Founded some 35 years ago during perhaps the most fertile period in Cleveland rock history, the Styrenes have always been a bit of an oddity. While most Cleveland bands of the mid- to late ’70s explored the outer limits of guitar-driven rock, Paul Marotta’s Styrenes pursued a more keyboard-centric sound augmented by experimental electronics. Songs like “Draino in Your Veins” and “Radial Arm Saws” managed to be simultaneously poppy and avant garde, creating a tone that is alternately playful and edgy.
Much like local contemporaries Pere Ubu, there have been a number of different Styrenes iterations over the years, with Marotta serving as the mainstay and leader. While the band’s line-ups have included Cleveland natives like Jamie Klimek (of Mirrors), John Morton (of the Electric Eels) and Mike Hudson (of the Pagans), the band has been based in New York for the bulk of its existence and, over the past decade, the band’s membership has become more solidified. In 2002, the band showcased its versatility by releasing a recording of Terry Riley’s 1964 composition “In C,” while 2007’s City of Women returned to the band’s core “artastic” rock sound.
Marotta recently recruited Klimek and Morton and took the band on tour in April. The live unit sounds re-energized, ripping through old classics and newer songs with a joyful snarl. I caught up with Marotta while the band was on the road to talk about the tour and reflect on the 35 years of the Styrenes.
How has the tour been going?
Paul Marotta: We’ve had small but appreciative crowds. It’s been a lot of fun playing. We’ve been playing mostly cities we’ve never been to before. In fact, so far we’ve been playing in all cities we’ve never been before, so that’s always an experience. The kids who come know all the records, and they have their requests. That’s always heartening.
What was the idea behind putting this tour together?
PM: Putting things in place for the future. I want to keep the Styrenes on the road to raise the profile a little bit, and the timing was right. Two years ago, Jamie had reactivated Mirrors and had written a whole bunch of new songs. I thought, “Well, that’s kind of cool.” I was talking with an agent, and he asked me if I wanted to do some gigs. I said all the guys in my band are split around the country and the guitar player’s in Europe, so one or two gigs doesn’t work for us, which is why we play infrequently. I also like to get paid, and the idea of climbing in a van and doing gigs for no money is behind us. So, he said, “What do you need?” And I said, “I need at least a couple of weeks, because then it starts to make sense.” And he said, let me put some feelers out to see if there’s still interest and apparently there was. So we got 14 dates in 15 days.
Who are the other “lesser known” musicians in this incarnation of the band along with you, Jamie, and John? How did you hook up with them?
PM: The truth is, they’re not really lesser-known guys. The guys who play in the Styrenes are all creative musicians in their own right. Bass player Al Margolis also records under the name If, Bwana, and he was part of the cassette underground. He put out more than 100 releases. He does electronic music on his label, Pogus Records, and tours on his own. The guitar player, UK Rattay, who didn’t make it because of the volcano—he was stranded, which is funny because we booked the whole tour around his schedule—he’s a longtime prog-rock guitar player, and his band is called Victory of the Better Man. John Keith, the drummer, it’s been about eight years now that he’s been playing with us, and he also does music and sound design for animation. He lives in LA.
My idea of playing with musicians is to have guys who don’t necessarily need me, and guys who are strong enough on their own that I can present material to them and they make of it what they want. The idea of asking John from the Eels and Jamie had a lot to do with friendship. The 35th anniversary thing came around after the tour was already booked. I looked at the calendar, and it was December of ’74 or January of ’75 when I started the Styrenes. January 20th all three bands—Mirrors, Eels and Styrenes—were playing together, and I thought, “Hey, this is kind of it, the 35th anniversary.” We sort of joke about the crass commercialism, but that’s kind of what it is.
What were your intentions in putting together the Styrenes 35 years ago?
PM: It wasn’t really too complicated. I had a bunch of ideas that I wanted to do. I was playing in both the Eels and Mirrors at the time, and both the Eels and Mirrors were run by really strong personalities. Jamie had Mirrors and John had the Eels, and neither one of those two bands was exactly what I wanted to do, so that’s why I started the Styrenes. I wanted to play my songs, my own compositions, and I really just wanted to be the boss when it came down to it. I wanted to pick and choose the musicians I wanted to play with.
Since the beginning, the band has shared members and songs with a number of other bands. When you play songs originally done by the other groups, is there an intention to reinvent those songs or is it a matter of practical convenience?
PM: Both. You have to have songs to play. Songwriters and composers are really at the top of the whole food chain. Without them, there wouldn’t be any music. One thing you can do as a band leader is bring material into the band that satisfies other people’s needs. We do cover songs, and that’s why “When I Was Young” shows up on an album and there’s always some cover song in our set.
Do you see the Styrenes as an outgrowth of those other groups or a totally different thing?
PM: I see it as something completely different. You’re always a product of what you did in the past. I enjoy playing, and I’m not dissing those bands by any means—that’s not at all what I mean to do. I enjoy that stuff. I brought a guitar along on the tour as well, so I play keyboard and guitar. At a couple of the gigs, I didn’t even set the keyboard up. It was just straight guitars.
People are not one thing or another. They’re always a combination of a whole bunch of things and that doesn’t always fit into people’s expectations. People say, “What are you listening to? What’s on the CD player?” It’s all over the place, everywhere from Indian music to Don McLean for that matter. I’m not going to say who listens to what, although that might show up one day. Somebody put a mix on in the van this morning, and we just went, “Oh my God!” There’s probably no unanimity in the band as to what music is good and what music is bad. We’re all individuals, and everybody brings to it their own experiences, and that’s what I want. I don’t want a bunch of punks in the band. Aside from the fact that I’m a little bit older, that wouldn’t be it. That would not work for me.
Looking internally, then, do you see the various incarnations of the Styrenes as pursuing the same artistic vision or ideal, or has each different incarnation effectively been a different band?
PM: There’s a consistency to the sound of the band, I think. Our records sound better now because we record in better studios, but when I hear them, there’s consistency to the style. Certainly the piano is a big part of it. Even in Mirrors, when Jamie and I were playing together and what we started out with in Styrenes, was the piano-guitar combination, and that’s a big part of the band. But is that the whole thing of the band? No, not necessarily. Maybe I’m not the one to describe it. I hear it. Something like “Draino,” to me, it’s 35 years old and it doesn’t sound like it came from the ’70s. It’s not really of any time. I think that points to the individuality of the members of the band, that what we’ve created really is our own thing, and whatever instruments we play and whatever songs we play, it still tends to sound like us—at least I hope it does. That’s the goal.
How did the Mike Hudson, spoken-word era of the Styrenes come about?
PM: I had been listening to this record by Kenneth Patchen, the beat poet. He had two records out with the Allyn Ferguson sextet. They were beat poetry with jazz, but unlike a lot those records where the band and the words don’t really connect, on those particular records, the music the jazz band is playing is completely integrated into the words. So that’s what I was listening to at the time, and that’s what I was thinking about. At the same time, Hudson and I just happened to be on opposite coasts, and we were both undergoing some personal stuff. Depression and darkness was all a part of it, and I had this really dark piece of music and Hudson had a piece called “Back In Hell” that he had written. That’s the first one we did, and after we did that, it was like, “Well, this is pretty cool.” So then we started to put together more of them. It really came together just as a meeting of the minds at the time. Since Hudson had been a lead singer of a band, a few years later the next step would have been to ask him to come along and sing with us. That ran its course.
We’re still doing spoken word. We’re doing spoken word stuff on the tour. The next record—I’m not going to say what the text is going to be—but the next record will most likely be a spoken word record for us. I think we’re just scratching the surface on that.
The band is commonly viewed as a Cleveland band, but for most of its existence, it's been based in New York.
PM: Yeah, you know, Cleveland, it’s like the stench that you can’t get off you. I left Cleveland at the end of ’79, beginning ’80. Everybody else in the band is from some place else. I’ve got a guitar player born in Germany, I’ve got a bass player born in Queens, and a drummer from Boston. My son and my grandchildren speak with New York accents, and I’m still considered a Cleveland artist.
So is the band something that’s not confined to geography then?
PM: I don’t think it’s confined to geography at all. I never believed any of that nonsense about the industrial decadence spawned this blah, blah, blah. It’s just an accident, an accident that these people were together. It’s a great accident, and it really is quite amazing when you think about this group of people who went on to do all this stuff and that they were all in Cleveland at the same time. But I don’t think Cleveland had anything to do with it.
I see that you have recently moved back to Cleveland.
PM: Yeah, sadly. But that was not by choice. (laughs) I had just sold a condo, and the tour was coming up. I wasn’t ready to buy a place in New York. Cleveland is dirt cheap to live. So I bumped in to some guys who said they were looking to get some people to rent time shares in a studio. I thought, “Hey, it’s cheaper to live here and record an album in Cleveland than it would be to do it in New York.”
Have you gotten involved at all with the current music scene in Cleveland?
PM: I’ve always been a loner. Always. I’ve never really concerned myself with what’s going on around me. I listen to the music that I like to listen to. I’m a friendly guy, but I’m not really interested in hanging out. It’s not my thing.
You mentioned the next album, so do you have any concrete plans for new Styrenes records?
PM: They haven’t been made yet, so it’s hard to tell. With a history like ours, for us, it’s make one record and then try to get somebody to put it out. We’ve never been signed to a multi-record deal. We’ve never had a record company give us money to make a record. That’s one of the things about being a loner: I’ve never had a support system behind me.
So is that the optimal situation for the Styrenes then, sort of going at it on a project-by-project basis?
PM: Pretty much, yeah. There’s this attitude that with modern recording that records are cheap to make. No, they’re not. That’s an urban myth. Yes, there’s cheap recording, but those aren’t the kind of records I want to make. I’ve made lo-fi records before. Fine, been there and done that. For me, to attract the musicians I want to play with, the studios have to be nicer and the whole situation has to be nicer. Records tend to cost a little more when you actually pay the musicians to play on them.
How have the Styrenes approached technology over the course of the past 35 years?
PM: I use a lot of technology. I’m not a total gearhead, but we’ve been recording digitally for a while. I still record in analog, too. I have a lot of analog equipment and a lot of digital equipment. Technology is tools. They’re nothing more than tools, and what you do with them. I know people like vinyl, but some things sound better on vinyl and some things sound much clearer on CD. I’m not that doctrinaire, and the idea is to get the music down so that somebody else can hear it and get an emotional experience from it.
Has being a producer affected your songwriting?
PM: It hasn’t affected my songwriting at all. I’m not a very prolific songwriter. I’m a slow boat when it comes to writing. If I write three or four pieces a year, that’s about it. And that’s about what I’ve been doing most of my life. I take my time with them, and I work them through before I bring them to the band. In fact, when we went to start this tour, I had a bunch of new songs, and we’re not doing any of them. As far as being a producer, most of the things I’ve learned have to do with interpersonal relationships: how you can talk to people and perhaps help them to give a performance that they might not have given or thought of by themselves. I tend not to insult people as often as I did before, I hope.
When you started out, did you envision the Styrenes lasting 35 years?
PM: It’s sort of like a brand name. Sometimes I think about changing the name, and everybody says, “You can not change the name of the band now.” If I went under my own name, that would be really stupid, like every other band where some guy thinks he’s better than everybody else. So I guess I’m stuck with it for now. But I’ve been a musician since before I went to school. I’ve been playing gigs since I was 11 years old, so I don’t really see this as anything different.