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Event Fri May 24 2013

Cows and Beer: Dan Kubinski on the Return of Die Kreuzen


When news spread last May that legendary Milwaukee hardcore group Die Kreuzen was reuniting to play a handful of shows, fans of challenging American punk were understandably ecstatic, though it hardly registered a blip in the mainstream music news cycle. The band has always been more at home in the periphery, though, confronting the limits and capabilities of hardcore on their own terms while waiting patiently for everyone else to catch up. Now, 30 years removed from their '80s heyday, and with a string of live dates this spring including a stop at the Double Door, the band has history on its side.

In the midst of the '80s underground rock nostalgia campaign kick-started by a handful of high-profile reunion tours and books like Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life and, more directly, Stephen Blush's seminal American Hardcore, the reunion of Die Kreuzen is perhaps inevitable, if not more of a gem. But what's more, their reunion finally gives recognition to a long and varied career spent in the trenches that influenced everyone from Steve Albini to Thurston Moore, who is quoted as saying "there was a point there when Die Kreuzen were the best band in the USA." But Dan Kubinski, the group's vocalist, is still surprised by some of the names his band inspired.

"When we quit playing music, there was nothing written saying 'we lost Die Kreuzen.' Things just moved on. So to be removed from that, 20-plus years later, to have people say that we were an influence on them, it's amazing. I'm flattered beyond belief."

Waxing historic on everything from opening for a Dez Cadena-fronted Black Flag in Milwaukee (which included an encore from a young roadie named Henry Garfield on lead vocals) to driving up to Minneapolis's 7th Street Entry to open for the Hüskers on a whim, Kubinski's vivid memory of the times highlighted just how supportive and self-contained the underground network of bands really was in the early '80s.

"It was all who do you know, and who can put on a show," Kubinski said. "Usually you can sleep on somebody's floor, and that's already been figured out by the time you get there. It was a different world. I don't think I watched a bit of television from 1981 to '87, maybe? I just didn't see it, I didn't have any time for it."

Kubinski is notably kind and disarming in conversation, and certainly calmer than his high-pitched screech on-record might suggest. After a childhood in Rockford, IL, Kubinski moved to Milwaukee at 18 with friend Brian Egeness where they met drummer Erik Tunison, and before long were playing assorted punk shows as the Stellas. Adding Keith Brammer on bass a few months later added focus to the group, and they changed their name to Die Kreuzen (mistranslated German for "The Crosses"), honing their sound in the mold of early Black Flag and Void and regional acts Articles of Faith and Zero Boys.

"All of a sudden there we were: We went from being a weird, noisy punk band, in the most traditional sense, into something else. It was so different all of a sudden, it was like a clear path," Kubinski said. "We knew what we wanted to do."

Playing in a close-knit underground scene where the safe choice would have been to stick with loud-fast-hard conformity, Die Kreuzen instead remained true to their boundary-pushing tendencies, carving out their own brand of high-speed, no-bullshit noise and keeping their own definition of punk intact. After a few self-released cassettes and an appearance on Bob Moore's Charred Remains compilation, the group put out the now-legendary Cows and Beer 7" (fondly named after Wisconsin's most prized exports). This caught the attention of Corey Rusk, who was heading a fledgling label called Touch and Go, who gave them his trademark 50/50 handshake contract (which was actually put down in writing, Kubinski recently found, all scrawled out in Rusk's "chicken scratch" and signed on a wrinkled piece of paper.)

"We just felt extremely to have fallen in with this guy, he was so nice," Kubinski said. "It was always as simple as 'Are you guys ready to do a record yet?' There was never any rush or hurry, and when it came tied to get paid, he had it all written down, like, 'Here's what I spent, here's what I brought in, here's what got paid for, and here's your $25.' And it was like, Holy shit! That buys gas money for the next show."

Die Kreuzen's relationship with Touch and Go turned out a strong run of albums, including 1984's much-heralded Die Kreuzen and 1986's October File through their 1991 swan-song Cement. Through it all, the group remained steadfast to their ideals against repetition, constantly pursuing the new and the strange in the face of the all-too-defined boundaries of hardcore. "We didn't want to write the same song twice, we didn't want to explore the same avenue the same way, the same time," Kubinski said. "All it took was for somebody to say, 'Man, well that sounds like...' and there was a whole week of rehearsals shot."

"After all, the basic rule for punk rock is to be non-conformist," Kubinski added. "To break the rules, to do what you want to do and not give a shit about who cares about it or who thinks what. The poor Mohican in the front yelling 'Play something fast!' at us was more laughable than anything else."

Looking back, that philosophy has no doubt paid off. Die Kreuzen's unrelenting desire to push forward has marked them as post-punk luminaries and a creative force virtually unrivaled among their peers. Now with unofficial "fifth Kreuzen" Jay Tiller filling in on guitar for Egeness, the band remains a tightly wound unit that brings all the force and fury and restlessness that continues to define their sound. And though Kubinski has largely abandoned the washed-out screeching that defined his early singing style, ("I've evolved a little bit," he says), the older songs nowadays have become more fluid live, their built-in aggression coming even easier than expected.

"It was amazing how quickly the self-titled album stuff came to the forefront. Of course, Keith was like, 'It's not like we didn't spend five years in Erik's mom's basement hammering out those songs over and over and over...!' The early stuff came easy."

After seeing the enthusiastic response to their reunion shows last year at Milwaukee's Turner Ballroom and the Roadburn Festival in Holland (where Tunison currently lives and owns a cafe and milk wagon), the band reconvened to record a new track for a split EP with Mudhoney, the Melvins and Negative Approach. But beyond that, Kubinski said, it's anyone's guess.

"Right now we're just having fun and we're not trying to be anything but ourselves and just enjoy the things that we've been given."

Die Kreuzen play the Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee Ave, Saturday, May 25, at 9pm. We Are Hex and Canadian Rifle open. Tickets are $17. 21+

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

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