Rock Interview: Talking to a Post-Punk Legend — Bush Tetras’s Lead Singer Cynthia Sley
The Bush Tetras — who’ve been on-off reunited since 1995, but haven’t hit Boston in nearly two decades — headline at the Sinclair this Saturday.
By Brett Milano
New York City’s Bush Tetras rank high on the list of bands who would be millionaires if being influential made you rich. Lead singer Cynthia Sley, who still lives in New York and now doubles as a West Village grade-school teacher, isn’t a millionaire, but she is something of a post-punk legend.
“I don’t think our music has dated, and it doesn’t feel that way when we play it,” she says by phone from home. “We wanted to break rules — We were androgynous looking and our music was dark and different. So I don’t think anyone knew what to do with us. But my son is 25 now and he has a band, and he keeps finding people who know us and relate to it.”
So who did the Bush Tetras influence? Just about everybody who’s since crossed punk with funk. Their trademark sound — jagged guitars, heavy dance rhythms and cool, aloof vocals — sounds almost mainstream now, but few others were doing it in 1980. “That was when hip-hop was just starting to happen, and we went to all those shows — Seeing Afrika Bambaataa was really influential. Plus, Laura [Kennedy, original bassist] and I came from Detroit, so we had the Motown part of the map. In New York people stand there and watch, and we wanted to get them dancing — In fact we wanted to be more funky than we probably were. But then, I dance to Pere Ubu.”
Sley also has an explanation for her stage presence, strong and striking from the early days. “I was terrified! Really, we were only together about three weeks before we played out live, and we started getting big shows very quickly, when we were just figuring out what to do onstage. But we liked to speak our minds; we weren’t shy about that. If someone was being an asshole, we’d tell them so — I’m sure we could be assholes too. You see the other bands with women upfront, like the Go-Go’s and the Bangles, and we were totally alien compared to them.”
Their 1980 debut single “Too Many Creeps” — a relatable sentiment if there ever was one — became their college-radio calling card that year. The Clash were fans and had them open some of the celebrated Bond’s Casino shows; drummer Topper Headon later produced their Rituals EP. Henry Rollins oversaw a ‘90s reissue of their old tapes. And Gang of Four, who created a similar sound in the UK, recognized the Bush Tetras as kindred spirits.
“I don’t think we’d heard of them before we first came to the US in June 1979, although we’d certainly heard Pat [Place[’s guitar-playing on The Contortions records,” says original Go4 drummer and current Boston resident Hugo Burnham. “They just hit upon a fabulous sound that we shared. But if they did get a little soupcon of it from us…they’ve paid it back in spades by writing some great songs, and by being my friends for so many years. (Franz Ferdinand and Bloc Party, however? Still waiting for a cut of those royalties.) They played, I think, just the one show with us, two nights before New Year’s Eve 1981, at New York’s Roseland Ballroom…the first ever rock show there. Bad Brains opened the show. It was packed to the gills and beyond. It was an absolute noise-fest, and the audience were steaming. I sometimes wonder how we got away with it all?”
There’ll be a reunion of sorts at the Sinclair on Saturday, when the Bush Tetras — who’ve been on-off reunited since 1995, but haven’t hit Boston in nearly two decades — headline, and Burnham does a guest DJ set as Gang of One. Also appearing are two local bands who’ve picked up on the Tetras’ edginess: E, with local treasure Thalia Zedek; and the Gene Dante’s glammy Future Starlets.
The Bush Tetras are currently three-quarters original — Sley, Place and drummer Dee Pop, with bassist Julia Murphy replacing Kennedy (who died of liver disease in late 2011). And there’s a new album of sorts: The recently-released Happy dates from their late-‘90s major-label tenure, when reunited post-punk trailblazers — Pere Ubu, Killing Joke, Gang of Four — were getting picked up and promptly dropped by the majors.During that time the Bush Tetras made their first actual studio album, Beauty Lies, produced by punk-funk godmother Nona Hendryx. It was strong but got ignored, and the band was let go before Happy got released. With that album now out (via New York’s ROIR label), they’re planning to write some new songs and hit the studio again.
Meanwhile Sley has her teaching gig, which isn’t far away from her other life. “I teach in a hippie school, [Blondie founder] Chris Stein’s daughter is one of my students. All the little weirdos unite in that school and it’s really fun to see. When you’re up there you have 31 little people staring at you, so it’s not far from actually performing.”
Brett Milano has been covering music in Boston for decades, and is the author of Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting (St. Martins, 2001) and The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll (Commonwealth Editions, 2007). He recently returned from New Orleans where he was editor of the music and culture magazine OffBeat.