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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.
The images in the band's songs are taken from Pfahler and Samoa's horror movies, with each track unfolding like a mini movie. The use of on-stage props, Pfahler notes, helps bridge the songs and the film concepts: "Our specific kind of theatricality A the use of props and costumes to illustrate each song A is very simple, very ABC, very PG-13. I think it comes from my Austrian heritage. I read recently that Austrians have a great sense of the phantasmagoric. I'm just lucky I can see the value and redemption in ugliness. I think the things we do are gorgeous. They don't do choreography in rock any more. I love that Fifties-style performance, with sets and big hair and glamour."
Pfahler grew up in Malibu Beach, where her next-door neighbors included Barbra Streisand and Shelley Winters (an exemplar of voluptuous horror, Pfahler points out). Her father was a nationally recognized surfer featured in surf-film auteur Bruce Brown's Slippery When Wet. Early on she followed her dad's athletic example by becoming a gymnast, and was being groomed for the Olympics until she broke her arm in her early teens. She later dropped out of high school and ran away from home, heading for the East Coast, where she wound up in New York and became a junkie. She jokes about the irony of getting her heroin addiction out of the way before becoming a rock star.
As a kid Pfahler was obsessed with horror films and was always impressed by the "lady devil" image of B-movie starlets Barbara Steel, Yvonne DeCarlo, and, of course, Black, the star of two Pfahler favorites, 1975's Day of the Locust and the made-for-TV Trilogy of Terror. The band's real-life namesake actually appears in its 1994 concert film Teather Penumbra, introducing the band and explaining that she wasn't sure whether to take the group's name as a compliment or an insult.
"I've always loved these cheesecake horror films," Pfahler says. "Movies are my nature. I see movies and I have to pay homage to what I'm inspired by. I've always been very visually oriented, and after having lived around ugliness for so many years, my imagination has stretched it out to the phantasmagoric."
Rebelling against the stifling stereotype of what she terms "perfect bikini models," Pfahler and her cohorts go out of their way to look as unnatural as possible, like E.T. cadavers come to life. It's an extreme celebration and glamorization of the filth and degradation of everyday life in a city like New York, declares Pfahler, who has runway-modeled for designers such as Betsey Johnson, likening the experience to streetwalking.
"I feel that out in the general public there is still a real Madonna/whore complex," she rails. "It's considered okay to spread your cunt if you are doing pornography, but society as a whole is annoyed by what I'm doing. If you do something with your body in a celebratory way, it makes people really uncomfortable. We are reclaiming and doing other things with our bodies, which is getting us problems with censors A we're not allowed on television and on some stages. It's surprising how conservative things still are. It's becoming more dangerous to be who we are. We're in this primarily to have fun. Music is terribly fun, and this is the nature of who we are, to continue showing up in all circumstances. I'm like a vaudevillian performer. It's my job.