"Ooh," recoils the sushi waitress. "That's so ugly!"
The offensive item is just a T-shirt -- albeit a very special T-shirt with a representation of a man with a swirl of worms where his eye socket should be. It's being modeled by Gory, guitarist for Death Becomes You, but the abundant stares the band is receiving at the Japanese restaurant in Lauderhill may well be directed at bassist Nicodemous and his prodigious facial piercings, or drummer Christopher Lee's black vinyl pants, noodle-thin frame, black nail polish, or long dark mane.
Less eye-catching is backward-cap-wearing singer John Janos, who speaks in rapid-fire New Yorkese in between gulps of iced tea. A fan of radio talk-show host Neil Rogers, Janos abstains from stronger mind-altering chemicals.
"It's giving your enemies an advantage," he says of drinking and drugging. To his foes, he issues a warning: "You can never outdo us."
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In the wake of such confidence, Death Becomes You makes enemies easily. There's the Culture Room, where the band played its first show in May 1999, introducing a fearful crowd to its breakneck brand of misfit horrorcore, with stage props including a spiked iron fence in front of Lee's kit, masks, makeup, skulls, torches, gallons of blood, and a skewered infant called Lucifetus that "gets 'em every time." Various indignities followed, resulting in the fearsome foursome's invitation to steer their Batmobile well and permanently clear of the busiest local-band stage in the land.
Other naysayers try to spread rumors that the theatrical outfit intentionally wrecks clubs, a charge DBY denies while admitting, "A lot of bands aren't friends with us."
That said, the quartet still fights to win the respect of folks who have written them off as pathetic poseurs. In fact, after spending hours putting on their outrageous makeup and stage gear and renting a van to haul all that equipment to each show, many times the band pays to perform. For them, the show isn't everything; it's the only thing -- in fact, it's what the band lives for. "We're geeks that have a band," sums up Nicodemous. "We eat, sleep, and breathe this stuff."
Janos can't wait until he can leave his desk job for a monster mask and leather bondage gear. "I feel more at home that way. I love the anonymity behind it," he barks into his hand roll.
Lee, who has taken an extra Ritalin tonight and is thus considerably less boisterous than usual, reveals that Death Becomes You makes plenty of friends too. But they're found in completely unexpected places, like Coral Springs superheroes New Found Glory, whose stadium-sized pop is an inspiration for personal tattoos and aspirations. "They say the things I'd like to say someday," Lee explains solemnly over his spicy tuna. Another fan is Miami pop-rocker Derek Cintron, with whom the band shares reciprocal fondness.
But as much as he loves his local chums, Lee reserves special affection for those who are no longer with us. Take, for example, Stuart Adamson, recently deceased singer for Big Country, whom Lee, an MTV disciple, strangely reveres.
"He wrote a song that touched millions of people," Lee calmly explains. "When you write a perfect pop song, you should get free health care for life, because you changed the world." During an August 2000 show at the Metal Factory, Lee dedicated the Cars' "Just What I Needed" to Ben Orr, who had just passed away.
Now that George Xenos, father of Janos, Lee, and Nicodemous, has joined the ranks of the departed (see Bandwidth, February 22, 2001), he has been immortalized as well: Lee's most prominent tattoos are dedicated to his dad and to New Found Glory. The band often uses a coffin in its live act and is therefore well aware of the irony. Xenos apparently was a big champion of Death Becomes You; last Christmas, the family all sat around and watched the group's live videotapes.
Lee's fascination with death is both childlike and studied, fitting for someone who grew up wanting to work in a mortuary. "In some twisted way," he opines seriously, "Death Becomes You actually celebrates life. Though it's all tongue-in-cheek." (His long-winded updates on the band's Website, with their hilariously over-the-top punnery, are not to be missed.)
All of it may add up to pointless depravity or tired shock tactics to some, but Death Becomes You disrespectfully disagrees. Lee scoffs at the notion that anything truly evil is afoot. "What happened to Jon Benet Ramsey is scarier than anything we do."
"The Backstreet Boys are way more offensive than we will ever be," Janos chimes in.
By the time the Xenos family moved from Selden, New York, to Coral Springs in 1988, the boys were already on a diet of KISS, the Ramones, and the New York Dolls. Corey (Gory) Kreisberg's family relocated from Plainview around the same time. "We're a very New York band in a lot of ways," Janos insists, recalling a turbulent upbringing akin to an episode of The Sopranos. "I'm on vacation. I sure as hell am not gonna spend another two years banging my head against the wall here."
The youths ravenously consumed art, music, and movies, and not just old episodes of Dark Shadows and George Romero's gorefests, either. Lee even loved the songs of the Christian metal band Stryper -- with the disclaimer, "I'd just shut the lyrics out of my mind." They hated sports and the sheeplike behavior behind "putting people on a pedestal and living vicariously through them," snarls Janos. It was he who began constructing the lyrics and the visuals that would become Death Becomes You before recruiting his brothers and their pal. Right away, the four knew what they didn't want to be: a bunch of dispassionate rockers who just stood there.
The stage show put paid to that problem, and the band followed through in the studio with the grave-spinning Tarnished Tapes of Transylvania. DBY's cartoonish enigma either repelled or attracted witnesses; the group in turn became fascinated with both its fans and antagonists -- or anyone who was paying attention. This symbiosis extends to 17-year-old fan Carver Durrett, in charge of the band's 21,000-hits-and-counting Website. Durrett's mom even baked him a birthday cake with a photograph of DBY on it earlier this year. The more fans they met, the more the four didn't feel so dysfunctional after hearing stories about the kids' own Jerry Springer-esque family lives. Following a show at FU*BAR one night, they found themselves giving a ride home to a carload of kids that included Amy Wiess, a local teen later accused of tossing her newborn into a canal.
The Tamarac townhouse Lee and Janos share is just one in a long row of identical units that look as if they were extruded from a tube of frosting against the Sawgrass Expressway. But with a typical couch and typical loveseat and typical entertainment center, the only remotely malevolent creation in this quintessential modular living room is a small gargoyle.
This suburban setting wouldn't strike anybody as the ideal spot for a sacrificial bloodbath, unless one remembers young Brian Warner. But the mechanical animal is more or less a joke to the band, and even though DBY's version of "The Fight Song" appeared on Anonymous Messiah, a Marilyn Manson tribute album, the band claims there is no comparison between the groups. "We don't have time to sit around and figure out how to enrage you," points out Lee.
"Again with the Manson shit," Janos complains, but the pale, shirtless Lee appears almost as bloodless and freaky as his better-known counterpart.
Janos likes his music tough. Bauhaus he writes off as "all atmosphere and no punch." GWAR is considered "an art band -- like Genesis on a killing spree." But he comes with enough savvy to recognize that the Ramones were the American Beatles. The band's manic take on "Pet Sematary" was included on a recent Ramones tribute from Australia, to which Lee contributed his trademark inarticulately passionate liner notes. But KISS was the ultimate touchstone, Janos decides: "If you're going to make a spectacle of yourself, you better believe your own hype."
Of course, Death Becomes You believes. When the members of the band watch their own images on video performing the larger-than-life spectacle, each one is caught up in a wide-eyed trance, punctuated by various permutations of "Dude, look at me right there!" No one in the band has a girlfriend -- and not because they have a dog named Fluffy or because they'll fight over a 1977 Burger King Limited Edition Darth Vader Commemorative Glass That No One Has Ever Been Stupid Enough to Drink Out Of -- but because women would only get in the way.
"Put the work in now," Janos coaches confidently, "and they'll be much better looking later."
Another reaction the band admits receiving is guffaws of disbelief. "Most of the people who laugh are threatened by you," smiles Nicodemous, who clearly doesn't care: During the 45 minutes he's on-stage gruesomely contorting his body, he's experiencing the most fun he's ever imagined. "We feel mighty when we're up there with our boots, our armor, our hair." Sizing up his on-screen image, he concludes, "I can totally see a Nicodemous doll."
"I think it's worth $5 or $6 to come see us!" Janos shouts, while bathed in the cathode-ray glow of his own image. "You're in the middle of Dante's! Come on."
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