Elliott Kozel takes out his phone to show me a photo of where he’s been whipped. The patch of inflammation covering his upper back is punctuated by a half dozen red welts lying horizontal between his shoulder blades. They were put there by the professional dominatrix who turned up at rehearsal for Kozel’s upcoming show at the Bootleg Theater. She wanted to teach him and his dancers proper technique so they look legit while whipping each other while onstage.
“It’s all in the wrist,” Kozel says, cracking an imaginary whip into the air of this coffee shop in Highland Park. “Sideways and out, like a Frisbee.”
Light BDSM is just another day at the office for Kozel, who performs as his sexed-up, funked-out alter ego Tickle Torture. His shows are debauched extravaganzas of glitter, skin, Champagne, costumes, body paint, confetti canyons and electronic-infused glam funk. After developing the project in Minneapolis, Kozel moved to L.A. a year and a half ago, intent on bringing Tickle Torture to the next level. So far it’s been a struggle, but that's OK — Kozel clearly enjoys a little punishment.
Tall, skinny, dark-featured and fundamentally normal-looking, Kozel grew up in the Milwaukee suburb of Mequon and attended the University of Wisconsin for a semester before playing around Madison with his punk band, Sleeping in the Aviary. He gravitated toward funk and R&B after moving to Minneapolis in 2007, taking inspiration from the town’s most famous musical success story.
“I was looking around Minneapolis like, ‘How come there are all of these shitty Replacements ripoff bands and no shitty Prince ripoff bands? I guess I’ll do it!’”
Intent on carrying the torch of Minneapolis funk and putting on lavishly off-the-wall performances that felt like “a Justin Timberlake show gone horribly wrong,” Kozel got to work. His first shows found him singing and running around onstage working the bubble and fog machines while wielding a broomstick with a strobe light taped to the end, decked out in the barely-there costumes and glittery facemasks that would become his signature. He often ended up completely naked, except for the mask.
In time, Kozel was regularly playing local venues including First Avenue, the club made famous by Prince. He was no longer alone onstage with a broomstick and a prayer but surrounded by the dancers, musicians and artists who were drawn to the project. Venerable Twin Cities radio station The Current started playing his music, which incorporates disco, punk, electronic and heavy doses of the Purple One. (“You can only make a song 10 percent as good as 'When Doves Cry' if you try your whole life, but I might as well try.”) He released EPs in 2012 and 2014. The year after, he performed at The Current's Purple Rain tribute wearing knee-high fishnets and gold lamé. He soon felt he had hit the ceiling of what the city had to offer.
“I was popular in Minneapolis, but it doesn’t matter,” Kozel says. “It just felt like I would make better art if I went someplace where I had to struggle again.”
He has found this frustration in L.A. Here, most promoters don’t return his emails, local radio doesn’t play his songs, and he kind of hates his day job making music for car commercials. Yet he’s finding traction. Tomorrow night Tickle Torture returns to the Bootleg (“they’re the only club that responded to me”) with Kozel’s expanding posse of performers. He’s shopping around his debut album, assembling a live band and has attracted the attention of that benevolent dominatrix, who is lending him her whips for tomorrow's show.
“That’s my favorite part of the project and what keeps me excited about it — when random people are like, ‘I saw your show, and I was inspired, and I want to get involved.’”
The newest Tickle Torture track, “Kiss 'n Tell,” is premiering here. The song — a darkly pulsing, deeply layered dance funk club banger — encompasses the Tickle Torture ethos of sexual frustration and freedom.
"My struggle is that [the music] always comes from being in love with someone who doesn’t love me,” Kozel says. “That’s what all the song are about. That sadness at the club. That yearning. Tickle Torture is an escape from those feelings, what it would be like to just completely let loose and be that sexual creature.”
Kozel makes good on the concept of sexual empowerment by making sure different body types are represented onstage and that there are as many scantily clad dancing men as there are ladies. He's gained fans in surprising places, from Minnesota bros to a crowd of "Southern-ass dudes" in Arkansas who he initially thought might beat him up. ("After the set, one of them put a five-dollar bill in my thong like, 'That was an amazing show, man.’") His sound and exhibitionist streak would fit in snugly at A Club Called Rhonda or a late-night FYF set, if only Kozel could get their attention.
He did catch a big break last summer when he got an email from Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, who had seen Tickle Torture and asked Kozel to play Eaux Claires, the festival Vernon has put on the past two summers in his hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Kozel said yes and was thrilled to discover Vernon had given him a Saturday night headlining spot. The show ended with the ground of the Wisconsin woods covered in pink confetti and Kozel naked except for his glittery headpiece.
“I’ve always been that person." he says. "I’m the naked guy at parties, but I’ve been trying to dial that back at shows. When people start expecting it is when you have to stop doing it.”
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Naked or not, the lengths to which Kozel goes to entertain audiences stands in stark contrast to much of the snoozy indie rock world. He’s looks up to the disco and funk acts of the ’70s and ’80s who executed perfectly choreographed dance moves while killing it on their instruments, along with the arena-pop glory of Timberlake, the performative intensity of punk legends like Suicide and The Cramps, and the sexual majesty of Prince.
“I’m tired of seeing bands who are too cool for school," Kozel says. "I just want it to be a show.” He’s dedicated to making that show the best it can be, and he's got the whip marks to prove it.
Tickle Torture plays The Bootleg on Wednesday, March 15. Tickets and more info.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described First Avenue in Minneapolis as having once been owned by Prince. Though Prince performed at the club many times and featured it in his film Purple Rain, he was never an owner. We regret the error.