Weekend after weekend, the salty air of Beach Street fills with the screams of Boardwalk patrons on mechanical thrill rides. Folks from all walks of life turn up in droves, sometimes waiting in line for more than an hour for that exhilarating jolt of fear—the same rush that draws people to horror movies, skydiving, morbid rock concerts and Ouija boards.
For some, it’s a type of reanimation ritual: a way of shocking back to life feelings that have been deadened by years of clock-punching, TV-watching and zombie-marching in a culture empty of spirit, where the motels, drive-ins, strip clubs and burger shacks loom like tombstones above the buried bones of massacred masses, and the pulse of the planet fights to be heard, “Tell-Tale Heart”-style, through smothering layers of concrete, asphalt and smog.
For all its cotton candy and stuffed pandas, the Boardwalk possesses a curiously macabre allure. It is, after all, the site where the protagonist of the locally filmed vampire movie classic The Lost Boys first encounters the night creatures who will lead him down a path of darkness. Thus, this campy Haunted-Castle-and-Ferris-Wheel playground of “fun fear” becomes a gateway to far graver terrors.
Sam: Wait a second. Let me get this straight—are you telling me that we’ve moved to the murder capital of the world? Are you serious, Grandpa?
Grandpa: Well, now, let me put it this way: If all the corpses buried around here was to stand up all at once, we’d have one hell of a population problem.
-The Lost Boys
At the start of that film, a bright, friendly looking sign welcomes the viewer to the sunny beach town of Santa Carla. But on the sign’s ratty, besmirched backside, someone has spray-painted the words “MURDER CAPITAL OF THE WORLD.” It’s a tried-and-true horror fiction device: Beware, for even that which seems benign (a kindly doctor, a harmless-looking doll, an innocent child, a balloon-bearing clown) has its sinister side … or, if you prefer psychiatrist Carl Jung’s terminology, its shadow.
Santa Cruz’s former status as murder capital of the world is one of many factors contributing to widespread speculation that “Santa Carla” is a fictionalized version of The Lost Boys’ filming location. And while this town’s vampire population is arguably smaller than its cinematic counterpart’s, there’s no denying that Santa Cruz has its shady side. Stray too far from the Boardwalk’s carousels and Tilt-a-Whirls, for example, and you’ll find yourself in the Beach Flats, the local equivalent of the dark woods in a Grimm’s fairy tale. There, under the shadows of roller coasters, lurk very real perils of blade and gun.
Who knows why it’s taken so long for a band from these parts to adopt the Santa Carla/Santa Cruz mystique as its own, but the local horror punk/psychobilly outfit Stellar Corpses (stellarcorpses.com) has made up for lost time with its new Dead Stars Drive-In album, released Jan. 24 on Santa Carla Records (available through corpitus.com or at Streetlight Records). Produced by Joe McGrath (Green Day, AFI, Morrissey, B.B. King, The Offspring, Tiger Army) and boasting guest appearances from members of AFI and The Misfits, the album has “graveyard smash” written all over it. Its infectious first single, “Vampire Kiss,” with its battle cry of “Sleep all day, party all night, never grow old” (taken word-for-word from The Lost Boys’ tagline), begs to be chanted by concertgoers who hitch their love of the nocturnal life to the vampire mythos. “Vampire Kiss” recently debuted at No. 9 on the alternative radio charts Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and F.M.B.Q., sharing space with songs by the likes of David Bowie, Florence and the Machine and Radiohead. And the song’s Lost Boys-inspired, Boardwalk-themed music video will soon play in the lobbies of approximately 1,100 movie theaters across America, exposing hordes of potential fans to not only the Corpses’ self-described “morbidly fun punk rock” sound, but also their cadaver-of-Elvis look, which could easily make them the pinup boys of choice for a new generation of Twilight-bred girls in black lipstick.
GT’s coverage of Stellar Corpses just so happened to line up with the arrival of Friday the 13th, and the opportunity for a little ghostly fun was too good to pass up. Thus, on that memorable date, just as the daylight was dying, your narrator met up with the band at the Soquel Avenue witchcraft shop known as The Sacred Grove. Between the release of Dead Stars Drive-In, a Feb. 3 gig at the Catalyst and an impending U.S. tour, the band had plenty of questions about its immediate future. And who better to turn to for answers than a genuine High Priest of witchcraft?
Welcome to the dark side, kids.
The High Priest
Inside the shop, it’s a suitably shadowy scene: Ritual objects and occult symbols lie all around, and there’s a heady aroma of incense—not cheap and sickly-sweet, but a rich, piney odor that creeps through the nostrils into secret corridors of the psyche. The store is well stocked with ceremonial daggers, books of spells, curious-looking jars of herbs, bottles of mysterious potions … even bags of graveyard dirt. As the grimly ethereal music of Unto Ashes wafts through the room, the intense character behind the counter explains that he’s not into the “namby-pamby” music some pagans like. There seems to be a little bit of subtext here: If you’re looking for lightweight, you’ve come to the wrong place.
This man, it turns out, is none other than the shop’s owner, Birch. He’s friendly, funny, intelligent … and, yes, spooky. Birch is rocking some heavy-duty magick talisman medallions, and his face, with its grave, slightly sunken eyes and sternly articulated features, looks like it’s been tempered by the heat of many a cauldron full of dreams and nightmares. A near-lifelong Wiccan devotee who got his witch schooling at a Long Beach haunt called Eye of the Cat, he believes that The Craft works by way of a combination of psychology and as-yet-unexplainable forces.
One by one, the Corpses make their entrances. Sporting a leather-jacket and a blond streak in his dark hair, vocalist/guitarist Dusty Grave looks like a cross between Sid Vicious and Marlon Brando in The Wild One. Guitarist/backing vocalist Emilio Menze is a tall, likeable punk rock pup, exuding enthusiasm and ambition. Standup bassist/backing vocalist Dan Lamothe, with his neck tattoos and slicked-back hair, brings a blue-collar, rockabilly element to the band. And Drummer Kyle Moore, tall, thin and kind-faced, is arguably the cleanest-cut of the bunch. Tattoos are in no short supply, and if the Grim Reaper himself had a Facebook profile, you probably wouldn’t see more black clothing there than in this room.
As the otherworldly music continues to play in the background, Birch sits the band down at a table adorned with circular occult seals. “How many of you have had your tarot read before? Raise your hands,” he begins. While a couple of hands go up, he produces a pack of jet black tarot cards emblazoned with pentagrams. Make no mistake: Things are looking pretty eerie in ye olde witchcraft shoppe.
The deck is cut, and Birch inquires, “What kind of things do you want to find out?” After a brief but thick pause, Emilio speaks up: “Can you tell us anything that will happen at our show in the Catalyst Atrium on February 3rd?”
“The Atrium? I’ve played the Atrium,” Birch shoots back dismissively, coaxing laughter from the band members. “I’m just giving you shit,” he says as he draws the first card: the Three of Swords. “Not so bad for this kind of band, ’cause it’s a dark, scary, creepy sort of band,” he observes. “Is this show part of a tour?” Dusty replies that the band will be starting a tour soon. “It will be scary,” Birch states somberly. “But going out into the world is always scary.” A second card, the High Priest, indicates that the band will be firing on all cylinders at the Catalyst gig.
Asked about the future of the band, Birch produces another card: the Six of Swords. “Now, don’t go out killing virgins,” he admonishes, “but this requires sacrifice. It’s gonna be a pretty big sacrifice on your parts. It makes sense: When you give your life to a band, you put a lot of things on the back burner.” The group may soon be faced with an important choice: Someone may be offered a kickass job, for example. But should they pull of the sacrifice in question, they’re going to be very successful.
For the most part, Birch’s banter is easygoing, and most of his prognostications aren’t particularly ominous. What gives this gathering its freaky, Paranormal Activity kind of feel is the weighty silence that often precedes Birch’s comments, lending the impression that in unseen realms, he’s peeking beyond some doors that most of us would just as soon leave shut.
Kyle wants to know if the band members will be able to quit their day jobs. Birch’s interpretation of the cards: “Yes, but … you can make that happen with a little bit of wooj; a little bit of juju; magick; a money spell or a job spell. I’m getting the mystical off this. There’s something energy-wise you could do. Think outside the box. There’s some energy to put forth that you’re not putting forth yet.”
Dusty seems intrigued. “So, there’s a spell that we could do?”
“I think so! Maybe sigil magick.” This, Birch explains, involves the creation of an emblem that symbolizes the band’s goal. The group can learn to do this by going to The Sacred Grove’s Web page, sacredgrovesantacruz.com, and hitting the “WitchSkewl” button. Once the sigil has been crafted, the group can hang it onstage where the crowd will see it. “The band’s up there, and there are these weird occult-y-looking symbols hanging around. They’re gonna stare and wonder, ‘What the fuck are those?’ Anytime anybody looks at those symbols, they’re giving them energy. And the energy is accomplishing the purpose that you made that symbol mean.”
Also in the cards: A problem involving the cover for the Dead Stars Drive-In album will work itself out, the Corpses need to avoid battles for leadership, and it’s fortunate that nobody in the band is in a committed relationship, because this tour is going to be fan-f***ing-tastic, if you follow.
Ceremony complete, the various parties say their farewells and make their way into the winter blackness. “Blessed be,” Birch offers, and for a moment I find myself wondering if he feels that we’ve treated his religion like some kind of fun-and-games Boardwalk attraction.
On the way to my car, I contemplate a remark he made about witchcraft’s long history of “bad press”—an understatement laced with dark humor, especially in light of the witch hunts and vampire hunts of Eastern Europe, where, in the name of holiness and decency, some monstrously superstitious, fearful and power-hungry folks burned and staked not just living suspects, but also corpses that they’d dug up from the grave. Echoes of these atrocities can still be heard in fairy tales about wicked witches perishing in ovens, in legends of bloodthirsty night creatures that cringe from holy water and crucifixes … even in “fun” horror stories like that little vampire flick they filmed right here in the land of the Holy Cross.
Me and My Shadow
One of the more whimsical decorations in The Sacred Grove is a cartoon image of Samantha from Bewitched on one of the walls. It’s an illustration that would be right at home on a bit of Stellar Corpses merchandise. Matter of fact, it’s not all that far removed from the artwork for the “Vampire Kiss” single, which is modeled after an ad for a Halloween vampire makeup kit.
Such is the Corpses’ frequently campy brand of “fun fear,” which owes at least as much to Bewitched, The Munsters and The Vampira Show as it does to House of 1,000 Corpses or Friday the 13th. Like those goofy-spooky TV shows, “morbidly fun” music such as Stellar Corpses’ serves to reframe horrific subjects in a positive, non-threatening way, helping audiences come to grips with the frightening things that fascinate them. This sort of notion was confirmed in the early ’60s: Before putting out the first line of monster models, Aurora Plastics Corporation asked child psychologists if kids might suffer psychological damage by playing with these toys. The psychologists assured them that building these kits would help the children cope with their fears.
This much is clear: Behind all the “evil” trappings, the guys in this band are about as sinister as a Creature from the Black Lagoon pinball machine. Dusty, for his part, insists that they’re not only good-hearted people, but that they’re bringing positive energy to their audiences. To illustrate his point, he explains that his parents are big blues fans. “One time my mom says, ‘I don’t understand angry music. Doesn’t it just make you angrier?’” he recounts. “And I said, ‘Well, when you go to see the blues, does it make you sad?’ And then she got it! It makes her happy, and it’s fun. It’s the same thing for us: We’re all going through our stuff in life, but we have this hour or two where we can just be together, have fun, forget about the world and just let it all out.”
“I think that’s why a lot of people are attracted to rock & roll,” Kyle offers. “You might be a good, positive person, but we all have our demons inside. If you can go to a show that lets you get it out, it’s an outlet not only for us, but for our fans.”
Thus, the band is redirecting potentially destructive impulses into healthier avenues of expression. As Emilio puts it, “I always think of Stellar Corpses as the bright lights in the darkness.” Dusty, who holds a Bachelor’s degree in psychology, expands on this idea by quoting Carl Jung: “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” Hence, Grave reasons, the fact that he and his bandmates externalize their shadows is a sign of psychological health and maturity. “Although we have a dark exterior, we’re good on the inside,” he claims. “We have a bright inner light that we bring to people, whereas I think a lot of the role models in society are the opposite: They’re really bright on the outside, but then when you get to the core of them, they’re rotten.”
“So many external facts about the lives of people such as Elvis Presley or Marilyn Monroe suggest a kind of literal, objective possession by the vampire archetype.”
—Robert L. Johnson, Ph.D., M.Div., L.M.H.C., lecturing at the Jungian Society in Jacksonville, Florida
It’s no big surprise to hear Dusty citing Jung, whose influence was evident in the song “My Shadow” from the Corpses’ 2009 album Welcome to the Nightmare. Though that tune was probably the most obvious instance of Grave’s psychological interests creeping into his songwriting, many other Stellar Corpses songs reflect his knowledge of the mind’s workings. For instance, the chorus of “Vampire Kiss” begins with the line “I don’t wanna live forever, but I don’t wanna die like this.” “If you can make the listener ask themselves a question when they hear your song, then you’ve captured their attention, and that gives you an opportunity to reach their heart,” Grave explains. “I want people to ask ‘I don’t want to die like what?’ and then insert their own meaning, like ‘I don’t want to die alone,’ or ‘I don’t want to die before I become successful, or before I get my life out of the gutter,’ or whatever. I think we’ve all worried that we’re going to die too soon. We want to be remembered, not forgotten; to leave our mark on the world, not just fade away.” He adds that vampire imagery is particularly powerful because it touches on the two dominant human drives: Eros and Thanatos (love and death.) “Everyone wants to fall in love, and nobody wants to die,” he muses.
The psychological undertones spill over to the “Vampire Kiss” video, which finds the band at an amusement park that looks suspiciously like the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. A raven-haired hottie lures Dusty past a towering Jim Morrison poster much like the one in the cave where Michael was initiated as a vampire in The Lost Boys. (A great deal can be said of the Lost Boys vampires’ apparent reverence for Morrison, a member of the “27 Club”: a collection of famous musicians who, by dying at age 27, have attained “eternal youth” in collective cultural perception. It’s also hard to miss Michael’s resemblance to Morrison. Notice how his face fades into Morrison’s immediately after he drinks the blood that makes him immortal.) As Grave follows the dark stranger (the video’s equivalent of the revealingly named Star from The Lost Boys), he gets a scare from a vagabond musician, played by AFI’s Hunter Burgan, who’s clearly been infected with the vampire virus. (Interestingly, AFI’s biggest hit, “Miss Murder,” told the tale of an unnamed celebrity who died in his prime, thereby attaining “immortality” in public awareness and never growing old.) At the video’s end, we see Dusty’s seductress sinking her fangs into his neck, presumably dragging him down into the undead underworld. From a certain angle, the video can be viewed as a symbolic portrait of an entertainer’s initiation into the ranks of “immortals” such as Morrison, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. With fame as the “vampire kiss” and the “cure for a fading reflection” of which Grave sings, the song’s line “It’s fun to be one of us, but how far will you go?” rings with renewed meaning: How far will the band members themselves go for a chance to quit their day jobs and join the cult of the deathless?
This “undead celebrity” theme is overt in Dead Stars Drive-In’s title track, which draws inspiration from the demises of Elvis, Marilyn, Bela Lugosi and Vampira. An obvious candidate for single No. 2, the song exhibits the same synthesis of glamour and horror expressed in the name Marilyn Manson or the Misfits album title Famous Monsters. The line “You finally made it on the silver screen … We’d love to hear you scream—so scream!” incites crowds to make some noise even as it shines a light on the dark side of stardom, while the key line “Dead stars still burn” refers both to Stellar Corpses’ name (an astronomical term meaning “dead stars”) and to the legacies of cultural icons who have crossed over. In explanation of the song, Dusty notes, “Just like the stars in the sky, [those iconic people] could be long gone, but we still see their light.”
While Grave acknowledges that fame is a goal for Stellar Corpses, he stresses that first and foremost, this is because the band loves playing music. “The more people that know about us and support us, the longer we’ll get to do it,” he says.
And the Corpses make no bones about being in this for the long haul. Dan states, “This is the only thing I could ever love doing, so we’re here to stay,” while Kyle notes, “We want to keep it going, not just like lighting a bucket of gas on fire: It makes a big flame and then dies out quick. Better to have a small, steady flame that slowly grows.”
So in spite of lyrics like “Never grow old” and “Live fast, die young, leave a stellar corpse,” this band doesn’t plan on checking into the Morrison Hotel anytime soon. There are too many songs, too many roller coaster rides, too many gigs—and, if Birch’s tarot reading was correct, too many cute Corpse Brides—in their future.
And even if they did cash in their chips, what killed them would only make them stronger.
Stellar Corpses play at 9 p.m. Friday, Feb. 3 at The Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. The Wild Ones, Requiem for the Dead and Between Your Teeth open. Tickets are $7 in advance or $10 at the door. For more information, call 423-1338 or go to catalystclub.com.