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Sean Wheeler's earliest memory of Throw Rag involves taking from the pages of the Man In Black. In late 1993, Wheeler and Dan "Scorcho" Lapham were working together in a San Juan Capistrano medical office when Wheeler—a guy who has been in bands since the age of 15—pitched his old friend an idea. "'Hey, I want to start this band. Here's a Johnny Cash songbook. Just rip off a chord progression to see how [it works], and then there you go. We'll just make a song,'" recalls Wheeler (a.k.a. The Captain, Sean Doe and other aliases).
From the get-go, Throw Rag have exuded a devil-may-care sensibility, finding different ways to tap into that attitude. Soundwise, Wheeler had a few ideas in mind when the band launched. "I wanted it to be more acoustic/electric but powerful—[akin to] bands such as the Javelinas, the Flat Duo Jets," he says. "It ended up being a lot of different things."
As members came and went, the aesthetic shaped into something solid and distinctive. Early on, members started wearing leisure suits and white shoes during shows to both emit an aura of Cramps-like sleaziness and, eventually, have a reason to age gracefully because, in Wheeler's words, "It always looks weird when you're 60 years old, wearing peg pants and creepers, and you're kind of fat and old."
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Around 1997, Wheeler became obsessed with the Salton Sea, bringing the nickname of "The Captain" into the mix. He would don a captain's hat during concerts, which eventually led to Throw Rag's art and lyrics frequently nodding to nautical themes. Another crucial element was the addition of washboard player Craig Jackman, who was brought in not because the group needed a washboard player, but rather because his spirited character added to the mayhem.
By the mid-2000s, their sound had evolved into a scruffy, often antagonistic fusion of punk, rockabilly, country, '50s rock & roll, and any other ingredients they could think of. Onstage, Wheeler's taste for gyrating and posing made him a particularly vibrant front man—the human equivalent of an alley cat absolutely intent on earning your attention. The band took all the proper steps to build their rep by signing to a solid label (BYO Records), playing tons of shows in front of crowds small and big (Gogol Bordello and Flogging Molly were among their tour partners), and contributing an entry to Kung Fu Records' The Show Must Go Off! live DVD series.
But fatigue eventually kicked in, leading to major changes. "We were on a tear, and some of the guys didn't want to tour as much, and it pretty much just stopped the band in its tracks. After a six- or nine-month hiatus, they missed playing, so we started playing shows again, but all the momentum felt like it was stopped," Wheeler says. "We never broke up, but as far as really going full throttle and trying to chase the dream with Throw Rag, that all stopped years ago. Throw Rag are just another rock & roll band who are still playing."
Jackman exited the band in 2005, and his post at the washboard was never replaced. (Speaking in separate conservations, both Wheeler and guitarist Patrick "Dino" Bostrom say Jackman's character made him irreplaceable.) And the group have yet to release a full-length since 2008's 2nd Place.
When Throw Rag take the stage with the Smut Peddlers on Saturday, it'll be the first time they've played together since summer 2010. In the time off, everyone has kept busy. Wheeler teamed up with Circle Jerks' Zander Schloss to form the acoustic-leaning Sean and Zander, Bostrom has been working in film and on a contribution to a punk compilation project called Plan B, bassist Francis "Franco Fontana" Cronin is in soul/jazz band the New Rome Quartet, and drummer Chris "Chango" Von Streicher is now touring with the Supersuckers. (The New Rome Quartet's Steve Monroe will fill in for Von Streicher on the Observatory date.) Geography hasn't entirely been favorable to the nickname-happy band either: Wheeler is in Palm Springs, Bostrom in Long Beach, Cronin in Irvine, and Von Streicher all the way over in Austin.
All that being said, Bostrom and Wheeler emphasize that all is good in Camp Throw Rag, and this show doesn't signify a reunion since they never actually disbanded. "Right now, [the show is] a one-off, but the relationships in the band are better than they've ever been," Bostrom says. "There is a future [for the band]. There is always going to be a future. It's just a matter of when."
This article appeared in print as "Out to Sea Again: Throw Rag are back in action, but don't call it a reunion."