Hailing from Minneapolis, Minnesota, the Cows are one of their hometown’s favorite punk/noise-rock bands, though when they first hit the scene in the mid-1980s, many questioned the group’s level of talent. Fortunately for the Cows and their fans, the band’s musicianship has improved over the years, making way for a more technically polished sound. Still, the Cows never mellowed. Both on record and live, the group remains as primitive, loud, exciting, and enthusiastic as ever. “We’re not going anywhere, we’re here for the long haul,” guitarist Thor Eisentrager told Tim Merrill in the Toronto music paper Exclaim. “We feel like we’re getting better at what we do every year as we learn about new things like recording and technology.”
The Cows formed in Minneapolis in 1985. The original lineup consisted of lead singer Shannon Selberg, who later took up the bugle, guitarist Thor Eisentrager, bass guitarist Kevin Rutmanis, and drummer Norm Rogers. Like another local outfit, the now-legendary Hüsker Dü, the Cows had a hardcore sound characterized by blurred guitars. However, the Cows took the formula a step further. “We wanted to do something pretty unconventional,” Eisentrager said to Merrill, “and we work hard on it. It doesn’t just come off. We work hard on the timing and changes, and riffs.”
Stripping away anything that remotely resembled pop—including melody and catchy hooks and riffs— the Cows offered punk rock in its crudest form. John Dougan in All Music Guide described the group’s distorted sound as “a feral racket that sounded as is if the guitars were being played with metal files.” Lyrically, their songs dealt with just about anything, from losers in life to sex and bodily fluids. And Selberg’s shrieking vocal style and general lunacy on stage provided the Cows with a bizarre, yet often engaging focus.
Live, the band’s presence continues to create a sort of uncomfortable anxiety. Selberg’s antics range from robotic movements and mocking the crowd to cavorting with an array of sometimes obscene objects. He also likes to role play various personas. For instance, he has paced the stage like a trapped animal, then depicted himself to the audience as a tortured performance artist. “It’s all just entertainment. The desire to put on a good show,” Selberg said, as quoted by Magnet magazine’s Eric Bensel.
In 1987, the Cows released their debut album, Taint Pluribus, Taint Unum, to a general lack of enthusiasm. Most wrote the group off as completely talentless. Undeterred, the Cows kept at it, landing a record deal with Amphetamine Reptile for the release of their second LP, Daddy Has a Tail. And by the time Cunning Stunts arrived in 1992, critics began to cite improvements.
However, while the Cows exhibited a more solid playing technique and greater songwriting focus, they stayed true to their punk roots and anti-commercial stance. “We play music that we like,” explained Eisentrager to Merrill. “We know how the world works. We’re not trying to make music for mass consumption. Some-times you get frustrated, but it’s all about music. Episodically you get pissed off, but we’ve had a fair shake with the band, and we’ve had good tours. Basically we wish more people could get their hands on the records, but we know what we’re doing and like what we do. It’s not like somebody is trying … to ignore us. It’s just the nature of the beast.” Rogers added: “You know there’s bands out there touring who get $100 a night. They might be around for one year, but we’re lucky compared to them.”
After the release of Orphan’s Tragedy in 1994, Roger decided to leave the Cows, fueling rumors of a breakup. The rumors were silenced, however, with the release of Whom in 1996. The album featured a new drummer, Freddy Votel, whom Jason Josephes of Pitchfork called “rock solid.”
In the wake of Whom, talk of a band breakup emerged a second time when Selberg relocated from Minneapolis to New York City. But a new album again served as notice that the Cows were a healthy unit. Released in 1998, the eclectic Sorry In Pig Minor also saw the Cows, for the first time, exploring new ground. Although evidence of the old Cows remained, Sorry In Pig Minor was more varied in scope and texture. The opener, “Cabin Man,” was vintage Cows, yet tunes like the Latin-flavored “El Shiksa” and the jazzy “Felon of
Members include Thor Eisentrager, guitar; Norm Rogers (left band c. 1995), drums; Kevin Rutmanis, bass guitar; Shannon Selberg, vocals, bugle; Freddy Votel (joined band c. 1995), drums.
Formed band in Minneapolis, MN, 1985; released debut album Taint Pluribus, Taint Unum, 1987; signed with Amphetamine Reptile, 1989; released Cunning Stunts, 1992; released Whom, 1996; released Sorry In Pig Minor, 1998.
Addresses: Record company —Amphetamine Reptile, 2200 4th St. N.E., Minneapolis, MN 55418, phone: (612) 781-6120, fax: (612) 781-9320, email: [email protected]
Troy” proved that the group could handle more than punk.
The band’s demonstration of their versatility was attributed, in large part, to producer Buzz “King Buzzo” Osboume of the Melvins. Whereas previous producers for the Cows simply wanted to capture the band’s live sound on tape, Osbourne was most interested in making a great record. Taking a hands-on, no-nonsense approach in the studio, he actively participated in shaping the group’s songs. “He actually produced the album instead of just recording it,” concluded Eisentrager, as quoted by Bensel. “I think all four of us would definitely vote for Sorry as our best,” further testified Rutmantis. “The writing, playing, arrangements and production are the best we’ve ever done. Not in small part due to Buzz’s input.” Votel, likewise, saluted Osbourne’s input. “I’d work with him again in a second.”
Although the Cows never set out to attract the interest of major record labels, they do admit an openness to the possibility. And with the raves awarded to Sorry In Pig Minor, the band believes that they still have a slight chance. “Every day you’re not on a major label, more and more doors are closed to you,” Selberg said to Bensel. “If we had a chance to get out, we’d like to.”
Whether or not the Cows find a home at a major label, one characteristic of the band will surely survive: their integrity and adherence to the ethic of punk rock. “A lot of kids are being bought up by major labels, and not learning to work for themselves,” explained Eisentrager to Merrill. “You can probably have integrity on a major label, but that’s up to you personally, not the label.”
Taint Pluribus, Taint Unum, Treehouse, 1987.
Daddy Has a Tail, Amphetamine Reptile, 1989.
Effete and Impudent Snobs, Amphetamine Reptile, 1990.
Peacetika, Amphetamine Reptile, 1991.
Cunning Stunts, Amphetamine Reptile, 1992.
Sexy Pee Story, Amphetamine Reptile, 1993.
Orphan’s Tragedy, Amphetamine Reptile, 1994.
Whom, Amphetamine Reptile, 1996.
Old Gold 1989-1991, Amphetamine Reptile, 1996.
Sorry In Pig Minor, Amphetamine Reptile, 1998.
Magnet, July/August 1999.
All Music Guide, http,//www.allmusic.com (February 20, 2001)
Pitchfork, http://www.pitchforkmedia.com (February 20, 2001).
Unofficial Cows Home Page, http://www.bubbasmonkey.com/COWS/home.html (February 20, 2001).