Behind the Iron Curtain – An obscure but celebrated Santa Barbara synth band makes a cult comeback

 Iron Curtain's Steve Fields, right, and Doug Norton, left, circa 1983. Rebecca Traver Photo


Iron Curtain’s Steve Fields, right, and Doug Norton, left, circa 1983.
Rebecca Traver Photo

In the early 1980s, a small genre of electronic music began to emerge: minimal, homemade, rough and icy. Influenced by The Cure, Joy Division, Kraftwerk and Krautrock, the sounds were made on early-model, cheap, portable synthesizers. The lyrics took on alienation, paranoia, fear and the general landscape of post-war anxiety. Retrospectively called either “minimal wave” or “cold wave,” the groups came from economically depressed cities like Sheffield, Berlin, Brussels, Manchester… and Santa Barbara?

When record label and Web site Minimal Wave put together its compilation of rare and obscure bands, “The Found Tapes: A Compilation of Minimal Wave From North America ’81-’87,” it included the little-known Iron Curtain, Steve Fields’ short-lived band that seems as out of place now as it did then, in a town used to feel-good beach rock and reggae.

From left to right: Michael Petracca, Steve Fields, Carolyn Chapman and Doug Norton. Petracca and Chapman are part of Fields' and Norton?s new outfit Cosmic Love Child. David Holland Photo

From left to right: Michael Petracca, Steve Fields, Carolyn Chapman and Doug Norton. Petracca and Chapman are part of Fields’ and Norton?s new outfit Cosmic Love Child.
David Holland Photo

Now, 22 years after Fields called it quits, his phone is ringing and his e-mail inbox is being filled with renewed interest. There is also welcome news for young and old cold wave fans: Iron Curtain will be playing its first gig since 1988 this Saturday night in Los Angeles, at Silver Factory Studios.

In 1979, Fields was in a punk band called The Neighbors. In 1980, trading guitars for two mini-Moogs, The Neighbors — Doug Norton and Steve’s brother Kevin — turned into Iron Curtain. Fields was older than most young band members, in his early 30s.

“We decided to form a mini-Moog band, with someone on drums,” Fields says. “Sound and textures in music were really important and attractive. A sound other than a guitar could break some new ground, we thought.”

The limited tech — mono signal, analog controls, no home recording — meant that Fields tailored the music to suit the restrictions. That was fine, he said, as it matched his fine arts background. They toured up and down the coast, while also playing local parties. They recorded quickly at Santa Barbara Sound on Haley Street and saved up to press their singles and EPs, one of which, “Tarantula Scream,” is considered their best.

Their most anthologized song is “The Condos,” a chilly, ironic look at death, pulsing with smooth arpeggio bass and swirling clouds of synth. Fields’s vocals — not always discernible — are swathed in echo.

“We’re going to the Condos / Me and all my friends,” goes the lonesome chorus. The ghost of J.G. Ballard, whose writings on sex and modern architecture influenced the first generation of synth music, would be pleased.

Ironically, those Iron Curtain records that Fields tried so hard to sell and then give away during the 1980s are now commanding prices on eBay for over a thousand dollars, a fact he learned five years ago when a fan tracked him down by phone.

“I thought, what’s that all about?” Fields says. “But then I thought I’d start making music again, because there seems to be an audience out there.”

Did Fields cash in on the copies he had left? Yes, he says, and it all went back into making new music. The new Iron Curtain has been rehearsing for a year and is finally ready to play here and in Europe, where they have also been requested to perform.

Fields continued making music under his own name, moving to San Francisco, Chicago and New York. In the early ’90s, he formed Cosmic Love Child with Carolyn Chapman, who now plays bass in the reformed Iron Curtain. Fields also became an electronic DJ for a while, sometimes appearing at Dance Away.

Pylon, a Los Angeles record label, has been reissuing Iron Curtain’s back catalog.

“Desertion 1982-1988” collects all the essential works, while “Artifact” is a remastering of a very rare cassette-only release, recorded live at Baudelaire’s, the well-missed downtown club. By the time Pylon Records contacted Fields, however, the original master tapes were, um, missing.

By the end of the ’80s, “I thought nobody cared about the music. I ditched the records I had leftover, and I even threw the master tapes in the trash. I thought, ‘nobody ever wants to hear this stuff again.’ So now all the new records are made from old vinyl recordings.”

He’s even starting to hear news bands adopting the Iron Curtain style.

“These kids weren’t even born when the first record was out,” he says. “It’s kinda weird. They’re trying to sound like us. When we started off, we weren’t trying to sound like anybody.”

IRON CURTAIN
When: 10 p.m. Saturday
Where: Silver Factory Studios, 4310 W. Jefferson Blvd., in Los Angeles
Cost: $10 to $15, 21 and over only
Information: (310) 980-4395, www.myspace.com/larichkids

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