It's funny that one of the greatest gifts to South Florida musickers this year is coming from San Francisco, but it's pretty fitting that the givers are called Kreamy 'Lectric Santa. The famed avant-punk-whatever quintet is flying in from the Bay Area to stage a festival, heartwarming to anyone who remembers the glory days of parochial rock, which was the '90s, when KLS was a local band here instead of there.
By phone and e-mail from a gentrifying neighborhood in Oakland where they share a renovated two-story Victorian with another band, founding Santas Robert "Sirbo TurBo" Price and Priya "Sister" Ray speak candidly and clearly about the spinal injury that nearly crippled the band and their new music, which is giving them more reasons to do what they love and to remain optimistic. That might sound rather mature coming from a band whose idea of self-marketing includes sending a bunch of friends to pose as Kreamy 'Lectric Santa for photo shoots and whose members prefer crayons to printouts when it comes to creating a press release. But considering how zany KLS is, you should throw all expectations to the wayside anyway and focus on the complex, and creamy, nature of their stage shows, which local music fans will get to do all over again this weekend.
Sirbo (the stage name has become abbreviated over the years) is eager to talk about the upcoming Kreamstock Festival. "We really miss the old crazy gigs at Churchill's," he says. "I understand things have obviously changed but we are planning on taking it all back — at least for three friggin' nights."
Uncompromising fans of rock 'n' roll will get their fill, as more than two dozen bands — including local legends the Holy Terrors, Psycho Daisies, Laundry Room Squelchers, Humbert, and the Drug Czars — stretch out on two stages over three days. After Churchill's owner Dave Daniels asked the band to headline a festival rather than playing a single show, Kreamy members put their ever-lovin' hearts into the project: "I think Kreamstock is absurd as a concept," Sirbo says. "It's ridiculous, we're not the Grateful Dead. But it's inadvertently turned into this huge, cool ass festival. Our egos are in check."
Besides financing a trip for five to sunny SoFla and enlisting the live aid of their favorite bands, KLS has been going that extra step, Sirbo says: "We actually practiced. A lot." They'll draw on about 15 years' of art-noise and free-punk material, to play three completely different sets over their three-night stint.
They've got a relatively new rhythm section, with drummer Jon Paul Burns and bassist Ian Billet joining the band, but Sirbo's crazy stage antics and Priya's scalding violin work are just as solid as they ever were. Couple that with the gymnastics and added electronics from the band's fifth member, Jan 9 (from Outer Space), and the Santas should have no trouble reminding locals of how things used to be.
The band got started in the late '80s, when Sirbo left his former group, the Prom Sluts, and got together, in every sense of the phrase, with his partner in music and life, Priya. Both on and off-stage, she's known exclusively by her first name (think Fergie or Madonna), and together they started creating what one critic called "drug-riddled lo-fi psyche punk," although better minds know it to be psyche-riddled lo-drug punk fi. Their sound was captured on numerous releases, many of which Sirbo jokingly refers to as "vinyl CDs," notably the mid-'90s benchmark Da Bronx Sity Chikn Machine Vol. 2 (Vol. 1 was lost when the master tapes were left in an automobile trunk beneath the Miami sun); the 1993 debut Supergroup 2000; the cleverly titled Four (1997); and classic tunes like "The Ballad of Charlie Pickett," "Whose Got the Nu Amerika/Ikonocrap," and "KLS Love Theme (Love Theme from KLS)."
New material will be released on opening night of Kreamstock via a "7-inch" that was burned by a friend onto 250 CDs for the occasion (and for the Digestive Systems label). The post-neofunk and blues-ska band is also well along on a full-length album they've been tracking at an Oakland studio called New and Improved. It's slated to be released by Starcleaners in 2008. "Robert wants it to be 'crazier'," Priya says with a sigh. "I'm looking forward to doing some sort of tour with it."
The vagaries and mandates of touring (undertaken in a shaky Econoline) motivated Sirbo and Priya to leave South Florida in 1998 to set up their Santa workshop in geographically viable Atlanta, which they now refer to as "the cursed city." Soon after arriving there, Priya suffered a fall that nearly killed her and left her in a wheelchair. Sirbo says that what many don't realize about spinal injury is that, beyond the paralysis, there is ongoing nerve pain that can be overwhelming. He also adds quietly that Priya has, since the day she regained consciousness in a hospital and immediately requested McDonald's French fries, "maintained a great attitude."
After that, they went to Hershey, Pennsylvania, to stay with family while she recuperated. Then it was off to Los Angeles, although the curse of Atlanta continued when bass player Andrew Powell went back for a visit in 2003 — while there, he died, apparently from an overdose. It was a rough turn of events for the happy-go-unlucky band, and it was fitting that Kreamies put their instruments down and took a hiatus. They didn't release another piece of music until last year's Great Plans Laid to Rest, a five-song retrospective of unreleased material from 1999 to 2004. At this point, Jan 9, whose back flips and headstands have animated KLS live shows since the early days in Miami, was still in Los Angeles, but Sirbo and Priya chose to settle in the Bay Area instead. They've been there roughly two years, with Jan eventually coming north to join them. A few ex-scenesters are out there, too, such as Steve Milano (the Funyons), whose band the Onion-Flavored Rings recently recorded a split 7-inch with KLS.
The Santas say the Bay Area is "the opposite" of South Florida: left wing with a hipster mentality, a tendency of neighbors not to be prejudiced ("They actually like us," Priya laughs), and much less emphasis on the dance scene. But still... "We wanted to get that same crazy mad Miami energy we had back in the day," Sirbo says, "so we went haywire finding the coolest bands."
How did the Santas manage to reach from San Francisco to organize an event so redolent of a time gone by, to resurrect an era when South Florida bulged with brilliant rock? How were they able to enlist so many cool bands to play? "To be honest," Sirbo says, "we just asked them."