An oral history of Junking Theory, one of 1999’s greatest bands
Welcome to the first installment of Noise Rock Nuggets, a recurring new feature on SEANCARNAGE.COM. Let’s go down the Noise Rock rabbit hole together, as we explore the history of this important, outside-the-mainstream subgenre: noise bands from 1990 until 2015-ish.
This era was a special period in music when a swarm of uncompromisingly artistic and uncategorizable underground bands from all over the world—emboldened by developments in Post-Grunge, Riot Grrrl, Hardcore, Grindcore, Black Metal, Improvisational and Noise genres—made bold music that still confounds us today.
If you can find their music, that is.
Because the Noise Rock movement pre-dates the social media revolution, a lot of these bands have been doomed to 21st Century obscurity. No longer!
As with Junking Theory, we will gather the surviving members’ tales—and get their tracks online for all to enjoy.
Why start with Junking Theory? I was a huge fan of this band in 1998-99 when I lived in Cleveland, Ohio. I even ran sound for one of their initial gigs at the Euclid Tavern. My jaw was on the floor when they exploded into their set. Imagine, if you will, an explosion pushing a pile of bricks down electrified metal stairs. To a polka beat. Onto your head. Powerful stuff!
Another reason to feature Junking Theory is that the band members were all heavily invested at Speak In Tongues, Cleveland’s most successful D.I.Y. venue / crash pad of the late 1990s, and I recently published six years worth of photos and stories from SIT.
An SIT book is due this year, but likely won’t cover every single detail.
Pre-order your copy of the Speak In Tongues book
20+ years later I still admire all four Junking Theory players so much! I adore their music. And I love a great detective story. Now, thanks to some hard work on the part of the band members, Junking Theory’s only official cassette is online for the first time ever—listen here.
Trigger warning: the Junking Theory oral history that follows is not some sort of “getting the band back together” feel-good tale. Some of the players’ opinions may be controversial. But the reason I listened to Junking Theory in the first place was to be shaken out of my complacency. Junking Theory continue to fulfill this role.
One new mystery of this saga is that Bobby Bertalan, who I played with in The Divine Invasion and was the prime mover behind Junking Theory, went missing during the writing of this oral history. Reconnecting with Bob after he was released from prison in December 2021 helped spark this investigation. It’s almost impossible to try to tell the full tale without his point of view… Beyond that I’m very concerned about his well-being. (If you have any details please reach out.)
Besides the music, JT drummer Raphi Gottesman also opened his archive and provided many of the photos, fliers and ephemera in this post.
Many thanks to Raphi, Dave and Danny for sharing your memories, photos and more. Enjoy “Cleveland’s greatest Carnival-Core band of all-time”—Junking Theory…
Band name: Junking Theory
Aka: Get Thee To A Nunnery, Raffi
Active: September 1998 to June 1999
Hometown: Cleveland, Ohio
Bobby Bertalan – bass guitar
Raphi Gottesman – drums
Danny Noonan – Vocals
David Pearson – Saxophone
Junking Theory (self-released cassette)
Are all of you originally from Cleveland?
Raphi Gottesman: Yes, I grew up on the east side, Cleveland Heights then Shaker Heights, and went to Shaker Heights High School which Saved by the Bell was based on, to give you an idea of the hell-on-earth cultural landscape.
Dave Pearson: Me and Raphi met there in 9th grade and played in punk bands together. We were a core part of the late ’90s SHHC scene. That’s a joke—it was just us and a few friends.
Danny Noonan: I originally grew up in Chesterland, Ohio, a very rural area. One traffic light and the teenager’s social life revolved around McDonald’s. When I was fifteen I moved to Rocky River which was the home of Manimals and the bass player from The Twerps.
How did you get into music?
Raphi: My freshman year I met a spiky haired kid named Dave Pearson. He was already into punk and made me a carefully categorized punk mix tape that I still have after all these years.
Dave: I started getting into punk when I was 13 or 14. Like a lot of people in ’90s—most of whom probably wouldn’t admit it—my journey to punk started through the mainstream successful alternative bands, then Green Day and Epitaph bands, and then the more underground stuff.
Raphi: Soon after I was invited to play drums in Dave’s band Laxative Toothpaste with Matt, a genuinely scary kid who listened to the Misfits and GG Allin, and Ben, a Jewish anti-racist skinhead. My nickname was “Filthy” because that’s what Matt heard when I introduced myself. There were a few other punk kids like “Bad Religion Richie” who wore a tattered BR hat every day and could recite all of their dense lyrics by heart.
I’m not sure how many shows we really did because we loved to make flyers for shows that were never going to happen just for something to do in class. We made a tape that had a thank you list a mile long full of various “crews” and bands that never existed. I think we just noticed that real punk bands had lots of other punk bands to thank in their tapes, so we should too!
What instruments did you start out playing?
Dave: I learned a little bit of classical guitar from my dad in 4th grade. My dad played in rock bands when he was younger and then made classical guitar his hobby, without much in the way of lessons or formal training. He’s quite a good musician, with a really beautiful tone and expressive sensibility on the classical guitar. He also has a great sense of rhythm—Raphi once joked after my dad drove us somewhere that the beats my dad tapped out on the steering wheel were something to learn from.
READ: Capturing the Cleveland scene: An interview with Ryedood
In fifth grade I started on clarinet in school band and then switched to saxophone. Saxophone became the instrument I spent shitloads of time practicing and took private lessons […] with a guy named Kevin Burner at Academy Music store at Warrensville and Mayfield (shout out to Tom). Kevin Burner was mainly a twentieth-century classical player, so he played a lot of modernist and avant-garde classical music. I started learning some of that stuff from him when I was fairly young, and that gave me an ear for more avant-garde music. I also started listening to jazz.
With guitar, I was only interested in playing punk.
I think already being into punk kind of helped open my ears to avant-garde classical and jazz—I saw a commonality in all these musics of challenging their listeners and embracing dissonant sounds.
Were you always a regular concertgoers? Where did you go to check out music, early on, in Cleveland?
Dave: Yes. Probably started going to concerts at thirteen. At first it was more popular alternative rock—parents driving us—at mainstream venues. Then I started going to whatever punk shows I could, mostly at places like the Euclid Tavern and the Grog Shop.
READ: I skipped the last Nirvana show to book my first concert at the Euclid Tavern
I wasn’t really clued into the West Side venues until later in high school, and after we had driver’s licenses. I also went to some jazz and classical music concerts—my parents would take me and my brothers to orchestra concerts every so often as kids.
How did you find out about Speak In Tongues, which is the venue I associate most with Junking Theory?
Danny: The punks of Rocky River were quite nice to me despite me wearing a hand-me-down Who concert t-shirt my first week of school.
I heard about shows from them but I probably went to The Pieta first [Editor’s note: that was Tim Funtjar‘s pioneering avant-garde club above Speak In Tongues] before. The first time I was inside Speak In Tongues was volunteering for Food Not Bombs.
Raphi: At some point Dave and I learned about Crust Punk which was really having a moment in the mid-’90s and the sloganeering lyrics hit hard—as did the zines and record inserts we were reading. One group that kept popping up in punk zines constantly was Food Not Bombs and we set out to see if there was one in Cleveland. Sure enough there was a local chapter, and we started cooking with them every week. It was a big family of hippies and activists and I loved them all, especially Anya who I had a crush on.
Generally we cooked in someone’s cramped kitchen, but then by some miracle, the Catholic Worker invited us to cook in their kitchen. There was so much space! And it was right next to Speak In Tongues.
Had Dave and I been to a show there before or did we learn of it because it was now unmissable with its amazing hand drawn show flyers and mannequins in the window? I don’t know…
How would you describe SIT to someone who had never been there?
Dave: A lot of the most cutting-edge rock-related avant-garde bands of the ’90s played there, like Lightning Bolt and Melt-Banana, along with hardcore bands and other stuff. The venue was really well run but in a D.I.Y. sense—better sound than many professional venues. And pretty wild but not in the sense of fights. More in the sense of drunkenness and mayhem. It was definitely a counter to the tough guy hardcore scene that Cleveland had a reputation for, what with One Life Crew and everything.
SIT also had a strong proto-hipster vibe that was hostile to political organizing. Notably, SIT had very few political punk bands play at a time when there was a ton of them. The exception to that was Code 13, probably just because Wedge and Tony Erba were friends with Felix Havoc—when Code 13 played, people would drop the anti-political attitude for the night, which was pretty two-faced. But I think the two-faced, talk-shit-about-people-behind-their-backs, was also part of the Speak In Tongues scene.
What were the first bands you saw there?
Danny: I actually can’t remember, but an early show was Dillinger Four and the Strike. The two bands were on tour together and had a split 7″ together. Which is one of those things I loved about punk. I think Nora Hartlaub was living upstairs at the time. Jake Kelly and I talked to her and her friend.
Dave: I remember seeing some bands in the Power Violence / Grindcore vein there, but I forget which ones I saw there and which ones I saw at other venues. And any show with one of Tony Erba’s bands was always a solid hardcore lineup, and 9 Shocks Terror and Gordon Solie Motherfuckers (GSMF) were regulars.
READ: I was the Easter Bunny for GSMF & the craziest Speak In Tongues show ever
Raphi: I loved all the hardcore bands I saw—His Hero Is Gone, Dropdead, Code 13, Puncture Wound, and—of course—9 Shocks Terror.
WATCH: 9 Shocks Terror video EP & “Cleveland Thrash Salad”
When 9 Shocks hit their first note it felt like you weren’t sure if you’d make it out of there, if this was the last band you’d ever see and somehow that all felt just right. I never saw a punk band after them that could live up. Decades later in the rare instance I meet someone else who saw 9 Shocks, I notice their eyes just light up.
READ: Speak In Tongues mystery solved: GSMF, Puncture Wound, Begit N Frenz & some huge stars!
The few art-punk bands I saw had a big impact on me: Lightning Bolt, Melt-Banana, Razak Solar System—all intense and original—I had no idea how they were producing the sounds they made. Still don’t. The Federation X shows were grimy and heavy. They played with four-string guitars and made you wonder why you ever needed six-strings.
How would you say the venue changed your perception of music (if at all)?
Dave: It exposed me to the more experimental ends of punk. It was easy for me to embrace that music given my musical background, but I would not have experienced it as much as I did without SIT. The other great thing about SIT was it didn’t care much about genre boundaries, so I think that helped me develop as a musician who works in and between different genres.
When did you move in?
Danny: August of 1997? There was a My Dad is Dead show that night, so if you can figure out when that was…
[Bobby Bertalan—born and raised in Cleveland’s west side Lakewood suburb—also became a resident of Speak In Tongues around this time. I met Bobby online in an AOL “Cleveland Queercore” chatroom. We were the only two active members, so we decided to meet. I almost lost it when he told me he was living in the back room of my favorite club, Speak In Tongues. We formed a band called The Divine Invasion where Bob sang and played guitar, with me on bass, Mike Shumaker on guitar and vocals, and Chris Young on drums and vocals. We toured and did our things. But Bob was mercurial. As soon as he got what he wanted he wanted something else—in this case something feral and noisy (The Divine Invasion was more ’emo.’). So our band broke up. We didn’t have to wait long to hear what Bobby was going to do next… -SC]
How and why did you decide to form the Junking Theory?
Danny: Bobby was living at Speak in Tongues, too, and we were hanging out all the time. I think he needed to constantly be making music so if we were going to hang out we needed a band. Food Not Bombs was cooking next door at this point and there were some rad punk kids volunteering there. We wanted to be friends with them and we thought asking them to join a band would be a good way to go about it.
Raphi: Danny and Bobby, who lived at SIT wandered into the Catholic Worker while we were chopping vegetables one Sunday…
Dave: I don’t remember exactly, but I think it was Danny and Raphi talking about it that formed it. I think I was sort of recruited in as the saxophone player who could play in a band that did weird stuff. I was on board with that, and it gave me an outlet to do some weird stuff on saxophone, and to apply the technique I had developed in a way that was completely different than any more formal musical setting.
Raphi: Bobby was insistent that Dave play saxophone—he was more of a guitarist in my mind—and the reasoning was something like “every band has guitar, how boring.” So we started practicing at SIT often enough that I started leaving my drums there. I only really wanted to play them with Junking Theory anyway.
Danny: Dave’s sax was supposed to take a little bit of the edge off while also being a little chaotic. I really liked the violin parts to the Behead the Prophet songs and saw that as an influence.
What kind of bands were you listening to at this time?
Danny: Seeing Landed play at Speak In Tongues was an eye-opening experience. The energy of the members and the controlled chaos of the music really floored me. That was my real first experience of the music coming out of Providence, Rhode Island. And going back to before I lived at SIT, Skin Graft bands played there all the time. I think Lightning Bolt going on tour showed a bunch of people you didn’t need a guitar player.
WATCH: Rare video! Lightning Bolt, Numbskull, Razak Solar System at Speak In Tongues
Raphi: You know when you play in a band there will be some reference band or song that will come up repeatedly? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked to play the “Be My Baby” beat. Well, one thing I remember is that the band Man is the Bastard really came up a bunch in Junking Theory practices. And listening back, when the band goes into those sludgier riffs, I think, “it’s the Man is the Bastard part!”
Dave: Hmmm… I listened to a lot of hardcore and crust punk at the time, but I think maybe Civil Disobedience, which I like to call Carnival-Core, was the punk band that me and Raphi were into that maybe inspired us musically for Junking Theory. I listened to a pretty wide variety of music though, at that time especially rap and the more avant-garde end of jazz. Studying 20th Century classical music also helped give me a toolkit to use with Junking Theory—just having learned a lot of melodic parts that were based on dissonant material, octatonic scales, etc. and atypical rhythms made me comfortable coming up with the kind of saxophone parts I did for JT.
What was it like when you first started getting together?
Dave: We practiced at SIT. If I remember right, usually Bobby would come with some ideas—bass parts. Raphi would come up with a drumbeat for them, I’d add a saxophone part, and I think Danny had lyrics in a notebook and he’d figure out what would work vocally over that music. And then we’d work out the song forms from there.
There may have been a few songs where Raphi had a quirky drumbeat and we built something from that.
In any event, I’m pretty sure Bobby played the driving role with the initial musical ideas and we built the songs from there. He was a great bass player and I think one of the striking things about Junking Theory was how his bass playing was thick as fuck, providing a lot of texture and sound, and we didn’t need guitars.
I remember [Bobby] saying to me early on “play parts, not solos,” which I think was an important part of our sound—not trying to put cheesy saxophone solos over weird hardcore music—[having] the saxophone parts being more like riffs that were part of the texture. Other than the opening section to the first song on our cassette, my parts tended to emphasize dissonant intervals and be drawn from non-diatonic scales.
How would you describe Junking Theory’s sound?
Danny: The bass was the main instrument that carried the song. Bobby could write parts that were, to my ears, melodic and menacing at the same time.
Dave: Much of our stuff has something off-kilter about it, like odd meters, an extra note, something in the riff that seemed “out of place.” The thick, seemingly full-band texture Bobby created on bass I think was really the foundation of our sound. In rehearsals, I think there was a nice tension between learning how to play rhythms and forms that didn’t fit into typical rock structures and required being tight as a band with a kind of spontaneous energy, and then being able to pull that off live.
Raphi: Describing the band’s sound is tough. We weren’t strictly a hardcore punk band. I think we might’ve fit well in the Load Records catalog beside some of their more deranged releases. Performance art was part of it too—did we have TVs on stage playing explicit VHS tapes before smashing them all? I think so! Did someone get punched? A knife thrown?!
Where did the name come from?
Raphi: The band name had iterations—Danny and Bobby were calling the shots on this. Their first idea was a misspelling of my first name—”Raffi.” Then came “Get Thee to a Nunnery,” before settling on “Junking Theory.”
Bobby had an idea that we would play an entirely new set of songs every show. You know, just junk the songs once they’d been used. He also told me once “one day I will own nothing but an acoustic guitar and go train-hopping.” Well, he really did get into train-hopping.
So you could say the name had an anti-consumerist bent to it.
Danny: Oof. Band names. At first, we just loved Raphi so much we thought he should be the star of the band and so it made sense to name the band after him. I think he was a little uncomfortable with that.
There was a woman at a show—I think the Flying Luttenbachers?—and she had “Get Thee to a Nunnery” written on the back of her sweatshirt. We thought it was awesome, but after a while realized having a Shakespeare reference as your band name was not a good way to go. The name Junking Theory came from on conversation about trash and planned obsolescence. How the words “Junking” and “Theory” were picked are lost to me.
Who was the songwriter?
Raphi: Bobby was definitely the creative force as far as songwriting goes. He had all kinds of styles of playing—he was a guitarist too and played in other bands [like The Divine Invasion, The Dumas Band and blue…Max!]—but these pummeling fuzz bass parts and off-kilter rhythms were just pouring out of him at the time. Keeping up with him wasn’t easy. There were times when I had to do what all drummers dread—counting out loud instead of just feeling it.
Raphi: I love Danny’s storytelling—whether just shooting the shit, reading his zines, and yes, those Junking Theory lyrics. And he had a powerful, unhinged delivery and stage presence. “The rings of Saturn are Squuuuuuare!” could be a line from a Fall album right?
Dave had an ear for jazz, had great rhythm and could do some skronky squeals too—somehow I don’t think we were any less heavy for going without guitar.
What was the first show JT played and with who?
Danny: Ugh. Cannot remember.
Dave: Sorry, don’t remember what our first show was, but I’m pretty sure it was at SIT. Unless it was the Food Not Bombs benefit at the Euclid Tavern in the winter of 1998-’99. Convulsion also played that show, and their singer, Zack, was in another band with me and Raphi called Casca.
Are there any place you can remember playing?
Raphi: We did play at a few other places outside SIT. The Euclid Tavern—for the 1999 Cleveland Punk Fest.
WATCH: Video from Cleveland Punk Fest—9 Shocks Terror at the Euclid Tavern, 1999
There was Dayton Fest at Antioch College. We played The Jim Clevo Stage. There was an east coast tour in the works but it got canceled for legal reasons.
READ: Not the “Jim Clevo Stage”! The Divine Invasion at Speak In Tongues
Dave: We never toured. I remember one out of town show, but maybe there was more than one. The one I remember I think was at Ohio University in Athens, but I could be wrong, maybe it was in Dayton. I remember it being a small show in some dingy art space in a college, but a few people there were really into us. But I could be fuzzy on the details or mixing it up with some other experience.
Did you like playing with Junking Theory?
Danny: Singing for this band was awesome. Every show was such high energy. We also tried to make things exciting by throwing a bag of golf balls at the audience to playing gay porn from Bobby’s VHS collection on TVs behind us. We wanted our sets to be short bursts of chaos and I think we pulled it off.
Raphi: Did I love playing with Junking Theory? Yes! I’ve played in lots of bands since this one and never anything quite like JT. It was one of a kind. Listening back, I’m proud. We were a real unit, and it sounds raw and alive!
What was it like recording? And dubbing the cassettes?
Danny: The “goals” of the band were pretty minimal. We wanted to make some music, but more importantly just to hang out with each other and work on a project. The memories of band practice and driving out of town for a show are more important to me than if we impressed an audience. I love tapes by short-lived bands and am glad to have one of my own. We practiced at Speak in Tongues and that’s where we recorded. So it wasn’t that different. I was really excited to have everything be live with no overdubs.
Junking Theory’s self-titled cassette is online for the first time ever—listen here.
Dave: I remember it being a pretty straightforward recording session. Ralph Hausmann, who was the resident sound guy at SIT, recorded us. I didn’t know him well and he was soft-spoken, but I remember him just being this really great dude who just did it all for the love of music. And I think he was a great sound and recording guy. So I think he gets a lot of credit for the sound of the cassette. I’m almost 100% sure we recorded everything live, no tracking or overdubs. I don’t think we could have captured our sound without recording everything live. And we recorded it at SIT.
With making the tapes, I don’t remember being that involved in actually making them. But Mike McDermott, who was a close friend of me and Raphi at high school, made the cover art. He always had these great and fairly avant-garde artistic ideas, including for films, so he was perfect for doing the cover art.
Raphi: We set up on the SIT stage and ran mic cables down to the basement where Ralph was set up to record. We did everything live—vocals, too—and there were no overdubs so what you hear is exactly how we sounded.
Danny dubbed the recording onto Bible tapes so on one side you’d have Junking Theory and on the other side you could learn to repent for your sins…
Did the band sell merch?
Raphi: We had a stack of tapes and even made shirts but there was no effort to sell anything. I’d be surprised if anyone at a show even knew we had tapes. Danny got blank t-shirts of different colors at the thrift store and silk-screened them at SIT. We had a box of the shirts and at one show Danny picked it up and threw them all at the audience and onto the beer soaked floor. So that about sums up all efforts to commercialize the band.
Why did Junking Theory end?
Dave: I’m not sure what our last show was, probably in May or June 1999.
Raphi: Sadly, I have to take the blame for the end of Junking Theory. I was going off to college in New York.
Dave: Raphi and I were seniors in high school when we were in JT. Raphi went out of state for college, and I think was away most of that summer of 1999. So there was no way of keeping it together after that. I don’t think it would have been the same band if we had tried to replace a member.
I also think there was some drifting apart. I was more and more part of political organizing, especially the movement to free Mumia Abu-Jamal from death row. Me and Raphi had both gotten into political stuff together, but drifted apart after high school. No ill will there; people who are still besties with all their high school friends kinda weird me out.
I think my political organizing put me more at odds with the SIT crowd. Like I said, there was a lot of hostility towards political organizing and shit-talking from some of the SIT crowd, including from Danny, which I became aware of towards the end of Junking Theory. I mean, SIT did have that guy that did those stand-up comedy sets that were mostly racist jokes making fun of Black people—what was his name? Beckett? So as I learned more about that side of SIT, I went there less and less. I was also eighteen at the time, so I tended to move on to the next thing and not look back.
Raphi: Funny story: Junking Theory was on the same bill as Begit N Frenz. He asked me if his drummer Tide could borrow my drums and I said sure but wondered why Tide didn’t ask me theirself. Then I noticed him set up a box of Tide laundry detergent on my drums and queued up his backing tracks and went into his bizzaro solo rap thing. Another totally original Cleveland weirdo. I still have his Weed Crazy 7”.
[Full disclosure, I produced “Weed Crazy” and “Losing at the Drug Game,” which I’m still really proud of. I don’t remember any racist jokes, and wouldn’t have worked with anyone who was pulling that kind of shit. -SC]
What have you been doing since that time?
Raphi: Since then… well it’s been a long time, but I’ve managed to find musical comrades everywhere I’ve landed. Sometimes my job in a band only lasts a year but I’ll always think about it. And once you’ve hit that record button, you’re fossilized together for better or worse.
For the last almost ten years, I’ve played with a singer/songwriter I love named Michael James Tapscott—his whole catalog under various band names is a beautiful dig. I record solo post-rock instrumentals on a 4-track and put out tapes every few years. I’ve got my first few shows in a long time playing drums for country balladeer Andres Miguel Cervantes, working on a collaborative ambient album under the name Pacific Walker, and demo-ing for an album with my longtime friend, The Fishermen Three.
[Bobby Bertalan had a pretty hard time after Junking Theory and Speak In Tongues. I won’t attempt to tell his story. It’s safe to say he has never stopped creating art, music, writings… Bob remains an inspiration, albeit a troubling one. I’m no stranger to addiction. I’ve seen or done it all at this point. Still, it was hard to watch Bobby pounding fifths of Paramount vodka on Facebook Messenger at 7am like he was this past December. -SC]
When you think back to the SIT time period, what are your feelings about that era?
Raphi: I’ll be honest, at the time I thought there was an amazing D.I.Y. venue in every city. I’d heard of ABC No Rio and Fort Thunder and others. So I assumed I’d find my way back to a scene and mecca like SIT. Maybe it’s sad, but I never really did feel the same way about another space. I wasn’t involved enough with SIT to have mixed feelings—I didn’t live there or get burned out booking shows or have to clean the floors or break up a fight or deal with cops. I got all the good parts and that’s all I remember so thanks to everyone that put in the hard work making SIT what it was.
Dave: Fairly mixed. I really appreciate what SIT did musically. I think a lot of really cutting-edge bands played there. And I think as a D.I.Y. venue it was pretty well run, which probably helped get a lot of great out of town bands there. I do think there was a sense of community there, that, on the positive side, meant that when a group of skinheads barged into one show, a brawl soon broke out and the skinheads left covered in blood. That really happened. But on the negative, like most underground music scenes, it was also fairly cliquey.
I think the other negative was that some of the people involved with SIT were basically proto-hipsters. Unfortunately a lot of the punk, indie, and avant-garde music scenes of the ’90s fed into the whole hipster phenomenon of the 2000s. And in retrospect I can see SIT being part of that. As I’m especially aware of by living in New York since 2005, there’s a way that art and D.I.Y. music spaces pave the way for gentrification. So in an odd way SIT was kind of a beachhead for the subsequent gentrification of Ohio City and other parts of the West Side of Cleveland, why all the fucking hipsters decided to move there. Because the mentality of a good number of the SIT crowd was not that different than those hipsters, just a little rougher around the edges.
And I distinctly remember when Bonzai played—they were a Power Violence band who us
ed to be a ska-punk band under a different name—I think the Peanut Butter Conspiracy—their bass player was a woman, and a bunch of the SIT crowd was yelling shit like “show us your tits.” They’d probably say “it was just a joke,” but that was the fucked-up side of SIT. And that fucked-up side was pretty self-serving—none of those proto-hipsters would have yelled that shit at Melt-Banana’s singer—because they wouldn’t want to lose favor with a band like that. And if I remember right, Bonzai was opening for Melt-Banana!
Did these experiences make their way into your book, Rebel Music In The Triumphant Empire?
Dave: Hmmm… I’ve definitely gravitated to playing and listening to a lot of avant-garde music since then, so I’d say Junking Theory and Speak In Tongues are part of my musical DNA in that way. And in general not being beholden to genre boundaries. But I’d say SIT also made me a bit cynical about underground music scenes and the cliquey-ness in them, recognizing that these things are never the utopias some people pretend them to be.
As far as my book goes, it’s focused on the political end of ’90s punk, so I wouldn’t say that Junking Theory and SIT had a lot to do with that. Frankly, the sections of my book about the backlash against political punk are maybe the ones that draw on my experience at SIT. But at the end of chapter two, I wrote about staleness in crust-punk and the need for punk to always innovate and include bands that didn’t fit genre categories. And then I did some analysis of Civil Disobedience’s music and used the term Carnival-Core to describe them. I’m not sure I would have written about that, at least not in the same way, without the JT and SIT experience.
And chapter three of my book is about the Power Violence and Grindcore end of Hardcore punk, and SIT was definitely the place I heard those type of bands the most. The SIT crowd had a certain appreciation for punk technical skill, which I think is a musicianship very distinct from other musicianships, like formal training, jazz improvisation, etc.. And I don’t think I would have written that chapter in the same way without the Speak In Tongues experience.
Besides playing in Junking Theory, you photo-documented the venue pretty extensively, didn’t you, Raphi?
Raphi: Going to shows at Speak In Tongues, playing in Junking Theory, and taking pictures was all happening in a simultaneous swirl.
Incidentally, I had heard that Steve Albini hated anyone taking pictures at Shellac shows. How miserable he must be at shows now.
Anyway, I was conflicted and thought I should be in the moment but wanted to take a picture too. I didn’t want to be judged by the little Albini in my head, but most of the shows I went to felt like historic events. I was seventeen and everything was blowing my mind.
What’s it like listening to Junking Theory now?
Dave: My tape deck broke a few years ago, so I haven’t listened in a while! But I appreciate what we did, and I think it’s a fairly unique mix of influences and ideas. Best Carnival-Core band of the late-’90s Cleveland scene! For me personally it’s a reminder of where I was at musically, not exactly understanding everything I was taking in at the time but running with what I did understand.
What are you working on now?
Dave: Musically, I’m collaborating with my opera singer friend, Amanda Zory, and her pianist collaborator Walter Aparicio on songs that combine operatic singing, hardcore punk rhythms and riff structures, modal jazz, and modern classical. That kind of genre mixing would definitely be something that might fit at Speak In Tongues, though the strong political message of the songs would not.
[In early February of this year, Bobby stopped video-calling me everyday. Since then he hasn’t answered any kind of calls. Sometime before we fell out of touch, I told him about this post and tried asking him about Junking Theory. But all Bobby wanted to do was play me the hip hop videos he’s loving now. Or show me his paintings, which are really cool and are as untamed and visionary as his basslines. Bob’s creativity casts a giant shadow over everything Junking Theory ever did, and everyone loves him. I hope our friend comes back soon. -SC]
What are you excited about in 2022 and the future?
Dave: The apocalypse…?
What’s next for Junking Theory?
Raphi: Well, I can’t imagine there being an occasion for the four of us to be in the same room again let alone plot our comeback. This is it—the last will and testament of a Cleveland noise band. Thanks for remembering us, Sean!
Junking Theory music is finally online—listen for yourself
Have Junking Theory photos / video / recordings? Hit me up!
Danny Noonan produces a really great zine called Clock Tower 9
Check out Raphi Gottesman’s sweet tunes
Dave “Fearsome” Pearson still rocks a punk saxophone
Nominate a band for the next Noise Rock Nuggets
Here’s everything I’ve posted about Speak In Tongues
Read a new interview with Speak In Tongues resident sound person & musician, Brian Straw
U.S. Rocker chronicled SIT bands, happenings & people—download for free
Follow me on Instagram for Cleveland throwbacks & more
Pre-order your copy of the Speak In Tongues book
Postscript: While I stand firm on not censoring interviewees’ opinions, Beckett Warren did have a bit of a bomb lobbed at him (see above), so it’s only fair he be given an opportunity to respond in-kind.
Beckett writes: “While exploring critiques of the merely performative political aspect of punk and ’90s counterculture, I may have wandered into territory best left to others. But characterizing my performances as ‘racist jokes at the expense of Black people’ seems myopic or disingenuous. Kinda like characterizing being in the Bob Avakian personality cult as organizing on behalf of Mumia Abu-Jamal.
“To channel Vaneigem by way of Fredy Perlman and Thatcher on Acid, saxophone man always had a mouthful of cadaver.”
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