The Sunny Side of Goth

Audra turns the world on with its gloom

Scaling cemetery walls and aching beneath dark skies in October rain. And brooding; always brooding. The odor of rotting fruit mingling with sod on moist ground. Celebratory funeral processions. Voices coming only in echoes, pale faces and eyes thick with coal-black eyeliner. Short days, long nights and inward journeys into darkness. Death mentioned in hushed tones and left in the hands of adolescent poets whose bookshelves display Dante next to Stephen King. Bowie's over here, Lou Reed's there and Peter Murphy's everywhere.

Such is the territory of Audra, Phoenix's premium purveyor of gothy grim pop. Its songs, at their best, can define a desolation that borders on hopelessness. A place filled with air so brittle and oppressive, too hot or too cold, that all you can do is do nothing. Nothing, that is, except be miserable. It's a place where anything you desire is beyond your grasp.

Sounds lovely, doesn't it? A bit strained with drama? A tad pretentious? Perhaps.

Grim poppers Audra, Bart (left) and Bret, brooding in the twilight.
Paolo Vescia
Grim poppers Audra, Bart (left) and Bret, brooding in the twilight.

Yet, the brothers grim, er, rather, the brothers Helm -- Bret and Bart -- sit in front of me and laugh and laugh and laugh. There's all this laughter, all this wide-eyed mirth. Strange for a couple of guys who traffic in gloom.

Audra signed with preeminent New York-based goth label Projekt late last year. Projekt just released Audra's debut nationally distributed full-length.

Like seasoned raconteurs, the Helm boys alternate telling wicked tales of being tossed from ASU music theory classes; their dad down on his knees, crooning Sinatra at a karaoke bar; booking imaginary bands through Franco at the Jar; paintings dropping from walls during an art museum show that saw a cop pull a gun.

Arms flailing, body twisting, eyes bright, Bart often stands to animate a point. Once, he says, during a band practice in Mesa, someone was heard pounding on Audra's rehearsal room door. Bart swung the door open and a cop was standing there, livid as all hell.

"I could hear you all the way down the street," crowed the cop.

"How'd we sound?" Bart responded.

Audra's new self-titled disc defines that feeling of 5 p.m.-on-Sunday despair, a desolation so rich and crafted that you're tempted to moan/sing along.

So just where does all the laughing come in? I had pictured them as they are portrayed in their CD jacket photos, with hazy, darkened eyes, spouting doomsday ethos under great black clouds. I pictured them skulking and moping.

Hardly. Turns out the brothers are genuine fans of pop music. Both love the ambient strains common to Brian Eno productions, U2 and James, the glammy romance of Roxy Music and the goth gutters of Rozz Williams, Gitane Demone and Christian Death. They love Reed and the Velvets and, of course, Jane's Addiction and Bowie. Even AC/DC.

All this poppy refrain -- where does the darker side fit in?

"For me it was just a natural thing," says Bret. His high forehead and cropped hair recall the ex-Bauhaus crooner. "When we started writing songs, they came out dark. It's just the way it was."

"I used to listen to AC/DC," continues Bret. "Then I listened to U2 a lot. That's kind of what made me want to do this. That whole Unforgettable Fire album, that's what made me want to be a rock star. There's an emotion behind it. When you listen to, like, "Wide Awake in America," and they are performing it live, I wanna have that same kind of feeling."

The Helms are backed by bassist Janel and Robert Stacey on guitar. Bret handles all vocals, bass, keyboards. Bart gets drones and whirs from guitar and organ; he programs the beats on a drum machine they call Bo Bo. Audra knows well the rock 'n' roll lesson that good drummers are hard to find, much less great ones.

"We had to do something," says Bart of the drummer situation. "Otherwise we would've remained at a standstill."

The ashen Chicago-bred boys are German-Italian sons of a butcher. Both graduated from high school after moving to Mesa in 1987. And with names like Bret and Bart -- and part-time jobs at the Mesa Library -- they're hardly the types you'd picture in garb that is at once extravagant, decadent and fanciful, wearing enough makeup to challenge any U.K. glam/goth provocateurs of old.

"It's just the confidence," says Bret of the band's image, "the confidence to be yourself."

Bart, at 28, is the older of the two by a couple of years. His short, russet-colored locks fall to delicate curly wisps on his forehead. His sentences often rise in volume and are punctuated with gut-wrenching laughter.

"I've always just done my own thing," Bart says. "I did my hair real silver once because I liked how it looked. I like the smell of makeup when you breathe it in when you are playing. Don't you just feel more important when you wear makeup? When you're onstage, you got this makeup on, you got this look, and it just feels good."

This Audra record can get under your skin. Live, too, the band -- with all this shadowy skulking, processed guitars, and dolled up to the hilt -- draws a reaction.

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