Dusted's Matt Wellins interviews Bunny Brains founder Dan Seward about Connecticut punks, Matador Records, and the Bunny's largely undocumented role in contemporary rock.
A Hare's Tale:
An Interview with Bunny Brains
In “Meditations In An Emergency”, Frank O’Hara mulls over nature, “I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.” It’s a fitting introduction to Dan Seward, since I first met him at his record store two years ago looking for a similar kind of respite. My friend Shawn told me of all the great Italo disco records he would find there, halfway between Bard College and Hudson, New York, and about how a summer ago, he had to drive Dan all around the Hudson area and house him for a couple weeks. Eventually, he mentioned Dan’s music.
A bespectacled, bearded crank who only sporadically shows up on the weekends to open his dusty vinyl-filled barn, Dan is by no means unfriendly, but there was something a little intimidating one-on-one, in a two-story, dilapidated and electricity-lacking storage shelter.
Much like his treasure-trove of a shed, Dan’s music as the leader of Bunny Brains is a missing link to our immediate past. With the influx of easily forgettable Matador fads, CMJ festivals, twee monotone falsettos, and tasteless pop/punk, it’s easy to see how Bunny Brains could be lost in a shuffle that had next to nothing to do with them. At the time, Bunny Brains were a paradox: sarcastic and sincere; sensational and subtle; inclusive and alienating. In a recent issue of Ecstatic Peace Poetry Journal, Dan writes an ideal introduction to his work:
”The year that punk got broken. It was a very good year. I'm still living at home. I have papered my ceiling with pictures of Paul Stanley and Geddy Lee. I jerk off inside a sleeping bag in 90 degree heat waves. I’m molested nightly by a local DJ. He brings me stacks of LP's to buy my sticky sweet silence. WPIX-FM in NY starts playin' The Cars, Joe Jackson, Talking Heads, Ramones, The Shirts, Elvis Costello, The Clash, Tom Petty. I can't hear my radio program over my brothers stereo playing thru his open door. Rudimentary Peni, Crass, Dead Kennedys, Joy Division, MDC, Black Flag, Husker Du, TSO. I am working at the local record store. It is 1980. I am not a punk. I am buying Motorhead imports .My friend Darryl is buying Siouxsie singles and Sex Pistols. I am not a punk. I am not dying my hair black. I look bad in denim. I am afraid to slam dance. It is 1980. I am molested by the local DJ who gives me Boomtown Rats LPs in exchange for my oily, angry silence. My father is listening to Mingus, Gil Evans, Chet Baker, Don Ellis, Led Zeppelin, Molly Hatchett, Bill Evans. Connecticut is going hardcore. CTHC. It starts to rule everything. I am not a punk. I don't understand Gorilla Biscuits or Youth of Today. The hardcore kids hate me. I am alone at night and I can barely breathe, the weight of so much anger and shame crushing my lungs. I tell this all to my dyke lover years later and she sez.. "That is SO Punk!".
His statement of intent: “The approach is one of simple annihilation. How can we best kill every single person in the room by the end of the evening? And how can we do it with a big smile on our faces? How can you hurt people terribly and internally with glee? How do you do it?” Dan asks these rhetorical questions with a kind of slack-jawed bewilderment, an exaggerated, almost mock-quizzicality. “There’s no malice in any of our approach, there’s no maliciousness, at all. We want to be one with them, we want to be their friends, but we also want to kill them. So it’s hard, it’s a fine line between murder and love.” It’s also hard to explain why this is so decisively Bunny Brains, why the cliché of killing your audience is somehow rendered potent by Dan’s music, the incompatible overlap of both sonic carnage and beat-driven accessibility.
From our current standpoint, noise and melody are hardly an unfathomable amalgam, and with key figures like Sonic Youth, Jesus and Mary Chain, and My Bloody Valentine now in their 40s, it might even be considered passé. Yet Dan, a contemporary by all accounts, was a decidedly original deviation. The three- and four-minute blasts of caustic song so emblematic in other artists of the time period is expanded upon in early Bunny Brains. Even their most concise work is dizzyingly hypnotic (steeped heavily in classic psychedelic rock idioms) and filled with the exploitative hormonal obsessions of a Richard Kern film.
Dan’s claim is that this was all completely homegrown, an aberration from the rigorous social order of Danbury, Connecticut. “Whenever you came into contact with people, you just wanted to run them over with your car, because they kind of lorded their assets over you in these very subtle and insidious ways. You know, by either dropping little hints about where they would be staying for the summer, you know, ‘Oh we’re going to Japan for two weeks, and then we’re coming back, but then we’re going to Greece, but it’ll be cool, we’re going to make your show, when we come back from Greece.’”.
Bunny Brains were born out of a lack of creativity in the community. “I think when you grow up in fertile areas of music, like Southern California, Boston, Chicago, you end up making music that’s kind of…you can take it or leave it. Whatever, it’s good. You kind of have this ambivalent attitude towards listening to it, and being in an area of conservatism, like Connecticut – which is extremely conservative – and you have these murderous, psycho-sexual impulses, you are not received well, and you are kicked out of everywhere you play. But I think it makes you better because you can keep on pushing against that wall, and most bands don’t get to push against it that way. I think that’s the key to making really good music – being able to push, push, push against something pushing back on you. In Boston, you get shows on a moment’s notice, you can call up a bar in Boston and go ‘Hey, we’re a new band, we need to play somewhere, man, can we come down tonight?’… ‘Yeah, come on down, 9 to 10, we’ll give you 50 bucks.’ People paid us not to play in Connecticut. They paid us to go away.”
Despite the prude and anxious area that Dan grew up in, Connecticut was not culturally barren. A burgeoning hardcore scene with Youth of Today, No Milk on Tuesday, and Moby’s first band The Vatican Commandos at least tolerated Bunny Brains on the same bill – unlike the audience. “I’d get out there and I’d pull spaghetti and pizza out of my underwear, all this stuff with jellies and jams, and I’d get on a sled and ride it around the room, and throw milk at people. It was good because it taught me to perform in front of people who didn’t want you. And I think that’s what entertainers will tell you is the best training – to play in front of an audience that doesn’t want you there. It shows you what works and what doesn’t work”. As Dan was reveling in his gory days at this point, I asked him, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, “Well, what works then?”
“Relentless rhythm is a good reason for them to stay. Because it makes them jump around. If they’re jumping around, they’ll drink a lot of beer. And that’s kind of good for everybody, because the bar owners need to sell beer and the kids need to jump around. When you get up there in the years, you need some exercise. In the city they don’t do it as much, except at those scream-o shows, like Lightening Bolt, Arab on Radar, those are great. It’s like a hip-hop show. We just played a show with Mindflayer, which is half of Lightening Bolt and half of Forcefield. Those kids, they never stopped jumping up and down, for 40 or 50 minutes. And I realized what it is – (Brian Chippendale) plays Gene Krupa. It’s a swing beat, he’s using beats from the ’40s on the drums. It’s a Big Band drum sound and that’s what makes people dance. If you have sludgy, slow stuff or if it’s too fast, like if it’s hardcore, they’re just smashing into each other.”
Lightening Bolt, Mindflayer, and Jackie-O Motherfucker all come up many times over the interview, and a sense of satisfaction seems to come across with each mention. “And you talk to these people, and I talk to them at concerts and stuff, and they acknowledge that I’ve made music that existed before them, and that makes me really proud and happy, and makes me want to make more music.” It’s not all in vain, either, Bunny Brains has an extensive, largely unreleased, back catalog of noise, obsessive American pop culture fixation, and ecstatic joy, and the precedents they set are certainly more than a minor element in contemporary rock music.
As the ’90s wore on, Dan saw Bunny Brains taking a drastic break from the base performance antics. “I make a lot less of the messes. I did a show where I batted whitefish into the audience; it was a solo show, and I did one where I had spaghetti sauce in my underwear, and I think I’ve done a lot less of that because you’ll never get asked back. And I want to be asked back. Why not? Why not play the same place twice, it’s fun. We don’t have to be as transgressive as G.G. Allin anymore”. This led eventually to a tour with Sebadoh and a Matador vinyl-only release, during the label’s glory days.
“Realize what Matador was to kids 10 years younger than me at the time. They would chop off parts of their body and mail them to Gerard (Cosloy), and that would be it. There is no higher compliment in the early to mid-’90s – Pavement, Liz Phair, Jon Spencer, all putting out records people wanted to buy. I remember one late night at the office I call up there and Gerard answers the phone. I asked if he was putting out records by bands that sent unsolicited demos. He goes ‘No, definitely not, I’ve got a pile of records next to my desk and I won’t listen to those for the next three years. Don’t even bother me sending me a tape, because it won’t even be listened to. I was discouraged at the point but said ‘alright, if you see something in the mail that says Bunny Brains on it, just, you know, put it in a pile’ he said ‘Bunny Brains!? Bunny Brains !?! Yeah, I want to hear that!’”
Dan credits American Records exec Johan Kugelberg with spreading the word. ‘He would listen to something, and if he said ‘this is good’, everyone would sit up and go ‘yeah, this is good.’ He had been buying our singles in the Village, for $3, $4 a pop handmade. Our first two records were 300 pressings, but they were all different covers. And he was buying them and bringing them into the office and playing them.
“So Gerard said ‘yeah, send me something, I’ll definitely listen to it”. So, I hornswaggled him into making this record – a full-length record – he said “you want to make a CD?” I said no, because I thought “be pure, man, do vinyl only, it’s totally cool,” which was, in retrospect, totally stupid. But, he put it out, with a cool pink plastic bag. It was supposed to have a raised cover, so you could feel the bumps and everything, and on pink vinyl. And when we asked for all of that, they said yes, but when it got to the point of actually paying for it, they said no. So, we got half of it. We got a record out and they put out a 7-inch when we did their New Music Seminar. It’s pretty high-fallutin’ for a band that got kicked out of so many clubs. So, it was just kind of a thank you. I realized shortly thereafter that they didn’t want to put out another record by us.
“It’s fringe music. If I’m not making pop music, why would (Gerard) want to take a chance on something that’s not going to sell more than 1000 copies? They gave us $1,500 and they’re still waiting to make that $1,500 back. That was when they were in a deal with Atlantic. If you look on the label of that record, it says ‘Manufactured by WEA.’ Atlantic had to spend money to make that record. They did it as a thank you – thank you for making something we listen to in the office for weeks on end. My goal now is to get someone to put it out on CD. If Pavement has a deluxe edition, we can have a deluxe edition. Somebody will do it. I’m going all Japan next year, I think. I’m just going to focus on Japan. Get all the record labels in Japan, because they’re so hot on this kind of music. They made Jad Fair dinner, they fed him and clothed him and put him up.”
Despite talking to Dan for over three hours, it seemed impossible to get even the most remote sense of what actually happened in the 15 years committed to Bunny Brains. Each of Dan’s monologues is stacked with his ideologies, living statements of the person, a triggered synapse of the great Bunny Brain. His work demarcates actual rebellion in a state of sloganeering adult-oriented radio, that straight line from R.E.M. to Creed that Dan bypassed completely. Bunny Brains links up where psychedelic music ends, where those long-form noisy freakouts integrate into pop music structures; the aesthetics and energy of all-out rock and roll, becomes exaggerated and maintained as the stain it should be. Avant-garde and rock music once found common ground in a desire for transgression, and with our revisionist fingers typing up orders to Staalplaat, trying to find reissued This Heat records, it seems like Bunny Brains are doomed to be misinterpreted as a pedestrian, American indie rock group, the Matador seal of approval in some way preceding and working against what is ostensibly challenging music.
The new Public Eyesore release, Holiday Massacre ‘98, doesn’t help matters entirely. It shows Bunny Brains in a Pavement-related style, belting out songs in a way that provides an almost humorous counterpoint to the all-out feedback assaults of more recent live recordings. To add insult to injury, Dan has been working in a softer mode lately with his first side-project, the Evil-Doers.
“I started the Evil-Doers with Tom Greenwood from Jackie-O Motherfucker, and we added Brooke from Swords Projects, and Mike Fellows, who was in Royal Trux, Rites of Spring, and Government Issue, and he plays with Smog and Will Oldham and everyone in the fucking phonebook, and Barbara Ess, who is a No Waver from Glenn Branca and that whole late-’70s New York thing. And I’ve tried to coalesce that into something, but it hasn’t turned out the way I wanted.
“We played at Tonic two months ago. And Alan Licht came in and saw me dismantling his $900,000 drum set – dismantling it gingerly and theatrically, I might add. Like pulling off little pieces and hitting them, and putting them back. It was all controlled.” The Evil-Doers were not invited back.
Yet, even without the extreme noise, it’s impossible to pretend that Dan’s new songs don’t retain the things make Bunny Brains so enduring. Dan’s obsessions with youth culture and music clichés still ring true. When I ask him to explain those recurring preoccupations, Dan is quick to answer.
“That’s how I work it all out. Tom Greenwood, from Jackie-O, says ‘Why do you keep making music that’s not music, that’s not musical?’ Well, I have to. It doesn’t matter what it sounds like, I need to do this, for myself. If I wasn’t doing this, maybe I’d be painting bad paintings, or maybe I’d be writing horrible poetry, or make bad horrible movies, who knows. Like those old rock guys who say ‘If I didn’t do this, I’d be in slammer, man, I’d be up for murder,’ but it’s true. Part of it is therapeutic. And conversely, there are so many kids who identify. That’s the whole emo revolution – people connecting with emotions from when they’re younger. Dashboard Confessional is like the Jesus of self-revelation now. If they’re all connecting to him, I don’t like or hate it, it’s fine, it’s all neutral to me. If they’re connecting, or singing along, it’s fine, go ahead.”
Now, instead of making new music, Dan is determined to actually release at least a segment of the Bunny Brains footage he has stored away.
“I have 10 years of records I want to put out still. I have tapes from 1992 that I want to put. We have a lot of recorded output, but it’s not a lot compared to what people actually put out. Punk bands, rock bands, they put out a lot of stuff. They have a huge back catalog. Our back catalog is mostly 7”s, which we put on that CD (on Menlo Park). So, I think that’s what I want to do, put out older good stuff. I want to get those out someday.”
“We can still make a record for nothing – put it on a boom box, send that to Australia and they’ll put it out as an LP. That’s just the way the music is now. If you have a certain strata of recognizability, all you need to do is read the phonebook into a wire recorder, send it to Belgium, and they’ll put a deluxe thing out with your picture on it.”
There is talk of grandiose box sets, but Dan wants nothing to do with it. “We’ve done a lot on very little money. That CD Bunny Brains 93 was made for 1500 bucks, and it’s a really good CD. College radio stations are still playing it.” Bunny Brains 93 is probably one of the best available collections of Bunny Brains material. Alongside of the Matador release and the Menlo Park compilation, this record shows Bunny Brains at one of their creative peaks, full of their distinct mischievous sensibilities.
But what would Bunny Brains be without their live performances?
“I really want to do a DVD. We have 15 years of video that no one’s ever seen. And some of it’s hilarious. Better than Jackass, better than Tom Green, better than Charlie’s Angels 4. It’s just entertaining. And that’s kind of my thing. I like to get people excited about something. You don’t have to be 12, you could be 40 and want to be 12 for the day.
“I want it to be known that we existed. That’s partly vanity, but also partly because people deserve to know that we’ve existed.”
By Matt Wellins