As they reissue their 1982 album Roadkill, Capital Punishment tell us what it was like making music with a future Hollywood superstar
Teen rock bands were a dime a dozen back in early-80s New York – from punk Mecca CBGB to Manhattan nightspot Max’s Kansas City, you couldn’t move for grimy high school kids desperate to be the next Ramones. Only one of these groups, however, had a young Ben Stiller on the drums.
Drawing inspiration from Robert Fripp and Captain Beefheart, Capital Punishment self-released two albums of experimental, gong-afied freak funk before disbanding and heading off to college. In later years, Peter Swann would become a state judge, Peter Zusi a university professor, and Kriss Roebling a documentarian (his great-great-great-grandfather designed the Brooklyn Bridge and Roebling continues to tell the story). Stiller, obviously, became a Hollywood superstar. Before that, though, they spent the best part of their youth goofing off in the studio, hanging out with Gene Simmons, and exploring NYC’s creepy underground tunnels.
With indie label Captured Tracks reissuing their cult 1982 record Roadkill, we caught up with Swann, Zusi, and Roebling (Stiller was, sadly, too busy to participate) to find out what it was like making weirdo rock music that everyone thought was bonkers.
THE BIRTH OF CAPITAL PUNISHMENT
Capital Punishment were initially formed in 1977 by band leader Kriss Roebling and his pal Tony Converse, who’d later play drums in Dead Fucking Last, the hardcore group founded by Beastie Boy Ad-Rock. Their ‘classic’ lineup, however, wasn’t established until four years later, after Converse’s parents moved to California. By then, Peter Zusi had joined on guitar, Ben Stiller on drums, and Peter Swann on bass, all aged between 15 and 16.
The band were obsessed with David Bowie and Brian Eno, and they rehearsed mainly at their school, The Calhoun School, where creativity was encouraged. “It was an experimental, progressive school on the Upper West Side”, says Roebling. “There were no walls. Every floor was just a giant open space, and the classes were divided by bookshelves.” Downstairs, in the basement, was where they plugged in and let loose. Surrounded by instruments and completely unsupervised, things were obviously broken.
“I remember, we tried to master the art of running and then sliding on our knees while soloing,” laughs Kriss. “I wound up colliding with a harp, and I don’t think the harp was very happy about it.” The boys’ parents ended up having to cover a few damaged items – an image made much funnier when you imagine Jerry Stiller (who played George Costanza’s rage-fuelled dad in Seinfeld) ranting and raving at four remorseful teens.
HIJINKS AND URBAN SPELUNKING
Capital Punishment were never a live band (although they played one “fine” set at a talent contest, according to Zusi). Instead, they would rent studio space, where they’d wreak havoc. According to Roebling, he and Stiller would “create fake scenarios” to fool people outside, the sort of thing that they’d “be shot within 30 seconds” for doing nowadays. “Public floggings, gun fights with replica guns, pretending to stab each other with an ice pick,” lists Roebling. “We were like the 80s version of Sacha Baron Cohen.”
Another of their unusual hobbies was “urban spelunking”. Peter Zusi, who now teaches Czech literature at UCL, tells of a secret door, hidden in the side of the Waldorf hotel, through which they accessed New York’s dark network of underground “steam pipe” tunnels. “There were certain sections of abandoned police quarters where you saw shooting targets with bullet holes in them,” says Zusi. “There was mummified dog shit from the canine patrol, and homeless populations that just lived down there – never saw the light of day.” Stiller, Zusi, Swann, and Roebling would traverse live railway tracks as they explored mile after mile of the Big Apple’s “extraordinarily dangerous” underbelly.
GENE SIMMONS AND THE UNHAPPY DINNER GUEST
Musically, the band’s output was leftfield. Sinister breathing, harsh shrieks, and the Nazi Party anthem are all sounds that made it onto Roadkill. “We used a lot of found stuff,” says Roebling. “‘Necronomicon’ is a series of press recordings about the Hillside Strangler mixed with Gamelan music (from Indonesia), and ‘Horst-Wessel-Lied’ was sung by the Third Reich.” There was a lot of improvising in the studio and, according to Zusi, Stiller was the main instigator. “At the end of Delta Time, there's this exchange between two weird voices,” he says. “That was Ben messing around, and someone recording stuck it on afterwards. Ben wasn’t a wild personality, but he was a joker.” This haphazard approach was mirrored in the band’s recording process, which featured a stream of classmates brought in to add effects like breathing and animal noises. “We had a large number of participants on some of the songs,” says Swann. “So instead of it being the population and the band, it was a nice communal effort. To me, it was the identity of the class.”
In addition, the group gleaned much from gigs at CBGB, and even had dinner with KISS rocker Gene Simmons, who was a Roebling family friend. Unfortunately, the evening didn’t go as planned, when another invitee took offence to the guest of honour. “This wiry, tense New Yorker with a heavy accent kept interrupting Gene in order to impress his date,” says Kriss Roebling. “He’s totally losing it because he can’t get the upper hand in the situation, and he goes over to Ben (Stiller) and puts two fingers up to Ben’s forehead and says (adopts comically whiny New York accent): ‘You know Mr Simmons, if I were to use a .357 Magnum at this range, it would blow off the top of your fucking head! I’ve used one. Have you ever used one, Mr Simmons?’”
At this point, the glam metal star secretly put up his thumb and index finger in the “sign of a small dick” and showed it to the kids. “This guy doesn’t know what’s going on,” chuckles Roebling. “But we’re laughing hysterically, and finally, he just screams: ‘I don't agree with you Mr Simmons, and you, kid, pointing at me, you ain't going to be dancing or making music when you’re 40 like Joan Jett.’ At this point, we threw him out.”
COLLEGE, BREAK-UPS, AND LATER REUNIONS
By the time Roadkill was in the can, the end of school was fast approaching. Swann says that the four friends started work on a third, “more rock‘n’roll” record, but never finished it. In 1983, they headed off to college and had “limited contact” with each other. In fact, the first time they were all in a room together since then was in May this year, when they reunited at a tribute for their favourite teacher, John Roeder, who was celebrating 40 years at the school.
“We all had a wonderful, inspirational science teacher who was still teaching,” says Peter Swann, now an Arizona appellate judge. “There was a tribute, so we all flew into New York, wrote a song in five minutes and played it for him. It was a bad homage to high school chemistry experiments with a chorus that consisted entirely of the name ‘John Roeder’ screamed repeatedly.”
Three months later, with a reissue, potential live shows, and a guest spot on Howard Stern in the works, Capital Punishment are back in a big way. “At high school we were total weirdos,” reflects Zusi. “Our music was met with complete and utter bafflement. It was just something we did for ourselves.” When they played “Muszak Anonymous” at parties, a lot of their friends “were like, ‘what the fuck?’”, adds Roebling, “so I think we created a fair amount of confusion”. The band might have been taken aback that people weren’t interested, but when you imagine household name Ben Stiller banging on a gong and chanting “John” over and over it’s hard not to see why.
Capital Punishment’s 1982 album Roadkill is out September 14 via Captured Tracks.