The seminal NYC post-punk outfit reflects on their rise, demise, and eventual reunion. Buy their 2018 EP Take The Fall at Wharf Cat Records.
BY ROBIN E. COOK
“I just don’t wanna go/Out in the streets no more.” With the opening words to “Too Many Creeps,” the Bush Tetras bridged the chasm between discord and dance beats. Formed in 1979, as punk entered its transition period, they could make punks tap their feet and follow up with ominous tracks like their cover of John Lennon’s “Cold Turkey.”
The group dissolved in 1983 and regrouped sporadically in the next two decades. They’ve remained together again since 2005, and the current lineup—singer Cynthia Sley, drummer Dee Pop, guitarist Pat Place, and new bassist Val Opielski—descends on South by Southwest this year. In this interview, conducted via email, they share what they’ve learned and their future plans.
BLURT: Tell me about how the band formed originally. You were friends beforehand, correct?
Dee Pop (drums): The initial four involved in forming Bush Tetras were Pat Place, Laura Kennedy, Dee Pop, and Jimmy Joe Uliana. Pat and Laura were friends. Myself and Jimmy were friends. We knew of Pat from The Contortions. When she left that group, we approached her about playing.
Cynthia Sley (vocals): I was coerced into it in the fall of 1979. I was close friends with Pat and Laura and they thought it would be fun to have a band together. I had written some lyrics.
Pat Place (guitar): I was living with Laura Kennedy and Cynthia was our best friend. Laura met Dee through a friend and we started jamming after I left the Contortions.
What are some the most notable experiences from the band’s early days? Did you consider yourselves part of any particular scene? And which artists most inspired you?
Pat Place: We toured pretty constantly right out of the gate for two years . . . opening for the Clash at Bonds was a big moment. We also played several shows with Gang of Four—I loved their music . . . so many inspiring bands and performers . . . and women were playing—it was opening up for women. Patti Smith . . . Blondie and all of the No wave bands had girls in them . . . there was definitely a music scene in downtown NYC in the early 80’s and yes…we were part of it.
Cynthia Sley: When we played with the Clash at Bond’s, it seemed surreal. We had all been big fans and it was such an honor. Also, when we played at Roseland with Gang of Four and Bad Brains, I felt we were at our peak and it was a great bill, great night. I was inspired by both of those bands.
Dee Pop: We considered ourselves a NY band and part of the lineage of great bands that evolved from the CBGB’s scene I.e. Ramones, Television, Patti Smith. We were not really a no wave band. Notable things: we got to see most of this country and Europe. We played on bills with The Clash, Gang of Four, Pete Ubu, X, Bad Brains, Husker Du, Mission of Burma, Flipper, Delta 5, ESG, Liquid Liquid, A Certain Ratio, Lydia Lunch, Romeo Void, Killing Joke, Wall of Voodoo, The Gun Club.
I was curious about the song “Too Many Creeps.” Was there any real-life inspiration for that song? Were you surprised that it became one of your signature songs?
Pat Place: I was working at the Bleecker Street cinema and the people were getting on my nerves! Also, when we would walk around the streets, we would get hassled. And yes….it was all a surprise!
Cynthia Sley: Pat and Laura and I were always hassled on the street so it felt right to lament about it… It is such a simple song (a few can play one-handed!) but it is catchy and dance-y along with being relevant politically, so to me it makes sense it turned out to be the most remembered.
You were one of several bands (along with the Talking Heads and Gang of Four) who drew on funk and dance music for your sound. Were there any funk/R&B artists who influenced you? What was it about that style of music that appealed to artists of your generation?
Cynthia Sley: I grew up with Motown coming from Cleveland. I listened to that non-stop in the ’60s.
Pat Place: I got the James Brown influence from working with James Chance in the Contortions.
Topper Headon of the Clash produced one of your EPs. How did that collaboration come about?
Dee Pop: I had known them from previously interviewing them when I was a writer. I simply just asked first Mick Jones who couldn’t for scheduling reasons but who suggested Topper.
Cynthia Sley: We hit it off right away and he really liked the band’s direction. He added some great sounds to that record. A real creative producer.
The Bush Tetras had a couple of minor hits on the dance charts. What was that like for you?
Dee Pop: Limos and champagne. Kidding. It was again kind of shocking to us but it didn’t really have any effect on our daily lives.
Pat Place: It’s always nice to get some commercial recognition but I don’t think we ever expected it!
Why did the group disband in 1983, and what led to your reunion in the 1990s?
Pat Place: We disbanded from general burnout—the lifestyle of drugs and alcohol on the road took some of us down– and just youthful dysfunction! We would do occasional reunion shows, and in the 90’s we all had ourselves somewhat back together—so we decided to try to write some songs and see what would happen!
I’d like to ask you about the making of the Beauty Lies album, which you recorded in the 1990s. You’d previously done mainly EPs and singles. What was it like to record a full-length album, and what was it like to work with Nona Hendryx on the album?
Dee Pop: To start with our reunion was a sort of accident. At first it was just a one-off show, but after the show we were immediately ask if we wanted to record. We scratched our heads and said sure, which is pretty much our MO. It was kinda tough to do. A lot had changed in the world and in our personal lives. We didn’t know where we fit in the landscape of music at the time. Our tastes had also polarized. No longer was funk the common ground. Now it was on one extreme free jazz and on the other harder rock. It was confusing. Poor Nona, who was such a pro, had to sort it out.
The Bush Tetras have been together again for 14 years, yes? What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned playing together as a band? Is there anything you wish you’d known/realized sooner?
Cynthia Sley: You have to really listen to each other and accept differences and always play what feels right us, not what others may want to hear. We love each other deeply so we are lucky in that. The chemistry is palpable, and Val has fit right in.
Pat Place: I wish I could have avoided the drug trap — I’ve been sober for 30 years and it is much more fun! And you can show up! It is important to have respect for the band as a whole.
Dee Pop: Lesson 1: Ultimately the only kind of music we play can be Bush Tetras music. We can’t do anything else as a group.
Lesson 2: If I want to do something outside of that realm then I do it outside of the group. This limits frustration.
Lesson 3: All four of us are strong-minded individuals and sometimes our opinions will wildly differ but in the end, gravity will naturally find us our balance.
Lesson 4: You have to think of the future and take care of business. Which is tough, because all we want is to make our noise. (Below: the Take The Fall 12″ EP, issued in 2018 by Wharf Cat.)
What are the group’s future plans? Do you hope to record any new material?
Dee Pop: To re-release our entire back catalog, to make an entire new album and to go out with grace and passion.
Cynthia Sley: We hope to record an album in the fall. We have lots of new songs!
What advice would you give to young musicians?
Cynthia Sley: Appreciate your creativity.
Dee Pop: Always split EVERYTHING equally. Treat your band mates with love and respect. Cherish your audience.
Pat Place: Don’t believe the hype! In other words—don’t get tripped up in ego–it’s not you—you’re the channel. Skip the drugs and have fun … and take care of yourself!