Cleveland's UNDERGROUND rock scene of the 1970s has achieved mythological status, earning adulation from people who have probably never set foot in Cleveland. The usual point of entry for those fans — and the scene's most prominent relic — is Pere Ubu, which founder David Thomas, now based in London, has kept going in various forms for 35 years, recording and touring with some degree of regularity.
But one other band from that scene also survived the '70s, undergoing many permutations and producing an even greater range of music. The Styrenes, founded and fronted by Paul Marotta, also decamped many years ago, relocating from Cleveland to New York in 1979. Starting with "Drano in Your Veins" in 1975 (when they were known as the Poli Styrene Jass Band), the group put out a series of singles, showcasing its often-noisy, sometimes tuneful, usually exploratory melding of rock, pop, jazz, and general musical meandering. Marotta — a versatile musician who plays keyboards and guitar in addition to singing — had also done stints with two other, shorter-lived Cleveland underground bands from the era: Mirrors and Electric Eels. But the Styrenes were more ambitious and wider ranging than their contemporaries.
After a recording hiatus in the mid-'80s, Marotta hooked up with another Cleveland underground legend, Pagans frontman Mike Hudson, to release A Monster and the Devil in 1989. He worked with Hudson on and off throughout the '90s, adding spoken word to his already eclectic mix of sounds while he coalesced the Styrenes' current lineup: guitarist UK Rattay, bassist Al Margolis, and drummer John Dylan Keith. The band's profile was raised when Scat Records' three-disc tribute to the scene they emerged from, 1997's Those Were Different Times, devoted a full disc to them. The following year, they released We Care So You Don't Have To, an album of new material, and All the Wrong People Are Dying, a compilation of tracks and collaborations from various periods.
Since then, Marotta and the Styrenes have recorded new music for 2008's City of Women and covered minimalist classical composer Terry Riley's 1964 composition, In C. Marrota has undergone life changes, including finishing his college degree after nearly 40 years and losing his wife of 36 years, Jill, to breast cancer in 2006. He put his belongings in storage, considered joining the Peace Corps and spent time in Florida.
About two months ago, he ended up in Cleveland again. With a bunch of new music to record, he struck a deal with North Collinwood's Exit Stencil Recording that he describes as "buying a share of the studio for six months." After Exit Stencil recorded a Mirrors reunion show at the Beachland two years ago, Marotta checked out the facility and was impressed by its sound and atmosphere. And, he adds, "It's dirt cheap to live here." So he's become, at least temporarily, a resident of Collinwood.
But before he can get started on the recording projects, he's hit the road with the Styrenes — with Electric Eels frontman John Morton and Mirrors linchpin Jamie Klimek in tow — for a 14-date tour that includes dates in New York, Nashville, Chicago, and Boston, with a stop at the Beachland on Sunday.
"I talked to my agent and asked him to see if there was enough interest to put together enough dates to make sense," says Marotta. "It's the 35th anniversary of the band, so I said let's see if I can make something of this."
Marotta, Morton and Klimek will take turns at the mic in a set that covers everything from the Electric Eels' 1978 single "Agitated," to tunes from City of Women.
"We've been rehearsing for two months, and the rehearsals sound great," says Marotta. "Jamie and I have been driving back and forth to New York. I'm just grateful that people still care. Bands rarely get a second chance."
Unlike many long-timers in the music business, Marotta has greeted the new era of music distribution without much angst. In addition to his ongoing music making, Marotta worked for New York-based New World Records for many years.
"One thing I learned in the record business and as a musician is that musicians are at the top of the food chain," he says. "If there were no record companies, people would still be making music. But if musicians disappeared, there would be no record companies."