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Capital Punishment: Ben Stiller Looks Back on His Teenage Noise Band

Ahead of a new reissue of their 1982 LP, Stiller and ex-bandmate Kriss Roebling discuss the origins of their post-punk sound collage and the time they had dinner with Gene Simmons

From left: Capital Punishment's Peter Swann, Peter Zusi, Ben Stiller and Kriss Roebling. Stiller and Roebling look back on their outré noise-punk project.

Dave Stekert

Long before his famous gigs as a fashion model, museum guard and cartoon lion, high-school-aged Ben Stiller was the drummer for short-lived New York noise band Capital Punishment. A mix of industrial art-collage, synth-tweaked post-punk and teenage kicks, the band quietly released one record, played zero shows under their name and then went on to various adulthoods: musician/producer Kriss Roebling as a documentarian, Peter Zusi as a London-based professor of Czech literature, Peter Swann as a justice of the Supreme Court of Arizona and Stiller as an Emmy-winning writer, director and actor.

The band’s lone album, Roadkill, a Discogs obscurity that’s sold for $275, is being reissued by Captured Tracks on September 14th. Rolling Stone caught up with Stiller and Roebling to talk about the greatest noise band from Calhoun School’s class of 1983 and how they may have named a Kiss album.

The Roadkill press release mentions underground noise bands like Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle and Chrome. How did you guys get into these bands as American teenagers in the early Eighties?
Roebling: Well, I think it’s safe to say that it started more with David Bowie and Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois and Robert Fripp, and those people. And … then possibly somewhere down the line those things got added to the mix.
Stiller: Kriss was much more into that cutting edge. I mean, I think you kinda got me into Bowie and it was around Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) time. My taste was just much more kind of poppy, like Hall and Oates and Duran Duran, maybe, like, getting into the Romantics or something. Kriss, you were much more like the musician who was into all this stuff. And I felt like he pulled us into it.

Roebling: I feel like, especially on this goofy album, that a lot of it was really about sounds, first and foremost. Just sort of messing around with sounds moreso than proper songwriting. … We sat around and experimented with stuff to make sounds.
Stiller: I think I was experimenting with learning how to play the drums [laughs].
Roebling: None of us knew what the hell we were doing at all. So that was part of the fun. Like, “Oh, how does this thing work? Wait, let’s record figuring out how it works.”
Stiller: We weren’t really playing out in front of people.
Roebling: [Laughs] No, we did one time. One time we played in the gym and we changed our name to Rent a Gong … It was a variety night for students. We just did sort of like an upbeat instrumental, a sort of jazz-like song. … It almost sounded like the vibe of a Chuck Mangione song or something. … I think that was why we felt it was wise to change the name.

Stiller: I feel like that song kind of had the vibe of like [Frank Mills’ 1979 hit] “Music Box Dancer”? You know what I’m talking about? … Even just the name, “Capital Punishment,” doesn’t go with that. Kriss, what about the song you wrote about Calhoun? “View From the Television Set,” right?
Roebling: I haven’t thought about that since … Wow. Good memory.
Stiller: It never made the album, right?
Roebling: No, it didn’t. There was a number of things that didn’t. But there’s a few things, there’s a few extras that didn’t make the album that are gonna be on this re-release.

Stiller: I like to call it just a “re-lease.” Because it never actually got “leased,” really.
Roebling: Yeah, our release was basically, we went from mom-and-pop store to mom-and-pop store around Manhattan. … We put them on consignment in places, and that was our version of a release.
Stiller: That’s how it got out there. That’s how people eventually found it like 30 years later, right?
Roebling: Yeah, that must be because I don’t understand how else.

Were you two gentlemen getting into drugs at the time?
Roebling: I think we all did our fair share of stuff but I think for the most part we’d be in the studio in a somewhat clear mind. … Let’s put it this way: It didn’t spearhead the project.
Stiller: We had other, like, crazy, weird adventures, though.
Roebling: Oh, we sure did. … Yeah, a lot of urban spelunking and a lot of simulated public displays to see how people would react. Which, nowadays, I think we’d probably either be dead or in jail for doing, but back then you could get away with these things. We’d have, like, public floggings and chases in which we’d be armed with highly realistic prop guns and things of that sort, running down the streets. There’s a bunch of our class pictures that I believe are being included [in the reissue], and maybe they took out some of them that were just off the hook. But I know there’s some where we made sure that every student in the picture was armed.

What was the Roadkill recording session like?
Stiller: I remember being very nervous. ‘Cause I just really didn’t play the drums hardly at all. I remember feeling like I just wanna get through this and actually be able to play something that’s usable. … I wasn’t, you know, know, really that good at playing the drums, which you can pick up if you listen. You don’t even have to listen that closely to get that.
Roebling: We tended to keep takes. There’s this book called Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind and it’s definitely in that spirit. Because there’s lots of blatant clams that were just kept.

Whose idea was it to included news reports about the Hillside Strangler?
Stiller: Kriss. That was Kriss.
Roebling: We have like two minutes of someone saying “John” over someone breathing, and then it breaks into a report about the Hillside Strangler, some gamelans and I think it ends with Himmler singing like the Horst-Wessel song to a Third Reich group. And of course, it was purely random, all of it. I think that those were just the first two records that my hands landed on when I checked to my left and said, “Let’s pull something out of this group of records.” … I think there was virtually no thought put into what was actually going to make this montage at all.

Why did you have a record of a Himmler speech?
Roebling: [Laughs] Doesn’t everybody? I had these news records that had to do with the news of specific years, and I think one was the news of 1977, which was the Hillside Strangler and the other one was, like, from back in, obviously, the Forties.
Stiller: Yeah. I don’t think my dad ever heard that, but he would not have been thrilled about it. My dad was the guy who thought that “Hey Jude” was “Hey Jew” for years, and hated the Beatles because of that. So he would not have been thrilled for Himmler.

Roebling: Nobody is a Nazi sympathizer here. That was just another thing that just literally, randomly found itself on the track.
Stiller: Yeah, I remember Kriss being like really into just like the element of like, “Yeah, that’s good, let’s do that.”

I read that Capital Punishment actually got to meet Gene Simmons?
Roebling: Yes, we did.
Stiller: That’s right.

Can you tell me that story?
Roebling: 
He was into a movie that my mom was in with Robert Duvall called Tomorrow, and at the time he was trying to become an actor. He wound up knowing someone that knew my mom, and he wanted to talk to her about that project. And called up out of the blue. And since I was such a huge Kiss fan, she was like, “Oh, my God, you’re that Gene Simmons? You gotta come over to dinner.” And so I instantly called the band … and we all came over and had dinner with Gene Simmons. And he was very nice, very cordial. We played him part of the album.
Stiller: [Laughs]

Roebling: There was specifically one song that we kind of thought of as being sort of inspired by Kiss, called “Creatures of the Dark.” And he said, “Oh, I like that, I like the name.” And then he went on to say, “Well, that’s cool, you guys got cool ideas, but you just gotta get your technique together.”
Stiller: He wasn’t wrong [laughs].

Roebling: Later that year I come home and the guy at the front door is like, “Kriss, a Mr. Simmons came by and he said he thought you would like this.” And so it’s this package and I open it up and it’s an advance copy of their next album [1982’s Creatures of the Night]. And, so, needless to say, it was quite a powerful moment [laughs].

But also, while he was at our place, he had to face a person who was very troublesome. Who nobody knew, who was at our house, who was very frustrated by the fact that Gene Simmons was there, ’cause he was trying to impress somebody else that was at our house. And so every time that the guy looked away, he would explain to us, “Just remember kids, this man is behaving like this because he has a very small penis.” And then every time the guy would talk, he’d just sort of look at us and put his index finger and thumb very close together, and that would instantly make us laugh. But it kept us from being awkward with the fact that this person was actually being somewhat hostile and violent at our home. It made it so we could still have fun.
Stiller: I thought you were gonna say that was, like, the next Kiss album that they ended up not releasing, called Very Small Penis.

When did you find out that Roadkill was a collector’s item?
Roebling: Just for fun, about five or six years ago, I was like “I wonder if this album has been found by anybody, anywhere.” And so, I went onto Discogs, and at the time, [it] not only was on Discogs, but it was on Discogs for what I think might have been its highest asking price ever. And so, I was just flummoxed; I didn’t understand. Obviously the fact that Ben has the career he has has a lot to do with that. But it’s a kind of weird thing on top of it. And Mike Sniper, who runs Captured Tracks, has been actually a fan of this album for a long, long time. And wanted to have the opportunity to release it for years and years, but just didn’t know how to contact anybody.
Stiller: For me it was when I got the call to do this interview that I realized [laughs]. It’s just such an enjoyable, funny thing to me that this is happened. … It’s just like the last thing in the world I ever thought would happen, so the unexpected nature of it is really fun. And also the best part about it is, us as friends, you know, being able to get together and play together again, and just reconnect is really, by far, the best part of it.
Roebling: Absolutely, it’s been wonderful.

So you guys got together and recorded some new songs?
Roebling: We do have a whole new bunch of stuff that’s hopefully going to be released pretty soon.
Stiller: And the hope is that we’ll go and play our catalog on tour like the Eagles, and be able to retire in five years.

In This Article: Ben Stiller

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