Bush Tetras: Funk New York
2006-09-01                                                                       Listen:

Bush Tetras remain one of the great New York City groups of the early 80s. And with their nervy punk-funk rhythms and fiery attitudes, they could easily have rocketed to stardom (or at the very least, have been greeted with more widespread attention). For those familiar with their rather minimal output, they’re probably best known for classic underground singles like “You Can’t Be Funky”, “Too Many Creeps”, and “Cowboys in Africa”— or my personal favorite “Das Ah Riot”.

Though classified alongside the influential no-wave groups from that period— such as the Contortions, ESG and Liquid Liquid— the quartet’s forceful, creepy, yet danceable material was instinctively born from the seeds of punk. And amidst the various burgeoning creative scenes in New York City around that historical period (from the ascension of punk to the first movements of hip-hop), the Bush Tetras seemingly found themselves in a land of versatility. “We were art-punk. We weren’t in the hardcore punk bands. We didn’t fit with the Dead Boys, punk-rock safety pin crowd. But we fit marginally with everybody,” confessed drummer Dee Pop. “We could play with Gang of Four, we did play with the Undead or different punk rock groups, and we played with The Clash a bunch of times.” This was a clear signature result of the times, where an agglomeration of various sounds were commonly being mixed up and thrown together.

During its heyday, between 1980 and 1983, the group’s notorious nervous system became a prominent fixture in rock-oriented New York City clubs; defined by the unmistakable distortion guitar of ex-James Chance & the Contortions stringer Pat Place, the very monotone punk-peaked singing style of Cynthia Sley, the ever-present bass rhythm provided by Laura Kennedy, and that relentless drive from drummer Dee Pop. “That component of having three women up front was really unique,” ponders singer Cynthia Sley. “Because when you figure the other bands at that time were the Go-Go’s, and the Bangles; we were so different that I think we were an anomaly. There was no category. And I don’t mean that in a very vein way or anything.” Pop maintains that approach, “People were afraid of these girls. They were like an awesome force!”

But somehow the critical acclaim, key associations and the 99 Records street credibility didn’t provide the Bush Tetras the desired visibility outside the Big Apple. However, its various early singles and EP’s (‘Too Many Creeps’, ‘Things That Go Boom In The Night’ and ‘Rituals’) were extremely influential— but the delay to produce a proper full-length album was one of the key reasons the group was never prominently featured in major press magazines— and relegated to star notoriety among record collectors, cool kids, and barrels of influenced bands.

I met two of the original members, Cynthia Sley and Dee Pop, in a Montreal hotel room during the group’s first Montreal passage in some 25 years (for the inaugural Osheaga Music & Arts Festival). And as you’ll conclude from this whoppingly comprehensive 50 minute interview— no stone was left unturned. Both charmingly drew vivid pictures of New York in the early 80s, as we discussed a great number of varied topics; from their inclusion within the no-wave community, their work with former Clash drummer Topper Headon, down to friend Julian Schnabel’s 1996 picture about painter Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Surprising flashbacks and ballsy declarations make this a wonderful listen; a truly fantastic voyage through one of NYC’s most revered musical periods.


Interview by Eric Theriault