When Throw Rag first takes the stage at New York's Irving Plaza, where they're opening for Stiff Little Fingers, nobody seems to notice. It's early, the place is cavernous, and punk is dead. But once they start playing—an electrifying and depraved little fireball of seedy sailor rock called "Hang Up"—the feel of the room changes, and the human dust bunnies collecting in the corners of the club roll toward the middle. They want to see the freaks in maritime polyester; to get a closer look at the strangely fascinating washboard/cowbell player gyrating as if in a trance; to assess whether singer Sean Wheeler ("Captain Sean-Doe")—crabbed down on all fours and slapping his own neck in rhythm with the song—is really as insane as he seems. Throw Rag finishes with "Beast in Me," during which Wheeler removes his cracked white belt and flagellates himself—a possibly unintentional nod to the Catholic guilt that roils like bile through the group's body of work. And by the end, the audience—having been pelted by sweat scooped from an armpit into a spoon, and having witnessed what's got to be the most truly disturbing washboard solo in the history of the instrument—howls for more. To get behind their merch table, the band must push their way through the line that's already piled up in front.
This is how Throw Rag shows always go these days, their manager has been telling us, but to be quite honest we didn't really believe him because it's Throw Rag, and though we hadn't seen them in years, we'd seen them about a million times before that. The old Throw Rag was entertaining in a drunken debauched way; this new Throw Rag is a machine—taut, efficient and determined to move forward.
"Everyone's made sacrifices for this band, whether it's been jobs or relationships. Everyone," says rhythm guitar player A.J. Nesselrod ("King Taco Pearl"), who joined the group as they were transitioning from bar band to touring act. The question of whether they enjoy the grind seems kind of pointless; at their level of touring—over 250 days a year on the road—anyone who didn't would have quit by now, to be replaced by what a friend in a different band refers to as "a road jackal." But there's still a difference between liking it and loving it. Most of the group, rounded out by bassist Frank Cronin ("Franco"), guitarist Patrick Bostrom ("Dino"), drummer Chris Neubert ("Chango") and washboard/cowbell player Craig Jackman ("Jacko") like it. Sean Wheeler, they all say, loves it.
Wheeler, an ex-junkie who's been clean and sober for seven years, grew up playing in punk bands in Palm Springs, which is where he's from and where he currently lives. He formed the group 10 years ago with core members Cronin and Jackman. Bostrom joined soon after. The sound, an arresting blend of punk, rock and country, has evolved slightly over the years—it's more driving these days; there are more amplifiers; there's no stand-up bass or banjo—but what's remarkable is that the Throw Rag Aesthetic has remained constant.
And what is the Throw Rag Aesthetic exactly? It's hard to define but easy to spot. It's everything sleazy, seedy, tacky, tasteless, scary, ill-conceived, creepy, misguided, trashy, inbred, inland, white-shoe wearing, feel-you-up trying, primal, sinful, and desert-bred, or at least Salton Sea-bred, which is where the group says they're from, even though (with the exception of Wheeler) they live in OC, Long Beach and LA. It's sort of like the White Trash Aesthetic but—the important part—the White Trash Aesthetic is always a costume. When frat boys throw a White Trash Party it's very clear that they are burlesquing a style. But when Throw Rag dress up, something a little more complex happens because yes, they are wearing costumes—for lack of a better word—but it's not exactly clear where the costumes end.
Something about their sallow skin, stringy hair, tattooed bodies, and weary eyes confuses things. They aren't sailors from the Salton Sea—a poetic conceit, since the Salton Sea barely exists in nautical terms—but they sure as hell aren't frat boys. The Throw Rag Aesthetic is in them. Which is why no matter how many times they change their stage names, change their hometown (before Salton Sea they claimed Catalina), and change their outfits—their integrity remains. Because it's not really about the pose, even though they're very clearly and very deliberately adopting one. The real image that captures the Throw Rag Aesthetic—more than the creepy captain that Wheeler plays onstage—is the man in the mask, which crops up repeatedly, from the cover of first album tee-tot (a little boy wearing a skeleton mask) to early tour posters featuring Wheeler with a monkey mask. There's something unsettling in these images, a link to the sadness and self-loathing at the core of Throw Rag's music. Make no mistake: when Throw Rag play, as jaunty and rousing as it is, there's a very palpable pain unleashed. And not some wimpy teenage melodrama kind of pain. That's for amateurs. This is crime-scene pain. Serial killer pain. Freak of nature pain. This is a kind of pain that's scary and threatening and that no one wants to touch.
When Wheeler was younger, he repeatedly tried to collect SSI benefits—social security for the mentally impaired—but he kept failing the tests. Like the psychiatrists his dad used to send him to always said, his problem was that he was just a drug addict. Never mind that the net result—"I would put tin foil on the windows, try not to look outside, take the mirrors down and try not to pick myself," he says—was the same. "Maybe I just didn't talk to [the evaluators] at the right time because I was definitely crazy at certain points."
As a kid, Wheeler was obsessed with demons, he says. It started when a Christian family who was babysitting him told him that if he didn't accept Christ as his savior, he'd be visited by the devil.
"I was scared to sleep for a year," he remembers. "I would imagine totally twisted shit, and then when I finally shot speed, I saw gray demons. For a bunch of years I would see these gray demons with a man's body and a ram's head or a wild boar face on a man's head."
A few years ago Wheeler went to Italy and was shocked to see paintings of these demons hanging in cathedrals.
"You have to ask yourself, is there a reason these images have existed for so long?" he asks. "It was great to see them though because they were there and they weren't leaving. I'd seen them regularly but they'd always been in the periphery. I was stoked."
In "Rule Maker," from the group's Desert Shores, Wheeler sings about the "navy brat Catholic situation" that caused his father to marry his mother after impregnating her. He sings about being "a mistake," but says that he doesn't really feel like one now.
"Yeah, I don't think I do," he says, mulling it over. Then suddenly, brightly: "I wish I could find my dad, though! My last run bummed him out so much he couldn't deal with it. That side of the family just changed their numbers and disappeared on me. It's weird. I go on all those Internet people searches and stuff but it's so confusing.
"Oh well," he says, seemingly unvexed. "It'd be cool to see him though! I think he'd trip out to hang out with me now!"
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
It's this kind of thing—this completely horribly sad, hopeless, hopeful sentiment delivered with a bemused curiosity instead of self-pity, like monkeys poking at human artifacts with a stick—that hits me on some level so primitive it's hardly within grasp of articulation. Like a twitching on some existential frequency that I'm afraid to tune into. Or like Wheeler with the demons he finally confronted in the Cathedral, something I can only see out of the corner of my eye when I'm not really looking. What if we weren't hemmed in by all the little fears and concerns and insecurities that tether us to our experience of our lives? What if all that were suddenly lifted—might awe and wonder not be the only thing left?
"You know what the coolest thing is?" asks Wheeler, leaning forward, excitement building. "We're all going to die! So we're all going to know what happens when we die! Outside of having a kid, it's going to be great. I'm stoked on it. I think there's going to be a clarity and a presence. I don't think there will be sadness—just an understanding. Like 'Whoa, these were my motivations, these were my things, it wasn't about any of that.' It'll be so simple."
He flops back in his chair, spent and smiles. "It'll be so awesome!"
Throw Rag with the Briefs and Go Betty Go at the House Of Blues, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-Blue; www.hob.com. Thurs., Sept. 9, 7:30 p.m. $12-$13.50. All ages.