Louisville Music History: Circle X

Undated Circle X photo

Since it’s kind of a slow news day here in Louisville, we thought we’d take a few moments to reach back into the past and discuss one of our favorite subjects: Louisville Music History. The history of Louisville’s music, going way back even into the jug band times, has been pretty diverse and legendary, especially for a town of Louisville’s size.

One would think Louisville might be behind the times, since Mark Twain famously said he’d wait out the end of the world in Kentucky, where it would happen 20 years later than everywhere else. Yet while this may arguably be true for other aspects of Louisville culture, this is not the case for Louisville’s music scene, especially since the late 1970s when punk rock blossomed here far before many other similar towns. And one of the stranger fruits of that blossiming was Circle X.

Bold Beginnings

Though possibly formed in New York, Circle X was born out of the ashes of No Fun, considered by most to be Louisville’s first punk rock band. No Fun consisted of Tony Pinotti, Bruce Witsiepe, Tara Key (later of Babylon Dance Band and Antietam, as well as a solo artist), Carty Bledsoe and Dean Thomas, and in the summer of 1978 they recorded a demo tape before splitting up (you can hear the fruits of their labor on the excellent Bold Beginnings: An Incomplete Collection of Louisville Punk 1978-1983 compilation on local label Noise Pollution — and read more about the early days of the Louisville punk scene in this Louisville magazine article by former Babylon Dance Band frontman Chip Nold).

Once the lineup of Circle X solidified in New York (with David and Rick Letendre of Louisville’s unrecorded I-Holes joining the group), the formerly-punk band lunged headfirst into weirder, artier territory. Whether the big city’s burgeoning No Wave scene influenced Circle X or they influenced the scene is unclear; what is clear is that Circle X was one of the most unique, most mysterious and yet most un-heralded band to be involved in that particular place and time.

Yet perhaps Circle X’s willful obscurity was self-induced — they left New York at the height of the No Wave era to reconvene in France (where they recorded a four-song EP, reissued on CD in the late 1990s by the Dexter’s Cigar subsidiary of Drag City Records). Upon returning to New York in 1982 (or thereabouts), they set out on finishing their Prehistory LP, which was released by both a French label (L’Invitation au Suicide) and an American label (Index). However, as the album didn’t sell particularly well (despite its inventive and crucial blend of the dark angst of No Wave and “goth” groups such as Mars and the Birthday Party with dub rhythms that wouldn’t seem out of place on an Augustus Pablo record), Circle X remained obscure.

Celestial

But the band toiled on, mainly playing shows in the Manhattan art-world underground, with an elan and vigor that few could match (as attested in their biography from their 1994 Matador release Celestial):

The remainder of the ’80s saw the group diversify with new drummer Mike McShane, guest violinist Lois Delivio and complex art performances, often involving constructions of great wheels, techno puppets and machines, as well as collaborative visuals with film makers Bradley Eros and Jeanne Liotta. In addition, the integration of synth technologies, tapes and samples now figured in the music’s stew of beauty and din. Members of the Circle X faction surfaced in offshoot projects like The Life of Falconettie (featuring Witsiepe and future Circle X engineer Mike Pullen), Gin Ray (with Letendre and Pullen) and Dear John (ostensibly a Circle X incarnation). By `89, Witsiepe, along with both Pinotti and Letendre, had begun publishing ANTI-UTOPIA, a limited edition artists’ book. A 1990 volume included a near-half-hour flexi-disc featuring Peter Van Riper, Mike Pullen, Christian Marclay, Bodeco, and a Circle X offering, “Crash/St. Sebastian of the Hood” (after a J.G. Ballard novel), a song later remixed for Matador’s New York Eye and Ear Control compilation.

The veiled glory of Circle X’s past had metamorphosed into the purity of the marginal. Current drummer Martin Koeb (Dustdevils, Wall Drug, Loudspeaker) joined Pinotti, Witsiepe and Letendre in 1992 and four white-vinyl seven-inch singles for Matador, American Gothic and Lungcast Records were released over the course of a year. Titled The Ivory Tower, the records were compiled into a box set and re-released under the auspices of EDITIONS ANTI-UTOPIA in mid-’93. The package was limited to 100 and included an original performance photo from a recent European tour, a booklet fold-out and a silkscreen-printed mirror. The music within remained eerie, intelligent and harsh, yet far more aurally complex.

Celestial, while out of print, remains a fantastic, mature artistic statement from a band who clearly synthesized many different types of music and art in order to create a sui generis whole. Unfortunately, not too long after its release, guitarist and founding member Bruce Witsiepe died of AIDS.

Despite the renewed interest in the music, art and history of New York in the late 1970s and early 1980s (as evidenced by compilations such as the New York Noise series on the UK’s Soul Jazz label, as well as archival reissues such as the movie Downtown ’81 starring then art-world phenom Jean-Michel Basquiat), Circle X remains an enigma. However, Blue Chopsticks, a label curated by Louisville native and musician David Grubbs (of such groundbreaking bands as Squirrel Bait, Bastro and Gastr del Sol), has recently reissued Circle X’s Prehistory on CD. So while the history of the band may still be somewhat obscure, their music can and will live on.

Download the song “Beyond Standard” from Circle X’s Prehistory record here.

Prehistory is available at ear X-tacy Records on Bardstown Road in the Highlands.

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3 Responses to “Louisville Music History: Circle X”

  1. […] Coverage: Live previews, B-Sides on Circle X 8 points (Circle X coverage? […]

  2. […] We wrote about Louisville art-music crazies Circle X a few weeks ago, as their Prehistory record was recently reissued by David Grubbs‘ Blue Chopsticks label. You also might have seen the B-Sides column in LEO that discusses the reissue (and where member Rik Letendre’s name is misspelled). As it turns out, Mr. Letendre was recently a guest on the Strength Through Failure with Fabio show on WFMU, probably the best (and maybe the only true) free-form radio station in the entire country. You can stream the show and look at the entire playlist here (the playlist also includes songs from James Last, the Birthday Party and Public Image Ltd.). Special thanks to our pal Brian Labuda from Philadelphia’s Fun Vampires blog for hipping us to the show. […]

  3. […] from my current location, Louisville, KY, Circle X made their own unique contribution to the No Wave movement, which sought, in part, to […]

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