The premise of these features is to present an alternative to americana, one that floats our boat and hopefully raises a few interested glances from those of you tuning in. By showcasing a band that we love we try to suggest different musical experiences to the ones we might regularly highlight on AUK. In putting this together I wanted to go as far out to the other side, away from americana, as my collection would allow, Wolf Eyes perhaps or 23 Skidoo? But I don’t have the energy or time for that stuff, I just don’t dig it any more. I’ve not gone soft you understand I’m just getting elemental and have given up trying to show off my cool taste. With this in mind I give you the Cynics, a magnificently noisy yet perfectly tuneful garage band from Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, formed in 1983 and still, just, trogging on today.*
There’s nothing about our hitting it off that is interesting enough to recount, I don’t even remember it myself. They don’t define any aspect of my relationship with music or a particular time in my life and they don’t colour the way I see the world. They’re just there, always. On a shelf that is in a different room to my country records and on my turntable. They give me something that is different to when I listen to Sarah Shook, Zephaniah OHora or The Blasters but other than a pure deep sense of gratitude for being around to listen to them I really don’t know what that is.
Their original instigator was guitarist Gregg Kostelich, who along with vocalist and harmonica player Mark Kastelic (joined in 85, pleasing name symmetry) remains the mainstay of the band to this day. The rest of the crew has been made up of a rotating cast of bassists and drummers, together with occasional keyboards. Pretty much the same as every other grotty guitar band, their apprenticeship was spent playing just a bit faster than their technical capabilities allowed in front of handfuls of punters in scummy dives – in their case Pittsburgh’s Electric Banana (yeah, me neither). Kostelich and consequently the band, have a lifelong devotion to garage rock, which was supposedly born when his cop grandad brought home a haul of stolen and unclaimed 45s from the police evidence locker and cemented when his parents took him to see the Sonics aged 7 (I thought Slade at age 9 was cool but wow!) – such a mad perfect origin story I really hope it’s true.
Garage rock is and always will be ‘outsider’ music. Its very essence is in somewhere other than mainstream popularity. Since its emergence from the primordial soup of 50s r’n’b, soul, surf and rudimentary technical competence (at best) it has been about soundtracking sweaty school dances, loose lustful liaisons and teenage trauma. In this, it is purely innocent and elemental rock n roll music nothing more, nothing less. Perhaps the last such there will be. It has nothing to teach us about our world or those in it, no insights to offer beyond urging us to forget the consequences and adopt the Epicurean philosophy – to ‘eat, drink and be merry’ in case we snuff it in the morning. Or to further labour this unnecessary philosophising, the garage rock world of my beloved Philadelphian Cynics also reflects the philosophy of the Greek Cynics – working in a way that is purely natural to them and their desires, snubbing convention and denying orthodox yearnings for wealth, power and fame.
By taking the path of garage my Cynics have chosen an ascetic devotion to the purity of their music, eschewing the wealth or other trappings of success that may have been available if they had allowed in some of the commercially attractive impurities of, say, grunge or whatever it was that the White Stripes and their ilk were doing in the early noughties. In one of their regular self-important and smarter-than-thou proclamations Pitchfork suggest that garage rock is not a genre of music but an ontology. One that manifests a belief that its world is not fame or success oriented, that garage was never designed to be popular and consequently it has never been popular, it and its denizens are therefore “assured obscurity”. We can be sure that, unless you live in Spain, this is assuredly the case for the Cynics. It has really never been a case of ‘why are these guys not more famous?’ as they exist in a world in which such success is simply not part of the ecosystem.
The band’s output exhibits an unwavering and immersive adherence to the code that is garage rock and is dismissive of everything that is not garage. This gives us the tightest, leanest most focussed catalogue of records imaginable. Unkind non-believers may call these samey when they’re trying to be dismissive, but that’s the point, cloth ears. They are meant to be the same, to demonstrate that unflagging commitment to loud, frantic and melodic trash with a handful of basic chords, moronic catchy riffs and loser lyrics. A commitment that is founded on the principles of primal ultra-distorted and fuzzed out guitar, screaming whiny vocals and proudly Neanderthal rhythms. This unashamedly describes every second of music the Cynics have put to tape over the course of 39 years, even the ballads.
Their purity of focus deliberately eschews any sense of uniqueness or innovation in striving for a generic – genre – compatibility. This is actually a massive compliment. The fact you can dive in to their records at any point of their career and get just what you want / expect is exactly what a garage band should deliver. Those in the know get it: “the Cynics have been churning out primo ’60s garage punk like nobody’s business for over 15 years”, “the Cynics have been preaching it for years” or “nothing in their approach has changed over the years” say Trouser Press, Playboy (really!) and Pitchfork. But Kastelich says it best himself: “We’re still standing and we’re still doing it the way we did when we started. I guess you could say we were here when it all started and we’re still here now”. Amen to that.
(the last 30 seconds of this clip is as poignant an encapsulation of the rock n roll myth as ever offered)
* I convinced myself these guys were well away from AUK’s ball park. Noisy aggressive and snotty garage rock being something we’d never cover. Then I clock a small eulogy for that fine little Halifax loving band The Courettes in our SXSW feature this week, so maybe I’m wrong. Good as they are though they are not a patch on these Cynics.