This past Halloween weekend, "scary" music enjoyed its annual free-for-all, proving that even mild-mannered types enjoy horror in timely doses. L.A.'s experimental duo TEARIST, who played a packed Halloween show in San Francisco this weekend alongside Salem, arouse a particularly wild-eyed aural terror. Like Suicide – the electro-noise pioneers they sometimes channel – they are a bare-bones operation, with synthesist/bassist William Strangeland playing Martin Rev to vocalist/percussionist Yasmine Kittles' Alan Vega. Their racket recalls the ancient industrial noise of Cabaret Voltaire at times, but, thematically, they're coming from somewhere possibly scarier: unmapped corners of the Gen Y psyche.
TEARIST also prove there's more to Californian aesthetics than sun-bleached bliss. "We're not Best Coast," Kittles tells Rolling Stone bluntly. "These aren't songs you can play for your family at Thanksgiving. Our music sounds really wrong and scary; if there's anything approaching a pop hook, we scrap it immediately. Disgusting!" Don't get her wrong, she later clarifies – she loves her pop, and mainly listens to rap by day – but TEARIST's sound and live image is about pushing people out of their comfort zone to the point where they question their own existence. Having studied drama and "performance art" in college ("Such a bastardized term!," she laments), she connected to the concepts of Antonin Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty and still utilizes them in her act. Aidied by her hair-raising yelp – a voice ranging from an operatic shriek to a post-Lydia Lunch growl – Kittles is thunder onstage, her assault uniquely confrontational and her crowd's response visceral.
Kittles' undone look, which is lo-fi, ruinous, and "all too real," is a good match for her music's obscure but forceful qualities. Without committing to Fever Ray's shapeshifting extremes, she's crafted a dramatic visual mystique of half-hidden, half-exposed tensions. Like any good drama queen, Kittles understands the value of costume. And based in California, she's unafraid to show skin if it liberates her performance. Right now, she favors leotards onstage, quickly noting that she was a figure skater for twelve years, and "there's literally no other garment that makes you feel so free."
She's also acutely aware of the risks of going pantless, but chooses to keep a sense of humor about it all. "I used to be called 'Big Shirt, No Pants' in L.A.," she reflects with a laugh. "I perfected that look; I conquered both comfort and fashion. I roll out of bed, and I'm ready for the ER, or I'm ready for a party – and then for heading back to bed." After worrying that her trademark style might come off to skeptics as "too flashy," she came to terms with adapting her "Cabo Wabo tee, Hustler hat" look for the stage, heartened by the fact her own mother approved of the image. "I asked her what she thought of me showing so much skin onstage," Kittles recalls. "She said 'it's performance; it's you.' That really encouraged me."
Kittles says she doesn't spend much on her own looks but makes them special, and plans to continue to use clothing to enhance her performance. In the past, she's collaborated with her friend Brian Lichtenberg, the L.A. designer famous for decorating Rihanna, Lady Gaga, and Katy Perry in Candyland-On-Pluto garb. "He's always kind of flirting with the Muppets," Kittles laughs. "For one show, I wore one of his crazy leotards. Apparently, Ciara wore the same one on a TV show two nights before." She enjoys these freaky overlaps with the pop universe – in fact, one of Lichtenberg's custom dresses for Perry was actually fitted to her own body first; she even offered some styling ideas. Of course, when the mood hits, Kittles takes her fashion to the experimental, absurd places her music explores; she mentions flirting with notions of foil and paper costumes, which she naturally tore to shreds onstage. One Halloween, she had her friend, designer Keyla Marquez of Howl Echo, dress her as Jesus (she describes the memorable look as "very short and white").
Nowadays, she's beyond worrying if sex appeal is a liability (or if skin even equals sex). "I became really interested in going against what everyone expected," she continues. "I do want to blur that line. I want to question cliché elements of sexy. I'm not trying to look pretty or be anything other than what I am. I'm less interested in being branded a woman than a person."
Watch TEARIST's "Disposition" video:
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