In 1975, Pat Place moved from Chicago to New York to study art and found herself in the middle of a growing experimental music scene on the Lower East Side that lasted through the early ‘80s. Here, she learned how to play guitar while a member of James Chance’s band the Contortions and then went on to form Bush Tetras with Laura Kennedy on bass, Cynthia Sley on vocals and Dee Pop on drums. Their No Wave anthems such as “Too Many Creeps” and “Can’t Be Funky,” which combine their punk and funk influences in a raw and experimental way, garnered the band quite a following that has only continued to grow since they broke up in 1983.
Bush Tetras reunited in the ‘90s to tour and record two albums, Beauty Lies (Tim Kerr/Mercury) and Happy (ROIR). Due to a legal battle, the latter album remained unreleased until this past November. The original lineup of Place, Sley and Pop (along with Julia Murphy who replaced the late Kennedy on bass) is back together again, celebrating the long awaited release of Happy and actually playing gigs, including a gig at Los Angeles’ Echoplex on February 3rd, 2013.
Boxx Magazine contributor Bess Korey interviews Pat Place talks about the album Happy, and reflects on how Bush Tetras’ career has come full circle.
Bess Korey: The New York scene that Bush Tetras was a part of is often referred to as No Wave. Did you call yourselves No Wave back then, or was that a name that was later given to the scene?
Pat Place: That was later. We never said that. It’s funny because it wasn’t even a cohesive movement. It was just what was going on in downtown New York at the time. We were all kind of rubbing off on each other and hanging out. It was a really fun time. It’s what you did at night: You’d go to Max’s Kansas City or CBGBs, and see these other bands play. The bands were a reaction to punk and New Wave, which is why they called it Post-Punk or No Wave. The sound wasn’t pop or punk, it was its own thing and it was really kind of anarchistic and nihilistic. No one really knew how to play, and it was avant garde noise music. There was a lot of that going on at that time.
[Before Bush Tetras] I ended up playing with James Chance and the Contortions, and Chance was quite schooled as a musician and knew what he was doing. But he had some musicians like me who were artists/musicians and weren’t really trained musicians, and he had some musicians that were really good and trained, and he started mixing the two. I was untrained and was playing with these guys who had been in rock ‘n roll bands since they were teenagers, and I had just picked up guitar. It took me a couple of years to figure out how to play a bar chord and how to tune it, but for whatever reason, I got away with it all. It was weird and I felt that at sound check the guys would be rolling their eyes at me and thinking that I was some chick guitar player who didn’t know what she was doing—but it made me want to learn and know what I was doing, even though I was there to provide the raw, scrawking noises.
BK: Were there other women musicians that you could look up to during that time?
PP: The scene I came up in had bands like Teenage Jesus and the Jerks with Lydia Lunch, DNA, Mars, and UT. There were other women in the scene, moreso than in the straightforward rock scene, and when I formed Bush Tetras with my friends Cynthia and Laura there were other girl bands. The Slits were already around, and we did a few gigs with the Au Pairs and the Raincoats. We were all around at the same time, but we played more with Gang of Four than we did with those female bands.
BK: Your album Happy was released in November, but was recorded in the ‘90s. Can you talk a bit about why it took so long for that record to come out?
PP: We recorded the album in ’97 or ’98. It got caught up in record company crossfire. We recorded it with a subsidiary of Mercury, owned by PolyGram, and at that time we had just finished recording Sony had bought PolyGram. They shelved our record because our A&R guy who had a subsidiary label on one of the bigger labels got fired, and we didn’t know who had the legal rights. So, we made a record on our little company, ROIR, called Very Very Happy, which was in lieu of putting out Happy since we didn’t know if we would ever get released. [On Very Very Happy], we re-recorded one of the songs and put a live version of “Motorhead” on it. We finally talked to a lawyer and got the rights to Happy and the people at ROIR that we work with [helped us release it].
BK: What were some of your influences during the recording of Happy?
PP: Cynthia and I were listening to stuff like Soundgarden and Alice In Chains. I was in another band at the time, and we opened for Hole when they were promoting Live Through This. I was influenced by more traditional rock songwriting, and I was trying to bring that to Bush Tetras. [Before that] I wouldn’t say we were a jam band, but we’d find a groove and write the song around the groove. We were trying to make more formed songs when we made Happy.
BK: If you were to record an album today, do you think it would be more experimental and funky like what you were doing in the early ‘80s or do you think it would be more melodic and have more traditional songwriting like Happy?
PP: I think my influences might be different now from when we recorded Happy. We’ve come full circle. We love the stuff on Happy, but when we play it in the set next to the older stuff we have to be really careful where we place it because it can seem a little incongruous since it’s such a different style. I think if we recorded today, the music would be somewhere in between those two styles. We really enjoy the old stuff. It was really of the moment, of the time of New York City in the early ‘80s. So, I don’t know if we can go back to that sound. We would have to get together in a room, see what comes out, and have our influences spill into it. For me, I really like bands right now like the Kills and the Black Keys that have a raw blues-based guitar sound.
BK: The Slits and the Raincoats have reunited in recent years, and have played shows for a new generation of fans. Coming from the same era, and also being a female band, have you noticed a renewed interest in Bush Tetras?
PP: I feel as if we have established a niche in history, and I think that has a lot to do with the Internet, which has helped a lot. We did get back together in the ‘90s and made a couple of records and were playing shows then. But yeah, it does seem as if people now are really interested in the No Wave scene and now when we play, half to two-thirds of our set is stuff from the early days.