Hipsters and stoners converge at Checkpoint Charlie’s on this muggy Friday evening. The smell of stale beer drifts through the air and the next band up is the Zydepunks. The front man is shirtless, a tall woman in a red dress is on the left side of the stage, and your average-joe bassist is in the rear puffing on cigarettes next to the drummer. Something is different here, though. The members of this self-proclaimed punk band are all holding accordions and fiddles. There isn’t an electric guitar in sight. When the band launches into “Boudreaux Crosses the Danube,” the first track from their new album Exile Waltz, the room is in a frenzy. Lead singer Christian Kuffner bends his knees and tilts his head back while playing his accordion at a rapid pace. The twirling melody that Eve plays on her accordion leads into a delicate bridge where Denise Bonis’ fiddle cools things down. Then, just as the crowd is about to catch its breath, bassist Scott Potts and drummer Joe Lilly pick things up again when Kuffner shouts, “HEY!” The audience is latched onto every twist and every turn the music takes. A couple starts moshing while a few old punk rockers skank. It’s the ferocious energy such as this that makes Zydepunks shows so much fun, and yet they capture this hyperactive punk energy without brash and loud guitars. The band’s folk punk fusion may sound strange to the listener at first and seem atypical, but it makes perfect sense.
Washington D.C. native Christian Kuffner spent many years traveling the world. He made a formative stop when he settled in Glasgow for a short time, where his roommate turned him onto the electric fiddle. The fiddle is a peculiar instrument choice for a kid who grew up idolizing Iron Maiden, the Clash, the Pixies and the Cure, but Glasgow opened his eyes to different styles of music. Many bands in the region were mixing punk, folk, and traditional Irish elements into their music. “It just made sense to me,” Kuffner says.
Folk music wasn’t something that Kuffner learned by buying old records. His knowledge of folk comes the way it came for players in generations before him—by watching other musicians play. He traded tunes with Irish folk musicians and learned the intricacies of the genre. At the same time, Kuffner wanted to draw from his more aggressive musical influences including punk and electronica. “Punk and fast techno and folk music have a very similar spirit to me, in the sense that they are very energetic,” he says.
Kuffner discovered Cajun and zydeco music in 1994 during his first visit to New Orleans. “It was eye opening to me to see a culture within the United States that was totally different than anything I had ever known about,” he says. “The only thing I knew about Louisiana growing up was David Duke and jazz. You know, very stereotypical stuff.” Three years after his first visit, Kuffner decided to make the Big Easy his permanent home. “I had two goals when I came here. I was either going to start a folk-punk band, a heavy Cajun/zydeco band, or I wanted to write some electronic music here with local jazz and soul musicians.”
He took his first step toward realizing his first goal shortly after he arrived when he spotted Eve—she only uses her first name—while she was playing her accordion in Jackson Square one night. Kuffner grabbed his fiddle and joined her. The next day, Eve left for Spain for three years. During her absence, Kuffner learned the accordion and began to play with local fiddle player Joe McGinty. Eve returned in 2003, and soon the trio began playing traditional European folk music around town as the Zydepunks. Later, punk and metal drummer Joe Lilly was brought in to the fold to give the band the backbeat it lacked. The group gained an underground following, and after Katrina, Denise Bonis took over on fiddle and bassist Scott Potts was added. By this time, the band had released two albums, 2004’s 9th Ward Ramblers and 2005’s …and the streets will flow with whiskey.
The name “Zydepunks” might not have been the best choice, and Kuffner is the first to admit it. “Our name gives us a certain image that we aren’t necessarily,” Kuffner says, “but it goes the other way around, too. We’ll play everything from all ages, hardcore shows to folk festivals and folk events.” The crowds respond well, but sometimes it’s difficult to book and arrange tours.
The band recently released a new album, Exile Waltz, which features re-recorded versions of songs from 9th Ward Ramblers and more traditional Louisiana and European folk songs. The band is fairly prolific, and it is already finishing up work on an album of brand new, all-original material scheduled for a 2008 release. “Our drummer is not a folk guy at all,” Kuffner says. “He is writing some stuff that is totally different. You’ll know what is his stuff because it sounds almost indie. It will be interesting to see how people respond to it.” While the Zydepunks’ sound may be slowly evolving, they still realize that there are constraints. They can’t evolve too fast from the original vision or else it becomes something completely different. “You almost have to start another band if you stray too far,” Kuffner says. “Some bands are able to reinvent themselves, but a lot of bands aren’t.”
Merging folk and punk takes care not to destroy the integrity of the music, and the Zydepunks pride themselves in not dumbing down the music, staying true to original folk song. Kuffner goes so far as to sing songs in their native languages when possible, but he knows that it’s just as important to have fun. Their version of folk is faster, more intense or more felt, and his favorite Irish punk bands are ones who don’t take it too seriously, playing music to play music. “There is this band called County Hell in Tallahassee I like because they are into playing; they aren’t into being famous,” Kuffner says. “There are seven of them on stage and they all scream the lyrics out together and they are having a blast. It’s perfect.”
In conversation, you get the sense that Christian Kuffner thinks carefully and seriously about almost everything, and he admits he considers the issues connected to playing music from other cultures. The band avoids making the music a stereotype or a cliché. “Irish music is easy because everybody plays it,” he says. “With Jewish music, it can be hard considering my ancestry is Spanish and German, who haven’t always had the kindest relationship to the Jewish culture.”
The idea behind bringing all these different types of music together is to say that cultural differences don’t have to be divisive. It’s the same way that folk and punk music might seem like opposite ends of the spectrum, but really they’re closer than you’d think. “To me punk is just about being open-minded,” Kuffner says.