For Jim Louvau, the 22-year-old lead singer for glam rock quintet Victims in Ecstacy, the transformation from civilian to superstar is a daylong event. Shunning standard rock 'n' roll duds -- "wife-beaters, backward baseball caps and wallet chains" -- Louvau is committed to a rigorous dress code.
It's just before 10 a.m. in an upper-west-side beauty salon, and Louvau is having his eyebrows waxed. In just 14 hours, he will perform before dozens of rabid fans and the look must be flawless.
Louvau sprawls out in a white vinyl recliner and closes his eyes. Anyone entering the small sterile room might mistake him for a rock 'n' roll casualty. Hyacinth strands of well-gelled hair frame his pale face. Silver stars shimmer against his faded black leather trousers, offset by a crimson shirt and thick, silver beads that form a choker around his neck.
A young woman enters the room and arranges a pot of greenish paste on a Formica countertop. She carefully dabs the substance onto Louvau's brow, pats down a strip of cloth, then -- r-i-i-i-i-i-p-p-p-p-p! -- leaves a pink, puffy mound where the hairs have been yanked out. Louvau doesn't flinch.
"I'm pretty immune to the pain," he says. "My nose is pierced, my ears are stretched and I've got tattoos."
Pain and self-sacrifice are nothing new to Louvau, whose lust for success has kept him from leading an ordinary life. He lives with his bandmates in a flat the size of a bread box and toils days in a record store to keep up with rent and rehearsal-studio payments.
"We work shit jobs and we live shitty so we can be in a band," Louvau says forcefully, hinting at his burning ambition. "We'll do whatever it takes to get there."
Just this morning, Louvau drove bleary-eyed in his father's Ford Festiva to a used-record store to peddle some favorites from his disc collection. The car died, but he earned enough cash to cover the salon appointment.
"I hated to see Pat Benetar go," he murmurs sadly.
The sacrifice doesn't end there. Girlfriends are taboo, at least serious ones. "Every time I sit down with a girl for the first time, I say, 'This is going to sound really bad, but you will never ever be as important as my band,'" says Louvau. "Everyone gets the same speech."
The technician tweezes several remaining hairs from the bridge of Louvau's nose, then motions him toward a full-length mirror. Louvau sits upright, casts a long, deep look into the glass, then continues. "I am gonna up and leave here someday, and you're not gonna come with me. I'm sorry it sucks, but that's the way it is."
The genesis of VIE came four years ago when Louvau, guitarists Andy Gerold and Jim Kaufman and drummer Danny Diaz roamed the hallways at Ironwood High School in Glendale.
Devout fans of Guns n' Roses, the four teens found inspiration in the Sunset Boulevard bad-boy bravado of Appetite for Destruction. "We wanted to be rock stars since we were 3 years old," says Louvau. "We were all sitting around going, 'Whoa, Axl Rose is the coolest man on the planet. He can be the biggest cocksucker he wants to be and he'll sell a million records and he gets a lot of girls.' That was the idea that brought us together."
It was 1996, Louvau's senior year, and though he'd never picked up a microphone, the quartet of friends started a heavy-metal band called Verify 21. "It was a yelling thing," remembers Louvau.
Taking his cues from Michael Patton (Mr. Bungle, Faith No More) and Rose, Louvau fumbled his way through the first year of his musical career. It was destiny, he claims, not hours of lessons, that served as a guiding light. "I always knew I was going to be some kind of performer," says Louvau, recalling the time at age 7 when he lip-synched and air-strummed a version of Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" in a karaoke studio at Metrocenter. "I had this guitar and I went into the studio and acted like I was playing. They played it over the big screen in the mall and I literally had a crowd of 50 people watching. I walked out of the studio and all these people were like, 'Wow, this kid is going to be a star!'"
The road to stardom, he would find out, is riddled with potholes. The first came when Louvau was expelled from Verify 21.
"I got kicked out of the band 'cause I was a rock star," he recalls. "I was a dick. But then they realized that without me they weren't so rock 'n' roll." Verify 21 broke up just a year after getting started.
After graduating from Ironwood, the former members regrouped and added bassist Jared Bakin, an Ironwood alum who'd handled lighting chores for Verify 21. They changed the name of the band to Victims in Ecstacy and began playing what Louvau calls "a hint of '80s new-wave music put together with guitar-driven rock."
The androgynous crew also upped the visual ante, taking the stage in lavish dresses and makeup. It was the turn toward the outrageous and eye-catching look -- arguably more than the music -- that helped the band earn an immediate and devoted fan base. "We were put into a situation where we had a following pretty much instantly and we were really bad," says Louvau. Their devotees, to this day, are an obsessive and physical bunch. Mostly young girls, their sometimes overzealous behavior makes convicted stalkers seem like harmless puppies.
"People get onstage and ruin our equipment," says Diaz. "They knock over my drum set. They knock over Jared's bass amp. One time they smashed Andy into the wall. His hand got cut open and was bleeding."
It isn't unusual for girls dressed like Courtney Love, or even like Louvau himself, to ask band members to sign their body parts or undergarments. The fans continue to be rowdy, but the band says they have come into a whole new musical and stylistic realm.
"We're kind of into stars and the Chinese vibe," says Louvau, revealing the thematic focus of the group's forthcoming album Chinese Pornography. "I have a star tattooed on my arm. Jared has stars tattooed all around his nipples." They painted their once-pink amps black and changed their logo from "a hot-pink glowy lookin' thing" to a star with the band's name spelled across it. And they've chucked the dresses.
"We started wearing suits 'cause with the dresses we looked like cheap whores," adds Bakin dryly.
The sound has changed, too, from a raw mechanical grind to a more radio-friendly industrial sound fused with samples and catchy melodies.
Victims in Ecstacy's recent creative resurgence followed an extended bout of writer's block that seriously threatened the group's future The band "all of a sudden got creative diarrhea," says Bakin. "We kind of went through a musical puberty."
Emotional highs and lows bleed heavily from every track on Chinese Pornography. In fact, if it weren't for Louvau's clever blend of pathos and comedy -- a sense of humor that keeps the lyrics from veering into tragedy -- VIE could slip easily into the realm of goth gloom. "I've yet to write a happy song," claims the lead singer, whose world view is about as sunny as a 10-car pileup.
The band promises that Pornography will sway critics who have long assailed the band for being a prime example of style over substance. Having recruited top-drawer talent to help them -- Pornography's "New Tasted" and "Nothing" were recorded by Los Angeles producer Synical while the rest of the album was overseen by Mark Matson of Sipping Soma -- their prediction may hold water. The finishing touch on the new-and-improved VIE was replacing guitarist Kaufman with Ken Bergeron, the band's ex-sound man who lives in Louvau's and Bakin's dining room. A formal audition never took place.
"It was a constant audition actually," says Bergeron. "See, I lived with Jim and Jared, and I'd wake up every morning and just play the songs for them in the doorway."
Louvau remembers it differently. "He'd just fuck it up in the front door in his boxers and just play our songs over and over. We were like, 'Go into your room and close the door. Oh wait, you don't have a door.'"
The union has been successful as evidenced by the gathering attention surrounding VIE. Recently, the band made a brief appearance on MTV's Fanatic, as well as earning some airtime on local radio. The group was also selected to perform at the grand opening of the Phoenix industrial club The Machine and has opened shows for touring acts like Jack Off Jill, Life of Agony and the Genitorturers.
"We want to get out of this town as soon as possible," says Louvau, whose frequent excursions to the City of Angels have left him hungering for a permanent taste of the big time. "If we don't get signed, we'll live in cardboard boxes, literally. If you want to make it in the music industry, you can't look at it any other way. This is my life or it's the cardboard box."
A typical tour goes like this: "We load up in two cars and we go stay in a $40 porno motel in Hollywood, with cheesy-ass stains on the bed," says Louvau.
Bakin remembers one particularly hellish experience. "One night we stayed at the Oak Tree Inn on the Sunset Strip and we woke up at 4 in the morning and realized there was pee all over the bed. And there was a refrigerator and it'd been leaking before so I said, 'Ah, don't worry about it, it's probably just the refrigerator.' So we woke up in the morning and there was this big pee stain. Free porn, though."
It's three hours 'til showtime, and VIE's headquarters is bustling like a busy airport terminal. A Canadian rock quartet, Tuuli, has descended on the boys after responding to an online query for an opening band. Sheathed in slivers of patent leather and combat boots, the female band members deftly apply garish glitter to their eyes and high-shine gloss to their lips.
Enter Louvau, wearing solar-white faux fur and Doc Martens. There's no mistaking he's a rock star. A phone rings and the lead singer snatches it up recklessly: "Rock 'n' roll!"
Leaning against a dining table, he nearly topples a container of 409 cleaning fluid and a row of empty Corona bottles. It's a personal call. Louvau swivels on a single Doc Marten, then whisks off to his bedroom.
The Canadians are getting ready to clear out. They gather their gear quietly and move briskly past shelves of KISS action dolls and walls adorned with Spice Girls posters and Ansel Adams photographs.
Bakin's girlfriend, a young, blond waif, dutifully outlines his lips with a cosmetic pencil as Louvau re-emerges just in time for a photo. The five band members -- dressed in expensive, stunning suits -- flash cheesy grins, then flip off the camera in unison. It's showtime.
At 11:45 p.m., VIE assembles onstage at the Mason Jar. In seconds, the band is crashing around like bumper cars on the small stage, sending droplets of mascara and sweat swirling into the air. Carried by an earful of rhythmic blasts and the dreamy electronic binge of Andy Gerold's lead-guitar riffs, a roomful of happy goths sway and bop, singing along to every word. The band unleashes a surly rendition of Guns n' Roses' "It's So Easy," then rips through their new material to the obvious delight of the crowd.
Midway into the queasy psycho binge of "Dresses, Dolls & Lollipops," Louvau slinks about the stage like an oversexed bat, spewing tight, pouty phrases and occasionally uttering a devilish growl. He stops short and gazes over the crowd, then shakes his body like a rag doll.
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"Goddamn I love America!" he yowls, sweat streaking his cheeks and lips. In the lights, his hair is a lurid spectrum of violets and lilacs.
The final song climaxes in what seems a nightmarish version of American Bandstand. The band invites a motley crew to join them onstage, and pretty soon, more than a dozen fans are singing and pogoing to the hell-sped rhythms of "Fragile." It's no wonder Louvau regards youth as the band's main asset. After all, their infectious energy would convert even the most devout skeptic.
"We're not like, 'I'm 30 years old and greasy and I've got a couple of kids on the side,'" he says. "We're very young. And we're very, very driven."
Victims in Ecstacy's CD release party is scheduled for Saturday, April 22, at The Bash on Ash. Showtime is 9 p.m.