On a sweltering Sunday afternoon, members of the Zero Boys begin arriving at Radio Radio to practice one last time before the seminal Indianapolis hardcore band plays a much-anticipated reunion show at Bloomington's Second Story club on Friday, Sept. 13.
Zero Boys bassist and Radio Radio owner David 'Tufty' Clough is puttering around the club, talking to his teen-age daughter, Cheyenne, while drummer Mark Cutsinger sets up his kit. Singer Paul Mahern soon arrives, carrying a well-worn copy of Autobiography of a Yogi by influential yoga teacher Paramahansa Yogananda. He talks with quiet intensity about his interest in yoga, and his plans to spend some time on retreat in New Mexico later this month, where he will train to become a yoga instructor himself.
Though 20 years have elapsed since the group's first album, Vicious Circle, was released, none of the three look much different than they did in the photos from the early 1980s in the liner notes of the album's second reissue (in 2000, on the now-defunct Panic Button Records; the album was first reissued on Toxic Shock in 1988).
This Friday's show will be the Zero Boys' third reunion since the group's original dissolution in 1982, the same year that Vicious Circle was released. But when Mahern, Clough and Cutsinger step onstage with the group's second guitarist, Vess Ruhtenberg, and launch into the title track from Vicious Circle, it's suddenly as though no time has passed at all, because the Zero Boys sound just as good - if not better - than they did when Vicious Circle was recorded in just four hours in August of 1981.
The polished intensity that set the Zero Boys apart from other hardcore groups of the day is still evident in Clough and Cutsinger's rapid-fire, astonishingly agile rhythm section, Ruhtenberg's heavy but nuanced guitar and Mahern's trademark staccato vocals. They can still play faster than most bands half their age, but as they run through Vicious Circle from start to finish, Mahern actually urges them to slow down. 'We need to be a little more relaxed,' he suggests, as he takes a quick yoga break onstage. 'We don't need to push the tempo so much.' But Ruhtenberg counters, 'It could be faster - I think we should do it a lot faster.'
Vicious Circle was one of the first albums Ruhtenberg (formerly of United States 3, and currently of the Pieces) learned to play in its entirety. He joined the group in 1988, replacing original guitarist Terry Hollywood, and went on to record two more albums with them: Make It Stop in 1991 and The Heimlich Manuver in 1993.
Ruhtenberg recalls a friend giving him both the Ramones' End of the Century and Vicious Circle when he was in high school, and being blown away by the latter group's sheer velocity, and close proximity, as one of the few hardcore punk bands in Indiana at the time. He remembers not liking Vicious Circle right away, but eventually, Ruhtenberg says, 'It just blew my mind - I couldn't believe it. It was exciting because it came from right down the street. You drove right by where they played every day on the way to school every day.'
Livin' in the '80s
The Zero Boys began playing shows around Indianapolis not long after they met at a party in 1979, when Mahern was still in high school. Clough laughs, remembering that Mahern's band at the time was called 3 p.m., because that was what time he got out of school.
'He had all the makings of a great front guy,' Clough says. Playing with the Zero Boys was different, Mahern recalls, 'because David and Mark and Terry were all accomplished musicians who had been playing in rock, pop and funk bands - they were not just a bunch of kids that picked up instruments to play punk rock. I was - I was younger than them and I didn't know what I was doing, but it was a neat combination between this young, snotty kid who dug records and really wanted to be in a band, and these guys who could actually play.'
They released the Livin' in the '80s 7-inch EP about a year after their first meeting, and continued to play gigs at small clubs like Crazy Al's (now the Jazz Kitchen), the CBGB's of Indy at that time. The Zero Boys were relatively isolated from the burgeoning hardcore scenes on the East and West coasts, but traveled to Chicago to see groups like Bad Brains and the Dead Kennedys, which Mahern says helped to catalyze the edgier sound captured on Vicious Circle.
The Zero Boys' lyrics remained much less polemic than those of bands like the Dead Kennedys; Mahern says, 'The Zero Boys sounded the most like the Adolescents or the Circle Jerks, only more innocent-sounding, because we were from Indiana, and kind of sheltered.' As a result, the songs on Vicious Circle address more timeless, placeless themes: being young, being an outsider and feeling frustrated, alienated and generally disgusted with society. The most overtly political the record gets is a clever reference to the shootings of Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II and John Lennon in 'Civilization's Dying.'
Ironically, it is this lack of cultural specificity, and the emphasis on musicianship instead, that has allowed Vicious Circle to endure over the intervening two decades. At the time, the Zero Boys could not have foreseen the impact that Vicious Circle would have on future generations of punk musicians. Today, the album is seen by many scholars of punk history as the missing link between early '80s hardcore and the pop-punk explosion of the early '90s, during which bands like Green Day would achieve a level of mainstream success unimaginable to the Zero Boys in 1982.
'There was no real money motivation - you had no reason to think you were ever going to make enough money to do it as a living and not work your job,' Mahern says. 'I had no idea that anybody would ever hear Vicious Circle. But it became obvious when the record came out that people were kind of starving for hardcore punk rock.'
The Zero Boys toured both coasts and Canada, playing shows with the Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat and an early incarnation of the Beastie Boys along the way. Although Vicious Circle got good reviews and college radio airplay, the strain of touring and the relative lack of local support contributed to the group's decision to disband late in 1982.
'We were a great band, but circumstances in our lives were such that we couldn't entirely commit to the band,' explains Clough, who went on to play bass in Dayton's Toxic Reasons.
Cutsinger continued his drumming career, while Mahern concentrated on his label, Affirmation Records, and his career as a producer, before playing music again in the early 1990s with Dandelion Abortion and the Datura Seeds. Terry Hollywood sadly died a year and a half ago from a drug overdose.
It was during their first reunion in 1988 that the Zero Boys first seemed to gain some insight into their legacy as a band. They were playing a show in Germany, when they encountered a man who was such a fan of the group that he had a Zero Boys tattoo, and sported a leather jacket with the Vicious Circle logo on the back. 'When you get people doing that, you must be doing something right,' Clough says fondly.
So why did the Zero Boys choose to reunite again this year? Mahern says it's partly because his nephew, John Wilkes Booze frontman Seth Mahern, wanted to share a bill with his uncle's old band. Moreover, the group agrees, they're playing together again simply 'because it's fun.'
Mahern hints that if things go well, they may even write some new material. The Zero Boys see a little of themselves in John Wilkes Booze, and the other band on the night's bill, The Slurs, whose intense, energetic singer Justin Allen reminds everyone a little of the young Terry Hollywood.
Though they seem pleased by the recent Hoosier punk rock renaissance, Mahern and Clough are somewhat troubled by the commodification of the punk sound and aesthetic by the mainstream media in recent years. 'Even the punk rock look is very watered down now,' Clough says. 'You can buy it at Wal-Mart, and that takes the bite out of it.'
'I remember when Green Day finally had a huge hit, I thought, 'This is so weird. It's like these kids just got some Stiff Little Fingers records and learned them verbatim,' and they turned it into this huge multimillion dollar thing,' Mahern says. 'I'm not saying that we're groundbreaking, but had Vicious Circle come out four or five years ago, and had we been really young, we could have potentially been Blink-182. We could have had close to that level of success.'
Clough thinks the Zero Boys have achieved success on their own terms, maintaining their integrity as musicians and independent businessmen in the process. 'The last time we reunited, people from California and Chicago and all over came to see us play.
If you can get people to travel long distances to come see you because they like your art, that's success. I feel like we're a success.' He adds, 'Vicious Circle sells for $1,400 on ebay - that's pretty flattering.
'I can't remember much about the day we recorded it, but yet the record lives on,' Mahern says of Vicious Circle. 'That's part of what I love about audio recordings - it's like a slice of history.'