SXSW Interview: Cheetah Chrome

Dead Boys guitarist releases first solo studio disc

SXSW Interview: Cheetah Chrome

As guitarist for Cleveland’s Dead Boys, Cheetah Chrome remains an American punk legend. Dubbed by Rolling Stone’s Charles M. Young as “the angriest-looking humanoid this side of Johnny Rotten,” Chrome (born Gene O’Connor) demonstrated outsized guitar chops that helped elevate the Dead Boys well beyond standard three-chord ramalama.

Indeed, 1977’s “Sonic Reducer” became an instant classic by dint of the steel-belted riff and gibbering, spastic solo Chrome sprayed around Stiv Bators’ post-Alice Cooper vocal.

Since then, Chrome hasn’t led the easiest of lives, as documented in his four-year-old memoir Cheetah Chrome: A Dead Boy’s Tale From the Front Lines of Punk Rock. Now a sober family man, and recently portrayed by Rupert Grint in 2013 docudrama CBGB, Chrome arrives at SXSW in a new dual guise: A&R man for Nashville indie Plowboy Records, and performer with a surprising debut disc, Solo.

Austin Chronicle: You’ve gotten singles out before, but this is your first actual solo album.

Cheetah Crome: First solo studio record. I actually had Live in Detroit, but it wasn’t done in the studio. So, this is the first studio recording since “Still Wanna Die” back in 1979.

AC: It’s a collection of tunes you’ve written over the years and just haven’t released, right?

CC: I’ve done various versions of them. A couple of these songs, I did in 1996 with Genya [Ravan, Dead Boys producer] when I first wrote them and started working on them. I went up to Woodstock and we were up there for like two weeks, recording. Some of it came out really good, and some things may not have come out exactly the way I wanted. Me and Hilly [Kristal, CBGB owner] kinda got into a disagreement about putting it out on CBGB Records, because there wasn’t really a CBGB Records [laughs].

I kinda had something bigger in mind. Back then, you still had majors. I thought maybe we could shop it to one of them. So, we had a bit of a disagreement, and the plug kinda just ended up getting pulled. Hilly had the masters. Genya went back to New York, and I said, “Well, if you can’t use ‘em and I can’t use ‘em, let ‘em just sit there. He’ll come around.” Well, they sat there for years [laughs]. ‘Til Hilly died!

I moved on and did other things, and after Hilly died, his daughter found the tapes down in the basement of CBGB. She called and said, “Hey, I’ve got these down here. I wanna send them down to you.” At the time, I was working with Batusis [a short-lived project Chrome did with New York Dolls guitarist Syl Sylvain]. We had done a full-length record after the initial EP. That was supposed to come out in 2012, but Frank [Mauceri] at Smog Veil Records decided to put the label on hiatus. So everything that wasn’t at the pressing plant didn’t get released. We walked away with the masters, free and clear.

Frank was very helpful with that. He actually helped me get the CBGB tapes together. Then I got involved with Plowboy Records and we didn’t really shop this stuff around. Sylvain didn’t want to put it out on Plowboy, so we ended up breaking it up into two separate solo records, mine and Sylvain’s. I decided to put the [1996 and Batusis sessions] together. Between them, they have all the songs I haven’t released over the years. These are the best versions of them. This cleared them out.

AC: Some of it is exactly what you’d expect from the man who played all that great lead guitar in the Dead Boys. You also have some more acoustic-oriented tracks.

CC: I play acoustic guitar when I’m around the house a lot. A lot of the Dead Boys stuff was actually written on an acoustic 12-string, stuff like “Not Anymore.” And “High Tension Wire” was finished on an acoustic 12-string. I always played acoustic guitar. I just thought maybe it was time to bring it out a little bit. The punk thing certainly hasn’t made me a millionaire [laughs].

AC: Have you written material in that vein all along, but didn’t use it in the Dead Boys?

CC: Yeah. A lot of that stuff, one of the reasons I sat on it for so long was that I didn’t really have an outlet for it. Some of these songs were written for Rocket [From the Tombs, his first band with future members of Pere Ubu], and they just weren’t interested in that. At the time of the Dead Boys, they were all, “No no no! We don’t wanna do that!” The Dead Boys never got back in the studio after Stiv died, so that kinda sat there. “No Credit” could’ve been a Dead Boys song. It was written in that period.

”Stare Into the Night” would’ve been a Dead Boys song, because those two dated back right to the breakup and me starting up playing solo at Max’s [Kansas City]. They were in my solo set at the time. So, those could have easily been Dead Boys songs.

Plowboy at South by Southwest will be our first showcase, and it’s gonna be a lot of fun! I’m gonna be using some local guys from [Austin Dead Boys tribute act] Flamethrower Love as my band. That’ll be interesting. Bringing some guests up.

AC: Who else is playing the Plowboy showcase?

CC: Buzz Cason, Paul Birch, JD Wilkes & the Dirt Daubers, Ghost Wolves, Chuck Meade, the Fauntleroys, which is Alejandro Escovedo’s new project with Ivan Julian, Linda Pittman, and Nick Tibulus – we’re gonna be doing their new record. Then me! I think Drivin’ ‘N’ Cryin’ is gonna get up and jam a few songs with me. It’s gonna be a lot of fun!

SXSW Showcase

Saturday, March 15, Saxon Pub, 1am

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Cheetah Chrome, SXSW Music 2014, Dead Boys, Stiv Bators, Hilly Kristal, CBGB, Syl Sylvain, New York Dolls, Batusis, Rocket From the Crypt, Pere Ubu, Fauntleroys, Alejandro Escovedo, Plowboy Records, Flamethrower Love, Ghost Wolves, Linda Pittman, Ivan Julian, Chuck Meade

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