Romancing the Bones

Kim Nekroman, bassist and singer for Denmark's punk oddities Nekromantix, barely seems to recognize the strangeness of his life. For example, as a former submarine radio operator in the Royal Danish Navy, he used to blast campy-punk icons the Cramps on the job. "It wasn't that weird being on the bottom of the sea and listening to rock and roll," he says matter-of-factly, "but it kind of sounds weird when you talk about it." Or take the way he describes the original prototype for his trademark "coffin bass" with all the spooky affect of a conversation you might overhear at a neighborhood Home Depot: "I got ahold of a real child's coffin, took an old neck from an old upright bass, kind of screwed it all together…"

True, on first blush, Nekromantix might seem like a gimmicky band. They wear vintage gear and massive pompadours, record songs with titles like "Murder for Breakfast," have a bassist whose instrument is a hulking, modified coffin with a crucifix for a headstock, and subscribe to a subculture-within-a-subculture called psychobilly. But a listen to their American debut, Night of the Loving Dead, or a chat with Nekroman reveals a band as unpretentious as they come.

If this power trio, which also includes brothers Peter and Kristian Sandorff on guitar and drums, seems less interested in rock and roll's attendant bullshit than with the music itself, it might be because they grew up in a place where teenagers are hardly spoon-fed counterculture. Nekroman describes Copenhagen as a "hick town," one that rock bands pass through on the way to someplace else. "Denmark is a really small country and subcultural; scenes are, like, very, very small," he says. "It's a strange country when it comes to rock and roll, because people here are not used to going to live concerts. The young people here are mostly into discotheques and dance music. Sad but true."

As a kid in the late '70s and early '80s, long before punk had shed splinters like psychobilly, Nekroman was transfixed by the Stray Cats, Frankenstein, the Cramps and Nosferatu. For him, kitschy horror and rock and roll fell together into a single worldview and later, after he left the navy, into an artistic outlet.

Of course, Nekroman didn't exactly invent the form -- horror and rock are a match made in heaven (yeah, yeah: or should we say hell) that dates back to 1950s novelties like "Dinner with Drac" and "Monster Mash." And psychobilly -- the witches' brew of rockabilly, punk and creepy kitsch -- can be traced (in form, if not in name) at least as far back as the Cramps' 1978 debut. Nekromantix has been together for a mere four years, but Night of the Loving Dead shows why the band has become one of psychobilly's leading auteurs.

The album's fifth track, "Gargoyles over Copenhagen," combines steely, undulating AC/DC riffery with a strutting "Hound Dog"-ish bass line into a plea for a supernatural invasion of "hell-sent creatures" to break the dreariness of one of Europe's least metropolitan metropolises. It plays like "London's Burning" with a sense of humor, a study in the mixture of fun and subversion.

"Rubbermonks and Leathernuns" is another topical doomsday anthem, this time in the service of satire. It concerns a dusky tribe that, unlike psychobilly, is unintentionally funny. "That's inspired by the gothic community," says Nekroman. "One of the things that song says is 'Don't take yourself too serious,' because too many people do. My kind of main thing, when you mix in horror and stuff like that, you need to have some humor and distance toward things."

Nekroman's outsider perspective on American culture makes for some ripe observations. "Who Killed the Cheerleader" is a prime example. From an indigenous band, it would sound more brutal than funny, hitting too close to home in our Columbine-damaged psyches. From a Danish perspective, however, this blazing live favorite is an astute take on American television, which, after all, is populated by so many chirping, eroticized teens, it could drive a man to do something drastic. The lyrics are perfect comic mania: "I asked her out, she laughed and said, 'No way' / Told me she would never date such a geek / For that remark, I say she's gonna pay / I hate it when people call me a freak!"

"Cheerleaders are not, like, something we have in Denmark," Nekroman explains. "But we get all those soap operas and that side of American culture through the television. There's always, like, a cheerleader in most horror movies nowadays. It's kind of a cliché."

Like most great pure rockers, the album's hands-down highlight has no socially redeeming value. "Trick or Treat" struts from the speakers with such swinging, cartoony mayhem you'd swear it was right out of Disney's Music from the Haunted Mansion. Like the Stray Cats' best tunes, it sounds like a lost classic you can't quite finger, but it also highlights the ingredients that make Nekromantix such a potent trio. Perhaps the most original part of the recipe is Peter Sandorff's guitar work, distinct from the vaguely twangified punk of his contemporaries. Here, he delivers a perfectly tangy and economical signature riff and then effortlessly works the Beatles' "I Feel Fine" into the solo. Nekroman explains what makes Sandorff a rare gem in his field: "When we first met, he asked, 'What kind of music are you playing?' I told him psychobilly. He said, 'What's that?' I thought, 'Well, I don't want you to listen to other bands because I want to kind of give that original touch to it.' I mean, if he didn't know what he was playing, then he didn't get too much influenced by something else."

Of course, Kristian Sandorff's granite drums and Nekroman's thunderous slap-bass don't hurt, either. But in the case of "Trick or Treat," Nekroman's lyrics, walking a fine line between cute and horrific, are what make it an instant Halloween staple. "Trick, trick, trick-or-treat / Open up your door and give me what I need / Thrill, kill, Halloween / I'll show you something that you've never seen," he sings in his crackling sneer.

In all, Return of the Loving Dead's 13 tracks are the sound of a power trio in uninhibited motion. You might expect a typical band to pull out all the bells and whistles and overdubs for its American debut, but Nekromantix has made its sixth LP even rawer than previous efforts. "I would say we were more impulsive," says Nekroman. "We tried to keep it simple and record it as fast as possible, not creating too many errors, but keeping that kind of live energy on tape."

This down-to-earth ethic is what's most unique about Nekromantix. Sure, they make a graveyard-stompin' spectacle on stage, and their music could summon spooks and hellfire, but it's an honest, rootsy blend that's resolutely of this world.

Asked if he felt "different" as a teenager -- alienation being the perennial certificate of authenticity of all unusual young men -- Nekroman cracks up for about a minute. "I guess so, it seems like it," he says, sounding as if he'd honestly never thought about it.

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Andrew Marcus