Most times Wilmingtonians can catch Hank “Hankenstein” Blanton and Jones “Jonesy” Smith rockin’, rollin’ and generally gettin’ down with The Phantom Playboys—a favorite rockabilly outfit around town. As of late, though, the rowdy rockabillies have embarked on their own two-man project, Ratchet Bros. But don’t be fooled. The downsized duo still packs a punch.
Back in December 2017, Blanton and Smith began introducing their brainchild around town. The two musicians previously had played in other bands, like Da Howlies and Swing Shifters. Such experiences have allowed them to cull a varietal of rock, surf and rockabilly sounds.
“At our shows fans can expect to hear a lot of Cramps-influenced rock, as well as some of our reworkings of classic blues and rockabilly tunes,” Blanton details of the lo-fi rock sounds.
Blanton and Smith are prepping for their next gig at downtown’s Duck and Dive on Monday, July 23, as well as Palate on North Fourth Street on July 28. encore caught up with Blanton for more details about their side project making that’s seemingly making a big splash.
encore (e): Tell us about the two-piece outfit you’ve got going and how Ratchet Bros. differs from your work with The Phantom Playboys.
Hank Blanton (HB): Inspired by Wilmington legend Deadly Lo-Fi (Travis Brent), we decided to create what was a little more down-and-dirty garage-rockabilly than The Phantom Playboys. While The Phantom Playboys play a mixture of surf, swing and rockabilly, Ratchet Bros. take most of our inspiration from acts as the Cramps, Flat Duo Jets and The White Stripes.
e: Speaking of the Playboys’ full band: What made you want to pursue a two-man show?
HB: Figuring out the logistics for a five-person outfit like The Phantom Playboys can be challenging. Additionally, there are a lot of small venues in Wilmington that don’t have the stage space for a five-piece. Jones and I formed Ratchet Bros. because we shared a love of pure, unadulterated rock ‘n’ roll, and we also wanted to be able to fill our calendars—thereby fulfill our dreams of working as professional musicians.
e: When I think rockabilly, I think big-band sounds—is that hard to achieve with two people?
HB: Many people associate rockabilly with the Brian Setzer orchestra, because Setzer pushed rockabilly back into the mainstream in the ‘80s and ‘90s. However, the earliest forms incorporated mainly one acoustic guitar, one electric guitar, and one stand-up bass, and provided a full rhythm section in the form of “slapping” the bass in order to create a percussive click.
Jones and I incorporate some of the older sounds, along with our own innovations.
I constructed my own drum system that incorporates a kick and snare into foot pedals. Jones also slaps the bass and works a tambourine with one foot, so we are both playing strings and percussion at the same time! It’s challenging, and it’s taken us a lot of practice to get to the point where we can play together like a well-oiled machine.
e: What’s the dynamic like between you two on stage? How interactive are you with the audience and how does it play out in the music?
HB: Jones and I play off each other. Jones is definitely the funny one, and he has so much more experience and better people skills than I do. So I let him do most of the talking during the breaks in between songs.
We interact and incorporate our show with the audience by having several call-and-response songs. We also focus on talking to audience members about the stories and themes behind our music and gear. It’s fun to try to explain the contraptions we have come up with to help us rock.
e: Are there a couple of songs you’ve written you can tell us about—their origins and such?
HB: We have a few originals that are not yet recorded. “Bo-Delicious” and “Burnt Bill Blues” are both surf compositions inspired by the guitar playing of North Carolina’s own surf legend, Link Wray.
“Swamp Thump” is an original I was inspired to write after having an unforgettable time at one of Jones’ famous fish fries. Jones will catch fish, and return and hold a big party for the neighborhood. The song is about the hi-jinks that sometimes ensue.
e: What are some long-term goals here? Are you thinking EP or full-length with this duo?
HB: Ratchet Bros. are definitely looking to record a full-length album in 2019. Right now we are still in the process of refining our material through live performance.
e: Anything else you’d like to add about Ratchet Bros. music or upcoming shows?
HB: Keep an eye out for our recordings and shows! Jones and I stay active, so it’s rare for us to go for more than a month without playing somewhere in town!