New York Rock Icons Bush Tetras Return, With Help From Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley

The underground legends have a new album — only their third since 1979, and their first since the loss of drummer Dee Pop.

Bush Tetras are back with their first album in 11 years. ©GODLIS

Through a murky, distorted wave of guitars, the melodic — if melancholic — “Bird On A Wire” heralds the first of 11 new songs from New York’s iconic punks Bush Tetras. It’s a riveting opener to They Live In My Head, which ends a lengthy 11 year hiatus since their last LP.

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To tag these stalwarts of New York City as “punks” is reductive, though, true as it might be to their DIY, self-taught, self-made roots. Their music evolves from one verse to the next, one song to the next, one album to another, culminating in an over 40-year career that has delivered a comprehensive catalogue of blitzing punk rock, sprawling grunge-psych, rockabilly grooves, reggae-edged calypso, jangling gothic pop and yowling, ferocious garage rock. 

The latest material has a less ferocious, frenetic approach than some of the Tetras songs of the ‘80s. It is an inevitability given the timing and circumstances, as Cynthia Sley tells Observer from her home in Queens. Her mother recently passed, but Sley had been writing lyrics for the album during the height of Covid to a soundtrack of constant ambulance sirens. She’d nursed her mother while also watching bandmate Dee Pop approach the final months of his own life. 

“There was a heaviness, but there was also the getting through it and I tried to keep my sense of humor through all of it,” she explains. “I like wordplay so, to me, it’s not heavy. I didn’t feel a particular melancholy, but there was so much uncertainty at the time and New York was hit so hard during Covid. Some of it seems light, to me.” 

Though Pat Place, Cynthia Sley and Dee Pop have existed in the beating heart of New York City, inspiring noise experimentalists and young ‘90s upstarts (Sonic Youth and Mudhoney amongst them,) they remain one of those music acts that If You Know You Know, rather than a household name. 

The legend goes that Place had been hanging out at CBGB, mixing it with the grungy, punky crowd when she was spotted by James Chance of the Contortions. When he approached her to ask if she was a musician, Place claimed to be a bass player. Their first rehearsal made evident that this was fanciful, and Chance suggested she play guitar instead. While playing with the Contortions, Place met Sley and the original Bush Tetras bassist Laura Kennedy, art school pals from Cleveland. It was peak club period in New York City, when rent was cheap and artists, students and club kids could afford Manhattan apartments. Drummer Pop rounded out the band, and between 1979 and the mid-1980s they performed almost relentlessly, until they’d burned the candle at both ends. Pop quit, and it wasn’t until 1995 that they reunited and began to both write and perform with the same frisson as those earliest CBGB days.

They received a well-overdue media embrace in 2021 when the band released a definitive box set Rhythm And Paranoia, which trawled back to the early 1980s to pick-and-mix its curation of decades of Bush Tetras — ensuring fan-favorite “Too Many Creeps” took pride of place. It was a bittersweet time for Place and Sley, owing to Pop’s death only weeks before the 3-LP set was released. 

It was Pop’s thorough archives that they relied upon to share rarities and previously unreleased songs on Rhythm And Paranoia, the second of their releases via Wharf Cat Records following a five-track EP Take The Fall in 2018. Despite over 40 years of playing unforgettable live shows and writing together (and independently), Bush Tetras have found full-length albums evasive—They Live In My Head is only their third LP since 1979. 

The trio had begun work on a new album in the months before Pop’s death in 2021, and though there was a period of mourning and recalibration, Place and Sley were determined to carry on and finish what they’d begun with the help of Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley both producing and performing on drums.   

Shelley had been recommended as a logical replacement for Place by a few people, not least Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, and he joined Place and Sley as the new Bush Tetras drummer in February 2022.

Sley says, “We knew Steve because we’d played together with Sonic Youth. I wrote Thurston when Dee passed and said, ‘We’re putting out a box set, we really need a drummer!’ And he suggested Steve because he’s very versatile.”

She adds, “He came in and his spirit was just what we needed. He’s a very positive person, playful. He has that team spirit — he likes to work as a group — which is what we wanted. You’re stirring the soup, you’re in there together, and you want to have fun writing the songs rather than it being a task. He really fit in; it was miraculous.”

Without skipping a beat, Pat chimes in, “He’s a great drummer, importantly, and that was clear when he nailed it right out of the gate. It was a no-brainer.” 

There’s a real energy and versatility to Sley’s voice throughout this album. On “They Live In My Head” she yelps and hollers with a primal thrill. Is it instinctive, or is this planned?

Sley chuckles and responds, “We rehearsed the shit out of that record. I mean we rehearsed a lot, but there’s always a magic that happens in the studio. I always do the vocals by myself, alone, so I can just be completely unself-conscious. It’s funny, I’m a really impulsive person — less so now that I’m in my 60s — but it can bite me on the ass. It can work for you though, and in the studio it really does.” 

Sley says, “We recorded live together then we did overdubs, but we did no more than three takes of any songs. We do that as safety, and a lot of times it was the first or second take that made the album. We were so well-rehearsed that we didn’t need to do a lot of takes. The overdubs were just guitar and vocals, so the rhythm section was laid down and that stayed.”

The ghost in our conversation is Dee Pop, and on several occasions throughout the interview, Sley and Place refer to him and his role in the new album.

“Dee’s spirit is through it, and he was rallying for the new songs, but it was hard for him, he was really struggling through Covid,” says Place.  

Adds Sley, “Steve loved the old songs and playing them. He really respected Dee’s playing and he definitely continued that line.”

Those “old songs” are both a legacy worth celebrating and an albatross when it comes to refining live setlists. With over 40 years of music to call on, how do they decide on live setlists? 

Sley exhales with such force I almost wonder if there’s a technical glitch on the line.

“The setlist, Pat—43 years of the setlist!” she cries.

They both laugh mirthfully.

Place responds, “We’ll play two-thirds of the new stuff live. We have a selection of old songs that we still want to play, and people always want to hear ‘Too Many Creeps’, and ‘Cowboys In Africa’ from the ’80s, but there’s some songs from the middle period that we really like, too.” 

“’True Blue’ is one of our favourites to play live,” says Sley. “If we were only 30 years younger, we’d do two-hour sets because we’re like, ‘Oh my god we’re not doing that song, oh no!’ and then there’s decades of material to make sense of. It’s like rocket science, we go over and over it. . .”

Place takes up the end of the sentence, as is her habit. “To get the flow of the set right. Cynthia and I have our babies, like ‘Ocean’ and ‘Nails’, but some of them have to fall by the wayside.”

Sley effusively proposes a whole new concept, with Place and I thrilling at the idea.

“We should put together an orphan set!” she suggests. “All those lost children we could play. . .”

Arguably, after 43 years, the Bush Tetras could do whatever they want. New York is the city of experimentation, possibilities and endless creative adventures, after all.

“It’s not what it used to be,” Place counters. “[New York City] is such a different environment than when we started out in the 80s, and even from the 90s it’s different. At this point, we could work anywhere. I don’t need the energy of New York City to do this, at this point. But we are there, so it does influence us.”

Sley admits, “I moved to LA for three years and I came back to New York and almost kissed the sidewalk. I’m attached to New York, I love New York. It’s always going to change, it’s like a monster. Throughout time, it will never stop doing that. There’s always something going on and I enjoy the energy of it.”

The Bush Tetra’s new album, “They Live In My Head,” is available on July 28. 

 

New York Rock Icons Bush Tetras Return, With Help From Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley