Bush Tetras invented a big chunk of post-punk in 1979 with a copy of “Take Me To Funkytown” and months of exposure to an undiscovered gas leak, and their rhythm ‘n’ paranoia classics like “Too Many Creeps” and “Can’t Be Funky” (if you haven’t got a soul, to finish the lyric) were agitated pop of the highest order. Their supposed-to-be-final album, Happy, was recorded in the 90s but got trapped in major-label record jail, only to be released just a few months ago. Vocalist Cynthia Sley speaks now about how much of modern life remains piss-off-able. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
You toured like Mission of Burma did on the ‘endless Eastern Airlines ticket,’ where you could fly anywhere in the U.S. as long as you went through Atlanta. How close did that put you to hospitalization?
Cynthia Sley (vocals): We did a 28-cities-in-30-days-tour with Eastern. Brutal. We got very sick of the airplane food. Luckily we were very young! But that tour definitely helped establish us as a band. The airline food was the killer. It was almost powdered eggs. It was grueling. We’d have a lot of Heineken the night before, and then you’d have to have breakfast but the only time we had to eat was on the plane. Free food!
So all you lived on was yellow slime—bad beer and runny eggs?
No, they weren’t even runny—they were this scrambled egg–like substance. We had a really hard time. We went from New York City to Atlanta, New Orleans to Atlanta, Seattle to Atlanta—the hub was Atlanta. It got to the point we were probably green. Very punk-looking. We’d sit together and people would bring their kids over to point at us. We were an attraction in the airport. We were in our early 20s and sleeping on floors. Our record was just out and kind of charting, so there was curiosity about us. We played everywhere. We were just fearless. And we wanted to play. That was the constant—we wanted to play live. Even back then, we wanted to earn a living with the band. It was an adventure. We had it pretty easy, compared to other bands. Maybe cuz we were girls, we were treated very nicely. But the schedule was brutal. We’d be sleeping on people’s floors and staying up late drinking, and then get up and catch a flight to Atlanta. We were having nightmares about Atlanta.
If this was an easy time, what would have been bad?
We did have one bad time. Which was in Atlanta. We ended up playing Atlanta and they didn’t know what to make of us. The club had bleachers on either side and people were sitting and I dunno what they thought. We were way too left of center for them. I got offstage and went to get a drink at the bar and this guy came up to me: ‘You know, I know you’re a man. I know you’re not really a woman. But I’m really into it.’ This really straight guy. ‘No, no—I’m a woman.’ Then he was following me around, and that’s when I got kind of scared. Atlanta … was not the highlight. But we loved Boston and in L.A. we played the Hong Kong Café—really fun! We were getting a lot of press and a lot of celebrities came.
Like John Doe and Exene? Or Don Johnson and Tom Selleck?
No—like rock ‘n’ roll celebrities. [Guitarist] Pat [Place] would have liked Tom Selleck. She had a crush on Tom Selleck.
What was it like playing your music for complete strangers outside of New York City? When you don’t have your friends out in the crowd to kinda vouch for you?
It was really fun to be on the road. We were on a mission in those days to play our music to as many people as we could. We felt we had something to say.
What did you want to say?
We were very entitled in New York City. It was a burned-out city. Abandoned. Ford had said, ‘Drop dead, New York.’ In the late 70s it was like, ‘Well, OK—we’re just gonna take over.’ So many things were going on at once. I had friends in all different art fields—painters and filmmakers and dancers. We thought more and more we wanted to create a revolution of people to not be part of the straight world. To be off the grid, doing our own thing. You could still get grants then. It was kind of a renaissance time, and we wanted to spread that through the country. It wasn’t that conscious—we weren’t like Devo, where we wrote something down about de-evolution. We really liked so many different kinds of music, and we thought what we did was kind of different and it was really fun to play—we had a certain sound, and that’s exciting. You can’t beat that. That’s an amazing gift you get in life.
Did you know at the time you’d made up your own sound? What’s it like to put together post-punk before there even is a concept of post-punk?
Post-punk is just some label. We were all just artists. Three of us went to art school, and we had that kind of perspective of literature and art. We just put it together. It was very unconscious! I don’t think you sit there and analyze it. When it happens, you feel it happening—it’s a rock ‘n’ roll band thing! Of course there’s heartache, but there’s a lot of fun involved. It’s amazing how the songs come about. We did it all in the rehearsal studio, and we had a BIG gas leak in the beginning. That’s why the songs are so wacky.
Your brains were starved for oxygen?
Oh yeah—I’m sure we killed a million brain cells. We’d been rehearsing for months, and finally Laura [Kennedy] says, ‘I smell gas.’ And I lived there, too, so God knows …. That explains my memory now. First and First Ave. was our old headquarters. Other bands rehearsed there. You could get a space for not much money—it was a storefront, and we’d rent it out to other bands. Then we got the times we wanted and didn’t have to pay rent. It paid for itself. I took care of it, organized it and lived there with my pet tarantula.
You had a pet tarantula?
It was from Lydia Lunch.
Did she catch it in the wild?
No, you buy it. She didn’t go traveling the jungle.
How do you bond with a tarantula? Do you cuddle with it?
You don’t. And I killed it accidentally by leaving the window open on Halloween. It got too cold. Very sad. It was accidental.
Is there anything besides the poisonous gas you’d like to credit for creating the Bush Tetras as we know them?
That was the ultimate cocktail—the slow leak. You don’t need anything extra. We were a tribe of misfits there in New York City. We all fled our Midwestern or suburban homes to find some freedom, yes. There was a real sense of camaraderie and I am happy to have experienced it. I was definitely pulled into the band by my friends, Pat and Laura. I was no singer, but then that wasn’t so important. I don’t know if it disappeared because I am 32 years older and not a part of the current scene. I assume there is one, and have seen many cool new bands. I do think that that was a special moment we all shared. If I hadn’t have been there, I would not have been a musician… probably an artist though! We thought of ourselves as a dance band, of course, in our own twisted way. We were sending a message about Reagan, and our anger about the turn to the right. We were slowly losing our city to the straights. We felt we should own the city. I told you we were brats. We were fighting the fight of individuality.
I think they fought back, too. Arts programs are all chopped up now.
And I don’t think it ever really recovered. Now we’re going into the core where they don’t even have art in schools, and kids aren’t really exposed in the way they should be. It should be part of your education. It brings so much joy and humanity into the world. Sure beats playing a video game! The actual games are really beautiful, but the playing … this undercurrent of training kids to be little soldiers.
Don’t they actually use Xbox controllers to pilot drones?
Sure. I’m kind of … I believe in the Big Brother stuff somewhat, and … I hope the revolution will not be televised.
The Bush Tetras have this historical reputation as being kinda paranoid—
Why was that?
Maybe because of ‘Too Many Creeps’?
We had two sides to our Rituals EP—‘Rhythm’ and ‘Paranoia.’ In retrospect, I don’t know how paranoid we were. We could kinda see the writing on the wall. We won’t be calling ourselves prophets, though—I promise. That’s very obnoxious.
You could be like the canaries in the coal mine.
Canaries have a bad fate in the coal mine.
Now I depressed myself.
When you get to be 50, you don’t really care. You don’t care what people think. You just let it go and it’s a really great thing. It’s gonna be interesting to see all these bands still chugging away—cuz why stop, really? I realize we’re older, but the Bush Tetras spirit is still there and it’s really great. I’m happy about that. When rock ‘n’ roll started, no one knew—they thought maybe it’d be a flash in the pan. But jazz players play into their eighties and nineties. Music is good for the soul. Why stop? It seems kind of silly. I could see myself stopping many other things, but not music. Probably working! I’m a teacher, and even though I love it it’s not the same thing.
Do you see any of yourself in your kids?
Yeah! I’m trying to indoctrinate them to be little weirdos—all day long! I’ve been playing Johnny Cash for them, trying to turn them on to different kinds of music. They loved ‘Ring of Fire.’ That’s such a heartbreaker. You gotta choose well—you can’t have anything inappropriate.
Nobody can stand up in front of a school board and slam Johnny Cash.
He played Folsom Prison! He’s eternally cool!
You’re playing out in 2013 on a record recorded in 1998 by a band who started in 1979—is there anything constant between the decades? What’s something that never changed after all this time?
Our raw energy is still there and the way the parts weave together. That is our sound that we can’t and don’t want to shake. It really came to the forefront when we played the last time. We were trying to write a setlist and Pat had the idea of doing the old songs first, and then the new songs. And that was so good! It made so much sense as a set. I think they are really different, but they have some kind of continuity. When we try to mix them up, it’s a little schizo. The old songs have a certain sound, and our sound has changed. It’s not a different band, but I sing totally differently than I used to. We tried to branch out and do new things when we did the record in ’98. I love the way the songs tell a bit of a story and it feels like a real album. The other early releases were 12” and were more like short stories. This is a complete thought—especially lyrically. And now that’s out and that makes us wanna write new songs. We’ve been talking—how can we write with me being all the way over on this coast? We’re not dead. We’re still alive. And we have lots of ideas.
What interests you as a writer now? Is it still rhythm and paranoia? When you get inspired, how does it work?
It’s like a sponge. I get ideas from lyrics, from books—I read a lot and get inspired by writers or what somebody says or what I hear on the news. Musically you just kinda sponge it up. What we did, we liked a certain song and we tried to do our own version, and by the time we could do it, it was unrecognizable. No one would ever even guess we were trying to morph the song ‘Take Me to Funkytown.’
So Bush Tetras really boils down to ‘Funkytown’ and a gas leak?
Yeah—and we listened to Bohannon a lot, too. He was amazing. But we’d do our own version cuz we couldn’t sing or play or do any of it. There are so many different ways of writing. Some people really consciously take stuff. We used to do like ‘A-B-C’ retard songs. Three parts, like A-B-C, and we thought we were being really techie! A-B-A-B-C—woo, fancy! Everything was in the key of E. But I think there was room for so many things. I’m not putting down people who write in a formulaic way. That’s fine! It’s just not anything I’m interested in myself. I like jamming. That’s the challenge—how can we still jam? Our songs were simple but it was the feel and the mood the jams inspired that we were into. We never wanted to be commercial and we succeeded at that!
You told Vivien Goldman you’ve always written sad songs. Why?
I am a very sad girl on one hand and a very silly one on the other. I am glad the sad girl is the one that writes. Makes for better songs. Just think of Hank Williams. Life is full of sadness and songwriting can purge the ghosts, so to speak. I listen to all kinds of music. I love Neil Young and always will. He captures that sadness. Makes me want to cry when I hear him sing those words. Or break things. The concept of breaking things is a good one, and I find far too much music wimps out these days.
What’s so good about breaking things?
I’m constantly breaking things. I’m very clumsy. I feel it’s an extension of not really caring about material things. They just fall apart in my hands. When we first started listening to music that had this kinda angst and anger in it, after all the disco stuff … I was just jumping up on the furniture throwing things! It was such a release! I had so much pent up. There was lots to be pissed off about in the world.
Is there more to be pissed off about now?
I think I had more energy 30 years ago. But it’s equally piss-off-able! Look at so many things that are wrong going on. I’m around 7-year-olds and what do I say to them? You might not have an ozone layer? There might not be any coastline you remember? It’s seriously escalating. Huge heavy things. But there were big things back then, too. There’s always injustice cuz people are basically … horrible! That’s what you have to fight. The difference back then was there was some kind of hope to make changes. Coming out of the 60s and 70s with so much upheaval and people trying to do things, there was some space in the system. Now people are just so apathetic. Not everybody—but there’s a lot of apathy. And people are about other things. And that’s changed. I do think in the late 70s we were extra pissed off! But everything changes. Something you think is stagnant changes. Right now it’s to the nth degree of who’s in control of this country, and everybody knows who’s in control! To change that is gonna take a lot! I’m hopeful. My son is 23 and he has a band and he’s really pissed off! So that’s hopeful.
So if you wrote a song now, would it be sad still? Or pissed off? Or what?
My optimism is really on shaky ground. It wavers from complete pessimism to optimism. You gotta try and find some equilibrium. Some days seem fruitless, others don’t.
How did you finally break Happy out of record jail?
We won’t really talk about all the ugly bits of releasing it out of ‘record jail.’ It was complicated, unnecessarily. It would have been sad if this had never had the opportunity to come out. The recordings with [producer] Don Fleming were stamped and not to be duplicated. Plus, Happy sounds very current to me— but decades seem to be flying by. We’re kind of at a crossroads right now. The record is out and we love our record company, ROIR—Lucas Cooper is just an amazing, supportive person. The more we play together, the songs will come. I have a ton of lyrics and I sent something to the rest of them. I sing into my computer in GarageBand. We’re always gonna do something. It shall be revealed!
So you do have optimism, but mostly when it comes to music.
We just kinda realized we’re gonna play—we don’t have to say we’re gonna give it up! We’ve done that a few times: ‘Oh, we’re gonna stop playing.’ But it’s folly to even think of that.
Just dare the world to try and stop you.
Yeah—just try and stop the Bush Tetras! Like anyone really gives a shit to try and stop us. But it’s a good thought!
‘Can’t Be Funky’ has one of my favorite lines, which is of course, ‘You can’t be funky if you haven’t got a soul’—which is also scientifically true as far as I can tell. Of course, there is the opposite implication of the song—if you somehow MADE yourself funky, could you grow a soul?
I truly believe if you make yourself funky, you can grow a soul.
BUSH TETRAS WITH TERRY MALTS AND SWAHILI BLONDE ON SUN. FEB. 3, AT THE ECHO, 1822 SUNSET BLVD., ECHO PARK. 10 PM / $12-$15 / 18+. THE ECHO.COM. BUSH TETRAS’ HAPPY OUT NOW ON ROIR RECORDS. VISIT BUSH TETRAS AT FACEBOOK.COM/BUSHTETRAS.