Death and the Single Girl

Undressed to impress: goth survivor Gitane Demone

Gitane Demone comes as close to a gothic-rock diva as anything this country has produced. And that's just the way she wants to keep it. After nearly two decades at the forefront of the goth scene, Demone scoffs at the prospect of mainstreaming her sound. "I think I'd rather die," she says. "I'm not interested in becoming part of the commercial industry where I'm required to change my style for a record company. I'd rather stay underground than do something like that."

Not to worry. Demone -- who performs in West Palm Beach on March 31 -- operates on the fringe of goth itself. Her beguiling mix of lounge, cabaret jazz, adventurous electronica, and synth-rock ain't going to play in Peoria, at least without some weird looks from passersby.

Best known for her years with the seminal Los Angeles shock outfit Christian Death, Demone still has a penchant for leather. She still writes songs about dope casualties and sexual depravity. She still gives Siouxie a run for her money in the banshee department. And, at 41 years old, she continues to experiment with her sound.

"From '91 to '95, I had a jazz band, where I did a lot of piano and voice," Demone says in a recent phone interview from Philadelphia. "Then I did some electronic music, and I did the cabaret thing, which I love. In the last couple of years, I've done this kind of punky noise-rock. And I love doing minimalism. I love exploring different musical avenues, for sure."

Her most recent album, Stars of Trash, is the closest thing to straight rock Demone has produced to date. The disc calls to mind the Sisters of Mercy and Clan of Xymox, with an organic blend of keyboards and guitars. Harking back to the new-wave era, "Cancel Logic Brain" chugs along to a chattering sequencer riff and a dated 808 drum machine's metal beat. "I Lost a Friend to Heroin" throws Demone's sharpened voice against a bracing power-chord roar, while "Shangri-La-La-Land" recalls the ever-ethereal Cocteau Twins. Most surprising is the way Demone's voice -- once a cauldron of histrionics -- has matured into an instrument reminiscent of Marianne Faithfull, adding a smoky texture to tracks such as "Strange Baby Strange" and "Little Dreamer."

At the moment Demone's American tour may be the easiest way for audiences to hear this new material: Stars of Trash is available only as a German import. The singer, who lives in Berlin, remains optimistic about a U.S. distribution deal.

Demone describes Stars of Trash as a collection of pieces about life in Hollywood, California, and about certain friends, "some of whom passed away due to too much sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. It refers to the way that the very severe underground scene -- the one I'm coming from -- is regarded by society and the music industry. Out in Hollywood you have the elite music stars and the glamorous movie stars… you have all these different kind of stars, and then there we are."

Being an outsider is nothing new to Demone. "I was a weirdo," is how she remembers her childhood in California. "A creative weirdo. I really did my own thing." As such she was a perfect fit for Christian Death, where she was tapped primarily as a foil to leader Rozz Williams, adding hideously over-operatic caterwauls. Although stunningly prolific the band occupies a rather pitiful niche in the canon of gothic rock: Finding anything on the group's 29 releases worth listening to more than once is difficult, unless you're a glutton for goth punishment. In the end Williams' tacky, calculated-to-offend antireligious imagery proved far more interesting than the music.

Demone's West Palm Beach concert coincides with the two-year anniversary of Williams' suicide, an event, she feels, that shouldn't have surprised anyone acquainted with his music and lyrics.

"They should have expected it! All they had to do was listen to his songs and factor it all in," she observes. "But it's taken me a long time to accept it. Only in the last few months have I been able to start listening to his music again and take a little distance from my personal involvement with him somehow. A few different pieces on the album have to do with him, like 'Rock and Roll Child.' And I've had a lot of visitations from him -- that may sound too weird or too far-flung for some, but he's visited me a lot."

Demone debuted in the early '80s as a singer and keyboardist with Pompeii 99, an original fixture on the Los Angeles glam/ goth set. "We were a very, very freaky band," recalls Demone. "We were appreciated by the avant-gardists, some punkers and some death rockers -- a whole mixture." By 1983 Pompeii 99's membership had been assimilated by Christian Death, soon to become America's preeminent black-clad band.

After her Christian Death affiliation ended in 1989, Demone forged past her dark goth roots, finally coming to grips with her terrifying voice, making it a less lethal weapon. She also adopted a continental, jazz-noir approach, relying on piano and vocals only. On her first solo vehicle, 1992's A Heavenly Melancholy, chaos still reigned, though she followed it up with the positively pretty Lullabies For a Troubled World. On 1994's With Love and Dementia, Demone also experimented with subtlety but still added enough wailing and shrieking to break the spell occasionally.

That "cabaret" period -- influenced by personal heroes like Billie Holiday and Nina Simone -- proved that she was far from a musical charlatan. Inspired by a European visit that introduced her to jazz session men Frank Wright and Woody Shaw, Demone's subsequent brand of loungecore came across passionately as her voice swept from sweet purrs to guttural growls. Still she had more kinks to work out.

"Completely focused on sadomasochism, submission, dominance, and fetishes," is how she describes Demonix, a 1995 techno project that paired her with Belgian industrial pioneer Mark Ickx, formerly of A Split Second. Yet that collaboration, she says, signaled the end to her marriage of erotica and music: "I like to explore certain areas and then get on with it. Trying to combine music and S&M performance-art didn't really work, because I felt sure that people weren't really listening to the music, they were only looking at it. That wasn't the direction I really want to go in. I've kind of invented myself from what I began as, and if I want to change, I will."

While changing musical hats, Demone would change her look, too. When belting out torch songs like a flamethrower, she usually appeared in leather bondage gear. In the cover art for her new record, she variously appears nude, adorned with a spiked dog collar, clad in a physician's cloak, and wearing a rubber body suit.

Demone, who currently sports pale dreadlocks, is accustomed to being stared at. But the experience can still rile her. And at a pit stop in rural Montana during her current tour, she garnered even more. "A couple people actually pointed and laughed," Demone says. "I'm a strong person, but it really pisses me off. It takes everything I can manage not to tell them to fuck off. They should look at themselves, because we all have a right to be who we are. It does make me angry, just because of the sheer stupidity of their behavior."

Although comfortable with goth's accouterments, Demone holds the current scene in low regard. "I think it's dwindling. The area where it'll end up surviving will be just a few big cities," she predicts. "There's too much musical incest. Anything that sounds copied isn't going to be that interesting. There's a load of rehashes, and I think the music industry just sort of laughs at it: 'What the fuck is this crap?'"

Demone knows her own music is hardly the stuff of rock radio. But she's not averse to the idea of broadening her cult appeal. "I respect artists who are undiscovered," she says, "but in my case, I simply feel that it's a lack of exposure. When I play live, a lot of different people seem to wander in. These are people uninvolved with the gothic scene or anything near it, but they're very turned on. I do music that's introspective and emotional and sometimes quite dark, but I don't feel that it should be limited to a death-rock or gothic-rock underground. I think I have the capability to write music that more than just the underground scene would appreciate. But maybe I'm wrong."

Or maybe not. Though she may well scare off anyone requiring a musical safety zone, Demone's music always takes listeners to new and dangerous locales -- not guaranteeing comfort but keeping boredom at bay.

Contact Jeff Stratton at his e-mail address:

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