The Bush Tetras were a formidable force in Manhattan’s downtown rock scene. A deadly serious quartet that were loud, funky, intense and more than a little bit intimidating, particularly to those of us male rockers who couldn’t quite figure out if we were among the ones giving the Tetras the “creeps” - that jittery mixture of raw nerves and repulsion that figured into the bands best-known song “Too Many Creeps.”
Chick bands had mostly been a joke until punk came along. Suddenly guitars were wrenched from the sweaty hands of a bunch of guys whose last dominion was being shattered right in front of their faces. Even the Tetras’ male drummer, Dee Pop, looked nervous. Rock ‘n’ roll swagger was now, like CBGB’s bathroom, no longer gender specific. The Bush Tetras had ripped the doors off their hinges.
I recently had the pleasure of shooting the cybernetic shit with Bush Tetras’ lead singer Cynthia Sley. Along with the obligatory rock ‘n’ roll banter, we discussed the bands’ newly released album Happy, a project recorded in 1998 but lost in record company hell.
Marc Campbell: Talk a little bit about the history of Happy. The recording, writing, etc.
Cynthia Sley: Happy was recorded in 1998 with Don Fleming producing. We had lost Laura Kennedy as our bassist in 1997 and asked Julia Murphy to join soon after. With her, we wrote the majority of Happy in a rehearsal studio owned by Paul Simon’s son in Soho. The lyrics were mostly written by me on this one, but we did our usual “jam” type of writing in that studio – a riff from Pat (Place) would trigger some lyrics; a drumbeat would trigger a bass line. I think the record reflects Pat and my interest in some of the bands that were around then – Soundgarden, Alice in Chains… without losing any of our sound. It was a great experience recording with Don. He is so creative and fun, and really helped us refine the songs.
Marc: A lot of young punk bands got major deals only to have the labels drop the ball and blow it, costing many of those bands their careers. There was a scramble to find the next Blondie or Talking Heads. Sadly, the labels had no idea what to do with the bands after they signed them. Was this your experience?
Cynthia: Back in the day, we were always on indie labels and I think we were out of the majors’ radar, even while we were on Polygram. It just happened that Beauty records took over the deal with Tim/Kerr after the first album came out and Beauty was a subsidiary of Polygram. We had just finished the artwork when we were, very unceremoniously, dropped by Polygram… along with many other bands. And that was the end of that. We even disbanded for a few years – it was that heartbreaking. But we never could quite give up the Tetras. Something always brings us back together. Then we finally got the okay for releasing the Happy record in 2012. It’s such a wonderful thing to have it out there for people to hear.
Marc: The Bush Tetras seem as relevant and fresh as ever. What is it about your band and some of the other bands to come out of Manhattan in the late 70s and early 80s that make them so vital even today?
Cynthia: Who knows? I always think we are such an anomaly of a band. What we did was not purposefully anything. We just always did what we did. It was a creative hub there in Manhattan at that time, and it did provide a good breeding ground for innovative music and art.
Marc: Do you miss the New York of that era?
Cynthia: Sure. But as Robert Frank said to me once when I asked him that same question, “New York always changes and it always will. If you don’t like it, you just have to leave. You can’t stop the changes.” I have learned it’s not great to keep looking back too nostalgically. You can start to sound like those sad old people who long for their high school years.
Marc: Any bands you’re really digging these days?
Cynthia: I like some of the noise rock I hear through my son, Austin. He has a band called Sediment Club I love. I like the minimal sound and the raw energy of it. I like Black Keys and the Kills. I saw the Raveonettes recently and loved their set.
Marc: Other than play music, what do you do? What’s your day gig?
Cynthia: I teach second graders at a charter school in a Mexican neighborhood here. The kids are amazing and the rewards are huge, but it is a lot of work.
Marc: What’s in the future for Bush Tetras.
Cynthia: We will be playing in NYC on March 29th and 30th at the Slipper Room. We are planning on writing some new songs this summer, hopefully.
Marc: Favorite writers, films, musicians?
Cynthia: Yikes. I would have to say I loved Beasts of the Southern Wild this last year, but can’t say I have a favorite movie, as I am a huge movie fanatic. Neil Young continues to be my favorite. My favorite writer is a hard one, too. It may have to be Luc Sante.
Marc: Cool. Thank you Cynthia.
If you’d like your very own copy of Happy, you can purchase one here.
And here’s a taste: Fan-made video for “Heart Attack,” my favorite track from Happy.