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Cheena: New York Punks Who Come Alive at Night

Cheena: New York Punks Who Come Alive at Night
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In the mess of chain coffee shops and clothing boutiques that crowd lower Manhattan, it can be hard to find a place to just sit and talk. But standing outside of long-running Lower East Side venue Cake Shop, where his punk band Cheena is set to play a late-night set, Walker Behl is reminded that he knows a place, a rooftop of a friend’s apartment just around the corner. His pal’s not home, but no worries: “I know how to break in,” the long-haired vocalist — today sporting a Motörhead baseball tee — says with a smirk.

Behl, 27, and the rest of the band — guitarists Margaret Chardiet and Logan Montana, bassist Keegan Dakkar, all 26; and drummer Eugene Terry, 27 — round the block. With the practiced technique of someone who’s definitely done this before, the frontman leans on the metal door just right and pops the lock.

The setting sun chases us around the rooftop and the band gets to talking. It’s a familiar scene for anyone who’s spent a fair amount of time in the city. And one would suspect it’s similar for the members of Cheena, who have spent their whole lives here, most recently kicking around the punk and noise scenes in bands like Crazy Spirit, Hank Wood & the Hammerheads, Dawn of Humans and Chardiet’s Pharmakon project. Summer sunsets are a time of werewolvian transition, where working stiffs shed their suits and embrace the sticky nights ahead, wild, vulnerable, and unhinged.

Over the course of their 2014 demo and a brief EP for Sacred Bones last year, Cheena hinted at a fascination with the night. Behl’s bleary-eyed emoting arrives over street-slick slide riffs and twilit rhythms that nod to the grimy guys and Dolls who’ve tread these hallowed streets before them. This year’s Spend the Night With… (out August 5, again from Sacred Bones) makes these preoccupations explicit. The dark energy inhabits the title, the subterranean riffing, and Behl’s lyrics, which feel like the sorts of things you’d shout on a roof in the middle of the night — goofy, reckless, openhearted s**t-talking. 

“You’re emotionally raw,” Montana says, fiddling with a mostly unbuttoned black shirt. “Anything happy or sad is magnified by 100 at, like, five in the morning.” Chardiet suggests a more practical reason that the band focuses on the twilight hours: “I can’t think of any song that I ever wrote during the day.”

The friends had never all played in a band together before now, but their bond goes back to their days as teenage rabble-rousers (sans Chardiet, who met the crew in 2012 during a gig Pharmakon played with one of Terry’s bands, Dawn of Humans). Montana lovingly recounts a fight he got into the first day he met Terry: “I was just being a 15-year-old prick trying to show off in front of my new friend Eugene,” he admits. “I just randomly shoulder-checked this yuppie dude and his phone fell into the subway grate.”

They all saw each other often as they each settled into their roles in a handful of New York’s most exciting bands, crafting charred takes on hardcore punk and touring scummy DIY spaces worldwide — Behl and Terry with Crazy Spirit, Dakkar in Anasazi, Montana in Hank Wood, and Chardiet, who spent up to “eight to nine months of the year” on tour with her bristling power electronics endeavor, Pharmakon.

Cheena first formed as a respite from those throttling gigs, whose earsplitting sonics and body-battering crowds can take a toll, both physically and mentally. They all needed to slow down, space out, and just do something different. The group realized they were independently trying to start bands with each other and decided to try out all of their disparate ideas simultaneously. Montana says that he and Dakkar were aiming for “hard rock, bubblegum, Gary Glitter glam.” Behl says that he and Chardiet started out planning a hardcore project but then just settled on “punk.” The resulting grime is the sound of them trying to be all of that at once, and, Montana says, “none of us knowing how to play the styles [we] wanted to sound like.”

Cheena talk like they’re still figuring it out. Chardiet describes their approach to honoring their various influences as “all mushed up.” They remark on the novelty of playing to different audiences than their heavier bands do (“My gauge for a good show is how much violence is going on,” Montana says) and the vulnerability that Behl faces now that his vocals are delivered with a sneer rather than a scorching scream. “With Crazy Spirit, I never really got nervous or anything because I could act like a f**king idiot,” Behl says. “It’s f**ked up to play these shows [with Cheena] and it’s weird to have people hear what I’m saying.”

But you wouldn’t sense the discomfort from Spend the Night With… or from their live set at Cake Shop. It’s a tame one, nothing compared to a western Massachusetts show a few months ago. None of them remember that gig well, except that it ended with Dakkar sleeping under a table and Behl on the roof of a van. Despite their own reservations, they run through off-balance Night highlights like “Car,” which careens as wildly as the gin-logged joyride implied by the lyrics. They play loud, fast, unhinged, but with a careful cool that separates them from the full-on frenzied antics of their other acts. It’s a delicate balance, one that plenty of bands that have been together longer can’t quite figure out. For no good reason, it all just snaps together in the end — maybe it’s because it’s after midnight. It’s nighttime. It’s their time.

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