Pittsburgh, PA
May 27, 2022
    News           Sports           Lifestyle           Classifieds           About Us
A & E
Tv Listings
The Dining Guide
Headlines by E-mail
Home >  A & E Printer-friendly versionE-mail this story
A & E
The Cynics: Pittsburgh's garage band kings show the kids how its done

Friday, December 06, 2002

By Ed. Masley, Post-Gazette Pop Music Critic

A primal fuzz-guitar riff lets you know you're back in the garage, where rock 'n' roll has never died, before the singer takes your head off with a tortured howl as fierce as anything this side of "Plastic Ono Band," then backs it up with lyrics custom-made for sneering. By the time you hit the second cut -- a stomping cover of the Satans' "Making Deals" -- you'd never know the band responsible for "Living is the Best Revenge" had spent the past eight years not making records.

The Cynics: drummer Tom Hohn; vocalist Michael Kastelic; bass player Smith Hutchings; and guitarist Gregg Kostelich. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

Audio samples
The Cynics perform "Turn Me Loose" from their new disc "Living is the Best Revenge."
(00:59 924K MP3)

The Cynics have an extensive catalog of MP3 downloads and samples from their discs on the band's official web site:

The Cynics: A History

The Cynics pick the Ultimate garage band list

That's just one of many signs that time is on the Cynics' side in this, their 19th year.

And timing, too, with garage-rock -- a movement their earlier records helped sustain -- emerging as the latest in a long line of underground movements charged with keeping rock 'n' roll alive.

Before the Cynics even hit the streets with "Living is the Best Revenge," the legendary local band was written up in Entertainment Weekly, where their catalog was praised as "gnarly, sweaty, raucous and brimming with snotty attitude" by Tom Sinclair, who rightly noted, "As with other kindred spirits from that time (the Lyres and the Chesterfield Kings spring to mind), the Cynics, God bless them, place a premium on staying true to the sound and vibe of their fave '60s rockers." He also included the Cynics' full-length 1986 debut, "Blue Train Station," on a list of eight garage-rock records every fanboy and/or girl should own while luring younger readers in with, "Like the Vines, White Stripes? Try these great albums."

Chances are, a number of those younger readers were familiar with the band already what with all the airplay Little Steven's thrown their way these past few months on "Little Steven's Underground Garage," a syndicated show that airs in Pittsburgh on WRRK-FM. He plays the Cynics frequently and told the Post-Gazette, "I love them. I think they're fantastic. You know, they're a very important part of the first generation of the contemporary garage movement. I remember them starting just a few years after the first generation started with the Fuzztones and Chesterfield Kings. But they're terrific, man."

He even introduced the title cut a couple weeks ago as "the coolest song in the world this week."

In a couple of months, you'll be able to say you bought the latest Playboy for the Cynics review. In the meantime, a review in Bust had nothing but praise for the record: "People like to talk about the new garage revival, but the Cynics have been churning out primo '60s garage punk like nobody's business for over 15 years (give or take a few time-outs for rock-lifestyle issues), and they are truly the kings. ... Singer Michael Kastelic and guitarist Gregg Kostelich have topped themselves, and every other band in this genre."

And they owe it all to breaking up.


At least that's how Kastelic sees his four-year separation from the group.

The Cynics

WITH: Mondo Topless and the Chains

WHERE: Rosebud, Strip District

WHEN: 9 p.m. Saturday.

TICKETS: $7; 412-323-1919.


"If we wouldn't have taken that break," he says, "we probably would have kept plugging away that whole time, and by now, we would have been burned out and definitely broken up. And then, we would have missed this whole resurgence of interest in what we were doing."

The Cynics played what for a long while seemed to be their final show on New Year's Eve 1995.

"My birthday was the day before," Kastelic recalls. "I went to a birthday party, got pulled over for drunk driving, was in jail until about an hour before the show, I got bailed out, went straight to the show, did that last show, walked out and never came back."

He left, he says, because it just wasn't fun anymore.

"That makes it sound like it was almost for selfish reasons," he says. "But it wasn't, because when it's not fun for me, I feel like I'm cheating the audience. So it was more for their sake in a way, if that makes any sense. I really don't feel like I deserve to be up there unless I'm enjoying it as much or more than the audience. And it was getting to the point where it was becoming a grind, the same thing every night, people expecting me to jump and fall down and do this and that. Sometimes, I just didn't feel like it. And if I didn't feel like it, how can I expect other people to enjoy it?"

It didn't help that he and Kostelich were at each other's throats, even more so than usual. A week or two before he left the band, they had a major blowout on the way home from a Detroit gig. And he was still upset that Kostelich had let stomach flu keep him home from a Cynics appearance at Cavestomp, a garage-rock festival in New York City that went on to play a major role in the current revival of interest in all things garage.

Kastelic was already in New York with the other two guys in the band hanging out at the club when Kostelich decided he was just too sick to load the van and drive the whole way there alone.

As Kostelich recalls, "That was the straw that broke the camel's back for Michael. He thought I blew him off. And that's where the argument started. And the backstabbing. If they would have stayed in Pittsburgh and we'd all gone up together and I bundled up, I could have done it. We used to take pride in not missing shows, but when you're left alone in Pittsburgh and you get the flu that bad, you can't be driving. But Michael, 'til this day, he doesn't believe it."

Told that Kostelich has said that, Kastelic replies with a laugh, "Well, to this day, even if he wasn't faking, he should have come."

While Kostelich agrees that they probably needed a break, he figures two months should have done the trick -- "not a four-year, five-year break."

But after playing New Year's Eve, Kastelic disappeared.

For years.

As Kostelich recalls, "I wanted to have a talk with him, like 'Michael, I just got done telling you two weeks ago that you should clean up and look, you get busted.' I didn't get a chance to lecture him. But Michael doesn't like confrontation or lecturing. He runs away from it."

And this time, he was busy anyway with jail and rehab. When he got out, though, he never bothered checking in with Kostelich, explaining now that it was easier to "walk away and do something else for a while."

That something else turned out to be a band called Honeyburst that also featured former Cynics bassist Mike Michalski on guitar and current Cynics bassist Smith Hutchings on bass.

"I think it was really good," he says, "to have that change with Honeyburst for a while and start from the ground up. We had two great tours, that one with the Fleshtones and one with the Leaving Trains. I got to reacquaint myself with the people again and start to love music again, really."

At the same time, Kostelich was distracting himself as best he could with the day-to-day business of running things at Get Hip, the record label and distribution service that he now says he started to give himself something to do in the frequent downtime caused by constantly revolving rhythm sections.

"To tell you the truth," he says, "this whole business -- distribution -- the label, is all built out of boredom. I was bored to death."

Eventually, Kastelic made his peace with Kostelich. And from there, it was only a matter of time before the two started working together again.

Especially with all the outside forces conspiring to bring them together.

Kostelich recalls, "Jon Weiss from Cavestomp tried to get us both together. He said 'Look, I've gotten some of the biggest enemies back together for one night. I can do it for you and Michael.' But it didn't work the first two years he tried. And I was getting angrier and angrier that we weren't getting back together. Sometimes I was really mad. And some days I'd get real emotional and soft and cry. This guy, the longer it takes him to learn the mistake he made and what we really had together, I had to sit it out and bite my tongue. That wasn't fun. And Michael, when he's drunk, can get obnoxious and say things to hurt me. It gets interesting. And believe me, I appreciate that. It's color. He likes stirring things up. I think it's funny."


In the end, it took a $1,500 invitation to play at the Las Vegas Grind in July 2000 to put the band's reunion on the fast track.

The Cynics in rehearsal last week: Hutchings, Kastelic, Hohn and Kostelich. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

First, they got together as a two-piece -- one guitar, one voice -- to see if the "magic" was there. And out of 50 songs, they got through 48 without a hitch.

As Kostelich says, with a laugh, "That's pretty shocking when they're all the same chords."

At that point, they called in the drummer and bassist they'd been working with before the breakup, but it didn't take another four years in the wilderness to figure out that something wasn't right with those two.

"That's when I realized that they helped contribute to the negativity," says Kostelich. "The two or three weeks that they were rehearsing, I'm like 'My God, Michael, we were so happy together and then these guys.' "

That's when the call went out, as it frequently does, to Tom Hohn, a drummer whose various stints as a Cynic include having pummeled the beat into submission on the band's most famous album, "Rock and Roll." With lead guitarist Woody Bond of Highway 13 in on bass, the reunited Cynics headed off to Vegas.

Two months later, they were on the comeback trail in Spain with yet another bassist, Hutchings ("I'm bass player No. 9," he notes), replacing Bond.

The only hurdle left, it seemed, was getting Kostelich to crack the whip the way he used to in the early days.

"It wasn't until recently," Kostelich says, "that Smith was [goofing] off and Michael was mad 'cause I wouldn't complain about anything. I wouldn't crack Tom into shape. I wouldn't yell and scream at the band members anymore. You know, when the band started out in the '80s, I was like their coach, their drill sergeant. We ran a tight ship. And Michael really got used to it. He likes that militant thing."

Kostelich laughs, then says, "I don't wanna know why. But he likes it. It proves that I care."


After spending much of last year on the road (with stops in Montreal, Mexico City and Madrid), the Cynics headed South to Austin earlier this year to cut Kastelic's favorite Cynics album ever in a three-day whirlwind at Tim Kerr's aptly titled Sweatbox Studios.

"I think he's the first one to capture the energy of the way we sound," Kastelic says. "It was the first time we ever had an engineer that actually understood the way guitars should sound and instruments should sound, just miked without putting them through gates and processing them and whatever those people in Pittsburgh do. They all go to the same engineering school. Every record we've ever recorded in this city, every song we did they said 'You're crazy. No one's ever gonna listen to that. You're crazy. That's a bunch of noise.' So finally, we found this guy who understands exactly what we're doing. Which is not a huge feat."

Kastelic is right on the mark when he talks about this record capturing the energy of what the Cynics really sound like. And that energy combined with all the hype that tends to follow when you say the word "garage" these days can only mean good things for "Living Is the Best Revenge."

It's sure to be a hit in Spain, where they return for 14 dates in January, booked by Barbara, Kostelich's wife, whose dedication to the band is neatly summed up by Kastelic, who calls her "our manager, publicist, booker, everything."

He might have added that she also translates, being Spanish, when they find themselves in Spanish-speaking countries.

Which is often.

As Kostelich says of the frequent trips to Spain since getting back together, "It's pretty encouraging when you haven't had a record out in seven years and you're playing for 3,000 to 4,000 people on some of the nights -- and you're selling out pretty much every show, except Barcelona. I said, 'Why don't we go back to Spain? That's where they've always kept the name. We should go there to kick off the tour to promote the record.' "

As to whether they'll conquer the States the way the Hives and other "new garage bands" have, Kastelic says, "We have more gigs than we can do. And we're already working on new stuff. If things don't get any better than this, I'll be fine."

And as for Kostelich, he's happy just to have a second shot at the magic he hears in the music he writes with Kastelic, even if that means a lot of arguing.

"We had our Jagger-Richards argument," is how he likes to see the breakup. "Only we didn't make two lousy solo records."

Ed Masley can be reached at emasley@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1865.

Back to top Back to top E-mail this story E-mail this story
Search | Contact Us |  Site Map | Terms of Use |  Privacy Policy |  Advertise | Help |  Corrections