The Cynics, Part 1

A Tale of Two Cynics

The Cynics are one of the best damn rock bands on the planet. They coalesced in Pittsburgh over 35 years ago, and to this day they remain among the most invigorating, powerful and amusing live acts I’ve ever been fortunate enough to experience – and I’ve seen them a ton. They’re one of those rare groups, like the similarly wild and uproarious Kid Congo & the Pink Monkey Birds, that you just never wanna miss, ’cause you know you’re gonna be knocked out and grinning ear-to-ear throughout the entire show.

Best of all, their records are great, too! I mean, if you’re into the whole “garage rock” underground, they’re among the best examples of it, certainly from a currently active unit. After taking a four-year hiatus, The Cynics are back in action this year, playing select live dates celebrating the 30th anniversary of the release of their third album, Rock ‘n’ Roll, wherein they perform the whole thing start-to-finish, along with a load of their other songs. There’s also an expanded reissue of Rock ‘n’ Roll coming out at some point soon, bolstered with an extra LP of a live broadcast from the album’s original tour. Rock ‘n’ Roll is a terrific jumping-on point if you happen to be new to The Cynics, as it contains several of their all-time best-loved songs, but honestly the three LPs they’ve released since reforming in the early aughts after an eight-year break – 2002’s Living is the Best Revenge, 2007’s Here We Are and 2011’s Spinning Wheel Motel – are every bit as good.

The two longtime constants in The Cynics, singer Michael Kastelic (who actually joined two years into the band’s existence, replacing original vocalist Mark Kereman) and guitarist Gregg Kostelich (complimented, since 2007, by Spain-based drummer Pablo “Pibli” González and bass guitarist Angel Kaplan), seemingly couldn’t be less alike. As head honcho (with his wife, Barbara Garcia-Bernardo) of Get Hip Records – both a label, releasing and distributing The Cynics’ records as well as those from an array of other (mostly) garage rock acts, and a brick-and-mortar retail store – Gregg is certainly the more business-focused of the two. Tall and imposing, though exceedingly passionate he comes across as serious and stoic, especially onstage. Michael, meanwhile, has earned the reputation of a wildman, both on and offstage. Comparatively scrawny and wiry, he’s a total nutcase, totally gay and totally fucking hilarious. And they both readily acknowledge the dichotomy. As Gregg told me at the start of our interview, a few days after I’d spoken with Michael, “What you need to do – everything [Michael] answered, just put my name and put the opposite answer.”

They’re two halves of a whole, and like many other outwardly mismatched groups, The Cynics simply would not be the brilliant band they are were it not for their contrasting eccentricities.

Michael: “Before we start, may I just thank you, because when you did that show in Austin, it was a Stomp and Stammer [day party, during South by Southwest in 2009], and Gregg and I played acoustically, I think, semi-acoustically at this club. I was so hungover I could barely walk there. Gregg’s carrying his guitar, and we’re walkin’ down from the hotel, wherever the hell we were staying, and I’m like, ‘I can’t do this! I’m gonna vomit, I’m not gonna be able to do this…’ But then I got there, and everyone was so friendly, so I went to the back of that club… and I got a few double shots – which equal, like, six shots, right? – and they were generous overpours, too. I mean, they cost like fifty dollars apiece, but it worked! All of a sudden, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can do this! Somehow I’m reinvigorated!’ It was so fun. That was such a nice crowd.”

Yeah, it was great, and that’s the only time I’ve ever seen you and Gregg do anything close to an acoustic performance. I’ve seen The Cynics so many times. I even saw you at that crazy all-day Little Steven Underground Garage Festival on Randall’s Island in New York City back in 2004. The Stooges headlined but you and most of the other bands only got to do two songs each!

Michael: “For me, that was a very weird experience… I was hanging out with Wendy [Case] from [The Paybacks]…and she had all these fuckin’ pills, and we were just takin’ all these barbiturates. So by the time we finally got onstage, I couldn’t even remember the words to ‘Baby What’s Wrong.’ But I hung out a little bit with the bass player from The Stooges at that time, Mike Watt, and I kinda remember that, and then everything got blurry. And then, I got in this really weird fight with the singer from The Electric Prunes because he had this beautiful, gorgeous boy that was with him, and I was like, ‘Who is that?’ He’s like, ‘Oh, that’s my son.’ While Iggy was playing, I kept trying to hit on this boy. He’s like, ‘Please! My son is straight! Will you please quit hitting on my son?’ I’m like, ‘OK, that’s fine.’ By this time I’m on so many barbiturates I can barely even stand up. But then finally we got off the island before the torrential thunderstorm and rain started – somehow I got on the fuckin’ last boat to the free world. I get off the ferry in Manhattan, and I’m like, ‘OK, I’m just gonna walk to Manitoba’s.’ But when I got off the ferry, I run into the guy from The Electric Prunes and his son, and he was like, ‘Oh, man, that was somethin’! But I lost my guitar!’ And I was like, ‘You deserve to lose your guitar, ya fuckin’ asswipe!’ I feel so bad to this day. I only said that ’cause I was on all kinds of drugs, and I was just mad at him yellin’ at me to quit hittin’ on his son. Which I had no reason to be! Look, I was hitting on his son – he shouldn’t have yelled at me, he should’ve shot me in the fuckin’ head! I’m totally embarrassed about the whole thing.”

I’m sure that’s the only time in your life you got so fucked up you did something regrettable…

Michael: “I think, yeah, that’s the only one. Hahaha!”

Gregg: “Every time I see [Michael], even like ten, fifteen years ago, I was always thinking I’m gonna see ‘Rest In Peace Michael Kastelic.’ Or me, from bein’ stressed out worrying about him. And everybody else is dropping, and Michael and I are still standing. What the fuck’s up with that? It’s almost like my mother [told me]: ‘You know, you’re like that Keith Richards guy.’ And I said, ‘Well, you know, he is my role model!’ He was my role model for what he could get away with on drugs. And I did my fucking share, and I should’ve been dead, as a teenager I should’ve been dead. I shouldn’t worry about it, but I can’t stop looking over my shoulder anymore. I’m freakin’ out – like every fucking day: who is it this time? I was going to two or three funerals a week for a year and a half! Local friends, and kids I went to school with. You know, pretty much my graduating class are all fuckin’ dead now, Jeff, because they couldn’t stop the drugs or alcohol… I just lost another friend Sunday of a heart attack, and I’m fucking freaking out about it. People our age are dropping like flies. You know, [like] Jeff Walls. I never saw that coming.”

Michael, the most recent time I saw The Cynics, in 2015, you played the Star Bar here in Atlanta a night or two after falling off the stage at a show in New York and busting your ribs or something. Your torso was all black and blue.

Michael: “And I still do not have full mobility in that shoulder, or that side of my brain, hahaha! I was blinded by these…stupid halogen lights on the stage [in New York]. They’re not like real stage lights, because they’re like, ‘Stage lights are too hot.’ I’m like, bring back the stage lights! These halogen ones look like what Larry King’s backlighting used to look like. And you can’t see anything! And I just made a misstep over the monitor onto a fuckin’ concrete floor, face first. I don’t know if it was a fractured shoulder, but it was pretty gross. People thought I was dead.”

Gregg: “He was out, unconscious, for 15, 20 minutes! I thought he was a goner!”

Michael: “They took me out in the ambulance and asked me, ‘What year is it? Who’s the president?’ You know, they’re doin’ all that shit. And I just need to finish the show! This happened in the first song! We hadn’t played in Brooklyn in years, this is the first song, I need to finish the show! They said, ‘Well, it’s definitely a concussion, and we definitely do not advise that you go back in there. But…if you sign this release, we’ll just fuckin’ let you go do it.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll sign the release! Yeah, it’s President Bush, I don’t know who the hell it is…’ Hahaha! So I get back in, and we did the whole set from that song on, and apparently people said it was good, but I don’t really have much recollection. Except that years later I still have this pain in my shoulder. But hey, you know, I’m not totally crippled like Iggy Pop, right? I only broke my penis and urethra and some arms and, you know, some head injuries…”

Right, the last time I did a story on The Cynics, Living is the Best Revenge was out and you had just played that show in Spain where you jumped or fell and landed on your crotch and nearly sliced your dick off.

Michael: “It was a broken urethra. Where your taint is, behind the balls, that’s where I got slashed. There was blood spurtin’ from my dick. The dressing room looked way worse than the Manson murders. Hahaha! It’s a really long story, it’s horrifying, but…it was that long ago? It just seems like yesterday…”

You’ve never been one to let the risk of bodily harm interfere with your total abandon onstage.

Michael: “I don’t know, I’ve kind of graduated into a thing now where I actually concentrate more on singing than jumping off the bass drum. I don’t know whether that’s good or bad. I don’t know whether people are disappointed, or like, ‘Why isn’t he just throwing himself into the audience and stuff?’ I’m like, look, I’m fuckin’ 80 years old! I don’t wanna be crippled like Iggy Pop. I just wanna kinda sing now. Not because it’s no fun to jump around and stuff. I think…our audience now is of a certain age, and I’m of a certain age, and look, we’re gonna do the classic hits, and I’m actually gonna sing them instead of diving off the monitor and killing myself. It’s really not worth it, hahaha!”

Gregg: “He was sober when we played Atlanta [in 2015]. David [Lindsay] said, ‘Gregg, what’s up with Michael?’ I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘He’s fucking amazing! I’ve never heard his voice so good!’ It’s because he had to be sober, because he was on these meds for the contusion [from the New York spill]. And people were saying that every night.”

Michael: I think I sing the songs better now than when I did on the original albums. Which is kind of fun for me, because I actually like doing soundchecks now, and checkin’ the monitors. Yeah, I just wanna hear myself sing, because I’m so fuckin’ in love with myself. Instead of bleedin’ out of my penis I’m now coming in my pants, I love my voice so much! Hahaha!”

Gregg: “I know our shows in Europe [earlier this year] were fantastic… Michael’s been more serious about hitting the notes and singing well… I’m happy for him, that he’s paying attention. Maybe he has to a little bit, ’cause he’s getting older. I’ve noticed in his mannerisms [onstage] that he wants to be a perfectionist. I’m like, ‘Oh fuck, what happened to him?’ He may be the best I’ve ever seen him since we first started practicing at his house, in his parents’ house, in the basement in the game room. It’s that shockingly good. I think he’s taking it more serious now. I don’t know what happened. But I’m happy about it. It’s something to live for. It’s exciting.”

You’re still incredibly fun to watch onstage, largely because of Michael’s unpredictability and sense of humor. It’s a total contrast to the vulnerability and loneliness in a lot of your songs. Not to psychoanalyze, but maybe you use humor onstage as a way to deflect away from that vulnerability?

Michael: “Jeff, I come from a place of a lot of pain. ‘Oh, the pain, the pain!’ Hahaha! But no, you are correct. I do try to work on the lyrics… I want ’em to be honest. I’m not gonna hide behind some sort of bravado. I try to hone the lyrics down to: ‘Look, this is just the way I feel.’”

Gregg: “It’s in our DNA. It’s in my DNA. I struggle with depression all the fuckin’ time. It’s what’s keeping me playing, taking on all this shit that I can’t even handle for days at a time, is to ease my mind off of shit. I’m sure Michael struggles with depression. We all do. We all have had those issues. You know, we write songs about it. Michael writes ‘Now I’m Alone,’ you know, every fuckin’ song’s about being alone. You try to kill yourself with drugs and drinking – I mean, I tried as a teen, when my dad was killed and my girlfriend drowned. I fuckin’ went out, man, and I was taking fucking narcotics and drinking. I tried to kill myself, and Darby Crash was my inspiration. And I wouldn’t fucking die! And I’m still here talking about it. Because there’s more to do in this life. It’s about playin’ rock ‘n’ roll! I figured it out after all these years, and it’s my duty to play fuckin’ rock ‘n’ roll, and change people’s lives. Make it good, make it fuckin’ bad – hey, if it’s too good, we’re gonna fuck it up for you! And it’s really the true meaning of a cynic, you know! I’ve come around, and I’ve figured it out. And I feel good about it.”

Continue to Part 2.