Thursday Pick: The Rubber Knife Gang

The sharpest tools in the Roots/Bluegrass/Americana shed

Sep 23, 2009 at 2:06 pm

The Rubber Knife Gang is a trio of serious Roots/Bluegrass/Americana musicians who don’t happen to take themselves very seriously. Even their name evolved out of a joke.

“The name came from this band of friends that get together on weekends and ride these 50CC Hondas,” says RKG stand-up bassist/vocalist John “Johnboy” Oaks. “My brother-in-law Scott has this dirtbike track in his backyard and this guy showed up out of the blue, saw all these adults on these mini-bikes, like it’s the circus or something, and said, ‘Here comes the rubber knife gang,’ and it was kind of a joke, but they had stickers made up and put them on their fenders. When we were trying to figure out a name for this new band, we had five or six that all seemed too contrived and didn’t make sense with the music. I finally just said, ‘Why don’t we just be the Rubber Knife Gang?’ ”

“So we had to ask permission from the Gang boss,” laughs guitarist/vocalist Henry “Hound Dog Hank” Becker. “We were the musical chapter anyway.”

The Rubber Knife Gang’s work ethic is certainly no laughing matter. All three — Oaks, Becker and mandolinist/vocalist Todd “Blind Man Willy” Wilson — hold down full time jobs, and Oaks and Becker have wives and children that are in the forefront of their attention (“Willy travels with a harem,” notes Becker of their single bandmate). They work in rehearsals and gigs whenever time, energy and circumstance allow. Last year they set aside a weekend to run through their accumulated songs and lay down a dozen of them for their debut CD, A Rubber Knife Life.

“These are the songs that worked the best together,” Oaks says. “We had some that we’ve been playing a lot longer and they didn’t really seem to fit or they didn’t come together as easily.”

“We certainly didn’t have a plan,” Becker says with a laugh. “We had a day and we knew where we were going to be.”

The recording of A Rubber Knife Life came at a transitional point for the Gang. Originally a band that came together as bonfire guitar entertainment for the aforementioned dirtbike get-togethers, RKG officially coalesced when Oaks picked up a bass two years ago. The trio’s lineup had shuffled with the departure of their third member for a variety of reasons (“We had musical differences … it just didn’t work out,” says Oaks) and the addition of Wilson, a mutual friend, Oaks’ former bandmate in Half Moon and a natural musical talent who hadn’t played mandolin previously.

By providence, Oaks suggested Wilson take up mandolin and sit in with he and Becker at the exact point that Wilson‘s mother bought him a mandolin to learn.

“Once Willy was up to speed with the mandolin and we’d done a couple of solid gigs, we were ready,” says Oaks.

A Rubber Knife Life was recorded in Oaks’ living room with all three members singing and playing in the same room, each feeding off the spontaneous energy of the other two. That vibe shimmers through every song on the disc.

“I think it’s a reflection of how we are as a group,” Becker says. “We could have done track recording and gotten everything perfect and pristine, but I’m sloppy so I don’t play that way and I would hate to throw a product out there for somebody and give them the wrong idea.”

Although the recording took place in Oaks’ West Side home, it still benefited from a certain amount of professionalism; Oaks' cousin, Rob Fugate, an engineer for a northern Ohio studio, brought in plenty of equipment to accurately capture the band’s lightning in a digital bottle.

“Rob was like the fourth member of the band,” Oaks says. “He oversaw the whole process.”

While jobs, family responsibilities and life in general prevent the Rubber Knife Gang from booking too many gigs, the trio is anxious to work on a second CD and try to play a few more local and out-of-town shows than they did last year.

“We want to have a life outside of everything we’re doing,” Wilson says. “We’ve all said before, this isn’t our job.”

“In a perfect world, we’d like to gig around town three times a month and one time regionally,” Becker says. “We’d enjoy that kind of life for a while.”

For the time being, the Rubber Knife Gang are happy with their album and the pace of their career and rising growth curve. Their tentative plan is to record again this summer (possibly in the same set-up as their debut), bring in a few new instruments (banjo and fiddle, possibly), and maybe try swapping instrumental roles at some point. It all bodes well for a good 2009, in every facet of their lives.

“Every time we go out and play, we become more comfortable in our skin, which is the absolute honest truth,” Becker says. “We gain a whole new fanbase every time we play some place we’ve never played before.”

“There’s something about being an out-of-town band,” Wilson says. “Somebody says, ‘Oh, these guys are from Cincinnati. They’re not from around here.’ ”

“So when’s that London gig?” asks Oaks, to general beer-fueled laughter. The funny thing is that the Rubber Knife Gang doesn’t seem all that far from being ready to make the trip.

THE RUBBER KNIFE GANG plays the MidPoint Music Festival at 10:30 p.m. Thursday at Madonna's. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get MPMF details here.