On a cool, clear Friday night in early February, about a hundred people are packed into the Casa Blanca Lounge on Van Buren Street in downtown Phoenix. Many of them have come for "communion" with local punk/thrash quartet NunZilla. But the "nuns" here aren't anything like the ones who rapped your knuckles with rulers in Catholic school, and this communion is more like an anarchistic tent revival.
Onstage, the female members of NunZilla wear nun's habits, while the drummer (the group's only male) rocks out in a priest's frock. A video projector displays a collage of cartoonish nun art on the wall behind them, complete with images of nuns leveling cities with laser beams that shoot from their eyes and sexy nuns in red miniskirts holding machine guns.
The band's "mascots" three large, blow-up Godzilla dolls are being molested by the crowd. People hump them, dance with them, kick them, punch them, put clothes on them, ride them, beat each other over the heads with them, put them together in lewd positions, throw them on the stage. It's like some warped version of Disneyland for drunken adults.
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scheduled to perform at the "Zombie Ball" on Saturday, April 7
While the nuns are screaming red-faced through one of their many two-minute tunes, like "Eat Shit and Die," the smoke machine onstage goes out of control, blasting out a thick, white cloud that quickly consumes the band until all the audience can see are green and blue stage lights glowing somewhere in the fog and the occasional blow-up dinosaur flying back out into the fray.
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The show is interactive, with drunken audience members jumping up onstage, knocking over band members' beers and mic stands, and falling over the amplifiers. There's a "pit" in front of the stage, but the mood is more goofy than violent everybody's just dancing around, and nobody pushes, punches, or elbows anybody else. The "slams" are more like gentle nudges, and when somebody slips on some spilled beer, two guys help him up. Before bopping him over the head with a giant blow-up Godzilla doll.
NunZilla is loud, fast, and probably too obnoxious for the mainstream. It's highly unlikely that it'll be Phoenix's next "breakthrough" band, but that's not its goal. This is all about fun, about blowing up the theater of the absurd into a lowbrow three-ring circus, whether the nuns are wearing creepy clear-plastic bank robber masks or standing on 10-foot-tall boxes in extra-long robes to appear as though they're levitating near the ceiling.
The congregation flocks to NunZilla for the crazy experience and to have a good time. The band's built a following on the strength of its smoke-and-mirrors live shows (and its MySpace page), leaving many fans wondering when the first NunZilla record completed in February will be released. The band says that'll happen in the next month or so. In the meantime, they're tending to their surprisingly regular lives and ordinary day jobs, and gearing up for their performance at the "Zombie Ball" in Tempe, a music and fetish event slated to take place the day before Easter in honor of "Zombie Jesus" rising from the dead.
The members of NunZilla swear they aren't out to be blatantly blasphemous. But two of the four members do have backgrounds in Catholicism, something that seeps into their stories and their attitudes about being in a band that makes the Catholic clergy look like a bunch of cartoon characters.
"We can have a gimmick, and that's what we have, but it's only intentional in the sense that we thought it was funny," says NunZilla's Sister Kenyattasaurus Rex. "But it's one thing to have a gimmick and totally suck. And me, personally, I don't think we suck. I thought we could back up our gimmick."
"It was the idea of the theatrics and the stage show, shit that you don't see around that makes us laugh," she continues. "And if everybody else is laughing, great, but it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter."
"We're just having fun," adds bandmate Sister T-Raptor. "What else are we going to do? Sit home and watch TV?"
The members of NunZilla Sister Kenyattasaurus Rex (vocals, bass), Sister T-Raptor (guitar, bass), Sister Taryndactyl (lead guitar), and Father Stone (vocals, drums) are characters, and they have a lot of fun being in character, too.
"There comes a time in every person's life when god calls upon them to ritualistically remove their own liver," Sister T-Raptor wrote on NunZilla's MySpace blog (www.myspace.com/nunzilla comes). "Let it be known that while my body lies here in Applebee's bathroom full of riblettes and those little cheese thingies, but empty of a liver; the rest of me is in a better place and surrounded by the spirit of the lord . . . P.S. You fucking cremate me and I'm going poltergeist on your ass."
Nunzilla's MySpace profile boasts more than 1,300 friends and 11,000 profile views, thanks largely to a calculated bum rush of comments the band left on other people's MySpace pages, saying things like "Say your prayers! NunZilla comes!"
But you can't always be in character, right? Well, when the members of NunZilla show up at Monroe's downtown on a Thursday night to just drink, eat, and gab (they're not playing or anything), they're all in their costumes. Three nuns and a priest, drinking beer and whiskey in a basement bar, singing impromptu backup baritone vocals for Brian Blush (formerly of The Refreshments), who's performing "Folsom Prison Blues" by the bar. How on Earth does something like this start, anyway?
Oh, with some ducks. Before they were Father Stone, Kenyattasaurus Rex, and Taryndactyl, they were Jason Stone, Kenyatta Turner (formerly Shircliff), and Taryn Moore, and they were neighbors, living across the street from Encanto Park in the spring of 2005. And one day, they lugged bongos and a banjo across the street and just started jamming down by the water.
"And while we were playing, out of the corner of my eye, I saw these ducks," Jason says. "And I turned to look, and there were all these ducks around us, just looking at us really intently. And we stopped playing, and they all waddled off. So we thought, 'That was weird,' and we started playing again, and they came back. And every time we stopped, they'd leave, and they'd come back when we started playing again and just sit there and listen to us. And I thought, 'Hey, if we can entertain these ducks . . .' "
"And then the sprinklers came on and drenched us and we had to run away," Kenyatta says.
But the seed had been planted. They had to play in a band together. It wasn't that the thought had never occurred to them before Kenyatta and Taryn had both met Jason at shows around Phoenix in the mid-'90s, and Kenyatta's known Sister T-Raptor (nee Tana Youmans) since 1990. But like many other musicians in Phoenix's incestuous punk rock scene, they were busy with multiple band projects. Jason's drummed for Beelze Bullies and The Mongoloids for years, Tana's the bass player for Asses of Evil, and Kenyatta and Taryn are both in The Dropouts.
Their extemporaneous sprinkler symphony for the ducks at Encanto helped them realize the musical chemistry they had, and there were more practice sessions in the park. "It would always be too late, and we weren't supposed to be there," Kenyatta says. "So we'd be looking out for the cops, and we had beer, ready to run back across the street."
"Our Encanto Park sessions were fantastic," Tana says.
"Finally, we were like, 'We could move [practices] into our house if we wanted," Taryn says with a laugh. "Like, 'Okay, let's plug in!'"
There were some jokes about becoming a Heart tribute band (Tana really is a ringer for Ann Wilson), but a plastic toy put them on the right trajectory.
The "Nunzilla" toy, a 3-inch-tall wind-up doll manufactured by Archie McPhee Toys, has light-up, Kryptonite-green eyes and spits sparks when she waddles. She is to thank for Phoenix's NunZilla. When the band was still in its infancy, the members found themselves at Hidden House off Osborn Road, playing with this wind-up nun to everyone's amusement. Somebody suggested they call themselves NunZilla, they found nun's habits at Easley's Costume Shop, launched the NunZilla MySpace page in August '05, and that was it.
Well, okay, that wasn't really it blow-up Godzillas, nun collage films, "levitating nun" stunts, and fog machines followed.
"Everything we do, we do for our own amusement," Kenyatta says. "If other people are amused, great."
And if some people are offended?
"We do not expect anybody to take us seriously," Kenyatta says. "If somebody's offended, then please, listen to something else. Watch something else."
Besides, as Tana points out, how much reverence should you offer the Catholic Church when "We live in a city where a bishop [Bishop O'Brien] ran over a man, killed him, and tried to get away with it?" (O'Brien was convicted in 2004 and resigned from his position but never served jail time, being sentenced to probation and community service instead.)
And it's not as if NunZilla is inventing a new, irreverent "pop culture nun" trend anyway. Just last year, UC Davis professor Frances Dolan toured universities delivering a lecture titled "Why Are Nuns Funny?" which focused on the image of nuns as humorous, absurd figures as far back as the 16th and 17th centuries. And ever since Sister Luc Gabriel (a real nun) cut a record as The Singing Nun in 1963, pseudo-sisters have been everywhere, from TV (The Flying Nun, Brides of Christ) to the stage (Nunsense, Late Night Catechism) to the big screen (everything from European "nunsploitation" films of the '70s like Killer Nun to modern musicals like Sister Act) to a 2005 Kabbalah party to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Purim, where the ever-controversial Madonna dressed as a nun.
The whole NunZilla thing started as a joke, and it still is. Of course, not everyone finds it funny. "You wouldn't believe what I had to go through to get this shirt," Jason says, pulling on his priest's frock. "I went to an actual Catholic church supply store, and the guy working there was real quiet and speaking in that hushed Catholic voice, asking me all these questions, like 'What church are you with?' And I told him I wasn't with any church, I just wanted a shirt. And so I got the shirt, and I swear to God, when I went to pay for it, he wouldn't take the money from me. So I set the money down on the counter, and he picked up each bill slowly, and he'd punch a button on the register, and take this really long pause before punching the next button, like he was wrestling with his conscience.
"But you know what's really weird? I went into the convenience store that's in the same building as the church supply place right afterwards, and I was feeling all creepy about the shirt-thing, and there [were] all these display cases with stuff like crack pipes and bongs and cock rings."
Then there was that photo shoot with the Arizona Derby Dames' Schoolyard Scrappers team in late February, when NunZilla showed up to pose with the team at photog Andy Hartmark's suggestion and almost caused a brawl. According to the band, one of the roller girls refused to pose with Jason dressed as a priest, saying she felt it was sacrilegious. The team captain insisted, and a heated argument ensued. "I thought we were gonna see a fight," Kenyatta says.
In the end, everyone calmed down and agreed that posing with NunZilla should be optional. A few of the derby dames opted out.
"I felt kind of bad," Tana says. "We don't think anything of it. We're just having fun, and it kind of came to fruition there that somebody might have a problem with it."
"I didn't feel bad about shit," Ken-yatta says. "I don't know why she was so upset when she was dressed up like a Catholic school girl with her boobs hanging out."
"I told her, 'It's only a shirt,'" Jason says. "I'm drinking a 40 [ounce] the whole time we're taking the fucking pictures."
Tana has another theory for Jason. "It could have been that cucumber wrapped in tin foil that you had in your pants, sweetie."
The members look at it this way: If the Virgin Mary can appear on a tortilla and Jesus can appear in a tree in New Mexico, then why can't four Phoenix punks wear clergy costumes and scream out silly songs about eating souls?
NunZilla's first show, on December 31, 2005, at the Cypress Lounge, should have been an omen.
"I've got a scar on my head from the first show we ever played," Jason says. "I hit myself in the eyeball just about as hard as you could fuckin' hit yourself in the eyeball. The drumstick came back and I closed my eyeball, and it was like, Wham! Just super-hard, like where you hear noise in your head. I thought I'd yoked my eye."
So Jason ran to the bathroom after the song, determined that his eye was okay (even though it was all watery and red and "hazy and out of focus") and got back onstage to finish NunZilla's set. The real carnage was about to begin.
Jason had cracked a cymbal before the show, but he'd talked Nick (a.k.a. "Sludgegutts"), drummer for local band Dephinger, into letting him borrow his brand new, expensive cymbal. During NunZilla's last song, two of Jason's old friends in the crowd took a rolling chair and did a high-speed launch into his drum set, knocking over Sludgegutts' cymbal and cracking it.
Kenyatta recalls the moment it all came crashing down. "[Jason] leapt over his drum set and caught his friend in midair and took him down."
"I freaked the fuck out," Jason says. "I dove head-first at my friend I've known since I was 12, and I had to kick his fucking ass. But I couldn't hit him in the face, so I was jumping up as hard as I could and landing with my ass and elbow on his head. It was pretty violent. So I'm kicking his ass, and there's broken glass everywhere, and I put my hand in this broken bottle. And when we finally stopped, there was blood spurting out of my hand."
Jason was the first person admitted into the emergency room at Thunderbird Hospital on New Year's Day 2006.
"That was a great show," Kenyatta says. "Fabulous first show."
Then there was the time NunZilla played during a hockey game intermission at Castle Megasports, right out on the ice, and kept sliding all over the place in front of a bunch of baffled kids. And the show in Las Vegas, when Jason wore his priest's shirt through a casino, carrying three beers and two shrimp cocktails, much to the chagrin of casino security, who followed him and tried (unsuccessfully) to grab him for questioning. "I totally dodged them and ducked behind some slot machines," Jason recalls.
And of course, there are always the blow-up Godzillas.
"The best is when you can kick the dinosaur and hit the guy right up front in the crotch," Tana says. "Like the power kick! After one show, this one guy came up and was like, 'I couldn't believe it, I was just standing there and then I got kicked in the crotch with this dinosaur! I love you guys!' He was so happy it happened to him."
"You can get a lot of momentum with those things, if you're standing close enough," Kenyatta adds.
And that's what NunZilla thrives on the insane aesthetic of the live show. "Visuals, it's all about the visuals," Kenyatta says. "Give 'em something to watch."
It's about flexibility, too, or maybe just the willingness to be bizarre. "We're like a spaghetti Western," Jason says. "We could do anything in this band. Somebody could play a banjo. I might just tap a cymbal for our next big hit."
"We are weird," Tana says. "We are so weird. We're just a weird bunch of people."
So who are these weird people, anyway? And what are their ties to the Catholic church besides being a punk-rock parody of its clergy?
Well, as deviant and demented as some might deem the band members' music and image, the members of NunZilla lead surprisingly normal lives.
Kenyatta is 32, divorced with no children, has a college degree in computer information systems, and has worked for DeVry University for 13 years, doing everything from career services and counseling to teaching and marketing. She recently bought her first house.
Taryn is 30, single with no kids (but she has a boyfriend), and works for a nonprofit agency that provides supportive services for homeless youth. She also works as a tattoo artist at a friend's private studio.
Tana is 37, married with two children (an 18-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter), and works in the human resources department of a local staffing firm, handling payroll, benefits, and administration.
Jason is 32, married with a 4-year-old son, and works as operations manager at AM political talk radio station KFNX 1100 (ironically, a conservative station that airs programs like The O'Reilly Factor and The Dr. Laura Show). He was also recently a coach at the YMCA for a soccer team of 6-year-olds.
Those are the pedestrian stats. The most interesting aspect of the band members' "real" lives, as they pertain to NunZilla, is their religious backgrounds and current beliefs. Jason's background with Catholicism is particularly interesting, as he seems to have crossed paths with every corrupt clergyman in Phoenix.
Jason was raised Catholic, and he says when he was a boy, he was baptized in Mesa by Father Dale Fushek, former Vicar General for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, who resigned in 2004 amidst a slew of sexual abuse charges. "Yeah, the main molester guy," Jason recalls. "The blond guy. Honest goddamn truth."
Later, Jason started training to be an altar boy, and spent a couple of hours a day in a creepy monastery. "The monastery is like this dark fucking dungeon, with circular seats and dark wooden walls, and you'd hear shit behind them and we'd be freaking the fuck out," he says. "We were there a couple hours a day and we'd have the whole suit on and stuff, and then we'd put back on our Catholic gear and go out to the playground and shit. It was really fucking weird."
One day, Jason's priest suddenly disappeared without explanation. Jason found out later that he'd been sent to the Vatican, but by that time, his mom had pulled him out of altar-boy training, uneasy about the priest's mysterious disappearance.
Although he was born into and raised with the Catholic religion, Jason says he's spiritually "searching" right now. But his Catholic past does play a role in his attitude toward NunZilla. "There's a small part of me, with my background and stuff, that likes throwing up my middle finger, sticking the tongue out, and wearing the shirt, just thinking, 'Loosen the fuck up,'" Jason says. "When you get into some deep Roman Catholic shit, it's like this unbelievable, weird-ass shit, cult-fucking-crazy crap.
"I've met Bishop O'Brien the hit-and-run-cat several times," Jason continues. "All those priests that I knew, they just need to loosen up. You could look at my life, and any priest's along the way, and I'll probably win. Instead of touching boys, I teach soccer."
Tana was also exposed to the Catholic religion (her mother is still devout), along with other faiths. "My great-grandmother, whom I call Mammy, was deep-rooted in the South, and was staunch Pentecostal the whole strychnine-drinkin', snake-charmin', speaking-in-tongues-type stuff," Tana says. "And when you're a child and you see stuff like that, it's fascinating and it's scary. Right now, I consider myself a spiritual person. I live by the golden rule. But religion, in general, for me, I don't buy into it. I think it's such a joke."
Initially, Tana's Catholic mother didn't approve of NunZilla but after seeing the band play live, she presented Tana with her favorite rosary and told her she was proud of her. "It felt really good. For her to do that was a big deal," Tana says.
Taryn wasn't raised in a religious environment and doesn't attend church. "I don't follow organized religion. I believe many truths exist in all religions," she says. "There are many gods, and many great stories, but I've chosen to celebrate life and believe in that."
Kenyatta grew up Baptist, and her mother is now Muslim, but she says she hasn't found a faith that floors her yet. "My mom went to several different churches when we were growing up, and she eventually settled on Muslim, but before that, it was all about Jesus and reading the Bible. And one day, she was like, 'Nope, that's not it. It's this,'" Kenyatta says. "So watching her search for that thing that she needed really opened my eyes to the fact that some people just have something that they need, and they're trying to find the thing they're most comfortable with.
"I have not been looking for that thing," Kenyatta continues. "If it truly, really exists, when it hits me, I feel I won't be able to deny it. Because if it's really there and it's really the way some people describe it, I won't have a choice. For me, that hasn't happened yet. I don't think I'm fighting anything; it just hasn't gripped me the way some people seem to be gripped. So I'm not gonna make something grip me because somebody says I should, or because my family is or my friends are."
At this point in the conversation, Tana has a suggestion: "Let's just start our own church."
On a Saturday night in late February, NunZilla is sneaking into a certain studio/rehearsal space on the west side for what they call "guerrilla practice." They're really not supposed to be there, but they're cool with some people who actually pay to rent a rehearsal room in the building, which sits inconspicuously at the dark end of a street, amid construction workers' lights and industrial buildings.
NunZilla "borrows" the space to practice whenever they can. The deal is that they can use the renters' access codes, space, and PA system, provided they don't break anything, and they leave some beer in the minifridge.
The band brings plenty of beer. Most of the rehearsal is spent drinking, laughing, talking, and teasing each other. The vibe is more like a spontaneous jam among old friends than a serious, studious, buckle-down vibe. There's tons of giggling and no bickering. "We're all great friends," Kenyatta says. "It's awesome. We don't get together because we have to, we get together because we want to."
"There's no fights or drama," Tana adds. "It's just like, whatever. Very easygoing."
The band's easygoing attitude is reflected in their "songwriting process" as well, which is not really a process at all, but again, more of a jam. "Someone will come up with a riff, we lay the riff down, and layers progress from there," Tana says, before pointing at Taryn. "You whip shit out of your ass all the time."
Speaking of which . . .
Kenyatta stands in front of Taryn with her bass and listens, then begins figuring out and mimicking the chords. Then Jason starts thumping out a bass drum rhythm behind her. This is how all NunZilla songs were born, right down to improvised lyrics that nobody bothered to write down until it was time to record their debut album, which the band recently completed.
"We recorded at one of the most awesomest studios in Phoenix, Full Well," Tana says.
NunZilla cut the record with local producer Mike Bollenbach (The New Romantics, The Impossible Ones), who was so taken with the band that he wanted to have a dinosaur stage name, too. So now he's "Bollbasaur."
"This [recording experience] was just glorious," Jason says. "Mike was all energetic and crazy and just rockin' out."
The band plans to self-release its 11-song CD, titled Killing Faith, in April or May, as soon as the mastering's finished. "We're very proud of our work," Tana says of the album. "We did [it in] six days. Six long days, but we did it. We're happy with it."
As for the band's plans after they release the album, they have no grand delusions about being a Top 40 act or playing arenas. "I'd just like to point out, first of all, that we're dressed as three nuns and a priest, and we write ridiculous songs that are really loud and fast," Jason says.
"Plans?" Tana asks. "Well, we're gonna keep living life. And, uh, if someone would like to donate a van to help us haul our stuff, we'd love that."
They've been talking about shooting their first video with Andy Hartmark (probably for their theme song, "NunZilla") and plan to play more shows in Phoenix, Flagstaff, and "maybe L.A."
But their greatest desire is their simplest. "We want the CD to help spread the gospel," Kenyatta says.
And as NunZilla fans know, there's nothing like the gospel of a Godzilla to the groin.
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