Life or Art?
The music industry may want to eulogize Marilyn Manson, Slipknot and Nine Inch Nails, but the alchemy of industrial, metal and theatrics still strikes a chord with teens who just can't find it in them to link to Linkin Park. Think songs that question the need for religion; vocalists who turn from melodic to demonic; black vinyl clothing; gloomy nihilism; and tribal body paint, stuff bound get a rise out of post-Columbine parents.
You can find these fundamentals lurking in the personal makeup of Opiate for the Masses and BLESSEDBETHYNAME, two immensely popular yet individualistic Valley units. Each is bound not only by mutual friendship and a shared fan base but also by a like-minded mission to make live shows large-scale productions and to create music that's, well, difficult to pigeonhole. Both play infrequent live dates, sometimes together. Those shows sell out hours before club doors even open. They also can boast "most downloaded MP3" honors on any number of downloading Web sites and "best unsigned band" props for every year of their existence.
And yet Opiate for the Masses and BLESSEDBETHYNAME have been playing the waiting game with major labels for the better part of three years now, a tough stretch for sure. It's only in how each band has coped with their fate and maintained their popularity in a scene filled with transient inhabitants that their stories begin to deviate.
The first thing you notice about singer Eddie Kelly is that he wears a fishnet blouse and eyeliner befitting an Egyptian pharaoh not your usual look for a sunny Sunday afternoon in a darkened watering hole like Emerald Lounge. The second thing you notice is that Kelly rarely makes it through two of his animated sentences about BLESSEDBETHYNAME without elongating a word for emphasis. Then you notice the bullet mark below his right shoulder.
Kelly is such a nice guy and devout BLESSEDBETHYNAME believer that you almost hate bringing up the unpleasantness that nearly ended his life. "The day I shot myself" is a phrase few people live to string together, but in order to understand Kelly and his band, it's an unavoidable conversation gambit. The same zeal that drives him to make each BLESSEDBETHYNAME show unforgettable also pushed the singer to strike himself like just another piece of unused stage equipment.
To hear him tell it, "If I didn't get my head fucked up, party my ass off and try to blow myself away when I did, it would've happened somewhere down the road in some motel room and I might've put the gun in my mouth."
"When I first got to this scene, I fell in loooove with it," he begins. "I came from Albuquerque and I didn't have a band here so I went to every venue, every show and I was in everyone else's mosh pits. Bands that weren't my peers yet. And I got a lot of respect."
Hooking up with guitarist Tim Ringgold and keyboardist Scott Swai in 1997, the group dubbed itself BLESSEDBETHYNAME after an intense meditation session under black ultraviolet light. Then it was up to each band member to arrive at his own stage look, which taken collectively resembles the Village People if they had taken a wrong turn on their way to the YMCA and walked in on the Tate-LaBianca murders. Kelly dyed his dreadlocks firehouse red and painted his body alabaster white. The others chose get-ups ranging from space alien to bloodied itinerant farmer to thorny-crowned bald guy.
From the get-go, BLESSEDBETHYNAME shows, dubbed by the band as "rituals," were not your usual bar-band sonatas. One notorious night found Kelly finding catharsis by dispensing with two pints of blood from his arm. Audiences really saw red at the 1998 New Times Music Showcase, when the band sacrificed four chickens. Despite the ensuing flak, Kelly remained unrepentant, seeing his fowl play in the limelight as a preferable fate to being ground into McNuggets for no glory. It gave Kelly some of that Ozzy aura, which paid off when the group issued a self-titled debut the following December. The album rose quickly to the top of Zia's local record sales chart, propelled by such visceral metal dirges as "Vanity of the Leper Queen," "Blood Puppet Ritual" and "Angel Rape," which opens with what sounds like the devil deflowering a housewife while a very loud dishwasher roars in the background.
"The first album? Totally raw," Kelly says, laughing. "There wasn't a hair on our head trying to be successful with the album."
Yet faster than you can say "I don't hear the single," labels came a-courtin', starting a footsie game that was at its most intense in 2001, when the band was asked to relocate to Hollywood by Epic Records and DreamWorks. "For four months, we went up and down the ladder with a lot of people," says Kelly.
After DreamWorks had the band do personal showcases for its bigwigs, the label decided it wanted the band to record three songs with Scott Humphrey, whose engineering credits range from *NSYNC to Spineshank, with Mötley Crüe, the Cult and the Crystal Method somewhere in between. Then something funny happened. Nothing.
"We nnnnnnnever heard from them again." Kelly shakes his head, laughing. "Epic had made us an offer, but at the time we had a lawyer and things were happening and he said No, no, no, we can get a better deal than this' and there was no reason to think we wouldn't. I look back and think I would've taken whatever. I just wanted someone to throw me out on the road and give me the kids."
The bulk of recordings commissioned by the labels formed the basis of the group's second CD, The Divine Blasphemy, a tighter, more structured but still hedonistic collection. By that time, keyboardist Swai and guitarist Ringgold decided they wouldn't be able to stick it out in the long run. "It's understandable because it can be rough," says Kelly. But timing is everything, and with the exodus of his mates, proposed record deals going south and a complicated personal life, it was only a matter of time before the demons, which Kelly goes as far as thanking in the acknowledgements for The Divine Blasphemy, caught up with him.
"It was over a girl," he confesses of his meltdown. "What else will push you into the devil's hand with a broken heart? I was also wasted on drugs and alcohol when I shot myself. I looked into the mirror and it was between him and me. And I just remember saying, Let's dance, let's see what you've got.'"
Luckily, Kelly's inexperience with firearms altered trajectory of the .38-caliber bullet it missed his heart but punctured his subclavian artery, which controls your arm movement, before exiting out his back. "I was 90 seconds away from bleeding to death. I don't advocate it to anyone, but for me, I was glad to get it out of my system. That option was always there. After we played Boston's going-away show, I had problems with my significant other. I went to Safeway and purchased a bottle of extra-strength sleeping pills with the currency from the show, came home and ate the whole fuckin' thing. I was messed up for weeks after that but it didn't do me in." Later, he says, "I didn't want to die, but I wanted to kill myself."
While pulling the trigger may have gotten self-destruction out of Eddie Kelly's system, the system wasn't quite through with Eddie Kelly. "In this goddamned state, which I've always felt was one of my best friends, we have the most atrocious laws. The second day I was in the hospital in critical condition, the police came and arrested me and took me to a jail wing of the hospital until two days later when my parents bailed me out."
Although Kelly can't recall if the beds in the jail wing of the hospital had more bars than usual, he does remember each of the 300-plus people who came and visited the hospital the second day he was there, including his good friend Jim Kaufman from Opiate for the Masses. "Jim took what I did to myself so hard that he said it changed his life forever. I remember going in and out, in ridiculous pain. Every time I woke up, he was there holding my hand. Those are the types of things you don't forget. Ever."
Discharging a firearm in Maricopa County carries a five-to-seven-year prison term, and if Kelly agreed to sign a plea of aggravated assault, they would leave it open sentence, meaning it would be up to the judge to decide. "He was going to give me four years probation, six months in jail," Kelly says. "But after I made a crying, bawling Shakespearean speech about saving my own ass, he said that more jail would be counterproductive. But for attempted suicide, the state of Arizona gave me a Class 3 felony."
Since being released from the hospital last September, BLESSEDBETHYNAME, with two new members in tow, has played two sold-out shows, the latter with Opiate for the Masses. Jim Kaufman heard the group sound-check an intensely moving new song called "Empty," and insisted they record it at his studio. A slow rock song like something from The Wall, it was the first song Kelly wrote after his hospital stay. It's also the first BLESSEDBETHYNAME song in which another band member, guitarist Sage Gonzales (Acid Bath, Factor80 Master), wrote all the music.
A new BLESSEDBETHYNAME album is slated for completion in June. "With what we're about to record, this is it," says Kelly assuredly. "All the bullshit is gone. All the experiences have been experienced. This is gonna be the one to throw us on the bus and see what we got."
Opiate for the Masses
The week has barely gotten started and Opiate for the Masses has already turned down a record deal. And how was your Monday?
Normally, you'd think a band in that situation might be more than slightly crestfallen. Not so, says Jim Kaufman.
"Our manager went back and forth with Lava/Atlantic and they came back with a final deal that was less than the last final deal they offered us," Kaufman says. "In the past, we've dealt with Maverick, who were simultaneously signing and dropping a lot of bands last year. We want to be with a label that's not just looking to fill out their roster. We want someone to be happy with us as artists, whether they make money or not."
Few bands have the support cushions to fall back on that Opiate does. They are managed by Bob Chiappardi, president and founder of Concrete Marketing, who has worked with artists such as Linkin Park, Staind, and Papa Roach. Nine Inch Nails keyboardist Charles Clouser has co-produced Opiate's recordings, which in turn have made the rounds in the industry underground and attracted admirers like ex-Megadeth leader Dave Mustaine, who called lead guitarist Dusty Lyon out of the blue once -- but got Dusty's mom instead. And there are Opiate's parents, whose unbounded support both fiscally and emotionally dates back to when guitarist Kaufman, singer Ron Underwood and drummer Elias Mallin were students at the New School for the Arts four years ago.
"We were all so young," says Mallin. "Right out of high school, when we decided to join together from several other bands, we talked to our parents and told them this is what we wanted to do and this is what we need to do it. And they've been super." In a short span of time, the group quickly got the knack of generating income for itself by staging large-scale shows that helped "feed the machine," as Mallin puts it.
Kaufman's father owned some real estate at Seventh Street and Van Buren and allowed the fledgling band to rehearse in an unused building near what used to be Union Hall. When a dot-com company had an idea to renovate that old venue into the Web Theater, their day-to-day proximity to the Opiate guys led them to become friends and offer the group a headlining show. Opiate drew 1,500 paying customers and around 200 guest-list patrons. When you consider that Pink, who's seemingly on TRL every millisecond, barely managed to fill the place, that's pretty phenomenal.
Kaufman gives due credit to their friends from the performing arts world. "All the fire-breathers, dancers, human suspension artists, people on stilts, strippers, those people are all our friends, and combined with the facilities at the Web, it helped make our show seem like a huge lavish production."
In 2000, the guys assembled songs on Pro Tools that became the self-released New Machines and the Wasted Life and enlisted bassist Ryan Head in time for their first live shows. Made without any preconceived notions of what the industry might like to hear from young mad lads, the album featured a zany vocal delivery from Underwood and a set of songs that railed against institutional stupidity ("Half Intelligent," "Cable") and authority figures like teachers, the clergy and people who wear "Neckties" (sample lyric: "Jesus never wore a necktie/Aaah-aaaah!").
Far from being offended, a few well-placed people with neckties loved the sounds Opiate made with its new machines and teamed them up with producer Ed Stasium for three tracks, which made up the balance of the Seven EP the band sold at shows and over the Internet. In time, Epic, Atlantic, DreamWorks, Columbia and WindUp all expressed interest. "Each time the group was flown out, we showcased, drank as much alcohol and ate as much food as we could while they blew smoke up our asses," says Underwood, grinning. No matter, the go-round linked them with Clouser, who wanted Opiate to be his first production credit. File under "dream come true."
It's Monday night rehearsal in Opiate's new rehearsal digs, an industrial park on the Tempe/Mesa border. It's an idyllic setup a former recording studio with a makeshift loft above a control room where Underwood sleeps nightly. It's also loud as hell.
Tonight's run-through of the set mostly consists of the tracks featured on the group's recent Goodbye EP, which includes remixes by Clouser and some killer new tunes, like "The Carried," which opens with backward hi-hats and kicks in with "Sweet Emotion"-style authority. Underwood's baritone has doubly expanded in range since he's received vocal coaching, now slipping from a David Gahan bellow to The Exorcist split-pea spewing. Mallin triggers most of the hard disk sound loops and outré percussion. Kaufman enacts all the necessary fill-ins from backing vocals, to guitar riffs and live piano licks, while Lyons, enlisted solely to play lead, pulls off a scorching solo on "Goodbye." Underwood's so inspired he makes veins pop in his neck.
When it's over, Kaufman complains that "it sounds like shit because our sound guy isn't here." It's hard to know if he's serious. If BLESSEDBETHYNAME seems like a one-man Behind the Music special, then Opiate for the Masses is tortured-artist music without the torture. Each band member has more gear in his corner of the stage than the local Bob Cratchit outfit playing down at the park, and they've got bigger names pushing them than a lot of people who already have deals.
"Bands like us and BLESSEDBETHYNAME, I don't think we sound like industrial bands. We've got a lot of aspects of metal and industrial in our band, which a lot of people feel is a past trend, which might resurface some other time," says Kaufman. "Right now a lot of other types of retro bands are showing up at the top of the charts.
"So it's apparently not our turn."
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