David Lee Beowülf
The trail of living corpses left by Glenn Danzig, in his never-ending quest to find out who he’s supposed to be, has yielded some pretty good notes (to borrow from Amadeus). After the Misfits imploded in 1983, Danzig started the dark, “gothic” Samhain, which survived three or so albums until “Uncle Glenn” didn’t want to play any more and went to pursue his dream of playing a live-action Wolverine.
Samhain’s original drummer, Steve Zing, though, clearly remained hungry for new flesh and started the Damned-ish band Mourning Noise, with long-time friend and Samhain chief roadie, Joseph Jay on keyboards. In 1988, Steve and Joe hooked up with experimental saxophonist Mike Herman to found the first incarnation of Chyna. The band played “musical bands members” for a few years until 1994, when they found stability and felt solid enough to get some serious recording done. “People are amazed at how we use studio time,” says Steve. “We don’t waste a second. We go in there and play. I don’t want anyone to talk. We paid for an hour, we play for an hour. No bullshit.” Everyone seemed to confirm this… oh, by the way, this interview was held informally at a Greenwich Village outdoor burger eatery after Chyna’s gig at the East Village club, the Spiral.
I first encountered Chyna at the February 1996 Misfits’ “boxed set” release party in New York City. Steve Zing and bassist Tommy Hunter followed me around rather menacingly. Tommy kept giving me this look like he was going to hit me or something. Actually, he wanted to make sure I would listen to In the Night. I did and was blown away. First of all, I didn’t know what to expect — would it be dark and haunting like Samhain, would it be goth, pop, what? I mean, Tommy (who I ran into at a recent Type O Negative show) looks like he spends most of his time as a middleweight boxer’s sparring partner and Steve is calm and articulate as a technical sales representative.
The eleven songs on In the Night represent the band’s creative output from around 1990 to 1995 and are not at all what anyone would expect, unless they’ve been hanging around the northern New Jersey band scene, like drummer Johnnie Rago (who was sitting next to me eating a big burger). The music Chyna makes is an amazing high-performance pop. By “high-performance” I mean that each song seems carefully crafted to include just the right amount of input from each instrument. Steve, who moved from drums to lead vocals, has a rich, deep, powerful tenor voice. “Being in a band with Glenn [Danzig] had a lot of influence on the way I sing,” says Steve. “I picked up a lot of ways to bring the best out of my vocals in Samhain.”
In the Night is somewhat reminiscent of mid-1980’s British pop bands, but retains a lot of Damned-style keyboards. “We were very Phantasmagoria,” says Joseph Jay. I would agree, and add that each song seems to take a particular pop sub-genre and re-invent it. For instance “Hold Me Close” and “Rain on My Parade” sound like something off Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell; “My World” is total power-chord, biting punk rock; “Looking Out” and “One Moment In Time” are pop-metal anthems, with a full backing chorus and raging guitar noodling; “Eyes in the Mist” is a sensuous slow gothic number; and yet the title track sounds like Indian “raga-metal.” In fact, there’s a tremendous amount of saxophone and other, strange wind instruments mixed with guitarist Elio Tommasi’s power chords and wild, almost bestial metal solos.
“Tommasi,” they all say, accenting the second “m.” He smiles, I think they’re all jealous that he’s a native-born Italian… Some of the songs on In the Night share jazz guitar with sounds one would expect to hear from Type O Negative. Again Elio smiles. His previous band was Delirium and his guitar heroes are Steve Vai and Randy Rhodes, which definitely explains the gothic power fuzz guitar.
In the Night is more of a catalog of the band’s evolution up to 1995. In 1996, the now-solid line-up recorded a four-song EP (Chyna) which I think solidified their direction. “It definitely has more raw power than before,” says Steve. The EP features a song called “Illusion” which, for me, is one of the best pop songs of the decade. It has Steve’s powerful, crystal-clear vocals, and the band has an almost orchestral sound to it.
I was able to see the band in early 1996 in New York City where they showcased all the material on In the Night. A year or so later, I caught them twice in a month where they played material off both In the Night and the Chyna EP. “We have material for at least ten more albums ready to go, though!” said Steve. And they’re on their way, with the recent release of a nine-song full-length LP entitled Chyna. All the recording and distribution of Chyna’s material is handled by the band’s own label FLX Records (you can get their material cheap, write ’em at FLX Records, P.O. Box 948, Lodi, NJ 07644-0948 — yes, LODI, NJ home of the Misfits — and e-mail Steve Zing: SZing@aol.com for more details)
Now, it may appear that Chyna is all business, which is pretty much true, what with the no-nonsense approach to rehearsing, recording, distribution, and carefully-engineered songwriting, but there is another side. A side that I, like before listening to their first album, had no idea about. At their first live show I spoke with Mike Herman, who I called an “experimental saxophonist” earlier, about what appeared to be an electric oboe from which all these weird, haunting sounds emanated. It turned out to be an electric oboe, clarinet, flute, sax, recorder, maybe even a kazoo. “I call it the ‘power strip’,” said Steve. “Because it looks like Mike’s blowing a power strip whenever he plays it!” Wait a minute, I thought, then, before I had a chance to say anything in return, Steve came back with, “all our songs are about sex. That’s all. Like on ‘My World,’ I’m saying ‘I’m going to ride you like a one-eyed dog… and ‘Losing My Mind’ where I sing ‘I’m going to get you from behind! It’s all sexual!” I asked if they were all perverts. “Yes,” they replied in unison. I then remarked to the passers-by that this table was occupied by rock and roll stars and that such outbursts should be expected…
Their new album, Chyna, includes “Heart and Soul,” possibly the only power-pop/pop-metal song to include steel drums and sitar (at least is sounds like they were there) and “Your Hell,” which sounds like Robert Fripp fronting Metallica where you can understand the words the first time around; it’s an awesome power tour-de-force. Check out their web site at http://www.eclipse.net/~vulcan/chyna.htm.