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The Ratchets: The Challenge of Simplicity

22 December 2018

After a lengthy breakup, New Jersey’s The Ratchets have returned with First Light. Their newest record in over a decade is a surprising return to form yet stands apart from previous efforts thanks to juxtaposing angry sociopolitical commentary with more restrained melodic attack. Singer & guitarist Jed Engine believed the group’s original 2003 hiatus offered members opportunities to pursue new passions, which found him drawing a unique parallel between songwriting and his career as an archivist.

“I feel they’re similar because to me, it’s tracing stories. It was a stewardship of information and sharing expression but less egocentric than the process of songwriting yet both are the art of storytelling. I was arranging collections for a member of the House of Representatives of New Jersey, whom served for 40 years. The material really reflected the human condition in ways I felt I could not express within songwriting. There’s something about it that really clicked for me,” said Engine.

Asked if he engaged in any songwriting during The Ratchets’ breakup, Engine revealed he quickly came to terms he was no longer performing but did feel inspired to put pen to paper. The group briefly returned in 2012 for limited reunion appearances, which offered Engine unique chances for introspection and to see just what kind of impact The Ratchets had on fans. With a measured tone, he shared the circumstances surrounding the initial breakup and The Ratchets return courtesy of Pirates Press Records.

“We were older when we began the band so we had very clear expectations. After awhile not have a stable drummer took a toll on us and the ongoing process of playing out and booking shows made me feel like some kind of used car salesman, hocking my band so to speak. We felt if we didn’t go on hiatus that we could’ve gone down the road of creating uninspiring music and going through the motions, which is not what The Ratchets are about,” affirmed Engine.

During his career as an archivist Engine stated he continued writing “to entertain myself” but he reached a crossroads once he questioned ‘what should I do with all this material?’ He revealed there was a sense of doubt as he also questioned if he could even sing and perform on the same level as before. He shared background information on The Ratchets reforming and the studio sessions leading up to First Light.

“We did jam in 2012 during the reunions and I was talking with our guitarist Zak Kaplan, asking if there was any interest in writing and recording a new Ratchets record but it never materialized until 2017. As a band, we played together five times (not including studio time) and the record was done. We’re very efficient but looking back at how we recorded our demo (after 4 practices) it’s truly how we work. We like the pressure. I like sitting down at my guitar knowing I have a week to write the best song of my life using the same chords I’ve been playing since I was 15. It’s kind of nuts but it works.”

Engine believed The Ratchets were not merely returning to tread on familiarity but to carve a new path, with an unknown final destination. He emphatically stated the plan was to have no plan, allow all possibilities to materialize organically and see where the music takes them.

“There was a sense of renewed excitement but without feeling like we had to always play quick tempos. Some of the starkness on our new record lends itself to the dramatic sense of the writing; the quieter moments were the hardest parts to do. Maybe we’re working on operating outside of the whole construct of what it means to be a musician. You get multiple people in a room together and you cannot control what happens because it’s happenstance.”

First Light features Engine’s hallmark vocals, aggressive yet memorable. He no longer barks every chorus, the passion is more measured but The Ratchets don’t cast aside their anger. Tracks like Fiscal Spliff and World Trade Lungs succeed because they feature sociopolitical commentary without slogans that could alienate fans by drawing partisan lines of division.

“World Trade Lungs is our minimalist moment and the music moves in and out, allowing us to add only slight color to a very heavy subject. We don’t want to do any sloganeering. The music itself in that song is simple while lending itself to a difficult subject. Guthrie said anything more than two chords and you’re just showing off. That’s a great sentiment because sometimes keeping things simple is the hardest thing to do,” exclaimed Engine.

Asked to elaborate on Fiscal Spliff and if any characters within the writing were based on elected officials, Engine was quick to state the track is tongue-in-cheek, dark humor as opposed to a simple call to arms.

“The drug of choice seems to be money and power so the wordplay is based on that. I try not to go after the so-called ‘low hanging fruit’, easy targets for contempt. I do think there is a strong sense of absurdity with regards to how much people will sacrifice in order to gain control over the lives of others. There can be a sense of artifice to presentation in regards to strictly being a political band. What do you plan on doing in response? I understand the bleakness but we hope we’re offering realism with a sense of optimism.”

Pirates Press is now offering limited edition releases of The Ratchets earlier records, allowing more accessibility to compliment the group’s first overseas appearances. Once again, The Ratchets are in a unique position to see just how broad their reach is.

“It’s great to be able to continue and perhaps make music more of an art form because Punk can be artful. I’m hoping we can work to preserve some optimism within the times we live in. For us, it would be an honor if someone decided to pickup an instrument and start playing just for the sake of playing after hearing one of our songs. We would only be a very small part of someone carrying on rock & roll’s lineage but it would mean so much to us,” said Engine.