My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult at Teragram Ballroom

I have a confession to make (a “Confession of a Knife?”). I’m a member of a cult. I’m not talking about a Jim Jones Kool-Aid cult, though my cult is not only cooler than Kool-Aid, our flock believes, and chants at the top of our lungs, that they are “Kooler Than Jesus,” even. I’m not talking about the Blue Öyster Cult, though there are obvious connections to be made in the tongue-in-cheek dabbling in the sinister, occultic, paranormal biker club shtick – however, my cult does it with much more sex, drugs and camp. My cult is more than just a cult, it’s a K-K-K-K KULT! Let me tell you about my life with My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult, who K-K-K-K KILLED at the Teragram Ballroom on this night.

Often labeled, lazily, as an Industrial band from Chicago, that’s just the tip of the Lake Michigan-sized iceberg. Thrill Kill Kult (or TKK, as they are more colloquially called) are not only multi-genre; back in the day they were a multimedia extravaganza that was the cyberage’s version of Andy Warhol’s (with The Velvet Underground) Exploding Plastic Inevitable; their show was a sensory overload of music (full band augmented by more keyboards, more drums, and background singers), projected footage/visuals, outrageous, and controversial (like church groups outside protesting and trying to get them banned) performance art. But the music alone was much more than music…it was cinema!

Maybe cinema is too pretentious a word, we will elaborate in a little, but literally the band name is the same as the film project the founding duo of Groovie Mann (Frankie Nardiello) and Buzz McCoy (Marston Daley) were going to make. As the origin story goes, what began as a soundtrack for a film they intended to make was so freakin’ cool they decided to make it a band instead. Releasing 12-inches and eventually full-lengths for legendary local label Wax Trax!, home of post-punk/new wave/electronic/industrial mainstays like Ministry and Front 242, they eventually became one of the stable’s most popular acts. It’s probably because TKK offered such an exciting concoction of sounds that brought horror to the dancefloor in a way not heard since Claudio Simonetti (of prog group Goblin) was making Giallo-Italo-disco scorchers simultaneously for Italian film master Dario Argento’s soundtracks, the nightclubs, and the radio; but even more thrilling and chilling because of the inclusion of movie samples from said genre. I will mention many of their samples in this review, and that is because their samples are such a huge part of their music, and chronicling the different samples is almost to chronicle their evolution. Thrill Kill didn’t invent the idea of mashing up music with horror movie samples, but their brand of conspicuous devil worship had more of a wink and a smile (more Corman less Crowley). They were spooky, but also sexy and spunky. Theirs was an evil kitsch that got even more kitschy as they went.

36 years later and Thrill Kill still throw one hell of a sex magick party. And on their Evil Eye Tour they play the hits, some album cuts, and a sprinkle of this and that. Back to the Teragram Ballroom where Detroit’s dark wave/electro-punk duo Adult. more than warmed the stage, they forged it, the crowd was now clamoring for Thrill Kill. Out of the darkness, into the fog and blue light, they kicked off their set, which celebrates the first ten years of their career. The first ominous sample of the night came in the opening number, “Burning Dirt” from their sophomore album Confession of a Knife…, from 1990. The diabolical refrain, “Tonight, we murder,” comes from a song of the same name, that was the flipside of the “Stigmata” single by Al Jourgensen’s Ministry. According to Groovie, he co-wrote and laid down the vocals for a side project they were working on, not knowing that Jourgensen would release it as a Ministry song. So TKK reclaim the song, and it perfectly sets the mood for the show.

The stage is minimally dressed but full of vibe. The band, a taut 4-piece (long gone are the Bomb Gang Girlz, the back-up singers that spun off, Mary Jane Girls/Vanity 6 style), with Justin Bennett on drums, Mimi Star on bass, Buzz on all the keys and backing tracks/samples, and our frontman, Groovie, on vocals. The second track is a fan favorite (obviously, as are most songs in the mostly-greatest hits set), “A Daisy Chain 4 Satan,” where they delve into a topic they are much more obsessed with than Satan. Drugs! More specifically, naughty girls doing drugs. “I live for drugs,” is the kind of line you just don’t hear anymore. It’s as if the celebration of drug-addled debauchery is so 90s. Today rappers talk about being hooked on anti-depressants/anti-anxiety meds, cough syrup, and opioids, but they don’t make drug dependency sound nearly as exhilarating as the Thrill Kill Kult do. Theirs is the “superlative high” (as Edie Sedgwick described her amphetamine-feuled bliss in Ciao! Manhattan), even if they are sending-up health class PSA films; cautionary tales of lost little girls like the one “A Daisy Chain 4 Satan” finds in (the reoccurring, provocative yet troubling, “I live for Drug” tagline) “A Child, Again,” a 1967 public service piece from WNEW’s Public Affairs Department.

Forget Compton, the next number comes straight outta hell (as the sample shouts), harkening back to their debut, 1988’s, I See Good Spirits and I See Bad Spirit. “Do You Fear (For Your Child),” goes against almost everything I wrote before about TKK being kitschy and campy. Groovie plays the terror trip straight, no irony, pretty scary. And yes, I would probably react like the televangelists and the puritan and paranoid parents and actually fear for my child. The fear is less them being sacrificed to Satan and more losing them to this sanctum, this hypothetical musical druggy sex cult and their seductive leader.

Soon, Groovie and gang would move on to the next phase of their career of evil (fans of both C/Kults?), but not before stabbing out another two songs from Confessions…, “Rivers of Blood, Years of Darkness,” and “Days of Swine and Roses” The latter could have benefitted from the presence of the Bomb Gang Girlz or at least one female back-up singer. Groovie does a great job delivering the goods, but many of their songs were originally recorded with a female side-kick and back-up singers, and in “Days of Swine…” the girls make that “Christian, Zombie, Vampires” nursery rhyme/cheer is that much more delicious and mischievous. Not to worry, the fans came to participate, and they sang along to that part better than Rocky Horror regulars. The former song, “Rivers of Blood…” offered a taste of the sonic transition about to come on Confessions... Changes that would become much more prominent on the next two albums: From the slinky, cocktail loungy, tickled ivories that would populate Sexplosion! (1991) and 13 Above the Night (1993), to the psychedelic 60s guitar-licks (this one courtesy of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What it’s Worth”) that would rave-up their retro road trip album, Hit & Run Holiday (1995).

Sexplosion! is to TKK’s pissing off their Industrial following as Dylan’s “going electric” was to his folk flock, or KISS’ going disco (just as a disco records were being set ablaze in Chicago) was to the KISS Army. Fans were devastated, they felt betrayed. They were trepidatious about their favorite Chicago industrial group now doing Chicago house, with its requisite wailing divas?  Instead of chanting “Death to Disco” TKK was trading their death for disco? These first gen fans weren’t wrong about the changes, but for pseudo satanists to find the new disco direction so shocking and blasphemous meant they weren’t really paying attention to the disco that had already been part of TKK’s sound almost from the beginning. “Do you Fear (For Your Child)” had sampled Alec R. Costandinos’ Golden Tears and the titular “Theme” for Confessions of a Knife looped Giorgio Moroder’s “Oh L’ Amour” for the entire track. If homage to these two Casablanca Records disco maestros wasn’t enough, it doesn’t get much more blatantly disco than “Waiting for Mommie”’s “borrowing” of Chic’s iconic “Le Freak” bassline. I mean the “Le Freak” bassline is on the second album and you’re gonna’ be mad at them for “going disco?” It’s OK, they said the same thing about Bowie when he was about to lay the groundwork for some of the darkest shit ever with the Berlin Trilogy. . . but again, we digress.

It was still too much disco for former keyboardist Thomas Thorn. If Thrill Kill’s foray into Satanism was closer to Satan’s Cheerleaders, then he wanted to be more like the ritual scene in Faces of Death; and so he would exit to form Electric Hellfire Club (though he’d eventually loosen up and get more kitsch fun like TKK). But for now, on Sexplosion!, TKK were venturing out of their own hell club for the sex club. Not just one sex club, all kinds of sex clubs, as if we the audience (whether here at the show or at home on wax) were part of this exclusive and mysterious International Sin Set and this record their polyamorous/pansexual travelogue of sex; from the first Playboy Club in Chicago, to the peep shows of The Deuce-era Times Square, to the Betty Page-era burlesque shows/stag reels to the LA Confidential-like pulp rags, to the soldier in Full Metal Jacket’s Vietnam looking for some female R&R and whatever he can get for five dollars, to “Leathersex” (which they played tonight), where TKK take us to the S&M gay club, where the muscle men bulge out of their biker leathers like Tom of Finland and shared sniffs of poppers from amyl nitrate-doused bandanas. On this song, bassist Mimi Star eases the minds of those who could not imagine a replacement for the ailing Levi Levi. I marvel at how Mimi Star could do it, but she does it and she did it again. She’s not a slapper like Levi, but she picks her grooves with such precision it’s hypnotic.

Truth be told, Sexplosion! was when I first discovered My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult. I walked into NYC’s now lost but legendary record store, Bleeker Bob’s, and I heard a James Bond sample (from Thunderball’s “Switching the Body”) on a song I later learned was “Mood No. 6.” I was born and bred on James Bond, and by this point I was already an OG hip-hop fan who’d become obsessed with trainspotting samples and crate-digging to find them, as well as a voracious film student who would rent several movies a day, couldn’t get enough. Here was an album that was made for club kids and cinephiles alike? My mind was blown. I immediately bought Sexplosion! and their back catalog on CD as soon as I could. More than their music, I loved the mystery and mystique around them, the P-Funk-like characters and alter-egos of core and extended members. I tried to piece it all together but they were elusive and larger than life. Higher than you can ever be, and more glamorous than you can ever dream.  When TKK rolled out “Sex On Wheels” (the band’s biggest single was also featured in the film and on the soundtrack to Ralph Bakshi’s, Cool World) tonight as an encore, I remembered how it didn’t leave the CD player in my car. It was my personal soundtracks, as I drove around the city, ala Taxi Driver’s “Travis Bickle,” (hopefully not as sociopathic) taking in the seediness and the sleaze, imagining what was going on behind the dark windows and closed doors of places like Show World, Scores, The Vault, or The Limelight.

Before moving ahead to the next album in the set, TKK bounced back again to another classic single. Remember when I confessed that I was in a K-K-K-K KULT? I was referencing a song with a long title, but more simply known as “Cuz It’s Hot.” Another dancefloor burner with hard driving bass drum kick and the self-referencing vocal (and an uncredited vocal by punk rock poet, Lydia Lunch), “THRILL! KILL! K-K-K-K KULT!” Because every band worth their weight in K-K-K-K KOKE should have their own theme song, right? It’s anthems like these that really stir up the crowd. Also, back to the “disco” thing, “Cuz It’s Hot” uses “Do You Wanna Get Funky With Me” (where, among other sections, the “Cuz It’s Hot” comes from) by Chicago disco daredevil, Peter Brown, and it seems to me that there are cosmic connections between him and TKK’s producer/performer extraordinaire, Buzz McCoy.

There’s a throughline there between the two, as if McCoy was the Wax Traxed version of Brown, updating his disco into industrialized disco house. The Brown connection wouldn’t end here, TKK didn’t just sample, they do their own cover version of “Do You Wanna Get Funky With Me” that kicks off 2005’s Gay, Black and Married (an instant classic which I must admit I regretfully slept on until a few years ago). Actually, there’s a video on YouTube that shows Peter Brown in the studio creating a track I imagine wouldn’t be so different than McCoy’s approach years later. A man with a vision putting whatever he can put down on tape by himself but getting the best performances out of the others. Which is where I want say how overlooked a producer/performer Buzz McCoy is. He writes the tunes with Groovie but even Groovie said he basically watches Buzz do his magic. The guy is on a Phil Spector level with his vision and capacity to build a wall of sound with attention to detail for immaculate, if dirty, arrangements. He is the mothership of sounds not only in the studio, but live, because aside from the lead vocals, drums and bass, he is doing everything up there on stage. It doesn’t look like there’s much going on, but if you know what’s going on then you know what he does is more than a handful.

With the demise of Wax Trax! Thrill Kill leveled up to Interscope Records where the sacrificial offer was 13 Above the Night. It was 1993, and by this time a lot of the shocking subjects they were singing about had become mainstreamed in pop culture. Their once semi-secret world of satanism and hedonism had become just another day of neo-pagan Americana. Trent Reznor had replaced Bon Jovi as the new sex symbol/rock god (singing the words damaged lovers long to hear, like “I want to Fuck You like an Animal”), AOL chatrooms and a little shop called Hot Topic was the great subculture equalizer: even if you lived far away from a metropolis’ underground scene you could get “alternative” fashion (hair dye, goth clothes and accessories) at the local mall in Idaho. Hip-hop and rave cultures celebrated and encouraged mind-bending recreational drug use, and teen girls, inspired by, among other things, films like The Craft, were forming covens and calling themselves witches. It’s as if the Satanic Panic of the 80s wasn’t just parental paranoia, forget “Sex On Wheelz,” their kids were going to hell on wheelz.  And if Sexplosion! told their scandalous tales ala sleazy vintage tabloid magazines, then the youth of 13 Above the Night were dishing their dalliances of depravity on sleazy tabloid television shows like Jerry Springer, Ricki Lake, and Jenny Jones (remember her?), even Bill O’Reilly, who is sampled on the album talking about the pros and cons of teenage individuality and rebellion. The lyrics of the album perfectly matched the times and themes, so did the then novel computer graphic album art, which went along with the cyberdelic aesthetic of rave flyers that were all the rage that year. Sonically, like their new beat/acid-house counterparts Lords of Acid, the band was going harder, with heavy guitars, techno/trance, and electro-lounge. For me, 13 is like Cheap Trick’s Heaven Tonight in the way that the Goldilocks had found the bed that was just right by combining the hard rock edge of the self-titled debut album with the power pop perfection of the second, In Color. In 13, TKK brought back their sympathies for the devil yet doubled down on the disco. Perfect! Tonight, they played that CD’s first track, “The Velvet Edge,” which casts Groovie as a remarkable ringer for Daniel Ash on a Love and Rockets song if backed by Steppenwolf, with 60s throwback grinding organ. Actually, TKK doing “Magic Carpet Ride” or “Born to be Wild” isn’t a bad idea. Another band that covered “Born to be Wild” is that other Cult of the Blue Öyster kind, as we mentioned in the beginning. The K/Cults share some vibes, like the mysterious occultic biker gang thing, but also all that evil kitsch, which at times could be intimidating until you realize how tongue-in-cheek it actually is. But “Velvet Edge” in particular reminds me of “This Ain’t the Summer of Love” from BOC’s breakthrough record Agents of Fortune (with that other song that could be an obvious TKK cover, “Don’t Fear the Reaper). They aren’t alike in chords or melody but both of them have their lead singer’s (with BOC it’s Eric Bloom) growly voice begin the record in an almost Alice Cooper “Welcome to My Nightmare” way --  a way that invites you to take off your rose-colored glasses that sees whatever Summer of Love you think you’re seeing so you can see what dirty dangers lurk in the dark underbelly of it all.

It may seem a little late to offer this disclaimer but there’s no time like the present: the references to samples are fact, but please take my band/movie references at your own risk, because it’s obviously all subjective, and these are just hunches that I get about music/pop culture sometimes. We all bring our own notions to the party, some of my notions are no brainers but sometimes they are more obscure, and I love it when I get any kind of confirmation that I was right, like that time I messaged Groovie to ask him if he was influenced by The Tubes and their singer Fee Waybill/his outrageous and flamboyant alter ego, Quay Lewd, and he confirmed it! He said “White Punks on Dope was another break the rules character. Yes!” I mean, think about it, you can say TKK’s been doing their own versions of “White Punk’s on Dope” throughout their career.  Back again to the Teragram show, they would play two more songs from 13 Above The Night, “Bad Life,” a mid-tempo, mostly hard rocker with distorted guitars (on backing tracks) and “Final Blindness,” a hard industrial house banger with more wailing diva vocal on top.

While “Sex On Wheels” was a mighty fine introduction for TKK into the world of soundtracks (a Cool World, that is), they were more than ready for their close-up with a performance in the beloved yet ill-fated film and on the soundtrack for The Crow. It was a marriage of goth and grunge and TKK’s contribution, “After The Flesh,” was so incendiary that you would think it was TKK not DJ Steve Dahl that blew up those disco records at Comiskey Park, much less sold out to disco. Tonight, was no different, they banged out the song like a hammer to the anvil, extra credit going to Justin Bennet for beating the living hell out of the drums.

In the summer of 1995 TKK were about to enter another musical phase, but again, it’s nothing that they didn’t already give us a tease of on the previous albums. Hit & Run Holiday ditched the industrial sound even more and hitched a ride on a retro road trip from Hollywood’s Sunset Strip to Las Vegas’ Golden Strip. What if the Faster Pussycats were The B-52’s back-up girls. If it was any other group I’d almost argue that Hit & Run could be their best album, at least a record you didn’t have to be a TKK fan to get into. Sans the industrial baggage it was a electro-lounge/psychedelic-disco/surf-rock/garage-pop masterpiece, and maybe their most cinematic sounding concept album to date. The B&W album art comes to life in your head: palm trees and pills, and the hot rod our star-crossed lovers (Supervixen Krystal Starlust and the dark and dangerous drifter, Apollo) hop into for their David Lynch-meets-Russ Meyers-like joyride on a lost highway just beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Sadly, “Apollo 69,” was the only song they played from this epic album I’m describing, but it still burns rubber like a race car driver’s theme song.

I think in the big picture Hit & Run Holiday may have been even more polarizing and off-putting to some of the original fans than Sexplosion!.  Even if I disagree with them, I can understand how they could feel that TKK changed too much.  But what, they were supposed to stay the same like AC/DC? I suspect for all the new fans they were picking up, that there was some drop-off too. Some of it could have been due to Thrill Kill going through another label change, now with the short-lived Red Ant Entertainment, also, industrial’s (as TKK were still lumped into) popularity waned in the latter part of the decade, which is a shame because those that jumped ship missed out on one of the most underrated discs in the discography. A Crime for All Seasons is perhaps is perhaps the film noir side of Hit & Run Holiday, still retro, but the girls on this album were less vixen and more femme fatale. The album still runs the gamut from the rock to house to disco to even some Prodigy/Chemical Brothers-like breakbeats, but there’s much less samples, which contributes to some songs having more of that gritty live band sound, as they did in “After the Flesh,” which in some ways had them returning to the darkness of the first album. I remember catching them at Club Lingerie in Hollywood at this time and thinking it was one of best performances I had ever seen. Much like tonight, they were a stripped-down unit and they had everyone in a sweat. And tonight they revisited Crime’s “Blondes With Lobotomy Eyes.”

You know, when I was getting ready to see My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult back in 2017, also at the Teragram Ballroom, I admit to being a bit nervous if they would “age” well. I thought maybe TKK’s sound, which is so distinctively 90s would be too stuck in the 90s to sound fresh today.  Something that relied on a nostalgia for the 90s, which, of course, I have, but I have changed from those times, too. Would I relate to their vibe again? Would I have flashbacks or withdrawal symptoms the second I hear them? Sure, sometimes I still am up late at night watching TV or writing, but I’m not the recreational drug user I was back then, I’m not the nocturnal nightclubber I was back then, I was worried I would open all my shades and let the sunshine in, take a shower, or check into rehab after just one toe-dip into their hot tub time machine. But that show proved me wrong, and so I couldn’t have been more pumped to see them this time at the same venue. And that’s because thank god they are still the same band (who have developed their sound and image) while still knowing how to throw a throwback party, as they are doing now on this tour.  The creatures of the night came out tonight, so many old-school L.A. goths resurrected, and those nostalgic “feels” felt just right for everyone.  Groovie and Buzz may have started their cult at the end of the 80s, but it wasn’t just a fad cult from another era, these classic-era (and some later surprises) songs are still alive, making Thrill Kill more than a cult, they are still one helluva band.

The next leg of the Evil Eye Tour resumes on August 13 at The Ritz in San Jose, California. •