"If Nine Inch Nails and Pantera formed a band, it would be us," says burly Keratoma frontman Chris Simmons between drags of a Newport. "We keep getting nominated for best industrial-gothic band, and we're not. It's kind of a niche thing: We don't fit into a scene or style, and people don't know what to think."
"I just think that we're a metal band that has a computer," adds wiry bassist William Pawul.
The sun has just set, and a red neon glow covers the bar at Crazy Rita's in Lakewood. Simmons is one of the scene's more infamous ball-busters, but he's in a good mood tonight, despite a traffic stop earlier in the day: He was pulled over for playing his music too loud, which also led to a citation for driving without a seat belt. But after a day of changing oil, the mechanic is happy to relax and down a few Bass Ales. He's also excited about the way the band's second album is coming out.
"To me, it's the same stuff, but more of it," Simmons says. "I've learned not to scream over everything all the time. And it sounds more like a band playing the songs."
Now in their late 20s, Simmons and Pawul grew up in the suburbs, too young to catch NIN before it split town, but old enough to watch Mushroomhead sprout. The spirit of 'Head was an inspiration for Simmons' previous band, Slutbox, a chaotic seven-man punk-rap mashup. By the end of its run, Slutbox had regrouped into an electro-rock outfit, and shortly after Pawul joined, it morphed into Keratoma.
Released in early 2005, Smoke and Mirrors is one of the great unheralded albums from the city's recent past. It's been neglected outside a loyal core audience able to reconcile the band's distillation of Marilyn Manson-style mad-dog vocals, Ministry's Panzer beats, and Slayer's go-for-the-throat aggression.
"We kind of dropped the ball on that one," admits Pawul. "It's hard focusing on rent, paying bills, having to go to work, and doing PR at the end of the day."
Since the album, Keratoma has added a new rhythm section: In Winter drummer Jon Vinson and Garmonbozia mastermind Steve Rauckhorst, who's played bass for Integrity and pretty much every other hard-and-heavy band in town. This month, recording the follow-up has been on hold while Simmons pieces together video projections for the band's next live show. Flanked by two giant middle-finger banners, the band performs with a backdrop of quick-flash porn clips, assorted mutilations/mutations, and other graphics. But the top priority is the music.
"We're not trying to trick people into liking us," says Simmons. "We want them to like us because we're good. I think that's the name of our next record: Like It or Fuck Off."