BLURTING WITH… Paul Mahern/Zero Boys

From 1979 to 1983, Indianapolis’ Zero Boys
hoisted the hardcore torch high.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

From straight outta nowhere – the Midwest – they came, these
Zero Boys, putting the lie to the notion that you had to be based on the east
coast (NYC, D.C.) or the west coast (L.A., San Fran) to wield a meaningful
roar. It was tuneful, too, brimming with concise melodies and subtle deployment
of harmonies amid the buzzsaw riffing and ratatat rhythmic assault.

 

“We listened to a lot of rock radio growing up in the Midwest,” says vocalist Paul Mahern, back then known as
Paul Z. “We grew up on hooks and riffs.” And indeed, on their lone full-length,
1982’s Vicious Circle, the Zero Boys
confidently took their place alongside punk’s crème du rawk – including the Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat, the
Delinquents, Circle Jerks, Black Flag, D.O.A., the Subhumans and the Bad Brains
– while staking their claim as one of the smartest and most sonically
accessible young bands of the era.

 

The evidence is presented anew on Secretly Canadian’s recently
remastered reissue of Vicious Circle (originally released by the Nimrod label and reviewed by Blurt HERE). From the
revved-up title track (all 40 seconds of it!) and the zig-zag barre-chord whomp
of “New Generation” to the sneering, Heartbreakers-like punk metal of “Livin’
in the ‘80s” and the Dead Boys-meets-Dead Kennedys swagger of “Forced Entry,”
the ZBs’ notion of the loud-fast-rules agenda is less an aesthetic and more a
goddam imprimatur. Throughout, the
band takes on the requisite early-eighties woes, foes and sacred cows, including
drug abuse (key songtitles: “Amphetamine Addiction,” “Drug Free Youth”) and
Reagan-era generational malaise (“Livin’ in the ‘80s,” “Forced Entry,”
“Civilization’s Dying”), and even if those lyric topics weren’t exactly unique
for the time, with the Zero Boy’s relentless assault and Mahern’s forceful
delivery, they could still make a disciple outta you. Up on the mount: Mahern, drummer
Mark Cutsinger, guitarist Terry Hollywood and bassist David “Tufty”
Clough (replacing original bassist John Mitchell, who’d appeared on the group’s
earlier Livin’ in the ‘80s five-song
EP).

 

As veteran journalist and Big Takeover publisher Jack Rabid outlines in his detailed booklet
notes, the Zero Boys came together in ’79 in the vacuum of the nonexistent
Indianapolis punk scene, fueled on CREEM magazine and Ramones and Sex Pistols records, eventually streamlining their
sound until it was more closely aligned with the west coast hardcore bands that
had begun emerging. And despite their relative geographic isolation, the ZBs
were able to tour through networking with likeminded outfits, the ascent of
college radio and the release of their LP additionally helping raise their
profile. Just the same, it was tough making any commercial headway, and by ’83
a broke and disillusioned Zero Boys were ready to call it quits. After
recording a brace of material for a projected second album, Pay Back is Hell, they did just that.

 

(The Hell sessions
were subsequently collected on the cassette-only History Of, released by Mahern on his own Affirmation label in
1984. Secretly Canadian has also reissued that on CD as History Of, with the five songs from the Livin’ in the ‘80s EP along with some ’81 and ’82 demos included as
bonus tracks. Longtime Indiana
scenester and archivist Eric Weddle provides insightful liners.)

 

The former Zero Boys all went on to assorted outfits – Toxic
Reasons, Dandelion Abortion, Datura Seeds, and others. Then in the late ‘80s
three of the members got back together, and with new guitarist Vess Ruhtenberg
toured successfully and recorded two LPs, 1991’s Make It Stop and 1993’s The
Heimlich Maneuver
, before splitting in 1994. The ZBs reunited yet again in
2000 and have continued to perform. As Mahern himself put it succinctly in a
recent interview with BLURT, “We utilize our energy much more efficiently.”

 

 

***

 

BLURT: Briefly
outline how the band came together, what it was like to be a punk in Indianapolis and to make connections
with other regional scenes – the thank-yous on the Vicious Circle sleeve
practically amount to a punk/hardcore Hall of Fame roster!

 

PAUL MAHERN: We formed in 1979. Mark and Terry saw my high school
band play at a party and asked me to join what would become the Zero Boys. I
was 17 at the time and the other guys were in their early twenties. The
American Hardcore scene was pretty small and we had many friends in bands that
we met at gigs. We did a west coast tour in 1982. Our second stop on the tour
was a residency gig at the Calgarian Hotel on Calgary
Canada.
They had some odd law that stated that you could only have strippers in a club
if you also had live music. So we were the band that would open up for the
ladies. Later on that same tour we played with the Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat,
and MDC at the Barn in Torrance,
California. That was the first
time I ever witnessed hundreds of punks going nuts and stage diving.

 

 

 

Critics have noted
that the Zero Boys were at times smarter, poppier and more musically proficient
that a lot of other bands at the time. What do YOU think set the ZBs apart from
their contemporaries?

 

Well, the musicians in the Zero Boys were all seasoned
professionals before they got into punk. They could really play their
instruments. When we started out we were greatly influenced by the Stooges, the
Dictators, and the Ramones. When we heard the faster stuff coming out the west
coast we knew we had found the sound we were looking for. The Circle Jerks’ Group Sex album was a big influence on
us. I think what set us apart was geographic. We listened to a lot of rock
radio growing up in the Midwest. We grew up on
hooks and riffs.

 

 

Listening to Vicious Circle now, what do you hear
that’s unique?

 

I love the sound of that record and it was very easy to
make. I wish all bands I worked with were as well-rehearsed as the ZB’s were
going in to record Vicious Circle.

 

 

Trouser Press cited Vicious
Circle
as an “example of how U.S. hardcore seemed to peak coast
to coast in ’82.” True? Was it downhill after that?

 

Well, if you look at the early American Hardcore Bands Minor
Threat, Misfits, Dead Kennedys, Circle Jerks, Black Flag, and The Germs, you
see a wide variety of sounds and each band has their own take on fast and loud
music. The next generation seemed to have a narrower focus. It all started to
sound the same to me after a while.

 

 

Why did the band
split up in ’83?

 

We were broke and alone. It was hard to make a go of it with
out some sort of fan base. We had a great time playing but we started to feel
like no one was listening. We got back together in the late ‘80s because people
started to be interested in seeing the band. We did three European tours
between ‘88 and ‘91

 

 

And then the band got
back together again in 2000 and is still performing. What’s different about
being a Zero Boy then and now?

 

We are a better live band now. We utilize our energy much
more efficiently. When we were younger it was all spazz and now it is tough and
well paced.

 

 

Barbara Walters
Question: If you could meet your young self, a 17-year old Paul Z, what would
you want to say to him?

 

“Older folks are not as clueless as you think they are.”

 

 

Lastly, I’m advised
that you’re a certified instructor of Kundalini Yoga and you have some
intriguing thoughts on similarities between yoga and hardcore…

 

When I started to do Kundalini Yoga I stopped drinking and
smoking and I returned to the concept of getting high on life. Each moment
seemed fresh and new. I started to feel like I could do anything again. That is
the way I felt in the early days of the punk hardcore movement. The idea that
we could make it on our own, that we didn’t need any help from the outside to
put on shows or put out records.

 

Yoga is all about learning about you.  As my teacher
Yogi Bhajan says, “Everything you need in the world you were born
with.” Yoga is a great way to connect to your infinite self through group
consciousness, and I feel the same way about playing this aggressive music
live.  At a punk rock concert the lines between the audience and the band
are blurred. It becomes one fantastic and focused group experience, an analogy
that we are all one.

 

 

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