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"I don't really know any musical terms," concedes Kembra Pfahler, the woman behind the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. "I identify with someone like Chubby Checker, who went into rehearsal and described how he wanted a song to sound without getting technical--he would say, `Make this one sound fat and heavy, like lasagna.' I do the same thing. Like, `Let's make this one sound horrifying--yet glamorous.'"
"Horrifying--yet glamorous": Pfahler uses this phrase again and again while talking about her band, an entertainingly sinful conglomeration of cinematic sweep, theatrical excess, lyrical surrealism and loud guitar pop. The Horror has spat out a pair of discs so far--A National Health Care, on the minuscule Beautiful Records imprint, and "The Anti-Naturalists," on the slightly larger Triple X label--and, all in all, they provide two jewel-boxes-full of good, unclean fun. At the same time, they only hint at the mayhem that is Karen Black live. You see, Pfahler and her minions (bassist/producer Dean Rispler, drummer J.P. Patterson and Samoa, who's both a guitarist and Pfahler's significant other) don't just stand around and glare like so many of today's grungey poseurs. Rather, they put on a show--and a freaky show at that. During the course of the average concert, they portray grotesquely costumed characters such as Abra Kadaver, a walking moth inspired by a Super-8 film Pfahler made for the Health cut "Neighborachie, the Boy Next Door." They engage in stunts and random displays of physical skill; for example, Pfahler often moves about the stage with bowling balls strapped to her feet. They get naked. They slather themselves with body paint. And they perform elaborately choreographed routines you won't see at Radio City Music Hall. "We love it," Pfahler says, "when people wonder, `What are they doing dancing in a chorus line of razor blades?'"

The result may not be rock and roll, but frankly, my dears, Pfahler doesn't give a damn. "I consider myself an availabist--someone who uses what's available at the time," she notes. "So I try to stay out of the arguments about music versus visuals, and whether we're a band or a theater group. I mean, this is what I do and what I've always done."

Well, not always--but Pfahler's girlhood was just as weird as the adulthood that's followed. Her father was a nationally recognized surfer--he was featured in Slippery When Wet, a Sixties-era film by director Bruce Brown that prefigured the filmmaker's magnum opus, Endless Summer--whose vocation kept his family moving from one great wave to the next. Pfahler grew up in Malibu, between homes owned by Barbra Streisand and Shelley Winters; about that era, she says, "It was certainly very aristocratic. Those surfers were treated like gods. I remember driving up and down the coasts of California and Mexico wearing glitter bikinis."

In spite of this beach lifestyle, young Kembra gravitated toward another sport--gymnastics. By the time she was a teenager, she was being groomed for a possible berth on the U.S. Olympic team. But then "I broke my arm and it was over. I became completely depressed after that. I stayed in my room for a long time. I didn't do anything--I was really miserable.

"But then I had a `click"--a moment when I started to realize what I wanted to do with my life. I've had several clicks, but one of the first came on this day when I was being punished, grounded, for an inordinate period of time. And I tore apart my room and painted everything using my toothbrush and my mom's hair dye. That was a big click for me."

Pfahler took a while to channel these creative impulses into performance art. At one point she ran away from home and wound up in New York, where she became a junkie. "It's ironic that I would get my heroin addiction out of the way before I became a rock star instead of afterward," she says. "I don't do that kind of thing anymore. I've seen that movie before."

In truth, Pfahler's probably seen a dozen such films. During her teen-agoraphobic period, she watched hour after hour of TV and became especially enamored of B-flicks and exploitation pictures. This obsession led her to begin conducting her own cinematic experiments, which she continues to explore to this day. While she's worked with outre personalities like former porn star Annie Sprinkle, her most important collaborator is Samoa. "He was in a rockabilly band in Hiroshima, where he's from," Pfahler informs. "But then he put down the guitar and started doing other kinds of performances. After we met, we started doing movies together, but five years ago he picked up his guitar again and the whole band project sort of eclipsed the moviemaking. Mainly because it's so much fun to be in a band--most of the time, anyway.

"To me, what's odd about the band is that it sounds so meat-and-potatoes and conventional. But it's really not, because it's being funneled through Samoa. He has the strangest take on classic rock."

And Pfahler has the strangest take on everything else. "There's So Many That I Can Do," "Born to Bake" and the rest of "The Anti-Naturalists" seem relatively normal until you probe Pfahler's lyrics. "The album's about a scientific, outer-space interpretation of nature," she explains helpfully. "There are songs about plastic surgery and alien abduction. Things like that."

There's also a certain cheerful cheesiness in the music that's perfectly symbolized by Pfahler's fondness for actress Karen Black. "She was in some of my favorite movies, and since movies formed the foundation of my education, it only made sense to name the band after her," she asserts. "What I like best about her is that you can't figure out if she's terribly ugly or terribly gorgeous." Pfahler's favorite Black film is 1975's Day of the Locust ("Because I really like those depressing Hollywood-type things," she explains), but she also has an appreciation for Black's bizarre turn in the fabulously awful Airport 1975, which co-starred Charlton Heston. "Yeah, that Charlton Heston is really scary," she marvels. "He could turn any straight girl into a dyke just like that."

The real Karen Black has been a good sport about the band, Pfahler insists. "She came to watch one of our shows in Los Angeles, and she ended up introducing us. Then, afterward, she told us that we were `artists.' But the funny thing was, she saw me once in my normal daytime look, and I think she was more scared of me than when I was in my costume." She adds, "My dad told me that if we're ever running short of money, we could sue her for the use of our band name."

Given Pfahler's twisted sense of humor, it's not exactly shocking to discover that some observers dismiss the Horror as a novelty group. Pfahler disagrees, but she's not offended by the characterization. "To me, that makes it seem like they're saying we're dilettantes, but I've been doing this for fifteen years," she says. "But I admit that I love a nice gimmick. To me, a gimmick is just part of your vocabulary--it's just a part of you that helps you describe what you're all about. So `gimmick' and `novelty' aren't bad words to us.

"But we play things really serious. Because to me, it comes out funnier that way."

The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 23, Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street, $7, 294-9281.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts