An Interview with Greg Kuehn of TSOL
“I went to junior high with Tony from the Adolescents. Before punk rock even happened, we were listening to Rolling Stones records, and then the Ramones record came out, and we’re like, ‘What’s this?!!'”
Greg Kuehn has made a life crafting the sounds that you’ve probably heard without giving much thought to where it came from. CNN, Ford, Amazon, Verizon, Vans and music from the Barack Obama campaign represent just a handful of entities that Kuehn has worked with. With his company, Peligro Music, Greg Kuehn has partnered with, and created music and sound design for international brands and companies but you wouldn’t know this from speaking with him. These projects, along with world tours for musicians who were topping the charts, are all stories that he’ll recall heartily, though it’s clear that his passion remains in playing for and with those he cares about, many of which grew out of the small Orange County and Los Angeles punk scenes of the late 1970’s.
“The Cuckoo’s Nest, I lived at that place!” he says, talking about the old club in Costa Mesa, California that would become legendary for being Orange County’s punk venue during the scene’s formative years. The club gave rise to bands that would be known far outside of the small beach town scene like The Vandals, “So many great bands. It was like a shark frenzy, it was really just overwhelming. I saw so many great bands at the Nest.”
While the club itself was just a grimy nightclub and rock and roll bar, the venue would take on a stature as Orange County’s hand at the growth of what began as a disaffected fringe style of music.
“It was exciting, it was neat because it was all new,” Kuehn says about leaving his private religious high school on Friday afternoons and heading to the club. “You take it for granted because it’s what you got. You can’t know that at the time, if you’re 15 or 16 and start going to shows, how do you know what it is? How do you know it’s magical? You just figure there’s always great bands playing at cool punk clubs because that’s all you know. You don’t know what that means until you’re older.”
While just stumbling into the scene prior to its subsequent explosion, Kuehn found himself at the center of everything.
“I was a classical piano kid. I graduated high school when I was 17, so I was a year younger than everybody. I always loved music, and I was a classical piano major at Cal State Long Beach.”
A year into his studies he was approached by the band TSOL, a Huntington Beach based punk group fronted by Jack Grisham who at the time were notorious for having recently released their epic Dance With Me album, and also had a reputation for physical and often violent performances, asking Kuehn if he would join the band.
“The Damned had a lot to do with it!” he laughs. “The Damned’s Black Album and Machine Gun Etiquette, that’s piano and keyboards, and TSOL loved the Damned.”
Kuehn opted to drop out of college and begin touring and recording with TSOL. What resulted was the band’s Beneath The Shadows record, which fits firmly into the diverse crop of Southern California bands during the era who all fit within the punk scene.
“I liked The Damned, The Stranglers, Magazine, The Buzzcocks. That’s my shit. That’s what influenced me coming to TSOL,” Kuehn says. The guys in TSOL realized that this could be a cool thing, that keyboards could give them a broader sonic palate.”
While Kuehn’s musicianship is all over the Beneath The Shadows recordings, the band itself was an unstable mixture within a flammable environment. They would finish the album and do one tour before they would break up.
Kuehn and Jack Grisham would go on to start Cathedral Of Tears, another punk band with very dark melodic leanings. Cathedral Of Tears would record a demo, but then Kuehn was tapped by Bob Dylan, first to perform in the music video for the song “Sweetheart Like You” and then to play with the legend, thus bringing an end to his involvement with the punk outfit.
“The coolest thing for me,” Kuehn recalls with a slight laugh. “Charlie Quintana played drums in that Dylan video. It was neat to be in a Bob Dylan video, but Charlie Quintana was the drummer for [Los Angeles punk band] The Plugz, they’re album Electrify Me was fucking amazing. Bob’s like ‘why don’t you guys come up to the house?’ so I drive to Hollywood and get Charlie, and we drive to Bob’s in Malibu. We got to play together with Dylan. It’s funny, because I’m more excited to play with Charlie!”
Running in the same circle as Bob Dylan, Kuehn was introduced to other musicians, and ultimately invited to tour with them. Australian new wave band The Church were at their peak in the 80’s, and asked Kuehn to perform with them on tour. From there he would return to Orange County and go into the studio to work on Berlin’s Count Three And Pray album, after which he toured around the globe with the band in support of the record and their worldwide hit song “Take My Breath Away”.
“Giorgio Moroder wrote that song for [Berlin vocalist] Terri Nunn, it was supposed to be a solo single. It wound up being on the record,” he explains describing the events that would lead him to find himself headlining massive shows after the song blew up.
“She’s a great singer,” he says of Nunn. “We would always have a bit where we would do a little piano and vocal thing. It was cool to do with her because she’s such a great performer.”
Regardless of where his professional work took him, Kuehn never strayed too far from the punk fold.
Kuehn would reunite with Grisham for a musical project called Mens Club. The band’s demo wouldn’t gain much traction, however the music carries on the punk leaning electro mix of Grisham’s hypersexualized love songs with Kuehn’s increasingly commercially-refined shimmery synths.
Of Mens Club, Kuehn describes it as “We came together, me and Jack, in 1987. We never played any shows. You know, you listen to Smokey Robinson’s records, and we wanted to do something cool, something dancey, and that’s what came out.”
Encouraged by a friend, Kuehn would begin expanding into the commercial world of music, working to create songs for film, commercials, television news segments, and essentially any project that he thought seemed cool.
“I just show up for whatever it is seems like the right thing to do. I look for reasons to say yes to projects, not to say no!”
Kuehn would reunite again with Jack Grisham for a musical project called Jack Grisham and the West Coast Dukes.
“We did a Bowie cover, hence taking the name the Dukes” he explains. “Mike McCready from Pearl Jam plays on a couple songs from that. It didn’t fit into the TSOL paradigm, but that’s cool. I don’t give a fuck if anybody hears it or not, because it’s me and Jack together writing the songs.”
As Kuehn and the punk scene age, he repeats that he stays detached from the politics. These days Greg Kuehn just wants to write music with the people he cares about.
Meanwhile TSOL continues to tour and put out high energy confrontational music.
“Look at the [TSOL] album Trigger Complex. That was a really well-received record. I’m really happy with it. But it didn’t feel any better than when you’re going into make Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Free Downloads. Sometimes things just come together in a cool way and you wind up making a really cool record. Sometimes the stars align and you write a bunch of cool songs that all go together. I love that record.”
Kuehn did have a large part in crafting a sound for an album he did with old school skater and US Bombs frontman Duane Peters.
2012’s project Duane Peters and The Great Unwashed consisted of songs that Kuehn wrote for Duane, making a radical departure from the aggressive skate punk that Peters had to that time been known for.
“He really is a sensitive dude, man. His lyrics are great. I played with him and The Hunns, and just getting to know him and then to figure out a thing to do with him that made sense for him, it was fucking cool.” Kuehn describes channeling Peters’ lyric writing, and trying to craft a sound for him. What resulted was a slower songwriter sound along the lines of Leonard Cohen or Nick Cave. “What do you do when you get older? It’s like Tom Waits, Nick Cave, that’s what Duane Peters should be doing. He’s never done anything like that and it was perfect for him.”
Having made a career in the music industry, Greg Kuehn is remarkably chill about his accomplishments.
“I’m willing to let the universe decide on what I’m gonna do. It’s not my problem to think about what I want to do, because it never works out the way I think it’s gonna work out anyway.”
While his work continues to air in the film and commercials on which his writing and sound design appear, Kuehn continues to spend his time recording new music and still touring with TSOL.
“Work with some cool people, make some cool shit. And hopefully make some money at it too. As long as it works in a couple of those categories, I’m cool with it!”
After having traveled across world stages, performed with legendary caliber musicians, released amazing compositions that stretch the boundaries of punk with some of the people responsible for Southern California’s inclusion in conversations of the formation and direction of the music, Kuehn’s philosophy today is the same that led him to those shows at a small punk club in Costa Mesa during his high school years; the same that led him to abandon a music studies program at the university and tour with “that ‘fuck the dead’ band” as he laughingly says it.
“You just gotta follow your gut, keep doing the things that make you happy. If you do that, shit usually works out pretty good, you know. That’s what I find.”
Greg Kuehn’s projects mentioned above are mostly available music streaming platforms…
Catch him on tour with TSOL
View his commercial work at Peligro Music
or head to KWNKradio.org to listen to Nocturnal Transmissions and other freeform programming for the Reno area.
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