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After ups and downs, singer Cynthia Sley and legendary band Bush Tetras going strong 40 years later

At the Mercury Lounge in summer 2019, the Bush Tetras L-R: Pat Place, Cynthia Sley, Dee Pop, Val Opielski. (Photos by Bob Krasner)

BY BOB KRASNER

Cynthia Sley has seen some changes. Musical projects, jobs, record labels, motherhood, divorce and more apartments than she can remember have come and gone. But, after 40 years, the band that guitarist Pat Place “coerced” her into joining –  the Bush Tetras –  is still going strong. 

Sley grew up in Cleveland, taking in the wild musical scene that produced Pere Ubu and Devo but never thinking that she’d ever be in a band. It was on a trip to New York City to visit the only person she knew here – Jim Jarmusch – that she had her epiphany.

“I walked from the Empire Hotel (on the Upper West Side) to the East Village and I knew immediately that I had to move here,” she recalls.

Although she had written lots of poetry, it was never with the intention of her words becoming songs. Her previous experience in anything resembling a band was her involvement back home in a “fake band” called “Johnny and the Dicks,” a performance art piece that didn’t involve much actual music (but did involve future Bush Tetra Laura Kennedy) . 

Once she moved to the city, she toyed with the idea of going to FIT and becoming a fashion designer, but fate had other plans.

“I ran into Laura Kennedy and fell into that group of weirdos!” Sley laughs. Guitarist Pat Place had left the Contortions, where she had made a name for herself in the “No Wave” scene backing up James Chance with her unique style and was putting the Bush Tetras together but couldn’t find the right vocalist.  

L-R: Pat Place and Cynthia Sley in Sley’s apartment.

Sley fit right in, her poems becoming songs as the Bush Tetras came together with Kennedy on bass and drummer Dee Pop. “We felt the chemistry right away,” Sley muses. “I fell in love with the collaborative process – sometimes the songs just burst out of nothing.”

Their first gig was at Tier 3, a short lived, legendary center for live music in Tribeca. It was packed with fans of Pat Place and Sley remembers being pretty nervous. “I hung on the mic stand and sang with my eyes closed the whole time,” she says. “We only had seven songs and we did them all twice!”

The second gig was even scarier. Opening for the Feelies at a much bigger full house at Irving Plaza, Sley brought along a guitar but never played it. “I only opened my eyes to play percussion,” she admits. 

The Bush Tetras had a sound and an attitude that was perfect for the downtown scene. Their first single, released in 1980 on 99 Records, was “Too Many Creeps,” a perfect intro to their aesthetic. The seven inch single actually made a dent on the Billboard dance chart, hitting no. 57 and remains a signature tune in their live show.

Cynthia Sley, lead singer of the Bush Tetras, in her apartment.

Sley spent some of these formative times sleeping “on a pile of mattresses” in the group’s rehearsal space at First Avenue and First Street, trying to ignore the dripping water and hoping that the gas leaks would be fixed quickly.

Real apartments followed and the band continued to record and tour. The band went through changes and Sley’s life did as well. In 1982 she married guitarist Ivan Julian, a member of Richard Hell’s Voidoids. The Bush Tetras began to mutate in 1983 due to the departure of Kennedy and Pop. Replacements Don Christenson and Bob Albertson kept them going for another year, but “we sabotaged ourselves,” says Sley. Among other issues, “drugs were involved.”

As the Tetras dissolved, she formed Lovelies with husband Julian, recording one album. In 1989 their son Austin was born and eventually Sley put aside music for a while. “I was crushed that things hadn’t worked out,” she admits.

Other projects did follow, including an excellent collaboration with Rachel Dengiz and Pat Irwin (of the Raybeats and the B52’s) called Command V and a couple of recorded but unreleased enterprises – the Tabby Chinos with Bob Pfeifer and 1-900-BOX, a group that had the blessing and occasional mentorship of Debbie Harry but didn’t last. 

Cynthia Sley in her apartment.

Meanwhile, music wasn’t paying the bills and in 1992 her marriage broke up, leaving her a single mother.

“I really struggled,” she admits. “I was doing freelance gigs, like editing Berlitz travel guides  – I speak fluent French – and putting myself through college to get a teaching degree.” 

She started out teaching art at a “pretty rough” school on the Lower East Side, but luckily ended up at PS3 in the West Village. “I loved that school,” she says. 

Her place of residence continued to change, landing her in Brooklyn, Harlem and even a few years in Laurel Canyon in California. “I hated California,” she notes.

In addition to art, Sley has had a great time teaching science, writing and math to grade school kids but, she says, “I couldn’t give up music.”

The Tetras would periodically reunite, but suffered a major personal and musical blow when Laura Kennedy died of liver disease in 2011. Replacements were recruited but didn’t work out until Dee Pop’s friend Val Opielski auditioned. “It was magical from the beginning,” says Sley. “She brought life back into the band.” 

New work began to emerge with an EP on Wharf Cat Records and a single on Jack White’s Third Man label. While they work up new material for an upcoming LP, Sley is having a moment of transition that is working for her.

The three founding members of the Bush Tetras L-R: Pat Place, Cynthia Sley, Dee Pop.

“I’m debt free and I’m retired from teaching,” she explains. Her son and his wife have moved out of her Chelsea digs and Sley is relishing the creativity of the revived Bush Tetras.

“We write a lot out of jams – it’s really cool and really fun. And we are having a great time playing live!”

Even though the times have changed and the post punk scene that nourished the band is now history, the band sees fans at the shows who were not yet born when they released their first single. “The Bush Tetras have stayed relevant – it’s a unique sound,” states Sley.

“Making the music is the same now as it was then – it’s all about the band chemistry,” says Pat Place. “In the 90’s we tried to complicate things,” she adds. “But we’ve gone back to a simpler approach. And the songs happen quicker now.”

“We were a family unit and that hasn’t changed. We don’t always get along, but we are blessed! We just want to get our music out there, ” concludes Sley. And, she adds, “it’s kind of mind blowing that it’s been forty years ! “

The Bush Tetras will celebrate their 40th anniversary at Le Poisson Rouge on Feb. 21. They can be heard live on wfmu.org on Feb. 19 at 9 p.m. More info about the band is at www.facebook.com/bushtetras/.

The Villager