With eyes big and bright with baby-boom naivety, ears tuned to a Beatles’ melody, lips snarled with punk attitude, and a shoulder permanently dropped in pure Northern swagger, China Rats are a Frankenstein’s monster stitched together from a dismembered rock ‘n’ roll canon. Having come together in 2011, the band have been busy kicking five decades of guitar music into scrappy sub-three minute pop songs. There’s nothing original about what they are doing, but who cares? China Rats certainly don’t.
“It’s early days for us,” they explain. “At the moment it feels good to play songs that take one minute to write and two minutes to play.”
It seems that the Leeds four-piece are far more concerned with making guitar music that you can dance to with a pint in your hand and sweat beading on your brow, rather than pushing any boundaries. It is a refreshingly unpretentious approach to music making and one that they capture perfectly: “Luke [Smith – lead guitar & vocals] had a load of old Leonard Cohen records that we were digging…we loved Death of a Ladies Man. We tried our best but we could never be as smooth or as cool as Leonard so we decided to write faster, less complex music.”
The band’s debut EP To Be Like I is far from complex: a no nonsense appropriation of guitar music through the ages, from its rattling genesis in the fifties through each wave of Brit pop via the more aggressive 70s sound epitomised by The Stooges. As much as comparisons are odious, their sound draws so heavily from these classic acts it’s hard to avoid. Yet it is not something that concerns them: “It’s difficult because a lot has been done in the past,” they explain. “It’s like throwing up all your old CDs on the floor and giving them a little stir.”
The EP’s three tracks are underpinned by a sense of urgency; they are fast, frantic and brimming over with exuberance. The band wrote, produced and recorded it themselves, and not, you sense, out of control freakery, but rather a desire to capture a buzz and move on, maintaining momentum.
Title track To Be Like I is in itself a musical scrapbook, with The Who, The Las, The Smiths, and The Ramones all Pritt-sticked and over-lapping in a catchy summery evocation. She Never and Take No Prisoners have similarly retro tropes with hand-claps, big harmonies, punky vocals and plenty of guitar solos in the mix. Available via their Soundcloud, the uptempo N.O.M.O.N.E.Y shows further potential with its toe-tapping beat, surf harmonies, and spiky guitars.
Lyrically, the songs provide brief vignettes into nights on the town with your mates, the pursuit of women, and generally being young. As the band summarise it: “They were all about girls we could never have and people we wanted to be like.” Again, like the music, there is nothing new here, but these themes are tried, tested, and timeless – what China Rats do is bring it to a new, younger audience and with gusto.
It is in the live environment where their music translates best, allowing them to feed off a crowd and exist in the moment. “We wear our sweaty gig t-shirts like a badge of honour,” they proudly state. They clearly love being a part of the ever vibrant Leeds’ live scene: “It’s radical; the venues are always hot and no one is afraid to have a jive.”
At the moment, China Rats are happy combining the sounds of the bands they love and using their energy and laddish charm to inspire a new generation. They’re not dwelling on what the future might hold, what happens beyond the three minute mark, or even what exists beyond guitars and girls, because for now, it is enough. As they state: “It’s everyone’s dream to be a Rock ‘n’ Roller. Until that dream dies, there will always be fresh guitar music.”
Words: Tom Spooner