Performance Tarts

If only Tipper Gore had continued her crusade against sex and sleaze in rock and roll, not only would her PMRC rail hopelessly against the psycho-sexy-disco-funk-industrial band My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult (an original Parent Watch listing), but it would have recoiled in horror at Houston's own depraved spectacle, Bozo Porno Circus. BPC's wicked live shows -- full of "scenes" that suggest rape and murder with bloodlust, power tools and grinders -- are even more disturbing than those of the Thrill Killers. So much for the South being genteel and all.

Not only does Tipper not know of BPC (and the band's upcoming show with TKK), but it seems most of Texas doesn't, either -- at least the Texans not turned on by Fangoria magazine and sci-fi movie soundtracks. Today, anything and everything goes. With no overbearing mother figures like Tipper to wag their index fingers around, shock bands like BPC and TKK lose that sense of danger some music lovers find so engaging. Just think of all the exposure BPC could be getting if Call-Me-Al weren't on the campaign trail.

The name Bozo Porno Circus is magnificently apt. Wearing whiteface and fetish gear, the musicians cavort and writhe on stage to heavy industrial rhythms. The music is slow, grinding and ominous, as if Bela Lugosi himself were channeling his spooky soul through the amps. Female dancers, called the Porn Starz, play-act violent scenes against the background of a homemade "snuff" film. The Porn Starz (Candy Apples, Lil' Miss Pornette, Putty Tatz and Betty Bondage) contribute just as much to the band as the musicians. (Like at a circus, the clowns and animals wouldn't be half as appealing if not for the accompanying music, and vice versa.) All of BPC's gigs, from the music and the show, reek of BO -- and irony.

Formed in 1991 by vocalist Ken Gerhard and percussionist Ador Charming, BPC was, in fact, a straight-out joke. Lyrics were taken from the backs of food tins, and the music was improvised right on the spot. It's ironic how popular BPC has become. Since then, the band has toured extensively and released three independently produced cassettes, a six-song video collection in 1994 and 1998's debut CD, Cybersmut, on ToneZone Records.

The lineup has shifted throughout the years. Bassist Raul Bertot and the Porn Starz joined in 1997, a couple of years after Chris O replaced the band's original singer. Newcomer guitarist Crispy has had no problems adjusting to the outrageous live shows. He and the rest of BPC spoke at home base, ToneZone Records studios.

"It's a performance," says Crispy. "It's for the stimulation of people out there watching us at that point. We don't expect them to go out and emulate anything that's going on on stage necessarily. Unless they're consenting adults."

While not quite Texas heroes, BPC is still a draw, pulling in people, mostly locals, from all segments of society willing to be repulsed. During performances, the Porn Starz have simulated rape, strangulation and various sex acts. There are massive amounts of fake blood -- delivered, like everything else, "tastefully." At least according to Porn Star Putty Tatz. The maneuvers with power tools and fire are carefully orchestrated, leaving just a tad of daylight for improv. Scantily clad in garments of their own design made especially for shows, the Porn Starz are there to coax the inner perverts out of even the most effeminate males. At key moments, the Porn Starz invite audience members to participate in the debauchery. Some do, groping the entertainment as if looking for lost car keys.

"We create fantasies for our audience so they can vicariously live through us," says Lil' Miss Pornette.

Gerhard insists that the show is meant to be entertaining. "I think a lot of people get a very negative attitude towards us that we're trying to promote or advocate certain kinds of behavior," he says, "but it's not like that at all."

Even so, there is a potential danger in using these strong visual images. It's happened before in the goth scene, when bands have used holocaust imagery and gained a loyal skinhead following as a result.

Charming isn't fazed. "We're not going to tone our show down or change it to suit anybody but ourselves," he says.

Although BPC's music and lyrics are meant to be disturbing, Gerhard argues that they aren't to be taken seriously. It's all about role-playing and connecting with that dark, evil psyche. The Satan-worshiping lyrics aren't reflective of the band's beliefs.

Gerhard says: "There's always been a little smirk on our faces, especially where the lyrics are concerned."

Like BPC, TKK has only grown in popularity since it first formed in late 1987. My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult was originally intended to be a Russ Meyer/supermarket tabloid-inspired B movie, but vocalist Groovie Mann and keyboardist Buzz McCoy started on the soundtrack first before working on the movie. They never got around to finishing the second part. Instead, the two continued following their trashy visions through music, generating a string of alternative-to-alternative hit singles.

Eventually, says Mann, the film will be finished. The duo has been shooting small pieces for it since the band's beginning. (Of course, both have been saying forever that the movie will be released soon.) If it ever is, it'll be an amalgamation of video clips, concert footage and behind-the-scenes looks -- basically a story within a story within a story. Mann likes that sort of thing.

This summer's Inferno tour, so called because it'll pack all of TKK's "hottest" numbers into one sex-crazed night, features long-term bassist Levi Levi, drummer James Fury and the Bomb Gang Girlz, Jacky Blacque and Lady Galore, who are TKK's promiscuous back-up singers. The band will play old favorites from long ago, such as "Devil Bunnies," "Ride the Mindway" and "Kooler Than Jesus," along with new songs from the forthcoming album, The Reincarnation of Luna.

Like 1995's Hit and Run Holiday, Luna, TKK's ninth endeavor, is a concept album. Musically and narratively, it follows the reincarnations of a girl named Luna. Since the character is a different person in each identity, something like a rap-inspired song will lead into aggro-punk, which in turn will precede a soulful psychedelic track.

It's this continual experimentation with styles that makes TKK awfully hard to categorize. Is the Thrill Kill sound psycho-babble-dingbat-funk, as the band once described it, or is it more like psycho-disco-bondagegoth-gogo bitch-death, as described on the fan site America's Most Dangerous Kult? The surest thing anyone can say about TKK is that it's sample-heavy (although Mann says not so much in the future), and its lyrics are naughty but tongue-in-cheek. And the costumes are tight and revealing.

With song titles like "Sex on Wheelz," it's obvious the lyrics are not designed to be interpreted literally. Back when TKK was gothic-industrial, before 1991's disco-based Sexplosion!, some people did take the band's satanic lyrics seriously, but really all Mann was interested in was the odd juxtaposition of images. In artiste mode, he explains: "Jesus, the devil, Mickey Mouse, Marilyn Monroe…. What they really represent doesn't matter to me. We erase all that substance. We just use the images."

This is fun music, not meant for deep contemplation. Mann points out that unlike associates KMFDM and Marilyn Manson, TKK was never linked to the Columbine tragedy. TKK lyrics aren't written in a way that allows them be pulled out of context to promote real thrill killing. Unlike its lyrics, though, the band's fashions are a much better barometer of its sensibilities; Mann says Kult members are merely themselves, wearing what's in their closets -- skeletons and all.

My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult and openers Bozo Porno Circus perform Sunday, July 23, at Numbers, 300 Westheimer. For more information, call (713)629-3700.

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Sande Chen