THE ZERO BOYS
The ultra-short bio:
Around since '79 and with only a few line-up changes and extended breaks, Paul Mahern, Dave "Tufty" Clough, Mark Cutsinger and Vess Ruhtenberg are still playing shows as the Zero Boys with as much intensity as any punk band out there right now.
My friend Ian and I met up with two members of the Zero Boys in Chicago before their Riot Fest show on October 10, 2010. Between their sound check and their show, and with the Meatmen soundchecking in the background, we talked with Dave "Tufty" Clough and Vess Ruhtenberg about life with the Zero Boys.
They seemed pretty lively, looking forward to playing thier set, and were often funnier than hell which I hope comes across without having to add any more "[laughs]" all over the place. (Mark Cutsinger came in part way through but he was pretty quiet. Paul Mahern wasn't expected until later.)
(Tufty and Vess and a bit of Mark from Riot Fest, 2010.)
Janine: What have you guys been doing the last 28 years or whatever it is?
Tufty: 30 years.
Vess: 31 years the band's been together. Tufty's been in in it for like 29, I've been in it for about 25.
Tufty: 30, cause '80.
Vess: Hey, you've been in it since '80!
J: When did you release your first album?
Tufty: The e.p. was '79, the album came out in '81, it was recorded in '80
Vess: Living in the '80s came out in 1980 for sure. No no no, the first record was recorded in '80--
Tufty: But the band had been playing for a bit before it came out. The first thing came out just a couple of months before the album. Not hardly any time between.
Vess: [sighs] Shows what we know...
J: [to Vess]: Are you from Indianapolis also?
Vess: I am.
J: Do you all still live there?
J: Has that helped make doing these shows and sticking together easier?
Vess: Well, sort of.
Tufty: We've always been kinda playing, we just took big gaps.
J: What was the longest gap?
Vess: A 6- or 7-year gap maybe.
J: [to Tufty]: you were in the Toxic Reasons for a while so that would have been a bit of a gap—
Tufty: But I was coming back and doing shows and we recorded two albums while I was in Toxic Reasons. And then they had another guy playing bass for a little bit.
Vess: For about a year or so.
Tufty: But it was never like a break up. Everyone was just doing something else.
J: So you guys do shows regularly?
Tufty: Yeah. We're probably averaging 4 or 5 a year.
J: And you travel to do them? Obviously you've come here to Chicago, and I read something about CBGBs...
Vess: Yeah, we did CBGB's. We flew out to California and played Gilman Street two nights in a row which was really fun. It was pretty awesome.
Tufty: We went out to Florida and played, and Virginia.
J: But no tour.
Tufty: We're all too busy to jump in the van and spend the time. For some of the guys, they can't afford to. Paul teaches at school. We do things on the weekend. Or maybe summer breaks. It just didn't happen that we had a chance to do a tour in the summer.
J: Will you guys ever play eastern Canada, as in Ottawa?
Tufty: We're headlining a punk festival in Montreal in May [Pouzzafest, May 20-22, 2011].
J: What about back in the '80s?
Vess: Yes, played a couple of shows in Canada. The famous Thrash tour. It was before my time but I heard all about it.
Tufty: Vancouver. And we played for a week at the Calgarian Hotel. Where all the punk bands used to play. You played for a week because the only way they could have strippers was if they had live music. So the cheapest bands were punk rock bands so they gave you a room in the hotel and you got like a thousand bucks for a week.
J: So you'd play early and then 'thank you very much' and then on came the strippers?
Tufty: Yeah, you'd play like 2 sets and then hang out in the hotel for the week. It was what they had to do get the strippers.
Vess: We played with the Beastie Boys back in the day, some crazy New York show. My first show was at the Rock Hotel in '87 or '88 with the Exploited and one of the Boston straight-edge bands, Slapshot. They sat down next to us and were all "Zero Boys, we love you guys. It's so great we're playing with you guys!" and then one of us popped open a beer... and they all went over to the other side of the room... And that was the end of our relationship with Slapshot. [laughs] It's too bad.
Tufty: When the Vicious Circle came out, we did a tour of the east coast and it was really good. We did 5 shows in a week in Boston and it was really happening and we came back and there were some personal problems with a couple of the guys in the band and we couldn't go around touring in the foreseeable future, and that's when I started playing with the Toxic Reasons. I was young, I didn't mind it in the back of the van for a few years.
J: [to Tufty]: That's a question I've gotta ask you, of course, any chance for a reunion?
Tufty: We've been jamming. Bruce, JJ: and I.
J: Are you going to do anything?
Tufty: I don't know... everybody's so busy...
J: Distance issues?
Tufty: No everybody's right there. In fact, Bruce is working at JJ's restaurant. I'm opening up a restaurant and I'm gonna try to steal Bruce away from him. But I'll have to pay him more money, of course [laughs]. They did a couple of things with some other local guys in Indianapolis and that kind of dwindled away. We got together like a half a dozen times, wrote some tunes, and jammed.
J: Could you see yourselves playing next year at Riot Fest or something like that?
Tufty: If somebody asked us, maybe, I don't know.
J: Surely people are asking you to play.
Tufty: Well, nobody knows that we're getting together and jamming.
J: Oh. Is it a secret?...
Tufty: No, it's not a secret.
J: ...because I am recording this.
Tufty: I spent so long in the van with them... we were like 7 years in that van non-stop. They're close. I'm close to them like family.
J: Everyone's still there, all the members?
Tufty: Yeah. We jammed and shit, it was like we hadn't even stopped. But JJ's just so busy with his restaurants and he's got his other band. But it's good that we're talking and hanging out. I like travelling. And music is a good vehicle to go travelling. When I go travelling by myself, not in a band, you do the tourist thing. When you're playing it's a little different. I kinda like it when I'm playing better than I do just sitting at the hotel or wandering around the beach.
J: I'm going to try to get more philosophical with you guys in terms of what punk is. When you guys started in '79, what was punk to you back then?
Tufty: I think it was a little different to all of us.
J: That's why I'm asking, everyone seems to have their own definition, in terms of politics or what band epitomized punk to them...
Tufty: I don't know what the other guys think, but me personally, I always it was kinda of like there was the physical side of it which would be represented by the Bad Brains or something, what was fast, good players, like a lot of how he flailed about, and the moves and very skate board-y almost - and a lot of the look of punk rock looks a lot like that now. There was that side, the Bad Brains was like that, and then there was the political side of it like Jello, which I always liked that side of it more myself. I think most of the Zero Boys stuff is more of a social commentary from Paul. Paul was 17 when he was writing Vicious Circle so it was coming from a young age.
J: [to Vess]: How about you, what drew you to it? What did you see punk as back then, was it just great music, the politics?
Vess: For me it was a way to express yourself in a place like Indiana, it's kind of a weird place. John Mellencamp was like our representative on the radio. It wasn't anything against him, but it just wasn't me. That was kind of a freeing thing. I was kind of slightly liberated by the Zero Boys. I joined in '87 when they got back together and Terry was wildly unavailable and it was just ... for me: "that's going on in my town! That's awesome! People are expressing themselves." When [Metallica's] "Ride the Lightning" came out, that was when it was over for me. And a bunch of dudes showed up beating each other up. It was real hippyish to me, if you will. It was like people getting together and doing something social and community wise. It was circle dancing and if a girl fell down you helped her up. It wasn't very [snarls]. Well, it was that, but it wasn't really wasn't what it was when it came down to it. I don't know, like I said, it was different for everybody. It sort of felt like it was kind of like the ultimate misfits club. Back then it was "that guy is new wave, that guys is punk" you know. A mismatch of misfits.
J: Was there a strong scene locally of punks at the time?
Vess: 50 people? [laughs]
Tufty: But then the difference between the punk rock/new wave/no wave/noisy things they were very similar. Everybody went to the same shows. There were maybe 3 or 4 hundred people.
J: It sounds typical of every smaller city. What's interesting about the Zero Boys is that you guys toured, you released stuff so you weren't just a local band.
Vess: All of us spent our whole lives touring with our bands.
J: You've had other bands, what are your other projects?
Vess: I've been in a band called United States Three with Mark. We kind of branched off mid-90s Zero Boys projects and started our own thing. Had a band called the Pieces that toured Europe and the States a bunch in the early 2000s. I did the Lemonheads the last 4 years. That was a lot of fun. I felt like because we're all active and we all continue to play whether it's a Friday night somewhere or all over the country, it's kept us all really spry on our instruments. We all still play a lot.
Tufty: It's not like we're not touching our gear except for when there's a reunion gig or something. We're all playing. We all play for a living. Mark and I play with the guy from Sloppy Seconds, and I play the upright bass and we have a band called Bigger Than Elvis that we just play locally, have a laugh and jam on old rockabilly stuff. It keeps the stamina up to play that big bass as I get older [laughs].
Tufty: The political thing you were asking about, when I went out with the Toxics to live in San Francisco. We lived in squats and we were all at the soup kitchens with MDC and DRI and the Fuckups. It seemed like it was a lot more political then because it seemed it we were on the very lower edge of the socio-economic ladder. I think that there was a real camaraderie amongst all of us at the soup kitchens, squatters and stuff, you know what I mean? And I kinda liked that, but it's such a big challenge as I get older.
Life's kind of like a spiral and you're going round and you go by the same building or the same people and each time you go by it's different. It's really weird to me, as I wander around, how some things that I thought were one way, now I have the perception that maybe I was just in a different spot.
I would like to be more political. I did things to help Obama. I became a citizen so I could vote.
J: You're an american now?
Tufty: I'm dual. To get rid of Bush, I had to do it.
Vess: Retarded cowboy. I can't believe they even let him play with scissors.
J: What do you think of the state of the punk music that's coming out right now?
J: Are you listening to any of the current bands now?
Tufty: I kind of like art stuff now. Like Sleepytime Guerilla Museum.
J: Where are they from?
Tufty: They're from Oakland. There's a band from up here called Cloud Cult. They live on their own farm sort of like Crass, grow their own food. They have artists on stage and paint while they're playing. It's not a real thrashy sort of thing, but you know they're pretty dedicated to their thing, living off the land and doing their art and surviving from it.
J: So there's some politics in there.
Tufty: Yeah, that scene. I was never a fan of Crass's music, but I liked what they did. I thought it was kind of admirable to do something like that.
Vess: It was really cool until you put the record on. The packaging, everything was like "wow! this is really cool!" and then [makes a face]. It was okay, it wasn't horrible...
Tufty: If The Ting Tings lived on a commune like that, it would probably be a big hit now.
Vess: I don't know... I never really think about "punk" now. It's like Sha Na Na or something in a way. I mean if Chuck Berry comes to your town and plays, it's cool and all but it doesn't mean everyone has to dress up like a greaser, you know what I mean? That's what I feel like we're in the position we're in. Sometimes people are dressed up as punks at our shows, but it's a rock band playing a show from a certain era. I don't know if there's actually a "punk" movement per se or if there's a revival of dressing up like punks.
J: Do you not have krust punks in Indianapolis? With the mohawks and totally looking like they're just walked out of 1983?
Vess: Oh yeah, sure. What I'm saying we also have people who drive hot-rods and have their cigarette packets rolled up in their sleeve, and we also have people who throw '50s parties... that's what I'm saying. It's dress up. They're not out there trying to get Bush out. They're just drunk under a bridge going to see shows. It's not really this "live or die, oh my god Regan's going to kill us all" thing. It's not like a desperate movement. Go to hip hop if you want to see what people are doing to try to do things. Whether it's shaking rumps or trying to get people out of office, I don't know, but that's where the vibrant new music is. Like Yoko, she's boring now. She was the most radical thing ever and now people like Sonic Youth think she's pretty cool. Now she's not radical at all, she's like John's cooler wife. The way things change, it's not that shocking. I'm not putting it down, don't get me wrong, I'm just saying thing's have moved on.
Tufty: Or maybe if you got a chinese band who were singing against the system and they put a bootleg record out and got arrested, maybe they'd be punk rock, you know what I mean? Or maybe an Israeli band who thought they should give the land back to the Palestinians or something. I mean these would be pretty 'punk' in their spots and would probably get in trouble and arrested which I guess seemed to the badge for being a punk rocker.
Vess: If I did a Dole pineapple paining, a can, you'd be like "oh, nice Warhol reference", you wouldn't really think that's really original. You might like the painting but I wouldn't shake up the art world. So a punk record comes out today and it doesn't rattle Aerosmith's cage, but it did in '78. It was like "the Sex Pistols??? But I know my licks!" It was a problem! That doesn't really exist any more.
J: It's just music now?
Vess: Kinda. It's halloween-y too. It's dress up time.
J: Are you going to dress up later? [laughs] Are we going to see you all punked out?
Vess: I do everything just like this.
J: [to Tufty] Are you?
Tufty: We got a whole dress-up outfit coming.
Vess: Our wardrobes show up at 9. The girls just get to work...
J: Okay, I'm looking forward to it!
Ian: The street wigs come off and the mohawk wigs go on.
Tufty: We'd probably be more popular if we did dress up more.
Then and Now
Tufty: Part of the dilemma with the Zero Boys was that you had a band of guys who were a little bit older, probably about 21, 22, weren't we Mark?
Tufty: I'd been playing since I was about 14, so we'd all played for 8 years at least, or more.
J: Playing what, not punk.
Tufty: Not punk, we'd learned all the Who, Zeppelin, and all that stuff, we knew how to play all those songs. So when we played with 17-year-old singer Paul and his angst of being 17 and writing his lyrics, we played professional, tight music behind it. That's why it's lasted this long. We still play that tight. And it's fun to play tight. I used to listen to jazz fusion shit in the early '70s, and play all that shit, and the same thing with the Bad Brains guys, they all played that jazz fusion before they did this stuff. So you still have the power of being players. I think sometimes when we play now, we were never a "we're going to eat your children" sort of band, we were just a good-playing band with a charismatic front singer and sometimes we'd get paired up with a heavier skinhead lot and we're not that sort of skinhead lot. We're not that. Paul will get up there and start talking about fairies just to piss them off.
Vess: Yeah, he likes to talk about how we're going to use the 'fairy power'.
Tufty: "We're going to put fairy dust on all you guys and bring love to you" cause Paul at this point is a Kundalini yoga master or something.
Vess: When he walks around his small town, people all know him, but they don't know him as Paul Mayhern as a name, they don't know anything about the Zero Boys. They know him as Mahan Kalpa, a spiritual leader, professor of yogi. So he has that whole thing.
Tufty: But it's good for him because he does all that breathing yoga stuff so he can belt it out and still be like a teenager up there. It's kind of really fun for us to do it because it's kinda like a time capsule back to our youth to rock out. And for an hour we're kind of lost in the memories of youthfulness that's kinda fun.
J: So you're still enjoying it?
Mark: It's a lot of work.
Vess: It's work but it's like getting ready for a cookout. It's that kind of work. "Oh I can't wait till everyone get's here! Oh, the coals are almost hot!" you know what I mean? It's the work that you don't mind.
J: Did you all drive up together today?
Vess: Yeah, we were all together, holding hands, and we were singing.
J: Awww, singing....
Vess: Yeah, singing. No, we all drove up alone, we don't talk. [laughing]
J: How far is it?
Tufty: About 3 and a half hours driving. I stopped at some dairy farm on the way up, for a little tour.
Vess: Aw nice. We hit the Robie house.
J: The what?
Vess: The Robie House. You live in Chicago, right?
J: No, I'm from Canada...
Vess: Oh! Then alright. You are forgiven. Otherwise you would have gotten an HOUR-long lecture on the Robie House. Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous architect.
I: We actually went to a Frank Lloyd Wright house today.
Vess: Oh did you?
[yes, we did, really! but I'm not sure we redeemed ourselves with that claim. Anyway, after discussing that for a bit, the convo switched to other things they've done as tourists when playing other cities].
Tufty: ... when we went out to San Francisco, we were playing Oakland and the guys met us at the airport and they said "what do you guys want to do?"
Vess: Oh god.
Tufty: So Vess, he wants to go to the Marin Country Courthouse.
Vess: Because Frank Lloyd Wright designed it! It's this huge courthouse—
Tufty: Vess is into architecture... But now it's a police station.
Vess: It's basically were you get taken when you get drunk or get popped in your car.
J: We'll have to go.
Ian: And get drunk and caught...
Vess: Yes, go straight to San Francisco and act up.
Tufty: So everybody's out there and getting stoned on the way and these guys are freaking out that the stoned guys are going to go walking around the police station.
J: To admire the architecture...
Tufty: It was great. Then he said to me, that's what Vess wants, what would you like to do? And I said I really fancy a pair of Mariachi pants. So we went all over the Spanish part of Oakland looking for mariachi pants and we finally found this guy who was going to make them for me but...
Vess: Yeah, for like four thousand dollars. Mail 'em to you, I hope they fit!
Tufty: It was great.
Vess: I think they thought we'd want to go to the nearest club and drink ourselves blind but instead there we were "can you take us to the jail, and then get some mariachi pants?"
J: Were you serious or were you just trying to make him work?
Vess: No, that's what we wanted to do! He asked!
Tufty: We were looking for a new outfit.
Tufty: We could be fashion trend setters.
Vess: Wouldn't it be nice? Black pants with all the conchos going down the sides.
Tufty: Like some Ron Regis movie.
Ian: That would be a statement alright.
Tufty: Might as well. There's nothing to be gained by doing what the last guy did.
Posted January 31, 2011. Photos by Janine Frenken.