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Circling Back Around: An Interview with Circle X

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In celebration of the band’s new 10” retrospective, Dusted’s Jordan N. Mamone has a drink with No Wave-era survivor Rik Letendre, co-founder of the long-running, globe-trotting Circle X.

Circling Back Around: An Interview with Circle X

How do you describe an enigma without explaining away its beauty, totally demystifying it, and destroying what initially made it alluring? Such is the intrinsic dilemma of chronicling Circle X, an elusive and long-running quartet that fearlessly embraced marginality, survived on its own terms, and proudly distanced itself from the cliques within the American underground. During its infancy, the group even eschewed taking on a name, instead utilizing an anonymous-looking symbol – naturally, a circle with an “X” scrawled through it – for gig posters and promotional purposes.

The concept took shape in 1978, when singer Tony Pinotti and guitarist-vocalist Wm. Bruce Witsiepe (both of No Fun, the premier punk act in Louisville, Kentucky) joined forces with ex-I-Holes members Rik and David Letendre, who switched off on drums and additional guitar. The aggregate moved to New York, where its distorted grind, fall-apart rhythms, and dramatically screeched, philosophical lyrics tangentially orbited the No Wave scene, then relocated again, this time to Dijon, France, at the urging of manager Bernard Zekri. Documentation of that era – a sleeveless 7” (included with a festival catalog published by the German magazine Shvantz!) and an immortal, untitled 12” EP – appeared in Europe at the end of 1979.

Having spent nine months abroad, the band returned to Manhattan and unveiled its ambitious if occasionally haphazard debut album, Prehistory, in 1983. Dub influences, industrial clanks, and rickety Afro-Arabian percussion pockmarked this strange suite of extended-duration, vortex-like songs. Drummer Mike McShane replaced David Letendre around this juncture, and live concerts bloomed into full-scale spectacles involving giant wooden props, liquid-filled tanks, explosives, and plagues of insects.

Circle X laid low for the remainder of the ’80s, its personnel occupied by side projects and the realms of writing and visual arts. The beast reawakened in the early ’90s with the release of four 45s, each pressed on white vinyl and subsequently compiled as The Ivory Tower, a luxuriously packaged, limited-edition box set. With Rik Letendre playing bass and Martin Köb stepping in for McShane, the combo became downright prolific, signing with the prominent indie label Matador for its watershed sophomore LP, 1994’s Celestial. Quieter compositions based on moody keyboards, muted psychedelia, and musique concrète-style tape collages provided thoughtful respites from the ubiquitous noise-rock avalanches, in which Witsiepe raked a metal file across his strings and Pinotti pushed his throat to its breaking point. Glancing fleetingly at the past, the French company Sordide Sentimentale concurrently commissioned Frammenti de Junk, an elaborate booklet housing a mini-CD of archival material from the late ’80s.

Unfortunately, Circle X’s period of increased productivity was cut short: Witsiepe, who had arguably been the heart of endeavor, died in 1995. As a tribute to him, illustrious fans David Grubbs and Jim O’Rourke readied a compact disc version of the 1979 EP for their Dexter’s Cigar consortium. With the advent of eBay, the rise of mp3 blogs, and a young generation of collectors hungering for vintage DIY sounds, the lore surrounding Circle X thickened over the ensuing years. In 2008, Prehistory finally arrived on CD thanks to another of Grubbs’ imprints, Blue Chopsticks.

Which brings us to the present: Rik Letendre recently gave a cassette of the band’s inaugural European performance to Jérôme Genin of Fractal Records. Bolstered by three studio bonus tracks, this fabled baptism-by-fire is now obtainable as the scorching 10-inch Live in Dijon ’79. To boot, a second French label, Poutre Apparente, plans to reissue the hopelessly rare Shvantz! Festival single.

Lank-haired, healthily tanned, and soaked from an April thunderstorm, Letendre chooses his words carefully when discussing these career-spanning events. He is by no means shy or unfriendly as he finds a seat on the top floor of 2A, the reliable bar in New York’s East Village that might as well serve as his office. In fact, he exudes a weathered and wise amiability as he sips his vodka-and-grapefruit juice cocktail. Still, he doesn’t quite seem comfortable talking in some unified voice-of-Circle X or shackling his music to cultural contexts. He prefers to let the work breathe freely and speak for itself, unclouded by trivia and hindsight. Letendre is not particularly nostalgic and he has no delusions of grandeur. So pay attention to his statements below, but don’t expect him to spell anything out for you.

Jordan N. Mamone: I interviewed you at this same bar 17 years ago. Why are people still curious about Circle X?

Rik Letendre: People dip into history to look for obscure things and artifacts for their future. It’s kind of like when you were a little kid, digging in your backyard, and you find an arrowhead. I don’t see [the people who collect our records] as any different from anyone else in the world. They’re just exploring. They’re the eyes of the universe. They just try to discover what’s there and learn from it. What one hasn’t heard is always new.

JNM: Circle X was conceived in Louisville in 1978. But the band never actually played there at the time, correct?

RL: Correct. Bruce had been accepted at [the New York fine art, architecture, and engineering college] Cooper Union. I was originally from the New York area. My brother David had filled in with the I-Holes in Kentucky, but he was still based [in the New York area]. We all just decided it was time to bust a move. We jumped into Tony Pinotti’s old station wagon with “No Fun” painted on the side, and we drove to New York and winged it. No Fun was defunct. We didn’t even realize we would do a new band, but we always knew we would do art and music together. We moved here as an art unit, more or less.

JNM: Why are you still so fondly remembered in Louisville?

RL: I’m not sure we’re remembered well there at all. I think it’s kind of a teardrop in the bucket.

JNM: Did you have much trouble with rednecks when you were playing punk rock in Kentucky?

RL: Yes. At the time I took umbrage, but now I don’t really give a fuck. I remember hitchhiking and having full cans of beer and lit cigarettes thrown at my head. At one party, where the I-Holes did their first gig, there was just a rain of debris on us. We took our break and I ran inside and called No Fun and asked them to come down and help us. They came down with their equipment and we did our second set, even fiercer than the last. In the end, we were invited to some rich kid’s parents’ house. The parents were away and we proceeded to throw all the lawn furniture in the pool.

JNM: Did art school have an influence on the group when it was starting?

RL: I would say art had a lot to do with it. School had very little to do with it.

JNM: In his graphics and lyrics, Bruce seemed rather taken with symbolism. How did this apply to Circle X?

RL: As has been said in the past, the symbol is not the symbolized thing.

JNM: Why did you adopt the circle with the “X” through it?

RL: When I describe this, I could say a lot of things. But when somebody looks back at something, it all seems to fall in place. It didn’t really necessarily go down that way because perception is fogged by history and facts are fogged by perception. We can say certain things that we recall, but that doesn’t pinpoint why we chose those things. One thing I do remember is that when we arrived in the city, it was in complete decay. We were on the Lower East Side; there were a lot of burned-out buildings. One symbol that was painted on buildings was a box with an “X” through it. That was a symbol for the firemen. If there was a fire on the block, they’d let that building burn because it was abandoned. The circle would, of course, represent the world with an “X” through it – let it burn. This was another one of Circle X’s concepts: If everything burns down and is blown away and swept clean, something new and beautiful can grow out of the champ pourri, the rotting field, the ashes.

JNM: When I was interviewing you in 1992, I mistook this idea of the burning world for some kind of nihilism. Now that I’m older, I realize that it’s not the case. Explain the hopefulness of Circle X’s endeavor.

RL: We were never nihilists. We were, dare I say it, champions. We wanted to wave banners, to let a thousand flowers blossom. There was one point when we were in Dijon, in 1979 maybe, during the big oil crisis and the hostage situation in Iran. Our manager played a trick on us: We were watching the news and our French wasn’t very good at that point, and he said, “The flow of oil has been cut off.” Bruce instantly said, “We’ve got to get in the car or on the train and go to Paris with acoustic instruments and start playing music in the streets and flailing.” Circle X was a provocation, but it was also a rebirth. It’s like things have suddenly been wiped clean. If the rug has been pulled out from under you, what do you do? Well, you dance, you become joyful, you create. You build new things.

JNM: Socially, Circle X was apart from the New York No Wave bands. But you fit in with them musically. What was your relationship like with those people?

RL: In those days, we rehearsed in the same building as most of the groups from that scene. In fact, we were just down the hall from DNA. We would pass each other in the halls quite often. That was about it, really. We were quite young; we were all moving so fast. There was so much going on. It’s hard to recount. We can say we’ve remembered things certain ways, but it could have been different.

JNM: Where was the first Circle X gig?

RL: Audition night at CBGB. We were living on 13th Street between Second and Third Avenues. We’d been painting houses all day and we had stolen a shopping cart. We put the amps in it and rolled down to CB’s for the sound check. It was summer. We were in cut-offs and our shirts were all ripped up, in complete disarray. Not because we were punks, just because we were working. We played our gig, and at the bar there was somebody called Mark Slasher. After we played, he was dissing us, but the bar was full of Hells Angels who happened to really like us. And they proceeded to beat the shit out of him.

JNM: How did you meet Bernard Zekri?

RL: Bernard Zekri was enamored of Malcolm McLaren and the Pistols. He wanted to achieve that kind of status in France. He came here looking for five bands to bring back. Basically, he just chose us. He wasn’t hands-on about the aesthetic or the music, but he was definitely a good manager because he wanted us to succeed, so he could rip us off. Now, when I say that, I mean that we were all brothers and we loved him. But he wanted the power and he wanted the music. And he worked very hard for it.

JNM: Did he try to pass you off as savage New York exotica?

RL: No. The French media created that all on their own: Les Américains qui devient des Sioux, the Americans who became Sioux Indians. They had a great deal of trouble with us using the symbol instead of a name. Bernard was actually the owner of a bookstore called Les Doigts dans la Tête, which had been firebombed twice by the fascists because he sold communist books. We lived upstairs from the bookstore, which had closed at that point. He found a driver for us. He’d throw some money at us and then go off and get us gigs.

JNM: What do you remember about your first European gig, the one on the new 10”?

RL: It was at the Amphithéâtre Aristote at the University of Dijon. It was a cavernous place. It was not full. There was a lot of reverb in the room and I remember Tony asking the PA man for even more reverb. I was young and delirious at that point, probably from exhaustion.

JNM: Circle X’s first 7” came out in Germany, as part of an art catalog for the Shvantz! fanzine festival. How did you end up covering a Rolling Stones song, “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker),” with the painter Ralph Neun as your guest vocalist?

RL: Before Bernard Zekri found us, we encountered [Shvantz! contributor] Ralph Neun in New York, probably at some nightclub. He had something to do with the art school in Darmstadt, which is right outside of Frankfurt. He said, “I’ve got this little pocket of money. I want to make a record. I’m here in New York and I want to sing this song, ‘Heartbreaker.’ If you’ll be my band, I’ll give you the B-side and I’ll pay for everything.” We did that, and then we didn’t hear from him again until we went to France and he had returned to Germany and already produced the record. But we recorded it here, in New York City.

JNM: Where was the first 12” recorded?

RL: Bernard had set us up in a tiny French village where they paint numbers on the sheep and the cows. There was a little villa, and some hippie guy had a recording studio. It was kind of a scene that reminded me of that band Gong. Bernard put us there and left. We were supposed to record the album there. We worked forever. I’m sure there are tapes floating around somewhere from those sessions. We weren’t satisfied with any of it. Bernard came back a month, maybe a month and a half later and said, “That’s it. We’re going to Paris.” Then we went to Paris and recorded it in like, four days.

JNM: Why didn’t you have a band name or normal credit information on these records? Were you trying to be enigmatic?

RL: We didn’t strive to be enigmatic. We strove to be other, to be more, to be something outside of the normal record thing. The bottom line is: why does it have to have a name? Why does it have to be a 12”? Why does a feature-length film have to be two-and-a-half hours long? Why do they add all that filler, all that music, and all those stupid driving-around shots? The story really could be so much more intense and serious in 20 minutes. It’s like pulling the mask off. We’re not just jerking each other off. But looking back on all of this, people seem to categorize and channel culture. There’s a habit of sorting cultural shit into periods and mapping trajectories that just never flowed that way. Even though the artist himself might see it that way when the past canvas has been unfurled, he can’t really say that it went down that way, that it was like that. That he was even there. Because time fogs perception.

JNM: The media and the armchair historians do like to oversimplify, don’t they?

RL: That’s their job.

JNM: Were you able to find other sympathetic bands in France?

RL: We had very little interaction with other bands, actually. The French had no idea what No Wave was yet. We had more interaction with like, criminals, just low-level thugs that were hanging around. Because none of us had been to school to learn French, so we learned the street French. You couldn’t really take us to a party.

JNM: Why did you come back to New York?

RL: Bruce was actually still in school. He was sending his work back to Cooper Union. At one point he had to return, to turn in some material for his degree. The band was getting a little curmudgeonly, a little disgruntled. The consensus finally said we’d go back. Unfortunately, Bruce returned and my brother, Tony, and I were supposed to fly back two or three weeks later. The day before we were leaving, we got word that we were supposed to open for Bauhaus on their European tour. It would have locked us in because I knew we would have blown them off the stage.

JNM: Obviously. You came back to New York in the spring of 1980. How was your homecoming?

RL: Bernard was here and he was staying in our flat. When we arrived, he was sitting on the front stoop, in Bruce’s old leather bomber jacket. He almost wept, he was so happy to see us. After that, I think in the next month, we had a gig at Max’s Kansas City.

JNM: The music had changed a lot when you started recording Prehistory in 1981. Where did you pick up all those new influences, like the mechanical noises and the ethnic percussion?

RL: This was before the age of sampling. We bought a lot of mini-tapes for phone machines, and we were making loops and playing against them. We would record something, play it back through an amp, and then add to it over that. So it was like layered loops. As it became more and more layered, it became more distorted so you didn’t recognize exactly what was happening in the original recording. Things took on their own sonic presence. Also, when we were in France… Bernard Zekri is actually a pied noir. He had a bunch of Arabic records: Farid el Atrash, Oum Kalsoum, old 78s. We would listen to those and they had a great influence on us. I gotta tell you man, some of those Oum Kalsoum records… Opera has nothing on them. We had no idea what she was saying, but you’d listen to her voice and you just wanted to weep. Also, the orchestration of it was just incredible.

JNM: Bernard was no longer your manager during this era. What happened to him?

RL: This was also the period of the birth of hip hop. Bernard, continuing his Malcolm McLaren climb to fame, decided to take hip hop groups and graffitists back to France. Which was fine, because we were doing OK. We met all those cats; we all hung out together. You know, New York in that time was so cool. There were so many possibilities. It wasn’t about face or who you knew. Anything could happen.

JNM: The shows you were playing became more performance-oriented. Could you elaborate on some of the more memorable gigs from this era?

RL: At the time, we had a storefront on Clinton Street. We frequented [a club called] the Pyramid. They had three bands a night. We were getting these gigs doing our 20-minute sets. And we went to Brian Butterick, who was running the joint, and said, listen, give us the night and give us a thousand dollars. We’ll do three sets. It took a while to get him over to our side, but he said, “OK.” So we prepared three different sets, with three different physical sets that could be used onstage. For the first set, we built a giant wheel, like the Leonardo da Vinci wheel with the man across it, and we tied Tony Pinotti, our singer, to it. We rolled him in from Tompkins Square Park, though the doors, up onto the stage, and propped him up. He sang his first song tied to that. On the stage was a giant two-dimensional head built out of 2’x4’s, with a big slot and chains for teeth. For the second set, that got propped up. And there was an obeah figure played by our friend Frank Butler, who spit dirt out through the mouth. There was a puppet hanging from the center of the ceiling of the dance floor – half a body with two arms – and a little platform with a 50-gallon metal drum. The puppet’s arms were operated by the singer, through ropes, and he beat out the rhythm of the song. It had a wedge in the head on one side, and the other side was a Super 8 camera. The wedge on the other side was filled with calf’s brains and firecrackers, which exploded at the end of the set. It mixed with the mud that was spewing out of this mouth. There was a ramp going up, and Bruce was playing Sisyphus, trying to ascend that. It was kind of elaborate. After the first set, Brian Butterick came downstairs and glared at us and he said, “That was really good. The next two better be just as good.” After the second set, he came down and glared at us again and he said, “I’ve been doing this for a while, and I’ve never had an empty bar. This is the first time when a band played and everybody was in there to see it.” At the end of the evening, he was well pleased and he said, “You guys wanna do this again?” And we said yes, and we did it again and proceeded to kind of blow it. Our antics got a little more wild. We actually cleared the bar at one point with some road flares.

JNM: I think it was much later, but there was a gig where you brought in crickets.

RL: Yes. There was a giant terrarium that went across the stage. The crickets escaped. We got them from that pet shop on Second Avenue, where they fed them to their snakes.

JNM: Were the crickets for audio or visual purposes?

RL: Both.

JNM: From about 1983 until 1988, Circle X kept a very, very low profile. Why?

RL: Life’s complications. Bruce had a few more things to do to finish his degree, so he was pursuing that at the art school in Louisville. And he was in a band called the Life of Falconetti. I was doing a band called Gin Ray and one called Von Zeit Zu Zeit. Tony was working with one of our engineers, Don Fury. They did an acoustic duo. Sort of like an Everly Brothers thing. There was one really beautiful Christmas Eve at the Pyramid, and they sang “Silent Night” and a couple other Christmas songs. Acoustic. You could hear a pin drop, it was so gorgeous.

JNM: How much unreleased material is there from that mid-’80s period?

RL: I have no idea. I just reviewed all the stuff in my storage space: There’s half-inch tapes, 1” tapes, 2” tapes, some of it’s mixed, some of it’s unmixed, none of it’s marked correctly, if it’s marked at all. It’s gonna take forever to wade through it.

JNM: When did you start doing Anti-Utopia and what was it?

RL: Anti-Utopia was an artist’s book, in an edition of 100 including artists’ proofs, printers’ proofs, etc. We got a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts for $10,000 to produce them. The editorial policy was: none. If you contributed, you were in. Usually there was a theme to each issue. We didn’t judge how you approached the theme. All the artists involved were asked to throw in on its production. There was a core group that pretty much took care of everything. There were four editions. Each one got more elaborately packaged. You can view these in the New York Public Library, in MoMA, the Centre Georges Pompidou, and several other collections. I believe it started in ’89, maybe ’90.

JNM: During this time, Bruce wrote texts and manifestos to accompany Circle X’s music, like the essay included with The Ivory Tower. What was the significance of that?

RL: I think its significance stands on its own. But if you’re asking what triggered it… We had done a live gig on [Matador Records co-owner] Gerard Cosloy’s show on [the freeform radio station] WFMU. And afterwards, he didn’t see any product from us or any gigs. He put out a 45 on Matador for us. And he made some snide comment on one of his shows about Circle X, sitting up there in their ivory tower, not coming down to grace us with their music. That spurred the title, but not the concept at all.

JNM: Why did the band become a lot more active again in the ’90s?

RL: Just itchy. It wasn’t an active decision. We just did what we did.

JNM: You moved to Red Hook, in Brooklyn, at the end of the ’80s. It was a real no man’s land then. Please discuss your relocation.

RL: We had 4,500, maybe 5,000 square feet, right on the water, in an old warehouse. We moved in with Mike Pullen, our future engineer. He created a studio and we practiced and recorded there. It was a lot of hard work but it all came to fruition at the end.

JNM: Not many musicians have been able to see the changes in New York from 1978 until the present.

RL: Well, that’s true. But there aren’t a lot of musicians from 1840 who can see the transitions, either. One thing I gotta say about New York: it’s the best city in the world.

JNM: You still think so?

RL: It constantly reinvents itself. Right now, it sucks to high heaven, but give it 15 years. Once things turn around… It’s a magical, magical place. It sucks, it’s hard, it’s crummy, and then it gets really, really cool. It explodes, it blossoms, it rebuilds. It’s an amazing garden.

JNM: In 1992, either you or Bruce told me that Circle X had a real “disdain for the venues of recognition” in the music scene here. Please explain this.

RL: That quote could probably be attributed to Bruce, although it might easily have been Tony, or even myself. And you can see it every day now, in the self-promotion of the little shits who have not read more than three books in their whole lives. They just click on their little computers and talk into their little plastic fists. They don’t look up. They don’t ask questions. They think their shit doesn’t stink. It’s all self-promotion, but they’ve got no sense of history and no sense of culture besides what they’re wearing or what’s on YouTube or what’s being passed around. They’ve got no feeling for their fellow man, no heart, and absolutely no soul. It’s so superficial. They’ve got nothing.

JNM: Your music became more high-tech in the ’90s. Could you please discuss some of the sound sources you were using with the tapes and samples, particularly on the song “Little Celestial Poet,” which almost seemed like a collage of noises that Bruce captured on your European tour.

RL: That’s correct. You pretty much summed it up. We did a tour in… 1994, was it?

JNM: I think it was ’92, early ’93 maybe?

RL: Thank you very much. You could just write this without me, couldn’t you? I actually remember sitting in the subway stop in Budapest and listening over and over while Bruce rerecorded this announcement. That was quite a strange tour. I flew into Geneva and rented a car, and I was supposed to meet Bruce in Grenoble. He had flown into Paris. At the train station, a bag with all of our tape loops got stolen. So as the tour spun on, we were just creating sounds, again and again, using things we experienced in subways, on the streets. Loops from Nusrat Ali Khan. Whatever we could find.

JNM: What about the muezzins?

RL: Those were some things that didn’t get stolen. Before the tour, Bruce had been in eastern Turkey and recoded the muezzin calling the worshipers to prayer.

JNM: How did Circle X end up on Matador, a relatively mainstream indie-rock label? You had known Gerard Cosloy for some time.

RL: When we returned from France [in the early ’80s] and our first record came out, Gerard was actually running a comics place in Boston. He invited us up. Tony and I went up, toured around, did an interview up there, saw some bands, punched a bunch of hardcore kids. That’s how we met him. When he first moved to New York City [in the mid ’80s] and started working for record labels, he knew us already. We’d done some other things together before. He gave us gigs, he did the “Compression of the Species” 45 [in 1992], we’d been on his radio show. Apparently, he liked our music.

JNM: Did the band ever tour the States?

RL: We toured the Northeast and the Midwest, right after Prehistory. We moved to Louisville, Kentucky, for a summer and that was our base. We played around there.

JNM: The gig you played at the New School for Social Research in 1993 was pretty unusual. It coincidentally fell on the day of the first attack on the World Trade Center.

RL: It’s interesting you brought that up because I just walked by the New School yesterday and said, ah, yes, the first bombing happened that day. My recollection is that this was our big vindication. We rolled in to maybe the fourth or fifth floor of this place. It was a big room and they said, “It’s your room, do what you want.” We moved all our equipment in. And then they said, “Here are like, six or eight kids and they’re your interns. Tell them to do whatever you want.” Now to us, that was amazing because we’d been hauling our own equipment around forever. Suddenly, it was marvelous. But we were like, what do we tell them to do? Tell them to go get some sandwiches, I guess. We started setting up. Bruce had this idea to have the elevator doors open and close with a microphone and a man tied to a stick [wedged between them], upside down.

JNM: Tony was covered in flour and tied to a stake.

RL: The doors closed and the microphone cord started going down whenever somebody summoned it. An amplifier was being dragged across the floor. If you are able to find a 12” vinyl copy of Celestial, you’ll see photos from that gig.

JNM: The band officially wound down in early ’95?

RL: It didn’t wind down, it just sort of pixilated.

JNM: What are the rest of you doing nowadays?

RL: Hopefully, I’m gonna get it together and form some sort of strange blues band. I’ve been writing short stories, too. Beyond all other things, probably the most important thing that Tony’s been doing is building his home in upstate New York. He cut all the trees and built his house himself, on his own land. He’s a true pioneer, a real trouper, a beautiful singer, and also a brilliant artist. Mike McShane is in Delaware and has become a jazz drummer of some renown. Martin Köb is lost. Gone back to Austria, I believe. My brother moved to Spanish Harlem when he left the band and became a photographer. Now he’s finishing his last year of school [in Philadelphia] at Drexel University, top of his class. He’s gonna be a radiologist. He has a 12-year-old daughter; he’s gotta put her through school.

JNM: Do you have anything to say to someone who might be discovering Circle X via the Live in Dijon 10”?

RL: Now that all the shadows are lengthening, can we really serenely or even clearly see the product or the process? There’s a way to put things together, but what we really did can only be described as untimeliness. There’s not a period; there’s not a moment to it. It’s not ahead of its time. It’s not behind its time. It all seems like such restless, unfinished business.

By Jordan N. Mamone

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