Screamin’ Cyn Cyn & The Pons look back at their legacy

The eccentric “theatrical punk cabaret” band will reunite for a 20th anniversary show on August 25.
The members of Screamin' Cyn Cyn And The Pons are shown mid-performance. The backdrop is black. Vocalist Shane O'Neill is in the bottom of the image, wide-eyed, and wearing a makeshift headband. O'Neill's free arm is extended out to the lower right corner of the image. An audience member's hand is reaching out towards his arm. Leaning on O'Neill are Cynthia Burnson and The Pons Pons' bassist. Visible towards the back of the stage and tucked into the upper left corner of the image is The Pons Pons' drummer.
Screamin’ Cyn Cyn & The Pons performing live. Photo by Chris Norris.

The eccentric “theatrical punk cabaret” band will reunite for a 20th anniversary show on August 25.

Cynthia Burnson and Shane O’Neill met in 2001, during the debaucherous first days of their freshman year at Macalester College in St. Paul. She hailed from Madison, he from the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. 

Burnson was chatting with a friend in a dorm room, sporting a Butchies t-shirt, braces, and a triangular, self-given haircut. O’Neill was passed out drunk on the dorm floor in his underwear, coming to intermittently. 

“The next time we hung out when I was a little more sober, blessedly, we just really bonded. I didn’t know anything about punk rock, and she was like, ‘I love punk rock,’” O’Neill says. He played her Hole’s Live Through This cassette in a boombox. She wasn’t impressed with the music, but his love for it struck a chord.

“He was like, ‘All I want to do is be in a band.’ I was like, ‘Me too,’ Burnson says. “It felt like being in a band was a good container for getting tons of attention. Without it being totally obnoxious and weird.”

First came the band name. Doodling potential monikers in a notebook during class, O’Neill cobbled together a Frankenstein’s monster of inside jokes: Screamin’ Cyn Cyn & The Pons. Wrapped up in the name is a jab at Cynthia, whose personality is decidedly not that of someone nicknamed Cyn Cyn. The name also contains a reference to Screamin’ Rachel—a musician who was dubbed the Queen of House Music—known to them for appearing in the ‘90s club kids documentary Party Monster: The Shockumentary. And finally, the name includes an abbreviated slang term O’Neill dreamed up for tampons that never caught on. 

“Man, that was a mistake. It’s a very hard name to explain to people in a loud bar,” Burnson says. 

Now named, the duo assembled some musician friends and snatched up a Moog White Elephant organ at a church rummage sale. Screamin Cyn Cyn & The Pons would go on to perform a set of covers, including Donna Summers’ “Hot Stuff,” at the college’s queer prom. O’Neill and Burnson would share vocal duties and switch off on organ. But there was more to see than a band playing at this show. 

Screamin' Cyn Cyn And The Pons are pictured together at what appears to be a restaurant. Shane O'Neill is wearing a white bobbed wig and sitting on the counter, leaning back towards the other end. O'Neill's looking at Cynthia Burnson, who is laughing. O'Neill and Burnson are wearing matching pink dresses with white lace sleeves. To their left and right are the other members of the band.
Screamin’ Cyn Cyn & The Pons. Photo by Rob San Juan.

“There [were performers] ripping magazines and throwing spaghetti at the crowd, and strange masks, and many costume changes,” Burnson says. “We were really just expressing ourselves.” 

That show set the stage for Screamin’ Cyn Cyn & The Pons’ delightfully bizarre run in Madison from 2003-2011. The band is reuniting for an anniversary show at the High Noon Saloon on Friday, August 25

Crafting their sound

College gigs were just the beginning. O’Neill followed Burnson to Madison in 2003 when she transferred to UW, living in a closet in her apartment for the modest amount of $75 a month. It sat conveniently across Schenk’s Corners from the Anchor Inn, “the divey-est of dive bars,” O’Neill says, which is now Green Owl Cafe. At Anchor Inn’s open mic night, the two cut their teeth with Shane on keyboard, Cynthia teaching herself guitar, and both assuming vocal duties.

“Oftentimes, it would be like, ‘Oh, it’s happening in an hour. Let’s try and have a song to play,’” Burnson says. One of these deadline ditties is “Wheat Thins,” with lyrics lifted from the crispy snack cracker’s ingredients list. 

“The attitude was [that] if you had an idea, you should do it immediately,” O’Neill says. They also attempted to copy elements of other bands’ songs. “Conveniently, we weren’t good enough musicians to actually make it sound like the band we were trying to sound like, so it came off sounding original,” Burson said. 

The pair hit Madison’s bars nearly every night to see shows. Then they’d return home and dissect the bands’ performance. 

“Live music was our religion basically. It was all we cared about,” O’Neill says. The band would eventually define their genre as theatrical punk cabaret music. They would draw from a range of influences: jazz and pop singer Peggy Lee, riot grrrl bands, indie minimalists The Moldy Peaches, Detroit punksters Murder City Devils, and the weirdo pop-punk cabaret band Tulip Sweet And Her Trail of Tears. The musicianship and spectacle of Gogol Bordello and Iggy Pop made an impression on O’Neill. 

Screamin' Cyn Cyn And The Pons are performing live. Vocalist Shane O'Neill is centered in the image, wearing a black dress with a plummeting neckline. O'Neill's wearing heavy eye makeup and raising his left hand to the sky, while using his right hand to clutch the microphone while singing. Cynthia Burnson's playing guitar on the right side of the image, while The Pons Pons' drummer is smiling in the lower left corner.
Screamin’ Cyn Cyn & The Pons performing live. Photo by Chris Norris.

“Bands would always save their most fun song for the end or for their encore. We were like, ‘Well, how about you just write a whole fucking setlist like that?’” O’Neill says. 

“I really like to see bands where it’s just like, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, for 35 minutes. And then it’s over.  [Our songs are] short, because we were trying to be like a fun punk rock band,” Burnson says. 

While playing open mic spots, a few drummers and bassists graced the stage within O’Neill and Burnson before a rhythm section stuck. 

“If you play as a two-piece who can barely play-slash-tune your instruments, you’re gonna get irate, frustrated musicians coming up to you afterwards saying like, ‘Uh, can I please help you?’” Burnson says.

Within a year, Burnson’s older brother, Christian—now of Madison-based band The Flavor That Kills—added melodic, driving bass to the band. Steve Shah, a mathy, technical drummer from Kenosha post-rockers the Sinister Quarter provided another layer of flair. The rhythm section offered structure and some edge for O’Neill and the younger Burnson to expand on. As a quartet, Screamin’ Cyn Cyn & The Pons were soon playing Madison hotspots like The Slipper Club (in the same W. Main St. building that would go on to house The Frequency and BarleyPop Live), the basement at Glass Nickel, and High Noon Saloon.  

The band’s energetic, frenetic songs were built on punk timing. Burnson’s crunchy guitar chords work in tandem with O’Neill’s carnivalesque, staccato keyboard. His commanding vocals alternate between a croon, a snarl, and a howl. The call-and-response dynamic of O’Neill and Burnson’s harmonies and yells, often finishing each other’s words and phrases in songs, add to the playfulness. 

Not to be missed: those at times bizarre, tongue-in-cheek, clever, and queer lyrics. “Cat Waco,” from 2010’s Damn, Girl, is an eerie ballad-turned-battle anthem that ends with arming felines to ward off an impending animal control raid. In “Cowboy Song,” from 2007’s Screamin’ Target Heart Rate, breaks from a Western progression into, “I’m a pret-ty po-ny, such a pret-ty po-ny, Clippity-cloppity-clippity-cloppity-clip… Don’t fuck with me!!” 

Dressed for success

And then there were the costumes, which were brought about in part by O’Neill’s own distorted body image. 

“I would just find something stupid at a thrift store and be like, ‘Well, I look fucking amazing!’” O’Neill says. Many a YouTube video shows him gesticulating wildly in hot pants and dramatic cat eyeliner, covered in sweat and glitter, his protruding belly tattooed with “FANCY” in Old English letters. Meanwhile, Burnson donned vintage party dresses and jewel-toned sleeveless bridesmaids attire from surplus stores and dumpsters in the days before fast fashion. 

When asked about their costume choices, Burnson and O’Neill both singled out matching dresses: lacy and pale pink, with satin bodices and wide skirts they found in Olympia, Washington. Hers fit perfectly, he could barely squeeze into his. 

“We wanted to be funny, but we didn’t want to be a joke. But we weren’t afraid to be really fucking stupid,” O’Neill says. 

Their 2006 video for “Transportation” has B-52s-meets-Talking Heads energy, naming the capitals of nearby states as the band mimes cycling against backdrops of maps and skylines. The next verse, shot in Monty’s Blue Plate Diner, namechecks family restaurant chains. “EZ Spirit,” a 54-second burst of a track, is named for the comfortable-yet-stylish shoe brand of the same name. “Looks like a pump, feels like a sneaker,” O’Neill belts against crunchy guitar chords. O’Neill then intones, “I say ‘Weak-ass,’ you say, ‘Arches.’ Weak-ass! Arches! Weak-ass Arches!”

Band buddies

Burnson and O’Neill introduced themselves to Justin Taylor and his bandmates from Awesome Car Funmaker after a show at the Anchor Inn in 2004. They quickly became friends and started playing gigs together. 

Screamin Cyn Cyn & The Pons’ show outfits and songcraft—including numbers about tantric sex and throwing away garbage—made an instant impression on Taylor. 

Cynthia Burnson is centered in the image, her hands balled into fists that are resting on her hips. She's standing up straight and looking directly at the camera. Shane O'Neill is to the left of the image, looking up at Burnson. To Burnson's right are the band's rhythm section. The picture's composed symmetrically, and the band's posing in front of a mirror. Their reflections fill the gaps between the members. Burnson and O'Neill are wearing matching pink dresses with white lace sleeves, while the other band members are wearing traditional suit-and-tie ensembles.
Screamin’ Cyn Cyn & The Pons. Photo by Rob San Juan.

“They had frantic, impulsive song arrangements. It would change on a dime, yet they would have their hooks sprinkled in so everyone would be singing along no matter what,” Taylor says. “I have a memory of Shane wearing a shirt with ‘Syphilis’ on it for some reason, and maybe Cynthia had a shirt that [read] ‘Chlamydia.’” 

Taylor remembers Screamin’ Cyn Cyn & The Pons shows were “packed with friends sweating profusely and singing along to every word and hugging and just having the best damn time.” Several took place in The Pons Palace, O’Neill and Burnson’s second apartment, which had holes in the ceiling, mushrooms growing (naturally) in a closet, and deadbeat landlords. In essence, a perfect DIY punk space. 

“The music’s fun, even when it’s confrontational,” says Martin Lund, who played in the now-defunct Madison melodic hardcore act Watershed Year, and booked punk shows in Madison. He remembers seeing Burnson and O’Neill perform at the Anchor Inn. 

“In a town like Madison in the early aughts, to have queer musicians or a queer front person on stage… Presenting themselves how they did was a little bit political in its own way,” Lund says. “They were well-accepted and popular at punk venues and places like the Union Terrace and High Noon Saloon,” he concludes.

The Right,” a Screamin’ Cyn Cyn & The Pons track from 2010’s Damn, Girl, repeats the phrase, “Everybody’s got the right to be a girl” for most of its 1:32 track time. “20% Gay,” from Screamin’ Target Heart Rate is written from the perspective of someone dealing with a crush who’s in denial about their inclinations. 

Screamin’ Cyn Cyn & The Pons seemed to be on speed dial for Madison promoters putting on silly or queer shows. During their eight-year run, the band could be seen opening for bands like the wacky dance-rock sextet Electric Six and the Japanese action comic punk band Peelander-Z. Aside from local shows, the band played the Twin Cities regularly, as well as Chicago and Milwaukee. They toured the West Coast a few times, the East Coast once, and played at South By Southwest in 2008. 

Over just seven years, Screamin’ Cyn Cyn & The Pons released an impressive discography. After a demo called Save Rock From Rock Stars, they released Babysit in 2004, Screamin’ Target Heart Rate in 2007, and Damn, Girl in 2010, as well as a few 7-inch singles. One of those 7” releases included “Cat Waco” and a cover of the 1992 house hit “Rhythm is a Dancer” by Snap! A DVD of their “Goodbye For Now” show was also released, with three sets of live music plus footage of early shows and music videos. The band crowdsourced funds for their last EP, Girls Are OK, released in 2011, the year O’Neill moved to New York City. O’Neill’s relocation effectively ended Screamin’ Cyn Cyn & The Pons’ reign. 

Shane O'Neill is pictured singing in a gazebo. He is centered in the image, wearing heavy blue eyeshadow, pale yellow pants, black boots, and a billowing blue top that exposes his right shoulder and midriff. He's gripping the railing of the gazebo with his left hand, clutching the microphone with his right, and is balancing his weight on his left knee, which is driven down into a narrow bench affixed to the gazebo railing.
Shane O’Neill performing in Screamin’ Cyn Cyn & The Pons. Photo by Chris Norris.

Burnson remembers a moment when it became apparent that O’Neill was primed to graduate to a bigger city. During a drag number at FIVE, he walked out on stage to the Twin Peaks theme, dressed as Laura Palmer. O’Neill stood stockstill, wrapped in clear plastic decorated with seaweed, face slightly blue, wearing a wig. The audience tucked dollars in the plastic wrap. “I was like, ‘Oh, yeah. He needs to go to New York,’” Burnson says. 

In New York City, O’Neill performed a one-man show for a time. For another show called Tonight’s Special that ran for two years, O’Neill encouraged audience members to pick songs, videos, and sketches from a menu he provided. In 2020, he and his partner were featured in an animated short documentary about fat queer love set at a Stevie Nicks concert called The Shawl, which was selected for that year’s Sundance and South By Southwest Film Festivals. These days, O’Neill is on the video team at The New York Times and works as a freelance reporter for the newspaper. 

Gettin’ the band back together!

Screamin’ Cyn Cyn & The Pons will reunite for a 20th anniversary on August 25 at High Noon Saloon. Cribshitter, Christy Costello, and Problems make up the rest of the bill.

“We’re essentially doing something that we would have made fun of people for doing when we were in our 20’s,” O’Neill says. “All of the people who are coming to see us are booking babysitters and are excited for it to be early—myself included. So it’s a little bit humbling, but mostly, it’s just it’s fucking awesome. I really love these people. I really love the High Noon. [It] was an extremely special place to us and it’s nice to revisit these songs.”

Burnson and O’Neill have remained besties over the years, despite the distance. They talk on the phone and text regularly. “He’s my ride or die,” Burnson says.  

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