There’s a buzz in New York, and it sounds like Bush Tetras: fast, simple grooves; strange snake rhythms; searing guitar strokes. The longer you live here, the more it moves you. Bush Tetras arrived in the late 1970s and ignited a spark that has been quietly sizzling ever since. Across 30 tracks, three LPs and four decades, a new box set from Wharf Cat Records rekindles the band’s vital legacy as post-punk pioneers. Corn Rhythm and paranoia: the best of Bush’s grouse there is no epilogue; The Bush Tetras are still here, fanning the flames of a whole new era.
Forty years ago, cult debut single “Too Many Creeps” captured the living, breathing energy of the Lower East Side and firmly established a signature sound: calm, collected and effortlessly cool. Rhythm and paranoia, with its remastered hits, live recordings and unreleased treasures (like the abrasive “Cutting Floor” produced by Henry Rollins), amplifies the band’s dark, distinctive voice at a time when the world is ready to listen. But privately, the Bush Tetras are in mourning. Drummer Dee Pop, whose lively, anxious pulse was a vital part of the Bush Tetras equation, died suddenly just weeks ago. When I meet guitarist Pat Place and vocalist Cynthia Sley – the two remaining original band members – for an interview, her presence is felt and the emotion is real. “He was our archivist,” Sley told me, his eyes filling with tears.
“He kept recordings of the gigs and everything we did,” Place adds. “Nobody else was watching. Nobody else would have ever thought that we would be talking about the band 35, 40 years later.
“Losing Dee Pop recently is a big blow, but now it’s more important than ever that we get it right for him,” Wharf Cat’s Trip Warner later wrote via email. The label’s relationship with Bush Tetras began in 2018 with a five-song EP, take the fall. Soon after, they began discussing a compilation that would tell “the entire 40-year history of Bush Tetras in a way that had never been done before”. By a cruel twist of fate, none of this would have been possible without Dee.
“We wrote 10 new songs during COVID,” Sley reveals. “Dee was so excited about them. He said, ‘Well, why don’t we do a whole set of new songs on the release?’ and we said, ‘Dee, the show is for the box set.’ He said, ‘But we are Bush Tetras! We can do whatever we want.
“He always wanted to be radical,” Place remarks with a smirk.
In the city’s famous no wave music scene in the mid-1970s, Pat Place found her destiny like so many young punks before and after her: pretending.
“I met Jacques [Chance] at CBGB,” she recalls. “I would go there every night and hang out. I didn’t know him, but he came to me because I had crazy hair. He said: ‘I really like your hair. Do you play an instrument?’ I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I play bass.’ He told me to come to his next rehearsal on Delancey Street.
“I borrowed the bass from a friend and just arrived. I couldn’t play it. So he said, ‘Maybe you should try the guitar.’ »
While performing with Chance in the Contortions, Place met Sley and original Bush Tetras bassist Laura Kennedy. “Laura and I went to art school together in Cleveland,” Sley explains. “Laura came here first and met Pat. Then I came in the summer of 1979 and we all started hanging out.
“Nobody wanted to live here. The rent was cheap,” Place recalled. “It was just before AIDS. The New York club scene was big and people were really partying. We could play Danceteria, Peppermint Lounge and make three or four grand a night.
“I didn’t leave my house until midnight because I didn’t have to work the next day,” recalls Sley. “That was a big part of our first disappearance. We sank into the ground. We didn’t have a good representation and we were young. We wanted money.
By the mid-1980s, Bush Tetras had unsurprisingly been “fried” from endless shows, parties, rehearsals and touring. “The songs stopped coming because we were playing too much. Then Dee quit. He felt like he had done everything he could with the band.
“Also, we were darker, more sinister…more New York,” Sley says. “We were androgynous. The record companies didn’t know what to do with our look. We weren’t the Bangles or the Go-Gos. We didn’t have Belinda Carlisle in her little outfits doing a little dance.
“We kept asking why we weren’t signed…many other bands we played with were signed…”
“…boy bands,” Place interjects.
“But it’s not like other musicians made you feel particularly embarrassed about being a woman… I didn’t feel so weird. It was definitely a boy scene, but it wasn’t like we were ostracized…”
Place interrupts her again, but this time in silence, with a look that says it all. Now in their 60s, Place and Sley are still best friends, which explains how, even long after the initial split from Bush Tetras, they continued to reunite. (The original Bush Tetras reunited in 1995, and the group has been active on and off ever since, with various bass players taking over from Kennedy, who died of liver disease in 2011; more recently, Val Opielski took over the role in 2016.)
“There was never any competition between us,” Sley assures me. “In Bush Tetras, everyone brings their own thing, and everything has the same importance. I think Dee really liked playing with women. Back then, Bush Tetras weren’t making the loudest noise or wearing the flashiest outfits. But now, with a new spotlight illuminating their lasting impact, they have a chance to shine even brighter than before. I ask Place and Sley, true icons of the Lower East Side, what they think the next chapter of New York might look like. Whatever the answer, they’ll be there to see it.
“New York will be back, absolutely!” Sley exclaims. “That just isn’t happening right now. People have to want to set up a club, set up a stage. With rising rents, it is becoming more and more difficult…”
“…But rock music isn’t going anywhere,” Place concludes. “And we weren’t really a rock and roll band back then either. But I guess at this point we are now!”