Band of the Week: Rattlesnake Choir
Toronto’s Rattlesnake Choir looks like a band with more than a few stories to tell. Fortunately the band makes good on its anecdotal potential, backing it all up with a strong country music foundation that takes as much influence from Tom Waits as it does Hank Williams. Watching the group live is an experience in and of itself, with percussive Slinkys and the musical saw making regular appearances throughout the band’s set.
The band has been host to a rotating cast of musicians, but mainstays John Borra and Sam Ferrara have been with the band since its inception. We pulled the guys away from their busy weekend at the inaugural Wawapalooza Music Festival to ask them a few questions about their new album, their weekly residency at The Communist's Daughter and what it’s like to play in a women’s prison.
How did you guys get together?
SF: Who knows? [laughs]
JB: Around 15 years ago or so I just started writing and singing my own songs. I played in a band as the bass player for years and Sam also had been playing bass for a number of years. He sort of dissolved his group and started playing these odd percussion things. Me and Frank Nevada had a night at the El Mocambo where we did a songwriter’s showcase and Sam would come down and play. We’ve just been playing together ever since.
Have you had a lot of members go through the band?
JB: We started as a four-piece with Tony Benattar on bass and a woman named Treasa Levasseur who played accordion and piano. The very night she told us she couldn’t play in the band anymore — because she had her own project — Miranda Mulholland happened to be at that gig and told Treasa she’d love to play with us. So as Treasa’s telling us she can’t be in the band, she introduces us to Miranda, who we invited to come play. And it turned out she was amazing.
SF: I’d played with her before when she dropped in a bit and played some fiddle with some other bands.
JB: She’s played for a lot of bands. So after we’d been playing for a while Michael Boguski, who’d been playing with The Beauties, said he’d love to play with us and at the time Miranda was away a lot, and Tony had to go away a lot for his boot business, so we started to think maybe another member would be a good thing. Then we asked Dani Nash, because with Miranda being away we needed someone to cover the harmonies.
You use some pretty creative percussion instruments. How do you come up with those? Do you make them yourself?
SF: The Slinkys I made myself, yeah. The cheese grater, I’m the only one I know who plays it with sandpaper. I’ve seen one guy play it once with spoons.
JB: You had other things you used to play too. He used to play a Zippo lighter.
SF: There was two-clothes-pegs-on-a-block-of-wood too.
JB: Back in the early days he used to play the plastic bags. He’d take a white grocery bag and stuff a bunch more inside.
SF: It was a really cool sound, but my doctor told me I had to stop doing that.
JB: I tell you, you’ve never lived until you’ve asked for more bag in the monitor. Then there were the files — we actually got files into a women’s prison one time.
Can you tell the story about the women’s prison?
JB: It was a Christmas thing. Y’know, you have to fill out this thing and they give you a background check to make sure you don’t have a criminal record. So I asked the woman from the charitable organization arranging it if we should tell the prison about Sam’s instruments … and she said no, because the prison would definitely say no. So we arrived at the prison, and we’re standing there with all our stuff and the organization was bringing in all these pizzas, so they just stuck all the instruments in these pizza boxes. We played our set and after, as we were coming out, we were just carrying them all and the guards had these confused looks on their faces, but it was already too late so they just let us go.
How many albums do you guys have out?
JB: Two. We released our newest one [Walkin’ The Wire] in April.
And you’re still playing the Communist’s Daughter?
JB: Sam and I have had a residency at the Commie for six-and-a-half years; Sundays between 5 and 8 p.m. That was sort of the genesis of the Rattlesnake Choir with the two of us playing together.
Any thing else coming up?
JB: We’re just trying to lay low, but we’re doing things like this Wawa thing and we do the Cameron House one Saturday a month. We’re trying to do less gigs but make them a little more special.
Rattlesnake Choir are:
John Borra: Vocals, guitar, harmonica
Sam Ferrara: Cheese grater, slinky, saw, tambourine, vocals
Tony Benattar: Upright bass, dobro, vocals
Miranda Mulholland: Violin, vocals
Michael Boguski: Piano, accordion
Dani Nash: Mandolin, vocals