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Century Days: The Story of Die Kreuzen by Sahan Jayasuriya

Originally posted at:

http://thirdcoastdaily.com/2012/05/century-days-the-story-of-die-kreuzen

 Many thanks to Sahan for permission to host it here.

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Century Days: The Story of Die Kreuzen

May 24th, 2012

By Sahan Jayasuriya

 

Fans of the first wave of punk rock in the late 1970s and early 1980s found themselves pushing the boundaries of the genre in terms of speed and aggression, eventually creating a subgenre known as hardcore. Bands like Black Flag, Minor Threat, Bad Brains and the Circle Jerks took punk rock to the extreme, with aggressive guitars, thundering drums and off-the-wall vocals. In the following years, the mainstays were revered and their legendary shows were romanticized, while their lesser-known contemporaries faded quietly into obscurity. One of those bands was Milwaukee’s Die Kreuzen.

Die Kreuzen challenged audiences for the better part of twelve years by pushing the boundaries of what a hardcore band could do, experimenting with sounds far removed from the constraints of the genre. And yet, in punk and hardcore histories, the band is continuously reduced to a mere footnote. This is their story, told by those who were there, those who weren’t, and in a few cases, those who wished they were.

The story begins in 1980, with a little band from Milwaukee called The Stellas.

Keith Brammer (bassist): I was hanging out with all the Stellas guys at the time because I liked what they were doing. I was doing “lights,” which pretty much meant that I flipped things on and off. It didn’t matter because I just wanted to be around.

Erik [Tunison, drummer] and I grew up together, and the band we were in at the time had fragmented, so I moved to the East Side and started going to shows and hanging out with Dan [Kubinski, vocalist] and Brian [Egeness, guitarist] who had just moved from Rockford. They had a bunch of drummers that came and went, and when I found out that they were looking for a drummer, I suggested Erik. That clicked really well. Not too long after that I was going down to Chicago with them for a show and they were like “Yeah, uh, you wanna play bass for us?” and I was like “Um. Yeah!”

After deciding a name change was in order, the band settled on Die Kreuzen, a term for the sign of the cross found in a German language bible. With a new name and a solidified lineup, the band focused on writing, drawing influence from many of the west coast hardcore bands of the time.

Brammer: Our big touchstones were the first Circle Jerks record and the Germs record. Those were the gold standard for us. The early Black Flag EPs were great too, especially the stuff with Ron Reyes and Dez Cadena. And of course all the early punk rock stuff we had been listening to for years. The first Ramones record, the early Sex Pistols singles–we bought all those records when they first came ot. I give the Ramones the most credit for letting everyone in the world know that “yes, you can be in a band without being a musical genius.”

After recording a few demos for compilations, the band put out their first proper release, the Cows and Beer EP. With six tracks clocking in at just slightly over six minutes, Cows and Beer remains a perfect sonic document of early 80s hardcore.

Brammer: We recorded that with this girl who had some studio time available as part of her thesis for audio engineering. It was really a school project for her, and it ended up sounding pretty good, so we just figured we might as well release it. We essentially released it ourselves with some help from our friend Bob Moore. We pillaged our record collection for sleeves and sat at Erik’s mom’s house folding the inserts. That’s how you did it back then. There certainly was no sort of label that was going to release a record like that.

Dale Crover (drummer, The Melvins/Nirvana): Cows and Beer, man. That’s the one to get. I remember seeing them in Seattle with Buzz [Osborne] and our old bassist Matt [Lukin] and telling them how much we liked that record.

Erik Stenglein (singer and guitarist, Northless): Cows and Beer is a fucking statement. It’s a record made with guts and pride. I think it absolutely holds up against contemporary records of the day.

Jay Tiller (singer and guitarist, Couch Flambeau): I’ve always liked them the best out of all the early hardcore bands. They could actually play. Brian was using all these interesting chords…kinda Robert Fripp sounding chords, you know? I thought that that was a cool bridge between sort of…Clash-type guitar playing and something a bit more artsy and proggy.

Brammer: Pretty much every single band in Milwaukee was doing something different at the time. No one really sounded the same. You had the Ama-Dots, the Oil Tasters, the Prosecutors, the Shivvers…you know? There were just all these bands doing different things and I think a lot of people didn’t know exactly what to make of it all. Audiences were really fixated on out of town bands, especially bands from New York, and they didn’t take the whole west coast hardcore thing too seriously. That’s what we were dealing with here, so we were all just like “fuck this, lets move to the west coast.”

Upon arriving in California, the band quickly realized that things weren’t quite as great as they were expecting. Parking tickets, rehearsal spaces and food were all adding up, and they were starting to run out of money.

Brammer: We were broke and had no place to stay. Luckily we had these friends of friends who were awesome enough to let us stay at their home for an entire month. I still can’t believe it to this day because they literally saved our lives. If not for them, we would have been living on the street.

So we played this show at the Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco and Jello Biafra (singer, Dead Kennedys) was there. Him and I started talking about movie soundtracks, because he’s such a music freak and he loves like… Lalo Schifrin soundtracks…like Dirty Harry and stuff. So the next day we had a show and they dropped us from the bill at the last minute. Someone from the Kennedys found out about it, and they invited us to play with them at the On Broadway, which was this huge theater above the Mab. It was with D.O.A. and Personality Crisis, and everyone was at that show and no one was at the other show. It was great. We played our set and made like ten times more money than we would have if we played the other show. That got us enough money to get home. We booked a few shows to play on the way, and we finally got home. And then we broke up.

Tired of being in such close quarters, the band called it quits. Brammer moved to Rockford and joined the Tense Experts, but found himself back in Milwaukee after six months. It was only a matter of time before the band reconsidered their decision.

Brammer: I had just gotten back to Milwaukee and ran into Dan at Ludwig Van Ear (later Atomic Records), and we got to talking and started hanging out again. Two months later, we started thinking about getting Die Kreuzen back together.

Dan Kubinski: I remember having a meeting. The four of us sat down and we were all just like “yeah, lets do this.” Life hadn’t been so great since we split up, and it was pretty good when we were going before, so we decided to try it again.

Corey Rusk (co-founder, Touch and Go Records): I was playing in a band called The Necros at the time, and we played a show in Milwaukee with Die Kreuzen. I was blown away by what a great live band they were. I couldn’t stop thinking about their gig. They were unlike any other band at that time. They were lumped in with “hardcore” bands at the time by the press, but there was so much more going on with Die Kreuzen than just “hardcore.” When I got back home to Ohio, I called them to see if they wanted to do an album with Touch and Go. They agreed, and then promptly broke up!  I was heartbroken — until they got back together!

Kubinski: I think I got on the phone with Corey almost immediately and was like “Dude, we’re back together. Does that offer still stand?” and he was like “Really?! Cool! Yeah, lets work on that!” So that’s really when Touch and Go came into the picture.

Brammer: We went to Detroit and recorded with Corey and this guy Rick Canzano. I think it took us like two days to track that record.

Rusk: I don’t remember the exact number of days, but I believe we recorded and mixed all 20 songs in three or four days. Record time by today’s standards!  And even today that album still sounds great.

Brammer: We knew those songs upside down and backwards by that point, so we were able to knock them out pretty quickly. And that was it. We finished recording, the record came out, and then we just started touring. A lot. And we never stopped (laughs).

It was 1984, and being an independent touring band at the time meant that self-sufficiency was key, especially in terms of booking.

Brammer: People sometimes don’t realize how different it was. Obviously there were no computers at the time. You’d book shows through the mail or by telephone.

Kubinski: If you were on the road, you’d have to find a pay phone, get out your phone book and your map and think “Okay, how can I make this work? Who can I call?”. It wasn’t as simple as just firing off an email.

Brammer: And we’d play anywhere. I remember in Reno we played someone’s storage locker, and that was the club, and there were people there! And then we stayed at Kevin Seconds’ (vocalist, 7 Seconds) house and his mom cooked us the greatest dinner in the world. It’s a fantastic memory. Here were all these people working together to do something positive. It was so nice and made things so much more positive.

Rusk: Their live shows were phenomenal!  So raw and fierce, yet musically complex at the same time.

Dan DuChaine (owner, Rush Mor Records): The first time I ever saw Bad Brains live, I went home after the show and I knew I had to practice. It was four days before my band’s first show, and we knew that we either had to do it well or not do it at all. It was the same with the first time I saw Die Kreuzen, just that rapid-fire song after song after song kinda thing. It was very inspiring. The show would be over and you didn’t even realize that 40 minutes had gone by.

Being that I was a little bit younger at the time, I wasn’t always able to see them play. WMSE made the impact for me, I can’t give them enough credit. They played that record a lot, on like the “new wave” shows or whatever.

Kubinski: We toured on that record for a handful of years. I remember talking with Terry Tolkin (of Touch and Go Records) and him being like “You know, maybe you should start thinking about putting another album out.”

Brammer: We were always writing songs, but it took us a long time to finish a song. We were really picky and we didn’t want to repeat ourselves. We always thought, “Now what are we gonna do? Where are we gonna go from here?”

Returning to record with Rusk and Canzano, the band had a new batch of songs that were a slight departure from their previous material, venturing into darker territory.

Kubinski: A lot of the songs that ended up on there were already written when we made the first record, but we knew they didn’t quite fit in with those songs.

Brammer: It was another one where we knew the material really well and just went in and blasted it out in a few days. Just kinda like “here it is.” I think it was maybe three or four days.

The result was October File–a Goth-infused hybrid of punk, hardcore and metal that was still distinctly Die Kreuzen. Previous releases could be seen from where the new record stood, but it was very apparent that the band had matured from touring and writing.

DuChaine: My favorite record of theirs is probably October File. That’s the one I had to wait for. I had already heard the first record and I was just waiting for something new, and it was great. It was so dark and kinda vague and mysterious, and the artwork looked really cool and Gothy.

Brammer: We were branching out. I was really into a lot of the British post-punk stuff at the time like Echo & the Bunnymen and Siouxie and the Banshees, and I think those influences started to come through.

Kubinski: By the time the second record came out, we were more geared up for touring and we had had more experience with it. We were all ready to go.

Brammer: We played with a whole lot of insanely cool bands. Most of these bands weren’t really on anything even resembling a label, you know? We just played wherever the hell we could, whenever the hell we could. Every now and then we’d get these college shows, which were great because they paid us well and fed us too.

I think this one time we played at some college in Kansas with Love Tractor, and it was great! There was some on-campus function going on at the time, so there was pretty much no one at the show. We ran into the Love Tractor guys the next day at the bank. We were both rushing to cash our checks from the college just in case they tried to put a stopped payment on them! (laughs)

Returning home from tour, the band set to work on the next album. The steps made with October File were only the beginning. For this next record, the band wanted to progress even further.

Brammer: I really wanted it to sound different. I was listening to a lot of oddball stuff at the time so I didn’t want it to be just another rock record with guitars. I was just really insistent on making a different and weirder record. I remember listening to a lot of REM at the time. The Jesus & Mary Chain and The Cure too.

Kubinski: Having toured for so long in a van together, we were absorbing each other’s music collections and going through other people’s record collections and taping stuff really quick so we could listen to it. I think that resulted in the four of us having a much larger world view of music. That definitely had a hand in the songs turning out the way they did.

The album also marked a departure from working with Rusk and Canzano, instead opting to work with the now legendary producer Butch Vig, who would later go on to produce Nirvana’s Nevermind and the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream.

Kubinski: Butch Vig’s recordings sounded so crisp and full. I heard them and thought “Man, we need to do a record with him.”

Brammer: Butch had worked with Killdozer and Laughing Hyenas, and we thought those records sounded great. Those Hyenas records especially are still just like, fuckin’ the most awesome sounding records ever. So when we got the chance to work with him it was just like “Oh yeah, great.” He was in Madison, and so we met him half way at Cornerstone Studios in Waukesha.

Kubinski: We’d do like two or three days at a time, and then come back later for a few more days. I think the whole album ended up taking close to about two weeks to make. We got a really good deal on the studio by coming in after hours and then tracking into the early morning. But then we’d have to be at our day jobs the next day, so it was rough.

Brammer: I remember we’d be coming back really late at night, and I had to go into work at Atomic Records the next day, just being totally out of it.

This would result in the band’s third full length, Century Days. Released in 1988, the album was an even bigger leap forward than the last, with the band taking influence from some rather unlikely places.

Kubinski: I remember hearing the first Sugarcubes 12”, “Birthday,” and being absolutely blown away by it. I thought Bjork was doing some really interesting things with her voice and I took a lot of influence from that, especially on “Elizabeth.”

Brammer: I totally swiped the idea for the horns in “Stomp” from The Rolling Stones “Bitch.”

Their audience was polarized upon the album’s release. While some embraced their progression, others were not so welcoming.

Brammer: I always thought it was funny when people were like “Oh, they changed”, because we were always listening to different things from the beginning. Growing up we were really into a lot of the classic rock stuff like Rush, Led Zeppelin, CCR, all that, but we also all really liked Sparks, and Eno and the New York Dolls and the Stooges. So even though it took a little bit for some of those influences to really start coming through, they were there all along.

Rusk: I loved it. You can’t keep making the same record over and over. My musical tastes were quite broad so I had no problem embracing their new directions.

Kubinski: We were still being billed with like four or five other hardcore bands. They’d get up there, play the shortest songs possible as fast as they could, get off stage, and then the next band would do the same. So by the time we got up there, everyone was just sort of confused.

Brammer: People would just be like “You suck! Fuckin’ hippies!” and we were all just sorta like “You like that one? Here’s another one called ‘Number 3’” and turn up the fog machines (laughs). It just got to the point where we were like “You know what? We’re gonna do what we’re gonna do, and if you don’t like it, fuck you. And if you really don’t like it, we’re gonna do it some more.” We were all single minded in that nobody had any intention of pandering to anyone.

Kubinski: To me, that was punk rock. That’s where I came from, listening to the Ramones and Sex Pistols at 14, and that was the attitude, you know? Just break all the rules.

Having toured extensively on the previous albums, word began to spread, and soon the band was getting offers to play bigger and better venues, stateside and beyond.

Kubinski: I was working at the second Earwaves at the time in the strip mall on Farwell, and I remember getting a call from [Sonic Youth drummer] Steve Shelley, asking when Century Days was going to come out and how many were going to be pressed. They wanted to know if we were interested in playing some shows in Europe with them.

Brammer: We had played with Sonic Youth before a few times, and they came to see us when we played at CBGBs with Suicide. But yeah, we went to Europe and played some shows with them, and it was good. A different sort of people responded to us.

DuChaine: Their music was cross-pollinated and so were their audiences. Their audiences were made up of true counterculture, you know? There were people that were at their shows that really weren’t music fans, but they enjoyed the ambiance and environment.

Rich Menning (owner, Atomic Records): I saw them in London with Sonic Youth, the week that Daydream Nation had come out. It’s one of my favorite shows of theirs.

Brammer: So we did the Europe tour, and then we came back to the U.S. and started right back up again. We were on tour more than we were at home.

Kubinski: We had gotten it down to a really good science where three weeks out was perfect. We could go for three weeks and play almost every night, and by the end of the third week we were tired and wanted to come home and rest up. So we’d do that. We’d come home, rehearse for a month or two, write some songs and do it again. And between those, we’d go to Madison or Chicago, just play around the Midwest.

By this point, major labels had started to sign many of the larger bands from the underground. Husker Du had signed with Warner Bros, The Replacements had signed with Sire, even Soundgarden–a band heavily influenced by Die Kreuzen–had signed with A&M. While there was definite major label interest in the band, nothing ever came to fruition.

Brammer: Profile Records was interested and gave us a contract. We took it to a lawyer and it was just a complete joke.

Kubinski: The lawyer was just like, “Did the record label know that you were going to get a lawyer to look this over?” It was so ridiculous. They were gonna take absolutely everything. We’d have no creative control, they could do whatever they wanted with our music, re-mix, re-master, whatever.

Brammer: So that came at us blind. And we got some other offers later on.

Kubinski: MCA/Mechanic was after us because they had Voivod, Dream Theater, Trixter, a couple others. We recorded some demos for them and they just weren’t into them.

Brammer: I think part of it was that we never had a gimmick. We were just a rock band. We just played well, you know? We didn’t have a gimmick like White Zombie or whatever. We just did what we did. It really taught me a lot about the music industry.

With their fan base polarized and new audiences relatively indifferent, things became frustrating for the band. But they never stopped working, continuing to write and tour. 

Brammer: At that point we weren’t touring quite as much. We all had different jobs and different lives outside of the band. People started to lose it a little bit, and it just became uncomfortable to work. It became uncomfortable to play. Nobody’s perfect, you know? But it just got to the point where everything just became very difficult.

Kubinski: We really worked hard to get to the point where we were, and it seemed like everyone else was getting to that next level except for us.

The band went back into the studio in 1990, again with Butch Vig, to record what would be their final album, Cement. The album showcased the band’s pop sensibilities, in a sense predicting the explosion of hook-laden hard rock that would emerge from Seattle the following year.

Kubinski: So Cement came out, and we’d go on tour and there’d still be four or five of these fast-paced hardcore bands opening up for us, one after the other. I remember every night showing up at the venue and just being like “Oh, it’s the Last of the Mohicans again,” you know? All the kids running around with mohawks and shit. It just became a joke.

Brammer: We used to have it in the contract that we didn’t want to play with hardcore bands. We wanted to play with different kinds of bands, but everyone just ignored that. It got to the point where we’d go out on tour and play to the same 200 people in every city. We didn’t want to be ungrateful, but after we had been doing it for so long, we just kind of wanted someone to throw us a bone (laughs).

Kubinski: We had been in Europe on the Monsters of Indie Rock tour with Sonic Youth, and that was a real kick in the ass for us, too. We’d be playing to audiences of like 1,000+ people, and then we came back to the states and we’d be back to playing to the same 200 people. We weren’t getting to that next level.

Tiller: It was odd when Jane’s Addiction came out and got fairly big, especially compared to what a normal indie band would be. I thought Die Kreuzen would at least get to that point, but then it just petered out.

Brammer: It really started to wear on us, and we started getting into fights with each other. It was not a good situation. I know it sounds really ungrateful, because now 200 people at a show is a great turnout. It was just a different time. We just started growing apart musically, as cliché as that sounds. Everything has to end some time, you know?  So we decided it was best to break up.

Die Kreuzen broke up in 1992 after 11 and a half years, leaving behind four full-length albums, a slew of singles and compilation appearances and an incredible amount of influence. While Tunison and Egness moved out of state (in Tunison’s case, out of the country), Brammer and Kubinski stayed in Milwaukee, continuing to play in other bands like Boy Dirt Car, Decapitado, and Crime & Judy. Their music lived on over the next two decades, influencing an entirely new set of musicians.

Dan Hanke (founder, Latest Flame Records): I was a latecomer to Die Kreuzen for sure. I was too busy listening to Motorhead and Slayer at the time when their first few records came out. Someone tried to get me into them in high school, and I got October File, and I just wasn’t really that into it. It wasn’t until I got to college when my music tastes started to change and expand when I started listening to bands like Sonic Youth and Soundgarden that I started to hear their influence. I kept thinking that a lot of the bands I was hearing reminded me of something, and when I realized that it was Die Kreuzen, then I went back and listened to October File, eventually buying the rest of their records.

I remember lamenting to Karl Paloucek (percussionist for the band Fuckface) just kinda like “Man, it’s a shame that they never got bigger when they were around,” and he just said to me “Yeah, but it’s the price you pay for being ahead of your time.”

Ahead of their time is exactly what they were. The band never wanted to repeat themselves and it seemed as though they were always slightly ahead of the rest of the music world.

DuChaine: They should have been chess players because they were always three steps ahead of the game, you know? When everyone was doing hardcore, they were doing this weird hardcore/thrash hybrid. Then, when everyone was doing that, they had moved onto this kind of darkwave thing. After that they had moved on to the kinda psychedelic REM-styled stuff. And then with Cement, it’s almost like everyone had finally caught up to them in a sense, as that record almost sounded contemporary.

Hanke: I always compare them to Husker Du, and not just because Die Kreuzen and Husker Du are two of my favorite bands. They both had these names that made you wonder what they meant, which also reflected the mystery in their music. They both had a strong Midwestern work ethic and toured constantly.

You can draw parallels between Husker Du signing with Warner Bros and Die Kreuzen moving away from the older material because with both of those moves, they weren’t able to move to the next level, and they were upsetting parts of their existing audience as well. And when it ended, neither received the credit they deserved until long after their breakups.

Deservedly so, the band was honored with the WAMI Hall of Fame Award in 2011, with all four original members accepting the award.

Marty Defatte (curator, MKEpunk.com): I was really stoked to see those guys get inducted into the WAMI Hall of Fame. My friend Tim Chiapetta and a few others were on the board, and for like two or three years in a row they just kept saying “Die Kreuzen needs to get honored” until it finally happened. I just gave Tim all of their contact info and hoped that they would do it. I don’t think it was that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things, but I think it was great for them to at least get recognized locally.

With every year that passed, the possibility of a reunion became less and less likely. A partial reunion happened in 2009 when Brammer and Kubinski played a few songs with help from friends under the name of “Bob and Joe” at an Atomic Records tribute show. Many hoped they would reform for the Touch and Go 25th anniversary show, but that never came to fruition. Then, this past February, Brammer posted this to Facebook:

“OKAY MOTHER FUCKERS – DIE KREUZEN PLAYING MAY 26 TURNER HALL. BE THERE.”

It was true. After 20 years, Die Kreuzen was reuniting. Kind of.

Brammer: This show is honoring people that we knew that have passed away, and bands that we love, and it’s a benefit for the American Liver Foundation, too. So this was something that’s really important to us. We called Brian and asked if he wanted to do it, but he couldn’t, so we just kind of said “Well, would you mind if Jay Tiller did it?” and he gave us his blessing, so we decided to go ahead and do it.

Kubinski: Jay’s been around since the beginning. He even played drums with us once in Minneapolis, so he was actually in the band. He’s the fifth Kreuzen (laughs).

Tiller: There’s some people who are just kind of saying stuff like “Well it’s not a full reunion because blah blah blah,” and I was prepared for that sort of backlash, but at the end of the day, I decided to do it because I knew I was going to have more fun doing it than not doing it. It’s already been a total blast just rehearsing the songs.

Fans both old and new are traveling from all across the country just to attend Saturday’s show. The reunion has also turned on some of the younger set to check out their records.

DuChaine: Since the announcement of the reunion, I’ve seen plenty of kids come in here and buy their records or talk about the reunion with such excitement, and they’ve done their homework. They’ve gotten on the Internet and read about ‘em and watched live videos and stuff, and they’re saying things like “I hope they play everything.” And I think that’s awesome, because they totally get it.

In the end, Die Kreuzen worked hard simply because they wanted to. The music spoke for itself, and they never played a note that they couldn’t get behind.

Brammer: When it was all over, I never had any regrets about the music we made. There were some other things with business practices or whatever that I may have done differently, but we always made the music that we wanted to make, and I have no regrets about that at all.

Tiller: They just played their music, really. Thank God they were never up there preaching about some political BS.

Whether you’re a fan of the early material, the later material or both, the musical impact and influence of Die Kreuzen cannot be denied. If their longevity and continued relevance says anything, it’s that there’s much more to those records than most initially thought.

 

DuChaine: If you ever want to explore a band, Die Kreuzen is a great band to do it with. Its digestible material, you know? It’s not like it’s hard to listen to or anything. It will provide you with a very rewarding experience. They were definitely the most important band to ever come out of Milwaukee, and I gotta give ‘em that.