And on drums … Ben Stiller!

The star had vir­tu­ally for­got­ten the al­bum his teenage punk band, Cap­i­tal Pun­ish­ment, recorded in 1981, he tells Alexis Petridis. Then a la­bel got in touch …

The Guardian - G2 - - Playlist - Stiller with his Peter Swann, Zusi, Kriss Roe­bling, AKA Cap­i­tal Pun­ish­ment, in 2018

Ben Stiller erupts in laugh­ter. No, he says, down the phone from New York, he re­ally didn’t ex­pect to be giv­ing an in­ter­view on this sub­ject in 2018. It wasn’t that he for­got about the al­bum he made with a band called Cap­i­tal Pun­ish­ment while at high school in 1981. He had a box of un­sold vinyl copies in his house, and he would oc­ca­sion­ally fish one out and play it to his kids. “They would re­ally band­mates on drums get a kick out of it; they thought it was pretty funny.” He men­tioned it dur­ing an in­ter­view on the Tonight Show a few years back and the host, Jimmy Fal­lon, played a track, much to the hi­lar­ity of the stu­dio au­di­ence.

It’s just that he as­sumed ab­so­lutely no one could pos­si­bly be in­ter­ested now. The band had pressed 500 copies back in 1981 and played it to their friends and their par­ents, who had stumped up the money in the first place. The re­sponse, says Stiller’s erst­while Peter Ben Stiller and band­mate Kriss Roe­bling, was one of “po­lite be­fud­dle­ment” – and that was that. Roe­bling had gone around lo­cal record stores with a box of al­bums and sold a few on con­sign­ment here and there, but the only ev­i­dence that any­one had bought one came af­ter a mem­ber of the band was, im­prob­a­ble as it seems, nearly hit by a copy of the al­bum as it was tossed from the win­dow of a nearby build­ing. “That,” says Roe­bling, “was the gen­eral re­ac­tion. It was a non-event at the time.”

It might well have stayed that way had Mike Sniper, owner of the la­bel Cap­tured Tracks, not taken on the chal­lenge of clear­ing out the New York apart­ment be­long­ing to a re­cently de­ceased com­pul­sive hoarder. Among his be­long­ings, Sniper found a copy of Cap­i­tal Pun­ish­ment’s Road­kill but had no idea that the B Stiller cred­ited with play­ing drums was the star of Zoolan­der and A Night at the Mu­seum. He was en­thralled enough by its sound, though, to try to track down the band so he could reis­sue it.

You can see why: plenty of fa­mous ac­tors dab­bled in mu­sic be­fore, or in­deed af­ter, mak­ing it in Hol­ly­wood, but it’s hard to think of any­one who was in­volved in an al­bum as odd as Road­kill. Some of it is very much in the vein of Throbbing Gris­tle or the postin­dus­trial artists they spawned: eerie sound­scapes over­laid with feed­back and record­ings of news re­ports about se­rial killers and Hein­rich Himm­ler singing the Horst Wes­sel Song. There are gui­tar-based tracks that re­call the sham­bolic indie of Tele­vi­sion Per­son­al­i­ties or Swell Maps. A deeply odd sense of hu­mour, rem­i­nis­cent of the Res­i­dents, runs through the whole thing. There are songs sung in weird ac­cents and a news re­port about the Hill­side Stran­gler fol­lowed by a burst of bag­pipe mu­sic.

“We were 15, 16, 17 years old,” Stiller says. “It’s a to­tally dif­fer­ent way of look­ing at the world. We were do­ing the things you do as a teenager that you think are funny. Half the time they aren’t – they’re just funny to you – but you have that brash sense of: ‘Let’s do this. This would be re­ally cool.’ You’re not edit­ing it be­cause it’s just where you are in your life. The al­bum is what it is be­cause of that.”

In fact, he says, his mu­si­cal tastes at the time were more main­stream than the stuff he was mak­ing. He was “a guy who was into the Cars”; the most avant garde he got was lis­ten­ing to David Bowie’s Scary Mon­sters. The al­bum sounds the way it does partly be­cause of Roe­bling’s love of ex­per­i­men­tal mu­sic and partly be­cause it was a mu­si­cal ex­ten­sion of its four mem­bers’ love of what Stiller calls “lit­tle ad­ven­tures”. Stiller, Roe­bling, Peter Swann and Peter Zusi were “to­tal weirdos”, given to amus­ing them­selves by “go­ing out on the street and fak­ing each other’s mur­ders, com­plete with dag­gers, re­tractable blades, fake blood and all this sort of stuff ”, says Stiller. “An­other time, we ran down the street with very re­al­is­tic prop firearms, scream­ing: ‘Ev­ery­body out of the way!’ We staged a cou­ple of pub­lic flog­gings as well, as I re­call. Of course, New York­ers at the time didn’t even look at us.”

“We weren’t that into drugs and maybe that was our al­ter­na­tive,” says Roe­bling. “It was kind of weirdly in­no­cent, as op­posed to guys down­town who were get­ting into real-life trou­ble.”

You can get a flavour of their be­hav­iour from the pho­tos that ac­com­pany the reis­sue. In one, ev­ery­day-look­ing high-school friends grin for the cam­era, ex­cept for Roe­bling, who is hold­ing a knife stabbed through what ap­pears to be a sev­ered hu­man hand, and Stiller, who is eat­ing a rat. “It’s not a real rat,” he says, laugh­ing. “We’ll stop that ru­mour right there. I think you see a cou­ple of teenagers cry­ing out for at­ten­tion, say­ing: ‘Hey, look at me!’”

The record­ing ses­sions for the al­bum it­self ap­par­ently passed in a blur of ex­cite­ment from the mem­bers of Cap­i­tal Pun­ish­ment and ut­ter baf­fle­ment from the pro­fes­sional stu­dio engi­neers they paid to work with them. The band fid­dled with tape loops, in­haled he­lium and in­sisted that mis­take­laden takes were keep­ers. When it was fin­ished, none of them re­ally seems to have known what to do to pro­mote it. They played a sin­gle gig, but, says Stiller, “I don’t know how suc­cess­ful that was.” In­stead of the al­bum, they per­formed a lengthy easy-lis­ten­ing in­stru­men­tal un­der the name Rent-a-Gong. Their other big idea in­volved ring­ing up pub­lic ac­cess TV shows and late night ra­dio talk­shows and scream­ing: “Cap­i­tal Pun­ish­ment is a rock band!” be­fore hang­ing up. “I don’t think we re­ally knew what deal­ing with the mu­sic in­dus­try en­tailed,” says Stiller.

The band broke up when its mem­bers went to col­lege, and Stiller says he never re­ally had any fur­ther mu­si­cal am­bi­tions. The clos­est he got was while em­ployed as a PA for a film-maker work­ing on a doc­u­men­tary about For­eigner. “I was at a stu­dio, help­ing with equip­ment while Lou Gramm was record­ing the lead vo­cal for I Want to Know What Love Is. He went to the bath­room, and I got in front of the mi­cro­phone and started pre­tend­ing to sing. He walked back in and said: ‘Hey man, you look pretty good there.’ I had a brief mo­ment where I thought: ‘ This would be re­ally cool to do.’”

He says he was “scep­ti­cal” when he heard about Sniper’s plan to rere­lease the al­bum. In fact, it had de­vel­oped a mi­nor cult fol­low­ing among col­lec­tors (an orig­i­nal copy will set you back $200 on Discogs), but was bowled over by his en­thu­si­asm: Sniper told Roe­bling that his own band, Blank Dogs, had recorded mu­sic in­spired by the tracks on Road­kill.

In fact, Sniper’s pas­sion proved so in­fec­tious that Cap­i­tal Pun­ish­ment have re-formed, a not-unim­pres­sive feat given the mem­bers’ cur­rent ca­reers: aside from Stiller’s work as an ac­tor, writer, direc­tor and pro­ducer, Roe­bling is a noted doc­u­men­tar­ian and writer, while bassist Peter Swann is a judge in Ari­zona and gui­tarist Peter Zusi is a pro­fes­sor of Czech and Slo­vak lit­er­a­ture at Univer­sity Col­lege Lon­don. Per­haps un­der­stand­ably, Stiller says, the first time they got back to­gether in a re­hearsal stu­dio was “just weird”, but there’s a new EP com­ing out on Record Store Day Black Fri­day called This is Cap­i­tal Pun­ish­ment. They are talk­ing about play­ing live, if their sched­ules al­low it. The other night, Stiller says, he fi­nally met Sniper, who was at pains to point out that he wasn’t in­ter­ested in his celebrity. “He was like: ‘My goal is to have peo­ple in­tro­duce you as the drum­mer in Cap­i­tal Pun­ish­ment.’”

This Is Cap­i­tal Pun­ish­ment is re­leased by Cap­tured Tracks on 23 Novem­ber.

‘We were go­ing out, fak­ing each other’s mur­ders, com­plete with dag­gers’ dag­gers

and (be­low)

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