Published on November 12th, 2014 | by Nature Humphries1
The Cooters 20th Anniversary: Local Band Celebrating Milestone Nov. 21 at Proud Larry’s
Twenty years is a long time for an endeavor. Many marriages fail to last that long. A person born 20 years ago is deemed eligible to serve in the military and to vote. And for rock bands, only a handful manages to endure even half that time. Oxford’s own punk metal outfit The Cooters represents one of just a few Mississippi bands that can make that claim.
The three core members of The Cooters, Newt Rayburn (“Neuter Cooter”), Gentry Webb (“Raw Cooter”), and Michael Namorato (“Judas Cooter”), all born and raised in Oxford, have known each other since childhood. Having similar tastes in music, all three had been playing in various bands for years, and it was near inevitable that they would eventually come together as a unit.
In 1992, Mikey and Newt were already playing together in a band called The Backwoods Mississippi Anarchy Orchestra with friends Brian Walker and Tom Queyja.
“We played together for about a year,” Newt said, “and the band wasn’t going anywhere really. Those three guys got together and decided that I was the problem, so they kicked me out of the band.” The three remaining members changed their name to Bruthafiend and carried on.
Gentry was playing bass guitar in a band called Nightmare on Sesame Street with Tait Graves, Chris Robertson, and Kwasi Buffington, but that eventually fell through as well, leaving Gentry looking for new opportunities.
When Newt was booted from the Anarchy Orchestra, he decided to go for a drive to clear his head. “[That] very night I was driving around Oxford and Gentry was walking down the street with his dogs,” Newt said.
“I knew that he wasn’t playing with anybody. So I pretty much pulled over to the side of the road and said, ‘We’re starting a band together, dude.’ And we ended up moving into a house on Highway 334 and started the first incarnation of The Cooters.”
This precursor to the modern day Cooters was called Raw Cooter & The Tennessee Pride, and featured Tyler Keith on drums.
The house on 334 was dubbed The Cooter Family Estate, and was their main rehearsal space, as well as party venue where they hosted house shows for other local bands. Robert Freeland and Chris Robertson were a big part of that scene. But about a year later, Tyler Keith left the band to join The Neckbones, and they brought in Jeff Lawrence as their new drummer, as well as Al Cotton and Jeff Allen. This led to another name change, and the group was now known as The Cooter Family Chaos Ensemble.
Newt agreed with that sentiment. “In my mind,” he said, “we were kind of a noise band.” Newt cited Sonic Youth, Helios Creed, Neurosis, and Voivod as his favorite bands at the time.
“That’s kind of where I was coming from, with the noise. We had songs, but it was a lot of improvising, too, just creating music on the spot, which was very popular in Oxford back then. There were a lot of jam bands and improvisation type things going on. It’s not like that anymore.”
Meanwhile, Mikey had left Bruthafiend due to a conflict of interest. “In the Fall of ’94, I had a falling out with Bruthafiend. I [ran into] Gentry somewhere and he had heard about that falling out. So, he asked me to come play with them and I packed up my drums one Saturday before work. That’s when we came up with ‘Crusty,’ the longest running Cooters song. So that was probably about October of 94. I just went over there and we hit it off. We had all played at some point together, so it just worked. They were bummed out that they had started a band and it fell apart, and I was bummed about what happened with Bryan and Tom, who were basically going around saying I was a rat and that I had betrayed them—that’s where the name Judas Cooter came from.”
Newt recalled the story somewhat differently, that it was in fact August of that year and that Mikey approached them requesting to play drums. Either way, The Cooters—Neuter, Raw, and Judas—came together in 1994 and this lineup of the band is what we are celebrating now: the 20-year anniversary of Judas Cooter’s entry to the band. The three have remained the nucleus for the last two decades, although there have occasionally been more members (more on that later).
Oxford in the early 90s was a much different place than it is today. The Hoka Theater was the place to be. The Square in those days was much more rural, with hardware stores and drug stores in place of the bars we have today. “Cooter” was a name given to Newt in high school by a friend who was making fun of him for hanging out on the Square. Back then, on the weekends, groups of teenagers, typically considered the “rednecks,” would park on the Square in front of Nielson’s Department Store and socialize, an activity that earned the nickname “Square squatting. Incidentally, “Square Squatting” was a song written by George McConnell for the Kudzu Kings, and Cooter was the redneck from Dukes of Hazzard, so that’s where the name came from.
The first Cooters shows were mainly house shows, said Mikey. “We played July 4th at the Grandma’s Attic house, right next to Local Color—we called it The Padded Cell back then—and we couldn’t play any clubs so we were just having house parties all the time. We were too loud. We didn’t really know what we were doing, we just wanted to rock and we thought we were immortal.”
“One of the things about the early days of The Cooters is that we were kind of known as the party house in Oxford,” said Newt. “So we had a lot of house parties, and we would have touring bands play at our house all the time. One time, the original members of Green Day played at our house. We had DDT play at our house, which is more commonly known now as The North Mississippi Allstars. Big Ass Truck played at our house. There were tons and tons of bands.”
Bands from all over the place, including fellow Mississippi punk rockers Before I Hang, who will join The Cooters on the Proud Larry’s stage for the big anniversary show. “Some people like to think we’re the longest-running band in Mississippi, but it’s actually Before I Hang—they’ve been around a little bit longer than us,” said Newt. “I think maybe they started like a year before we did.”
But Ron Shapiro gave them a home at The Hoka, and they played dozens of shows there in the early years, in addition to the infamous house parties. “The Cooters before the Hoka shut down probably played 30 shows there. If there was no Hoka, there’d be no Cooters,” said Mikey. “Ron didn’t care as long as we played after midnight.”
For the next ten years or so, The Cooters played widely throughout the Southeast, often for three-night stretches. They frequented Meridian, The Princess Theater in Columbus, Memphis, Nashville, Hattiesburg, and the Gulf Coast, among others. During this time, they self-released a 7” vinyl, which featured “Crusty” and “I Don’t Know,” and their first full-length CD, Invasion of the Cooters with help from musician friend Brad Boatwright, who later formed From Ashes Rise. In 1998, L.A.-based label T-Bones Records released The Moon Will Rise Again, again enlisting the talents of Boatwright, as well as Jim Spake. But then they had a hold-up on the next effort, which was recorded at Tom Quejya’s studio, The Lip with Max Hipp (“Kin Cooter”) and Queyja providing musical support.
When The Cooters finally released the long-awaited album, Punk Metal, in 2004, they had been picked up by Minneapolis punk label Profane Existence, and decided to embark on their first tour outside of the Southeast. In 2005 and into 2006, they played about 15 shows in the Midwest with Swedish punk band Imperial Leather. Then, another tour in 2006 with Oregon label mates Happy Bastards, again in the Midwest. One standout show from that tour happened in Boston, Mikey recalls.
“We played with this band I had never heard of called Mouth Sewn Shut. We had a really hard time finding this [venue]—it was really weird; it was in a house in a suburb. Up to that point we hadn’t had response like that before. It was a basement show, and there were so many people down there I couldn’t even see the walls. And they were all over us. They had never heard of us but I had never seen people have that much fun. That band we played with—Mouth Sewn Shut—is probably still my favorite band we ever played with on a tour. They were just awesome. I remember me and Newt were looking in the basement window after we had packed everything up and I don’t know how all these people fit in there, man, it was like this [tiny basement] and there were 100 people in there easy just going bonkers. We were playing on this makeshift little stage they had built and it was sinking in. I won’t ever forget that. I still listen to them all the time.”
Two years later, in 2008, The Cooters again teamed up with Max Hipp for another tour with Happy Bastards, this time on the West Coast to promote their 2006 release, Chaos or Bust. All the guys agree that the show in Oakland, California, was the highlight of the tour. “Not just for the show itself but for the after party, said Mikey. “Newt and Max [and their girlfriends, Nature and Jasmine] left and went somewhere but [Gentry and I] stayed and hung out with Dave [Edwardson] from Neurosis all night. Plus, one of our childhood friends, Chris Robertson, a.k.a. ‘Skull,’ we hung out with him, too.”
Although Chaos or Bust was the last full-length physical release for the band, they did release a digital EP called Sound and the Fury in 2010.
“It’s much harder for bands to sell records these days,” Newt said. “We used to sell CDs for $20 easy, but now you can hardly even give them away. Gas prices are higher, but cover charges are still the same as they were in the 80s and 90s so touring is a lot more expensive.” The Cooters have certainly seen the changes in the music industry over their 20 years of touring and recording.
The three-piece has been working on some new recordings with Winn McElroy at Black Wings Studio this year. The project is at a standstill, but not for much longer. Gentry said, “I decided to redo some guitar tracks out there, but nursing school is in the way, so it’s hard for me to get time to do that. But this December I will finally have some time on my hands to finish it.” Hopefully, a new Cooters album will be in our ears in just a few months; the release will definitely happen digitally but the band members don’t yet know if (or what kind of) tangible recording will be available. Newt suggested that a crowd-funded, pre-sold vinyl is a possibility, but that decision is still forthcoming.
The Cooters are still going strong after 20 years together, still playing shows in Oxford and nearby. However, since the 2008 tour, Cooters shows have become more spaced out, almost like special occasions. The members all agree they’d like to tour again, but as Gentry pointed out, “Day jobs get in the way, more than anything. Family obligations and so forth.” But Gentry will finish nursing school soon and is hoping for more flexibility once he’s started a new job. The other members are optimistic about going on the road again, too—perhaps next year after the record is completed and released. Gentry said, “We’ll have a better picture of that in the coming months, I think.”
For now, the band is looking forward to playing at Proud Larry’s. There are songs that they’ve played since the beginning, and there are plenty of newer ones to rock out to. Each member has his own idea of what their favorite songs are.
Mikey said, “Of course, ‘I Don’t Give A F**k,’ ‘Bustin’ Loose,’ ‘Life Like.’ But probably it all comes back down to me for ‘Crusty.’ I guess it just has a nostalgia appeal to me, because 20 years is a long time. We’ve got a lot of new songs now that I love—‘High on the Hawg,’ ‘Danger.’ But I would say that the two songs that always stand out to me and have the most sentimental value are ‘Crusty’ and ‘Purge.’ ”
Newt’s said his favorite is, “whatever Cooters song we’re playing at the moment. Because I work really hard on all of [them]. They’re in the punk and metal realm, high octane rock ‘n’ roll realm, but they’re all different. There’s a lot of variety in our music.”
“I always like to play ‘Let’s Rock Tonight,’ ” said Gentry. “Because the show’s starting, and it’s a fun one to play. I get to just kind of play and not have to sing anything, really. Just some backups, and I can kind of start posing. I like playing them all.”
Enduring for 20 years and watching not only Oxford’s music scene but also the music industry in general change so drastically hasn’t been easy, but The Cooters have rocked the entire time, and show no signs of letting up any time soon. This 20th anniversary show at Proud Larry’s promises to be a raucous good time, with Hattiesburg rock veterans Before I Hang and Oxford’s own The Heard opening up—it’s a triple threat! Come out to Larry’s on the 21st and hear your favorite Cooters song while showing your support for one of the longest-running bands in the state of Mississippi.
More Cooters pics from over the years: