Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Kitten on the Keys interview on
by Paul Zollo

“I have three female role-models: Liberace, Freddie Mercury, and Alice Cooper.” - Kitten On The Keys

“I dwell in the sunset,” she says with a flirtatious giggle. “I’m a beach girl.” She lives just blocks from the beach, and spends a lot of time there, this star of burlesque and all things Kitten. She’s a San Francisco institution (and one of the best) and is her own enduring amalgam of a celebrated Tin Pan Alley/burlesque/vaudeville/punk/glam/diva. A historian, collector, costumer, gifted songwriter, singer, pianist, accordionist and ukulele player, she’s Kitten on the Keys, a native of the Bay area.

“I was born and raised in Walnut Creek,” she admits with a sigh and a dash of embarrassment, and quickly separates herself from a suburban girl. “It’s a beautiful place,” she said, “but not conducive to kooky people like me who had to escape. " From about 13 on, she peppered her suburban existence with periodic trips to Berkley, where she’d hang out with punks and assorted street people (including "some sniffing glue, some pinning rats on their shirts.”) All of which she watched, but from a distance, not participating. Not then, anyway.

Speaking to us on the 2nd day of 2009, she muses about a strange boat that came off its moorings and beached itself near her home. “That was really weird,” she says. “But cool. I loved it. " Her keen appreciation for what is weird, and what’s best in what’s weird, has fueled her journey since its start, when she saw the weird effect her music had upon other people. "My dad would have me stand up at dinner parties to perform,” she said, “which was weird, because that was the only time he would pay attention to me.” Music, for her, was visual from the start, and this was before the days of MTV. At eight she already was fusing music and images in her head, forever glued to her transistor, listening to tunes and dreaming of writing songs and choreographing them too. “It wasn’t just the sound,” she said, “It was the way the whole thing would look, all of it.”

The polarities in her childhood, from G-rated Walnut Creek to the visceral dynamism of Berkeley and beyond, were as starkly contrasted as a David Lynch vision. Playing glockenspiel in the school marching band, she kept her secret punk self concealed, wearing her signature crazy outfits underneath her marching band uniform, and then stashing the uniform behind the bushes after school to hightail it to Berkley.

After high school, she attended San Francisco State, where she delved into the world of underground bands, and worked on her own music. She performed with two bands: first came the White Stains, an all girl band that released a five song EP in 1983 on Round Black Records. Then there was Lethal Gospel, with whom she sang and played piano. They did a gig opening for the Nuns at Wolfgangs and recorded a 1984 single, as well as a cover of the Beatles “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?”. But she was most excited about her own music, and inspired by psychedelic garage stuff and in love with bands like Cocteau Twins, The Cure, and the Birthday Party, she wrote her own early Kitten music, often accompanying herself on an old synth with a kind of electric harpsichord sound. Asked to define her early style, she laughed and said, “Three chord girly psychedelic songs, with lyrics about going to Elysian Fields, meeting the Gods, and drinking their nectar. But in a stupid, cutesy way.”

Her next major musical project was joining a mostly all-girl punk band called Sugarbabydolls (and later Sugar Babylon) along with Kat Bjelland (who went on to Babes In Toyland), Jennifer Finch (who went on to L7) and Courtney Love (who went on to be Courtney Love.) We discuss this chapter in her life in the following conversation, in addition to all that came after: the glory, the European tours, the movie work, the fame, the wonder that is the everyday existence of Kitten On The Keys, as well as all that is planned for 2009, including a one-woman avant musical called “Does This Piano Make My Ass Look Big”
( opening in March at Mama Calizo’s Voice Factory, before moving to the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland), a movie in Paris, a Helsinki burlesque cruise, writing music for Vinsantos (a “glitter Goth cabaret glam macabre snob” which is being produced by David J of Bauhaus, Love & Rockets fame), and more. This is a Kitten who evidently doesn’t nap as much as most.

Today she’s cozy in the oceanside home she shares with her boyfriend Ward Abronski, the lead singer and sax player for the punk rock polka hardcore 2/4 band Polkacide. “He’s my geriatric punk rock prize,” she says with serious glee, before we take off for our journey through Kittenworld.

Photo by:Hiroshi Rebel Shot Media
SOUNDSAFE: You were in the band Sugarbabydoll with Courtney Love. What was she like then?

KITTEN ON THE KEYS: Extremely driven. Delusional. She was a thief, a liar. She was always very interesting, you kind of wanted to be around her cause you didn’t know what was gonna happen next. She was the first person I knew with a Dayrunner. She was siphoning money from whoever she could. She was a stripper. She always said, “I’m gonna become famous,” and we didn’t believe her, and look what happened. I thought she had a lot of talent as a lyricist, but she never wrote any music. All this stuff about her writing music is bullshit.

Me and Kat wrote the music in that band, and Courtney wrote some of the lyrics. She didn’t play an instrument, she sang. Then she went out and hung out with the Faith No More gang. We did more photo-shoots than actual performances.

Because image was more important to the band than the music.

Did you guys play any gigs?
Yeah. We played at a big party. We didn’t play in any clubs.

Was the music scene in the city good then?
Yeah, it was. At the time Rough Trade records was the most amazing place to go. They had everything. There were great record stores in those days, and it was the best. I’d save all my money to go there and get English import stuff I thought was fun.

What happened to the group?
It completely imploded. There was a fire that burned down a house. Courtney became homeless. Drug problems. Back-stabbing, hatred. Nose-jobs, face-jobs. And then Courtney went on to audition for the Syd & Nancy movie. She was up for the role of Nancy, and she was a Buddhist, and was chanting, to get the job, over some candles, like this Wiccan ritual, and burned down the house they all lived in. She burned down several houses. And so everybody went their separate ways.

What did you do next, after the break-up of the band?
I became so frustrated with the music scene that I actually stopped playing. I went into antiques and costumes. And costumed everybody. I was frustrated doing that, and everyone asked me if I was a performer and I’d say no. One day the AIDS epidemic happened, and lots of my closest friends were dropping like flies. One guy, his specialty was the 1920s, the 1930s and the 1940s. I was playing piano at the Fairmont Hotel, and he said to me, “You play the piano? You know you could make a living doing this”. I was completely oblivious. They told me if I could learn classics, songs by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, I could work. So I did. I became really obsessed with the 1920s and Tin Pan Alley era. To me, songs were just so fun and silly and actually really naughty and dirty. And I learned about this troupe called the Cockettes: Peter Minton, Scrumbley Koldewyn. Really famous gender-bending gay guys from the late 60s, who had taken this 1920s thing and trotted all over the world with it. They were the great queer drag queen hippies; there is a fabulous documentary about them. Scrumbley did all of the music.

They turned me onto different composers and people who were crazy collectors of music. I met this old man, the great Bob Grimes, and we became super friends. I love him. He has the largest sheet music collection in the world, and cabaret stars from all over the planet come to visit with him. He’s one of the most influential people in my life. I adore him. I have this Shirley Temple music collection, and he and Peter Mintun got me original scores from Hollywood. I play these songs in piano bars and people love them. There is no one else on this earth I can geek out about 78s and Tin Pan Alley and starlets from the past. He is a treasure.

I was asking him for very obscure ’20s stuff, and he had it all. So I started collecting sheet music and would play it. And I wondered who a good audience was for this. A friend of mine worked in a rest home, so I would get all dressed up and go and play in rest homes for these people. And that was their era and they knew all the songs. The smiles on their faces, the recognition, it was really fun. And it just became my thing.

Photo by: Becca Henry

Is this when you took the name Kitten On The Keys?
Yes. I took that name for a number of reasons, which are: A. My mind is kind of frantic and I feel like there’s always a million little kittens running around on my brain on keys making this discordant music. And also B. Because there’s this great song with that name written in 1922 by Zev Confrey, which is a great novelty jazz ragtime song.

So this character was born. And there were these underground parties called Lush and Luster. A magician guy saw me. I was playing a lot of Kurt Weill, Billie Holliday, great jazz torch stuff. And through him I became the piano bitch for every drag queen in town. [Laughs]. And it was great. People started saying, “Why are you playing as a sidekick for people who can’t sing? He’s terrible.” I never saw it, and finally I heard a recording and they were right; he was terrible. And they were like, “Why don’t you sing?” And I’d say, “no, I’m too shy”. Which is funny, cause I’m not shy.

I started going to San Francisco City College, and the teachers were like crazy encouraging. So I was making industrial noise music in the electronic music department and then going down and singing show tunes. I hired ones of the Cockettes, Scrumbley, and he taught me music theory, which I didn’t know. He was awesome and gave me a lot of confidence in my music. And since then I picked up ukulele and accordion. Uke is great; it’s portable and was used so much in the ’20s. But was hard to learn, cause I never had played a stringed instrument.

Before this, I had naively written songs. But after learning all this, I discovered there was a method to all of this, and it made playing in bands much easier. It opened my eyes. I was kind of sad that I didn’t have that naivete anymore. But at the same time, it really helped me grow as a musician.

Then I got involved in a band called the San Francisco’s Famous Burlesque Orchestra, and we backed a dance troupe, which was filled with a great San Francisco collection of odd-balls and weirdos. We had East Bay Ray on guitar, from the Dead Kennedys, people from Frenchie (a kind of go-go lounge band). We started touring, which was really fun. I was pianist and vocalist. And through these tours, I started meeting people all over the country. And the next thing you know people are flying me all over the country to perform cause they thought my stuff was unique.

Were you doing your own songs as well as the old tunes?
Yeah, I was. I love 78s and I have a Victrola. And I love all these great old songs that were just dripping with sexuality. I collected these songs, sheet music and 78s. Really dirty stuff! So that became my thing, and I started writing songs very naively about different sexual subjects which could mean one thing but really meant another. It was kind of a game as to what I could do to make people laugh.

And you started performing overseas. How did that come about?
This woman came to see me and asked me to go perform in France. And from that I started going to Europe a lot to perform. I went on tour with the DAMNED Winter 2007 on the Twisted Cabaret Of The Damned. I was the MC and musical artist for a wee burlesque and cabaret show we did. We went all over the UK, Wales, Ireland; my fave date was in an old music hall in Belfast. An amazing show! So one thing leads to another.

And besides singing and playing music, you also do burlesque. How did that start?
I started emceeing shows. What was great about my job was that I could fill in the spots when the girls were changing clothes. I would tell jokes and sing some dirty ditties, and it became this thing for me. I feel very lucky that the whole Do it yourself punk-burlesque girl thing was happening in the late ’90s when I started doing it. Because I was one of the first people in the Bay Area to be doing it, along with the Cantankerous Lollies, we were the only ones doing this revival.

Photo by: Larry Utley

What’s the burlesque scene like now?
It’s great. All over San Francisco. DNA. Broadway Studios, which was an old punk club in the day. I love The Rite Spot, a great Mission Dive with an out of tune piano. I have been an artist in residence there for several years. And there’s The Makeout Room, the El Rio, Bimbo’s, Great American Music Hall, Slims.

You’ve been around the world, yet you still make your home in San Francisco. Why? Is it still your favorite place in the world?
Absolutely. It’s home-base for me. And I love it here. Last year I went to Europe eight times. I feel that I have a situation where it’s easy for me to live here and travel back and forth. I really love San Francisco, and I feel I do represent San Francisco when I go away. I’m very proud of being from here. San Francisco has nurtured eccentric artists. Not always, though. I am very lucky that during the whole dot com thing, I am still here. I have a great boyfriend who is in the band Polkacide. They’re this old punk rock band; they’ve been doing punk-rock polka for 25 years. [Laughs] We really nurture each other’s careers.

I am very proud to be part of the San Francisco scene. There’s an amazing queer scene here, and I fit into it wonderfully. I feel so lucky to have so many friends. I kind of bounce between a lot of different scenes. Which is great.

I know you performed in the Karla LaVey’s Black Christmas show. What’s that all about?
Karla’s the daughter of Anton LaVey. He was an amazing organ and calliope player, and he used to frequent old burlesque houses. When she contacted me I just had to do her show! I had heard so much about her. She puts on awesome Black Xmas parties with cool underground bands each year. She served us ham and cheese sandwiches and homemade devils food cake. To be with Satanists for Christmas. Great! With the Fuxedos, who were great. And those Satanists were so nice to me. I through in a lot of “Hail Satans” and it was great.

Tell us about your one-woman show.
It’s called “Does This Piano Make My Ass Look Big?” It premieres in March at Mama Calizo’s Voice Factory on Mission Street. For which I’ve been doing fund-raising and grant-writing.

So far the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence have helped me out. That’s an organization that I volunteer for. They are drag-queen nuns, and they hold the most amazing parties to raise money for women with breast cancer to get wigs. It breaks my heart: they do so much good work. Halloween in the Castro, not so much fun. What’s fun is Easter in the Park with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. It’s something I have played at for the past six years, and I just love it. To me, that’s the best day in San Francisco all year. People just go all out. It’s crazy. In Dolores Park. They just pack the whole place. It’s full of fun bands and underground singers and cabaret stars and drag stars. They have something for the kids. [Laughs] A hunky Jesus contest. It’s so much fun. And it’s raising awareness and money for a good cause. I love that about San Francisco. We are really kooky and diverse, and I feel like I bring that message wherever I travel.

Photo by: Larry Utley Pepper Studios

Do people in other countries have an accurate idea of what San Francisco is all about?
Sometimes. The first thing they think about is, “Oh, are you queer?” Which is fine with me. The second thing they think about is Haight Street and hippies, which, as you recall, some great music came out of that era. They also think there’s a bit of eccentricity going on. And then they always say, “Omigod, you have so many homeless people there.” [Laughs] A guy in Scotland said to me, “I can’t believe your homeless problem.” I think it’s because we care for people here. We have a lot of services for the homeless.

It’s a better place to be homeless that most places.
It is. It’s very beautiful. And we have a really loving, giving, generous spirit here. When I travel to Europe, and half of the show is West Coast and half is New York, there’s such a difference between the New York people and us.

How so?
I don’t want the New Yorkers to get mad at me! But we’re much more laid-back and kind and polite and forgiving. And I feel like they’re really on edge. And they have to conquer, because it’s such a struggle and a rat-race in New York, it’s a much harder life than it is here. The rents here and in New York are kind of comparable now, because of the dot com thing, but the thing is that there’s more stress there. It’s tough to live there, and your personality has to adapt to that. New York kicks your ass.

Do you think burlesque will continue to thrive?
I do. There’s a lot of bad stuff out there. I don’t think people should just go to Target and get a cute underwear set and get up onstage. I know it’s very infectious, and it looks easy. But it’s not. Everyone loves to be an exhibitionist. It gives them strength and power. They have a word they use (I hate it), I call it the E-word: empower. “Oh, it’s so empowering to take my clothes off.” I hate that. My thing is the F-word: fun! Have a good time. There is a lot of creativity and talent, but it’s not in every club. I prefer to pick and choose shows that are good quality and creativity. I mean, I’m 45 years old and I’m taking off my clothes.

You have an exciting life. Do you work constantly, or do you ever take time off?
I do work constantly. And for the first time in eight years, because the economy is shaky, I had to take a real job. But it’s the greatest job in the world. I get naked for people before 9 in the morning. For children. [Laughter] No, not really. I’m an art model for the Academy of Art. It’s the best job, and it keeps me away from the pastrami sandwiches and fruitcake. My boyfriend does it, too, and it’s the greatest job. I love being in such a creative environment. But it’s great. It’s very meditative. It’s a good way for me to clear my mind. It’s good for me, because I’m constantly on the go. So thank you again, San Francisco, for providing jobs for creative people like me.


Photo By:Kingmond Young
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