Cynthia Sley of Bush Tetras new band, Command V

Cynthia Sley of Bush Tetras new band, Command V

Release Date: March 13, 2012

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Last Edited by: Jack Stovin February 26th, 2012.

Command V is a new trio with a long history. Though Cynthia Sley and Pat Irwin only recently began collaborating musically, they’ve been rubbing elbows as figures in New York’s vibrant Lower East Side since the late Seventies and early Eighties. Together with filmmaker and keyboardist Rachel Dengiz, they’ve created an aesthetic that charts the changes of the past thirty years -- in themselves, with technology, and in New York itself.

Cynthia Sley wasn’t a peripheral No Waver -- her band, the Bush Tetras, was at the movement’s epicenter. The group was profiled in a 2007 American Music article:

New music and musical styles were created in neighborhoods where the previous decades’ physical and social disintegration had taken the greatest toll... For residents of this New York in 1980... this 'explosive convergence' of musical styles was part and parcel of the discordant soundscape of their city. One local band was frequently mentioned in reviews and concert announcements as capturing well the sound and feel of the Lower East Side during this moment: the Bush Tetras. (1)

According to Thurston Moore, the Bush Tetras "immediately became a sensation" when the group emerged in 1980. "That first summer when Bush Tetras became the most popular band in NYC," Moore writes in No Wave: Post-Punk. Underground. New York. 1976-1980, "they were, to me, the greatest band in the world." Cynthia Sley was the band’s hypnotic singer, and held court in front of a percussive, funky rhythm section that featured thin, jagged melodies from original Contortions guitarist Pat Place. The Bush Tetras were one of the most experimental New York bands, adding African polyrhythms and UK dance influences to the disaffected rock n’ roll of their peers. They didn’t record many songs, but they piqued the interest of everyone who came in contact with the scene.

As a member of multiple groups at No Wave’s forefront, Pat Irwin was also a crucial party of the movement. Robert Palmer, the revered New York Times and Rolling Stone columnist, described him as a "mercurial presence on the New York rock scene of the early 80's... [Pat’s bands] the Raybeats and Eight-Eyed Spy resembled each other only in that they had an aversion to the predictable and the ordinary." Purportedly a "neo surf" band, the Raybeats was more diverse and arrangmentally adroit than that title might suggest. Eight-Eyed Spy, fronted by Lydia Lunch and known for its flippant "swamp rock" covers of standards like "Diddy Wah Diddy," was as fierce and dark as the Raybeats was light and quirky. In both groups, Irwin played guitar as well as a gnarly jazz saxophone.

The scene that gave birth to these bands was not of a unified sound. Enabled by the low rents and multiculturalism of the Lower East Side, No Wave was exemplified by its adherents’ embrace and re-appropriation of as many different creative styles as could be absorbed. In the Bush Tetras, the Raybeats, and Eight-Eyed Spy, Cynthia Sley and Pat Irwin were key to the "mix and match" aesthetic for which this generation of New Yorkers is best remembered.

New York has changed tremendously since 1980. The Lower East Side is practically unrecognizable, having long ago become a symbol of relentless gentrification that has been targeted by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of "America’s Most Endangered Places."(2) Music-making, too, has changed. The DIY philosophy and improvisational nature of No Wave meant that much of it went un-captured. Eight-Eyed Spy only made a handful of official recordings, and the memory of them is mostly preserved through concert bootlegs. The shift from live to computer-aided recording processes has inverted this dynamic, and many musicians now slave over recordings before they even consider live performance.

Command V exists explicitly because of these technological changes. After years without writing a song, Sley turned her attention back to music when she bought a MacBook and became enamored of Garageband. She invited her friend Rachel Dengiz to begin playing with her, and the two of them took the first steps towards what would eventually become Command V. "I had wanted to start a project for a while," says Rachel, "and Cynthia had just started working with Garageband. I came over and added my bits and played the ones she couldn't play."

With Rachel’s help, Cynthia learned to use her computer to compose music in a new way. The two women had similar sensibilities and found synergy through which Rachel was able to help Cynthia clarify her ideas while keeping their rawness and personal emotion. Rachel also introduced Cynthia to the techniques of arranging music on a computer, which is altogether different than doing it live. "My entire concept of songwriting has changed," she explains, "I always wrote during jams with the Bush Tetras in a rehearsal space or with Pat Place and her guitar. But I had waited years for us to write again. [Making these songs] was both freeing and enlightening. I realized I could start a song on my own."

The process was such an inspiration that the group’s name, Command V, is actually a reference to the cut-and-paste technique that freed Cynthia from needing to write with a band.

Pat came into the picture after Cynthia and Rachel had already developed a bit of material. When they ran into each other at a 2008 book reading by Lydia Lunch, Pat was excited to hear about his old friend’s new music. He had always loved Cynthia’s voice, and he wanted to contribute. It was only a matter of days before Cynthia came to his studio and they began to work together.

Pat gave the songs a new dimension, and soon the trio began to weave Cynthia’s bare bedroom recordings into the fully-realized compositions brought to life by Command V. Rachel, who has worked with the likes of Jim Jarmusch and Steve Buscemi, also directed the group’s first videos. "Lost On Me" captures the band in its most natural habitat -- the gritty side of NYC, and "Hello," with its muted colors and grainy shots of Upstate trees and flowers, plays like a celebratory home movie that portrays the band mysteriously while also suggesting the familial joy of the then-new project.

Empowered by her new tools and collaborators, Cynthia tapped into her own personality for lyrical fodder. "After so much time off from song-writing," she says, "I had a lot to say about what had gone on in my life." This theme is apparent in the first song that she and Pat wrote together, "Hello," which opens with the following full-throated proclamation of self: "Hello! I’m not dead yet!" This general theme is apparent throughout Command V’s oeuvre, which is a testament to the strength of Cynthia’s perspective.

As the singer of the Bush Tetras, Cynthia Sley’s deadpan delivery exemplified the so-called Blank Generation’s feelings of big city alienation. On "Too Many Creeps," a spoken-not-sung anthem and one of the band’s most enduring songs, she expresses disgust with the outside world thusly: "I just don’t wanna go out in the streets no more because these people they give me the creeps." The song’s video depicts these creeps on the streets, going about their days unaware while the band sneers at them. Speaking now, Sley contends that the Bush Tetras and fellow No Wavers "were really rebellious, writing about personal politics, ...feeling outside the norm, kind of saying, 'Fuck you! We're outside the norm!'"

"The Bush Tetras was created in a pool of unrest and Renaissance in NYC. We were expressing what many of my friends felt -- the East Village was our haven and it was 'us' against 'them.' We liked being mysterious and combining lyrics, Beat-style. We liked when people would interpret our lyrics in different ways."

Command V’s lyrics are personal. While she tries to stay mysterious, Cynthia’s approach to her new songs is inward-facing. "Take Me Back" is a plea to a lost love that asks for reconciliation while admitting that "I don’t know what I’m looking for." The subdued "The Scene" is another song about searching, this time about age-old questions of faith and atheism. On "Hello," Cynthia admits to that she’s "waiting to be free" before quickly wondering whether or not she’s "said too much." Each of these songs shows a mature willingness to be vulnerable, in contrast with the aggressive veneer of the singer’s work with the Bush Tetras.

Cynthia’s performances, sung alone in her apartment, are necessarily candid and spontaneous. Pat’s instrumental contributions, too, have a soft and lonely timbre. He explains, "When I first got the vocal tracks from Cynthia I was working on a cartoon with Andre 3000 called 'Class of 3000.' It was a lot of work with brutal deadlines. Sometimes, usually very late at night or early in the morning, I would take one of Cynthia's tracks and start to build it up." The late night feelings seep in to the music, giving Command V a cool, subtle disco feel that wouldn’t sound out-of-place if stuck on a mix with Chill Wave bands whose members were born after the Lower East Side had begun its gentrification.


Since recording the album, Pat has moved his studio to Long Island City. In the meantime, the meat-packing district has become trendy and more expensive -- just as the Lower East Side did after its artistic heyday in the Seventies. But Pat doesn’t necessarily view these changes as negative:

"The major difference in New York City then and today is real estate. I can't imagine starting a band in Manhattan now, but when I first moved to NYC that was the only place I could imagine. But the cost of the real estate hasn't killed the creativity. It's just spread to other places outside of Manhattan. There's probably more going on now than ever and there's much more access because of the Internet. In the Seventies, it was all about the fringe. Now, the fringe is everywhere."
While they’re each too modest to admit it readily, Pat and Cynthia are among the reasons why the fringe is everywhere. Early hip hop DJs, including the Furious 5, were inspired by the beats and funky, clipped guitars of the Bush Tetras and their compatriots -- contemporaries Liquid Liquid even provided the bass line and background vocals to Mellie Mel’s "White Lines." Two decades later, "mutant disco" sounds from the early-80s resurfaced in the legendary DJ sets of LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy and spread outward to the rest of the world. In a 2004 Mojo piece, David Fricke wrote that No Wave and it’s "school of ferocity" became "unholy gospel to a new generation of rock'n'roll extremists in and beyond New York, including: The Rapture, Erase Errata, Whirlwind Heat, The Liars and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs."(3) With the advent of file sharing, Cynthia and Pat’s old bands each experienced renewed interest amongst interested people who had been unable to find the groups' previously "rare" recordings. The revived importance of No Wave extended out from New York, inspiring British DJs like Optimo.

In its live incarnation, Command V expands into a quintet that includes bassist Sara Lee (Gang of Four) and drummer Zach Alford (David Bowie, etc). These luminaries have been drawn to Command V not only because of the group’s lineage but also because of its new music. Command V’s sound is lush and nuanced, incorporating new digital aesthetics in the same ways that their fellow No Wavers incorporated the timbres and styles of the immigrant communities that surrounded them. Command V is, therefore, not a throwback band but a truly modern group.

While the Lower East Side may never be what it was like in the Seventies, Command V has its spirit and is taking it boldly into the future.

The debut from Cynthia Sley (Bush Tetras), Pat Irwin (Eight-Eyed Spy, Raybeats)
& Rachel Dengiz (filmmaker who has worked with Jim Jarmusch and Steve Buscemi)
Release Date: March 13, 2012
and the lead single
Command V - Lost On Me
(with remixes from Optimo, Max Pask, Jacques Renault and more)
Release Date: February 7, 2012

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