The goth movement of the Eighties introduced or incorporated some now-familiar fashion touches: body piercing, tattoos, and the teased hair and black eyeliner favored by groups like the Sisters of Mercy. But 23-year-old Chad Boltz, half of the Denver industrial duo called Phenylketonurics (PKU for short), has taken things much further. Until recently, each of his ears bore a pair of rings so massive that they stretched out his lobes in a serious way. "I cut the thin bridge of skin that separated the two rings in one of my ears because it kept getting infected," he notes, fingering what looks like a sawed-off pipe fitting that currently occupies this space. "Now I have to find a bigger ring."
Brown's PKU associate, Reginald Jordan, is no young Republican, either; either of them could pass for a roadie on a Marilyn Manson tour. Their appearances, however, aren't merely for show. Despite their friendly demeanors and proclivity for easygoing chatter, they both inhabit a bleak inner panorama that is reflected in their trappings. Simliarly, the way they look has a lot in common with the way they sound.
The partners share an absorbing friendship and a fascination with the murkier side of human nature epitomized by the band's rather unwieldy moniker. Boltz describes phenylketonurics as "a nervous disease that some diabetics suffer from. Sufferers shake and twitch uncontrollably. It explains the sound of the band, and I just like the way the word looks. It's a strange word."
The portion of the musical spectrum the PKU twins prefer is also a bit out of the ordinary. "I'm a fan of Switchblade Symphony and some of the ambient bands out of Scandinavia," Jordan says. As for Boltz, he steers clear of ambient acts ("I just don't get it," he concedes) in favor of John Zorn, but he shares Jordan's fondness for Crash Worship and the sort of industrial electronica whose roots stretch back to bands such as Skinny Puppy. These influences combine to produce a sound that can be characterized as darkwave, one of the dizzying array of subgenres that have proliferated during the last half of the Nineties. But Boltz and Jordan take the approach in some intriguing and unique directions.
The aural landscapes favored by Boltz and Jordan originally sprang from the barren wastes near their former home base. "We started out in 1995 in Cheyenne, Wyoming, putting together short, cheesy songs that we wrote in fifteen minutes," says Boltz, who handles the music for PKU as well as for a one-man, noise-only project tagged This Will Hurt You.
"When we started PKU," adds singer and lyricist Jordan, "the goal was to write and record an entire song in one day and then just forget about it."
This disposable ethic led the band away from traditional songcraft and toward the utilization of static, noise and other abrasive material ignored by the musical mainstream. It was territory Boltz knew from his previous group, Monistat 7. The band was signed to Relapse, a label with a national reputation among grindcore aficionados, but the company was underfinanced and poorly organized. The imprint added Monistat songs to random compilations without warning or notice and sometimes failed to forward royalties to the musicians who'd earned them. As a result, Boltz is as pleased as a tormented soul can be that Phenylketonurics, PKU's debut disc, is an independent release. The self-produced, self-marketed CD, which was recorded in the summer of 1997, is only now seeing the light of day because of the joys of consignment, but at least Boltz and Jordan know that whatever profits it earns should eventually find their way to them.
Laden with programmed loops, "Kelly=Remix" is typical of the eleven tracks on the CD--and it also says a lot about the musicians' fairly twisted sense of humor. According to Jordan, "That was the first all-electronic song that we did, because this girl Kelly was supposed to come over and play bass, and she never showed up--which is one of the reasons we are a twosome." Laughing, he adds, "I came up with some nice lyrics for that one: 'Kelly got no sleep last night/Kelly got no sleep at all/Kelly got no sleep last night' and so on."
Sampling, a process introduced to mainstream audiences by hip-hop, plays a large role in the pair's approach. In this regard, PKU is closer in methodology to Ministry and Atari Teenage Riot than precursors such as Throbbing Gristle, whose members made most of their noise themselves. "I just like to use samples more than traditional instruments," Boltz says. On "Hatefilthshitplease," another song of the album, he points out that "the beats are sampled from a drum-and-bass song and the rest of it from a death-metal track. We use a lot of effects to distort the sound. With each song, we try to use new effects."
Variety is an important consideration, he continues. "Our newer material even includes swing and jazz samples. Seventy-five percent of a PKU song is an alteration of samples, and the rest is our creation."
"You don't even have to like the sample to start with," Jordan insists. "Because after we're done messing with it, it sounds nothing like the original. We only use it as a source."
Boltz agrees. "Unlike most hip-hop groups, I like to alter the source material until it sounds like something new."
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PKU doesn't completely reject hooks and melodies: The catchy "Dead Girl," for instance, sounds like a regular pop number on a bad day--it's even possible to sing along with it. But "Dust," "We Got the Beat" and other pulverizing numbers distend their samples beyond recognition, with "EoD," a fantastic cut that's arguably Phenylketonurics's best, sounding like a passenger jet rolling along a runway. Jordan smiles gleefully as he talks about this last composition. "That was always one of our goals--to come up with a song we could play that just goes on and on," he says.
The musicians have rarely tried to do so in a club setting. "I really don't like playing live," Boltz admits. "I'm not really a people person, and I hate it when you take the time to set up all of your equipment and then two people show up." Nonetheless, he and Jordan have decided to try to make this week's gig at Seven South a special one. They're especially excited about some vintage audio-visual equipment they recently purchased at a school sale. "We have these huge slide projectors that only hold one slide each," Jordan reveals. "They're horrible. I love them."
Listeners interested in hearing something other than shiny, happy pop music will likely say the same thing about the men of PKU.
Death Pile, with PKU and Black Cell. 9 p.m. Wednesday, July 15, Seven South, 7 South Broadway, $3, 744-0513.