Welcome to Gasping for Hair, a new column in which Decibel takes a deep dive into the classics of hard rock, hair metal, glam and other heavy metal adjacent subgenres.
It would’ve been so much easier for Mark Knight to simply pick up a pair of penny loafers and a couple Oingo Boingo records than to strap on some spikes and rep the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, Priest, Scorpions, and other shredders of the rising metal vanguard.
This, after all, was Calabasas High School in the early eighties, back when social outlaws and rock rebels were endangered species in a sea of preppie/normie poachers and not just another archetype.
But Knight took the road less quiet — and less conformist — and that, as the poet said, made all the difference.
Lucky for him, Knight had not only a maverick mindset and proclivity for writing searing, catchy riffs on his side, but also geography: A mere twenty miles away, illuminated suddenly like a beacon in the night — the Sunset Strip.
Though a hair too young to have attended one of Randy Rhoads gigs with Quiet Riot, around his junior year Knight made a beeline for this epicenter. He saw Mötley Crüe’s very first show at the Whiskey. By the ripe old age of sixteen the budding guitarist’s Maiden influenced metal band Krude Witch had opened for rising superstars such as RATT and WASP, even providing support for Steeler at the Troubador when Yngwie Malmsteen was still in the band.
Heady stuff for a young, hungry kid with a six-string on his back.
And yet destiny had much more planned — for him, sure, but also for hard rock and its devotees: You see, it would not be long before Knight co-founded Bang Tango, an incandescent glam-funk-metal beast that prowled the edge of the L.A. scene, offering a wilder, darker, more enlivening vision of rock n’ roll than virtually all its contemporaries before imploding.
Now, just over thirty years after the release of the band’s peerless debut Psycho Cafe, the original Bang Tango lineup — Knight, vocalist Joe Lesté (who kept the name alive, touring several incarnations of the band in the interim), drummer Tigg Ketler, guitarist Kyle Stevens, and bassist Kyle Kyle — has improbably reunited. And if the first show back at the Whisky last month is any indication, this iconoclastic often imitated, never replicated quintet is ready to set the world of hard rock on fire again.
In this inaugural edition of Gasping for Hair, Knight — easily one of the most interesting and innovative guitarists of his hard rock class — gives us the lowdown on the rise, fall, and resurrection of Bang Tango — and some insight into hard lessons learned along the way.
When I reached out to you last year about potentially doing a feature on the 13th anniversary of Psycho Cafe, you very politely told me you were a bit over talking about Bang Tango. Which, as a superfan, I didn’t quite get at first. But then I watched Drew Fortier’s enlightening Attack of Life documentary on the band. And I took a dive into the amazing, criminally under-appreciated work you’ve done as a solo artist and with the Unsung Heroes. And I started to understand where you were coming from: You’re still creating such vital, diverse music and there seemed to be no shortage of volatility in the history of Bang. Yet here we are six months or whatever later and there’s these reunion shows. It seems like that powerful, ineffable thing that continues to draw new fans to the band maybe drew you back, too. So what was the turning point?
I’ll just give you a little on the history of how it kind of went down. Last year, probably around when you got in touch, we — and I mean “we” as in me and the rest of the original members; not [vocalist] Joe [Lesté], but just the four of us — had been talking about the thirtieth anniversary of Psycho Cafe and how it would be cool to show some respect to the fans and the music we made by maybe trying to get a reunion together. You know, go out and play the whole record — that kind of thing. Even just one show. But as the year 2019 wound down it became more and more clear, you know: “Joe’s out on tour with his other version of Bang Tango for awhile. I guess this is just going to come and go.”
Come October, though, Joe started calling. Honestly, I wasn’t too excited about talking to him at that point. But eventually I picked up and he said, “I want to get back with the original guys — put the original band back together again and go out and do something.” At first I was skeptical — he’s already got this other line-up of the band going.
Right, there are already some pretty complicated dueling versions of bands on the road…
Exactly. But we ended up having a lot of discussions and what came out of that was very inspiring to me. At the end of it, I basically said, “If you just want to free yourself up and do the original guys, then I’m all about it. Let’s do something.” And here we are.
Well, you all certainly made many, many people happy getting there. I wonder, when you finally open the door to a reunion like this, after so many years, does that end up serving as a catalyst for you to reassess your past work from a new vantage point and find new ways to understand and appreciate it?
Absolutely. For me, personally, it’s part of a catalog of music that I’ve created over my life and returning to it gives me an opportunity to see how different parts of the journey connect, if that makes sense. That’s why I always felt like, Why shouldn’t we go out and play this stuff again with the original guys? Whatever else we’ve done, it’s part of all of us. But I maybe didn’t realize how powerful the experience would be once it finally happened: It was kind of an awakening for all of us to get back together again and go in a rehearsal studio and play these songs; to realize — and sometimes be surprised by — what we actually created back then. But that’s all internal. I mean, would I love to turn Bang Tango over and figure out why some of songs affected people in such a lasting way? Well, of course. But is that really even possible?
That’s a great point. I imagine everyone writes the best material they can within the context and configuration of their own musical soul and the souls of the other people they’re playing with, but nobody can really plot out writing a song that in thirty years is still going to resonate. It’s all a mystery — if it wasn’t there’d be no such thing as a one hit wonder.
When it comes to Bang Tango, we weren’t even thinking about figuring out that mystery. We were just young and creating music and living in those moments. What I can say is that to have a song you helped create turn into something that gets into the soul and bloodstream of people to the point where decades later they still turn it up when it comes on and can still be moved by it and even be transported back to the time in their life when they first loved the song… We can never figure out how that all happened, but it’s a beautiful thing. It’s a gift.
It helps that none has ever been able to recreate the Bang Tango alchemy — an unusual energy as well as a very rare ability to meld genres.
Yeah. We just had a unique thing that you can’t chalk up to any one of us, you know? I think that’s just the mix of these specific five guys coming together. Metal, funk, whatever people want to call us — there’s no label you could really pin us except for being definitely original-sounding band. And we got lucky in that respect. Really lucky.
So when you first put Bang Tango together in 1988 was there an evolutionary period? Or did you realize you had something special and different right away?
Well, when we finally got the guys together in the group and we went out and started playing, it was just incredible spark from the first gig. After a couple shows the local rags are putting us on the cover and people were coming out to see us. And I’m like, “Whoa, what the hell is going on? I’ve never been in a band where it just ignited that fast.”
Were any of the songs you were playing, would those be songs people recognize now?
Live Injection, the first live EP we did, had “Do What You’re Told” and “Love Injection,” which both ended up on Psycho Cafe. Actually, there’s a song called “I’m A Stranger” on there that was from a band called City Slick that me and Kyle Kyle were in before we formed Bang Tango. The riff was the same. So I actually was bringing some of those songs into the new band, which became Bang Tango, at the time.
The alliance with Kyle Kyle is key, right? He’s just such an insanely wild imaginative player.
Yeah. At the time, he was kind of known as this really hot shot bass player on the Sunset Strip. So he knew who I was, I knew who he was, but we really didn’t know each other, even though we’d both played with other guys that were in different bands that we knew. And then one night we bumped into each other — at the Rainbow, of all places — and just clicked. We ended up putting this band together, City Slick, with a different singer and a different drummer. The vibe was just kind of like, “Whoa, hey.” Eventually he decided to quit City Slick and I said, “Well, if you’re going to quit the band, let’s just stick together and form another band. I’m going to go with you.” So we built Bang Tango from there. That’s how it happened.
So things are blowing up and somehow you end up with a deal with MCA.
Yeah. For seven months we went out and played — we didn’t do the pay-to-play thing at bigger clubs like a lot of bands. We played a lot of jam nights doing, like, three songs and we’d go play anywhere people could see us, and it worked out. Joe found a really good entertainment lawyer who was like, “Okay, this is what you guys have got to do.” We’d get a call at like five in the afternoon at our day jobs: “You got to go play down at Club Lingerie because I’ve got blah blah blah from Warner Brothers coming down to see you.” So he was doing this kind of backdoor way of showcasing the band without selling out the Troubadour. So in seven to nine months we’re getting interest from labels just kind of did it a roundabout way. A deal always seemed close but not quite there. CBS gave us a demo deal for a thousand bucks or whatever, we didn’t take it. We were starting to get a little nervous like, “There’s buzz right now. When’s it going to happen?”
Finally, we played this gig at Gazzarri’s. Ten bands. Each band played three songs and Steve Sinclair from Mechanics MCA came out to see the headliner band. He saw us, next day offered us a deal. It wasn’t the greatest deal. And we were being courted by Atlantic and other different labels. But we took it. We just wanted to get onto the next thing — to make a record. That was what was most important to us.
Psycho Cafe is a record that has a lot of intricacies and nuance to it, but also this primal power and natural flow. Was it difficult to capture all of that in the studio?
Well, we got this young producer, Howard Benson. It was the second record he’d ever done and he decided to fly us out to Austin, Texas to make the record. And we were a bunch of kids, super excited. Still, even though we’d done a lot of pre-production and worked out a lot of the parts before we went out there, it started out a little rough. We were so new to everything, just finding sounds and figuring out what direction we were heading was a challenge. But our mentality was that this was our moment and we had to rise to meet it. So we didn’t really look back, we just pressed forward. By the end of the sessions we were completely in that flow. As an example, there’s that weird ballad on the record, “Just For You,” I wrote ’cause we’d been listening to Jane’s Addiction or something and Joe was just like, “Cool. Let’s track it.” So literally we were tracking his vocals for that song the last day before we were loading the gear out to come back to LA to mix.
The record is a huge, visceral piece of work — it’s maybe one of the better sounding records of the era. Did that larger-than-life-ness coming out of the studio speakers surprise you at all?
You know, when you’re in it and and laying it all down, you’re pretty self-absorbed with trying to get your part right and your tone right. But I remember very clearly when we came back from Austin listening to the roughs and just thinking, “This stuff sounds great. We actually pulled it off.” I was super pleased with it and — like you said — surprised. Like, “Wow, we sound massive!” Then we mixed at Sunset Sound, which was great, but we were young and everyone just wanted to hear themselves. We weren’t always looking at the overall picture, if that makes any sense. So a lot of credit has to go to Howard, for just wrangling us and getting the parts really worked out and helping us realize all that in the studio. We were very pleased.
Like probably most people off the Strip, my first encounter with Psycho Cafe was the “Someone Like You” video on MTV, which — if memory serves — quickly went from the rock blocks into heavy rotation. Did the record hit right away?
Yeah, again, crazy right away. We did the video with the great director Jeff Stein. He put an interesting twist on it — kind of real Billy Idol-esque. We were just trying to get something that was a little futuristic, a little bit modern, a little bit different from all the bands doing the typical Headbangers Ball type of thing. MTV just ran with it. We were getting most requested videos on the day-to-day thing at the time, which was shocking. By the time we started the initial first tour for Psycho Cafe, it was just over the top. We were selling out clubs right away, which was rare. A lot of the bands that got bigger deals than us on the Sunset Strip didn’t have that story. I mean, we had played the Whiskey not that long ago and there were like thirty people. We come back after “Someone Like You” and there’s a two mile line down the street. So it kind of whacked us. We couldn’t believe it. We were like, “Whoa.” So that was kind of pretty cool and exciting time.
You’re on top of the world. But I’ll ask maybe a counterintuitive question, which is: Was this a happy time?
Well. [Laughs.] We always wanted more. I felt like our drive was strong, which got us to this incredible place we were at but also maybe… I think we could have enjoyed the ride a lot more back then, to be honest with you.
Standard folly of youth type stuff.
Yeah, I mean, it wasn’t just us. Looking back, some of the management decisions probably weren’t right. Some of the label decisions weren’t right. Still, within the band it always felt like we’d celebrate all these great moments, incredible moments, and huge pinnacles of success with any of us, but there’d always be a darkness around the edges of it. You know, we’re selling out any club we show up at, but it’s like, “Yeah, but why aren’t we opening an arena tour yet?” It was a lot of that going on throughout the entire career of the band, actually. At times it should have been like, “This is like unbelievable!” — and we’d have those moments, definitely — but then everybody also be pissed off about one thing or another. Maybe that comes with the territory when you have a lot of ambition and are young. In the end, whatever else happened, we made a record we’re still proud of and people still enjoy — that’s what really matters.
Talk to me about the somewhat under-loved follow-up, Dancing’ on Coals.
So…we got a different producer, John Jansen. We wrote fifty songs.
Well, they weren’t all the greatest songs! We just had them. Actually, we had to talk John into doing it. Joe and I flew out to New Jersey where he was producing Cinderella at the time. And we had to go out there and just be like, “C’mon, man. You gonna do this with us or not?” He finally committed. We narrowed those fifty songs down to maybe twenty. It was a longer process than we expected. He kept toning down our songs. “I don’t like this. I don’t like that. Go write more.” Eventually we got into the recording process. We had a bigger budget because the labels saw successes from the first record and we ended up bringing background singers and all this other stuff — we were sort of trying to be like the Rolling Stones at the time. It got a little over the top. We recorded it in a bunch of different studios in L.A. We went out to the West Orange, did overdubs. It was a long process, but, we ended up with something pretty cool.
Was it a daunting record to make in light of the success of Psycho Cafe?It’s not easy to capture lightning in a bottle twice…
We — or at least I — didn’t think of it at that way at the time. Afterwards, of course, the record was not as successful. I think a lot of fans loved it, but there were also some who wanted something with a more riots, heavier edge. Psycho Cafe II. It wasn’t like we completely changed our styles or anything, but I think it’s safe to say the jump we did make was a little bit too far out from the first record for some. Maybe if we even had recorded the same songs with Howard or a different producer — or the different songs with the same producer — maybe things would’ve turned out differently. Who knows? You can’t re-do history. It is what it is. I will say I like the record and I love John Jansen. I mean, I ended up giving him one of my Les Pauls at the end of the session, because he taught me so much about the blues and all sorts of stuff. Really, he inspired my entire evolution after the Bang Tango days.
Oh yeah. It was like going to school. He worked with Hendrix and mixed Clapton — everyone.
It seems like maybe other people had a similar experience. You mentioned he’d been working with Cinderella when you met him — that must’ve been around their turn toward the blues?
Yep. Exactly. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he helped turned them down that road.
Okay, time to talk about Love After Death. As anyone who has watched Attack of Life knows, this “lost” record has a complicated history which I won’t make you revisit in detail here, but it’s an utterly fantastic record that never got a proper release — and that is a complete fucking travesty. Not to put words in your mouth, but is that how you feel?
Yeah, that whole experience was devastating. At that point we were out to just rock the house, get back to our heavy edge, reunite with Howard Benson, and come back big. I was personally really invested in that record. I gave it my all. Writing and recording it felt like my glory days of being an artist. I felt ready. I was at the right age. I was just ready to go. It took two years to make. And the label just pulled the plug on the record and dropped us. It just took the wind completely out of the sails. Our guitarist, Kyle Stevens, quit the band. We were trying to get another deal.
It’s very strange how true artists such as yourselves could channel that much brilliance and greatness — and an outside force could just snuff it out on a whim. As anyone who seeks out the record will instantly realize, that’s just insane.
It is pretty sad. And the way it went down? We were blindsided. It was like a sucker punch. Our manager at the time goes in, has a meeting with MCA to discuss promotion, and instead they’re like, “Yeah, we’re going to let you guys go, but you can shop the record to other labels.” Uh…what?! We got offered a couple of weird deals in America that didn’t pan out. Finally Music For Nations put it out in Asia and Europe. But yeah it was a drag.
Did you tour it at all overseas?
Yeah, we went out to the UK and some of Europe and did like a couple of weeks in support of it. But at that point the band was just getting funky and our hearts weren’t in it as much. And I think I was starting to like evolve as a singer-songwriter and wanted to do my thing. It was weird and it wasn’t a great turnout as far as the crowds. Kyle Stevens was out of band. And we had a different guitar player and it’s just the whole vibe just wasn’t the same and it seemed like losing motivation.
So at some point you make the decision to end the band.
Hmm. I’ll be honest with you, this is a strangest thing, but we did that last tour in Europe — about two weeks — came back up and everybody just…kind of disappeared. Tigg, our drummer, called up our manager and said he quit. Kyle Kyle stayed in Europe with his girlfriend. And — this like really honest stuff that I probably haven’t told anybody — Joe had discussed doing a side project with me when we were on the last couple of days of that last tour. I was like, “Oh, okay, we’ll try it out.” Meanwhile, I’m trying to start my whole singer-songwriter trip. Bang Tango just dissolved. Nobody said, “Hey, we’re breaking up.” It just kind of ended.
In the interim there have been other iterations of Bang Tango, as you said before, but rather than rehash that I’d like to ask about how the fantastic work you alluded to as a singer-songwriter — stuff with just so much heart and soul, truly — is tied up with how Bang Tango existed and ended. If at all.
It just was this natural evolution for me. At the time, I lived in Malibu. On the beach. Surfing every day. I just followed what felt right and kind of was possessed by this totally different thing. People told me, “Nah, you can’t do that — you’re the hard rock guitar guy.” And I’ll always be that guy, but I was someone else, too. Just cranking amps and playing super loud wasn’t enough for me anymore. My attitude was, You just got a style, just do it.
Was it liberating for you to go through that process?
It was. It was also a big, wild change. And scary. Once the band broke up, I no longer had the umbrella of Bang Tango over me — this security of being in this successful band. I was just kind of out on my own. I realized I had to make money other ways and it was this huge change in my life. But it felt good because it was exactly what I wanted to do.
What kind of work did you do?
Some of it was musical. I started working with this old sixties kind of guy from San Francisco on acoustic stuff and put this band together called Tomcat. And then I was doing just painting jobs or whatever I could to make ends meet. A lot of freelance construction type stuff. I’ve never gotten a permanent job. I just did what I needed to in order to keep moving forward with my music. It’s been just years and years of different bands and continuing on. Eventually I put another electric band together that I fronted called Worry Beads. I got into the southern blues rock scene, the jam scene. I played with some of the guys from Gov’t Mule and Dickey Betts’ kid Duane. I did a lot of touring in the South. Three or four times a year I’d go out to all the South and play solo acoustic shows and band shows. All of this evolved into the Unsung Heroes.
Wow. So it’s a pretty awesome, wide-ranging career. Not many people get to do that many different things.
Oh, thanks. Yeah, it’s been a journey. Also, I was raising a family. I had two daughters I was raising and they’d be like, “Where are you going?” I’m going to the South. I’d go out and do like two weeks out there, come back. And yeah, it was a lot of years I’m trying to condense for you here. [Laughs.] I’m actually recording again right now.
And it’s with the Unsung Heroes that things start to come full circle. The Bang Tango world started to sort of meld with your solo world, right?
Well, after I did Don’t Kill the Cat, I needed another guitar player. So I asked Kyle Stevens and once he heard the record, he goes, “Oh, absolutely!” So he started working with me two years ago. We did a bunch of gigs and we’re back doing another record and I needed a bass player to do some tracks. The bass player we had was new so he wasn’t really like studio savvy enough to take the records. I figured, “Hey, I’ll ask Kyle Kyle!” I sent up the track and he was like, “Sure.” So he did two songs in the new record. And then Tigg has been a part of the Unsung Heroes for years — he’s been playing with me for the last twenty years. So I figured I’ve got to bring Tigg in on this. I hit him up and gave him a song and he hadn’t been doing anything at the time. This was literally six months ago or a year ago. So I brought him on a song and now here I got all the original Bang guys playing on my new record. It’s like, “This is cool.”
Did that increasing closeness to the past help set the stage for Bang Tango to reunite?
I think so. My relationships with Tigg and Kyle Stevens were always solid throughout the years. But Kyle Kyle playing on a couple of my tracks was just really cool because it’s been thirty years since we’ve recorded together — or even played together, really. And then ironically Joe calls me up and it’s like, “I’m already playing with all the guys, man. Everything’s good on our side.
Ha! “Oh, yeah, the original lineup? They’re sitting right here.”
Exactly. So it’s a little weird how that happened. So it’s just like the stage was set to go into these Bang rehearsals. It’s just like brothers back together again.
Did it sort of fall back into place?
I think we were all just thrilled to be in the room together again. We were just kind of looking at each other going, “Wow, we’re all still alive and having this family reunion.” And then we all plugged in and went for it. We had a like a loose set list that we had put together and we ended up playing like twenty songs and it felt good. Yeah.
Footage of the first reunion show at the Whisky has made its way online. It certainly seems like you haven’t missed a beat — the set is total fire.
Yeah, well we did a lot of homework, all of us. Did a couple six hour rehearsals one weekend and then just went on stage at the Whisky — where it kind of all started for us — and let it ride. It was cool. I had a blast. I think everybody there…it was a great vibe. We had so many old fans come out, family members. It was like super fun. And once we finally hit the stage at midnight we just rocked it.
Did your kids get to see you rock?
Yeah, my girls were there.
Man, not a lot of people get to come full circle and experience something beautiful from the past all over again from the vantage point of adulthood, with all these other experiences and accomplishments in their back pocket. And it sounds like everybody’s getting along. It just seems like a cool pinnacle moment.
It really makes you reflect on your life. It’s really weird because there’s a lot of years passed and we’ve all done different things. I’ve reinvented myself as this singer-songwriter guy. It was cool just to focus on playing guitar again. It’s like, you put yourself into this persona of who you were even though you’ve changed so much over all these years. It’s almost like playing a role or something in a sense. So there’s a lot of reflection on your own persona and yourself and I think all of us experienced that. And through doing that, you learn to be able to appreciate the personas of the other people in the band in new and deeper ways. Even though everybody’s still the same human being, they’ve lived a lot of life. Everybody sees things in different ways and everybody has learned lessons. It’s cool to re-meet these people I consider brothers as who they are now.
And most people change for the better, right?
Well, you would hope. I mean most people mature and learn from their mistakes. Hopefully, they become better people. But…people are people.
Fair enough. So what’s next? You’re doing M3, right?
The plan is to play some more selective dates. We have a booking agent. They’re basically pitching us to some casino dates and some different… We’re planning to play more but we’re not going to tour. Maybe more festivals, select cities — that sort of thing. My whole goal was to get the five of us back on the stage again. Just do it. Not only because we’ve talked about it for so many years, but also because we needed to come back together and celebrate what we accomplished. We did it. Even if we don’t play another show ever again. We did it. And I’m so happy that we did.