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The Cynics Interview

Cynics - Michael

It's been a few months since I saw legendary garage rock band The Cynics in Cleveland and I was reminded that I still had an interview with lead singer and songwriter Michael Kastelic in the can. So apologies for the delay, here's the interview...

Q. When I listen to your back catalog, there's a significant evolution in the sound of The Cynics. What were some of your early influences?

For me personally it's different than for the band. For the band, the influences were the garage 60s stuff on the back from the grave label, like the pebbles. Gregg was always a record collector so he had a lot of '60s stuff that was in his purview all his life. He grew up with that kind of sound a bit more than I did. I was really into Eric Burden and the Animals. Eric Burden was always my favorite singer.

Creem bowie 1Q. He's still touring...

He still sounds really good. I hope he's still crabby. That was my favorite thing about him. He was a hard drinker and known to be kind of a character.

For my personal influences the gateway drug was actually David Bowie. There was something called "The 1984 floor show" on the Midnight Special. That would have been before Diamond Dogs came out. It was 1974, and Diamond Dogs was about the book "1984."  Reading interviews with Bowie turned me onto everything from Marianne Faithful, The Troggs, Roxie Music, The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, Brian Eno. Reading interviews in Creem Magazine ormed a lof of stuff that was influential both in writing lyrics and in my singing.  That doesn't sound like it would go with the garage stuff. But I started singing the garage stuff later, when I joined the band with Gregg in the '80s.

Q. How did you and Gregg meet?

I was in a band that actually did sound like the influences I  mentioned, more of a Roxy Music / David Bowie kind of band. And Gregg had a PA and was doing sound for us. He was getting The Cynics together then. At first they had a different singer. I went to see them play and I said "Wow you're band's really good except I don't think your singer's very good." And he said "I agree. Why don't you do it?"  So that's how it started.

Q. How much of an influence was the '70s punk new wave movement on you?

We were both total punkers. We listend to everything from the early Ramones onward. Gregg was really into Fear and the more west coast stuff. I was more into the New York stuff like Richard Hell, Patti Smith and Television. And that's probably the reason the Cynics came about. People don't realize punk was pretty much dead by 1977. It was over. Then it started becoming pappy new wave, sing-songy dance music, club music. So what were we gonna do? We weren't gonna do that. And punk seems to be kind of a dead issue. There's only so much you can do with it, it seemed to us. So we just started doing this sort of, for lack of a better word, "'60s garage revival." We still called it punk rock. It was just more influenced by the '60s stuff than the punk stuff. 

Q. Did you get to see the Ramones live?

Ramones-cynics-pittsburgh-1987Oh yeah, we opened twice for The Ramones. It was amazing, incredible. There was one thing that really struck me. The road manager Monte Melnick brought in these big Kinko's boxes of setlists. All the same. They just toured perpetually. They always needed them so why not print them off in bulk? They played the same set for the whole tour. For Joey's he'd write the city, like say, "Cleveland" so Joey could say "Hello, Cleveland, we're The Ramones." They didn't know where they were half the time.

You could tell Joey had some OCD going on. One show we were playing with them, Joey didn't want to go on stage because he couldn't find his gloves. He was crying to Monte "I can't go on, I can't find my gloves." But they were really sweet.

Q. Lets talk about a couple of specific songs. Tell me about the song "Spinning Wheel Motel." 

 That's kind of a real story. There's an actual hotel in Jersey City. I was there with a friend and we were watching this strange going on. I guess it was some kind of prostitution / drug deal. A guy knocked on a door, a guy opened the door, a girl went in. She was in there for a little while and then we heard a bunch of screaming. And then the door opens and another guy comes to the door and shot two people. And that was the Spinning Wheel Motel, the inspiration for the title! And kind of the feeling of it too. It's also a little bit about Barbara, she was the girl who could run a little bit faster. Because she moved here from Spain and married Gregg and kind of took over the record company Get Hip and started running it.

There's a lot of different meanings to my songs. They usually don't mean just one thing. I try to make them universal archetypes. So they mean a lot of stuff to a lot of people. Those were always my kind of songs, the songs I liked. I don't really like it when a songwriter tells you what the song is about, it's about my dead grandmother. Because then everytime you listen to the song you're thinking about his dead grandmother. And no matter what it meant to you, it's kind of negated. So I don't like to say a song is about one thing. I try to make them primal Jungian archetypes. So they're about feelings all people experience and they can understand the song funneled through their own experiences. Those are the kind of songs it makes me happy to listen to. 

Cynics - Live ClevelandQ. How do you write? Do you write the lyrics first or the melodies?

There's a lot of different ways. Lately Gregg has been coming up with these beautiful guitar melodies and I let them roll around in my brain for a while. Then I look in my notebooks for ideas or verses. I'll page through them and see if something fits. Or I'll just listen to it over and over again and see what images it brings to mind and start writing things down and just take it from there. It's mainly a process of re-writing and paraphrasing. Once I get a theme and a feeling I'll write things around that. 

Q. Some of the songs have psychadelic feel to them, like "Beyond the Calico Wall / STP." How did that come about?  

We did lots of acid back in the day. In fact the night Gregg asked me to sing for the band we were tripping balls. Maybe that's why I said yes. Damn what happened? That was some bad acid! (laughs) I'm sorry what was the question? I'm seeing streamers. (laughs.) 

Q. The psychadelic sound...

We took advantage of the producer we had Erik Lindgren from Arf Arf. He was really good at doing backwards tapes and stuff. So we thought since that was his forte, we woud put a bit of that psychadelic stuff on that record. It's fun to do live. 

Q. You guys have a huge following in Spain. Why is that?

The latins love us! In Spain and Mexico they just love the fuzz guitar. They really love surf music too. Even though we really don't do any of that. Latins really love surf and garage.

Q. Any plans for another album?

Yes, Pablo and Angel are here in America with us. We've already written six new songs. We're gonna try to get some more together. The plan is to record during the summer. Either in Spain or maybe with Jim Diamond in Detroit. Working with him was so great. I would like to do that again. It was effortless. He does everything so simple. Just sets up the mic and tells you to play. Pushes record, and doesn't really mess around with it much, which I like.  

And here's some video from the Cleveland gig:

Lets hope there's more touring and another album soon.


X - Live in New York City


The seminal '80s punk band X is playing 4 nights at the City Winery in New York as well as touring other major cities. I had the good fortune of being in town and catching the opening night during which they played their debut album "Los Angeles" in its entirety. Punk rock being what it is, that's a fairly short album, so they came back for another full set of songs from later periods of their career and then a final encore.  

While I was a huge fan of late '70s / early '80s punk and new wave from New York and the UK, I never really got into the LA bands of that era. When I did listen to some of the bands over the years, the production always felt a bit too raw. But seeing X live last night makes me reconsider my assessment.  

As a live band, X was incredibly tight. You could argue that since they've been playing these songs on and off for more than 30 years that's expected. But I've seen many bands falter in similar circumstances, messing with the arrangements, trying to change things up in ways that don't need changing. X was as tight as a bottle of Scotch. The combination of Billy Zoom's driving guitar parts and DJ Bonebrake's drumming was like a freight train going 70 miles an hour. Add to that John Doe's bass lines, some added keyboards and the slightly off-kilter vocals of Doe and ex-wife Exene Cervenka and you have something that is unique. Needless to say, the audience loved it. 

While many would dismiss LA punk (or punk rock in general) for it's lack of musical talent, X, and more specifically Billy Zoom, fall into a different league altogether. Zoom is a multi-instrumentalist who played with rockabilly legend Gene Vincent for a period. His idea for X was to take the stripped down rock and roll style of the Ramones and add to it a bit more musicality. While X never sold a lot of records, they influenced a lot of bands. And Zoom's complex guitar parts stands a cut above most bands, punk or not.

Here's some video from the show. And let me apologize in advance for only getting part of X's brilliant cover of The Doors' "Soul Kitchen."

If you're in New York, you should definitely see this band.  They are touring the east coast and also have dates in Chicago, Michigan and Ohio.

How to Chose Your First Electric Guitar


This week I've got a guest post from Paul Misko over at with some tips on purchasing your first electric guitar.  That's my nephew above with the first guitar I got for him, a cheapo $100 strat. At this point, he'd probably be embarassed by the photo and the guitar.

Whether you’ve decided to purchase your first electric guitar or you are making the switch from an acoustic, it can be overwhelming to choose from the many guitar brands and models out there. Here are some helpful ideas to keep in mind to make sure you select the guitar right for you and your desired playing style.

Often many people assume it's better to learn on an acoustic guitar. However, that's not the case. It is generally much easier to hold chords or bend strings on an electric guitar than an acoustic. And if you really wanna rock out, well, there's nothing better, right? 

Electric guitar prices vary widely from a few hundred dollars to thousands, and in many cases you get what you pay for. Cheap guitars can be enticing at first, but once you get a feel for playing, the difference in quality will be very obvious. You will then find yourself wanting to purchase a new guitar sooner than you expected, and you’ll end up spending more than you wanted. Choose a moderately priced guitar that is playable and easily adjustable. For $200 these days, you can get a very decent made-in-asia guitar.  But whatever you do, don't go for the $99 big-box retailer special or the $200 includes an amp, strap, capo, cable and some picks holiday package. Those guitars are nothing but frustration!

The size of the guitar is also important. Make sure it is comfortable for both your right and left hands. If you are purchasing for a child, make sure to choose one that is small enough for them to grip, or learning to play can be difficult and discouraging. Generally speaking if a full-size guitar (24" - 25" scale) is too large, then consider a 3/4 size short scale guitar, typically 20" scale.

Choose a guitar that appeals to you visually. Pick a body style, finish, and color you like. This can help keep you motivated to play and learn. A cool looking guitar is part of the fun of playing!

Make sure to have a teacher or experienced guitar player train you on the basics of properly stringing, tuning, cleaning, and maintaining the guitar. Not taking care of your instrument can lead to problems with the frets, wood, and neck, which affect the sound. The pickups, bridge, and, neck size are all factors in the overall sound of the guitar. Try out different variations and learn which pickups work the best for rock, blues, jazz, metal, etc. If you don’t understand the basic workings of the guitar, it can also discourage your from learning to play.

Keep all of these key issues in mind when purchasing your first electric guitar. Make sure to ask questions and deal with an experienced person at a quality music store. Talk to other musicians who can give helpful advice on the guitar right for your style. Make a list of brands and models you are interested in, but most importantly, keep an open mind. The guitar right for you might not be the one you had in mind, but when you find it, it will become your best friend!