Q&A: Rocket From The Tombs Guitarist Cheetah Chrome Decides To Leave The Road Behind


When news broke Tuesday that Cheetah Chrome was leaving the legendary, reduxed Cleveland proto-punk band Rocket from the Tombs—just on the heels of their first official release of all-new studio material, Barfly (Smog Veil)—a contentious e-debate broke out amongst the canon-punk intelligentsia. Rocket is now down to two original members from their 1975 heyday-via-2003 reunion. And Cheetah is considered by many—thanks to his fiery lead guitar slinging and bottomless history of sordid living and subsequent survival—to be the rock’n’roll heart of the band. Rocket has in fact already secured a fine Cleveland guitarist, This Moment in Black History’s Buddy Akita as replacement, and he should fit the bill just fine. (Original reunion rhythm guitarist Richard Lloyd was also replaced for the recent tour.)

Nonetheless, Cheetah’s departure from the road (he intends to contribute to any future Rocket recording work) becomes another link in the series of debates about why decades-old bands reunite, how long they should reunite, how many original members constitute a “true” reunion, and simply when should a group of impassioned, inspiring, and creative individuals just call it a day… or not. So I checked in with Cheetah, back home in Nashville, about his decision.

First, and I know you said this in the press releases from the Rocket camp, but just reiterate why you decided to stop touring with the band. Does this mean you don’t want to do any touring with any band or project anymore?

So far that is the biggest misconception—that I am retiring entirely. I only want to stop doing any extensive touring after the end of 2012. I had planned on having a talk with David in regards to making plans for the band for the rest of the year, but we never found the time to sit down. I was totally prepared to do as many RFTT dates as I could this year, as well as any with The Batusis and any solo shows that may come up. David has a big schedule planned, I guess, and in order to ensure the band being able to meet it, they decided it would be better to find another guitarist now as opposed to waiting and possibly have situations arise. I can definitely see the wisdom in that, and wish them the best. This had nothing whatsoever to do with personalities or conflict in the band. This is strictly based on my having different priorities since my son was born. I love all of the guys in the band.

Can you describe the scene of coming offstage, pre-encore, and telling them you’re done? And why then??!! (ha…)

Well, this has been coming for awhile; we did a lot of touring last year with the Batusis, from July right up until Christmas for the most part; and on our break we recorded the full length album! Then in February it was right back out with the book tour. And at this point in my life, after all of the years I’ve put in, I’m touring more and enjoying it less. I love the hour and a half on stage, but the rest of the day is a drag, ya know? So this has been on my mind a good bit. Anyway, when the tour got to NYC, the ring finger on my left hand had formed a blister under the callous that split at sound check. I had to rig it with spray bandage and carefully crafted bits of regular band-aid. It hurt like hell the whole set, and throbbed the entire next day. So the next night it was still hurting like hell, I was tired as hell, sitting in that dressing room at Maxwell’s between the kegs and the cans of olives and cherries, missing the family, and then we got onstage and a couple of things went wrong, that finger killing me every chord, and it just kind of hit me—”This isn’t any fun! I don’t enjoy this as much as I used to.” And I guess I sort of overreacted, which lead to my abrupt announcement. I definitely could have timed it better, but, well, consider it just another of the series of fuckups that I call a life.

You did say you would still like to record with Rocket if that happens, right?

Oh yeah, I ‘ll still be writing with David and Craig, playing on recordings, and doing the odd show. My presence will be felt.

What did you think of the three quick follow-up email press releases yesterday morning from, I assume, David Thomas (see “A Band is an Idea”), where he seemed to be instantly defending against, what I assume, were bitchy internet complaints about Rocket still going now that you’re gone? I can see both reasonings as understandable—like, what is Rocket if you’re not in it, and it’s down to two original members? But also that the idea of Rocket from the Tombs, and the ever-expanding sound of any band, should be allowed to continue if there is music the remaining members want to make—especially if they can get some good Clevelanders to play with them! And what do you really personally think about them continuing on, without you, under the name Rocket from the Tombs? Did they even consider just calling it Pere Ubu Two; or making it a new David Thomas side project, or something like that?

Well, I’m of the mind that a band is more a group of different personalities contributing to a common goal, which RFTT was in its inception, and again in 2003, as opposed to only an idea. To me RFTT will always be in 1974-5, frozen in time, with Peter [Laughner] and Johnny Blitz. We were lucky enough to recreate the vibe in 2003 with Richard [Lloyd], and that’s another snapshot of the band, frozen in time. And that is my narrow view of things. Now David, he was the originator of Rocket, it was his idea, and his name, and he isn’t limited to my narrow view of things, and he shouldn’t be. Our differences are a major part of the power of the band. With a couple of new guys involved, it will likely continue to grow and provide even more snapshots and frozen moments. And I can be part of those too. I think they should definitely continue on. I said so that night at Maxwell’s.

I know you told me in a recent interview that most fans and friends on the road know that you are clean and sober now and don’t want to “partake.” But I have to assume that, as touring commenced these last few months, that maybe those “temptations” floating around backstages/clubs/etc. must have held some weight in your decision to get off the touring road…?

Not at all. That was the least of it. Vans and hotels, clubs and smoke, being away from my family—that ‘s the whole thing.

What is your plan right now, for the next few weeks? And how long does it take until that itch to play starts creeping up in Cheetah Chrome again?

The next few weeks? I dunno, play some Call of Duty MW3 with Rogan [his son]? Teach him some guitar chords? The itch to play won’t ever have to creep up in me, as I have no intention of stopping. It just might not be in front of audiences! But I will always write, record, do some shows. Remember, I planned to honor any RFTT shows, I have no plans to stop before the end of the year. And I’ll always do some shows, right up until I kick it…

What was your favorite Rocket show from the recent tour, and why?

The Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland , because it was home turf; and the Bell House in Brooklyn—just because we sounded so damned GOOD!