“You can’t be funky if you haven’t got a soul.”
On the first chilly evening of September, NYC’s Le Poisson Rouge played host to a record release party for No Wave legends Bush Tetras. By mere auditory flair and zest, one might presume Bush Tetras to be some fresh, vivacious ensemble inspired by No Wave’s youthful exuberance. This isn’t to suggest that Bush Tetras have been left in the proverbial dust – in fact, as this punchy performance proves, they’re still writing their legacy as the youths nip at their seasoned heels. Their lasting, if largely underground, power was evident in the adoring crowd spanning several generations, from the old Max’s Kansas City crowd to modern St Vitus scene. Excited snippets of conversations buzzed through the air, as the elders reminisced over their youth and raised pints of lager to toast departed members.
“I saw Bush Tetras play Peppermint Lounge, 1980! Remember that place?”
“They don’t play very often, you’re in for a treat!”
“Ahhh, you weren’t even born yet when I last saw a Bush Tetras show! I have an original record signed by the band, must be worth something now, huh?”
Surfacing from the volatile underground scene of New York City in 1979, Bush Tetras became synonymous with a raw fusion of post-punk and funk-infused rhythms. Cynthia Sley’s commanding vocals, juxtaposed against Pat Place’s jagged guitar strokes, created a sonic atmosphere that was both abrasive and addictive.
The ensemble drew its moniker from two seemingly disparate entities: the ‘Bush Babies,’ (also known as a galago) an endearing African primate that caught their hearts, and the Neon Tetra, an iridescent fish admired for its subtle dance of colors. By synthesizing one word from each source, they crafted a name that resonated with an almost “tribal” cadence, merging the eclectic and the elemental.
Despite never achieving mainstream commercial success, Bush Tetras’ cultural footprint was profound. They influenced countless bands – most notably, Sonic Youth – as their tracks became anthems in punk clubs, college radio, and underground hangouts. Their relevance has never been confined to a particular era; their impact still resonates across decades. Facing several hiatuses, lineup shifts, and the ever-changing dynamics (and misogyny) of the music industry, Bush Tetras showcased resilience and adaptability, solidifying their position as stalwarts of NYC’s post-punk legacy.
Following Weeping Icon’s captivating performance, founding members Cynthia Sley and Pat Place graced the stage dressed in a chic jumpsuit and construction vest, respectively. The unveiled selections from their newest album, “They Live In My Head,” interspersed with a few timeless pieces. Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley (also the album’s producer) and bassist Cáit “Rocky” O’Riordan (The Pogues) lent their talents as they kicked off the show with the contemplative 2020 Vision, from the new album.
They Live in My Head is Bush Tetras’ third full length record since their formation in 1979. It addresses their formative years, steeped in the milieu of late 70s New York City; encapsulating the band’s collective evolution, the quirks of youth, and their shared experience. It also pays homage to their departed drummer Dee Pop, who passed away in 2021. When Shelley joined the band, Bush Tetras began experimenting with kinesthetic writing sessions.
“We just went into the rehearsal space and things just would fall right into place,” says Place, “We’d start playing and the next thing would happen and we’d know where to take it.”
In the throes of pandemic turmoil, Tout est Meilleur emerged as Bush Tetras’ post-punk ode to the profound potential found in cherishing life’s minutiae. With a texture as velvety as churned butter and a rhythm exuding unmistakable verve, Sley’s mellifluous vocals, delivered in French, graced the piece with an added layer of sophistication. Meditative recollections of bygone days ensued, paying homage to those they’ve lost, notably in the title song and the melancholic Ghosts of People: “Ramen and slices/Snickers and coke/Burn your crosses in the snow.”
Amidst their performance, Bird On A Wire emerged as a highlight. Sley’s lyrics painted a vivid picture—of minuscule satellites orbiting, the relentless march of time, and the unique vantage of observing the cosmos from terra firma. A poignant dedication, this melody was written in memory of her mother. Place’s guitar resonated with electrifying notes, while a joyful O’Riordan’s bass maintained a pulsating heartbeat.
In a nostalgic nod, Bush Tetras played the classic You Can’t Be Funky, as well as their street harassment anthem: Too Many Creeps, which was penned by Sley when working at Bleecker Street Cinema…just a block away from Le Poisson Rouge, in fact. New York City undergoes perpetual change, but certain constants persist— namely, the enduring presence of creeps.
For the final song, Barry Reynolds (Marianne Faithfull) made a cameo, performing his song, the heart-wrenching Guilt.
In forty years, with faces come and gone, the band’s tune hasn’t missed a beat. Sley’s voice? Age has only gifted it richness and poise. On stage, she’s near spellbinding, nearly ethereal. Their verve? As undying as that first, brilliant flash that made us fall in love with them. While the new album is a post-punk tour de force, the elders are right: for the full experience, Bush Tetras must be seen live…if you can catch them.
Listen to and order They Live In My Head, out now via Wharf Cat Records.
- 2020 Vision
- Tout Est Meilleur
- There Is A Hum
- Bird On A Wire
- So Strange
- Ghosts of People
- Another Room
- Things I Put Together
- You Can’t Be Funky
- They Live In My Head
- Time To Burn
- Walking Out The Door
- Too Many Creeps
- Guilt (w/Barry Reynolds)
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