Wednesday, February 25, 2015

DVD Review: Black Lips – Kids Like You & Me

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2015
Images from the Internet

Black Lips – Kids Like You & Me
Written and directed by Bill Cody
Subterranean Productions / A Middle East Tour Film
MVD Visual
79 minutes, 2012 / 2013

A week after huge anti-United States riots in Cairo in 2012 that included storming of the embassy, the Atlanta-native pop-punk band Black Lips began a tour of the Middle East. It was two years of preparation to line up all their punks in a row, and they were on their way.

I was touring around in Egypt for a week in 1993, and while there was a level of happiness by businesses that we were there spending tourist money, there was also an undercurrent of suspicion, even then, about us scholars from New York University traipsing around the Nile tombs and valleys. I certainly did not hear any Western music there back then, never mind punk rock. Post-9/11, it is even more astonishing to have this band touring the countries of Cyprus, Egypt, U.A.E., Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. I am going to assume that no member of the band was a – er – of the Hebraic faith.

The documentary of this tour begins with news broadcasts of the riots, leading into a live performance by the band. This is a nicely handled juxtaposition. There are a couple of other wise choices, such as starting in Cyprus, which is an easier country to transition into the tour. The band also picks Lebanese “indie rockers” Lazzy Lung to share the bill. The lead singer moved to Lebanon just as the Israeli conflict happened and formed his band then.

For the first show in Egypt (where a majority of this documentary takes place), we see a clip of the band playing, the audience bouncing, mixed with annotated film excerpts of the Arab Spring two years earlier. The added historical video bites include sound that drowns out the band, which does seem like an unwise choice because in this context it sounds preachy. See the band or hear a history lesson? Both important, but both conflict. It’s the same mindset as having a PowerPoint slide that says one thing and the person at the podium saying something else. Well, it can be read or heard, but not both. By presenting the history lesson during the song, it takes the emphasis away from both.

The band also starts off coming across as a bit shallow to me, I’m sorry to say, but I think that's more of the director's choices. I mean, we follow one of them in an excursion to buy aftershave. You’re in Egypt and that’s what interests you? Then they’re skateboarding on some steps; well, falling more than skating. I would have not bothered including that footage, as it has nothing to do with anything. Plus, they’re touring with a band that speaks the language, so why not show them as interpreters (which they probably were)? The answer is probably that theoretically, cinematic “confusion = chaos = interest.”

Now before you think I’m talking all doom’n’gloom, there are way more positive things about the film than not. Besides many shots of Black Lips playing, as well as giving some nice time to Lazzy Lung, we do get to see some really interesting current news, such as a brief commentary by an ex-pat (woman) writer, and we watch the band listen to an NPR report about them being in the Middle East.

More interesting than bad skateboarding is seeing them at the Giza pyramids (a life highlight when I did it), and talking to locals who are interested in who the band are, and what Westerners are doing there, braving possibly dangerous waters of political and cultural change. I met up with some of that as well. It’s both scary and thrilling to have complete strangers in that part of the world walk up to you and try to talk to you because you are different.

One thing I noticed is that at their shows, there seems to be a lot of Westerners, including blonde women. However, you never see the band do any hook-ups, with men or women (I have no idea about their orientation, honestly), which is fine with me. Another female-related aspect I was interested in is that the film is shown being shot by a Western woman with dyed blonde hair, and wondered how the locals would react to her. Apparently, this is never mentioned or touched upon, which I think is a mistake, even if she isn’t a member of the band.

It gets more interesting as they head off to play in Erbil, Iraq, not a place you may imagine as being welcoming to an American band. Also, comparing the extreme opulence of Dubai to the more austere Erbil is a lesson all in itself to this viewer.

I also found the interviews with members of Lazzy Lung talking about living through the civil war in Lebanon, and how “normal” life became in the midst of it, more fascinating than most of what is said by Black Lips, and wanted to hear more about that.

For me, the big flaw of the film is that we never really get to know much about the band as individuals. Yes, they are interviewed separately, but nothing deep. I know as little about the band’s personnel as when I started the film, other than they like to skateboard, nearly all have facial hair of some sort, one of them is a “news junkie,” and one of them always annoyingly wears an oversized baseball cap. What we do learn about them, and this is a strong point in the film for me, is that we see the band interviewed on numerous media in various countries, including Cairo and Dubai.

Also, it would have helped if their music had a caption crawl. Speaking of which, to be honest, I wasn’t really familiar with the Black Lips, musically, before this, and I was grateful to have the opportunity to hear what they sound like. Definitely not my taste, and they reminded me of the slickness of the Eagles of Death Metal more than punk, which is fine, just not something I’m going to run out and buy. I found the music of Lazzy Lung more interesting.

There isn’t anything really controversial here; nothing to make you say “wow,” but it is interesting how the news footage is interspersed with the location of the band. The closest they get is a very quick discussion of how one of the venues cancelled because the band had once been in Israel, but they get another gig in that city in Egypt, so all is good, I guess. The tour seems to have been a success, and when they talk about how an earlier excursion in India did not go well or as expected, I wanted to see the film of that. Perhaps a prequel?

The extras are the trailer (natch), an almost three minute clip in Cairo of the complete song “Oh Katrina” by Black Lips, a (more interesting) complete song by Lazzy Lung at the same venue, and a nearly 8-minute interview on Lebanese MTV (I kid you not).

If you’re a fan of the band, or curious about them, this is a release that is worth the view; if not, well…


Monday, February 16, 2015

Bush Tetras: Not Your Common Garden Variety [from 1980]

Text by David G / FFanzeen, August/September 1980
Introduction © Robert Barry Francos, FFanzeen blog, 2015

I never did get to see the Bush Tetras play live, and now they are about to reform for their 35th Anniversary, despite the passing of one of the trio.

Back in August 1978, I met the drummer, Dee Pop, while he was still living in Buffalo, and saw his band, the Secrets. I even temporarily lent him my spiked bracelet for a night or two. He eventually moved to New York and formed the Bush Tetras with Pat Place (guitar), Cynthia Sley (vox), and Laura Kennedy (bass). The band was hard to categorize, not being New Wave or No Wave, or even punk, but leaning more towards avant-garde dissonant funk. Heck they may have even been the leaders of that sound. For a while, you could not go to a club without hearing their single, “Too Many Creeps,” the recording of which is discussed below.

While reforming occasionally over the years, Laura Kenney succumbed to liver cancer in 2011, and was replaced by Cindy Rickmond, who had a long history on the scene, including a band I enjoyed, Cheap Perfume.  In May 2015, they will be playing a 35 anniversary show in New York. – RBF

The Bush Tetras. Four shrubs? Actually, an amalgam of Bush Babies and Neon Tetras. Tetra means four – that’s convenient – but what about Bush Babies? The name conjures images of the jungle: wild, dangerous – like a big cat; feline, graceful, sensual. Laura Kennedy prowls the stage, her taut, slinky bass figures meshing with Dee Pop’s rolling, tribal toms. Elemental rhythms. Pat Place’s slide guitar cuts through the mix like a bird in a rainforest, as Cynthia Sley, moving nary a muscle, chants a vision of urban life; for the Bush Tetras, the city becomes the jungle.

Song titles like “Tropics” and “Voodoo” only seem to increase the feeling; for anyone who’s ever lived in the city to long, “Too Many Creeps” says it all. Sparse and funky; easy to dance to. The music is oddly magnetic. The Bush Tetras don’t overpower with needless volume, or bore with tired riffs; they draw the audience in with sheer feeling and conviction.

The following interview took place in Pat and Laura’s apartment – carefully watched over by Pat’s amazing collection of miniature monster movie models – the day after the band recorded some tracks for their debut single. Cut sometime in July on the new 99 Records label, the 45 will feature “Too Many Creeps,” “Snakes Crawl,” and “Tropics.”

FFanzeen: How did the band get together?
Dee Pop: I was playing with a friend named Jimmy [Jimmy Joe Uliana – RBF, 2015] , way back when, and me and Jimmy went and jammed with Pat and Laura one day – this is last August – and we fucked around for a few months’ time, getting the group together, but that combination didn’t work. Then Jimmy left the group and we tried to get somebody else to fill in the spot that would be a singer, and we worked with Adele Bertei for a little while, and that didn’t work; we just wanted to do different things. We did one gig with her in November.
Laura Kennedy: At [the club] the Kitchen. It was supposed to be an art performance.
Dee: And we weren’t very arty. That didn’t work and Adele left, and then Cynthia joined and – here we are.

FFanzeen: Did you already have set songs by this time?
Laura: Well, the three of us played together for a real long time, and since it was obvious that the other people hadn’t worked out, we just figured we’d play a while together and wait for the moment when we’d find the person who could actually fit in with us. Cynthia and I have known each other for a long time.

FFanzeen: You’re both from Cleveland?
Laura: We went to art school together and she never sung before, but we just said, “Hey, come on and try it out.” Anyway, it worked really well.
Cynthia Sley: We played out after three weeks.
Laura: Yeah, we spend like two weeks getting together about seven songs.
Dee: Six
Laura: Six songs was it? And then we played [the club] TR3; we opened for the Raybeats.

FFanzeen: About that time, some of the local music press were making a big thing out of the fact that the ex-Contortions were all back on the scene. Pat, what were you doing in the time period after the dissolution of the Contortions and before the Tetras, and how did that press affect this band?
Pat Place: Well, that’s when Dee and Laura and Jimmy and I were just jamming. At that time I felt very open to just experimenting and playing music with different people, and also try to develop my guitar playing. It was really kind of a relief when the Contortions broke up, because that situation was more or less a dictatorship, so in a way, I felt set free. The Bush Tetras are very democratic. We all feel free to throw out ideas and work on them. To find people that you can work with in that way, to me, is the most satisfying way to work.
Laura: That’s how we met Dee and Jimmy; Pat and I did a performance at TR3 with Judy Nylon and another friend – a multi-media thing – and Jimmy saw that and wanted to get together, so we did.

FFanzeen: The lyrics to a song like “Creeps” seem to convey a kind of intolerance towards certain people.
Cynthia: Well, “Creeps” is Pat’s.
Pat: That’s from living in New York too long.
Laura: “Snakes Crawl” was written at the Bleecker Street [Cinema].
Pat: No, it was “Too Many Creeps.”
Cynthia: It’s hard walking around in the street. “Snakes Crawl” and “Creeps” are going to be on the record.
Laura: Yeah, they’re going to come out on a single on this new independent label that Ed Bahlman at [the store] 99 Records on McDougal [Street] is doing. We just recorded it.
Pat: I feel kind of bad about “Too Many Creeps.” I hope people don’t misinterpret that. We rehearse on the lower East Side, where all those, like, junkies (and) creeps hang out and harass us all the time. You get that all the time in the street. I was working at the Bleecker Street and so many creeps would come in there and just bug you, and it was driving me crazy. But I don’t want to make it sound like we’re talking to the audience or anything.

FFanzeen: When do you expect the single to come out?
Laura: We hope it will come out the end of July. I guess you never really know how long it takes these companies to press ‘em or release ‘em.
Dee: We still have the mixing to do and some more overdubs and stuff.

FFanzeen: Do you consider ourselves a dance-oriented band?
Cynthia: Oh, I think so.

FFanzeen: It seems a lot of the new bands are dance-oriented as almost a backlash; rock’n’roll dance music.
Laura: Yeah, it seems like a lot of people are jumping on certain bandwagons, which is kind of unfortunate; but I’ve always liked to dance.
Cynthia: In Cleveland, Laura and I just danced our butts off.
Laura: There was one club in Cleveland where you could hear New Wave music on Thursday nights, and we’d always have Pere Ubu and Devo on a double bill.
Cynthia: The Rubber City Rebels.
Laura: Yeah, so we’d just hang out down there: if you can dance to Pere Ubu, you can dance to just about anything.

FFanzeen: What made you come to New York?
Cynthia: If you ever lived in Cleveland, you’d know why you’d wanna leave.

FFanzeen: You recently opened for Gang of Four at Hurrah. Is it harder to open for a fairly established English band then to gig with another New York band?
Laura: It seems like it’s a hard situation to open for a band that has an established audience, but most of the comments that we’ve had from people, the ones that stick out in my mind, are from people who’ve gone out of their way to come up to us after our sets and say, “You know, I really like your band. I really relate to you.”
Pat: Yeah, that’s a real surprise to me. I’m glad.
Laura: But it seems it’s a real crossover. Even at the 80s Club [with Lydia Lunch’s 8-Eyed Spy] which was a real strange audience for us, and out in Hoboken where we had to really work hard to get across to the audience, because they’re very removed from New Wave music it seems. They don’t know if they’re supposed to like you or not, so they kind of examine you for a while first. It seems like it hasn’t been too hard for us to get across to people in that way. They instantly sort of like us, or I guess if they didn’t like us, they’d leave.
Pat: Or they’d want their money back, saying it’s disco. That happened at [the club] Maxwell’s.

FFanzeen: I think there are similarities because of the beat and the fragmented guitar, but they’re very English, and you’re kind of…Dee: They must listen to the same records as us.

FFanzeen: Like what?
Cynthia: ZZ Top.
Dee: We have a lot of different influences.
Pat: Like Dee likes reggae and I hate reggae, so we sort of compromise.
Laura: Well, reggae is great drum music, and the dub stuff is real cool, too.
Dee: We take all of our influences, and instead of saying, “Okay, now let’s write a reggae song,” when we write a song, I might come in and I’ll be inspired by a particular rhythm I hear on a record or something. Then everyone will add their own different influences to the songs, so it comes out like a conglomeration of a lot of things, instead of just one token label, like “This is the rock song,” and “This is their reggae song,” and “This is their punk song,” or whatever.
Laura: Yeah, instead of trying to come out like one of those punk/funk groups or anything, we listen to a lot of rock’n’roll – it’s pretty good dance music – but I don’t think we sound like a ‘60s rock’n’roll band, either. We don’t sound anything like PiL, but I think we’re all influenced by them because their way of working is real new, and it’s real modern. I think, like Dee said, what we try to do is take all the things that we hear and feel and think about, and when we get together, we just try to pick up on whatever the other person is doing, like a rhythm – it’s all real personal.
Dee: It’s all really democratic. If I have a drum beat that sounds kind of reggae-ish, I won’t go to Laura and say she’s gotta play like Robbie Shakespeare and boost the bass, or something – whatever she does, if it fits and we all like it, that’s the way it works.

FFanzeen: I can hear that diversity in a lot of your stuff.
Laura: Someone once said that we sound more like an English band than an American band, but I’m not really sure what an American band is supposed to sound like.
Dee: Well, it doesn’t really matter, because the English bands steal everything from the Americans anyway.
Cynthia: I think that the diversity is good, ‘cause I like all the different kinds of audiences. I’d rather see a different audience every time rather than just the same audience. It’s really fun.
Laura: There’s something challenging about winning over people that don’t know where you’re coming from or have never heard of you, or they’re there to see something else and they’re sorta surprised.
Pat: Yes, but we’re not Blondie or Tom Petty or, you know, all that slick sounding, bland stuff. I think a lot of people prefer that because it’s familiar – rehashed from the past. It’s easy for them to swallow and it’s what radio pushes.

FFanzeen: Do you feel that the record industry is ignoring a lot of the music that’s coming out of New York, in favor of the “blander” stuff that’s coming out of California and Middle America? There’s a lot of publicity surrounding New York bands, but no recording contracts.
Laura: Well, that’s not really true.
Pat: It’s pretty true because of the state of radio right now. I think it’s really horrible, and it’s all because of big business and the people running it. They don’t want to let the stuff in. They’re afraid to take a chance on anything. I mean, in the ‘60s, you could turn on the radio and hear Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, you know, the new music that was saying something and making changes, but the Middle Class got scared and it decided, it seems, to never let that happen again. I think things are kind of scary right now – reactionary. Most kids in mid-America are not very hip; they’re content to buy new cars and jeans. Radio or the record companies could help, but hey obviously don’t want to. The whole PIX thing proves it [re: the closing down of radio station WPIX, the only station that played punk at the time – RBF, 2015]. I think that was a big setback. The clubs are the only hope for new music right now.
Cynthia: It’s really at a low point right now.
Laura: Well, there are a few bands. Polyrock’s with RCA. The B-52’s didn’t get signed till they came to New York. You can almost consider them a New York band – they were discovered here. They couldn’t have been discovered out in [Athens] Georgia… Talking Heads – but that’s pretty old. There’s a lot of music coming out of New York that is discovered.
Cynthia: On the scale of things, I think they’re in the minority.
Dee: Did you read the article in the Soho Weekly News this week, about independent labels in England and big business in America? They were just saying that there’s more chance in England of being spotted for your own music, rather than being some sort of safe act that you can push on people that don’t know anything at all.
Laura: The whole situation in England is different ‘cause it’s a small country; there’s lot of media that’s ready to pick up on everything. They have weekly music papers. It’s probably as easy to tour their whole country as it is to get gigs here, around the city. And the corporations there are meant to lose money – they have tons of money to get rid of, or they’ll lose it to taxes. So, they’re probably more willing to take chances on unconventional groups.

FFanzeen: There are indepen-dents popping up around the city, like 99 Records. And there are more on the way.
Laura: That’s picking up. There’s still the problem of radio; there’s basically no station, which is pretty outrageous for a city this size.
Dee: Now there’s no station that plays anything; not unless they’re playing the safe stuff. It’s hard even to hear the Clash in New York City on the radio.
Pat: That’s why I’m really glad that Public Image did so well over here. They reached a lot of people. What they’re doing is really different. It’s really great.

FFanzeen: I find that live, the Tetras seem to draw the audience in with the music alone. You don’t seem to be taking the usual, “You have to like us” type stance, you just play.
Pat: Well, it’s hard sometimes doing these gigs. You can’t think about the audience too much. I really like playing with this band, so I just figure, “Alright, so we’re gonna go up there and play, and they either like us or they don’t.” When you go onstage with the attitude, “Well, we’ve gotta win this audience over,” I think it’s pretty hard. Its nerve wracking. So you just have to think, “Well, I don’t care, we’re just playing our music.”
Cynthia: It’s a real gas when people dance.
Laura: It’s great when they respond that way. That’s what I mean about a place like TR3, where it’s so intimate and there’s this immediate response because the audience is right there. And the thing about the way we are on stage is just that we all like playing together so much, and the songs that we do come together out of these things. We put them together like, “Okay this is our presentation of our music,” but we do other things, like some of the songs we do in rehearsal go on 20 minutes, but I don’t think people want to hear that in a club.
Dee: All of our sets are really different. It all depends on the audience.

Fanzeen: When I saw you, I felt that your music prodded the audience without hitting them over the head.
Laura: Well, we’re growing. We’re not really afraid to grow in public.
Cynthia: We’re trying to seduce.
Pat: We wanna play music that puts people in a trace.
Laura: Yeah, music is seductive, and you don’t always have to hit somebody over the head. You don’t have to hit ‘em really hard, anyway.
Cynthia: You just hit ‘em where it counts.

FFanzeen: You really get worked into a nice groove.
Pat: That’s the most important thing: finding that groove.
Laura: It has a lot to do with how you’re feeling that night. Some of our sets have been really fast-paced and over in 20 minutes; and then the same songs could take up 40 minutes if we’re feeling different about it that night.

FFanzeen: Do you have any immediate plans to play out of New York?
Laura: We’ll probably play Philly soon, and Buffalo and Toronto.
Dee: There’s talk of going to Italy in July with the Lounge Lizards.

FFanzeen: Do you have other recordings lined up after the single?
Cynthia: We could make an album if somebody wants to pay for it.
Dee: If this first 45 does well, I could see quickly doing another record for 99. So far, it’s been really great working with Ed. We had an offer to do a single for Fetish Records [an English-based label], but Ed’s a great fan and very open; and he’s right down the block, which makes it easy to check on what’s going on.

FFanzeen: Are you the only act on 99 so far?
Laura: No, they’ve got Glenn Branca.

FFanzeen: Do you feel that there’s a community of musicians in New York, or is every band out for themselves?
Laura: Well, Don Christensen, the Raybeat’s drummer, is helping us produce our single.
Pat: 8-Eyed Spy, the Raybeats, and us are all pretty good friends, and it’s nice. It’s fun to do double bills with them, but you can’t do that too often. It’s just too incestuous or something. Basically, it’s not that everyone is just out for themselves, it’s just that everyone’s busy with their own thing.

FFanzeen: Pat, do you use any special tuning when you play slide?
Pat: No, I just use regular tunings.

FFanzeen: When you started, did you decide to play slide, or did you pick it up later?
Pat: Yeah, well, if you haven’t played guitar before, it’s the easiest way to get by [laughs] – you know, make a lot of noise.
Laura: Tell him how long you played before you did your first gig.
Pat: [Laughs] I’d been playing for a coupla days. But I liked Teenage Jesus; I like the way Lydia [Lunch] used to play slide guitar. I was influenced by her, actually; and Mars, I used to like that band Mars. And I started to learn to play regular now.
Laura: ZZ Top style.
Dee: She’s the only guitarist, so she has to take up more.

FFanzeen: Do you ever consider getting another instrument, to free Pat up for playing more slide?
Laura: We thought about it.
Pat: We tried playing with some other people; it’s just really hard right now ‘cause we work real well together and we have to write songs, and trying to add another person right now is pretty difficult because things are going so fast.
Laura: Right now we have about four days between gigs or recording or something, and if we want to write any new songs, which we’re trying to do at least a couple of times a month, it takes a lot of time. We rehearse a lot, and to bring in a new person at this point, would be…
Dee: Besides that, we would have to change our name, because, among other things, Tetra means four.