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Kembra Pfahler is a self-proclaimed rock goddess. And why not grant her the title? As the cofounder of the arty glam-punk New York City ensemble the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, the subversive singer, songwriter, multimedia artist, and weirdness guru has paved the way for a strange new aesthetic, created her own artistic movement, and left her colorful palm print on the face of feminism.
Pfahler explains the band's manifesto during a phone interview from New York City. "We want to awaken people from this dormant high-fashion disease that is causing a malignant tumor in the world today," says the vocalist. "'Voluptuous horror' is about being glamorous and hideous at the same time. We present a different paradigm of visibility, as far as how I'm using my body, what our costumes are about. We are just adding a different letter to the alphabet." To better describe herself and her band, Pfahler has coined the phrase "antinaturalist," meaning that the VHoKB comments on how the world is becoming more unnatural and horrific, while also bringing a sense of glamour to its presentations of such ugly truths. She also claims to be an "availablist," someone who makes art out of whatever is around. (Got all that?)
On-stage VHoKB comes across as an otherworldly vaudeville act. The slender, petite Pfahler wears little more than blue or red body paint, thigh-high stiletto-heel boots, and a G-string; she is usually flanked by similarly unattired female dancers. Her eyes are done up like Lily Munster's and her head is topped with a matted black fright wig. She's fond of blacking out her teeth, and sometimes she prowls the stage with bowling balls strapped to her feet. (Though it's hard to fathom, Pfahler confesses that she was microphone-shy until she had a near-death experience following a mugging.)
Pfahler's husband Samoa is never far away. A Japanese guitar virtuoso who plays in the nimble-fingered style of Eddie Van Halen, he usually sports a platinum blond pompadour and favors silver and leopard-print space suits. VHoKB's current lineup is rounded out by Teddy "the Love God" Gonzaley, bassist and ex-masseur/road manager/bodyguard to Pfahler, and drummer J.P. "Thunderbolt" Patterson. Sometimes a male back-up dancer in white body paint (often dressed as a maid) assists the band during shows with cheap but inventive cardboard props. But it is alien diva Pfahler who commands complete attention, whose snarly punk-grrl delivery (imagine Patti Smith meets L7) spoofs her Southern California background. And yet her personal and challenging lyrics humorously explore everything from troubled relationships and pollution to cross dressing and shopping to sex with aliens and existential cosmetic surgery. As for the music, well, the band blends the punky pop of the Ramones and Blondie with the Seventies glam-rock churn of Alice Cooper.
Regular on-stage antics include Pfahler standing on her head and having paint-filled Easter eggs cracked on her crotch by a female dancer wearing silver bunny ears. With the help of props, she also turns into a ladybug and a flower, cries at a wailing wall affixed with tissue dispensers, erupts out of a volcano, and drowns in a sea of blue waves. Some of the props are used to illustrate the songs' lyrics. Others are actually costumes for characters such as "Chopsley: Rabid Bikini Model," a topless Asian dancer in a blond wig who wears a giant set of fangs across her shoulders like butterfly wings. There's also Abra Kadaver, a mothlike creature from the song "Neighborachie," about the twisted Guy Next Door. The overall effect is like an elementary school pageant gone terribly awry.
There is a measure of irony in Pfahler's presenting her witty and socially relevant lyrics amid this bizarre stage show, which at times can obscure the message. Yet it doesn't really bother her that some people might dismiss the band as a novelty act or overlook the insight and humor in her songs. "It doesn't keep me awake at night if people are misinterpreting the irony in what we do," she claims. "We have this display, but there are deep lyrics going on. Fortunately there is a handful of maniacs that understand. Beyond that I can't help it. That's just how we operate."
The band began experimenting with its unusual vocabulary of images in 1990. Pfahler, a performance artist and grade-Z horror- and adult-film actress, met former drag queen and rockabilly guitarist Samoa on New York's Lower East Side. The pair began making Super-8 horror flicks that featured their original film scores. Soon their interest in music eclipsed their involvement in film. "We were having so much fun," Pfahler recalls, "we decided to focus on our rock career."
With a name conceived in homage to the star of films both trashy (Trilogy of Terror) and legit (Five Easy Pieces), the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black issued its first album, A National Healthcare, in 1992 on the band's own Beautiful Records. (It was recently reissued on Go-kart, with extra tracks added.) Then came "The Anti-Naturalists" (released on L.A. indie label Triple X) in early 1995; it was critically lauded for its tight integration of the band's twisted musical artistry and Pfahler's surprisingly soul-bearing lyrics.