On April Fools’ Day 1998, Rozz Williams was found dead of a suicide in his West Hollywood apartment. At 34, Williams had become the unofficial dark knight of Southern California, his dramatic vocals and androgynous attire sparking a host of imitators; the loss is one still felt across Los Angeles and beyond, with multiple tribute Web sites, memorial club nights and a host of lovingly penned MySpace messages eulogizing the artist upon the recent 10-year anniversary of his passing.
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The Christian Death founder remains an obscure figure outside of the gothic underworld.
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Douglas Halbert, as BIRTH! (Later he will roll around in Fruit Loops.)
“He didn’t write music for the times, he wrote music just for the sake of writing music, for being heard,” says Jen O’Cide of the group Cemetery Whispers.
That urge sprouted at an early age. In the midst of punk’s aftermath, Pomona-bred teenager Roger Alan Painter changed his name to Rozz Williams and founded Christian Death, a band that slowed guitars down to a Black Sabbath dirge (at a time when hardcore riffs were speeding across the region) and created imagery that was simultaneously somber and extravagant.
“We saw about two dozen kids show up to go to a funeral. They lined the stage with flowers and stuff and they went up there and they started playing,” recalls Rikk Agnew, who was with the Adolescents when he first witnessed the band. “I thought that was the bitchinest thing I’d ever seen.”
Not surprisingly, Agnew joined Christian Death after leaving the Adolescents and played guitar on the group’s 1982 debut album, Only Theatre of Pain, helping to create a style that was, he says, “as spooky as it looked.”
And so a movement emerged. Known as death rock, this form of post punk, identifiable by its deeply brooding guitars and tribal rhythms, developed in Los Angeles at the same time the U.K. was going gothic. Christian Death wasn’t the only proponent of the style — bands like Super Heroines, 45 Grave, Kommunity FK and Voodoo Church certainly made their own marks — but Williams became the scene star for decades to come. As former collaborator Christian Omar Madrigal Izzo notes, Williams was “built like Prince,” slight of frame and graceful, cutting an exquisite figure both onstage and oncamera. He was an improviser, known to forgo practices and sound checks to simply let the music happen. Most importantly, though, he was prolific, sinuously moving between musical, spoken-word and visual-art endeavors. As a musician, Williams’ associations were numerous and varied. He formed Shadow Project with Super Heroines leader Eva O — to whom he was married — after leaving Christian Death, created electronic noise as Premature Ejaculation and, in later years, recorded a cabaret-influenced album with former Christian Death member Gitane Demone.
“His contribution to the world has always been grand,” says Eva, who, along with Agnew and Izzo, recently concluded a yearlong stint as C.D. 1334, playing concerts in honor of the 25th anniversary of Only Theatre of Pain.
Perhaps because of his need for constant creative change, Williams remains an obscure figure outside of the gothic underworld. The press he garnered was limited to genre-oriented magazines and a handful of alternative-minded publications. His recorded work was often hard to find outside of big-city record shops, and his live performances were typically confined to goth clubs, even when his latest projects were far removed from the scene he begat.
“He wasn’t allowed to grow. He was typecast,” Izzo says. “It was difficult for him. Every record he did was a different concept, a different direction and a different sound.”
Ten years later, Williams’ iconoclastic spirit has manifested in Los Angeles in an unexpected way, as a new school of artists is twisting their own shadows. Be certain, though, this is not music formed from Halloween-shaped cookie cutters.
“It’s very easy for a lot of bands who play in the circles we do to adhere to stereotypes, and we are really trying to avoid that,” says Steven James of Disco Hospital, which features members of popular goth bands Scarlet’s Remains and All Gone Dead. Instead, the new dark age is focused on experimentation, a need to stay rooted in the present. These are bands often overlooked and misunderstood, not just by the indie rock establishment, but also by the still-breathing gothic underground. But with three monthly parties — Release the Bats and Bats over Broadway in Long Beach and M/R/X/-Wolfpak in Chinatown — a slew of L.A.-based festival shows, such as Wake the Dead at Safari Sam’s on April 26; the magazine Drop Dead; and Thin Man Entertainment’s forthcoming Bats From America CD compilation, this is certainly evolving into a scene in its own right.
Inside the Long Beach bar Que Sera, a picture of Williams is placed on the mantel, surrounded by candles and other embellishments. On the fourth Friday of every month, he looks down on the tightly packed crowd, a mix of ex-goths who still love the music even though they now wear jeans, and newly legal drinkers dressed in ragtag ensembles of lace, velvet and fishnet, as they gather for Release the Bats.
In a corner of the club, co-promoter Jenn Bats shows me her new tattoo, a portrait of Williams on the inside of her upper arm. “Every kid who listened to Christian Death changed after that, just like we did,” she explains.
Jenn and Dave Bats founded this monthly death-rock party in October 1998, six months after Williams’ death. It was the height of the graver era in Los Angeles, when goth influences converged with industrial and techno for a sound that often sounded like Black Celebration–era Depeche Mode pitched up to rave frequencies. The local death-rock scene had long since fallen to the sidelines of the dance floor, giving way to European electronic artists like Apoptygma Berzerk and Die Form. Despite this, Release the Bats was focusing on the old school, combining vintage cuts of L.A. death rock with similarly aged British tracks.
“People thought [death rock] wasn’t cool anymore,” Dave recalls of the early days. But in combining past recordings with live performances from scene icons and up-and-comers, the club has helped foster a new appreciation for music that was almost lost.
“Now,” he says, “people come and they get influenced by the old stuff, and they start bands.”
Death rock is an underlying influence, but none of the artists interviewed seemed interested in rehashing a past they are all too young to remember. The prevailing attitude here is, Don’t look back.
“There are definitely people listening to that type of music, but it’s mixed with the influence of what’s going on now, coming up with new ideas,” says Lynette Cerezo of SWFT WNGS. “There is no reason to make death rock again because it already happened.”
But like the early ’80s death-rock groups, this new scene is not uniform in sound. Bands like Cemetery Whispers and Disco Hospital rely on throbbing guitars, while SWFT WNGS and I Cant Read emphasize tribal drumming. Meanwhile, BIRTH! is purely electronic and dance-oriented, while the Secret Society of the Sonic Six draw heavily on cabaret-styled vocals. Altogether, it is a mish-mash that includes hints of synth punk à la the Screamers and Nervous Gender, early Mute Records artists like Fad Gadget and contemporary influences like performance-art ensemble Cinema Strange and local noisemakers Silver Daggers. The connection between the bands is a penchant for the raw, a mixture of full-throttled wails and beats that veer from the standard four/four that is as stunning as it is, for some onlookers, incomprehensible.
Christian Death back in the day
“There’s a lot of different, experimental and noise-things going on — not experimental in the really fucking academic, annoying, boring kind of way,” says Maren of I Cant Read, “but there’s a lot of different acts doing stuff that doesn’t fall easily into one category or other.”
In Chinatown, M/R/X-Wolfpak, a monthly party thrown inside sports bar/night club Roberto’s, is ground zero for this explosion. Conceived by promoters Job Leatherette and Tony X as a cross section of minimal electronic and death-rock sounds, the club essentially functions as, to quote Tony, “the underground for the underground.” But where the DJs are known for unearthing obscure tracks, past and present, while throwing in a handful of genre staples, the stage has become the club’s focal point, hosting local and international acts whose performances are often as disarming as their sound.
“There is a focus on new music because we don’t believe that the music has died,” says Leatherette. “It was just set somewhere aside.”
Last year, Douglas Halbert played his first gig as BIRTH! inside this venue. Halbert is a veteran of several Denver, Colorado, death-rock bands; his latest project is a mix of performance art and noise-inflected beats topped by harsh vocals. At that first show, he doused both himself and the club in white acrylic paint — much to the chagrin of the club owner — while his friends, operating as part of the performance, sat and ate breakfast.
“I ended up turning over a table, and all of the milk got on the floor, Fruit Loops got on the floor,” he recalls. “We were all playing in it.”
But M/R/X-Wolfpak isn’t just a notch on a band’s itinerary. At any given event, one will see the proponents of the new dark age on the dance floor or hanging around the patio, thumbing through the latest issue of Drop Dead magazine, the New York/New Jersey–based, internationally distributed publication that has championed this latest crop of L.A. musicians.
The M/R/X-Wolfpak model is far from standard, though. As several of the musicians interviewed answered, this is still a city where much of the club scene functions according to strictly outlined genre guidelines.
“It’s misunderstood by the indie-stronghold bookers completely,” says Chadwick W. D of the Secret Society of the Sonic Six, adding that, outside this small community, his band has often been placed on “joke-band bills, because, well, it’s all weird.”
The members of Disco Hospital see similar prejudices within the gothic community. “Sometimes, that crowd, it takes them a while to accept something new, because they kind of like living in the ’80s, living in the past,” says Tony Havoc, “but that’s not where we’re at. We’re trying to move things forward, put a new edge on things.
“We don’t need another Rozz. We don’t need another Siouxsie Sioux. We don’t need another Robert Smith,” he adds.
His bandmate Marzia Rangel completes the thought: “They did it right the first time.”
Wake the Dead II will take place at Safari Sam’s on Sat., April 26. The festival will feature performances from Cemetery Whispers and the Wolfpak DJs in addition to Screams for Tina, Ex Voto, the Deep Eynde, Antiworld and Magick Daggers. Release the Bats will host a festival pre-party on Fri., April 25, which is also the club’s annual Rozz Williams tribute event. BIRTH! and SWFT WNGS will open for Nervous Gender at M/R/X/-Wolfpak on Sat., May 3.