As I’ve written in these pages probably a few too many times by now, one of the great joys of living in Cleveland, Ohio is a tight-knit music scene bursting with exceptional talent. From the Ur days of the eels and Rocket to the current scene that’s home to Cloud Nothings and Obnox, there’s always been enough great stuff happening that choosing what to do with one’s night out can be a FOMO-laden roll of the dice. But for the last few years, we’ve had something no other scene can boast—Cleveland music fans have had a front row seat to watch the evolution of Archie and the Bunkers.
The band—a garage-punk duo of brothers Emmett and Cullen O’Connor—first started turning heads in 2014, when they played WRUW FM’s annual Studio-A-Rama festival, a long-running event that’s served for decades as an at-a-glance picture of what’s up in Cleveland’s underground. Drummer Emmett was fifteen years old at the time, and organist Cullen was just thirteen. While curation of that fest is pretty stiff, due to their ages, expectations for Archie & the Bunkers’ set were modest, but they exceeded them wildly, kicking some pretty high ass and becoming the talk of the show. Since then, their popularity has increased exponentially, leading to opening slots for the likes of The Sonics and Iggy Pop, and releases on prestigious and storied labels like Norton, Third Man, and In The Red. They’ve logged more miles in the van than many bands twice their age, and they can’t even legally drink yet. Their major releases so far are a self-titled debut LP, the Mystery Lover EP, and the forthcoming Songs from the Lodge, on Dirty Water Records.
While the not-actually-a-gimmick gimmick of their youth can account for some of their novelty appeal, there are LOTS of bands made up of high-schoolers, and of course few of them are worth discussing—A&TB wouldn’t be on this trajectory if they didn’t merit the attention for any other reason. Their live sets are every bit as energetic as you’d expect; Emmett is a large ham, and even the more taciturn Cullen is as Iggy as one can possibly be when tethered to a keyboard. But what’s really exciting about them, beyond just their prodigious instrumental gifts and compelling shows, is watching talented kids responding creatively to music they’re still discovering, at the age when those discoveries feel the most Earth-shaking.
Their record on Norton, a 7” released earlier this year, came about last autumn, when they played an exclusive house party—in an amazing 140-year-old stone Queen Anne style castle that improbably looms over a Cleveland residential neighborhood—that was DJ’d by former Cramps members Nick Knox and Miriam Linna, the later of whom is Norton’s founder, along with her late husband Billy Miller. I was fortunate to be at that party, but I’m guessing you’d probably rather the story from The Cramps, right? Nick Knox first:
On July 20, 2015 my friends the Rezillos played at the Beachland Tavern. I had seen them at the Ballroom there two years earlier for the first time since 1980. Archie and the Bunkers were the opening act and my friend Cheese told me they would be the next big thing. They had “Human Fly” in their set and that totally blew my mind. They were kind of shy but they did ask to take a picture of me and Fay from the Rezillos with them. At the end of the night I overheard someone ask the Bunkers how old they were. Cullen was 13 and Emmett was 15.
Soon afterward, they played a free outdoor concert at MOCA in University Circle, and then at Euclid Tavern, where they played a set of all cover songs. They asked me what Cramps song they should do and I said, “How about ‘New Kind of Kick’”. Because of the opening line “I learned all I know by the age of nine” and it seemed to apply— they were so young.
I named myself their “Senior Advisor” in jest but they took it seriously. I love that. I have given those teenagers the shirts of my back, literally! I gave them cowboy stage shirts from Cramps photo sessions. I invited them to the Rock Hall showing of the Damned documentary and about a year ago I invited them to see the Beatles A Hard Day’s Night on the big screen there. I took along my sister who had taken me to see the Beatles live at Public Hall in September 1964, when I was eleven.
And here are Miriam Linna’s recollections of Franklin Castle and her first A&TB experience. This is a pretty great read:
On Feb 4, 2017, I was shocked to receive a condolence call from an old friend from Cleveland, Nicky (Nick Knox), whom I had neither seen, nor spoken to since July 1977 when I was unceremoniously replaced by his superior talent and panache as the drummer for the Cramps. Forty years and change had passed since we had seen each other, let alone spoken. I had never seen the band with him, never purchased a record, never cared to look back, not even for a moment. During that awkward first telephone conversation, I asked Nicky what he was up to musically. He told me he really liked a two-teen band called Archie & the Bunkers. Honestly, that went in one ear and out the other, because we always get a lot of home town pride from callers here at Norton, and we just can’t love them all.
So that was in February. In July, I was working behind the counter at our little record shop, when a couple came in. The young woman of the pair, Kitt, addressed me by name, “Miriam.” I looked at her and smiled. “Have we met?” I asked. “Yes,” she replied, “In another time.” Not “at,” “in.” I liked her on the spot. She and her husband Pascal began routing through the rare garage 45 boxes, and as we chatted, she told me that she would like me to come to Cleveland to spin records at a party in their home. That abode was the legendary haunted Franklin Castle, and they had been working on restoring it for several years. She asked if I had ever seen a spirit, and as I shook my head no, she asked if I would like to see one. I said that I was okay with that possibility. They told me the house party would be October 13, and that they would be in touch.
Meanwhile, I had continued with phone conversations with Nick, at first sporadically, and then more regularly. I told him I was coming to Cleveland in October to spin records at a party and we planned to meet. At some point we agreed to spin records together, each bringing our own boxes of favorite records.
Very close to the date of the shindig, a private invitation was sent out announcing that Nick and I were DJing, along with regular party jocks Drew and Tom, and playing live would be the great 60s Cleveland garage kings the Alarm Clocks and… Archie & the Bunkers.
I asked Nick if he had anything to do with them appearing, and he said “no,” but the fact obviously made him happy. I thought, well, I’ll get to see these teenagers he was excited about.
On October 13, I landed in Cleveland, and was met by Kitt and Pascal in their trusty, rusty pick up truck. During the drive, they filled me in on the fine details of their new lair’s history, and the work they were doing to repair and restore it- not renovate- but actually restore it to its original 1880’s glory. The old mansion had been built as a home for a wealthy German doctor, and had gone through several owners, each with rather special, bloodthirsty quirks. At one point it became a German social club—something about Nazis being murdered in the basement, a young servant girl being hung in the eaves, missing babies and unexplained screams and thuds and objects flying across the room. Judy Garland’s widower husband owned the house at one point, apparently, but he too was run out by that which cannot be spoken. I however, felt unnaturally calm. My favorite spooky movie is 1963’s The Haunting—I’d often fantasized about being invited, like the movie character Eleanor, to spend the night in a haunted house. Here was my chance to do so, and to bring along some Cash Holiday records to spin, and to meet up with old friends, and hear some great bands. What I didn’t realize was that it would be a turning point.
In brief, it was amazing to see Nicky again, as though no time had passed. He introduced me to Emmett and Cullen O’Connor and their parents, and we got to talk together for a while before they played. They were a high energy two piece, Emmett on drums and Cullen on organ. They both sang. I thought they were great, but not Norton material. Toward the end of the night, we were all having a blast, talking and laughing out in the yard, and in the main parlor room of the castle. At some point I went back upstairs to put records away.
At about 2:30 in the morning, things began to wind down from the shindig on the top floor, and people were drifting down the stairs and into the parlor to say their wobbly goodbyes. A Victorian pump organ was the centerpiece in the parlor. It is an ornate, carved wooden monster that stares at the front entrance with a cold eye. It had been the one object in the house that had spooked me when we had taken a quick all-over tour earlier in the day.
Just as I started down the staircase, I heard organ music- a haunting melody so familiar and lost, that it started my heart beating badly, compelling me to the source of the music. At the bottom of the stairs, I stepped over a lass who had faded into the deep, and saw that it was Cullen from Archie and the Bunkers who was playing the organ, eyes closed, pumping the boards with his feet, his hands moving over the ivories. His brother Emmett was standing beside him, transfixed, staring beatifically at his brothers hands on the keys. I knew, absolutely at that moment, that I was dreaming. I was sure of it. I felt my mind shift, as it often does in dreams. I understood that these boys were from a long time ago, long time denizens of the Castle.
I glanced across the parlor. There was Nicky in his shades, sitting on the sofa. He pointed at me and then the boys, and nodded. I moved closer to Cullen, and sat down next to him as he played the song to an end.
There was a moment, and then he looked over at me, and smiled. “What was THAT?” I asked “Do you like it?” he asked back, “ I wrote it!” “You’ve got to record that!” “We did!” “Is it released?” “Would you release it?” Things were moving fast. Here’s these lads staring at me, with strangely joyous faces. I look at Nicky. He nodded, and gave a thumbs up. (How can he hear what we’re saying? Or can he? When am I going to wake up?) “Well, I have to hear the recording,” said I, strangely diplomatic. “”Ok, we’ll send it to you!”
We all hung out on the sidewalk for a while. The police came, and they were as nice as pie, just wanting to check out the house. We took some photos and I felt sad, thinking that I was going to wake up and it would all have been just another one of my wonderful dreams.
I’m not sure what happened after Nicky left. I know I went back in the house, and I went to my room (it was the mad doctor’s room OF COURSE). I fell back on the bed and thought I’d close by eyes for a moment. I was in deep, real sleep instantly. My dream had the house filled with happy revelers from all stages of my life and periods of time, just about everyone I’d ever known, and countless others who I did not recognize. I felt like I was moving through butterscotch, with a hazy happiness. I moved throughout the house in the dream, with a warmth and joy that I had not felt in a very long time. When I awoke, bright sunlight was streaming through the window, and I was shocked to see I had not moved since I had fallen on the bed. I was fully dressed, the house was silent. No one was awake, if anyone was in the house. I found a door, went out the door, climbed the fence (as we were locked in at the gates), and took a beautiful long walk through Cleveland on a spectacular October morning.
By the time I got home, there was an email with a music file in it—two songs—the compelling and perfect torcher “The Traveler” and the surly and perfect rocker “Looking.” I played “The Traveler” over and over at full volume, lying flat on the floor, staring at the ceiling, sure that I was again, dreaming. Here it was, that parlor organ melody, now with words and a title, “The Traveler,” and just as I had told a friend that the song had made me feel like I had time traveled back to my own 16-year-old self to what had gone on in my head as a truly lost teenager in Northeast Ohio, trying desperately to find my way. The lyrics were flawless, they told the story that had been going along in my brain ever since I left Cleveland in 1976. How was this possible? I needed an explanation. I called Nicky, and I asked him what just happened, that I’d gotten the Bunkers song and that it was fantastic. “I told you so!” he said. Then I blasted “The Traveler” again many times in a row, and felt some fragments of memory sliding around, but still not into place, like when those corpuscles try to very hard to act logical. I’m not sure which part of this thing is the dream. What I do know is, this record is no accident and what goes on, going forward, is ordained in some way, and in that, I find comfort—a bright cold sunshine through an ancient window type of comfort. The kind that welcomes you home, but doesn’t totally care if you stay.
Archie and the Bunkers are the first band signed to Norton after husband Billy Miller’s passing, but there is no doubt in my mind that he would have loved them. “The Traveler” video debuted on the big screen at BYLARM in Oslo in March—it was fantastic to see it in Vistavision!
The band is making a lot of noise and I think it’s great that they have records out on In The Red, Dirty Water, Third Man and Norton- all in the space of a year, pretty much! That’s pretty impressive for a couple of teenage brothers from Cleveland. They’re working on a new long player for Norton and I couldn’t be more excited about it.
Oh, the label and sleeve are a tribute to Richard and the Young Lions “Open Up Your Door” and the dead wax is engraved “Spanish Castle Magic” at Gregg Cartwright’s suggestion—everything that happened that night of October 13th at the Franklin Castle was magic!
A&TB’s spartan drums & organ set-up makes them a natural band to cover The Screamers. They were an early Los Angeles synth punk band whose instantly recognizable Gary Panter-created logo is far better known than their music because they left no official releases behind—their lasting cult influence is largely due to the outsized personality of singer Tomato Du Plenty. The band also featured the talents of keyboardist Paul Roessler, who went on to play with 45 Grave, Geza X, Nervous Gender, Mike Watt, and Nina Hagen. Their best known song, which, like all of their material, survives thanks to bootlegs of demos and video footage of the band in performance, is “122 Hours of Fear,” based on the 1977 hijacking of a German passenger plane. An exhaustive collection of their live and demo recordings is available as In a Better World, and a DVD called Live In San Francisco is also available.
Dangerous Minds met up with the O’Connors in a coffee bar on Cleveland’s West Side intending to chat about the Screamers song, and we ended up having a pretty comprehensive discussion wherein they opened up about their entire history.
Emmett: When we first started playing out, we were really young, and we didn’t want to be labeled as a “kid” band—if we were gonna do it, we would just do it and try it the way ALL bands do, and if people listen they listen. I’m going to be twenty soon, so the whole “teenage” band thing will be over. You’re not a kid forever so the “kid” thing, that’s something that can eventually turn into a stumbling block. And the music we like, most other kids didn’t even get it anyway.
Cullen: We’ve been playing music together forever, in our basement. I used to be a bass player for four years, we did bass and drums…
Emmett: And that was before he got on the organ, so at eight years old, he started playing bass.
Cullen: Yeah, we always played music together, that’s just sorta how it was because we both love music.
Emmett: And this is interesting, because this is where The Screamers tie into this really heavily, when we first started, we were trying to start this punk rock band, and I don’t remember what you were listening to but I was listening to Black Flag, hooking in at like thirteen years old to like the basics. We tried finding guitarists our age and they either just didn’t get it or they didn’t really care. And them my brother said “Well, I could play keyboard,” and I was like “How do you do that?” And then a week later we saw The Screamers’ “122 Hours Of Fear” Target Video, and I was like “OH MY GOSH” and my brother was like “I could play that!” So that was the first cover we ever learned, and we put it on our new record.
Dangerous Minds: So how did the switch between bass and organ go? Had you ever had piano lessons?
Cullen: When I was like 3 or 4, for like a year. I didn’t really remember anything, I would noodle around. I took bass lessons, but keyboard, I just fooled around with, I was like “It can’t be that hard, it’s these notes, you put your hand like this, it makes a chord…” I just hit some notes and then slammed down on them, that was all I needed to do.
Emmett: He took to it so fast, it was super amazing to watch it. One of the factors in that switch was when we were in My Mind’s Eye Records, he found Jimmy Smith’s Greatest Hits for $2, and it was like something clicked, and he absorbed that whole album, and he was playing a lot of like really interesting stuff. It happened so fast.
DM: So what was the timeline, between that happening and the band starting to gig around?
Cullen: We started August of 2013.
Emmett: We didn’t have our first show until November, and it didn’t start picking up until 2014.
Cullen: And we didn’t start getting known until 2015.
Emmett: After that it all happened really fast though. Once we were able to get gigs we took every single one we could. In 2015 we were starting to open for all these bands we really liked, like Oblivians, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion…
Cullen: Rezillos, Sonics…
Emmett: And then those were our gigs.
Cullen: And playing with those bands, we started to build up a fan base. People seemed to like us and then they’d come out when we played with other bands that maybe they didn’t know or weren’t in love with, but we had our own fans by then.
Emmett: Then our album came out and we started touring.
DM: So what’s up with the new album?
Cullen: It’s definitely different than the first. We’ve been playing together constantly, and we’re getting more interested in the production.
Emmett:Y eah, we understand a bit more what we want. Like the first time we went into the studio it was with [Dirtbombs bassist/White Stripes producer] Jim Diamond, who’s great, and we just showed up and said “Well, what do we do?”
Cullen: We’d never been in a studio. We’d recorded some demos in our basement.
Emmett: With Jim, we were in good hands, so it worked out great, but now we’re starting to understand how things work and how we want it to sound.
Cullen: We’ve progressed as songwriters too, I feel like. I’m really happy with it, there’s some songs that are still kind of the garage-rocky sound from our first album, and we don’t stray too far from the base of what we’re doing, but it’s a little more diverse.
Emmett: That’s true, and this album is split almost evenly between songs that I sing and songs that he sings—he’s singing a lot more now.
Cullen: It was puberty, I was horrible at singing when my braces were still on, and my voice would crack.
Emmett: But you’re writing more AND singing more. And it’s great, there’s a song on the album “Fire Walk With Me,” that really features you.
DM: Can you tell which one of you wrote a song by who sings it?
Emmett: Yeah, usually. There’s one song on the new album that Cullen wrote and that he used to sing but I ended up singing it, and tweaking the words just a little bit.
Cullen: It was something I did when I was twelve, I think it was the first song I sang, and I stopped doing it for the longest time. He was like “We should put it on the album.”
Emmett: We’re going to do a music video for that, we have an idea in mind for doing it in the summer. It’s called “Riot City.” It’s a really fast punk rock song. We’ll see what happens with that.
DM: I want to ask about parental support. I’ve never caught even the slightest whiff of like stage-parent manipulation, you’ve always seemed pretty clearly self-directed, but obviously, since you started out as kids, your folks had to be some kind of factor.
Emmett: Absolutely. They’ve been very supportive since the beginning. Our dad is an artist, an incredible painter, actually, and back in the day he played drums in The Aggravators. Our mom was a professional ballerina, so the arts were always present in the house, so when we decided to do music there was a tremendous amount of support.
Cullen: And there still IS.
Emmett: Yeah, we wouldn’t have been able to do any of this without them, and they’re never controlling about the kind of songs we write or anything like that.
Cullen: And other people too, there’ve been so many amazing people who’ve been super kind and helpful, especially in the beginning, people were willing to help us out.
Emmett: Which is surprising, we thought it was going to be tough to get people to even listen to us, we’ve been really lucky.
Cullen: We worked really hard too!
Emmett: We did put a lot of work into it.
Here’s that Screamers cover. We’ve included a video clip of the original for your A/B-ing convenience, and we’ll end things with the guys’ wonderful segment on Kids Interview Bands.
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
The punk rock portraits of the Screamers’ Tomata du Plenty
Watch a teenage Mike Patton and pals at Mr. Bungle’s high school talent show
Teen Ween you’ve never seen: Another cult band’s high school talent show
Rock is Hell: Meet GOD, the teenaged Australian punk rockers and their awesome one-hit wonder