An oral history of Die Kreuzen, part 1
“Isn’t punk rock about breaking the rules? We’re breaking the fucking rules right here!”
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There’s plenty to like about Saturday’s Lest We Forget show at Turner Hall: It’s a tribute to all the Milwaukee musicians who have passed away before their time; it’s a benefit for the American Liver Foundation; and it boasts a jam-packed lineup that resurrects many long-defunct local bands. But the real highlight—why this isn’t just a good show but a bona fide event—is the reunion of the legendary Die Kreuzen. From its blazing hardcore roots through multiple phases of fruitful experimentation, the group had all the brains, work ethic, and tunes needed to make it big, but when the underground scene it helped foster broke through to the mainstream in the early ’90s, Die Kreuzen seemed to miss out on the glory.
But bands this good aren’t just forgotten, and interest has surged in recent years, making Saturday’s reunion (or quasi-reunion—original guitarist Brian Egeness opted not to participate) a welcome flashback for original fans and a rare opportunity for those listeners too young to catch the group the first time around. As a refresher/primer to get ready for the show, The A.V. Club talked to singer Dan Kubinski and bassist Keith Brammer to get the inside story of Die Kreuzen.
Dan Kubinski: To go back as far as I can, the genesis of the band was in high school, when Brian Egeness and I got together, the guitar player. We had a few different drummers and bass players until we got Brian Hill on bass, who later started Sacred Order, and we decided to move to Milwaukee. We had come up and played a couple of times with our friends the Tense Experts, who were also from Rockford [Illinois] and had moved here. Once again, we went through a series of drummers, until we landed Erik Tunison, and we landed Erik through our friend Keith Brammer.
Keith Brammer: I had known Erik Tunison for years and had been in a band with him previously. Dan and Brian were looking for a drummer. Brian Hill from Sacred Order was playing bass with them, but they had this revolving door of drummers. I got to be friends with them, because I really liked what they were doing, so I suggested Erik, and they decided to ask me to play bass instead of Brian.
We had similar interests in terms of what we wanted to do. At the time, we were very into the L.A. scene like Black Flag and the Germs and Circle Jerks, and no one else in Milwaukee was. People around here were very into the New York bands. We just didn’t want to do anything that anybody else was doing, but I kind of think that was common ground with everyone else in the city at the time.
DK: We were actually called the Stellas then, and about six months after Keith joined, we kind of turned a corner. The more we played out with other bands and saw how tight they were, and heard new songs from bands that we liked, the more effort we put into our rehearsal schedule. At that point, we were heading in a new direction, we had a new outlook, and so we needed a new name, a new feel for the whole thing.
KB: We got “Die Kreuzen” from our friend, who we were living with at the time, named Diane. I don’t know if it was a Bible or just some book, but she got it from this German book. She had picked that out because she was like, “I’m going to use that if I’m in a band.” And we said, “You’re never going to be in a band, we’re stealing it.”
DK: We eventually decided on Die Kreuzen because it didn’t really mean anything in particular, and you couldn’t really say, “Oh, I know what Die Kreuzen is all about” just by the sound of the name. Out in California people said, “Die Cruisin’? What are you, some kind of low-rider band?”
KB: It was exactly what we wanted; we didn’t want to be “The somebodies,” or to immediately conjure up some image, like Millions Of Dead Cops or something like that. Unfortunately, it kind of backfired on us because nobody could pronounce it or spell it. Eventually, when we had contracts for shows and were dealing with a booking agent, we had something in the contract that said, “Here’s how it’s spelled. If you spell it wrong on the flier, we’re going to fine you $50.” Of course, nobody ever paid any attention to that; they’d just go ahead and spell it wrong. Though in German, it is grammatically incorrect, so I don’t know if Diane got it wrong, or we got it wrong or what. It’s something to do with crossing over, but it should be “der” kreuzen instead of “die.” Or something like that.
DK: Once we changed the name and really started working on things, that’s when stuff came to the surface, all kinds of different influences. Keith and Erik introduced me to the crazy Syd Barrett records and Van Der Graaf Generator, and Brian was listening not only to the first couple Wire albums, but had also gone out and bought the Colin Newman solo albums. There were just so many things, which were all off of center, that we thought were cool. Everything that we listened to would come out at rehearsals, whether we knew it or not.
KB: What worked for us was that we all listened to different things. If you were to ask each one of us what we were listening to, you would get four completely different lists. There were a few constants, but as far as new stuff coming out it was always different, and as time went on it kind of got wider and wider. When we started, we thought that the first Circle Jerks record was the fastest thing we ever heard. It was so amazing, and we said, “We can do that.” But we were always into different things; we didn’t model ourselves after those guys. All four of us were huge Rush fans growing up, and Brian and I were really into all the British post-punk stuff, like Wire and XTC, so there was a lot of that dynamic, the weird time signatures and fragmented song construction.
KB: We really didn’t encounter any resistance for the early stuff; people were just really excited by the fact that we were pushing the boundaries. It wasn’t until we started changing that we got some resistance, because people want to hear the same thing played the same way. The people that genuinely liked us for being creative were with us all the way—and there were a lot of those people—but there were also a lot of people that were like, “We really like the fast stuff, and once you stopped doing that, you sucked.” We were always of the opinion that the whole point of a band is to evolve, to do something different. Who wants to write the same record multiple times? With us it was always, “Okay, we did that already, now let’s do something different.” And that was on a song-to-song basis. We’d come up with stuff in practice and say, “We’ve already done something like that, that’s out,” which is why it took us so long to write.
DK: As far as the hardcore people are concerned—where it’s got to be fast and furious or forget about it—they would do nothing but heckle us to the very end, to our very last gig. You have to just kind of laugh at those people, who just holler the same thing: “Play ‘All White’! Play something fast!” and we’d say, “We did that already, 10 years ago. This is what we’re working on now.” We’d go to Any-Show, U.S.A., and there’d be four or five hardcore bands opening up, and they all sounded the same. And then we’d go up and play and we’d be doing our thing and people would start yelling. We’d have to be like, “Eh? Isn’t punk rock about breaking the rules? We’re fucking breaking the rules! We’re breaking the fucking rules right here!”