Love Among the Mutants

The Chinese Stars: A horrible guide to horrible noise

Eric Paul says his band has a new record that could teach you something; Eric says that it could teach you that he is consumed by women (his phrase, left wobbling somewhere between the figurative and the literal). Eric says maybe we could go on a date to learn more about him as a person. But Eric sings like a pimply kid in a black trench coat looks; and Eric sings about nipples and drips and viruses and eating disorders; and Eric is from the same town as H.P. Lovecraft; and when Eric types the word "fun," he puts it in all-capital letters. No date, Eric. We already know too much.

But this Chinese Stars record—Turbo Mattress (on Skin Graft), featuring Eric, his voice and his nipples—is like that. It trades freakishness for attention, and it knows the cultural currency of gross, and not dumb-cartoon gross: the Chinese Stars' Turbo Mattress EP is lavishly, happily, intelligently creepy, an album you do not stop so much as dislodge.

Eric had a similar but cruder shtick when he sang for his old band, Arab On Radar—in fact, he was once called "the greatest weakness that faces the group," apparently by someone who didn't dig his monotone falsetto and oversexed surrealist subject matter. "I just want to glance at her nipples" went a representative line. "They are getting bigger, bigger and bigger." And like the science behind the frontal lobotomy procedure, he's only gotten more refined with age.

Arab On Radar had their fans while they lasted. Panties, spandex, jump suits, uncomfortable touching and a lack of adults you could trust; on such things are reputations sought and won in the indie underground. And with onstage misbehavior like that stuck in front of itchy atonal creep music so discordant that Metal-Box P.I.L. suddenly blossoms into air kisses from Brian Wilson beside it? Well, that's what passes for love among the mutants, for sure, and that's why Arab On Radar—who presaged the Providence Rock City (home of Lightning Bolt and H.P. Lovecraft!) phenomenon by a good few years—warrant such wistful reminiscence these days, especially since they broke up in 2002 at what Skin Graft claims was "the height of their popularity."

But Eric helped start Chinese Stars a little later, and Eric wishes people would appreciate that a little more, instead of complaining—as a few do—that Chinese Stars is simply a bizarre ex-Arab On Radar cash-in at the disco-punk deposits-and-withdrawals counter. Because an offbeat high-hat does not disco-punk make, and if you played the Chinese Stars' Turbo Mattress EP (also on Skin Graft, which claims the Stars will "reinvent what they already invented") for anyone but the most desensitized of flat-eyed trust-funded art students, they would not disco.

If you played the Mattress EP for normal people—what Mike Watt calls "squarejohns"—they would grab their coats and leave. If you played it for terminal schizophrenics, they'd either eat their wrists open or roll their eyes back and hit the floor. If you played the EP for your parole officer, he would grab the cuffs. And if you played this EP for a six-year-old girl, you should go to jail. Eric is very aware of all this.

"Man, do not play a Chinese Stars song [for your parole officer]. Please don't," he says. "I want you to get the fuck out of jail and come and have a good time with us. Play a Bruce Springsteen song. You will be much better off. [And] if there was a six-year-old girl at the next show, I would demand somebody call her parents. That would be terrible."

So it's not music for kids, parents, airports or films—or any but the hardiest of desert plants, for that matter. Instead, Chinese Stars make songs for the sick and loving it. Like the Sightings, who smother their rock & roll under rafts of static—or like Flipper, San Francisco's first and only post-punk band—the Chinese Stars bury anything they have under repetition and contempt (in fact, the song "The Fastest Horse Yet" is pure contempt in 4/4 time, as thick and sticky as clotted blood. It's about Bukowski, Eric adds). The drums (by AOR's Craig Kureck) are stethoscope-muffled and heart-attack erratic, the guitar (Paul Vieira) is either a finger jabbing your back or a fat cop demanding you move your vehicle, and the bass (Six Finger Satellite's Rick Pelletier) isn't bass, but rather a Post-It note that says, "PUT BASSLINES HERE LATER K THX!!!!" (certainly, this has been done on purpose).

Minimal? It sounds like Eric is calling in lyrics from the noisiest assembly line in town: "I will set fires for you! You showed me your X-rays! Now I worry about you! I worry about your camp counselors!" And unlistenable? No, no, it's very listenable, the same way a hemorrhoid is feelable. And it's pop, too—pop like a ventricle under heavy Gs ("I worry mostly about my bills and my heart failing," says Eric). And it's catchy like erysipelas (Google: "contagious skin disease"), a specially relevant ailment that provokes sufferers to pick themselves raw. And it's cute like . . . well, it's not cute. It's compulsive. It's touching a doorknob eight times before you can leave the room. It's abnormality as aesthetic—funny that R. Crumb drew portraits of Bukowski and Chinese Stars write songs about him because that makes for a deep and scary little love triangle.

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