Circus of Power
Years ago before the internet, it was definitely not as easy to find new music as it is today. You had to go out to the store and buy a magazine or stay up late on a Saturday night to watch the Headbanger’s Ball. It was 3 hours of an assortment of music ranging from glam to thrash. I was dedicated to the point that if I wasn’t home, I’d set my VHS (yes, I said VHS) to record it, so that I wouldn’t miss out on anything. There was this one particular night that sticks in my mind. I was half asleep on my couch. I hear this guitar intro that completely wakes me up. This immensely deep voice belting out lyrics like I had never heard before. This was something so off the beaten path of where music was at the time. I can remember thinking to myself. I have to know who this band is. Covered in tattoos? Wait. No makeup. No spandex? These guys actually looked like real men! And the groove of the music was so completely different than anything else I had ever heard. Quite frankly I had never been so intrigued by a band. Back then you’d have to wait til the end of the video to see who the artist was. The band was Circus of Power. I went out the next day to the local music store and picked up the album. Song after song. I was hooked in. How were these guys NOT absolutely blowing up the charts with this kind of music? Because that’s just how music goes. If something is different, most people will be afraid of it instead of embracing the creativity of something fresh. So therefore, a band like this in the mainstream was swept under the rug. Yet at the same time found a good size following. It may have been more underground, but it was there. They went on to release two more albums but unfortunately fizzled out and broke up in 1996. Fans hoped for a reunion tour and in 2006; they played two 20 year anniversary shows, only to not be heard from after the reunion took place. I had the pleasure of interviewing lead singer Alex Mitchell and guitarist Gary Sunshine to talk about the band and what may or may not be a part of the future for Circus of Power.
I’m gonna start right at the beginning. You guys formed in NYC back in 1986. How did you guys all come together?
Alex: We had all been in punk rock bands down in Miami, that’s where I met Rick but I didn’t really know Gary until We were all living in NYC. That was the natural progression, to migrate from Florida to NYC and eventually L.A. Rick and I were jamming with some other people and formed Circus Of Power. I can’t remember who was playing drums before Ryan, Gary might, but I kind of boldly walked up to Ryan at the Lismar where he was hanging out with his band mates and asked him if he wanted to play drums with us. The alcohol might have had something to do with it, as it often does. Rick brought Gary in to play bass, even though he was a guitar player. He moved to guitar when we got Zowie. Rick and Gary were really good together, two different styles. Call Of The Wild is a good example, Gary came up with the beginning riff and Rick the other part. I could be wrong, but the point is when it worked it worked well. The lower East Side was alive at the time, lots of music going around so there was a creative buzz in the air. Those things come and go.
Gary: I joined months (weeks?) after they started the band. I knew Alex & Ricky a bit from Florida. An ex-girlfriend of mine helped steer me in their direction (she may have been trying to rid herself of me at the time). I am indecisive you might say and she was right. I was delivering “Art” in New York and not making any music at the time.
What made you guys choose to NOT go the route everyone else was taking musically? It seemed at that time everyone was heading in the same direction with glam rock being at its peak and you guys just swerved off and hit the open road.
Alex:We sounded the way we did probably because we were older than the other bands by five or six years and had a myriad of influences. They were brought up on Van Halen and post Bon Scott AC/DC, which is cool, but we were lucky enough to be brought up in the 70’s on everything from the Sex Pistols to Parliament/Funkadelic. Music is dead now- soul, rock, country, hip hop, they’re all terrible. Once in awhile something shines but back in the day there was an onslaught of amazing music. So we just did what we did, you stick five guys in a room and see what comes out. There was a lot of really bad metal/rock that came out during our time, we really had nothing to do with the scene. For me around that time it was The Cult, Four Horsemen, Zodiac, Raging Slab, Masters Of Reality, that kind of stuff. I liked a few Guns n Roses songs but a lot of it was too screechy for me. I consider it a real crime against rock and roll that Circus and Slab are not making music anymore. I heard that Slab might be doing something, hope so. GnR should be together, too, the original guys. It’s stupid that they’re not.
Gary: if you took a look at us as a whole, we weren’t the prettiest bunch, nor were we interested in following any current “thing”. There were so many influences floating around the band had we tried to fit in it would have been a mess anyway.
Were you afraid that the style you were bringing to the table wouldn’t fly with most of the people and what they were listening to at the time?
Alex: No, we really just did our own thing. When I hear some of it now, like if I’m listening to my ipod and ‘No Class’ by Motorhead comes on then ‘Vices’ by us guys and then ‘Southbound’ by Thin Lizzy it all seems to make perfect sense. Also, we were young and in a haze, we didn’t know what we were doing and maybe that was a good thing
Gary: Didn’t care.
Do you feel like if you had followed suit that it would have brought more popularity to the band?
Alex: Well we’ll never know! Life takes it’s turns and twists and keeps you guessing all the time. To have just survived that time is something to be said in itself. A lot of drinks, a lot of drugs. I’m very proud of the guys in that we hit our marks a few times and made some magic. Hey, if Joey Ramone says he likes your band, If Johnny Thunders says he likes your band, if Ian Astbury says he likes your band than you can give yourself a pat on the back
Gary:Yeah, we might have had a little more luck, but we probably would’ve split even sooner if it felt false, I know I would have.
What was the mix of musical influences that brought you guys to who you became?
Alex: Well, not just influenced by bands that we liked but also the city we were living in, the way pop culture was at the time, you know, what was going on in the street and in the clubs. Things felt completely different back then, I’m talking 1985-91.
Gary: Alex mentioned a few, I would list or add The Stones, Ramones, Damned, Petty, Motorhead, Skynyrd, Allmans, Canned Heat, early Zeppelin, Iggy and a hundred others.
The amount of tattoos you guys were rockin at the time were not really something of the norm as it is today. Do you think the look you had made a difference in how seriously you were taken as musicians?
Alex: No, again that came from a punk rock place, I know Gary was getting stuff done by Bob Roberts all the way back in 78, I think? That was kind of another thing we all had in common. That and Catskill comedians. And Frank Sinatra, old school shit like that, The Pope Of Greenwich Village, Taxi Driver, C’est Magnifiquek, Trash and Vaudville, The Holiday Lounge, Bandido’s bar, The Limelight, The Scrap Bar, Danceteria, Leshko’s, The Park Inn, The Bad Brains, fuckin Houston Street, all of it. I have to stop now I’m crying….there now I’m okay.
Who did most of the writing on the records or was it mostly a group effort?
Alex: On the first record it’s mostly Rick and I with some Gary. On Vices it’s mostly Gary and I with some Rick. On the last one it’s also a mix but mostly Gary. After the first record the band started to become fractured. Gary, Rick and I should have all been writing together but things were already getting fucked up, as they sometimes do. ‘We coulda been somebody, we coulda been a contendah. That was my my night at the garden, Charlie, I coulda taken that guy apart…’ Motor was kind of an accident at rehearsal. Call of the Wild was ad libbed at rehearsal, with Gary just busting into the riff. Top Cat Studios. I met Debbie Harry there that night. Needles and Jams Rick and I wrote at my apartment in Little Italy on Mulberry Street. Vices was just a blip on a cassette tape that Gary made me, like seven seconds long and I was like wait a minute what was that?
What was your most memorable moment on tour?
Alex: Well I know this sounds weird but it was somewhere in England and we were staying at some small but really cool hotel. It was raining out and I took all my spare change and called my girlfriend back in the states. For some reason it was one of those moments that has passed through my mind hundreds of times. Just a strange place in space and time surreal planet earth stuff. The Marquee gig over there was one of my fav
orites. I also loved the gig we did in 2006 at Don Hills, I love and miss NYC. I’ve been stuck in L.A for like a thousand years.
Gary: Some memorable moments for me would have to include playing with The Ramones, playing the Hammersmith Odeon with Black Sabbath (Brian May sat in one of those nights), the show with Iggy and Jane’s Addiction in NY, the tour with Alice in Chains & Masters of Reality with Ginger Baker. I think the most embarrassing, yet entertaining moment, was when Alex and I were interviewed by puppets on Japanese TV.
Each album was consistently strong musically. And the band continually has a huge underground following. Does it ever blow your mind that people still love and talk about the band after all these years?
Alex: No, it doesn’t surprise me but it sure is nice. We weren’t a very big band but most of the bands that make it big are awful so what are ya gonna do. People are sheep, they’ll buy shit all day long and tell you how good it tastes. I think the Gun Club were amazing but I know very few people that have heard of them. I’m more interested in the new Marianne Faithful record, or even Die Antwoord than I am some awful group that iTunes is trying to shove down my throat. Being popular can be a death sentence, my that has a nice ring to it.
Gary: I really do feel we were an exceptional band and one of those should have been bigger bands. Perception was good the reality was a little tougher. We did a show in Chicago at some theater that was half empty or worse and I met this German girl who was a big fan and she was shocked it wasn’t packed and I had to bullshit my way through “Neil Diamond’s across the street, the Bulls are playing, Seinfeld’s on tonight, the record company didn’t promote it, etc” (well something like that). Those conversations sucked but she hung out, we went down the street to some blues club after and that was that. It’s great to still hear from fans, bittersweet, but I am proud nonetheless.
Lets talk about Magic and Madness for a minute. How did you guys get hooked up with Jerry Cantrell for the track Heaven and Hell? As well as Ian Astbury on Shine.
Alex: I met Ian at some club in Hollywood (English Acid?) and hung out with him for awhile, he was very nice to come in and sing for us. Jerry I met at ….hmmm…the Limelight in NYC. We stayed in touch and when we came to L.A. he came by to jam. They were recording Dirt. Very talented bunch, those Alice In Chainers.
How did you guys feel about seeing the video for Heaven and Hell on Beavis and Butthead?
Alex: Yeah I never really watched tv back then so I dunno, I took it for what it was the one or two times I saw it. They endorsed some shitty bands as well that went on to sell gazillions so you know…
Gary: I was in my apartment in Los Angeles at the time and my friend who lived upstairs from me called and said put on Beavis and Butthead quick. Shit, I thought, they were making and breaking bands at that time but they liked us so we proceeded I guess.
I’m really curious about Slip Away and Circles. Those songs were a little bit different from the other stuff you had put out. Definitely sounded more close to home. Was that written for/about someone specifically?
Alex: They were written for what I would say was a composite of girls, not any one in particular. We wanted to do different kinds of songs, I think sometimes we were successful at it and sometimes not. If you listen to the White album by the Beatles or Machine Gun Etiquette by the Damned or Sticky Fingers by the Stones those records are filled with different styles of music. ‘Moonlight Mile’ what kind of song is that? I don’t know but I love it. Suddenly I feel like Irving in ‘American Hustle’. (‘Who starts a song like that?’) ‘Mama Tequila’ is a cool one off that record.
Gary: I had the initial ideas for Slip Away and Circles, the beginning of my songs to make people feel bad sad bored uneasy, I don’t know. As I did during those days I gave Alex tapes (yeah tapes) of rough ideas, melodies, titles, phrases. We worked well back then, we were both open to all things musical I guess, and these two songs worked out pretty well.
What happened that ultimately led to the breakup of the band?
Alex: Well we met at the Cat and Fiddle and I told the guys I was leaving the band. I think everyone was done with it, it wasn’t a ‘group’ anymore. I think I was wrong to do that but I can’t take it back. We had gotten rid of Ryan before the last record and I always thought that was wrong, he was what the band was all about. But I should have been more vocal about it and stood up for him, I regret that. I hope someday I can make up for it somehow. I actually think the band could be a lot better than it ever was now if we got together and recorded and played a few gigs, but it’s not going to happen. Only twice in 25 years has it even been talked about and the most recent attempt was pathetic.
Gary: It was time? We may have been a little early, might of had one more in us. It was a confused time, we did what we could to promote the Magic & Madness record but the Alice tour ended early and I think we were pretty disappointed as was the record company I’m guessing.
Back in 2008 there was a COP tribute album, Working For the Machine that was released. Who put that all together?
Alex: The tribute was put together by Bob who does the Circus website and is an all around good guy.
You both have been on other bands since the break up of COP. Can we talk about the other stuff you guys have done and what you are both doing currently?
Alex: I’ve played in Captain Zapped but we retired that thing recently, now I’m going to do a Circus Of Power record with Marc the bass player, at least that’s the plan. I’m not going to wait another 25 years. I surprisingly received a bunch of very good songs over the last six months or so from dudes that I met on Facebook, guitar players that are fans of Circus and finally I said what the fuck, let’s do this. Once I talked to Marc, who is extremely excited about doing it, I felt like a load was taken off my shoulders. I wasn’t happy with the way things ‘ended’- we went away with a whimper and that wasn’t our style. I’m going to make sure this record is a motherfucker or it won’t be released. Right now we have 6 or 7 keepers but we’re going to write as many as it takes to get 12 goodies. We have this one song ‘Destination Unknown’ that might be the best song I’ve ever been a part of. It’s trashy but it’s super soulful and catchy.
Gary: After we broke up I did some writing, went to a few auditions, Tommy Stinson’s band, a few others, tried a few projects, didn’t show up to a few auditions (nothing I hate more) did a show with The Cult, for a KROQ Xmas show, there was a little talk of me doing a tour with them but time passed and that didn’t happen, I moved back to New York to play with a friend, Brijitte West and New York Loose. Enjoyed that, I moved into the Chelsea Hotel, we lived in London for a short while, played a bunch of cool shows, recorded a few things, left them to do other things just as they got rolling. Did a record with The Silos, an Americana band I’ve known for years, toured. Did some session work (a little bit with Guns N Roses and a few others). As of late I’ve been writing a lot of songs, singing them and throwing them wherever I can, often in the trash, but there are some good ones. Put out a couple of very independent solo records you’ll only find online somewhere these days. I like them and they’ve been received well. I write and record because I want to and I’m really not concerned with the followup anymore, just the song. I did some collaborating last year with an artist from New Zealand, Steph Casey, and a few other folks from around the world. Still writing when I fell like it these days. Probably put out another few songs maybe a new record this year. I do miss playing though.
Alex some people do not know that you are a writer and have 3 books that are published. Most recently. The Strange Case of the Flying Meatballs. When did you start writing books? And where can people go to purchase them?
Alex: I started writing in 2004 (?) but really didn’t start getting any good at it until a few years ago when I started doing these short stories for this magazine here in Topanga Canyon called Far West Almanac. Doing it for someone else made me get my shit together and the guy that edited the magazine was a big help. The last book that I wrote, ‘The Strange Case Of The Flying Meatballs’ is the best one. It’s about the last couple of years of my father’s life when he was bed ridden with dementia and my relationship with him during that time. It’s possible to find humor when it comes to Alzheimer’s and cancer and death, you just have to or you’re fucked. I loved him so much, it was a tough time for me but also, looking back, my favorite time with my Dad. The book is about all kinds of shit- women, wolves, guns, cops, travel,Florida, California, music, friends, life etc but the focus is on my father and me. You can get this little gem (as endorsed on That Metal Show!) on Lulu.com until Harper and Collins come to their senses. Just punch in the name of the book. Right now I am almost done with ‘Prairie Girl’ the new one about an alien I befriend who wants to become a celebrity and save the world.
One band past or present, who would you want to be the stand in for and why?
Alex: Whew. I don’t consider myself much of a talent so that’s a tough one but as far as fun goes it would be a blast to sing for the Bad Brains because they are so awesome musically. Motorhead because they are so powerful. The Doors because they are so mystical and bluesy.
Gary: Maybe The Replacements of Lucinda Williams.
I’ve heard rumors here and there. . And I know there have been a few reunion shows throughout the years. I believe the last in 2006. Will there ever be a chance of a reunion tour?
Gary: Oh I don’t know, hard for me to come through these days on that and it’s a shame but I’m not the biggest optimist. I keep in touch from time to time with Alex and Ryan mostly and wish them the very best and miss them as well as the band.
Alex: I doubt it as far as the original guys go- I’m sort of done with bringing up the subject. It’s too bad, but that’s life. I’ll see what I can do with these other cats- the focus is on song writing right now, not playing live or putting a new version of Circus together. And with that, I’d like to wish a Baba-booey to y’all!