Q&A: Cheetah Chrome On Going Back To Cleveland And Recording Rocket From The Tombs' First Proper Album

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It could be confidently argued that Rocket from the Tombs were the first American punk band. Formed in early 1974, in a long-abandoned Cleveland industrial hood that was rusting and crumbling like one giant sputtering axle factory, Rocket lasted barely a year, and left behind a small sampling of live recordings and asbestos-lined Cleveland loft-taped demos to be mysteriously mingled among bootleg tape traders over the years. Some of the stuff got pressed (super-limitedly, of course) in 1990, then bootlegged a bit more, until Texas-based Smog Veil Records finally got with the surviving original members and released everything officially, well-mastered and annotated, in 2002. (Fire Records re-released that belated landmark last week.)

Quite literally crackling with the post-hippie dream twin towers of violent, raw riff reclamation and brainy beatnik burps that would mark the States' best pre-punk—and with a fire that spread over from their Detroit dead-town kin, the Stooges and MC5—those recordings, when first heard, are nearly scary in their prescient nature. There's punk's fury, for sure, but there's also spindly twin guitar work that transitioned the Velvets to the Voidoids; dank, rustbelt moods and an ur-amateurism recording style that presaged later indie rock; and co-founder Peter Laughner's poetics, like a a pissed kid brother to Patti Smith. Laughner even took some pilgrimages to NYC to fawn over Smith, Lou Reed, Television, et al, before sadly dying of sclerosis of the liver at 24.

That hints at where Rocket was coming from at base—they were hyper-knowledgeable music fans who could drink even the depressive minions of early-'70s, union-dying Cleveland under the table. It's not their fault if history has twisted their story into a mythic Midwestern musical metaphor for the end of the industrial era and beginning of punk. (Check out founding member/guitarist Cheetah Chrome's recent amazing biography A Dead Boys' Tale to get an honest assessment of the band's "mythic" roots.) Today, the three original surviving members still like to get together and make music, after realizing this truism themselves on reforming for the first time back in 2002 for a UCLA event honoring David Thomas. Since then, they've toured a bit, broken apart again, and come back together to—and it's almost odd to say in regards to RFTT—write and record a proper new album of all-new material, Barfly (Fire), for the first time in their near-40-year history.

What many lost cult band lovers like about their hidden heroes are the accidentally artful lo-fi recordings that those bands made do with at the time, but that with revisionism's ruminating eventually become sonic templates of their own. And so now, here's a revamped Rocket lineup, featuring three original members, with decades of music-making under their belts—bassist Craig Bell; Cheetah Chrome with first-era punk masters, the Dead Boys and numerous band projects and special-guesting all over the punk map; David Thomas hitching post-Rocket, art-crank godfathers, Pere Ubu, on his shoulders for decades, while working on side-projects and other happenings; drummer Steve Mehlman, who's been the longest sitting drummer for the band, at seven years; and Richard Lloyd, originally of Television, who knew Laughner back in the day, rounding out a band steeped in influential underbelly-rock action.

So having caught up with Cheetah Chrome as he tumbled out of the van somewhere in Breezewood, Pennsylvania, for lunch—two days after a triumphant return to their original hometown, Cleveland—I ask him if maybe they had thought about how the old fanguard would regard the new Rocket album (especially considering the varying response to the band re-recording their classics on the 2004 album, Rocket Redux [Smog Veil]), as Barfly is most certainly not accidentally lo-fi, but still unfettered, brimming with hefty riffs, confused moods, and even some horns on one tune.

"We never gave a shit about that," he says. "We do what we do, we do it well, and we do it as much for ourselves as anybody else." He laughs. "We did it out in Painesville, Ohio, at Suma Recording [where the band recorded their 2006 7" single, "I Sell Soul"/"Romeo & Juliet"]. That place still has all the old Cleveland recording equipment, all the old mastering stuff. It took about a week, then David sorted things out for weeks after that, I'm sure. Everything got put in the blender and came out sideways. There was maybe one song, 'Anna,' that was pretty finished when we came into the studio."

More of our chat on the next page.


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