Life on Mars: The Surviving Members of the Earliest No Wave Band Talk Muggings, Warhol, and 1977

Mark Cunningham and Connie Burg look back the pivotal 'No New York' era of experimental rock.

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Sep 28 2015, 4:00pm

Photo by Dan Asher

Circa 1978, some shortsighted scribe accused Mars of playing music that was hopelessly "arty and empty." In retaliation, the pivotal no wave band transformed that dismissal into a perverse taunt entitled "RTMT," for which guitarist Sumner Crane babbled the phrase ad nauseam over grating pick scrapes and feral percussion—in other words, "fuck you, too, pal."

Founded in December 1975, the group wasn't nearly so radical during its larval stages. Its first public performances, freshly chronicled on Mars Archives Volume One: China To Mars, reveal slightly warped garage punk gasping for air among rickety drones reminiscent of the Velvet Underground and the Modern Lovers. Released via Negative Glam—an imprint of Feeding Tube Records run by critic Byron Coley and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore—the live LP is a fascinating document of Crane, fellow guitarist Connie Burg, bassist Mark Cunningham, and drummer Nancy Arlen before they arrived at their signature sound. Swollen-tongue vocals and anxiety-inducing dissonance inundate such embryonic tracks as "Cats," "Compulsion," and two sketches of the single "3E," but a full-fledged devotion to esoteric cacophony is still months away. At this point, few could have predicted Mars's impending evolution into the most abstract and unsettling force on No New York, the scene-baptizing, Brian Eno-produced compilation to which generations of noise fiends would bow down.

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Based for decades in sunny Barcelona, Cunningham recently looked back on his wild years in Manhattan's East Village and forward to Blood Quartet, his current project in Spain. Burg, who happened to be visiting him from across the Atlantic, jogged his memory when necessary.

Noisey: How did you meet one another and how did the band form?
Mark Cunningham: Sumner grew up in Queens, I'm from across the river in Jersey, and Nancy was from upstate or Pennsylvania. Connie grew up in Ohio and she and I met at college in Florida, along with [future DNA frontman and no wave contemporary] Arto Lindsay. The three of us moved up to the city together in '74. Later, in '75 sometime, Connie and Nancy met at a dance workshop led by [minimalist choreographer] Lucinda Childs and they brought me and Sumner together to talk about music. I think we decided to form a band right off.

Professionally and artistically, what was everyone doing in New York?
MC: Sumner and Nancy were visual artists. I'd studied theater at college, mostly involving music. I was working at 8th Street Bookshop, a long gone Beat-era landmark. Connie was drawn to all of forms of performance art and held various jobs.

What were your impressions of the city? Any particularly crazy or depraved anecdotes from the Mars era?
MC: A constant adventure, as well as danger. I lost count of the muggings I went through, although we all knew how to react and come out unscathed and more or less unaffected. It was a question of keeping your cool and handing over immediately any money you might have on you. It was also a good idea to know which streets not to walk down at night, although you were almost as likely to get mugged in broad daylight on busy streets.

Connie Burg: I wore men's clothing to be less of a target. Once, while walking in West Chelsea, a man approached me, asking if I was a TV. Stunned, I replied, "A television set?" He took off after that.

Nice one.
CB:
All this excitement and danger fed into our music and art and is inseparable from it.

I corresponded with Sumner in the '90s, about five years before he died. He was a wonderful and eccentric character. What were your first impressions of him and Nancy?
MC: Nancy was charming and fun, and Sumner was both hilarious and deep. He was prone to obsession with whatever or whoever captivated his imagination and he used this to go inside both the other and himself. Some examples throughout the years were [Delta bluesman] Bukka White, Lou Reed, Mozart, Kierkegaard, Raymond Roussel [the early twentieth-century novelist who wrote] Locus Solus, [Béla] Bartók, especially [his opera] Bluebeard's Castle... All this fueled Sumner's art and our music, inspiring songs and lyrics, but never directly. It was always filtered and transformed by his own intense personality.

In terms of musical background or lack thereof, who brought what to the table?
MC: Sumner had been somewhat of a child prodigy on piano, obsessed at a very early age by composers such as Bartók and Debussy. His father was a high school music teacher, imposing and strict, but I think Sumner resisted much formal training.
CB: Once he got out of his father's clutches. I took piano lessons as a child.
MC: I started in school bands when I was seven, on trumpet and later baritone horn. At 14, I took up guitar so I could play rock and formed a band with some friends, doing mid-'60s garage stuff. I came back to the trumpet at college, where I discovered free jazz and musicians who showed me anything was possible. Nancy and Connie hadn't played in a band but they were naturals. I had been using a bass that I bought off a friend in Jersey and decided to stick with that. Sumner started out on piano, Connie played acoustic guitar, and Nancy, paper bags to add a rhythm track. Sumner was a leader and came up with a lot of the germs that became songs, but he never dictated. I loved finding the melodic possibilities on the bass and it was easy to play off his ideas, as well as generate parts that he worked from. Nancy always knew exactly how to keep things moving, and Connie was really the loose cannon, always shaking things up.

It took more than a year of rehearsals before you played your first show. Why so long?
MC: It just took us that long to find a sound and enough original material. We started off jamming to some Velvets songs and primitive piano-based blues, improvising and looking for ways to understand each other. It was all very intuitive. [Future Contortions guitarist] Jody Harris joined us for awhile but then Sumner decided to switch to guitar for practical reasons. Jody gracefully bowed out after helping us find a batch of Danelectro Silvertone [guitars] in a pawn shop on First Ave for 75 bucks apiece. Then Nancy got a full drum kit and the final format was set.
CB: During that year, I learned the guitar with Jody and Sumner´s help. And for Nancy, it was a big step from paper bags to a full kit.

I would imagine so.
CB:
Creating the material was a collaborative effort because we all developed our own parts. This took time.

Connie, both you and Sumner had unique approaches to vocals. Sometimes you sounded like street people or screaming kids or like you were involved in weird religious rituals. Where did that come from?
CB:
We were just pushing our vocals as far as possible from the conventions of singing yet staying within the context of the song.

The first gig, excerpted on the new LP, was an audition night at CBGB in February 1977. What do you remember about it?

MC: I'm sure I was petrified but what with New York cool and all that, we managed to put on a show and I think we got a rise out of the crowd. In any case, it was enough to get us into rotation there.
CB: I just wanted to get it over with.

You changed the band name to Mars that year because some shitty commercial group had been using your original name, China. Did that bug you?
MC: Very bugged. It ruined the name for us.

CB: It took us ages to decide on the name China and we were pissed. I still used China as my stage name in order not to relinquish it entirely.
MC: Believe or not, I really did have a dream that we were playing at a theater and on the marquee it said PATTI SMITH AND MARS. The others were skeptical at first, but superstition ruled. Later we were billed at [the short-lived] CBGB's Theater [on Second Avenue] with Patti.

Speaking of Patti Smith, her record label, Mer, wanted to release Mars's first single, "3E." How did you meet her and why did that fall through?
MC: I met Patti at 8th Street Bookshop, but, in fact, she had nothing to do with it. It was [her guitarist] Lenny [Kaye] and [drummer] Jay Dee [Daugherty] who'd heard us play and were eager to do a single. They arranged the recording with Jay Dee producing. Patti never came round. Later they started touring, decided to give up the label, and sold the master to Michel Esteban, who put it out on his Rebel label in France.

Sumner told me a great story about Andy Warhol attending a Mars show and enjoying Mark's performance in particular. Care to elaborate?
MC: He came to CBGB one night in '77 to see us, but only because a friend of Nancy's worked for him and put it on his agenda. We were ecstatic because Andy was really the godfather of the whole scene: His films showed us that anyone could act or make a movie or whatever and be a star—with the right attitude, of course. He stayed for the whole set but left before we could speak. So, just for the hell of it, I tried to call him the next day to see what he thought and I actually got through. He was very sweet about it and wanted to know which one I was. And he made some kind of comment like, "Oh, the cute one." Then he invited me round to lunch at the Factory anytime I wanted, but I never went. I suppose he said that to all the cuties.

The earliest Mars material still has vestiges of naive pop and proto-punk. But by the later songs on the new LP, the music is more savage. Things soon became pretty unhinged. What happened? Drugs? Angst?
MC:
We were evolving very quickly through a natural process. Nothing to do with drugs or angst exactly, but we certainly fed on all the craziness and headiness of NYC. Also we practiced constantly, almost every day, jamming on new ideas and going deeper into our nature and sound. We were too driven to stick to one idea and repeat it or to polish or perfect it in any way. There were conceptual elements but tempered by an anarchic spirit and our divergent characters.
CB: The evolution evolved into devolution: How far could we break from the vestiges of music but remain in the form?

Photo by Dan Asher

One could argue that you invented no wave. Agree or disagree?
MC:
To say we were the first no wave band is true only in relation to the No New York bands, as we were the first to form and perform. Perhaps we influenced some of the others. But what about Suicide? All this stuff was in the air.

What did Mars think of NYC punk in the '70s? Did you feel any kinship with it or disdain for it?
MC:
We didn't have much to do with it, really. Ramones were certainly an early influence for their energy and humor. Richard Hell was, as well. But when it really became a scene, it seemed very separate, although we all played in the same clubs. I liked the essence of punk but not the stereotypes or fashion. And they certainly didn't appreciate us; they ignored us for the most part.
CB: They did like our song "Puerto Rican Ghost."

The audiences on the new LP sound fairly appreciative. Didn't someone throw chairs at you once?
MC: The chair story was at Folk City when we played with the Heartbreakers, and apparently it was [Dead Boys frontman] Stiv Bators's girlfriend who actually did the throwing. We didn't react much, as we were usually in somewhat of a trance state. Crowds tended to love us or hate us, though I'd have to say we were generally well received. When we played with Patti for a big crowd, there were boos and cheers more or less in equal measure.

What will appear on the next album in Feeding Tube's series of Mars live retrospectives?
MC: I haven't finished compiling it, but it will most likely be the last volume. Side one will continue from [where the current album leaves off] and go through the No New York period, and side two will probably be our last show, in December '78 at Max's [Kansas City].

Mark, when and why did you move to Barcelona?
MC: I first came here at the tail end of a tour with [my post-Mars band with Connie] Don King in '86, early summer. It was love at first sight but more for the life on the streets, especially at night, than for the typical tourist attractions. The guys who organized our show were also musicians, and I stayed on after the tour and started playing with them. There was a very underground analog electronic scene—very improv with a lot of homemade synths and strange Russian pedals and stuff. I kept coming back to play and finally moved here in '91 with my partner, Silvia [Mestres], who I'd met in New York and followed back. She really helped me to adapt to living here, especially with the language.

Do you think the city has cleaned up in the same manner as New York? At least, compared to its gritty old days?
MC: Yes, but the process has been a bit kinder. There's still some quality that sets it apart, a lot to do with Catalan character and history. The worst are the tourists coming off the cruise ships.

Tell me about your new band, Blood Quartet? I dig what I've heard so far.
MC: Blood Quartet was the result of an event hosted by an underground mag here, Shook Down, which had published a no wave issue and asked me to play with a band that had been included, Murnau B, thinking we'd find something. And we did. Very improvised show, which I'm a bit wary of these days, but the feeling was special, so we got together on our own to take it further. It's all happened really quickly and easily, including the name, which just occurred to me the first time I sat down to think of one. Something very potent is brewing and I'm really psyched about it.

How do you see your music as being related to what you did with Mars?
MC: I think it's always been related but perhaps not so apparently as now. With this formation of guitar, bass, and drums—and me alternating between trumpet and guitar—we're finding some very Mars moments, without any direct intention.

The other guys in the band are pretty young, right? Something about your aesthetic must still speak to them.
MC:
Not so young: late thirties, early forties. Another generation, certainly, but I don't feel any big gap and I don't think they do either. They were fans, so they were delighted to do something with me. But it's already gone way beyond that and it's still just the beginning!