As lead vocalist of the Bush Tetras, a seminal post-punk band in New York City, Cynthia Sley produced some of the most distinctive aspects of the Tetras sounds. Sley’s vocals were half spoken, half sung and in songs like “Too Many Creeps” and “You Can’t Be Funky” she repeated simple phrases creating a hypnotic monotony similar to Pat Place’s guitar rhythms. “Too Many Creeps” was a mainstay of the infamous early ’80s New York “No Wave” club scene.
Lizzi Bougatsos is an artist and the singer of the beloved experimental rock band Gang Gang Dance; Cynthia Sley and Pat Place are the vocalist and guitarist, respectively, of the legendary no wave band Bush Tetras. Early this summer, the three caught up over Zoom about Downtown then-and-now, Williamsburg, old apartments, Robin Byrd, and much more.
You can read more from some our favorite artists on the subject of NYC in the Talkhouse Reader.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music
Lizzi Bougatsos: I went on Wikipedia and I was like, You know what? This is so boring. I don’t wanna do this, like, factual thing. I’m curious who your influences were when you started playing music, because for me you guys were definitely an influence [of mine].
Cynthia Sley: We were both in the Midwest, so we had a lot of Motown and that kind of music growing up. Then I got to see the Contortions for the first time when I was just moving to New York, and I was blown away by that. Adele [Bertei] was jumping up and down on the keyboard and James [Chance] was getting in a fight with the sound man — I just thought, Oh, this is chaotic and cool. I loved it.
Pat Place: Yeah. Growing up in the Midwest and then moving to New York in the mid-‘70s — you know, I started with stuff like the Stones, then when punk came in around that moment, I just started going to CBGB every night. Because every night was amazing. Then that splintered off into no wave, and that’s when I really thought, Wait, I can do this. Because I came from art school, really — I originally moved to New York to make visual art. So the whole no wave thing really spoke to me, because it was nihilistic, it was DIY, you really didn’t have to play. It wasn’t about technical skill, obviously. [Laughs.] It was about performing and doing something outside of the box, recontextualizing or deconstructing everything, every kind of music. So I was way into that, like going to see Lydia Lunch, DNA, Mars—
Cynthia: And there were actually girls that you could relate to. It was such a boys scene for a long time, and that was starting to turn around. I remember hearing Patti Smith in the mid-‘70s, when Horses came out, and that was, for all of us, such a big deal.
Pat: Yeah. But what enabled me to actually think I can play music was definitely the no wave scene. But even that term, “no wave” — that got coined after we were doing it, or somewhere at the end. There was no real name for that movement at that moment.
Cynthia: Laura [Kennedy], Pat, and I were all art students, so we were coming at it from a totally different perspective. Dee [Pop] was drumming — and he was a writer, too, but he was kind of the musician, and we just came in. It was so freeing. You just do it. You don’t really think about it.
Lizzi: That’s so interesting. I have the same experience. I came from art school, like, throwing clay on my body, projecting bottles on my boobs. [Laughs.] I was doing spoken word at that restaurant Old Devil Moon. I drove into Manhattan from college — I went to school in West Virginia. Don’t ask why, but—
Cynthia: Oh, my god, so did I.
Lizzi: What! Morgantown?
Cynthia: Yeah, I went to Morgantown. I went for one semester and I ran away. I was like, I have an art scholarship. Why am I at Morgantown? It was such a freakish place.
Pat: I didn’t know that about you.
Cynthia: Oh, Pat! You forgot. Yeah, it was just one semester. It was a big mistake. I think I met a warlock who lived up in the hills — it was like, This isn’t real. [Laughs.]
Lizzi: That’s wild. I mean, the first time I showed up there, there was an orange sky and a purple moon, and the Grateful Dead was blasting… You know, the reason why I got out of New York was because of ecstasy. I was freaking out about the rave scene. I was like, “I don’t wanna die! I don’t wanna take ecstasy in my spine, and then die!” I got a full tuition scholarship, and it sucked because I had to take it. I had such New York FOMO. So I would drive to the city every weekend just to see, like, Vito Acconci or Karen Finley or Wigstock. I couldn’t take it.
Cynthia: Oh, yeah.
Lizzi: Eight hours. I had a bong in the car, and a dildo… Maybe we have to edit that out.
Pat: [Laughs.] That’s all you need. That’ll get you there.
Lizzi: Yeah. The woman that I actually started my girl band with, IUD, she didn’t graduate. So I went back to New York, found an apartment, and she was like, “I’ll come when I graduate!” But the reason I started singing was because these guys from DC — they were coming from the jazz scene, but they said, “If you be our singer, then I’ll give you a drum kit.” I was like, “Sold.”
Pat: That’s so cool. That’s kind of the way it was, right? James asked me if I played an instrument, and I had Frank [Schroder]’s bass in my apartment — “Oh, yeah, I play bass.” But I did not play bass.
Lizzi: Kim Gordon told me the same thing. She would always describe coming from art school and how she really considers herself more of an artist. I had the same experience. I didn’t know how to play anything. I still don’t know how to play anything. I don’t know how to read music. I’m completely self-taught.
Cynthia: I think that’s an advantage. It frees you up. You create new things more easily.
Pat: Yeah, otherwise things can get formulaic. I mean, the Beatles and Stones — they were all in art school originally, and those guys never read music either. So that always makes me feel better. [Laughs.]
Cynthia: I feel like I gravitated more towards music because it was just so fun to collaborate and work together. And I realized I kind of like being on stage. It’s so instant, the gratification. You’re doing visual art and it’s not always so instant. It’s kind of lonely, working in a bubble.
Lizzi: I know. I always felt like that, too. You two both have places outside of the city, right?
Cynthia: I don’t, I’m just on vacation. I’m in Fire Island right now.
Lizzi: I have a huge history with Fire Island. I grew up in Sayville.
Cynthia: Oh, I love.
Lizzi: Yeah. And for Gay Pride, I went there last year on the first day and I met Robin Byrd.
Cynthia: Oh, my god. I’ve met her before. I love her.
Lizzi: She’s so cool. I remember her show. So I walk into this boat and — I mean, it’s a long story, but my friend said, “Oh, this is Lizzi, she’s from Sayville.” And she said, “Oh, you mean Gayville?!” I was so happy.
Cynthia: She’s fantastic, isn’t she? She’s the real thing, man.
Lizzi: She’s the real deal, and her show was the real deal. I miss public access TV.
Cynthia: I know! I think we should start that back up.
Lizzi: I think we should too. But I guess YouTube covers the territory.
Pat: Cable TV used to be that — Robin Byrd and a lot of astrologers and Glenn O’Brien’s show [TV Party, which he co-hosted with Blondie’s Chris Stein]. I mean, New York was just so different in the ‘80s. I think it’s hard these days for young artists — especially in Manhattan, it’s nearly impossible unless you have already a start. It’s too expensive. When we started, it was basically a rundown, bankrupt city, especially downtown. No one wanted to live down there, so it was cheap. We had our own rehearsal space, and that’s very hard to do for young artists and musicians now.
Cynthia: Yeah, you can’t do it in Manhattan. I think a lot of kids are out in Bushwick or Ridgewood. I just moved to Ridgewood.
Lizzi: Oh, yeah?
Cynthia: Yeah, I love it. I love Queens. It reminds me of the East Village back in the day a little bit. It’s very diverse. I like it more than Brooklyn.
Lizzi: I think I might go there next. I’m in Brooklyn now. I was on Pitt Street in Manhattan for a long time.
Cynthia: Oh, by the pool.
Lizzi: I was across the street. It was good because I had a tenement apartment, so when it was summer, they have the showers at the pool. That was a real highlight for me.
Pat: We used to go to that pool, Cynthia.
Cynthia: Yes, we did! It’s probably cleaner going in the shower, because the kids would pee in the pool.
Lizzi: Do you think that we’re back to the ‘80s in New York? Like, the feeling of the streets…
Cynthia: I don’t think so. Well, in some ways. I mean, yeah, there’s a lot of people nodding out and there’s a lot of people stealing shit. It’s a little bit more dangerous on the train again. But look at the rent! It’s insane. That made it so easy for artists, because you’d pay $80 a month to rent and you didn’t have to have 20 roommates. It was like the Wild West. Like anything, you just had to be aware and alert, but it was kind of our town. I don’t get that feeling now. I feel like it’s corporate town.
Lizzi: Williamsburg feels like Boston.
Cynthia: [Laughs.] Oh, god, that’s an insult.
Lizzi: I know. It’s like a Boston mall. It’s like, What the hell is this? I can’t handle it with the fake turf, and I hate all the stores. It’s like a suburban mall.
Pat: I’m on the edge of Soho and that has gone from galleries and artist lofts to — that is a major mall now. It’s kind of sad. I see so many things constantly disappearing, and then they get replaced by some chain store. Do you feel like Manhattan is going back to the ‘80s?
Lizzi: I do. I read this book about this carpenter that built all the lofts during Studio 54, and there was all the drug money. Now there’s so many drugs in New York, at least in the young scene, and who knows what’s in them. I just feel like the money [now] and the money in the ‘80s — that’s my my parallel. But also, Pitt Street’s turned into a living hell. Like knife fights in my doorway and people jumping cars and stabbing people. Somebody just got shot….
Pat: From that aspect, for sure, because it was dangerous over there.
Cynthia: I mean, I remember somebody came up to me with a knife… It did happen, but we were not afraid somehow. There were enough of us that, I don’t know, we weren’t alone a lot.
Pat: They had knives, not guns.
Cynthia: Yeah, that’s true. I don’t know. I lived on Broome between Orchard and Ludlow and, god, there’s just all these drunken kids and bros now. It’s weird. It’s all this gentrification; it makes it really intense. But I feel like back then, the gentrification just hadn’t quite started, so it was kind of a magical moment. By ‘82 it did, but ‘78, it was like a ghost town and you felt relatively safe.
Pat: We felt like it was our turf, and I don’t know if that exists anymore, or if it can. Because when I’m there on the weekends and I see young people that are out, it’s a completely different scene than what we were doing. The restaurants are expensive. They’re dressed up. I mean, we might have been dressed up, but not like that.
Lizzi: I feel like a prude when I go to Washington Square Park. I feel like it’s on fire with the looks.
Pat: It is very different. And they’re coming from gym classes and yoga classes. Not that I have anything against that, but we weren’t doing that back in those days. Probably should have been. [Laughs.]
Cynthia: Yeah, I know. I’m so much more healthy than I was in my 20s.
Pat: Yeah. And, yes, there were a ton of drugs in Lower Manhattan back in those days, so there was a parallel there. But I think even the money was different, because in the ‘80s it wasn’t necessarily the 1%. There were rich people, but it wasn’t so divided. Of course, we were all living hand-to-mouth.
Lizzi: Yeah. I heard that Steve Shelley played on your new album.
Cynthia: Yeah, Steve joined us about a year-and-a-half-ago. And he didn’t just play on the record, he produced it and joined the band. He’s writing with us. So that’s been really fun.
Lizzi: He’s such a sick drummer.
Cynthia: Oh, man, and he’s such an adorable human. He’s really fun to work with. It’s making it so much nicer, moving on from what we went through. [Bush Tetras’ drummer Dee Pop passed away in 2021.] We had a tough couple of years, and it’s been really nice. He’s really a rock.
Lizzi: I’m sorry for your loss. I had a band member pass away, too.
Cynthia: Oh, I’m sorry.
Lizzi: I was thinking about it today because a friend called me, and her friend died, and she was talking to me about it. My guy [Nathan Maddox] went to a rooftop after the Twin Towers came down, during a storm so he could watch the lightning. He was the one that was on the cover of the New York Post — I don’t know if you saw that, this beautiful guy that looked like Bob Dylan. The lightning hit him and went through him, and he died.
Cynthia: Oh, my god.
Lizzi: And so my friend said to me today, “You know, [my friend] is gone.” And I said, “Well, I have to tell you: I don’t think Nathan has ever been gone.” I feel like he always wanted that realm. He was sort of a mystic. All the other guys, they would smell so bad when they would come over, and I was the only one that would have a job. I would be like, “Put your clothes in the hallway.” [Laughs.] I think it was ‘97 or ‘96, and all the [Gang Gang Dance] guys would come over. You know how we formed, actually, was at Pat Hearn’s memorial — she was my first mentor.
Cynthia: Oh, what a mentor. Lucky.
Lizzi: I know. She had that band with one of the guys from the Lounge Lizards—
Pat: Oh, who was it? It’s funny, Colin [De Land] paid me to give Pat a guitar lesson for her birthday a really long time ago — which is hilarious, because I’m not a guitar teacher. But I tried to do as best I could to show her what I thought might be valuable for her to know. I didn’t realize that she had formed a band.
Lizzi: Well, Colin gave me a tape [of her songs] and he was like, “Hey, Lizzi, can you play these songs at her memorial?” The one at her gallery on 22nd. I was like, “Sure.” And I asked the guys from DC to be my backup, and then I became their singer. That’s how that whole thing started.
Cynthia: That’s very cool. I was going to tell you: I lived in Williamsburg in 1989, if you can imagine.
Pat: Well, because you just had a baby.
Cynthia: Yeah. Well, I had the baby, like, two days after I moved in there. 10 years, I lived in the East Village.
Pat: You didn’t want to raise your kid in a fifth floor walk up.
Cynthia: Yeah. You know, the bathtub was in the kitchen… I couldn’t have even gotten the baby up into that loft bed. But [Williamsburg] was such a no man’s land then. Oh, my god. It was on the north side, but it was dead. And that combined with just having a baby — I lost my goddamn mind.
Lizzi: I can’t imagine.
Cynthia: Talk about lonely. It was intense. Pat would come out and she’d fall asleep.
Pat: I thought I was in the country. [Laughs.] I would just pass out. The energy was so much calmer.
Lizzi: I mean, my guys from DC had this garage they lived in. Then there was a few offices, and that became their bedrooms, and then one guy just pitched a tent in the middle.
Pat: In Williamsburg?
Lizzi: [Laughs.] On Kent and North 5th, or something.
Pat: But see, that’s cool.
Cynthia: That was great, because it was like the Wild West over there. That changed within 10 years, man. That was all built up. It changed so fast.
Pat: That’s always the way: artists or musicians will move into a place, and then it catches on and becomes too expensive for the artists. I mean, that’s what happened to Soho.
Cynthia: Yeah. And I think it’s going to happen in Ridgewood, too, honestly.
Lizzi: I mean, I think it’s already happened. Everyone wants to move to Philly… Nobody can afford anything here.
Pat: But New York has such a history of artists. I mean, kids probably still want to come to New York.
Lizzi: Oh, yeah. I don’t know. I want to move to Paris when I can’t find another place here. [Laughs.]