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Onstage in tight, flamboyant clothes, with his eyes smeared in makeup and pale platinum blond bangs brushing his super-high cheekbones, Rory Lewarne has the wiry, androgynous good looks of your typical rock 'n' roll sex symbol. He just looks like he should be in front of a crowd somewhere, sweaty skin gleaming under a spotlight.
But it's Friday night in Sheffield, England, middle of the summer, and who knows -- Lewarne just might skip the eyeliner. Because instead of heading out to a smoky nightclub to perform with his band Pink Grease, he's getting ready to meet up with friends for a game of laser zone.
"We're going just because we haven't done it in years," Lewarne says, explaining that his 25th birthday is two days away. "Twenty-two, officially," he adds.
It's debatable whether Sheffield is the most boring place on the planet -- laser zone, anyone? -- but Lewarne is convinced. "It's really, really, incredibly dull, but it's dull with character, because it's this old steel industry town, and it's got the history and legend of it as well -- steelworkers, old working-class communities that have been torn apart now that the robots do all the work. And all these old buildings that have a retro-futurist kind of thing," he says. "I think that's what inspired all these Sheffield bands, like the Human League and Cabaret Voltaire. They've all got the same kind of create-your-own-world kind of attitude towards it -- this kind of almost science-fictiony thing."
Listening to Pink Grease's danceable, party-ready debut LP, This Is For Real -- a swaggering blur of sexy, menacing guitars, glam-rock decadence and slutty disco-punk beats -- you won't find many obvious musical connections to that earlier generation of experimental electronic and New Wave bands that hail from Sheffield -- aside from the moments when John Joseph Lynch's synth rhythms and Nick Collier's "machines and inventions" boil up from the sextet's hip-shaking stew of guitar, bass, sax and drums. And Lewarne admits that he and his bandmates never started off with the idea of being a part of any legacy anyway.
"We were in a bubble, reacting to the fact that everything around us was so shit. And when I say everything around us, I mean the people, the attitudes. The music scene at that time, which was around 2000, was just awful, atrocious. Particularly the alternative scene around where we were was all people thinking they were Oasis," says Lewarne.
Pretty soon, like their Sheffield predecessors, they got a create-your-own-world kind of attitude themselves.
"We were all experimenting with being loud and annoying," Lewarne says. "We were all hanging around the same sort of social stratosphere in Sheffield, and we were also kind of the most interesting people we knew. These people were the real freaks who always seemed to be at the center of the dance floor and always be the ones that everyone else was avoiding."
Lewarne scoffs at the suggestion that they were the cool kids. "No, the uncool kids. The dickheads. The cool kids were the ones sitting there smoking -- you know, looking cool. But these are the people who weren't afraid to be dickheads, who weren't afraid to look like idiots just to get something going. I wouldn't describe it as cool, but it definitely was a raison d'tre."
Oh, to be young and bored. Their obnoxious, attention-grabbing antics -- among other things, they originally named the band The Buttfuckers -- put Pink Grease on the local radar, musically and otherwise. "We became notorious in the town very quickly. Not just for live shows [but] just being seen around, because there aren't many groups of people with a bleached blond and a huge ginger Afro [guitarist Steve Santa Cruz]," says Lewarne.
At first, the downside of the Pink Grease spectacle was that people couldn't make out the songs. Over a few years, though, the band sharpened its confrontational sound, leading to a deal with Mute records. "Most people seemed surprised. It's funny," Lewarne says.
Now, with a new album that sounds like an invitation to an orgy, Pink Grease is leading music's return to glam rock, 21st-century style. That is to say, they're doing nothing by the book. "We're very cynical with people who are pastiching a previous period -- they're just trying to get the checklist in about making the same record again," says Lewarne.
On This Is For Real, you can hear 50 years' worth of counterculture influences: Lewarne's vocals stretch from rockabilly yelps à la Jerry Lee Lewis (one of his favorites) in the primal "Remember Forever" and "The Nasty Show," to Iggy-esque growls in "High Strung Chironi," to a sleazy falsetto in "The Pink G.R. Ease." "Fever" sounds like The Cramps' "Human Fly" layered with cheesy finger snaps and a sped-up disco high-hat, while "Superfool" morphs from dirty rock to shimmying synth beats. Screechy chaos throughout the album gives the saxophone credibility it hasn't had since the days of X-Ray Spex.
"When you're in an age like today when you're completely saturated with information from all these different channels, from different everywhere," says Lewarne, "then all you can do is just kind of step back and take what you want. And you can't see it as a modern/past thing. It all exists just as information."