Local musician Kyrbir Is-p has gained a lot of perspective in the past several years. He took a complete break from recording, performing and even listening to music. But grappling with demons can be exhausting.
Born Robert Dey, the 46-year-old's last release with his band Purr Bats was 2007's And the Cows Came Home in Pirouette (19 State of Deseret). The music he created with this and other bands is some of the most psychologically riveting local lo-fi post-punk of the past several decades, and it was bound to take its toll. Family responsibilities also demanded time and energy.
He started playing shows again last year with long-time cohort Dave Payne (Red Bennies) and Payne's wife Leena-Maija Rinne. Then, Eli Morrison (Red Bennies, Puri-Do, Wolfs) collaborated on some cassette experiments with Is-p, adding vocals. Red Velvet Devil Worship, the sixth Purr Bats disc, releases this Halloween on Morrison's 8ctopus Records (8ctopusRecords.com).
"The album revisits growing up gay and goth in Utah County in the 1980s—probably from a more amused perspective than Puri-Do," Is-p says. That band's work epitomized the lo-fi, DIY aesthetic of the early indie days. "The period was more a psychological landslide than a musical project," he half-jokes.
"The title has nothing to do with magical practice," Is-p says. "But it has everything to do with the absurd, almost cartoon-like mania that people got themselves worked up to in the 1980s. There were record burnings, and Satan's favorite weapon was rock music."
It's not surprising then that Is-p left the LDS Church as a youth. He started making music early, too. As a teen, he and his sister, "Knykir" (Nicole), formed Screaming Yellow Manifestations, banging pots and pans. They made fliers and cassette covers, got talked about at school, and asked the record-store clerk to order their releases "on import."
After forming noise outfit Mary Throwing Stones with reclusive psych-folk artist B'eirth and songwriter/illustrator Lincoln Lysager, he moved to Seattle. "I saw the whole world's not like Utah Valley, and I got really pissed off." He returned to Utah and co-founded Puri-Do, which he says was really "kicking against the pricks," a term from the Bible meaning going against a power to one's own detriment.
In 1997, while living in London with actor Neil Smith, Is-p got the inspiration for Purr Bats. "Puri-Do was really manic, so I thought of doing some over-the-top squishy pop band, but like the kid who sings loudest, off-key, [and is] not quite able to get it."
"Pony Boy" leads off the new album, with Morrison's rumbling bass line. "It's basically a sex song," Is-p notes, with references including The Outsiders. "Special Place in Hell" refers to the smug spirituality of a character like Saturday Night Live's Church Lady. The real demons in his work tend to be religious authorities.
"Bucking Nutter" repeats the phrase, "You've gotta learn to surf [through a chemical imbalance]"—actual advice. Sampled phrases from advertisments and religious media, taken out of context, illuminate possible hidden meanings. The woman enthusing about "succulent family freedom" in that song starts to sound a bit panicky as the song progresses, while Warren Jeffs repeating, "You must obey the prophet" sounds Big Brother-ish.
The primitively recorded rhythm tracks recall early industrial music of the 1980s, and the hypnotic, almost spoken lyrics invoke the intonation of early punk bands. There's been no other musician writing songs to address the oftentimes dangerous psychological effects of the local dominant religion. Yet he still has an odd affection for the religious. " 'Take It in the Breast' is my closest to Christian rock," Is-p says. The phrase, "Stab me in the heart, Jesus," was taken from a faith healer in a Flannery O'Connor story.
Is-p is still searching for an experience that isn't exactly spiritual, but is hard to describe. "It might be looking at a leaf on a tree, or a work of art, that state—it's hard to articulate," he struggles. "It's being able to go into a different place." His own music is that kind of transport. "A lot of the album is about taking back redemption from somebody else, realizing that nobody has a monopoly on it."