Bush Tetras, c. 1980
Most bands take a fairly linear view of the trajectory of their careers and the passing of time. Groups are founded, release records, build a fan base and gradually either break up or fade away as members move on to new projects. Sometimes this cycle is a quick one, as many acts end up having only a few brief years of life, while others manage to hold together for decades-long careers that weather lineup changes and shifts in musical aesthetics. Bands may reunite after long hiatuses or reform for a few benefit shows later in their careers, but this progression still moves along a fairly straightforward path, one that respects the concept of time as a linear narrative.
But then there are those few rare artists that choose to regard time as a much more elastic concept, more cyclical in nature. Take, for example, dissonant, funk-influenced post-punk unit Bush Tetras. If most musical careers follow the rough trajectory of a typical linear narrative, Bush Tetras have chosen a path for themselves that much more closely resembles that of a comet: appearing brilliantly for a brief period of time before their cycle takes them out of orbit, only to return and become visible again many years later.
Bush Tetras were formed in 1979 by vocalist Cythia Sley and lead guitarist Pat Place, who is also a founding member of new wave group the Contortions. They soon recruited bassist Laura Kennedy and drummer Dee Pop (who would go on to be a widely sought-after session drummer and live improvisational jazz performer). Until their initial period of dormancy in 1983, they were a fixture on the Manhattan club scene, where their proto-indie aesthetic and mix of funky no wave/new wave earned them respect. They even found themselves on the Billboard dance chart with iconic seven-inch “Too Many Creeps.” They put out the cassette-only Wild Things in 1983 before disappearing from view for over a decade.
When the Bush Tetras comet again lit up the music scene, it was the mid-’90s. They performed a string of shows and released Beauty Lies in 1997, on Polygram Records. The band recorded a second album during this period – a full-length called Happy – which was to be put out by Mercury Records (of which Polygram was an imprint). However, the label was sold and the record was indefinitely shelved. Though many attempts were made over the years by other labels, and band members themselves, to get the rights, complicated contractual questions and endless changes in ownership kept the album locked away and unreleased. Besides, Bush Tetras’ time was waning again, and the group once more were dormant.
Bush Tetras reappeared again in 2005 and began performing shows together, though with one significant lineup change: bassist and founding member Laura Kennedy had been replaced by Julia Murphy in 1998, as Kennedy’s liver disease was becoming advanced and she could no longer perform. (Kennedy ultimately passed away in 2011). This latest incarnation of Bush Tetras released Very, Very Happy in 2007 on their original label, ROIR. The record was a collection of re-recorded material, both reinterpretations of some of their old classics (including “Too Many Creeps,”) and several previously unreleased tracks that had been intended for the buried Happy album. While firmly within their aesthetic of throbbing, writhing, celebratory discord, Very, Very Happy possessed a contemporary sheen of polish and wisdom, and was easily recognizable as an older, wiser version of Bush Tetras revisiting their messier youth.
However, this time, Bush Tetras have deigned to stay in our orbit longer than they have in past incarnations, and their tendency to work cyclically has bled over into their albums as well. After being shelved for 15 years, ROIR finally acquired the rights to the original version of Happy, which will finally see a proper release on November 13, 2012. While some of these tracks have since been re-recorded and released in other forms, this album serves as a perfect time capsule of their sound, circa 1997. The 12-song record was produced by Don Fleming (known for his work with Sonic Youth, Teenage Fanclub, Screaming Trees and the Posies) and recorded in 1998 at Shelter Studios, in NYC. It was the last cohesive body of all-new work produced by the band and also the first to feature Julia Murphy on bass.
Happy is a big, brash album that succeeds in no small part by virtue of the huge, surprisingly harsh guitar sound. Sley’s breathy, half-spoken vocals take on a confessional intimacy one moment and an almost mocking self-possession the next. The celebration of excess, captured in the unbelievably catchy funk-infused rhythms, is genuine and ragged, all sore throat and scraped knees oozing beautifully across the record. And over it all, massive distorted guitars add a dark presence, belying any winsomeness with riffs like nests of barbed wire.
Currently, Bush Tetras only have two shows planned to support the long-awaited release of Happy: November 4th at Part Time Punks in Los Angeles and November 29th at Le Poisson Rouge in New York (with Suicide). Hopefully, the release of this album and the upcoming shows indicate that the elusive and luminous Bush Tetras will burn a little brighter, and longer, this time around.
Natalie Zina Walschots is a poet and music writer based in Toronto, Ontario. Her second book of poetry, DOOM: Love Poems for Supervillains, was published by Insomniac Press this spring. You can follow her on Twitter at @NatalieZed.