Cover Story

Capital Punishment: Ben Stiller and a Phoenix Judge Get the Band Back Together

Judge Peter Swann and reunited with his high school bandmates, including actor Ben Stiller
Judge Peter Swann and reunited with his high school bandmates, including actor Ben Stiller Jim Louvau

click to enlarge Judge Peter Swann and reunited with his high school bandmates, including actor Ben Stiller - JIM LOUVAU
Judge Peter Swann and reunited with his high school bandmates, including actor Ben Stiller
Jim Louvau

Black Friday record shoppers had a unique cornucopia of selections this year: rarities from The Germs, live Bauhaus, Green River’s proto-grunge Christmas, and industrial art rock offerings from ... Arizona Court of Appeals Judge Peter Swann?

“It’s the weirdest story,” Swann says in conversion with Phoenix New Times. “If you combine the number of improbable events that led here, Powerball looks easy.”

Swann is describing This Is Capital Punishment, an EP of new material from his high school band Capital Punishment. “It’s funny that I’m a judge now and that’s the name of my high school band,” Swann laughs. Hailing from the Calhoun School in Manhattan, Swann played bass alongside Kriss Roebling on guitar, Peter Zusi on synth, and one Ben Stiller on drums. Yes, that Ben Stiller. The Meet the Parents guy. It’s the group’s first new material in over 35 years.

“[Kriss] got serious about recording in about 1981,” Swann explains. “They had booked studio time. That was a big deal ... paying hundreds of dollars in early ’80s dollars for a really professional setup. There was another kid in our class who was a pretty good bass player but he was sick. So they came to me. I had built this Frankenstein bass out of parts I had acquired. Kriss just showed me the songs on the spot.”

Swann says the first Capital Punishment track he recorded on was “Muzak Anonymous,” a goofy, helium-voiced sendup of elevator music consumerism via an off-the-rails rendition of David Bowie’s “Fashion.” “We brought in helium tanks to make our voices high because we couldn’t do it with equipment,” Swann remembers. “Today, if you want a sound, you just dial it up on your Mac. Back then, if we wanted a sound, you needed to come up with it.”

Beyond the goofiness of the vocal track, “Muzak Anonymous” gives the band’s debut, Roadkill, one of its grooviest offerings. The bass line is one of the funkiest on the record. “I was very into Talking Heads,” Swann says. “Tina Weymouth was my polestar, though I didn’t really do her justice as a 15-year-old.”

The band recorded Roadkill at Delta Studios with whatever time Roebling had booked. The end product was simply what they had time for. “[The song] ‘Delta Time’ is called that because we had literally an hour left,” Swann explains. “We had to do something with it. It’s basically a live jam. Then Kriss did this Cookie Monster voice and put it on top afterwards.”

Roebling paid out of pocket to press copies of the record for distribution around the city, never gathering much in the way of attention. Capital Punishment disbanded after the boys graduated, with both Swann and Stiller heading off to California for college. Somewhere in there, Swann and Stiller got back together for a few tracks. “Before the Beastie Boys came out with their first album, we did some songs on a rap album,” Swann says, “songs that we wrote back in 1985.” Let’s all hope to God that surfaces someday.

Fast forward 35 years. Mike Skinner, head of New York record label Captured Tracks, finds a neglected copy of Roadkill digging through an estate of the deceased. After a few listens, Skinner reached out to the band about reissuing it. Next thing you know, Ben Stiller was talking up the shiny new red vinyl repress of Roadkill on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Swann was happy with the new home Capital Punishment had found. “[Captured Tracks] is a small antidote to the homogenization of the industry that we’ve seen post-internet,” he says. “They focus on unique sounds created in small communities. Celebrating the niches of creativity that would get lost in the sea that we have now is a really cool thing to do.”

One thing led to another, and suddenly, Roebling, Stiller, Swann, and Zusi were in conversation to create new material. “I recorded the bass parts here in Phoenix,” Swann says. “The four of us were not in the same room for 35 years until after the new EP was completed. I would get an email from Kriss with some rough stuff and he would just say, ‘Tell me what you come up with.’”

The new EP comprises four new songs and a 2018 redux of Roadkill’s “Confusion.” Far from the experimental, devil-may-care attitude of their debut, This is Capital Punishment sounds focused and sharp. “I would say the four new songs are definitely less goofy … more confident,” Swann says. “I would say there’s still some devil-may-care in there. We just went in and did our thing without any pretense of making a pop hit.”

The sound of This is Capital Punishment also deviates from its predecessor. The redux of “Confusion” shows this best, as the teen punk novelty of the original is replaced with throbbing drum and bass energy. “It’s what I would categorize as like a dark industrial style,” Swann says. “I don’t think the style represents probably what any of us would call our favorite style of music – it’s what happens when we get together.”

While it is unlikely the new Capital Punishment EP will lead to a full-fledged reunion tour for the band, for Swann, it’s a welcome variation. The band has begun rehearsing together, but to what end is still uncertain. Only time will tell. “I think it’s very healthy to have a couple things to engage your mind in so you don’t get stuck in a rut,” Swann says. “A lot of people go into music thinking, ‘This is going to be my job and I’m going to be a star.’ We never had that. I can’t tell you how much more fun that made it.”

Check your local record store for This Is Capital Punishment, out now on Captured Tracks.

click to enlarge Capital Punishment are releasing their first new music in over 35 years. - DAVE STEKERT
Capital Punishment are releasing their first new music in over 35 years.
Dave Stekert
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