Interview with Cynthia Sley, Pat Place, Dee Pop, and Val Opielski | By Marika Zorzi
In April, New York City post-punk legends Bush Tetras returned via Wharf Cat Records with a new five-song collection entitled Take the Fall, a record that brings us back to the energetic Big Apple atmosphere of the 1980s. “During those years, the scene in NYC was very healthy and rich with different-sounding bands,” longtime vocalist Cynthia Sley says. “We were all friends and supportive of each other. There was an overlap with bands, visual and performance artists, filmmakers, and dancers. One big, happy family.”
“It was just so exciting,” drummer Dee Pop confirms. “It was influenced by not just music but art, film, poetry, and literature. Many of the principal participants in the scene came from other backgrounds than music, which led to wide creativity.”
When Bush Tetras played their first show together in 1979 at The Kitchen, they were an anomaly: a punk-spirited band fronted by three women playing instruments. “We definitely felt strongly about ‘creeps’ on the street hassling us about the way we looked as girls, not fitting the norm,” Sley continues. “We felt strongly about Reaganomics and what was going on politically in the ’80s. But personal politics were what we were interested mainly in, and how humans struggle.”
“Punk was immediate, innovative, creative, real, expressive, and true,” admits bassist Val Opielski, the newest addition to Bush Tetras’ lineup. “We made it by ourselves and with our friends. We created a warm, supportive community in what felt like a world that was hostile to us, our ideas, and our values. The mainstream music was remote, overproduced, superficial, and didn’t speak to the stories of our lives, nor to our hopes for a more positive future.”
Even today, the subtle feminist underpinnings of Bush Tetras’ first single, the 1980 NYC club anthem “Too Many Creeps,” remain, for better or for worse, timelessly relevant. “For obvious reasons!” guitarist Pat Place exclaims.
“We were living in NYC, where we got hassled a lot about the way we looked, and we wanted to write about that,” Sley confirms. “There are and will always be a lot of creeps in this world. Now more than ever with our present government.”
“Yes!” Opielski adds. “It’s still hard to go out on the streets. The reasons might differ, but the feeling can be creepily the same.”
“Being a woman in this society is harder than being male! But I think it’s getting better,” Place says.
With this strong attitude, Bush Tetras have been speaking out about society and everyday life since their beginning. Founded by Place after leaving the legendary no wave group James Chance And The Contortions, they brought funky dance songs and vocal rhythms to the freaky outsider punk scene. “We started Bush Tetras because Pat had just left Contortions and was looking for a new project,” Sley remembers. “Dee and [former bassist] Laura [Kennedy] and Pat joined up with [former vocalist] Adele Bertei in hopes of writing some songs together. It didn’t quite work out creatively, so they talked me into joining them in the winter of 1979. It just jelled immediately, and we started writing songs.”
Over the years, the band have started anew several times, existing in multiple iterations and lineups. “Dee, Cynthia, and I still have the same old chemistry,” Place says, “and the addition of Val has been a major contribution in restoring our sense of purpose and vitality.”
“We sound stronger than ever,” Pop confirms.
The new album, Take the Fall, is definitely the strong result of a reunited and more mature Bush Tetras. The songs about life and death—meditations on existence and everyday nuisances—brim with guitar noise and nervous tension, an exploratory puzzle of grooves that leverages deadpan hooks as invitations into the sharper and weirder corners of their songcraft.
“Getting older changes your perspective in a lot of ways,” Place notes.
“Absolutely,” Sley agrees. “I wrote all the lyrics for this EP, and at this point, I’ve really purged myself of self-doubt, caring what others think of me, and tried to keep my sense of humor through it. I like to play with words and tend to crack myself up. What is important to me has changed so much since 1980, but we still want to shake things up, get people to think past their navels.”
Photo by Alice Espinosa Cincotta