Last month, I went to one of the weirdest shows you could hope to sign up for: the John Waters Easter Show at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo. The grand finale of this six-hour marathon of misfitdom was Waters giving a live commentary over a screening of his 1989 Johnny Depp-starring film Cry-Baby, but along with plenty of Watersian touches (like a clearly labeled glory hole on the front of his lectern), it also included performances from a wild line-up of musical acts. Two of them had obvious links to Waters: Deaf Club—a band with the stated purpose of “perfecting sci-fi crust punk from the future,” and songs like “If You Eat a Rat, It Might Taste Good”—is fronted by Justin Pearson, whose other group the Locust was heard in Waters’ film Cecil B. Demented, while ’80s cult star Josie Cotton had her unlikely LGBTQ anthem “Johnny Are You Queer?” chosen for Waters’ Valentine’s Day compilation, A Date With John Waters. The odd artist out would have seemed to be L.A. musician Kate Clover, who doesn’t have an obvious connection to the trash-film king.
But one look at the videos for “Crimewave” and “Tearjerker”—both released as singles last year before appearing on her debut album, Bleed Your Heart Out, which came out April 22—and his influence is clear. Both videos are filled with campy cool, and “Crimewave” in particular looks like it’s straight out of Waters’ 1970s Dreamland era.
“He’s always an inspiration for any sort of video I make,” says Clover from the road on her current tour, which comes to Moe’s Alley on May 11. “I think very cinematically, and the aesthetic and even just the spirit of my videos are very inspired by John Waters.”
It’s safe to say Waters would approve of the other influences that show up in the impressive number of videos she’s put out in her short career so far—John-Luc Godard is all over the clip for “Channel Zero,” while “Tearjerker” also has Russ Meyer and Sergio Leone vibes, and the video for her cover of “These Boots Were Made For Walking” is what would happen if Waters and David Lynch co-directed a short film.
A big musical influence on Clover became clear at the Easter show when she covered X’s “Your Phone’s Off the Hook, But You’re Not.” First, it was a reminder that there aren’t nearly enough X covers in the world; perhaps other musicians are intimidated by the idiosyncrasies of the pioneering L.A. punk band, especially the overlapping vocals of John Doe and Exene Cervenka. Clover, however, took the devastating first track from their debut album Los Angeles, and made it her own.
“In middle school, somebody gave me a CD of Los Angeles, and it was sort of the perfect gateway band for a lot of L.A. punk,” says Clover. The lyrics were poetic, I liked that they were from Los Angeles and sung about Los Angeles. And they completely got me into punk. So yeah, I mean, I don’t think I’d be doing what I’m doing without that.”
But that’s only one of many influences that wind through Bleed Your Heart Out; spiraling around and under Clover’s furiously kinetic punk guitar are touches of rockabilly, surf music, jangle-rock and Raveonettes-type dark-pop. She comes at you from a lot of angles at once, which maybe shouldn’t be surprising since her album’s title is taken from a Germs song, “Media Blitz.”
“I’m very inspired by the Germs, even though sonically I don’t sound like that necessarily. But I like the impulse of being raw and true,” says Clover. “So definitely them, and then the Saints for the janglier stuff—I love the Saints, I think they’re sort of underrated—the Ramones, the Misfits, Radio Birdman.”
I like her attitude toward unleashing that array of influences on her first album, and I’ve never heard anyone describe it in quite the way she does: “I think it’s like when you listen to a playlist. I wanted that to come through in my music—it’s not one thing, there’s a lot of different flavors. And I sort of feel like your first album should introduce that. And then on the second one, you can kind of do whatever you want to do. I don’t want to be known for one thing, but everything should come from a pure punk attitude. That’s where my heart is. I think if you’re just really raw and honest, that’s punk, too. So I just wanted to, you know, slap your face and be like, ‘This is my album.’”
Seething just beneath the sonic surface of that album are some very dark lyrics. The world of Bleed Your Heart Out is populated by lowlifes, narcissists, love-starved psychopaths and otherwise damaged characters, and their stories pour out with a dizzying mix of love, hate, anger and humanity. “Channel Zero” is from the point of view of a woman whose partner is reeling from the mind-control experiments of the CIA’s notorious MK-Ultra program; “Daisy Cutter” takes the old notion that love is a battlefield to the ultimate extreme, employing bullets, bombs and grenades.
Mixed into this intensity, though, is some surprising humor, like on “Crimewave”: “Thoughts are racing like a teleprompter/Annihilation on my peace of mind/I bought a ticket and I got on this ride/5150 ’til I’m satisfied.”
“I think dark places can inspire humor. And I think people can connect through that,” says Clover. “And I think that’s my way of coping—laughing at it, and not shying away from it and pretending something is something it’s not. So I sort of embrace those moments. I mean, even, like, a lot of those early Little Richard lyrics, if you really read them and see what’s going on, they’re wild! I think there should be deeper meaning in your lyrics; it can be something very simple if you can feel it. You can’t fake that.”
Kate Clover performs at 8pm on Wednesday, May 11, at Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. Enemy of My Enemy and the Tenderlies open. $15/$20. moesalley.com.