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


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.

How was the Cleveland gig the other night?

That was great! The Beachland Ballroom [in Cleveland] is like home—that’s where we rehearse. This time we only practiced a couple days, but we’ve been known to go there for a couple days and rehearse in the afternoons or whatever…

You said in your book that so much time has passed, that going back to Cleveland doesn’t really feel like the ol’ hometown anymore, it’s just another place to go through on tour.

Oh yeah, to be honest, New York City is the same way. I’ve lived in Nashville almost as long as I lived in New York, and I lived in New York as long as I lived in Cleveland.

I still feel like when I go back and see a street sign or whatever, you can’t escape those nostalgic feelings, no matter how much has changed, as Cleveland’s been going through some really rough times. But then there are these pockets of new development, especially on the west side…

Yeah,I grew up on the west side. But now when we go back, we’re on the eastside all the time, by the Beachland, so that all seems new to me. I don’t see the old stomping grounds much anymore. But at the Cleveland show, I did see some old running buddies from high school. I’ve still got a lot of good friends in Cleveland. The town’s gone up and down since I left, and it’s in a really bad patch now. But some parts always stay the same.

In your book, you mention that once you were out on tour with Rocket again in the latter 2000s, after a few years of not touring, cleaning up, etc., that you remembered what made you mad about certain members and touring in general; and it made you remember why you didn’t want to tour. And now you’re back with not just a tour, but you made a whole new album!

Well, we like playing together. We were in a position where we could sit down and see what we could come up with, and we were happy with the results. Obviously it’s not the same band as it was, different situation completely. But we came up with some great songs, and that’s what we do—come up with some songs and go record them. This tour’s only a week, but we’re gonna do more next year, and in Europe too, in May.

Was it a pretty conscious decision to record in Cleveland, for some kind of recapturing feeling, or was it just easier to get it set up there at Suma?

Yeah, it’s a little like that, to be in Cleveland again. But it’s a little easier for Craig and David, more convenient. David’s folks have a place in Pennsylvania that he operates out of a lot. I’m in Nashville, Craig’s in Indianapolis, so the location was central. So it wasn’t anything too nostalgic, just basic logistics. And when you have a good studio you know well, why not use it.

I have to say honestly, you never know what to expect from an older band getting back together, and recording a new album after so much time. But after hearing it, it’s got a pretty fresh, rockin’ feel.

[laughs]] Oh yeah, it’s actually quite a bit more rocking live. We’re more of a live band, and that can be difficult to translate in the studio. It’s kind of a surprise we even got in there and recorded something. But I think we got it pretty good. But live, we’re kicking butt! So buy the record, but come to the show, or you won’t know what I’m talking about. (laughs)

You’ve mentioned how in the past, things could get dicey with you and David Thomas. So are any of the “newer” Rocket members getting a taste of David’s quirks on the road?

[laughs] Oh no, everything’s been pretty genteel on this tour so far. They seem to be handling his quirks well. He only gets quirky for a reason. He does it because he cares, and he gets results. Once you know that about him, it’s fine.

And it’s been alright for you to get back on the road again, dealing with the old temptations?

Aw no, I’m out with a good bunch of guys. Plus, it’s fairly well documented that I’m not into that shit anymore. So people don’t come up and tempt me with treats like they used to. [laughs]