Los Angeles is home to more than a few pun-based parody bands that seem like “high”-deas made incarnate. Perhaps you’ve encountered Mac Sabbath, a fast food–centric Black Sabbath cover band with songs such as “Frying Pan” and “More Ribs.” Come winter, you might come face to face with the sinister Krammpstein, a Krampus-themed Rammstein tribute act.
Now, a new contender has breached, hailing from the deep, dark depths of the ocean floor. Meet Koi Division, the fishy Joy Division parody band of your surrealist dreams.
The post-punk act that is Joy Division rarely lends itself to humor. Their very name is controversial (it's a Nazi reference). Their lyrics are dark and their history is mired in tragedy, as lead singer Ian Curtis committed suicide at just 23 years old on May 18, 1980, the evening before the band's North American tour was set to begin. His bandmates — guitarist/keyboardist Bernard Sumner, bassist Peter Hook and drummer Stephen Morris — would go on to form the new wave group New Order.
Koi Division, however, is a much lighter affair. Donning black clothes and plastic fish masks, they wind their way through Joy Division covers with modified lyrics that explore the daily, often baleful, goings-on of the sea. Their shows incorporate a bubble machine and display a beachy version of the iconic Unknown Pleasures album art behind them. Though it might seem as if they're mocking, there is a reverence behind the humor.
The members of Koi Division all met, at separate times, via karaoke. Artist and musician Howard Hallis, who performs in Koi Division as singer “Ian Clownfish,” hosted the popular alternative karaoke night Ground Control, held Mondays at the now-shuttered Complex in Glendale.
“We cater more to people who want to sing The Cramps, Bauhaus and The Dead Kennedys over Journey,” he explains.
Dr. Sam Hallis — Koi Division's bassist, “Hook” — was introduced to Howard when her friend brought her along to karaoke. Howard and Sam became friends, then began dating, and eventually got married.
Sam, a fan of parody artist “Weird Al” Yankovic, came up with the pun “Koi Division” one fateful day. She joked to her husband that he should Photoshop fish heads onto the members of Joy Division, which he later did. It could have been a visual gag that ended there, but it didn’t.
While Sam was a big fan of New Order, she was a casual fan of Joy Division. Howard, however, has been a massive Joy Division fan since he was a kid. He says he’s watched all the documentaries, read all the books — including those by Curtis' wife, Deborah, and bassist Peter Hook — and “obsessively” searched for rare recordings, bootlegs and demo tapes at a time before they were readily available on the internet.
“It would have been one of my dreams to do a Joy Division cover band, but there are already a lot of Joy Division cover bands,” Howard says. However, there was not a maritime Joy Division parody act.
Both Howard and Sam had been in several bands in the past, some of them flirting with similar gimmicks. Howard was once a member of Don Knotts Overdrive, and also performed with a “yidcore” band called Gefilte Fuck. Sam is a microbiologist by day, and a longtime member of Red Pony Clock, which she describes as “a big, indie, collective-style band with a lot of people in it.” She's also in Bitchin' Seahorse, an “ocean-core” band that plays punk songs about sea life, in which she wears an octopus costume. This means, she notes, you can't just ask her how her fish band is going. You have to specify which one.
The couple swiftly recruited the rest of their band, bringing aboard fellow karaoke host and DJ Dave IDK (guitarist “Bernard Salmon”) and the affable Logan Jenkins (drummer “Steve Moray”), a regular at their karaoke nights.
Despite essentially being a gag band, there's a lot of thought that goes into it all. They’re dedicated to the Joy Division aesthetic, and replicate both Joy Division flyers and famous photos of the band. They alter the lyrics to the songs they perform to be about nautical topics but commit to learning the parts well. They've got about a dozen tunes under their collective fishnets now.
“Usually, people say [we played] a lot better than they thought we would,” David IDK jokes.
In fact, Howard notes that at one show, a member of a more straight-on Joy Division tribute band, Joy Revision, came to the show.
“He said he was really weirded out because [our songs] are songs he's really familiar with that he plays all the time, but they just seem to fit naturally with the fish theme,” Howard says.
The group suspects this could be because the ocean can be pretty brutal: fish eating one another, whales beaching themselves on the shore, men ripping fish from the ocean and destroying their environment. It's “fish goth,” Sam quips, and maybe it’s topical.
“I think people are pretty bummed out right now,” Howard says. “They feel like they're underwater, drowning with all the bad news every day. We're not trying to get too deep in it, but the idea of doing something that's kind of depressing seems right.”
And what better way to drown your sorrows than in a punny sea? So, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” becomes “Lures Will Catch Us a Carp,” while “Transmission” turns into “Trout Fishin'.” The lyrics, though altered, remain suitably Joy Division–esque in their nihilism: “We all swim on/In the streams and the ponds/Hiding from the predators/Just to breed all our spawn.” “Dead Souls” hatches into the homophone “Dead Soles.” “They keep trawling me, keep on trawling me,” Clownfish intones. It’s desolation vibrating with an absurdity you can laugh at and, weirdly enough, it works.
Koi Division's future goals include making a few videos, and perhaps playing at a festival or aquarium. Their dream is to appear on FishCenter Live, an Adult Swim talk show in which hosts talk over footage of fish gliding around in a tank. Until then, you can catch them (fish pun!) around town, including a show on Monday, Sept. 11, at Ham & Eggs Tavern in downtown Los Angeles.