Bush Tetras, a band that emerged as a fixture of the New York City post-punk scene in the early 1980s, recently celebrated its 40th anniversary with a show at (Le) Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village. The 21st-century venue occupies the space of the Village Gate at 158 Bleecker Street, which famously featured performances from musicians as wide ranging as John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Patti Smith, and the Velvet Underground. The band’s initial lineup included Laura Kennedy (bass), Pat Place (guitar), Dee Pop (drums), and Cynthia Sley (vocals). Bush Tetras is often characterized as one of the first women-centered bands to become synonymous with post-punk and no-wave music, and Vivien Goldman recently cited the band in a history of feminist punk. While Laura Kennedy passed away in 2011, the current Bush Tetras lineup primarily reflects the band’s beginnings, with Val Opielski on bass.
With New York City under lockdown, I got a chance to talk with Dee Pop, the Bush Tetras drummer extraordinaire, about 40 years of Bush Tetras and the band’s history—from gigs at Hurrah and Danceteria to sharing bills with Delta 5, Gang of Four, X, and Bad Brains.
AG: Bush Tetras got its start on the famous New York City label 99 Records, and your band was the second to sign to the label. The shop was located at 99 MacDougal Street in Greenwich village, just a couple blocks from the location of your 40th anniversary show. So how’d you get signed to the label?
DP: This is a really good story. First, I used to shop—well, we all used to shop—at 99, and we loved Ed [Bahlman], who ran the label. We knew he was starting a record label, and he was putting out Glenn Branca’s record [Lesson No. 1, the first 99 Records release in 1980]. Me and my mother went to Hunter College on 68th Street to see a reggae group, Black Uhuru. It was their first show in New York—I have a very cool mom. So we went to see the show, and in the middle of the show, someone took out a gun and started shooting. Everyone ran out onto Lexington Avenue and started hiding behind cars. Me and my mother are behind this car, and Ed and his wife Gina were by the car as well. We’re all like, underneath this car, and my mother says to Ed, ‘he’s got a great new band! You should sign them!’ And the next week Bush Tetras were on 99.
AG: That’s a crazy story!
DP: Yeah. My mom was a photographer for DownBeat, so I had a really great musical education because of her.
AG: So how did Bush Tetras get started?
DP: Amazingly, I remember most of it. The original band was Pat and Laura, and me and another guy named Jimmy Joe Uliana. Me and Jimmy were both big Contortions fans, and we went to see the Contortions a lot. When Pat left the Contortions, I ran into her one day and said, ‘I have a friend, you wanna get together?’ And she said, ‘I have a friend, Laura, you wanna get together?’ And that’s how we initially got together. We played for maybe six months without a vocalist, and then we got Adele Burtei, who was also in the Contortions. We played with her for a little while, but she didn’t like Jimmy, and I was hesitant about telling him that he wasn’t in the group. It was actually a big mistake. We did one show with Adele as the Bush Tetras, in ’79 at The Kitchen. We did three songs, and we had a review in The New York Times the next day that said the music was really interesting and great but the singer was terrible.
The next day, I went to see Iggy play with Pat and Laura, and we were watching Iggy, and saying, ‘Adele’s not right, is she?’ Cynthia was our friend who made our clothes and cut our hair. We went to see Cynthia and said, ‘hey you! Here’s some words, here’s a microphone.’ And she became the singer.
AG: And the name of the band?
DP: Pat wanted to call us the Neon Tetras, and I wanted to call the band Bush Babies. Hence, we became the Bush Tetras. We’d also do secret gigs as the Neon Babies. Every once in awhile we still do that. So that’s the name of the band, and it means absolutely nothing. People have read into it in amazing ways since then…
AG: You just played your 40th anniversary show at (Le) Poisson Rouge in February. The place was packed and you sounded fantastic. How’d the gig come about?
DP: It was planned. February 1, 1980 was our first gig ever with Cynthia. In November or December of last year I said, ‘hey, we’re gonna be 40 in a few months! We should do a show!’ Ed Bahlman’s brother, Bill Bahlman, DJ’d at our 40th anniversary show. [Bill Bahlman was a fixture of the NYC New Wave DJ scene. He was resident DJ at Hurrah and Danceteria, and he created New Wave Nights at The Anvil.]
AG: Where was that first 1980 gig?
DP: Tier 3. Were you ever there? I saw a Ruth Polsky birthday invitation on your Instagram and thought, ‘huh.’
AG: I was born too late to attend any shows at Tier 3 or any of Ruth Polsky’s birthday parties, but I like to think I was there in some cosmic sense. Speaking of Ruth Polsky, she booked Bush Tetras in NYC and the UK, right?
DP: She booked us at Hurrah’s [in NYC], and she was the first person to bring us to England. She did ‘six bands from New York’—Polyrock, the Raybeats, the Bongos, the dBs, Bush Tetras, and the Fleshtones. We all played the Rainbow Theatre in London, a big 3000-capacity place, and it was February, and it was fucking cold. People were putting the programs in piles and lighting them on fire to get warm. We were onstage in coats. And we were starving, and the only thing they were selling there was warm beer and ice cream. Go figure! [The gigs at the Rainbow Theatre were part of a package show Ruth created with Stiff Records called ‘Taking Liberties.’ The gig was on February 21, 1981, and it led to a Stiff compilation, Start Swimming!].
AG: Is that around the time when Bush Tetras played in Manchester? Where’d you play?
DP: Yeah. That was the only other English city we played. And it was at Rafters. Martin Hannett came to the gig. It wasn’t the Haçienda! I played the Haçienda later with the Gun Club, but not with the Bush Tetras. [In 1981, the Haçienda had not yet ‘been built,’ as it were.]
AG: I want to come back to playing at the Haçienda, but first: Martin Hannett came to hear Bush Tetras at Rafters?
DP: Yeah. We would have loved to have recorded with him, but it never ended up happening.
AG: You did end up recording in the UK, though, and had your next EP on Fetish Records. How’d that happen?
DP: When we went over to England to play, the guy from Fetish approached us and said, ‘you want do a single?’ We were probably going to go back to NYC to do it with 99, but the guy from Fetish said, ‘we can put you in the studio tomorrow,’ and we just went for it. Ed [Bahlman] was pretty upset about that. He thought we were being disrespectful, and possibly we were. Ed was really great. He paid us!
One thing that Ed did that was amazingly intelligent was that, if you wanted the Bush Tetras record, you had to buy it. It wasn’t that distributors got it for 30, 60, 90 days. If you wanted 30 copies, you had to pay for all of them up front, so there was always a cash flow. The Bush Tetras record would pay for the ESG record, the ESG record would pay for the Liquid Liquid record, the Liquid Liquid record would pay for the Vivien Goldman record, and so on, but he paid us royalties.
AG: After Fetish, you also ended up on Stiff Records, right?
After Fetish, we were shopping for a bigger label, and the majors didn’t want to touch us. Either they didn’t think we were commercially strong enough or that we had a reputation of being a little scary, and . . . probably doing a lot of drugs, which was the truth. But Stiff did want us, so Stiff put us out in America and Fetish put out Rituals [12” EP from 1981] in the UK and Europe. It was a weird time because the majors did come and schmooze us, but they’d tell us things like, ‘you should get a keyboard player,’ and ‘could you sound a little bit more like Human League?’ and ‘could you wear these kinds of clothes?’ We didn’t want any part of that.
AG: I’m going to circle back to you playing at the Haçienda with Gun Club. What was that gig like?
DP: It was in ’83. I left Bush Tetras to join the Gun Club. Before that, Bush Tetras did a tour with Gun Club, and me and Cynthia became really good friends with Jeffrey [Lee Pierce], the lead singer. Jeffrey fired his band after that tour, and I kind of became disillusioned with Bush Tetras. Anyway, I ended up in the Gun Club for a year or two.
I loved playing at the Haçienda. There’s a video of the whole show on YouTube. The day before the gig I had alcohol poisoning. I was literally gaffer-taped to the bass amp coming from whatever city we were playing before to the Haçienda. I was ill, and I didn’t know how I was going to do that show. I literally just got handed another beer, and I played. And you’d pretty much never know. But I don’t recommend ever doing that [laughs].
AG: Speaking of clubs where you played, you mentioned Ruth Polsky, who booked you at Hurrah and Danceteria in NYC. What were those clubs like in the early 80s?
DP: What was really great about New York back then was that Hurrah’s was on 62nd street, the Peppermint Lounge was on 45th Street, Danceteria was on 21st Street, Max’s was on 17th, CB’s was down on the Bowery, farther down there was also Roulette and The Kitchen, and you could go all around. On the Upper East Side there was the 80s Club on 82nd Street. It was short lived. You were on the subway, everyone would pile into a cab, and you’d go to all the clubs in a night.
At Danceteria, they had all these huge couches there, and we used to take off the pillows and have pillow fights.
Most of the people who booked clubs then were really into the music. There were different scenarios in different clubs, and there were several clubs that were mob-backed, but the people who were fronting the clubs really cared about the music and knew about the bands. You had the mob-front thing and then you had Hilly Kristal [at CBGB] who was a salt of the earth guy, and Ruth [Polsky], who was such a fan of the bands. It was a very different climate. In New York in 1980, you could get the Village Voice, and on the five pages in the back there’d be info about 50 bands. So you’d get your paper on Wednesday, you’d look and say, ‘holy shit, Richard Hell’s playing tonight, and the Specials are playing, and so and so’s playing.’ It was all right there.
There wasn’t a club that was like, a rockabilly club or a goth club or a hardcore club. They all did everything, and that was great because none of them were closed to outsiders.
AG: Bush Tetras shared bills with a lot of other punk, post-punk, and new wave bands. Which bands did Bush Tetras feel like they were in conversation with in those early days?
DP: I don’t know where we actually felt we belonged because we liked funk groups. We liked James Brown and Bootsy and the Meters, old traditional R&B stuff. But I guess our favorite bands were English bands. When we played in England, we’d play with Gang of Four, we’d play with the Clash, and in America we played with Pere Ubu and with X. We also played on hardcore bills with Black Flag, and we didn’t feel uncomfortable, or feel like, ‘we’re too different.’ We liked all of that stuff. It got more sub-genred-out later on.
If you go see a hardcore band now, you see four hardcore bands. Back then, we could play with ESG, and the hardcore bands, and it made sense. One year we played with us, Gang of Four, and Bad Brains, but it was really difficult because Bad Brains did not want to open up for women. They were really pissed off that they had to open up for us. They were always cool to me, but finding out this thing—it was upsetting. But it happened, and they had to live with it.
AG: That’s shitty. Did that happen a lot?
DP: Uh, no . . . I never felt that with anybody else quite like that. If we were on a bill with another band that had a front woman there’d sometimes be unease competitively, but that was more a band with a front woman and the rest of the band all male. Otherwise, we’d play with Delta 5 and the Au Pairs, and that was just like a big family party. It was all cool. There was never anything like, ‘you’re a bunch of girls.’
AG: Makes me think of Too Many Creeps [Bush Tetras’ first 7” on 99 Records]. How’d you guys come up with the song?
DP: Pat wrote Too Many Creeps, essentially. She wrote it in like 5 minutes. She used to work at a movie theater on Bleecker Street where she took tickets, and the initial thing started with a note passed to us when we were hanging out in the booth: ‘These people are a bunch of creeps!’ The people coming into the movie theater—she thought, ‘there are just too many creeps!’ And that was the song.
AG: Who did the sleeve design for Too Many Creeps?
DP: Pat! Well, Pat took the photos. She used to have this really big thing for plastic dinosaurs and bugs, so it became our motif.
AG: How about that Bush Tetras typeface?
DP: Yeah we picked the font for the Too Many Creeps 7”, and I was trying to figure out the name of it the other night. I was scrolling through this page of fonts. I had to call Cynthia in the middle of the night—I need the font!
Anyway just got it. It’s Banco, with cut-outs. [Banco was a typeface designed by the French graphic designer Roger Excoffon in 1951. It’s capitals only—there was no matching lower-case alphabet.]
AG: Like, literally someone took a physical pair of scissors to the letters and cut pieces out?
DP: Yeah, exactly.
AG: Jon Savage recently tweeted about the band and shared a photo of the Too Many Creeps sleeve. He said, ‘hot off the press, a classic New York sneer underpinned by a monstrous bass line, step up the Bush Tetras.’ He also wrote the liner notes for the Fetish Records compilation, The Last Testament (1983), which Bush Tetras was on, right?
DP: Yeah you sent me that tweet! I haven’t seen Jon in a long time. There was supposed to be a show at (Le) Poisson Rouge this spring [before the lockdown], and I thought he’d be there. I haven’t seen him in years.
AG: So, Pat wrote Too Many Creeps. How did songwriting work more generally in Bush Tetras?
DP: Everybody did everything. I may be the only person to bring in an entire song—”Rituals.” So, songwriting: it would start with one of us having something. I’d have a drum beat. Laura would have a bass line. Pat would have a guitar thing. And we’d develop it. Originally, the lyrics were written by all of us at the same time. Sometimes we did ‘cut up’ methods, put everything in a hat, put it back together, and that was the song.
It’s democratic and it’s organic.
AG: Has the process changed over the years with each of the Bush Tetras reunions?
DP: Every few years we’d get together and play a show. Then in 1994, we got together to do a show for Roulette or the Kitchen. It was an anniversary show, and they wanted us to headline. We did the gig, and it went pretty well. This guy came backstage and said, ‘hi my name is Thor [Lindsay], I run a record label called Tim Kerr, and I want to make an album with you guys.’ We talked about it, and probably two days later, we called him up and said, sure, what the fuck.
So we did Beauty Lies (1997) with Nona Hendryx, and it was really difficult.
We didn’t hang out anymore. We’d gone our separate ways. Cynthia had gotten married and was in other bands, I was in other bands, and Pat was doing her Pat thing—we still don’t really know what she does! [laughs] Laura was selling real estate at the time. We got back together, and I remember asking them, ‘what are you guys into these days?’ And it was really, really scary how far apart we had grown in musical tastes.
AG: What were you listening to?
DP: I was listening to a lot of free jazz, and Pat had gone to guitar rock stuff, which was very different from what she was known for. And I’m not even going to mention names because, well, you know. . . . but I was like, ‘really?’
AG: You didn’t like the music?
DP: She was listening to stuff that I still question! I love her, but I question some of those music choices—god I’m such a music snob—and she does the same thing with me. Anyway, we were all confused, asking: ‘how are we going to meld Soundgarden with Albert Ayler?’ We’re talking polar extremes.
Beauty Lies was a very confused record, and it was very hard to make. Nona Hendryx is an amazing person, but it was intimidating for us to work with her. She could pick up any instrument—ANY instrument—and show you what she was hearing. We were thinking, ‘that’s not in our capacity.’ And I don’t think we knew where we fit in the musical world anymore, and we felt kind of old. It was pretty strange.
AG: Take the Fall [Bush Tetras’ 2018 EP on Wharf Cat Records] feels like your older stuff to me. Does it feel that way to you?
DP: Having Val in the band really made the difference. After Laura, we had Julia [Murphy], who was in the band way longer than Laura was in the band, maybe 10 years on and off, maybe longer. But she never wrote. Now, Val is putting in that fourth element, that quarter of the pie, offering a bass line where Julia never came in and said, ‘I’ve got this wacky bass line,’ which is what Laura did originally.
Laura would have these ridiculously amazing bass lines, and me and Laura would play together incessantly. And then the song would build from the bottom up. In the 90s, the songs were built from the top down. Now we’re doing both. We’re really trying to remember what we were doing in the early days—what the original spark was for us.
Now we have a whole bunch of songs that no one’s heard yet. There’s five or six more songs that we haven’t played yet.
AG: Speaking of songs that you haven’t yet played or recorded, how are you handling the lockdown in NYC?
DP: There are my drums! [Dee turns his phone to show me his drum set.] I’m playing . . . well, I’m doing a lot of practicing. But I’m really missing playing with people.
Many thanks to Brian Gempp of Record Grouch in Brooklyn, New York, who introduced Dee and Audrey.
Audrey J. Golden is a literature and film professor who lives in Brooklyn, NY. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram, and you can check out her personal website to learn more about her writing and her archive of books, records, and ephemera.