I turned 18 in 1981. Like many others who transformed from boys to young men in the early 80s, it was a time of confusion, but also one of excitement. America’s socio-political landscape had radically changed to one of conservatism and military intervention during the Reagan regime, and equally as turbulent was the beloved institution of rock and roll. Mainstays of arena rock were suddenly seen as antiquated… out of touch with a new look and attitude. Punk had taken over, and given the agitation of the times, it’s no wonder.
Much appreciated about the punk movement was how the barrier between musician and audience was broken down. In the 70s, chances were unlikely that a pimply-faced young dude would get to hang out with one of his heroes. This privilege was almost exclusively reserved for pretty girls. Likewise, to become a popular rocker seemed a nearly unobtainable quest. With punk, the fans all had their own bands, and many times the venues did not even have stages. We all stood on the same ground, and we all drank from the same keg when the show was over.
Which is not to say we didn’t have bands to look up to. When I joined my first punk band in 1983, we all brought a lot of influences to the table, but our commonality was that we wanted to be like Black Flag and Die Kreuzen.
Die Kreuzen was the first hardcore punk band from Wisconsin that seemed truly unique. I don’t mean that others, like Killdozer and the Oil Tasters for example, didn’t also forge their own identities, but Die Kreuzen did so with power, muscle, and charisma. From my own perspective, it was unbelievably cathartic music, with its relentless tempo, intricate musicianship, and Dan Kubinski’s tortured yet spectacular shrieking vocal. The lyrics told of alienation, dissent from the cliques in school or social circles, loneliness, pain, anger, and an unwillingness to conform. Man, I could relate.
I missed Die Kreuzen’s big buzz reunion show last May for the ‘Lest We Forget’ showcase at Milwaukee’s Turner Hall, but vowed to not miss the more formal concert this coming May 26. Keith Brammer, the wild-haired bassist himself, gave me a call to talk about the old days and the new. I asked how the band originally formed, and as with every inquiry I had, Keith’s answer was direct and unwavering. “Eric (Tunison, drums) and I were friends growing up, we went through school together. Brian (Egeness, guitar) and Dan went to junior high and high school together in Rockford. I met those guys when they started playing up here under the name The Stellas, who were really exciting. I introduced them to Eric because they were looking for a drummer. They (asked) me to play when their bass player, Brian (“Beezer”) Hill, from Sacred Order, left. After a couple months, it was obvious that it was going in a much different direction, so we had to call it something else.”
One of the most identifying features of any Die Kreuzen record was its intriguing artwork by Richard Kohl, and the clout behind it’s label, Touch And Go, meant that distribution was better than most. Keith offered these insights in regard to the label. “Corey Rusk, who ran Touch And Go, had seen us (when) we played with his band The Necros at the Lost Dutchman’s Mine, which turned in to The Unicorn. We had put out our 7 inch (‘Cows And Beer’, 1982) ourselves, with our friend Bob Moore from Indiana. (Corey) was really interested in us putting out an album. We had just gotten back from a tour, were all stressed out, and ended up breaking up for like, six or eight months. We got back together, and Corey was still interested in putting this record out, so we went to Detroit and recorded it. No contract, (just) a handshake agreement, because he was incredibly honest, a real stand-up guy. Corey wasn’t all about sales. He put out records because he liked the bands, which was rare in the world of record companies. The first record (‘Die Kreuzen’, 1984) sold very well, but back then, it was kind of an event when a record came out.”
It was two years (1986) before the second Die Kreuzen full-length was released, titled ‘October File’, and some of the group’s stalwart hardcore punk fans were in for a bit of a shock. The original abrasiveness of their early songs was replaced by a more progressive rock style, especially noticeable in Brian Egeness’ increasingly developed guitar sounds, and Dan Kubinski’s somewhat more reflective (ie: less angry) lyrics. I was curious if the band got a hard time from their core base of fans, and Keith knew exactly what I was getting at. “Oh God, yeah. I don’t know why people take it so personally! It’s very odd. The first record was almost everything we had at the time, and if you listen to ‘October File’ there are a few songs on there that are obviously from the same era, just, faster. But, we decided we wanted to do different things, because half of these “hardcore bands” would just play as fast as they could, it didn’t really matter what the song was, and people didn’t care. We could actually play better now, (so) why don’t we utilize that? If you’re an author, are you going to write the same book five times? If you’re at all interested in progression, or art or whatever, you’re going to change. It’s funny, to this day, we still get the, “Well, are you gonna play the old stuff?”, and at this point, yeah… sure, but for the longest time, when we were on tour, half of the set would be stuff that we hadn’t recorded yet.”
In late ’87, when Die Kreuzen went in to Breezeway Studios in Waukesha to record the ‘Century Days’ (1988) album, they began to work with engineer/producer Butch Vig. “We wound up working with Butch because he produced the Killdozer and Laughing Hyenas records. For a while there he was almost like the Touch And Go house producer. Working with Butch, he was very competent, very particular about whatever the band wanted, but he was also willing to take the time to make it sound really good. We’re talking about back in the day before there was ProTools, and before automated faders, and all of us would be sitting around the board pushing the faders up and down. The thing about Butch, it’s just so comfortable working with him, and I’m sure it is the same way now, because he’s just the same dude. He didn’t change when he got popular, or in demand.”
One major difference between the classic era of Die Kreuzen, and what will be experienced at the reunion concerts, is Couch Flambeau guitarist Jay Tiller sitting in for the absent Brian Egeness. “Brian lives in Austin and has two younger children, and is running a recording studio. Brian wished he could do it, but couldn’t just pick up and leave for however long. So, we asked Jay. We’ve known him forever, and he actually played drums with us one time in Minneapolis. (Playing with Jay) is great! He’s got a different style. He’s playing the parts, not exactly the same, but just as interesting. (Jay) doesn’t rely as much on effects. Brian had this processor that he put everything through. Jay uses effects, but more sparingly. It’s more of a straight-up rock thing, and it also involves the songs that we’re doing. We’re trying to keep it equally split between all our records, which is interesting, especially in terms of him having to learn it, because it is wildly disparate.”
“Then, Dan went over to the Roadburn Festival (in the Netherlands) last year, and did one of our songs, ‘Man In The Trees’, with Voivod. The people from the festival have (wanted us) to play there for years. Which is kind of funny because Eric and his wife have lived in Amsterdam for the past 13 or 14 years! So, as soon as it was announced that we were doing that, we immediately got barraged by emails and phone calls (with other offers). So, we decided (to) do a show in Milwaukee (Turner Hall, May 26) because it’s home base, and a show in Chicago (Double Door, May 25). We were contacted by Tom Hazelmyer, who runs Amphetamine Reptile Records in Minneapolis to see if we wanted to play his (festival with) Negative Approach, Mudhoney, and The Melvins (at Grumpy’s, July 20). This would never be possible if we hadn’t put in months of work relearning these songs. Some people can pick up songs 20 years later, and play them, (but) we’re not those people!”
Thinking about how Die Kreuzen so often gets name-dropped as an influence, but also knowing they never achieved huge financial success, I asked Keith for his thoughts about how he hopes the band’s legacy is ultimately regarded. “Back then, it seems like there’s certain plateaus that you get to. If you’re in a band, you step up (a) series of rungs on the ladder, and for whatever reason it just stalled at one rung. That was kind of frustrating, but in retrospect, we were doing what we wanted to do, and we weren’t willing to change that. Looking back, how many bands were wildly popular, Collective Soul or whoever, that nowadays people are like… ‘who’? Yet, I’ll pick up Razorcake (magazine) or whatever, and there’s still bands going, “Oh yeah, Die Kreuzen, I loved them when I was a kid”. I think I can speak for the other guys. It’s more important to be respected for being individual. I’d rather be remembered 20, 30, years down the line, than have made two million dollars. People are still listening to our records, and (if) some 15 year old kid can go out and buy our record and (then) start a band, that’s the biggest compliment anyone could pay you. It’s interesting that now, there’s still a lot of people excited about seeing us play.”
If you’re one of those people (like me), be certain to mark these dates: May 25 at the Double Door in Chicago, May 26 at Turner Hall in Milwaukee, July 18 at the High Noon Saloon in Madison, July 19 at Phatheadz in Green Bay, and July 20 at Grumpy’s in Minneapolis.(3407) Page Views Die Kreuzen Online:
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