Bush Tetras Still Go Boom in the Night
There was a certain strain of acts during that charmed late ’70s/early ’80s post-punk zenith that, to varying degrees, juxtaposed punk’s spiky urgency with distilled frostbit funk, oblique Eno-esque art-rock, no wave’s abrasiveness and other elements, resulting in a wave of exhilarating co-ed freshness that was minimalist, jarring, jittery and danceable. I’d include bands like Gang of Four, Au Pairs, Pylon and even Romeo Void in this discussion. And certainly, with Pat Place’s clashing slash chords stabbing and spasming, Dee Pop’s crisp, insistent drumbeats, Laura Kennedy’s plunky, prominent basslines and Cynthia Sley’s jaded, discontented bark, New York City’s Bush Tetras were among the most crucial instigators.
The group initially existed from 1979 through 1983, releasing a handful of singles, an EP, a live cassette and some compilation appearances. Several one-off reunion shows would follow before the original lineup formally coalesced in 1995, recording the more straightforward (but still electrifying) rock album Beauty Lies (Tim/Kerr Records, 1997), produced by Nona Hendryx. Kennedy departed (replaced by Julia Murphy) by the time they recorded the next album, Happy, in 1998 with producer Don Fleming. But, after its distribution deal with Polygram/Mercury Records fell apart, Tim/Kerr closed shop in early ’99, leaving the album (another underrated triumph) in limbo (until ROIR finally released it in 2012, that is). The experience disheartened the Tetras, who largely retreated back into the weeds for several years.
But with the revival of interest in post-punk by younger generations who missed out on the first (and second) wave, many of that era’s originators soon became active again, and before too long Bush Tetras were back on the circuit. Best of all, with new bassist Val Opielski giving them a jolt, they’ve finally recorded and released a new record! The five-song EP Take the Fall (Wharf Cat Records) is a heavy, jagged, dissonant rager, and if you think it bears little direct resemblance to early singles “Too Many Creeps” and “Can’t Be Funky,” well, how many great musicians and bands never evolve over the course of nearly 40 years? Just crank the one-two punch of “Mouse” and “Don’t Stop It” back-to-back at full blast and then come talk to me.
Drummer Dee Pop (Dimitri Papadopoulos), 62, is a fascinating fellow with stories galore from decades playing both with Bush Tetras and a wildly diverse assortment of other characters including Jayne County, The Gun Club, Darlene Love, Marc Ribot and, in fact, his better half Opielski, with whom he has an experimental/improv/loop duo called 1000 Yard Stare. In advance of Bush Tetras’ upcoming Atlanta show at The EARL on Oct. 26 (part of this year’s Atlanta Mess-Around), I caught up with him on a recent Tuesday afternoon…
Bush Tetras’ first single, “Too Many Creeps,” may be the perfect New York post-punk single. How many times has that song been released, either on singles or on compilations or re-recorded?
“I lost count. At one time, I think it was about 20. I was finding comps that I never even knew existed. Just these strange DJ comps… I mean, all legal releases and stuff. Or, for the most part legal. I’m sure there’s a few of them that never asked permission or got the licensing from us. But yeah, it’s a lot. I’ve kept the archives of the band, pretty much, and I have [nearly] a full shelf of just the comps.”
That song has staying power.
“Yeah, and it’s getting used even more lately, which is great and remarkable. It’s funny to think of it. When it came out, we were just happy we made a record… And it’s gonna be used in an Anthony Bourdain episode soon. He was a fan of the band. We had no idea. I guess about a year ago there was that big women’s march, and he tweeted that day that the song everybody should be using was ‘Too Many Creeps.’ And a couple of the band members were like, ‘Oh, Anthony Bourdain!’ And I was like, ‘Who the fuck is that?’ I mean, I don’t watch too much television, and chef shows are not my expertise. So I was like, ‘Oh…okay… a chef…’ It just seemed like a really odd thing to me that some famous chef was touting our song. I mean, it was great and everything, and cool. But it’s just not part of my world, per se.”
When the band first came together, Cynthia and Laura, at least, were pretty green as far as singing and playing bass. Pat had played slide guitar in the Contortions. What about you? Had you been playing for a while?
“I’ve been playing since I was a kid. And I was probably the only one ever in bands, I’d been in several punk bands before the Bush Tetras, and I was in high school bands, and, you know, bands that played Chuck Berry covers, and all the whatever I grew up with kinda shit. So I guess I had the most formal background. Pat basically started playing music in the Contortions, and she was self-taught. And her original approach to playing guitar, she played a lot of slide, and it was very…I like to use the word ‘impressionistic.’ She created sounds that seemed appropriate, but she didn’t really know what she was doing. She would put her fingers on the fretboard, and go, ‘Okay, this is an interesting sound,’ ‘This is an ugly sound…’ A good ugly sound, maybe. But that’s how she approached stuff.”
There’s something really refreshing, to me, about a band whose members are still learning, still figuring it out, yet they’re composing and releasing songs, and playing shows. Those bands tend to come up with really unique styles because of their inexperience.
“Yeah, well, that was the thing. It wasn’t as if one of us could say, ‘Hey, could you play like this person?’ or ‘Do that thing.’ That wasn’t part of anybody’s vocabulary. So instead, we came up with our own thing, and we made it up as we went along and developed. And now it’s grown proportionally over the years, and everybody in the band’s got more experience. But everybody brought their individual personalities to their instrument, and that gave us something different. It was just an extension of ourselves, and nothing else.”
Did the band consider itself part of the No Wave scene in New York, or any scene? Or did you see yourselves as separate from that?
“Well, I mean, ‘no wave’ kind of preceded us. We grew out of that. Pat was in the Contortions, who were lumped in that category. They were on that No New York record, which was the first no wave comp. And there were a lot of other bands that weren’t recorded as much that kind of disappeared quickly. But we weren’t really that. Because… I played a pretty straight rhythm. What I didn’t like about no wave was that it was really undanceable music. And we were coming from a time where we liked a lot of funk, we liked a lot of reggae, we liked a lot of early hip-hop, we liked a lot of rock ‘n’ roll, we liked a lot of rhythm & blues. And those had danceable beats. So, on top, it might’ve seemed noisy and no wave-ish, but on the bottom, it wasn’t. It was kind of structured so you could move to this, and there’s something you can follow.”
Were you familiar at that time with Pylon from Athens?
“Yeah, it’s funny, I just saw [Pylon Reenactment Society] play about a month ago. And I had never seen them back then, for some reason. I mean, I was aware of them, and I heard their singles and stuff, and I knew we were sort of in the same camp… But [Pylon] were different. First of all, just the geography made it different. But certainly we were aware of them, and respected them. And it’s funny, because when I talked to them, I talked to Vanessa a couple of months ago when they came through here, and we were actually talking about maybe doing a tour together. I mean, we’re very different from each other.”
Of course. But both bands seemed to be coming from somewhat similar sensibilities.
“Definitely. But that’s the good thing, is that now we’ve maybe veered off into a slightly heavier direction. So where we have a common ground, we’d be a very different thing. I really hate when I go see a show and there’s three or four bands that all sound exactly the same. What’s the point? I was booking a lot of avant garde jazz shows, and after a while I was like, okay, you put two or three of these acts together, it’s like you can’t differentiate anything. So why even try to do that?”
During the band’s original run, you pretty much only released singles. Were there plans for an album, or were you just focusing on the immediate outbursts that singles provide?
“No, we had actually recorded an album, and it’s never been released as such. But we had enough material for an album, and we were shopping it around. And we were, at that point, growing and trying to develop. Which was very frustrating. Because we wanted to develop faster than we were actually capable of. And we were also coming at a time when there was record label interest in us, and record labels would come up to us and say stuff like, ‘You know, if you had a keyboard player, a synth player, and you sounded a little bit more like Human League, and dressed like this, we’ll sign you.’ We were like, ‘You know that that’s not what we are.’ We couldn’t do that, even if we had that kind of motivation. We were just happy to be doing what we were doing. We started playing before we were even remotely developed. We developed in front of people. We played a lot. And that’s how we learned. I think playing in front of people was a really quick lesson on how to do stuff. Besides, it is just frightening. From the get-go, people liked us, and we were just scratching our heads. ‘They liked that? Okay, let’s do that again.’ And it just kind of snowballed. And there was also the point when we were making our [album], we were also, uh, not the nicest children on the street. We had our own little reputations. It was a little bit similar to the New York Dolls or something, ‘hey, these people are dangerous.’ Which was not really the truth, or anything, but we did everything our way. And I think record companies were a little scared of having that. ‘We can’t control this situation. We can’t tell them, like, wear pink suits,’ or… I don’t know, whatever. For some reason, we scared people! And we laughed about it, because we were all like, wow…we’ve got this reputation that we’re scary, and we were all just surviving.”
Aside from insisting on doing things your way, why do you think you had that reputation?
“Maybe the way we looked. Maybe it was our attitude, that we didn’t follow anything else. We didn’t wear skinny ties and become a new wave band. We also were involved in the drug culture. It’s hard to explain. It’s hard to look back at it now. I think it’s kind of funny. I’m not a big scary guy or anything. It was three women and me. I mean, we looked different. They didn’t dress… Pat, Cynthia and Laura didn’t dress like what would be clichéd ‘sexy’ for a woman. They didn’t adhere to that. So they kinda looked tough, they kinda looked androgynous. Middle America didn’t look like that yet. There might’ve been little pockets of people like that in all the little scenes, but for the most part, your average person thought we were weird.”
When you say you were involved in the drug culture, to what extent?
“Uhh… well, I mean, I don’t want to romanticize or glorify any of it, but we all had our drug issues. And they were hardcore. And that did affect the band by the end. By the end of my tenure in the band, we had stagnated a little bit. We were frustrated not being able to grow. We just had our personal problems, and that got in the way of things. And that’s a cliché of a lot of bands, and it was certainly something that happened to us.”
Did that basically lead to the band splitting up?
“Uhhh… well, Laura left. She couldn’t handle what was going on, you know. Her personal life got in the way of things. I got frustrated, I left and joined The Gun Club. And Cynthia and Pat went on for a little bit more, and they gave it up. After me and Laura left, it was just not the same band. There was a chemistry that had gotten lost. What’s lucky right now is that original chemistry seems to be back now. Especially with the addition of Val in the band. She is really that fourth individual that brings a quarter into the band. It’s not like the three of us and a bass player. Julia Murphy was our bass player for ten years, and I love Julia and she’s a great bass player, but we didn’t write for a long time, because we needed that fourth ingredient to really spark us. The way we write, nobody comes to the table saying, ‘I wrote this song – it goes like this… you do this, you do that…’ There’s no songwriter, there’s no hierarchy. It could start with a drum beat, it could start with a bassline, it could start with the guitar, it could start with one line of lyrics. And then it gets thrown into the cement mixer, and either it’s something we like or it’s not.”
What led to the original band coming back together in the ’90s?
“Well, up until right now, all our reunions or get back togethers have been flukes. I mean, by ’95, we had done shows sporadically all through the ‘80s and the early 90s. Every couple of years we’d do a show or something. And in ’95, we got asked to do a show for a [venue] that was having an anniversary. And we had played that space when we started, and they said, ‘Could you get back together and do this one big show that we’re gonna put on to commemorate the space?’ And we said, ‘Yeah, sure. That would be fun.’ So we rehearsed and did the show, and after the show, this guy that ran Tim/Kerr said, ‘Hey, you guys were amazing! I’d like to put out an album of you guys. Would you like to do an album?’ And we were like, ‘…huh?’ We weren’t thinking about anything past that one show. But we said, ‘Sure, why not?’ So we made Beauty Lies, and that was very difficult for us, because all of a sudden, the four of us are back together, and we’d all grown individually, and whereas in 1980 if you put us in a van and we had music to listen to while we were traveling, we all liked the same stuff. We had this very common ground. And then all of a sudden in ’95, we’re getting together and I’m asking, ‘So, what are you listening to?’ And somebody would say something, and I’d go, ‘Oh…really?’ And they would ask me what I was listening to, and I would be saying some free jazz shit, and they’d be like, ‘…Oh…huh…this is gonna be interesting…how do we put that together now?’ So there was a lot of trial and error, and some things were good about that record, and some things that were a little, I think, more half-baked… That might have had something to do with Nona Hendryx producing it. Trying to make us a little friendlier to the world. And some of that was good and some of it failed. Because we were fighting it, too. As much as we loved Nona and respected [her], she’s an amazing person, and singer and producer, we were going, ‘You know, we want this kind of noise, and you’re not doing it.’ So there were some struggles with it.”
The next album, Happy, also had some exciting music, I thought, but the jagged edges were smoothed over even more.
“Yeah, yeah. Again, we were trying to find common ground. Pat’s guitar playing had changed a little bit. She had developed more, was able to do more things that, in a way, were a lot straighter. And I mean, we got some flack for that. People were like, ‘Oh my God, she’s playing barre chords!’ But that was something she wanted to do. And, you know, we were still working it out. If we’d have made a third record, I think it would’ve been a lot different. But then again, the way we were writing, we didn’t have Laura at that point. Laura added this other dimension that I think was missing a little bit. The bass playing was really good and solid, but it was subservient as opposed to a voice. I think our original recordings, everybody in the band had a voice.
And you were focusing more on albums instead of singles and EPs in the ‘90s, which is a much larger mountain to conquer, to create a dozen really amazing songs instead of two or four or whatever. Not only that, like you said, you had all grown into different people, and you all had different interests than 15 years earlier. And Tim/Kerr was hooked up with Mercury/Polygram at the time, so there was the major label factor, at least somewhat.
“Yeah, and I think we also just didn’t know where we fit into the world anymore at that point. Our scene, even just in New York, it had changed so radically, and the music scene in general had seemed to get a lot… I don’t know… it was more integrated into the world at that point. You know, like, when we came out, it was still a real kind of different thing that most of whatever radio was playing. And in the ‘90s, you had Nirvana and other things being played on the radio, even Sonic Youth, and we didn’t exactly know where we belonged. Or what to make of it. And I think maybe we paid a little bit – I don’t think drastically – but we were conscious of: where do we fit in the world? So, now we just don’t give a fuck, and we’re doing what we wanna do.”
Well, good, because I don’t think you really fit neatly into the world now, either, and yet your music is still as fresh as ever.
“Even the EP we just put out is just the start of where we are today. I mean, there’s already more new material. And it’s gone…I don’t wanna say ‘weirder,’ but it’s not the Happy album. I think the abrasiveness has come back.”
So when you perform your early material now, has that developed and changed as well, along with the band’s sound?
“Umm… well, none of it’s changed. We haven’t tried to update [it]. I mean, we play it a little differently. Maybe a little harder, a little better, if that’s even a way to look at it. We’re certainly more in command of our instruments than we were back then… It’s funny – we make setlists, and we go, okay… we have, like, the three eras of Bush Tetras: the early ‘80s, the mid ‘90s and the present. And it’s like, alright, well, we don’t have to do anything, but people are gonna wanna hear some of the old ones. And then there’s some from the ‘90s that we like, that we do. Very few things off of Beauty Lies, and maybe just a handful off of Happy. And then we have the new EP and the other new songs we’ve done. And then we have our perennial cover. We usually throw one cover in every decade. And we’re really picky about that. It’s not like we look for a cover, but we’ll find something all of a sudden that we’ll play. We do ‘Run Run Run’ by the Velvets lately. We had to learn that because we did this festival that was a tribute to Lou Reed, and we were assigned the song. ‘You guys are gonna do ‘Run Run Run.’’ ‘Okay…well, we’d rather do this off The Blue Mask…’ ‘No, you’re doing ‘Run Run Run.’ And people really responded to it. So it’s been something we play lately.”
Heck, I’d love to hear you play something off The Blue Mask. One of my favorite Lou Reed albums.
“It got outvoted. Don Fleming, who produced Happy, was one of the cheerleaders of this festival, and he was just like, ‘Nope, you’re not doing that.’ It was like, ‘Okay, Don… If you say so.’”
I’m sure your version of “Run Run Run” kicks ass too.
“Yeah… it’s us, it’s not the Velvets version. Which is the way I think a cover should be. Somebody just asked us to do a cover of ‘Born to Be Wild.’ We were like, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me. Nah, I don’t think so.’ We’d have to totally turn it upside down and inside out, and we were like, ‘Nah, we just don’t hear that.’”
The Gun Club have always been one of my favorite bands. How long did you last with them after you left Bush Tetras in ’83?
“I only played on a record called Death Party. Which was an EP, and now that it’s been reissued, they’ve tacked a live thing on to it, eight or nine tracks from a radio show in Geneva, Switzerland. I played with them for about a year. I had known Jeffrey from earlier. We were both writers before we were musicians. Or, you know, known as musicians. He wrote for Slash, and I wrote for New York Rocker. And it was funny, ‘cause I was always trying to get printed in Slash in L.A., and I found out that he would get my mail, my articles, and he’d throw them out because he would be writing about the same stuff, and he didn’t want competition. I was like, ‘Fuck, Jeff, that was you?’ And then The Gun Club and Bush Tetras did a tour or two together, and we all bonded. So when he fired the original lineup, he asked me to join. I played for about a year, and then I left for sanity’s sake.”
Ha ha ha!
“Well, you know, I’m amazed that I’m alive after a year of touring in that band. Because we drank and drugged really heavily. Really heavily. And we toured incessantly. Jeffrey at that time – well, most of his life – he never really had a home of his own. He lived with his mom. And so instead of going back home, he’d just book tours. And in between tours, he would, like, stay at my house for two weeks, and then another tour would start, and we’d go out. So he was kind of a nomad. And at that point I was married, and had a child, and after a year of it, I was like, ‘Jeffrey, I have to go home. I have a kid that’s one.’ They went on tour with me for a little bit. But it’s no place [for that]. And also, my wife at the time, her name was Deerfrance…”
…who had played with John Cale…
“Yes. We had a band together [Floor Kiss], and I was like, ‘I’m going back and playing with her, and getting that going.’ So we put out a couple of things. And that was a pretty cool band – it had Michael Paumgardhen on guitar, who was in 8-Eyed Spy and played with Richard Hell, and the bass player was this guy Kevin Fullen, who played in Nona Hendryx’s band. We put out an EP that did really well, and then that imploded. As did our marriage.”
What a crazy assortment of people you’ve played with, though.
“Yeah, I’ve been really, really lucky. I’ve played with just about everybody I liked! I’ve done gigs with Iggy, I’ve done gigs with Johnny Thunders, I’ve played with William Parker, I’ve played with Peter Brotzmann, Marc Ribot…”
Did the Bush Tetras ever play Atlanta?
“Yes, we did! I was waiting for you to bring that up. We played at the 688 club. I played there three times. Twice with the Bush Tetras and once with The Gun Club. And every one of ’em was a certified disaster!”
Ha ha ha!
“The first time [Bush Tetras] played there was our first American tour, and I’m not sure now if I’m mixing up the first time we played with the second time, but the girls dropped acid. And didn’t tell me. And I have only the recollection of going, ‘What the fuck are you girls playing?’ Because they were starting different songs at the same time, and… it was just out there. Then one of [the shows] might’ve been good, but I just remember that. Nothing horrendous – people dug it and stuff, and they didn’t know – but for me, it was like, ‘Whoa… Don’t do that again.’ Which they did once in England, again not telling me. And I was like, ‘Oh, you’re doing that, huh? Okay… Prepare for the worst…’ And with The Gun Club, I did a show where the entire band except for me missed the plane. And me and my brother – who was our roadie – get to the 688 club and do the entire soundcheck by ourselves – my brother played drums and I played the guitar and sang – to check all the instruments hoping they would make it on time. Which they did, by like 30 seconds. But they showed up and they were all trashed, and I was trashed because I figured, ‘Oh well, they’re not gonna show up, fuck it.’ So, it was one of those Gun Club debacles. We played disco songs, and we played ‘Sex Bomb’ by Flipper for half an hour, and shit like that.”
So what else is going on with Bush Tetras now?
“There’s a whole bunch of stuff in the works. All of our back catalog has just been reverted to us, and we have plans now to reissue everything again, in various forms. Beauty Lies has never been reissued, that’s been out of print. There’s the Tetrafied album [compilation of early rare and live tracks] that Henry Rollins put out. So that is gonna come out, and I can’t say yet with who. And we’re writing for a whole album. And I think we’re gonna do a live album with Third Man Records. And we have a lot of stuff coming out in movies and stuff. And we just did an ad for Gucci, of all things. In Europe. Which is really hilarious to me. It’s kind of like having the chef like us. Gucci? It’s like, I know the name, and I would probably never in my lifetime own or wear anything by Gucci. But they used ‘Can’t Be Funky’ for Europe to sell their stuff. It’s great, I’m just kind of… I don’t know what my reaction is. Gucci and Bush Tetras in the same sentence? It’s like polar opposites to me. But yet again, it somehow makes sense. So there’s lots of stuff happening, and we have kind of a little plan for the next few years. Doing another record – something we really, really wanna make, that’s really representative of us now. And solidify everything we’ve ever put out, and have it be findable… We’re just having fun. We love to play. And as long as we’re really good, we’ll play. Once it becomes like we’re dialing it in, we’re done. I just won’t water down what we are or who we are.”
Photo by Dustin Pittman.