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I was first exposed to punk while in high school in Indiana in the 1990s. My friends and I didn’t listen to as much contemporary stuff as we did older music from the 1970s and ‘80s. Bands like Sex Pistols, Ramones, Minor Threat, and the Germs blasted from our stereos. My friend, Jeremiah, had an uncle (there was always that sibling or cousin or uncle) who got him into punk and from there, he got me into the music. In the ‘90s, when we wanted to find new punk music, one thing always led to another: a name-drop in an interview, a mention of another band in a review, or a compilation.
At some point, Jeremiah told me that there had been some punk bands in our own state back in the early ‘80s. Given the backward nature of where we grew up, I found it hard to believe. But he had heard the Zero Boys on a Rhino Records compilation, Faster and Louder: Hardcore Punk, Volume 2, and shared it with me.The Zero Boys burst out of the gate with “Civilization’s Dying.” I was impressed: the guitars were blistering, the pace was fast, and the vocals reminded me of Darby Crash from the Germs. But that message was something I could also relate to: when you’re pissed off at the world, civilization does feel like it’s dying.
It was encouraging to know that while some of my other favorite punk bands from the ‘80s were around that there was a punk band that was playing the same kind of stuff (and just as good!) in my home state. “Wow,” I thought to myself, “something good can come out of Indiana!” Maybe there was hope for punk rock in the middle of nowhere.
As mentioned in the interview, in 2006 the Zero Boys got back together and played the occasional show as well as tours of the United States and Europe. In 2009, Secretly Canadian Records re-released Zero Boys’ classic Vicious Circle as well as History Of…, a compilation of material not on Vicious Circle, recorded during their existence from 1979 to 1983. Also in 2009, a DVD titled Live at the PizzaCastle—1981 was released.
The band released a new 7”/EP titled Pro Dirt in 2013 on 1-2-3-4 Go! Records. The label also re-issued the band’s EP, Livin’ in the 80s (which can also be found on the History Of… album). Zero Boys’ latest LP, Monkey, was released in May 2014.
While the band continues with Paul Mahern and original drummer Mark Cutsinger, the guitar and bass have rotated amongst a number of people. Currently, Scott Kellogg is on bass and Dave Lawson plays guitar.
Since the interview appeared in Razorcake, Mahern has taught recording classes in the Department of Telecommunications at IndianaUniversity and worked with the Archives of Traditional Music at IU, performing audio restoration for this collection of recordings from around the world. This has led Mahern to take up musical archival preservation in addition to his normal audio engineering.
–Kurt Morris, 2014
ZERO BOYS Interview with PAUL MAHERN
By: Mike Frame
It was love at first note. Two seconds into “Civilization’s Dying,” I knew this was the band for me. Amazing lyrics, killer melody, and that guitar tone. Oh, that classic guitar tone... it is simply perfect. My very first exposure to the Zero Boys made me a lifelong fan. And I had only heard one song! I was sure that there was plenty more and oh, was I ever right. Unfortunately, it would be years before I got the chance to hear any more.
You have to realize that the era I am talking about here is the early 1990s, not the early or mid ‘80s. I was stuck in a shithole town in Southwestern Colorado and my introduction to the music of the Zero Boys (as well as the Canadian Subhumans and GG Allin) came via the DIY—Faster and Louder cassette on Rhino Records. More than a decade after the fact, that landlocked rage still spoke to me like a sermon. But that was all I could get my hands on. In those pre-internet and reissue days, things like Vicious Circle were damned hard to come by, even by mailorder. The Toxic Shock reissue was out of print and forget about finding an original pressing. I could barely afford to buy used cassettes and the occasional new one, like that Rhino tape that our local, country-centric store just happened to get in for some unknown reason. Once every couple of months or so I would catch a ride sixty miles to Grand Junction and go to the local music/video chain and load up on tapes and zines. I would look for the Zero Boys every single time and never found anything, not even one of the later records. Even when I moved to Portland, Oregon I spent nearly a year trying to track down Vicious Circle, to no avail. The thing was just nowhere to be found. I think very few people ever got rid of it. It is one of those records.
Finally, a few years later I was able to hear the entire record from a roommate who owned it and I was simply floored from note one. What a classic LP! It would be several years later on from there that I would finally get my own copy when Panic Button reissued the LP. I have listened to the record hundreds of times since, and I truly believe that it is one of the all-time classic albums. Not just punk rock records; I’ll put it up against anything of any style.
I wanted to interview Paul Mahern, the Zero Boys’ singer, about what he has been up to. He has kept himself busy with family, work as a recording engineer, and music. Paul said something to me near the end of our first conversation that really struck me. I had thanked him for being so willing to talk about the old days because I was sure that it was kind of strange to be talking about events that had happened nearly twenty-five years ago. He just said that the Zero Boys had been such a small part of his life that he didn’t mind talking about it all. That really sums it all up right there. Instead of looking back at that era of his life and thinking that was the high point as so many do, he was happy and content and thankful to be where he was today.
Originally ran in Razorcake #28, 2005
Paul: So, how did you first hear the Zero Boys?
Mike: I heard you on the Rhino Records DIY—Faster and Louder cassette compilation in the early ‘90s. The only bands I liked on there at the time were the Canadian Subhumans, GG Allin, and the Zero Boys.
Paul: It’s funny, I still get a royalty check now and then from Rhino from that. Those are the only royalty checks I ever get. They have good accounting over there at Rhino. It’s like five dollars every couple of years, but still. [laughs]
Mike: Did they license the song through you?
Paul: Yeah, they were real good about that. Unlike those Killed By Death records, which is where it seems like most people I run into discovered the Zero Boys. Those are the Italian compilations that are total bootlegs.
Mike: Those Rhino DIY comps were really an amazing thing for me to find living in a town of eight thousand people in Southwest Colorado.
Paul: I grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana. I live in Bloomington (Indiana) now. Indianapolis is about a million people. When I first got into punk rock music, there was only one record store in town that sold any punk rock. We would take a city bus about forty-five minutes across town.
Mike: How did you first hear about punk rock to even know to buy the records?
Paul: I remember getting a copy of Creem magazine that had the Sex Pistols on the cover, and just being completely freaked out by the whole thing. I thought I was into the heaviest, darkest music there was. I was into Black Sabbath and Aerosmith and then the Pistols came out. I didn’t know what to think. It just blew my mind wide open. I instantaneously hated them and loved them before I even heard them. They were just making fun of everything that I thought was cool. Yet, they were somehow cooler than all that stuff.
Mike: It’s really hard for younger people like myself to understand how absolutely shocking they must have been at the time.
Paul: I didn’t really have any perspective because I hadn’t really heard the New York Dolls. I had maybe heard an Iggy Pop song, but even the Stooges were not considered to be what they appear to be now, in retrospect. They just weren’t promoted as a punk pioneer band. Later on, I could really see that was where the Pistols were getting their influence. But because the Pistols had the whole fashion aspect of it, they just seemed to set themselves apart from everyone else.
Mike: What was some of the next music you got into?
Paul: I got into Ramones, Clash, and the Damned in a couple of months’ period. I got into the Rezillos and Generation X, really just any record that I could get that was coming out of England. I was a really big fan of the Vibrators’ first album (Pure Mania). I love the Ramones and I really loved the Dead Boys. The Dead Boys seemed like the closest thing to being like us. I could relate to them because they were from Cleveland and that was close. They were a Midwestern band, even though they had moved to New York by then. That is when it really began to dawn on me that “Oh, anybody can do this.” You didn’t have to be in a big city even.
Mike: So from there did you go back and get into the Dictators?
Paul: Oh, definitely. Terry (Howe), the Zero Boys guitar player, was a huge Dictators fan. If you know anything about the Dictators and you listen to Vicious Circle you can tell. I wasn’t that much into the Dictators at the time, so I didn’t realize it. Listening to Dictators records now I think, “Oh my god, he just stole that.” [laughs] Also, the Germs G.I. Listen to that and a Dictators record and you have the formula for Vicious Circle.
Mike: That is what really sets that record apart from the other stuff coming out then. The guitar tone was what I immediately latched onto. It was just perfect. To this day, that guitar sound is one of my two or three favorite guitar tones of all time.
Paul: Yeah, that’s a funny kind of unique guitar sound. I’ve had people email me and ask, “How did you do that?” He played a Hamer guitar through a Lab Series amp, which is a funny little ‘70s solid state amplifier that had a built-in compressor. It just had that kind of razor/ tin can sound. Then, in order to double track it and make it sound bigger—instead of playing it twice—we just wanted it to be really tight and we found that if we double tracked it, it became less tight. So, I remember being in the studio with a copy of G.I. and playing it for the engineer. This is what really developed that sound: he took an old Eventide Harmonizer; it was a rack mount studio device. He put Terry’s guitar dry hard left, and then the Harmonizer was three seconds of delay hard to the other side. So, that is that sound. Kind of chord sounding, kind of harmony. You can’t really tell. It’s nebulous. But it’s awesome. It just cuts through. Then, the leads are very a la Sex Pistols or Dictators—where they’re just overdubbed—all the guitar fills and pick drags, so they’re twice as loud as everything else. Raw Power was the record that kind of started all that. It’s the whole concept of not being in balance. It’s funny because what I do for a living is I’m an audio engineer. I have worked on all kinds of records and people want to make things that have less and less character. They’re always smoothing things out more and more until they just don’t have any life to them.
Mike: Sometimes if you are just slightly off time, it actually gives the song some room to breathe.
Paul: Yeah, nobody is looking for that. Definitely not the pop punk records. Those things are more like Steely Dan records than anything else. They’re all using their Pro Tools to line up all the beats and cut off all the downbeats on the guitar, so that they just sound completely robotic. I always say that every recording is part math and part magic. I want to lean to the magic side. If your band is just naturally super tight, then awesome. But if you’re not, don’t fake it.
Mike: When you first got into punk rock, what was the reaction of your family?
Paul: Mostly, my mother raised me and she was extremely liberal, kind of a feminist, and she didn’t care. I don’t even know how much she really noticed. My band practiced in the basement—and we were loud and she is not a fan of loud anything—but somehow she put up with it. My whole family has a serious liberal background. I do remember when the Dead Kennedys first came on the scene, my older brother saw a DK’s record and he said, “If these people wanna spit on each other or call themselves the Sex Pistols, whatever, but the Dead Kennedys, that’s sacrilege.” [laughs] He just couldn’t imagine why you would have a name that would be critical of the Kennedys, of all people.
Mike: That’s another one that I think is hard to understand years later, how big of a deal that band name was.
Paul: Yeah, years later you grow up and it’s just that band with that name. Big deal. But I think that’s why they called themselves the Dead Kennedys, to get people like my brother.
Mike: Were you in any bands previous to Zero Boys?
Paul: I was in a band in high school. We played a few basement parties and we played the school talent show. We were a punk band. We played that song “Showdown” from the New York Dolls record at the talent show. The name of the band was 3 PM, which was when we got off school. That band was playing at a party that we were putting on and the guys from the Zero Boys saw me play. Those guys had already formed and they were all older than I. I was sixteen and they were all twenty-two or twenty-three. What is kind of interesting and deceptive about the Zero Boys record is that you can tell that I am really young, but they’re playing their asses off. Those guys are top musicians. They were a spot-on amazing band from note one. But because I am this little kid singing, it has a similar vibe to an early Descendents or Adolescents or some of those California punk records. But the band is just rippin’. They had been in bands before. Terry’s first record came out when he was thirteen. He was in a band called The Insects and they put out a 7”. He was in Ohio at the time. I think the song was called “Girls” or something. It was a surf rock record and came out on an indie label in Ohio. That would have been at the end of the ‘60s or right at the beginning of the ‘70s. Tufty (bass) came from playing in a few in Indiana. Mark (drummer) was in a band called The Late Show that were a New York Dolls kind of band. They moved from Indiana to go to New York and they made a couple of demos with some people. They were recorded by Don Kirshner (music industry bigwig who ran a record label which released bubblegum records by bands like The Archies. He also had a television series called Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert or In Concert which bands played on, including the New York Dolls as well as all the ‘70s schlock of the era). So, for these guys, they had all been in bands and had scouted each other out. Punk rock was really new and they all really dug it. I think they all met up at parties and formed this band conceptually in their heads. Then they decided they needed a singer. It was all put together by these guys who were old enough to know what they were trying to do. I just had a notebook full of words that I would scream over the top of them. We had the classic thing where they didn’t even know what the lyrics were until we recorded. [laughs]
Mike: What were some of the first punk shows that came to Indianapolis?
Paul: I think X might have been one of the first bands that played here that I would consider to be a punk band. Right around the same time there were some of the New York noise bands that came: James White and the Blacks and DNA. Cheetah Chrome from the Dead Boys, his solo band. The Effigies from Chicago. The first show that we put on was T.S.O.L. That was the original line up and the only thing they had out was the True Sounds of Liberty EP. The Midwest bands would come through: Toxic Reasons, Die Kreuzen. The first club was this place called Crazy Al’s. It was twenty-one and over. Then I started putting on all-ages shows, and I put out a couple of compilations (Master Tapes Vol.1 & Vol.2) and all the bands on there would come through and record and play. The first Master Tape comp. is totally essential. The best stuff that Die Kreuzen ever did is on there. Some great Articles Of Faith and Toxic Reasons stuff. It is really a time capsule of what was going on that year around the Midwest.
Mike: I am sure at that point most of the Midwest bands were really out of what was going on.
Paul: It’s true, especially where we were. Chicago was different because it was a big enough city. We played with some of the bands from Chicago. We played with the Effigies, but they didn’t like us. They were into this whole macho thing. I think they thought we were too fey or too poppy or something. We didn’t wear camos. [laughs] It just wasn’t a good fit. I think we played with the Necros once. What is really funny was that Tesco Vee was a big fan. He loved our stuff. I think the early Touch and Go family would have gotten it a little more, but we didn’t really ever play with those bands. There was a lot of show swapping that would go on. Every couple of months there would be a big show somewhere, and a lot of the bands would play all on the same bill. We did play a bill in Chicago once with Hüsker Dü and the Replacements. Land Speed Record wasn’t even out yet and the Replacements definitely didn’t have a record out yet. But both bands already had this major attitude, which was a real turn off. My whole concept was more like the Youth Brigade or the Dischord concept. Let’s get everybody together because there’s not very many of us. I think that coming from a really small scene, that’s just the way you want it to be. Then we were encountering these bands from Minneapolis and they weren’t about being a part of the scene. They were about being a band. They were what was important to them. To me, the scene was what was important. That band that I was in was no more important than the band anybody else was in. The guys in Toxic Reasons had that same attitude, so that was who we hung out with the most.
Being a fan was at least as important as being in the band. Standing up at the front of the stage while the other guys were rockin’, and getting into their songs and buying their records. I mean, that was why I got into it; it was never my intention to be a rock star. It was just my intention to be a fan and somehow that led to being in a band. It was weird to watch it develop out of that and see it change. Then I saw it really change when it went into being something that you could actually make money at. It was never, in my wildest dreams, possible to make a living playing punk rock music. It had never happened and it wasn’t going to happen. Then, slowly, it started to happen. Even at the time, the most you could hope for was to be as big as the Dead Kennedys. Even they weren’t rich. They sold more records than anybody else, but I imagine they were still working jobs on the side. So, it was really a mind blower to watch it get huge. When it really blew up with Nirvana, the whole concept was just totally thrown away. Up until that point, you knew if a guy was in a punk rock band, he was doing it ‘cause he loved it. Then the market gets flooded with people thinking they are going to make some money, and it brings a whole different element into it.
Mike: I grew up in really small towns where I didn’t even know anyone who was into even the Clash or Sex Pistols, so it was really strange to move to the city and see how everyone looked “punk” in the early to mid ‘90s.
Paul: It’s weird when it goes from the perspective of the outsider to something that is “cool.” When I was in high school and wearing a leather jacket, I was threatened with having my ass kicked on a regular basis. That gave me a sense of identity, you know? In my high school, wearing a leather jacket in 1978, they were like “Are you trying to be Fonzie?” [laughs] They just had no perspective on it, and I got a lot out of that. I was just like, “You don’t even know. You have no idea. I go home after school and listen to the Ramones and you don’t even know who that is.” Having an identity outside of the central structure of school is really important at that age. The other thing that was great about it was the whole DIY thing. At the time it was just bands putting their own records out. You didn’t send out demos and try to get signed to some label, you made a record and you put it out. Nobody was going to put your record out for you.
Mike: You guys did that with your first single, Livin’ in the ‘80s. Were you even aware of labels like SST or Alternative Tentacles?
Paul: We didn’t send the single out to anyone, for sure. We just put it out. We were just starting to be aware of some labels. When we made Vicious Circle, by that time Jello Biafra was already a fan. If you listen to the first single and then the LP, you can hear the exact moment that we started listening to the Circle Jerks. [laughs] We started playing ten times faster. Nimrod Records was our record label. We had a friend who kind of managed the band and we wanted to put it out, so we just called it Nimrod when we put out Vicious Circle. We pressed two thousand copies and shortly thereafter, when we were working on the second record, we broke up. The Master Tape Vol.1 & 2 have three songs each on them, so there are six songs that probably would have ended up on the second record. Then during those same sessions, I think we recorded another six or seven songs. Some of that stuff has been released in little bits and pieces. There is a 7” record called Blood’s Good that came out in Italy with a couple of songs. I think that there are only three or four songs that have not surfaced in some way. The Toxic Shock reissue of Vicious Circle has six bonus tracks, the stuff from the Master Tape compilations.
Mike: Have you been approached about compiling that stuff for release, or thought about doing it yourself?
Paul: I have thought about it, but I just haven’t done it. As of right now Vicious Circle is out of print. So, it’s not like anyone is beating our door down for material. I was approached recently by a guy who owns a record store in Indianapolis who wants to put Vicious Circle back out on vinyl. I imagine it will be one of those records that is in and out of print forever. I think that Ben (Weasel) at Panic Button was really excited about it. He managed to sell probably more copies than anybody else. But then he sold Panic Button to Lookout and it just fell through the cracks. As far as I know, you can’t get it anymore.
Mike: How did the Panic Button reissue come about?
Paul: I have a friend named Mass Giorgini, who is in a band called Squirtgun and lives in Lafayette, Indiana. I have known him since he was a little kid, and he’s just a super big Zero Boys fan. He has done Screeching Weasel records, producing and engineering. So, I think he just told Ben, “This is ridiculous. This record has to be available.” Ben agreed with him and Panic Button decided to put it out. I think they did a great job. The remastering is awesome. The record sounds better than ever on that release. The packaging was really great. They went out of their way to make it cool. I think it probably turned five thousand new people on to the record.
Mike: That is when I finally got my own copy. I had heard the record many times, but never owned it. I think it is very interesting that it came out on a pop punk label, because with how catchy the songs are, it’s really not that different.
Paul: We were definitely a pop punk band. That is what “Civilization’s Dying” is. There are some songs on there like “Forced Entry” or “Vicious Circle” that are more like thrash songs but even they are presented in a format that’s kinda poppy. It’s certainly not angry or dark or anything like that. That was the most exciting time in punk rock for me: the first Descendents record, Group Sex by the Circle Jerks, the first T.S.O.L. EP. Punk was starting to be played faster and more aggressively, but there was still a sense that there’s a song there, there is still some melody. It’s kind of got a sense of humor, but it’s not “funny punk,” you know? There is a very short time period—we’re talking about two years—and then it becomes metal.
Then I totally lost interest. That wasn’t what I signed up for. I am not interested in punk metal. It makes no sense to me. Those are two things that are not supposed to be together. It became more and more like testosterone music. It became about beating people up on the dance floor. It just lost its sense of humor. It took itself way too seriously. It’s just not fun or smart. I just don’t get it, but that’s the way it went. The next DKs record after Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables was In God We Trust, Inc. They were playing ninety million miles an hour. I was like, “Where’s your songs, that whole thing you developed, that whole sound?” That whole thing of who can play the fastest, I just didn’t get it. Then there were bands like MDC, who just had no sense of humor. It’s one thing when you’re singing about how bad corporations are and you’re making fun of them. It’s another thing when you’re just trying to bring me down. I’m actually not a very big hardcore fan.
Minor Threat, on the other hand: greatest band ever. We played a show in Torrance, CA and this is probably the epicenter of my punk rock career. It was DKs, Minor Threat, and Zero Boys. There were maybe two thousand people there. I had never seen anything like it in my life. I had never been to a show that had more than a hundred and fifty people. It was just amazing because at the time my two favorite bands were on the bill with us. To me, Minor Threat are the best American punk rock band. You can’t touch ‘em. Especially the first two singles, that was just it. And those guys were all so young. They were maybe younger than me, or at least we were the same age. I was in a band with guys a little bit older. Then it turned into Fugazi, or whatever else, and I wasn’t following that either. [laughs]
Mike: I also think Minor Threat are the perfect example of interpersonal chemistry. It had to be those four people doing exactly what they were doing. Even if you hate each other’s guts, that chemistry can be there.
Paul: I am a big fan of rock music. I listen to the Stones, Kinks, Faces, and there was so much stuff going on, especially in England in the 1960s; so much chemistry between musicians, so much real quality on record. Minor Threat is a completely different style of music, but it also has that much interplay and that much personality. But they only made a handful of recordings. Then they broke up because they were getting too popular? That’s just so weird. [laughs] When I first heard Minor Threat they made me want to just quit, just go back to being an audience member. They were a complete package. They had a great look, great songs, and the straight edge thing. The last thing they recorded was the album (Out of Step) and it just didn’t have as much fire. I have always thought that was why they stopped. I was at a punk rock show about three years ago in Indianapolis and it was just like stepping back in time. All these bands were playing and they all sound like they’re trying to be Minor Threat. Then one of the bands actually breaks into a Minor Threat song and the audience just goes nuts. I was just like, “Nothing has happened since I stopped going to these shows twenty years ago?” [laughs]
Mike: What bands were you in after the Zero Boys?
Paul: Directly after the Zero Boys broke up, I was in a band called Dandelion Abortion. It was Rick and Randy from my band from high school and either Terry Howe or Mike Sheets on guitar. We were a psychedelic band. At the time, I had just recently discovered the 13th Floor Elevators and there was a second wave of psychedelic bands from California like Dream Syndicate and Rain Parade. It was weird music and sometimes aggressive, but also very melodic. I’ve always been very interested in melody. Where punk was going at the time was more metal, so I went in the other direction and wrote shimmery pop guitars and psychedelic melodies. That band lasted about two years and we never really played much outside of Indiana. Then I formed a band called the Datura Seeds. That band lasted for about four years. The music was kind of the same (as Dandelion Abortion) but with more of an emphasis on songwriting and less on just wigging out. We made one record called Who Do You Want It To Be? that came out on Toxic Shock in probably 1989. He (Bill Sassenburger of Toxic Shock) reissued Vicious Circle in 1985 or ‘86 and then through that connection he agreed to do the Datura Seeds record. My first son was born when I was twenty, so once that happened I was pretty much off the touring circuit. It became more of a hobby.
Mike: When did you get into doing studio work and producing records for other people?
Paul: I got into studio work pretty much right away. I was completely fascinated by it. I was studying electronic engineering at the time we went in to record Vicious Circle. I knew right away after seeing all the equipment and seeing the process that it was really what I wanted to do. So I just started interning with the guy John Helms, who produced Vicious Circle. I started hanging out there and then I realized that the way to learn how to make records was just to start making them. So, I made the Master Tape comps and those were as much about teaching myself how to make a record as they were anything else. I did them because, at the time, comps were necessary and popular. You had This Is Boston, Not L.A. and the Posh Boy comps (Beach Blvd., Rodney on the ROQ), but there wasn’t a Midwestern compilation. There was a tape comp called Charred Remains that was an awesome release and it has a lot of the same bands. What they had done with that was take all the 7” singles that had been released in the Midwest and put out a tape compilation. My idea was to have songs that you couldn’t get anywhere else. So I brought the bands in—Toxic from Ohio, Articles from Chicago, Die Kreuzen from Milwaukee—to Indianapolis and we recorded them. Unfortunately, that studio closed between the making of the two Master Tape records. I made Vol.1 at Keystone Recording, where we had done the Zero Boys record. Then it closed and I found a little 1/2” tape eight-track studio in somebody’s garage. They were calling it HitCity. Vol. 2 is about half of me recording in that garage and half getting tapes from other places. Some of the bands were from further away, so I only engineered maybe half of that record. It was done on lesser equipment and I think it was kind of a cool process; how to do the same thing I was doing, but with less stuff.
Then, unfortunately, I had about two or three distributors either default on paying me or just go out of business. So, all the money I had invested in the label was completely gone. I didn’t have enough money to get it going again. I was kind of disillusioned with that aspect of it. I was just interested in making records. I wasn’t so much interested in getting distributors to pay me. Also, my son was born shortly after that, so it just became a job. I started recording whatever I could to pay the bills. I recorded probably twenty gospel records over the course of about four years. I have recorded just about anything that makes noise by now. That’s still what I do for my living. I am working in Bloomington, Indiana, mostly at a place called Echo Park Studios. It is awesome; lots of analog equipment and also all the latest Pro Tools stuff. I have been in Bloomington for about nine years now and am working there primarily.
I also work at a place called Belmont Mall, which is John Mellencamp’s studio. I’ve got a little home studio too, where I do stuff that is super low budget. But I don’t get to make many punk records anymore, although I would like to. There is just not a lot of it going on and I don’t have the reputation of being “that guy.” I don’t make exclusively those kind of records and I think that is kind of where you need to be to get many of those gigs.
Mike: Who are some of the people that you have recorded over the years?
Paul: That’s a good question. I did some stuff with Afghan Whigs very early on. I mixed one Iggy Pop song. I have done some stuff for Farm Aid, mixed some Neil Young and Willie Nelson. I have done records for the Blake Babies. I have done like six John Mellencamp records now, I think. He’s great to work with. He’s a really interesting artist and he’s got a lot of intensity. But I think, mostly, I end up working on his records because of proximity. I am the one engineer who makes exclusively albums and not commercials in this region, so we have developed a good relationship. I made two records for Lisa Germano that are among my favorite records I have made. Some really cool local bands like the United States Three, I made three records with them. Just weird pop records with lots of bizarre sounds. There is always stuff that I am forgetting.
I am just really grateful to be able to do what I have done. I have basically existed without a straight gig my whole life. Certainly, making records can be really hard. It’s not like it’s easy, but I work pretty much for myself. There has always been enough work to pay the bills. Since I have been a father I haven’t had the luxury of having an attitude about what it is that I am recording. I think if my life had been different, if I hadn’t become a father at twenty, I may have pursued a slightly more exclusive client base. But at this point I am really glad to have been able to work with all the people I have worked with.
Bloomington is a great place. We’re surrounded by conservatives being in southern Indiana, but Bloomington is like a little oasis. There is lots of culture. Lots of bands come through here. Lots of different art events going on all the time. But it’s such a small town. It is sixty thousand people when college is in and thirty thousand when the university is out. I think as far as Midwestern college towns go, Bloomington and Madison, Wisconsin are the two great Midwestern college towns.
Mike: So you guys are playing this Dot Dash Festival in New York. When was the last time you played together and what is the line up?
Paul: I think the last time we played was about two years ago. We played New Years Eve of 2000 and since then I think we have played twice. We just get together and rehearse five or six times. Terry, our guitar player, is no longer living. Tufty and Mark both live in Indianapolis and I live in Bloomington, which is about forty-five minutes away. Our current guitarist Zack lives in Indianapolis as well, so it’s pretty easy for us to get together. It is not something I am interested in doing full time, but for a special occasion, it’s kinda fun. Kinda surrealistic. It’s pretty weird to singing these songs that I wrote when I was sixteen years old. But it’s just weird enough to be entertaining.
Mike: Thanks for the interview. I learned a lot of stuff that I didn’t know.
Paul: I must admit my favorite old band stories are the ones where someone ended up in the mental hospital or something. Unfortunately, I haven’t done any time in the mental hospital and I haven’t eaten acid every day for the last thirty years. But if I had it would be a great story. [laughs]
ENDNOTE: “Terry Howe passed away in December of 2000 as far as I know. We fell out of touch shortly after our last reunion show on New Years of 2000 and I was not aware of his death for several months after it happened. I do not know the details but I fear that it was drug related. Terry “Hollywood” Howe was the true driving force behind the Zero Boys. He was the musical visionary and he wrote a lot of the music. In many ways, the sound of Vicious Circle is the sound of Terry Howe.” –Paul Mahern