Saturday, May 7, 2011

Exclusive: Interview With Brendog Tween of Mephiskapheles: Satanic Ska? Why Not!

The sound of Mephiskapheles was unprecedented -- even today there really is nothing that compares to their unique take on ska. Along with The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Mephiskapheles was the look and sound of 90's American ska.  Eschewing the 2-Tone foundation of 80's ska, the original band line-up (Brendog Tween, Mikal Reich, Brian Martin, Alexander McCabe, Nubian Nightmare, Rick Sanford, Osho Endo, Dave Doris, Gina Latessa, MIke Berger and Vattel Cherry) took a devil worship concept and built it on top of traditional ska with liberal doses of punk, jazz, oi, alternative rock and metal. Visually the band's image and look were just as startling (it certainly didn't hurt that a few band members worked for a cutting edge New York ad agency), featuring a singer with the voice of a death metal screamer, trained jazz horn players and a motley crew of punk rockers who quickly took the 90's New York and American ska scenes by storm.

While their calling card may have been a jokey cover of 'The Bumble Bee Tuna Song' (ironically voted one of the worst ska songs of all time when the readers of Skatastrophy weighed in during the mid-90's) in true Mephiskapheles fashion the band agreed! As trombonist Greg Robinson said, 'It's a really annoying tune but we've got to play it'.  And play it they did, first in front of fervid hometown crowds and then around the U.S. and later Europe. I grabbed a copy of their first demo tape 'The DEMOn' at a show we played with the band and its those early songs that still resonate with me.  The song 'Eskamo' has a horn line The Skatalites could have written in the 60's. The title track 'Doomsday' is still my favorite, taking the gloom and dread of The Specials 'Ghost Town' and The Selecter's 'Celebrate The Bullet' and updating it for a 90's audience.  The soundtrack to the end of the world never sounded so damn good.

I have very clear memories of my band Bigger Thomas playing a few shows with Mephiskapheles.  One particularly memorable show was at The Court Tavern in New Brunswick, New Jersey in 1990 or 1991 where they turned a initially passive audience who were unfamiliar with them into a heaving mass of thrashing bodies.  It was quite a sight and one that the band re-created night after night whereever they played.

Working with noted producer Bill Laswell, the band licensed their first album 'God Bless Satan' to Moon Ska Records and the LP was a hit for the label in 1995 (granted catalog number 666!).  It also marked the first time the label received complaints from the religious right and that it had a band with a video on MTV.   Mephiskapheles would go on to release two more albums 'Maximum Perversion' in 1997 (also licensed to Moon Ska) and 'Might-ay White-ay" in 1999.  I had the chance to re-connect with the band's original guitarist and co-founder Brendog Tween recently and he took a walk down memory lane with me about his days in the service of his satanic majesty.  Read on...

Where did you grow up and what bands or music influenced you the most?
I’m originally from the New York, the NYC burbs. It was a 15 minute bus ride to the end of the number 1 train, so I spent most of my errant youth in NYC.

Do you remember the first record or single that you ever bought?
I don’t, honestly. I have a brother who is three years older than me, most of the music I listened to came from his collection. He had broad tastes in music, and I latched onto the NYC punk records he had – particularly Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers.

What inspired you to pick up the guitar?
I decided I wanted to be Ace Frehley when I was about 9 years old. I mowed lawns and shoveled driveways for a year to buy my first shitty guitar and amp at the local music shop. If I only could have afforded lessons, I might have gotten good at it. In retrospect, it was worth doing it the way it was done!

Tell me about The Shaved Pigs? You recorded two albums of hardcore punk in the late 80’s right? Did you see any parallels between the NYC punk and ska scenes?
The Shaved Pigs evolved out of one of the first ‘originals’ bands I was ever in, called Social Insecurity. The lead singer Peter Niemi and I were BFFs and got together at his place on the upper west side to write some songs in about -1981 or so. Once we had a few, we added “Wailin’” Frank Maelan on drums and the beautiful Kanna Watanabe on bass and started to gig at shitholes in the east village. Kanna and Frank eventually quit, and we added Ron Papka on bass, Mike Berger on tenor sax and Andy Malm on drums. Eventually, Peter quit and was replaced by Roy Edroso. Roy and Andy later formed The Reverb Motherfuckers – an A+ band if you have the chance to check them out.

The Shaved Pigs recorded two LPs at NoiseNY, produced by Kramer, and a few EPs done by various labels, and we got lucky, cause the BBC radio host Jon Peel really liked us, and played our records often on his show. It’s like that old joke “we were popular in England”. We toured a couple times and really had a blast, but it all ended in about 1989 or 1990 after a European tour. We were just tired of it, I guess. (Have a listen to 'You Don't Wanna Know' from 1988).

The hardcore and ska scenes in NY were vastly different animals, really. The main difference that I noticed – cause there was definitely some crossover, was the drugs people did. In the ska scene, the kids drank beer and smoked weed. In the hardcore scene, they did harder drugs. There were a lot of junkies and cokeheads around. That never appealed to me about that scene. I’ll take a beer, thanks.

Tell me about Skatterbrains? The band was short lived but to my ears seemed to be a prototype of what would come later with Mephiskapheles.
Heh- if “Skatterbrains” hadn’t already been in use, we may never have changed our name to Mephiskapheles. That band consisted of the ORIGINAL original lineup of Meph. There were two lead singers – Nubian Nightmare and this Jamaican guy named Ray something, with Rick Sanford on trombone, an English guy named James something on trumpet. Dave Doris on tenor and baritone sax, Gina Latessa on percussion, Vattel Cherry on bass, Brian Martin on keys, me on guitar, Alexander McCabe on alto, and Mikal on drums and Stu Klinger (who later played in The Rakes Progress and is now in a Pogues cover band called Streams of Whiskey). We lost Stu, Ray and James and added Osho, then recorded The DEMOn with me, Mikal, Brian, Nightmare, Alexander, Osho, Rick, Dave, Gina and Vattel. This was the “original” Meph lineup – the ones who stuck around, anyway!

Where and when did you hatch plans to start Mephiskapheles? Was the satan concept already thought out?
Mikal and I were roommates and worked together, and after the Shaved Pigs called it quits, he got me listening to The Specials… he was good friends with Dave Doris and I was friends with Nightmare and thought he’d make a great front man. We recruited Brian, who was friends with a skinhead friend and we got together and started working on music. The satan concept was a natural fit – believe me!

I always loved that the band was a mix of music school jazzbo’s and self taught punk rockers. Was that by accident or design?
When you consider who wrote the music as it evolved, it makes sense. The music on the first album was written almost entirely by Brian, Mikal and I over many 12 packs of beer. The second album was written almost entirely by the horns and Mike Bitz. The influences are very evident on the respective albums.
It wasn’t by design, though, it just happened the way it did. We’d need a horn player, so the other horn players would recruit from among the people they liked and wanted to play with. I suppose if we’d had shitty players to begin with, we’d have ended up a shitty band. I’m glad it didn’t work out that way.

For the uninitiated, how would you describe the sound of the band?
I suppose I’d say we were a dark theme punk/ska band that evolved into an avant garde jazz ska band that evolved into a ska/growlcore band? I’m not sure, really. Mitay Whitay defies categorization!

The band started playing out in 1990 and released a great demo called 'Doomsday' (which I still have on cassette somewhere!). What are your memories of the NYC ska scene of the early 90's?
I have an audio cassette of our first show. Victor Rice played bass, actually. I have to digitize it some time. It was, as I recall, January 3rd, 1991. The date is written on it… It was at a place called Hugos on Long Island. That was the venue for our second gig, too. We were very lucky – people took to us at our very first gig, and I don’t think we ever had a really shitty gig in the US after that. Sure, it happened occasionally on tour that we’d play to an empty room on a Tuesday in Little Rock or something, but we were one of the luckiest bands ever. Deal with the devil? You tell me.

Have a listen to the 'Doomsday' demo below featuring a fantastic version of the classic 'Shame & Scandal':

You were originally signed to Moon Records right?
Actually, no, we never “signed” to any label until we signed with Koch Internation/Velvel in like 1999 – by which time Nightmare and Brian were the only remaining original members. Prior to that we had production & distribution deals only, and Moonska was our first P&D. God Bless Satan did really well on Moonska because Moonska did a good job supporting it.

How did you end up working with Bill Laswell on your first record 'God Bless Satan'? Any stories you can share about the process for recording that album?
It’s funny – Mikal cold-called Greenpoint Studios in Brooklyn and asked if he’d do it. He said “send me a tape”. We did and he said “sure, love to”. It was that easy. He transformed the album, really brought it out front and made it scream. We were very lucky.

I think Mephiskapheles may have been one of the first 3rd wave ska bands to have a video on MTV for the song 'Doomsday'. What was that whole experience like?
That was surreal. The making of the video itself was a trip – Mikal asked a friend, Constantine Limperis, who taught video production at NYC’s School of Visual Arts if he’d like to shoot a music video. Constantine had a great reel of commercial work and had never done a video, so he said “love to”. He got a production crew of students and 16mm film cameras from the school and we did the entire thing – editing included – for under $4000. We then proceeded to give it away to anybody that wanted it, and it found its way into Rancid’s hands. They were guest hosts on MTV’s 120 Minutes, and played it. MTV really liked it, and went on to use bits of the video in other shows – House of Style, Spring Break and the like, which then got it picked up into regular rotation. So it was on about 8 times a day for about 6 months and it really made a big difference in how we were perceived by clubs – and fans – as we went out on the road.  From about 1995 to 1998, we were playing 275 shows a year, constantly on the road.

Can you share any unusual stories about any live shows that were particularly memorable during the early days of the band?
We tried to make every live show unusual without being cheesy. Sometimes we were cheesy, but that’s inevitable in any performing art. As for stories, I could tell them for days, but I would say the most memorable came from the tour we did with GWAR – that was absolutely *epic*.

Below (in nine parts!) is one of the band's more memorable shows from The Wetlands in New York City recorded May 12, 1997.  Though very dark (and I mean in terms of poor lighting for the video camera) the sounds more than make up for it!

Mephiskapheles Live - Part 2
Mephiskapheles Live - Part 3
Mephiskapheles Live - Part 4
Mephiskapheles Live - Part 5 
Mephiskapheles Live - Part 6
Mephiskapheles Live - Part 7
Mephiskapheles Live - Part 8
Mephiskapheles Live - Part 9

You toured with The Buzzcocks? What kind of reception did you get from their fans?
We shared fans with them – a lot of the people who liked the Buzzcocks liked us, too. Unlike some bills where the bands are incompatible and fans suffer band A or band B, I think most of the people who came felt they got their money’s worth. And the Buzzcocks were fantastic guys – that was a really great time.

Why did the band break-up?
The band never actually “broke up” as it were. It sort of stalled. I left the band before 'Might-ay      White-ay' came out, so I can’t say specifically what ended it, but ya know, it’s the oldest story in rock and roll, isn’t it?

What are your lasting memories of performing with Mephiskapheles?
This is another topic I could bla-bla on for days, really. But when Meph was at our peak – back in 95-96, we were having the time of our lives. When you’re in it, it’s tough to keep a handle on it, to keep perspective, but really, having been a veteran of grueling tours with less popular bands, I don’t think we realized collectively how lucky we really were. The antipathy and anger people develop when they live on top of each other is a luxury that you don’t appreciate til you don’t have it anymore.

What are you up to musically these days?
A bit – I play in a rock band with the cringeworthy name There Be Dragons and I have recorded some imperfect covers of songs my kids like, I’m doing a sort of punk ska three piece that’s sort of like a cross between Sublime and The Pogues – for which I intend to recruit horns soon and in a weird coincidence, the guys from the Shaved Pigs are tossing around the idea of getting back together for laughs. Who knows??

As one last final diabolical treat, I present you with Episode 66 of The BoneBat Show, featuring their in-depth inveskagation into the diabolical history of Mephiskapheles with Brendog Tween, featuring a number of ultra rare cuts from the band's original 1991 demo with "Dansmenot", "Eskimo", and "Shame and Scandal", and "Satanic Debris" from God Bless Satan. Stream it HERE!


Anonymous said...

I was at that Wetlands show all those years ago, still has to be one of the best and favourite shows I've been to.
-Scott B.

Paul said...

Oh dear lord (or Satan?)...thank you for this. LOVED Meph back in the day, awesome to hear from Brendog and get the inside scoop.

I will now have the bumble bee tuna song stuck in my head for the rest of the day. But I'll try to push it out with my favs, 'Saba' and 'break your ankle punk'.

Anonymous said...

I always wondered what happened to Meph. When is the reunion!

Anonymous said...

Actually it was Bill McKinney (guitarist on Might-Ay White-Ay, and an old school friend of mine from Ohio) who put us in touch with Bill Laswell. McKinney had recently worked with Laswell and Funkadelic guitarist Michael Hampton in a studio band called Slavemaster, recording the album Under the Six. McKinney played rough mixes of God Bless Satan for Laswell, who liked it and said we should give him a call if we needed production help. Laswell offered us a two-day mixing session at Greenpoint Studios with mix engineer Bob Musso (of Murphy's Law fame) who shares co-production credit on the album.

-Greg Robinson

Anonymous said...

Oh - thanks, Greg, I didn't recall the details, but now that you mention it, yeah, I forgot about that. TracyMcKin. I also forgot to mention Mike Berger, the tenor player we had briefly whose claim to fame is that he wrote the hook for Doomsday. Osho tells me I got some of the horn ordering wrong, but he hasn't written me back, so I'm not sure what he is talking about.

Anonymous said...

...meaning of course, Tracy McKnight(Laswell's assistant), no relation to Bill.

As claims to fame go, MB's is not the worst. Is it true? I have no idea, slightly before my time.

Anonymous said...

Yeah - typing fail. I was going to digress and mention that I'd seen her listed in the credits of a movie I saw at the 2nd Ave film Archive a couple weeks ago then thought better of it. But yeah she was, as I recall, a big help.
And yeah, Berger did concoct the doo-doo-doo-do-do-do-doot-doot-doot riff. There are definitely worse things to be remembered for!

Mike B said...

Bren was/is a good friend I met through the business back in the day. Glad to see what he's doing now. We haven't talked in a long time. I need to hit him up. Great interview and stroll down memory lane!