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Zero Boys: Midwest punk legends
Debut album of Indy punks re-issued by Secretly Canadian
By Sean Smith
Fort Wayne Reader
"When the Ramones lost it, the Zero Boys found it, adding a slam brigade fist to the Blitzkrieg Beat. This Indianapolis based band managed to come with one of the best early 80's punk records, or one of the best records ever, period." - Federico
"The Zero Boys' records are not just incredible punk records, but fascinating artifacts from four Midwesterners who created a mighty racket to be heard above the stifling boredom of young adulthood in America's heartland." - Craig Finn, of The Hold Steady
Paul "Paul Z" Mahern [singer], Terry "Hollywood" Howe [guitarist], Mark Cutslinger [drums] and David "Tufty" Clough [bass] formed Zero Boys in Indianapolis in the late 70s before releasing their first album Vicious Circle in 1982 on the local label, Nimrod Records. The Midwest hardcore punk band caused people to scratch their heads when they learned where they formed, but were soon being mentioned in the same breath as Minor Threat and Dead Kennedys, two bands they would soon share a bill with in California. The much anticipated follow-up album never came, but thanks to Secretly Canadian their debut album was recently reissued. All subsequent recordings have been issued on History Of... In the time between, "Tufty" was briefly replaced by John Mitchell on bass and founding guitarist Howe passed away in 2001. These days, "Tufty" is back in the fold and Vess Ruhtenberg is now handling guitar duties. Mahern talked to me about the early days, what was on his mind at the time and what keeps him busy nowadays.
Fort Wayne Reader: I think the one thing I love so much about “Vicious Circle” is that it really seems to go beyond what one typically thinks of in terms of a hardcore punk album.
Paul Mahern: Well, ‘Livin’ in the 80s’ is definitely a rockabilly riff, for sure. But, that’s interesting. It’s a rock record, I think. We were a bunch of kids, at the time, growing up in the mid-West in the 70s and listening to a lot of rock radio. Then, we started a band and we started playing faster.
FWR: The flow is incredible. Were you guys concerned with the sequencing of the album?
PM: Well, good. I’m glad you like it. One thing that was going on with us at the time is that I was pretty young. I was 17, but all the other musicians in the band were in their early 20s and had all been in bands. Our bass player had played in a funk band and our drummer had been to New York with his band and had been playing since he was very young. Our guitarist had made his first 7” record when he was 13. They were all pretty seasoned musicians for their age and not punk players, necessarily. We all started getting into punk music and I think that’s part of the factor there. The musicianship is pretty high. A lot of the other bands that were playing punk music at the time - they were all younger, like myself. They were 16 or 17. So, there’s a little advantage going on with the Zero Boys record.
FWR: Listening to this record, I was trying to figure out if everyone was self taught and had just picked up some instruments and learned to play. The playing is really tight and really good.
PM: Well, that’s the hype behind punk music in general. Anybody can do it! Just pick up an instrument and do it. A lot of people get into punk that way. This is a little different and these guys were all already musicians. I mean, the bass playing alone on that record is just really fast and really good. The bass lines are really well thought out.
FWR: How did you guys meet?
PM: Mark and Terry met in Indianapolis and they decided to form a band. I was in another band and they kind of scouted me at this party we were playing at. They already had a band and they asked me to join. We made the Livin’ in the 80s E.P. and the original bass player quit, then we got ‘Tufty’ in the band.
FWR: When it came to writing and recording, did the guys work up the music before you put lyrics to it?
PM: In most cases, that’s the way it went. There was some collaboration. Terry always had songs that he was working on and he wrote some of the lyrics. Not a lot, but some of them. Mostly, they would jam. Someone would bring in an idea to practice and they would jam on the idea. Then, I would build on top of it, lyrically.
FWR: What bands did you guys have in common, in terms of what you were listening to?
PM: Well, I think we were all way into The Stooges, The New York Dolls, The Dictators, The Ramones, The Sex Pistols and that first kind of wave of early punk rock. Then, when American hardcore punk rock really started coming on the scene, we started listening to Dead Kennedys and The Circle Jerks. That’s when we really started playing faster, when we started to hear the West coast bands.
FWR: I read that you toured with Dead Kennedys?
PM: Well, we played one show with Dead Kennedys and Minor Threat. That was a really big show in Torrance, California.
FWR: How did you get hooked up with that?
PM: Jello [Biafra], the singer of Dead Kennedys, got a copy of our first little 7” record and was just a fan of it. When “Vicious Circle” came out, we sent him a copy and he said, ‘This is great! If you’re ever out here, you can play with us.’ I think our response was ‘When are you playing next?’ and we went out there. That was, probably, 2,000 people or something like that. That was huge for a punk show. The most people we had played in front of before that was, maybe, 300 or something.
FWR: Were you guys mostly playing in the Midwest or were you playing coastal tours?
PM: We went to the East coast once and played in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. Then, we went out West. But, mostly we played in Chicago, Dayton, Lexington and Milwaukee.
FWR: How did your families feel about you guys playing in a punk band?
PM: Actually, most of my family came to see us play. We were from Indianapolis and all of my family is from there. So, they all came out to see us at one point or another. I don’t know – some of them probably got it more than others. I come from a very artistically supportive family. There’s writers, mostly, in my family.
FWR: What were your thoughts on the resurgence of punk in the mid-90s?
PM: I would say bands like Green Day were direct descendents of bands like Zero Boys and The Adolescents. That American pop-punk totally comes out of that. There are a handful of early hardcore records that kind of lay the groundwork for the kind of sound that Green Day kind of perfected and became huge with. When I first heard Green Day, you know, this was 10 years after the fact, 10 years after Zero Boys had broken up and I just thought it was weird, at the time. But, now, with a little more perspective on it, I’m definitely a fan of those bands. It seemed odd to me at the time, but it doesn’t seem odd to me now. A lot of times, it seems like the second wave of a sound like that will end up being quite a bit more popular. The popularity was perplexing to me. When we were around and playing music there was little to no possibility that you were actually going to sell a bunch of records or make any money. So, when those bands actually started selling a ton of records, it was weird.
FWR: The lyrical content on Vicious Circle is political at times. I wonder what books you were reading and what sort of things were you interested in back then?
PM: I think mostly at that time I was a young guy just having fun and writing songs and hooks that sounded interesting to me. But, I was also interested, as I am still, in mostly social issues and the social interplay between people, more than writing an anti-Reagan song. So, yeah in “Civilizations Dying” I mention the Pope and the president and John Lennon, but it’s really social commentary about gun control and being civilized in general. Most of the songs on the record are more like that. “You Can Touch Me” and ‘Down The Drain’ are these weird relationship songs. Then there’s “Livin’ in the 80s,” which is just really fun and funny and making fun of The Beatles and The Stones. To me, at the time, it seemed like the radio in the 80s was still really stuck on The Beatles and The Stones, at least in the Midwest, and not giving a proper amount of airtime to bands like The Pretenders and other great rock bands.
FWR: Bands like The Clash and Elvis Costello and The Attractions?
PM: Yeah. Those bands kind of snuck on the radio a little bit. They were disproportionately not getting the radio support, considering the amount of records that they were selling and the amount of print press that they were getting.
FWR: So, do you really not like The Beatles?
PM: I’ve always loved The Beatles and The Stones and that song is just a fun poke at them. I’m a huge Beatles fan and a huge Stones fan.
FWR: How about their solo albums?
PM: No, I’m not such a big fan of the solo career stuff, although I am a pretty big fan of the first Plastic Ono Band record. The first couple of John Lennon solo albums, I think, are absolutely amazing. The Plastic Ono Band record is a very punk record. I think, in attitude, it’s very much influenced by what was going on in Detroit with The Stooges and MC5. It’s very Lennon, but I think you can kind of feel that energy.
FWR: What can you tell me about the song “Amphetamine Addiction”?
PM: Well, there were a lot of people in the punk scene who were into amphetamines. So, that was about that. I was never an amphetamine user, nor was anybody in the band. But, it seemed appropriate to make it first person, as opposed to being critical of other people.
FWR: In general, what were some of the highlights of being in Zero Boys?
PM: Definitely, one of the highlights was making the records that we made and there were a handful of really great shows, especially around the Midwest. Hanging out with other bands like Toxic Reasons, Articles of Faith and other bands that were in the scene at the time. The scene was pretty small in the Midwest, so it was kind of like an extended family.
FWR: Do you still keep in touch?
PM: Every once in awhile I’ll hear from somebody. Everybody’s kind of off on their own thing.
FWR: Are any of the venues that you used to play still open?
PM: Oh, that’s a good question. I don’t think so. I don’t know. I’m just trying to think of any of them that are still open. We used to play at a place called Second Story in Bloomington that was open up until a couple of years ago. But, most of the places that we played around the state are probably no longer open.
FWR: What happened that the band came to a close?
PM: We toured around a bit and couldn’t find a real fan base and couldn’t really make enough money and came home from our second major coastal tour completely broke. Our bass player decided that he would go and join another band, because he wanted to keep touring. The rest of us kind of thought that maybe we should just get jobs and kind of regroup. But, we just never really survived that.
FWR: You started your own label, then?
PM: I did start my own label and put out some records. A couple of hardcore compilations in ’83 or something like that. I played around with that, but mostly then became a record producer and engineer. That’s how I’ve been spending my time since then.
FWR: As far as the artists you work with, do they seek you out?
PM: At this point, I’ve been doing it long enough that most of my clients find me, usually. I’ve worked with lots of major label rock records and lots of independent records and gospel records and all kinds of stuff.
FWR: What have you worked on recently?
PM: Right now, I’m working on an archival project. I’ve started a business taking old, analog masters and digitizing them. It’s a great, great job. It’s a great venture. Right now, I am in the process of digitizing all of John Mellencamp’s collection. Actually, the last thing I did yesterday – I turned in a remix of a Mellencamp song for Guitar Hero.
FWR: Which song?
PM: “Hurts So Good.” It should be on Guitar Hero 5 or whatever it is. The next version that comes out.
FWR: So, you guys are good friends?
PM: Oh, yeah. I’ve known him for a long time and I’ve worked with him on and off for about 12 years.
FWR: I love “The Lonesome Jubilee.”
PM: Yeah, that’s a great record. I did not work on that record. That was before I started working with him. I think the first one I did with him was a record that was just called
“John Mellencamp.” It had a song called ‘Your Life Is Now’ on it. It was a pretty big hit.
FWR: Getting back to Zero Boys, you guys have reunited for a couple of shows here and there in the past few years.
PM: We like to do it. It’s fun, but everybody’s got jobs, so we have a hard time getting away to play too many shows.
FWR: When was the last time you guys played?
PM: The last time we played was within the last seven months. We played at a place in Austin called Emo’s. We played to about 350 people last June or something.
FWR: What are the other guys in the band up to these days?
PM: Vess is the bass player for The Lemonheads, Mark has played drums in tons of bands around the Midwest and David owns Radio Radio [a music venue] and Future Shock [a punk clothing shop] in Indianapolis.
Vicious Circle and The History of… are available now.