18, 19. I lived in rough parts of town, had broken vehicles.
K: So when did it start to do well?
D: The reason I named it Rat Sound was because I used to have a snake. It was named Kinky, a gopher snake with a broken neck, so when he moved he always had like a little bend in his neck. The snake cage was on top of my dresser, and my bed was [directly next to it] and you couldn’t open the bottom drawers all the way. You go to bed, and the first thing you see when you wake up is the snake. And it ate rats. It was like, no matter what I did, everything was fucked. We would try to get a gig, some other sound company would undercut us, somebody would badmouth us. Everything we did was an obstacle with a bad outcome. And I was there with this girl I was dating, Beverly, and I was explaining to her, “We’re like the fucking rat in the cage.” It’s like, in a world of snakes, we’re just a little rat. And the rat is just sitting there in the cage and the snake’s sleeping, and the rat is just scared to shit and like–that’s how I feel. Like no matter all we do, all we want is to eat food and be happy, and everybody hates us, everything’s against us. And she was like “Why don’t you name it Rat Sound?”
So no, I never thought we would make it. I actually tried to partner with the guy who taught me to build speakers. And he said no, you’ll never make it. You’ll fail. Nobody makes a sound company. So, up through ‘85 we were doing shows, local punk rock venues. Dancing Waters, Galaxy. In ‘84, we installed a system in the Starwood, it was going to reopen as Club Hollywood. If you look back into ‘80s Hollywood rock archive, there’s a guy named Eddie Nash. He was selling quaaludes and coke through a number of clubs, and this club, he owned. There was a federal indictment against him. They arrested him, put him in jail. But while in jail, the transfer of the club went to some other woman, and she was going reopen it, and it’s all going kind of okay. Then all of a sudden, they found that it was kind of a front. Meanwhile, we had installed a sound system in there. So as soon as they found that, they locked the club up.
So now, that was our second big falter. All of our money is tied up inside of this club that we can’t get out, owned by a nefarious drug dealer and some shill front.
Brian and I–we went and dressed in all black, we had a black van. We dressed like cat burglars. And I went up on the roof and used a telephone cable and climbed down through a heater vent into the ice machine room. And I had a whole set of tools on me. I went inside and I unscrewed the little door chain and I pulled the handle off and pushed the door open. I let him in and then we took all the gear and piled it up. And meanwhile, someone was inside the place the whole time. Like, watching TV. And we loaded up and gear and burgled our own gear.
After the first robbery, after all this shit, I got a call from the bass player from Black Flag saying “Hey we’re going on tour, you wanna come out?” And that was the next big scary thing after quitting Hughes, it’s like up and leave, travel around. I ended up deciding to go. It was kind of the punk rock version of Warped Tour back then.
Then we hooked up with the Peppers. The sound engineer worked for me and they were going to fire him ‘cause he wouldn’t stop doing drugs after the guitar player had died of an overdose. So I agreed to fill in for him until he got his shit together. I went out and did the first gig I did with them, in Hawaii, and while I was with them, he got murdered in a drug deal. So I’ve been filling in for him ever since. So then I started touring with Peppers. We were still kind of struggling. Pearl Jam loaned us a bunch of money, and then they took us out on a tour in 1992.
But now we’re starting to get traction, some bands. But back then, Pearl Jam was a tiny little opening band. It was Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, and the Chili Peppers. So they would be like the first band at Coachella, not on the main stage. But again, this was all alternative music. I liked punk rock; I never thought it would be popular. I liked a losing type of music in a losing industry doing a bad plan. None of my stuff had any possibility of having any positive outcomes, but I liked doing it. And who would’ve known that that music would become popular?
K: It seems like a lot of it was kind of happenstance from hanging out in the scene. You came to know people and that was how you made connections that helped get you where you are.
D: A lot of the bands we were familiar with–you know, we worked with the Germs a lot, and then the guy died, and it was done. And then some of the bands we were really familiar with, like Mary’s Danish, they just never went anywhere. [We were familiar with] No Doubt, and they went and got really big, really fast and hired other people. With Jane’s Addiction, I was the very first sound man they ever had; we were great with them. And then the management came in and fired us and brought someone else in. So it was just this big mess. But the Chili Peppers–I just stayed friends with them, got the sound man gig, and they just got popular. So I think it’s kind of luck but also there was like 20 bands that we were friends with, so somebody was bound to get popular.
K: But also, you stuck with it. You were very determined.
D: I was relentless. I’m much more relaxed than I used to be. I used to be an absolute obsessive. I would get up at 6, 5 in the morning and live in the shop and just be like “I gotta build speakers now!”
K: How do you build a speaker? What’s your process?
D: It depends. One way is that there’s a demand. You’re using the speakers that are there and there’s a problem. They don’t do what you want them to do. So like with the MicroWedges, speakers sounded shitty: they don’t get loud and they feedback really easy. Oh, and they’re big, and heavy and ugly and the people can’t see the band. So, I wrote two lists: all the problems that stage monitors have, and what would be ideal. And then I kind of took all those together, and I kept those lists, and then I started drawing pictures of what I wanted it to look like.
My design process has changed over the years. It used to be purely technical. I would try to design something that was the best sounding thing, the loudest thing, the smallest thing, that I possibly could. It took me about 20 years to figure out that you have to make things beautiful or people won’t like them. Number one thing they care about: does it look good. Second thing: does it work. So I’ve developed a design plan. There are six factors: sound quality, size, weight, max volume, cost, and aesthetics. You can look at any sound system, you can look at any car or anything that’s built, and apply those. At some point, you have to prioritize those factors. You can look at a car and ask “What did they prioritize?” Well they minimized cost: it was as cheap as possible, and then they tried make everything else work. Another you might see for a car instead of max volume is max speed. Okay, let’s try to make the fastest thing ever, and then they try to make it beautiful. And they totally disregarded cost.
So first I come up with a reason why I’m going to build it, and then I take those six factors and I overlay and prioritize them. And then once I have that, I have a good idea, a map, and then I just kind of fill in the blanks. Like for the last monitor I built, I wanted it as loud as it could possibly be, I wanted it to look cool, and I wanted it to be very small. I didn’t care about how much it weighed–at first, later on I threw money at keeping the weight down. And cost was no object; that makes it easier. For MicroWedge,I had to keep the cost down, the weight down, the size down, and I wanted to maximize sound quality and volume based on that.
K: And the MicroWedge is very popular, right?
D: That one, I licensed out. I’ve always designed and built speakers that Rat deployed, and the MicroWedge was the first thing that I designed, found someone else to make it, and charged them licensing fees. So everyone who sells it gives us some money.
I started out the business wanting to be happy and happen to make money while I’m doing so. Now, I want be happy, make money while I’m doing so, and also make money while I sleep. But that’s not the initial thing. First you have to do what you love. I have a theory that if you do what you love to do, you really care about it–it doesn’t matter what it is. It doesn’t matter if it’s going to be profitable or successful, just find something you love and then do it. And do it well. And since you love it and you do it well, people will just give you money. They don’t mind. Think about when you buy something that’s done really well, by somebody who loves making it. If someone is really into doing it, and they make the most amazing whatever, you want it, and you don’t mind giving them money. So the key is to know that it goes the other way–if you do that, others will just give you money.
K: What is your favorite thing about your job?
D: I love not knowing what will happen next. I like getting to a city and not really having a plan, but having something fun happen.
I like when the band walks onstage and that first note when everything’s there, and the people get super excited, and *pop* the sound system comes up. There’s a certain feeling of mixing shows where you’re kind of a conduit between the artist and the audience, and that connection, when the artist is connected to the audience, and the audience is excited and the artist is excited, that’s great. That’s just a wonderful feeling. And doing sound, being in control of that to some degree–I can basically ruin the whole show, or I can [make it great]. I can bring it 10% up or 100% down. That feeling is great.
I like going to Australia and seeing MicroWedges. [It’s cool to be] making something that people buy all over the world. Disney World buys Soundtools stuff! That’s just so fun. One of the most fun things is just coming up with an idea, and having it be real, and having it be everywhere. And I think most of the things I enjoy are based on that, whether it’s coming up with an idea of going into a city and finding somewhere to go, finding a good restaurant, or surfing and finding a wave. That, and then freedom. Freedom to not be trapped. To do what you want to do. To, like, be here right now rather than go to work ‘cause I don’t have to. And not being overly concerned about money is important. If I was really focused on money, than I’d sacrifice freedom.
K: You were saying before how the number one thing is to be happy. So if it’s someone you really don’t like, are you going to turn them down no matter what?
D: [A revered artist] tried to hire me twice. They were like “Do you even want to know how much it pays?” And I’m like “No, I’m not interested.” There’s no way I’m going out with someone who’s an arrogant, abusive pile of shit. Fuck that. Early on, with Rat, we would only do shows I liked. And that worked out well. That’s how we worked with Pearl Jam and Chilli Peppers. That’s why we had Sonic Youth, we had so many good bands. I was like “If we don’t like ‘em, fuck ‘em. Metal bands would call me up. “Are you busy?” [I’d say], “Oh shoot, I think we’re busy.” If we were really hungry, I would make some concessions, but I’d try not to compromise. Later on, as more people ran the company without me directly involved, I became okay with them doing it. My opinion is related to my own personal involvement. I’ll assist them as long as I’m not directly exposed to things I don’t want to do.
K: How did you learn what sounds good? Or do you think you just have a natural gift for sound?
D: It used to be different in every country. It’s less different than it used to be. It used to be in, like, Japan they wouldn’t use very much low end, it was very much midrange, high fidelity.
M: Not all about that bass.
D: Yeah, articulation in the highs and mids. And very thin low ends. Then you get to, like, Germany and South America and it’s on the other end–it’s super thick and muddy and no high end, just booming, pure power. The US tended to be somewhere in between. And the British tended to have this more poppy, clonk, like pop-pop-pop sound.
Over the years that has diminished, and that’s been partially because the sound systems used to be homemade everywhere. And no matter where you went, you could never hear the same sound. iPhones and iPods gave people the ability to hear the same sound in every continent at the same time for the first time in the history of human beings. That didn’t exist 20 years ago. You could have headphones, but before digital music players, even with cassette players, they all sounded different. Everything sounded different. So there’s been a convergence of sound perspective, and because of that, there’s reference points now, and as the reference points are established, there’s been more consistency.
As far as what sounds good for me, that’s interesting, it like–beginning sound engineers are kind of like beginning drivers. Some of them are focused on detail and balance. But a lot of them are like 16-year-olds kid driving a muscle car. Every streetlight is a new race. And the green light is floor it. And the red light is slam on the brakes. Super fun for the driver, but everyone else gets nauseated. So with sound engineers, there’s a perception of sound as tons of low end, kickdrum, hard sounds. The reality is that most of the audience doesn’t want that, they want to hear the album. They want something where they can hear the vocals, and can hear everything together. So there’s two different perceptions of good sound: the people that are in control with bad ideas, and the people that are listening. That was a tough one to figure out at first.
K: So you were one of those people who wanted everything super heavy?
D: Oh I loved the power; I designed everything around power. There’s conflict for me because I’m designing sound systems that are extremely powerful. It’s like designing racecars to be driven like limos. The people want to ride in limos. But some people want to ride in a racecar. It depends on what kind of music you’re listening to.
For me, determining what sounds good is based on reference points. Sound is interesting in that it’s like time- our perception of it is constantly changing. I used to wear a watch, and I realized that when I wore a watch–well, first of all I realize that when I’m excited, time flies by. And when I’m not excited, it moves by really slow. And when you can’t sleep it moves by really, really slow. Our perception of time is this nonlinear function, whereas a watch is a linear function. So as soon as you put a watch on, you’re tethering to it for better or worse. If someone asks you exactly what time it is and you don’t wear a watch–what time is it right now, do you know?
M: It’s 10.
D: Your accuracy could be good–sound is the same way. But, for some reason, people are willing to look at a watch and accept that they don’t know exactly what time it is and go to a reference point. With sound, it hasn’t reached that point yet. We’re still in prehistoric ages. People think they know what it sounds like, they think it sounds good, but they don’t use a watch. But the equivalent of a watch would be like you putting headphones on and listening to music, calibrating your ears. So what if the engineer listened to headphones on and off while they’re doing the show and made it sound good? That’s kind of what I do.
The other thing is that our perception of sound changes with jet lag, tiredness, coffee, alcohol, getting sick. The only way to maintain any kind of consistency is to establish a reference point the same way we do with a watch. I basically have researched fairly in depth a good pair of headphones, I have several different pairs, and I constantly refer to them.
K: Do you ever get starstruck?
D: I get starstruck by odd people. Jimmy Page came and hung out with me at front of house with his son. I was in England mixing a Chili Peppers show at a place Zeppelin had played many times, in one of the worst sounding rooms in England. It’s very echo-y. Chad came up to me and he says “Is it okay if Jimmy Page comes up and hangs out at front of house with you?” And I was like “That would be cool.” So he came out and stood behind me the whole show.
M: I can’t believe you weren’t starstruck by Guy Fieri.
K: Wait what? You met Guy?
D: No, I wasn’t. Guy Fieri hung out at front of house at Chili Peppers. But, you know, I told Jimmy Page “I’m honored to meet you.” I said “The very first rock concert I ever went to was Led Zeppelin at the LA forum in 1976. And after that show I was like, ‘Wow, I wanna do sound.’ I really was impressed. I really wanted to be involved. So to have you back here, is like, super cool.” And he was real polite. And then he ran into Chad [Smith] at some market and told him that it sounded really good. So I was even happier.
K: So this is another stupid question but–
D: Can I give you advice? I’m gonna give you the same advice I gave to the Offspring when they played their very first show at their record release party for that “Keep Em Seperated” song, right before they broke. They asked me to fill in for them. I didn’t know who they were, but they were really good. It was a great show. The guy comes out, they play, and in the middle of the show one of the guys, Dexter, messed up a part. And he goes “Ugh, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry I messed up that one part” to the audience. At the end of the show he asked if I would work with them again. I said “I will, but you gotta do one thing for me. Will you quit fucking apologizing? If you’re gonna apologize to the audience, I’m not gonna do it. Nobody noticed you messed up until you said something! Now you’re gonna get a review saying you messed up.” Run with it, smile, it’s okay. Just own it- it’s gonna be better than backtracking.
K: If you were doing your dream show–any place and anyone–where and who would it be?
D: I would still like to mix Led Zeppelin. That would be probably my favorite. Because it’s a four piece rock band; it’s simple but complicated. I’d like to mix Led Zeppelin playing their first two albums in a big echo-y arena, old school rock kind of arena, something that doesn’t sound great. ‘Cause you know, good sound is a matter of perspective. Woodstock sounded like shit, but people who went to Woodstock will talk about it forever. It sounded like ass. That it sounds good is not really important; what matters is the memory. There’s something really cool about when everything’s not perfect, but then there’s a magical show when that happens.
K: What is your advice for people who want to do what you do?
D: Don’t worry about where you’re going to end up, ‘cause the sooner you start, the farther you’ll go. If you make too many plans, you’ll end up planning forever and never get there. As far as getting your first big break, if you love to mix, start doing it. If someone lived here and wanted to do sound, I would say go the Ventura Theater, the local club, and start helping out. Wind mic cables. Tell them that you’ll work. Find speakers and mics and start helping out, cause then sooner or later someone will come through.
Also, you can go to band rehearsals and help them get their sound. They’re struggling, trying to figure everything out. If you know something about sound, go and help them hear each other better during rehearsals. Then when they do their first show, you can be like, “Hey, can I help out?” Bands just want to hear each other. And if you can help them hear each other, they’re gonna want you around. And if you’re around and they do well, then you’re gonna do well too. ✿