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The art of rock 'n' Troll

Posted: Thursday, March 27, 2008

A uniquely Alaskan sound has spawned from the mind's eye of artist Ray Troll after incubating in the depths of Ketchikan's musical ecosystem for the last couple of years.

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Courtesy Of Ray Troll
Courtesy Of Ray Troll

The smells, tastes and sights of Ketchikan reverberate through the eclectic sound of the recently released 16-track album "Where the Fins Meet the Frets" by Ray Troll and the Ratfish Wranglers.

After decades of intermittently writing music and playing in garage bands, Troll spent the last couple of years collaborating with some of the First City's finest musicians on an album that he says reels in the distinct flavor of "The Salmon Capital of the World."

"It's a truly Alaskan thing and I think it's a uniquely Ketchikan thing," Troll said of the album. "I just really feel like it's a product of our little town and the culture that I live in here."

Troll, well known throughout Alaska and beyond for his fish- and fauna-inspired paintings and drawings, says it's difficult to identify the taxonomic classification of his music.

"As far as a genre, it seems to almost change from song to song," Troll said, adding that he enjoys bands that continue to evolve their sound, like the Rolling Stones. "I like art bands, I guess, so I just felt like any territory, any genre, was free reign."

Vocalist Shauna Lee said the Ratfish Wranglers' music is very difficult to describe because of its members' varied musical backgrounds.

"There was a lot of different influences and it's kind of got it's own fishy flavor to it, for lack of a better word," she said. "It's fish funk. It's kind of like an audible Ray Troll T-shirt."

After writing and performing with the Ketchikan-based band the Squawking Fish in the 1980s, Troll said he took a nearly two-decade hiatus from pursuing his musical aspirations in order to tend to his parental obligations. The band had unfortunately never migrated north to perform in the capital city during the folk festival before it split, Troll said.

"We'd played around in Ketchikan but we never played anywhere else and we always talked about 'you know someday we should go do the folk festival,' and we never did it," he said.

Troll said his son and daughter began playing in a band several years ago called Baby Shower that would commandeer his art studio for rehearsal space in the evenings. His kids inspired him to pick up a guitar again, he said.

"So I started playing again and started writing a few more songs and started getting together with other people of my age too," Troll said. "So it's kind of been this multi-generational thing."

A new band began to emerge, which allowed Troll to travel up the Inside Passage for his debut performance at the folk festival in 2006.

"I had some guys go up there with me and I dubbed them the Ratfish Ensemble, and then it just sounded like, no we should be the Ratfish Wranglers because there is just something more goofy about that," he said.

Troll said the band has evolved into a core group that includes himself, Lee, Craig Koch, Dave Rubin, Amos Hopkins, and his son, Patrick Troll. However, many talented people contributed to the production of the album, Troll said.

"There is kind of a core group, but you never know who is going to be deputized and become a Wrangler," he said.

After the band started playing together more regularly, Troll enlisted the help of musician and Native carver Stephen Jackson to help capture the Ratfish Wranglers' sound for an album. In 2007 the band began recording in a home studio tucked away in a Ketchikan basement and the album began to transform, Troll said.

"We would just completely ditch some of my arrangements and just start jammin'," he said.

Lee said Troll would write the songs and come up with the general musical outlines and the other musicians would improvise with different beats or chord progressions.

"It was really a group effort for the final product. I would say 80 percent of the songs don't really sound exactly the way they started - the way Ray played them to begin with," she said. "Of course all the lyrics are the same, but as we all sort of contributed our own bits and pieces, it became more of a group effort."

The character of the album maintains the Ray Troll flavor and color that has made his drawings and paintings so popular over the years. Songs like "Charismatic Megafauna," "Omega-3s," "Ratfish Rule" and "Cannery Girl" provide a new dimension to the artist's canvas. The band also recorded some of Troll's songs he'd written for the Squawking Fish, like "Spawn Till You Die" and "Ain't No Nookie Like Chinookie," phrases that have since become synonymous with his popular T-shirts.

Troll said the band is getting ready to head back to Juneau to perform in the 34th Annual Alaska Folk Festival at 8:15 p.m. on Sunday, April 13 at Centennial Hall. The band also has big plans for a CD release party from 7 to 9 p.m. on Saturday, April 12, at the Alaskan Hotel and Bar that will include glow in the dark T-shirts and a psychedelic light show, he said.

People listening to the Ratfish Wranglers get a humorous look inside the lives of a Southeast Alaskan, Lee said.

"It's really the sounds of Ketchikan," she said of the new album, adding that fish are a prevalent theme in the city. "It sounds like the soundtrack to Ketchikan, I guess."

"It's an Alaskan thing, but you know, it's kind of a nerdy science thing too," Troll said.

• Contact reporter Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.



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