The first time Radwaste got together as a full sextet in the fall of 1984, it was not immediately apparent that the framework of the band was viable.

“It was the worst thing you can possibly imagine,” recalled bassist and co-founder John Talley-Jones, 30, who brings the band into the Roxy tonight. “I said to Michael (Kory, guitarist), ‘This does not work!’ And he said, ‘Just try it one more time.’ ”

It was closer to six months before the Radwaste wrinkles were ironed out, but what would you expect from a group that marches to a different drummer--or more precisely, four different drummers?

“I was in favor of getting a drummer and just have a real clean three-piece like 100 Flowers,” said Talley-Jones, referring to his former band. “No muss, no fuss. But nooooo. Michael has gone gonzo over this marching-band business where there are several drummers and they all play components of a kit to make the sound fuller and more intense.”

“More intense” certainly describes the Radwaste experience. When the four drummers--Debbie Spinelli, Rob Malone, Kevin Barrett and Jay Jackson--get going, the result is a juggernaut polyrhythm that takes on a life of its own.


Although the actual number of drums is just barely above that of a standard-size kit (bass, floor tom, roto-tom, snare and congas), each drummer concentrates on one instrument, dealing double-handed blows in syncopation with the other players. This Zen focus on the essence of the beat is strikingly reminiscent of Japanese taiko drummers. But the inspiration was much closer to home.

“It was inspired by marching bands, some of these South Central high school bands,” said Kory, 27. “I saw them at the Street Scene Festival and they’d pound out this really wicked beat.

“I thought it’d be a good marriage with rock ‘n’ roll. Rhythm machines and beat boxes have become such a standard now. They have some good capabilities, but I’m tired of the sound. By having a lot of different percussionists, you can get more complicated beats--things that a beat box could do but a single drummer couldn’t. And we’re doing it with real drummers, real human beings flailing around.”

With all this thumping going on, you might expect the music to get swallowed up in a cacophony of percussive sludge, but the guitar, bass and vocals come through clearly. Talley-Jones and Kory write skittering, guitar-led songs that evoke both 100 Flowers and the Minutemen. The frenzy of the percussion wing complements the songs’ punk energy perfectly, thanks to the personalities of the drummers.

“It was an experiment,” noted Kory. “It could have failed if we didn’t have the right combination of people. We auditioned a lot of different people and either their attitude was too rock-star oriented or they weren’t into just banging on one drum instead of a full kit. It’s hard to get (players) to reduce to just one element of what they’ve done before. Instead of having everybody play at the same time--which is the natural inclination--it’s more of an orchestrated effort.”

Like all experiments, sometimes Radwaste flies out of control. When the group plays smaller clubs such as Al’s Bar it can become, in Tally-Jones’ words, “one solid slab o’ noise” that mows the audience over. But even then, the fans seem satisfied.

The band’s loose stage presence doesn’t indicate a lack of professional desire. They released a five-song EP in February, “Cooking and Nothingness” (on Barrett and Talley-Jones’ label Happy Squid Records), and have completed a pair of impressive videos. Still, Radwaste’s loose edge is part of the appeal.


“It’s not like we write notes on pieces of paper and everything has to be in the appropriate place,” said Talley-Jones. “It’s like you throw all these elements into a pot and everyone plays them incorrectly and you see what happens. It’s a great way to go about things because you happen upon these unfailingly weird combinations.”

Even when Radwaste is on the down-side of sloppy, the group can turn in a set that’s pure primal enjoyment, a head-spin in the belly of the beat. And maybe all the group needs at this point--besides sponsorship from some drum manufacturer--is a more visible leader.

“Unlike a marching band, we don’t have someone at the front who’s directing it all,” said Kory wistfully. “Maybe we should have someone with a baton twirling it up in the air.”