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Crazy, Kreamy, and Blue

Kreamy 'Lectric Santa was the first band I saw after moving to Miami in the fall of 1995 to work for New Times as music editor. Fittingly, they were the last band I saw before leaving in June of 1997 to move back to my hometown of Memphis. I only saw them a few times in between -- not nearly as many times as I should have, but enough to know I loved pretty much everything about them. I heard them grow as a live band over the next two years, but that first show is the one I always remember best. It was on a Thursday night in September, at Churchill's Hideaway, one of the few nightclubs in the city to open its stage to the screwy, scrambled likes of KLS. I knew nothing about them going in -- hell, I'd only been in the city about eight hours, meaning I knew nothing about anything in Miami, except that my hotel was on Collins Avenue and that Churchill's was in an area my host for the evening (a New Times editor) referred to as Little Haiti.

What I heard that night, though, had nothing to do with Haitian music, just as KLS had little to do with the traditionalist punk offered up that night by the opening act, Stun Guns. There were some stray bits of punk in the Santa's music -- in song structure and the attitude that you don't have to be an instrumental whiz to play an instrument; KLS violinist Priya Ray was proof of that. But mostly the dense, angular, constantly left-turning noise they generated at Churchill's on that Thursday was their own, a hodgepodge of disparate influences: I heard bits of arty skronk that made me think of Swell Maps and Liliput; I heard fiercely innovative arrangements that were delivered with nonchalance but could never have been concocted without considerable vision and forethought; and in the oil-and-water vocals of Ray and bandleader Robert Price, I heard passion, conviction, and the exuberance of doing something different, something weird. Something fun.

That playfulness, the obvious fun they were having even as guitar strings snapped and rhythms were lost and chord changes forgotten, drew me immediately to Kreamy 'Lectric Santa, as the concept of "fun" is rare in the avant-garde realm the band calls home. You don't have to dig too deeply into experimental rock-based music to find that self-consciousness is the most valued commodity, even though the reigning avatars of the whole damn genre -- Cage, Stockhausen, Xenakis, et al. -- were obviously having a ball as they recorded ambient street sounds or tinkled maniacally at the piano or sawed at the cello in atonal bliss. Kreamy 'Lectric Santa was fun. They had a sense of humor. This was a band that, when a freelance writer did a story on them shortly after I started working at the paper, assembled for the photographer a "group" that included no members of Kreamy 'Lectric Santa. This was a band that, in interviews, would rather throw out smart-assed one-liners than expound on the complexities of their art.

And their art was inarguably complex, especially on record, where they could be as perplexing, baffling, screwy, and brilliant as anyone in the lexicon of oddball experimental rock. Their first (and thus far only) longplayer, da bronx sity chiken machine VOL. II, issued on the Coral Gables-based indie label Star Crunch, is one of the most schizophrenic albums I've ever heard. Amid the tape hiss, aural cutups, found-sound gibberish, and screwy, in-joke song titles -- some of which name-check local music hotshots such as Rat Bastard, Harry Pussy, and Cavity -- you get some real (and really good) songs, including the intoxicatingly anthemic "Punk rok sity waysted," which I often think is the best song KLS has committed to tape. But then I remember "Holdin' Yerself," one of six songs assembled for the 1996 EP Music for Meditation, Relaxation and the Imminent Overthrow of All World Governments (also on Star Crunch). Sounding achy and forlorn, and bolstered by a droning but incessantly catchy folk-song riff, Price turns in a song that's alternately heartbreaking and uplifting. That he answered it with a curveball like the self-issued '97 EP 4, a dense, murky assemblage of stoner drone, Ray's best violin and vocal work ever, and yet another ferociously abrasive rocker -- "Hers," complete with his-and-her lyrics for himself and Ray -- cemented my conviction that this was a band that demanded attention.

And I gave them as much as possible. The more I surveyed the local music scene, the more I succumbed to the peculiar charms of Kreamy 'Lectric Santa, and I wrote about the band frequently (too frequently, if you ask some of the local bands I either slagged or ignored). I was trying, I guess, to figure out all the reasons I loved their music, why it moved me; the very nature of their music made it hard for me to justly explain its charms. But that was my problem, not theirs, and despite all the blabber and ink, I don't think I ever did their music justice. I know this because more than a few people in town asked me more than once exactly why I loved it, why it moved me. "I just don't get it," was the usual response after I'd either fumbled for an explanation or simply played the records to let them hear for themselves.

And that's fine. Music does different things to different people, and not a lot of people in Miami seemed to care much about Kreamy 'Lectric Santa. They'd been around forever, it seemed, but their fan base (if you could call it that) never expanded. Similarly, they never received the national and international press accorded to Harry Pussy, certainly the only local group that shared much common ground with Price and Ray. Part of me understands that: Taste is a singular thing, and what works for one pair of ears can often terrify another. Because they were beyond categorization, because they skewed a lot of accepted music conventions, Kreamy 'Lectric Santa never really made it in Miami (whatever making it in Miami means). So I was glad to hear that the band moved a good while back to Atlanta, where I would think -- where I would hope -- the climate is more receptive to their squalling innovations.

On the other hand, it's a shame they had to leave town. Miami needs a group like KLS, and you'd think that more than a handful of residents in a city loaded with so many dull, drab, garden-variety bands would welcome something a little different, a little odd, a little fun. But Miami is a weird place -- and, sadly, ultimately, not weird in the ways that would accommodate the likes of Kreamy 'Lectric Santa. Which is one of the reasons I'm glad I don't live there any more. Although I toy with the idea from time to time, I haven't visited Miami since I left last year. I'm not sure why, but I never felt very comfortable there -- kind of like wearing a shirt that looks great but is made of some godawful synthetic material that makes you break out in hives.

There isn't a whole lot I miss about Miami, but what I miss -- a few friends, a few restaurants, a few bars, a few record stores, the ocean, the almighty Presidente beer -- I miss madly. And as I sit at the computer here in Memphis, with Music for Mediation playing continuously on the turntable, knowing that come July 25 they'll be back on the battered, beaten stage at Churchill's, I miss Kreamy 'Lectric Santa. For the first time since I left, I wish I were in Miami.

Kreamy 'Lectric Santa plays Saturday, July 25, at Churchill's Hideaway, 5501 NE 2nd Ave; 305-757-1807. The opening bands start at 10:00 p.m. Cover charge is $5.


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