You're looking at a photo of a band called the Holy Ghost Revival. And it's weird. Kurt Cobain is singing into Charlie Chaplin's chest. Dee Dee Ramone is staring at his fingers as he plays bass. Chris O'Donnell is buried behind his keyboard, and the drummer is invisible. In the background: thick red curtains. You've got Kurt Cobain—real name: Conor St. Kiley, and he probably completely and understandably hates that you said he looks like Kurt Cobain, even though he has a ripped sweater and black nail polish and ratty hasher hair and everything—on the phone from St. Petersburg, Florida, and you ask him: "Um, was that photo from a Halloween show?"
"No," St. Kiley says, maybe a bit taken aback. "I mean, we're not trying to look different, but along with the music, there's a visual aspect. It can't be denied. You can't just go up there in T-shirts and baggy jeans and baseball caps—well, you could, but it sends a different message. I'm kind of more into a Dickensian thing—ripped-up coats and stuff. Or A Clockwork Orange. Or Bela Lugosi. And I'm really into Peter Lorre and all his suaveness."
"All his odd suaveness."
You think of M: hunchback-y old Lorre in a Fritz Lang film, a murderer on the run from the cops in silent—mostly silent, except for his trademark haunting whistle—black and white. No wonder the Holy Ghost Revival looks weird. They are weird—fearlessly, relentlessly, experimentally weird.
To put it crassly: it takes some sick nuts to write a five-minute acoustic song called "Jewelry Shop" and take it on tour with a punk band like Lewd-ites the Clorox Girls; it takes something even more to pin your own band's raison d'tre on someone like Blue Oyster Cult. That's a hard sell—an artistic risk that'd make a lot of dudes slink back to nice, safe Stooges records. But the Holy Ghost Revival had it all figured out before they even left little Bainbridge Island, just a bridge and a ferry from Seattle. They love Blue Oyster Cult.
"Blue Oyster Cult!" says St. Kiley. "They were like heavy metal, but also . . . without being really stupid, they kind of had an intriguing atmosphere to it. There's some pretty straight-up rock & roll, but songs like 'Astronomy' and 'Flaming Telepaths' have lyrics and . . . a faux mysticism that's kind of neat. They hinted at something we wanted to dig deeper into, something we could pick up and run with."
"I'd say," says St. Kiley, "that it's kind of a . . . narcotic thing."
You get the feeling he doesn't mean drugs so much as sleep—a sort of gauzy absinthe dreamland, somewhere in the dark, rainy woods of Bainbridge (where you can go prowling for abandoned World War II bunkers for fun, says St. Kiley), under a fog blown out of the high-contrast art films you find on your parents' satellite TV and the moody rock & roll bands that creep out of Seattle every few years or so. The Holy Ghost Revival are big fans of Kubrick's arch morality tales and Argento's harsh edge. That's why their songs sound like Ziggy Stardust—they're written for film. And the Holy Ghost's vampy, swaggering power-chords-and-pianos set—their glammy theatrics and operatic punk rock melodrama—are easy to cast: Theda Barra meets Marc Bolan meets Robert Smith. Richard Meltzer consulted on the script.
"We're using powerful words and images—Kubrick does that," says St. Kiley. "It strikes you deeply when he puts two things together to hint at something bigger. The sum is greater than the parts."
Do people pick up on that?
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"Adults," admits St. Kiley—they started the band two years ago, when everyone was in or around high school. "But we strive for timelessness. Something anybody could get into—the aesthetics and the storytelling."
So what kind of stories are you trying to tell, you ask? St. Kiley gives you a lot of adjectives. Space-y. Foggy. Cloudy. And soon you realize you're talking about the weather where they grew up.
"In wintertime, it's been known to rain straight for a month," says St. Kiley. "It's really pretty—it's not like I hate it or anything. There's definitely something pretty that's there in the dark."
Holy Ghost Revival perform with Grand Elegance at The Gypsy Lounge, 23600 Rockfield Blvd., Ste. 3A, Lake Forest, (949) 206-9990. Sat., 9 p.m. $8. 21+.