The Del-Byzanteens, Fungus From the Lower East Side

Photo Michael Spano

IT MUST be something they put in the water. Or maybe it’s a subsonic signal emanating from television sets even when switched off. Or even some notionally subliminal graphic woven into the advertising copy in the New York Times.
Whatever it is, New York somehow stimulates its inhabitants into a near obsessive artistic frenzy, a perverse but immaculate understanding that you is art. When England had The Beatles and the Stones, New York was giving us The Fugs and The Velvet Underground.
Although punk found a mass market in England, its roots are traceable to the mid-seventies New York scene. Richard Hell, Ramones, Patti Smith. In the eighties they’ve given us Laurie Anderson already and the day of the Del-Byzanteens cannot be far off.
Jim Jarmusch (keyboards, vocals) and Phil Kline (guitar, vocals) left Akron, Ohio in the days when it was more famous for tyres than for musical innovation. « We lived in a suburb called Cayahoga Falls where youth culture means customizing your car. We met up again in New York because we lived within two blocks of each other ».
With no real intention of playing live, Jim and Phil got together with Philippe Hagen (bass) and formed The Del-Byzanteens. « Our research », says Phil , « has turned up about fifteen earlier Del- groups. The Del-Vikings, Reparata and The Del-Rons, Del-Crescents, Del Shanon. It gets complicated when you include the Ran-Dells, Hondells, Shondells… You never run out of them. »
TYPICALLY, the inspiration for their name came from none of those more illustrious predecessors. Jim, with a 33 1/3 voice in a 45 world, recalls « I saw a band, early seventies, called Pablo And The Del-Crustaceans. They wore one black glove, paper hats and played so badly it was almost exciting. All they did was to copy note for note, every track from the Stones Out Of Our Heads album, side one followed by side two. »
Rehearsing in New York with percussionist with James Nares, they considered becoming a purely instrumental band but somehow their way onto  their first release,  a much adored EP on Don’t Fall Off the Mountain Records (such names are made in heaven) which a swirling, dervishing, fairly indescribable but very listenable music. One inspired reviewer for Smash Hits called it « Hypnotic, eastern, snaky. menacing. »
« We started out doing long raga-like improvisations, more like a chamber ensemble. », explains Phil, shaking his head in disbelief, « but it grew like some giant fungus from the Lower East Side. » They live in a derelict Manhattan district where cigarettes are bought in ones and twos. « At night, from our window, we look out and see these slow-moving, shambling people. It’s like Night Of The Living Dead. »
ACROSS FROM THEIR APARTMENT lives John Giorno, a New York Buddhist poet from the Ginsberg and Burroughs school. « Poor guy used to hear all our rehearsals, » says Phil, explaining why they’ve been asked to contribute music to a forthcoming album of poetry which Giorno is organizing. Their music has also found its way onto celluloid in Wim Wenders’ new movie « The State Of Things », a connection which developed when Jim was working with Nicholas (Rebel Without A Cause) Ray. Jim has directed two feature films of his own and worked as Ray’s assistant on the film he made about his own imminent death from cancer, « Lightning Over Water ».
Similarly, bassist Philippe makes much of his living from graphic design, and also plays live with Polyrock while the Del-Byzanteens are re-thinking their music. « We’re moving towards a music which is written in the recording and mixing process as much as beforehand. We do this better than live performance, » explains Phil.
Jim adds, « Besides, other bands used to laugh when we set up our equipment. Wanted to know if our amps were gas-powered. »
THE COLLAPSE of the New York club scene has enabled the band to visit London, where their record company is based, to discuss future plans and the release of a second album later this year. « There used to be about twenty clubs in New York, now there’s barely a handful, » says Phil.
Until that changes, the Del-Byzanteens, drummerless, will continue as a three piece writing and recording group, churning out odd bits of graphic design and feature films in their spare time.
Maybe it’s a tasteless, colorless food additive. Or an emission of light waves above the human visible spectrum, radiating from traffic signals? Whatever.

At the microscope: Johnny Black
in Master Bag N° 15

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