” I never wanted to be entertained by a major label”: Pittsburgh’s finest product that ain’t steel was (and still is) a cut above and a step apart, a thumbing-of-nose at the mainstream and an inspiration to the underground. Herewith, discover what went into the making of their early classic.
BY JONATHAN LEVITT
Ed. Note: The concept behind our series “The Story Behind the Album” is pretty straightforward: what went into the making of a particularly noteworthy recording, as seen through the eyes of its creator(s). It can be an acknowledged classic or an under-the-radar gem, but the basic parameters are the same: a title that stands out in an artist’s catalog, one which has stood the test of time and still commands the respect of fans. It could even have been a critical flop or a commercially under-performing record upon its initial release, but the years have steadily unveiled its extant genius. Our first investigation was into Thee Hypnotics’ 1991 classic Soul Glitter & Sin. Then we took a look at New River Head by The Bevis Frond. And—the hits just keep coming, folks, with one of BLURT’s all-time favorite bands, the mighty Cynics.
Pittsburgh, aka Steel City because of the once-dominant steel manufacturing industry, used to be one of America’s most polluted cities, sending industrial contaminants far and wide. Meanwhile, local garage outfit the Cynics, who formed in the mid ’80s and debuted in 1987 with Blue Train Station followed by 1988’s 12 Flights Up, were busy working on a legacy of a different sort, one which would ultimately provide a template for bands around the world to make their way in the cold cruel world of the music industry. The band, featuring core members Gregg Kostelich on guitar and Michael Kastelic on vocals, has gone through several incarnations since its inception. Along the way, the band’s label, Get Hip Records, established by Kostelich at the outset, has managed to keep alive a fiercely independent work ethos in the face of tremendous upheaval throughout the aforementioned industry.
With the 1990 release of Rock’N’Roll – which this writer regards as the group’s magnum opus – the Cynics added a serrated edge to their signature psychedelic, Nuggets-inspired sound. The album has everything that one could hope for, guitars buzzing and grinding their way with a seething intensity and vocals that unapologetically scour the landscape with a corrosive and acidic haze.
The album has an incredible array of killer tunes such as “Baby What’s Wrong With Me”, “Tears Are Coming”, “You Got The Love”, “Close To Me” and “The Room” (a tune from Kastelic’s previous band The Wake). The record straddles elements of punk, psych, garage rock and pop that are so well-honed it’s no wonder that major labels showed an interest in the group. In the end, though, a major never did release a Cynics record, and the world is a better place for it. Hitting an early peak right as grunge was reaching high tide, the band most likely would have gotten lost in the ’90s alt-shuffle (or, worse, remade into something that it was never meant to be), and ultimately, the Cynics went against the grain of all concerned. Gregg’s response to our question about that says it all:
“[Get Hip] was the only indie not affiliated with major labels and they wanted to know what they were missing. As the faxes came through almost all in one week’s time, I conveniently crumpled them all into a basketball and shot them into the wastebasket for two points. I never wanted to be entertained by a major label.”
Answers like are what give people hope that not everyone wants to go down to the crossroads and sell their soul. Being an iconic American band free from major label control has allowed the Cynics to keep their vision of what they want, wholly unadulterated and as sharp as ever.
Contextually it makes sense from an outsider’s perspective that a band like The Cynics hails from Pittsburgh, given the harshness of the environment with bitter winters, and the ash from factories floating down onto the skin of people, eventually making its way into the bloodstream. For Kostelich, though, Pittsburgh’s influence was as more of an “underdog” than anything else. Pittsburgh, much like Cleveland and Detroit, was once a great American industrial city that was unable to cope with change, eventually becoming a blight on the new environmentally friendly American landscape. The music is as much a reflection as well as a reaction to a place that in the late ‘80s had already begun its steady decline (that is, until craft breweries and hipsters would remake the place into the silicon valley of the east).
Like every great album that influences us, you remember the where, the when, and the feel of your first listen. It bookmarks a time in your life where things seemed to resonate with your inner being and make an impact. I had to come to China to get my first taste of The Cynics. When I think back to my primitive dorm room, that had cockroaches the size of Palo Verde beetles, a concrete floor that was painted red, a state issued lamp, fan, and mosquito net, the Spartan circumstances actually proved to be the perfect environment to spin this record. Shanghai back then was a heavily polluted city, I remember riding over blackened rivers whose stench was so horrible you had to hold your breath for nearly a kilometer. The water from the taps flowed a rusty brown, and when you showered you didn’t end up smelling much better than before you entered. Stripped of creature comforts, and off in an alien land, the album was actually a bright spot in a relentless onslaught of pollution and socialist rhetoric blaring outside my window every morning.
I was able to track down Gregg and Michael to talk about the album, and when all was said and done Gregg, reflecting on the album was reminded of a moment in time that continues to impact him to this day, “The greatest honor after the rock n roll tour, one of the last shows, was at the Heidelberg in Ann Arbor and at the bar were Scott Morgan and Ron Asheton. They come up after the show insisted on buying me a drink, loved the loud sound and insisted on loading the van with us and said goodbye in the alley. Just recently I reflected on it, maybe this summer on tour in Austin that it could have been one of the highest honors that both these great guitar players honored me in their loud guitar club, Hahahaa!”
BLURT: Can you tell our readers the genesis of the album Rock ‘N’ Roll?
MICHAEL KASTELIC: Most all of the songs we had been practicing and sometimes playing live for a while so we were pretty comfortable with them by the time we recorded. We had a pretty solid live set from the numerous shows we were doing and we picked the new ones to record. We also recorded new versions of two songs (“The Room” and “Business as Usual”) from a band I was previously in called “The Wake”
GREGG KOSTELICH: Hmm as far as riffs, we were practicing at The Cynics house in the late 80’s and we would either bring songs into practice while coming up with riffs during those rehearsals.
Where was the album recorded?
GK: We did some demos at Audiomation, which was in Greg Vizza’s father’s house while he was building a 2-million-dollar star trek recording facility. It was a nice studio but everything was trebly that came out of there.
How long did it take to record the album?
GK: It could have been one take 40 minutes but Greg forgot to put the record button on. We all were pissed off so we had to do it over and it took till 7 the next morning and got costly.
How long had some of these songs been around in the band before you decided to make them apart of this record?
GK: We mixed them in the Blue Train/12 Flights set as they were developing and we did notice a great response to the new songs. It gave us confidence that we may have something this time around.
How did the band write material at that time? Did it weigh more towards one or two members to write the music or did every member have input?
MK: I believe that was the most important part of the magic of this record. We wrote those songs in a humid basement in a crazy house that Beki Smith (our keyboardist) and I lived in. It was a crazy mansion on 5th Ave that we rented really cheap from some crazy geriatrics. It was a place with really cool energy. We had no white light bulbs in the entire house, just blue and red and some green and purple. The house was decorated in amazingly black and white op art except for our bedrooms, which were like green and purple, and mine, which was blood red.
My parents bought us a heavy duty dehumidifier so we could put the amps and instruments in the basement without them getting totally destroyed by moisture. Beki also decked out the basement with psychedelic lights and posters and I just found the whole basement so easy and inspiring to write in because it was seriously like being in a cave.
Also, as a band, we were all over the place in our musical tastes. Beki and Steve were totally into ‘60s garage. I was going through a Johnny Thunders, Ramones, kinda thing.
I had this pretty good job at a phone place where I got off work at late at night, went to the local, stayed up all night, and woke up in the afternoon.
Gregg was managing a record store at the time and was filled with inspiration and also anger! He would come to practice after work and he would really crack the whip at practice. I remember the night we were working on the song “Get Our Way” and the rest of the band went upstairs to sit on the porch while he made Tom Hohn (drummer) play the drum part over and over for an hour! We were laughing and crying! Totally insane.
Because we practiced in my own basement I could get really fucked up and just sing whatever was in my head to Gregg’s guitar parts. It just seemed really organic because I was tortured and horny, but still really happy. (Re: line from song “Tears are Coming” “I was drunk and alone, but satisfied still”)
Overall, every member had a very important part of writing that record. We might have been in different spaces in our own heads but we still all loved the same kind of music so it just came together. (i.e. “Different Worlds”)
What types of pedals, amps & guitars were you guys using back when you recorded the album?
GK: Fender dual showman/twin reverb guitar amp, Vox fuzz, Gretsch Tennessean. Bass amp was an Ampeg Svt-8 Pro ten-inch speakers 200 or 400-watt head. Keyboards were Farfisa and Fender amp.
When the record came out what were the reviews like?
MK: Kinda funny, at first, a lot of “garage purists” were saying, “What happened to The Cynics? This ain’t the garage we want!” We kinda’ knew that would happen which is the reason we called the record “rock and roll’. But pretty quickly the college stations really picked up on it and so did the reviews and it seemed to bring the purists and a lot of new fans together.
GK: All were great. No one bad review that I can remember.
Below: the band performs “The Room” at the October 1990 Pittsburgh Music Awards
I do know that labels offered deals after R’N’R did so well, so why didn’t you capitalize on its success and sign?
GK: One major was going back and forth and we constantly changed the sound of learn to lose. Every time I hear that LP I think some songs were not bad but the sound ended up sounded like a grunge record. It wasn’t what we were about. I should have shelved the record but against all band members I released since they dropped the idea. I was stuck holding the bag so to speak.
Given the band’s steadily growing popularity by ’89 what with touring and two albums under their belt, were they approached by any labels for R’N’R? Or did they try to shop it? Or did they aim to stick with their own Get Hip all along, and if so, why?
GK: 11 to 12 major labels all took notice because we went to number 4 on Rockpool college charts. It was the only indie, not affiliated with major label on it and they wanted to know what they were missing. As the faxes came through almost all in one week’s time, I conveniently crumpled them all into a baseball and shot them into the wastebasket for two points. I never wanted to be entertained by a major label.
Who did the band tour with for this album both in the US and Europe?
GK: Whew, a lot. We opened for the Ramones. Green Day opened for The Cynics at Davis University. We played the Vogue in Seattle and in that audience were members of Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Nirvana, and the Sub Pop owners. We played around 230 shows that year pretty much playing most places 3-5 times that year so it really got us popular and built a great fan base for life. There’s more but a lot of bands were on Get Hip too.
Noting that the band played Seattle in front of those other bands’ members, did you have any sense of the turning of the American indie tides? Also since by ’89 the proto-grunge movement already had a good degree of momentum, in that regard did the band ever get the sense that perhaps the style the Cynics were playing was going out of fashion? (Mitch Easter once told a younger Fred Mills that by 1989, anybody who came out with a Rickenbacker and playing jangly melodies was asking to have his ass kicked.)
GK: You can kick their ass with a Rickenbacker. It depends on how wimpy you use it I guess. If you heard me do 12-string live, you would love it and your ears may bleed. I still bring the 12-stringers out. Wasn’t doing it for fad reasons. It’s our life.
Did you record any of these shows for posterity?
GK: I do have some cassettes and many videos still here unreleased.
Which songs from the record are the most popular live?
GK: Most of them.
What songs from R’N’R made it into your latest tour set list? What songs from the RNR will always be a part of your live sets?
GK: “Baby What’s Wrong?”, “Way It’s Gonna Be”, “Get My Way”, “Last Time Around”, “Cry, Cry, Cry”, “Now I’m Alone”, “Close To Me”, “You Got The Love”. Once in a while we play “Girl You’re On My Mind”. I guess we’ll do the LP in full sometime in the near future.
Listening to the record today how does it make you feel? Which songs are you partial to and why?
GK: Like them all.” Close To Me,” “Now I’m Alone,” “Baby What’s Wrong” are my faves.
Please talk about the song “Baby What’s Wrong?” how did you come up with the buzz saw guitar line and what made you decide to go with this song for the opener?
MK: It was one of those organic basement songs. It started out as a fuzz guitar and bass riff. I wrote the words on a napkin at my local bar at the time “Chief’s Cafe”. I was lusting after someone and they would have nothing to do with me. Once again, the theme of Rock and Roll, being so miserable but yet so happy and self-satisfied. “Now I’m Alone” is another variation on that theme.
GK: Steve Magee played it on the bass first. It was his one contribution.
“Close to Me” has a Rickenbacker sound and is one of the great ‘60s pop songs not written in the early ‘60s! Tell us about how this song came about?
MK: Gregg had this beautiful riff and I just whined over it about this teenage prostitute I was sleeping with, but not having sex with! We would just drink and cuddle and that was the debauched life I was into then. I still remember the face every time we play that song.
GK: Well it’s me picking the notes out in treble position on a Gretsch. I love that sound and still play most of the songs that way.
Given the across-the-board positive response to the album – in addition to storming the college charts what did the band expect to find when they landed for the first time in Europe, and were those expectations met or exceeded, and why?
GK: The response in Europe and Canada was way better than USA. We did well in America too but Europe was waiting for years so it was all great. During this tour bands like Green Day opened for the Cynics, just to give you perspective. We did close to 240-shows that year. 80-100 destinations some 4-5 times like D.C., Baltimore, Pittsburgh of course, Detroit, New York etc. Canada two or three times. It really made things happen and this is what we still live to do is fuzz around.
I first heard of your band from a French guy in China who I went to school with, it was on the flipside of a Les Thugs cassette tape. Did the band initially find a more receptive audience in Europe than in the states?
GK: That’s interesting because Christophe, this promoter, from France managed Les Thugs so maybe that tape was his or duped from his copy?
Can you tell us about some of the different versions of the album that was made? Was there a European edition? What about Japanese editions?
GK: No license on this one. There has been color and 180-gram pressings. Black pressing.
The Cynics and Get Hip seem to have always been ardent supporters of vinyl. How do you feel now that LP’s seem to be all the rage again?
MK: I know this is blasphemy for me to say but I seriously have no room for any more vinyl in my flat. I listen to my music old school on my transistor radio (i.e. iPod)
GK: I’m happy and always thought and fought for its mainstay but it has become a nightmare. Everyone is raising prices and it’s difficult getting records pressed.
Will Get Hip be releasing an 180g Heavy vinyl reissue of Rock ‘N’ Roll in the future?
GK: There is one now with a poster, too.
The term garage rock seems to get bandied about a lot when describing the cynics, but isn’t there a distinct pop side to the band as well?
MK: What’s the matter with “Garage Pop” if we’re gonna’ throw labels around? I think we are a garage band because that’s where we started playing, And for better or for worse, that is where we are still playing, pop songs in fucking garages, so…
GK: Sometimes but we do write pop songs whether it be angry, happy, sad.
Could you talk about songs like “The Room” which for me in many ways is very un-Cynics-like? What made you put this song as the closer?
MK: I have mixed feelings about that production of it, but as I said it was a song I did with a different band before The Cynics. Some people really like it some people hate it. If I am in the right mood it can be a great song to play live. It brings up a lot of emotions.
GK: It was a song that Michael wrote in one of his earlier bands, The Wake. So was business as usual. The Room was fun just throwing that on after all hell broke loose. It was a nice way to just say whew, my ears are ringing and close with the ballad.
I’m really curious what music inspired the band then and what inspires you all now?
MK: There are so many cool young bands doing so much. When I see some of what these kids are doing now Like Nox Boys, Chase the Monkey, Archie and The Bunkers, Paint Fumes, Bo Loserr, just dozens I could say or more. All my iTunes library is filled with mp3’s that kids send me of their stuff. I am inspired by them because they remind me that it was all about having a good time.
GK: Whew. I listen to everything so nothing really inspires me. Some songs make me want to write more in retaliation but not too much. Just kind of grab a guitar and pluck away and find a riff. Sometimes it takes a year to be inspired.
How did living in Pittsburgh influence this record?
GK: Not too much other than being an underdog because it’s a smaller city but was known to have a great record buying population.
What does this record mean to the band 25 years on?
GK: Means a lot. It’s been hard to top this LP – however, I love Get Our Way, Here We Are and Spinning Wheel.
EDITORIAL BONUS BEATS:
“Blurt editor Fred Mills apparently has several Cynics albums autographed by the entire band, and he would like to know how much he can gouge folks on eBay for them as he is starting a college fund for his teenager.”
GK: Maybe a warm six pack of Old Milwaukee beer!
“What did a young Fred Mills in his pre-Blurt editorship days have to say about the Cynics, and did he ever actually stalk you guys?”
GK: Yes he did. I met Fred in North Carolina when Karen Mieczkowski was a big fan and did our fan club. We all went down south for the first time and met Fred. [True—it was the 4808 Club in Charlotte, and quite a show it was.-Ed.] He even helped us load the van after the show and we talked outside in the parking lot for a long time. Maybe we were a little drunk too. Then I met him at a record fair once too and he bought a lot of garage compilations. A true fan and gentlemen. [True, all true! –Ed.] I miss talking at him. Hahahahahaaa.
Special thanks to Barbara and Gregg at Get Hip for the promotional photos and the live MP3 below, an exclusive track originally appearing on the 1991 album Stranded In Madrid Live At The Ya’sta (Impossible Records) which, of course, found the group at the peak of its Rock’N’Roll touring powers.