The Sunny Side of Goth
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.
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.
"People may throw shit at you and call you a fag," continues Bart, laughing. "But you know how that goes. And those people are just jealous because they can't get up there and look good. Maybe they secretly want to wear makeup and carry a purse."
And by rock 'n' roll standards, as an irritant or not, Audra's glammy dirge makes for a worthy photo op.
But the record is good. It's provocative, and music must provoke something, whether it be to heave a brick through a city hall window, get wood, cry, run for the hills -- whatever. Something must happen.
And like anything that uses drama as a device, there's affectation floating through. Bret's voice recalls Peter Murphy and Bowie in a big, big way. As does the songwriting. But it's no more pretentious than what could be found in any other genre of pop. I mean, where would AC/DC be without its three-chord vainglory? Eminem without his whiny shtick? Garth Brooks minus the goofy hat and boots? (Wait. I guess he'd be quasi-goth pouter Chris Gaines.)
"We're pretentious in that we are confident," says Bret. "I think a lot of bands are so obsessed with that physical appearance that the music is just shit. You run into that with multitudes of bands. If I get accused, if other people are saying that we are just about look and stuff, that pisses me off. I mean, what would you call the Velvet Underground? I mean, really, we're a rock 'n' roll band. But I prefer the term 'dark wave' over 'gothic.' When I use the term 'gothic,' I'd say we are gothic beatniks."
Goth was a darker offshoot of punk, springing forth from the dreary postpunk of groups like Joy Division and Bauhaus. The tentacle has since morphed into a kind of mall culture. One that saw 15-year-old boys and girls dress in black and adopt despondency as a character trait after seeing The Crow or The Craft. Goth was one of numerous peripheral genres that filled the dark between new wave and grunge.
At an Audra show, the focus is alluring elan, and you can feel at home wearing anything arousing, anything libidinous and affected.
But the boys of Audra are not your average sun-eschewing waifs, either. Should they find themselves cornered by a gaggle of homophobic rednecks behind some Circle K, the Helms, it seems, can take care of themselves. Both have studied and taught karate extensively. Bart claims he won a world karate championship in 1989.
"It's really nothing I talk about too much," says Bart.
Goth kids are getting into Audra's record. The Batcave, the preeminent NYC goth spot, spins its songs with regularity. According to a Projekt records spokesman, Audra's "In Hollywood Tonight" has been packing the dance floor.
That song was written about the late Christian Death front man Rozz Williams, who offed himself in 1998.
"I wrote a poem for Rozz after he died," Bret says of "In Hollywood Tonight." "I told Bart and he sat down and wrote a guitar part. I started singing and the song was done in five minutes. Every song we've written has been done instantaneously. I think that's just the most organic way to write. Rozz was a definite, huge influence. You feel like you know someone. You know what I mean?"
Later this month, Audra will have an L.A.-area release party at a death-rock club in Long Beach called Release the Bats. After that will come in-store appearances around Southern Cal and a gig at the popular strip/goth club Repent in Anaheim, plus a September West Coast tour. They'll be flown to Atlanta for a three-day goth fest that will feature cast members from Sleepy Hollow and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
In the end, the Helms are pleased to have a deal on the elite goth label Projekt, to be able to tour and do the things that other bands do. Happy to be doing something that shows forward momentum.
"Projekt was the label I always wanted to get signed to," says Bret. "I mean, besides Warner Bros."
In a sad, ironic twist, the Helms' grandfather -- a man the brothers were very close to -- died the same day Audra received its contract in the mail.
"Our grandfather was the oldest person in Arizona to play softball -- 93 years old," Bart says wistfully. "He was a guy that played trumpet at the World's Fair in Chicago in 1933 and 1934. His name was Bartholomew Amil Impastato. He had the weirdest laugh. He laughed like this: woo hoo hoo hoo hoo."
Audra is scheduled to perform on Friday, July 14, at Stinkweeds in Tempe. Showtime is 10 p.m.
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