Photo by Chris ZieglerFor a bunch of kids who faked a suicide just for laughs, have been locked inside mausoleums while shooting video for their band, and penned a ton of songs positively drowning in dark-and-stormy-night ambiance, the Nightmare Syndicate sure are perky in person.
Yeah, they all coincidentally and independently showed up to practice wearing black T-shirts (that's about as dark-side as you can get when you had to work retail earlier in the day), and yeah, they just put in a tight half-hour set bleeding out jagged, spooky avant-hardcore just bulging with Dr.-Caligari-style keyboard runs and desperate message-from-the-underworld vocals. But pry them out of the staircase shop they rehearse in, and they talk about the band like it was a field trip to Raging Waters.
"Fun!" they say. They reminisce about touring with shinier eyes and rosier cheeks than all but the most illicitly coked-up Mouseketeers. During lulls in our interview, they're very careful to politely and dutifully thank everyone who has helped them out (a list stretching from Derek from the Murder City Devils to the kids at Koo's Art Cafe and the Che Caf to all their friends who used to come see them play back in the early we-know-we-suck-and-we're-sorry days). Punk you could take home to your parents? The Nightmare Syndicate could almost be your parents—at least until they flip those switches when they take the stage: "The more normal we are in public," explains singer Mehran Azma, "the crazier we are when we're playing."
So beware: they can be really damn normal in public. You'd wonder where a band with a Newport Beach mailing address would worm out such seductively abrasive music, spiritually somewhere between bands like the Blood Brothers and the Murder City Devils (both of whom the Syndicate were just giddy to open up for; they threw away the tickets they'd bought as fans when they found out they'd be playing) but with a decidedly snarky-young-upstart energy. And although we'd never toss around unwieldy adjectives like "Goth" because there's nary a tacky ankh necklace or journal full of overwrought poetry to be found around these kids, the Nightmare Syndicate does tend to dabble in the gloriously overwrought theatrics of the damned. You wonder what their bedrooms look like—tinfoil over the windows for better all-night marathons of Fritz Lang flicks?—and you wonder how they teased such a dark aesthetic sensibility out of a lifetime of bright sunshiny days.
"I don't think it was intentional—we definitely didn't intend on going toward the dark side," grins guitarist Willy Graves. "It's just what happens when you break up with your girlfriend."
Yeah, says keyboard player Brandi Lyon, who remembers back when the Nightmare Syndicate wasn't very nightmarish at all. "In an ironic sort of way, we're kind of just now coming into the name of 'Nightmare Syndicate,'" she says, as her band mates giggle and make spooky ghost noises (e.g., "Woooooooooo!"). "It sounds kind of hokey, but it's totally true!"
And, of course, they think Halloween is a perfect opportunity to play a show—it's the one time of year that their for-the-benefit-of-the-public costumes can come off. When Lyon says those sucky Christian-alternative-to-Halloween "harvest festivals" are "kind of creepy," it's with real horror in her voice; when she talks about the real non-Christian deal, it's with something like love. Last year, Lyon put two weeks into stitching her own Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmascostume; this year, she's going as a fallen angel. Oh, yeah, and she was the one who once got trapped inside the mausoleum crammed to the rafters with corpses. "It was very Halloween-esque," Lyon says.
Graves is the one who once faked his own suicide in a bathtub full of store-bought blood; his parents were "halfway freaked out," he reports. Azma regrets smashing a lot of pumpkins. Unlucky bassist Johnnie Heinz lives in a Halloween-less harvest-festival-friendly house. And drummer Rodney Edgemon? Well, there is no joy in Halloween for Edgemon because he works at a Halloween-costume warehouse. "Of course it sucks," he says. "It's retail." But he's still going to dress up.
"When you were a kid, you knew it was the one day out of the year you could be something you weren't normally—something you wanted to be," Lyon says. "And little boys wanna be superheroes, little girls wanna be princesses, but I never wanted to be anything like that. I wanted to do really fucked-up shit. And Halloween gives you an excuse to do something, and society doesn't look at you as out of the ordinary. That's what gets you excited when you're younger, and when you're older, you still have that idea in the back of your head."
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"You're mostly expected to be a good kid," Azma says.
"But then," Lyon says, "you can masquerade around and scare the shit out of people!"
Exactly, Azma says. "And it's fun to scare the shit out of people!"
The Nightmare Syndicate perform at the Halloween Extravaganza with Colostomy Bag, Durga, Crustation Nation and God Made Everything . . . at Koo's Art Cafe, 1505 N. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 648-0937; www.koos.org. Sun., 7:30 p.m. $5. All ages.