n the late 1860s, Richard Wagner finished a big fat opera cycle about a dwarf who got some gold out of a river and made a ring that could rule the world, and all these mythical beings fought over the dwarf’s ring, but it was pretty much moot because elaborately conceived performances about dwarf rings don’t just pay for themselves you know, and they have to be done properly or what’s the point.
“I have explained in my essay on Beethoven the reason why, through the power exerted over our emotions by noble performances of ideally perfect musical works, the evil I have denounced might be renderized unnoticeable, as though the sight itself were neutralized. But in a dramatic performance, on the contrary, the very matter in point is to make the sight fully in a picture; an effect which can only by brought about by entirely freeing the vision from the observation of any intervening sense of reality, such as is inevitable when the technical apparatus for producing the picture is obstruded,”which is a clever way of saying I need some money. So he drummed some up from King Ludwig and some rich German folk and built an opera house in Bayreuth and it was wild.
Last year at New York’s Knitting Factory, Kelley Polar tried to perform. He wore a suit of flashing lights and had a string section of demure Asian women crowned with wreaths of flowers. It sort of worked. “I wanted ‘Matter Into Energy’ to be this love song from me to an alien creature. It became my friend in a sleeping bag as this kind of space larva that about four people in the front row could see.”
I was one of those four people—I saw it from the balcony—and it was not an alien creature. It was better, more ambitious, more raw. Money would ruin Kelley Polar. “Anything great I’ve done is probably more out of failure than out of creative innovation.” The 29th card in Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, a set of creative guides and principles, reads, “Honor thy error as a hidden intention.”
“I spend a lot of time by myself up in the woods because I kinda dropped out of New York to be away from things. So I don’t go to clubs or shows much. And I had this idea that my live show would be like the Cathedral of Chartres in the 17th century, when the dude who invented stained glass installed it in a church for the first time and people showed up and thought what the fuck is this? But there aren’t a lot of resources, and so I think for that show I was trying to amplify the idea that I was this social introvert. I think it succeeded a little too well.”
It doesn’t hurt that he has the kind of fertile imagination only encouraged by distance from the social world. In a recent issue of Fact, he explained that he met Morgan Geist, founder of Environ, the boutique disco label he records for, playing a live score to the Russian film Aelita: Queen Of Mars in an art-house theater in Queens. He did not. “Now I’m in trouble, because I always answer this question in a different way, and I always just make stuff up.” I later email Morgan asking him if there’s any truth in the statement, and he tells me a story involving a wealthy Saudi woman Kelley met in an airport, a non-negligible sum of money, a dare, and a couple of unprintables. When Kelley related the story to Geist, he chose, of all things, to lie about the airport it happened in.
In late 2005, Kelley Polar released an album called Love Songs of the Hanging Gardens. It was mannered disco-pop, which isn’t necessarily anything to bleed over. Thing was, it was a deeply weird record, almost obsessively melancholic, seized by a wonder bought with what sounded at times like an uncomfortable amount of introspection. The sentiment of an early EP—“Every sound I hear is music, every night I can’t stop dancing”—turned into “You make me ashamed of myself, but I don’t want nobody else,” which turned into, on the recently released Chrysanthemum EP, “So get on your bike and ride to the junior high / Under your desk, head on your inner thigh,” before lapsing into a layered chorus about killing people in their sleep delivered in that inner voice used in movies to convey that the character is totally and absolutely on to what he has to do but we all know he’s gone crackers and badder, nuttier things than hearing voices are definitely in the pipe so get ready.
There is something dark about Kelley Polar, but he looks too comfortable to psychoanalyze. “I left because I was getting really out of control [in New York].” That’s all he says. Kelley Polar once told an interviewer that he knew he needed to leave when he found himself on his Chinatown rooftop surrounded by an Icelandic troupe of ballerinas tripping on mushrooms grown by New York’s horticultural elite in Central Park. The horticulturalists were into his youthful spirit and wanted him to have a party. I do not even bother asking whether this is true or not.
Kelley Polar’s new record is almost done.
“It’s an evil twin to the first one.”
I always get squirmy when people talk in sound bytes so I ask what planted the seed of evil.
“Well, it’s just less concerned with a marketable identity.”
“So you want to make less money on the record and tour more.”
“It’s just more brain-to-tape now.”
The gap between ideals and circumstances, though, is pretty much always where the most interesting art gets made. How do you make do? If Wagner didn’t get money for the Festspielhaus, maybe he wouldn’t’ve started crapping out even longer-winded proto-Nazistic essays about the Aryan jungen emerging from the woods with leaves over their penises. If Kelley Polar could do everything he wanted to do, we’d all get bored really fast.
“I played a festival where Panic! At the Disco were there, people with these huge tour budgets and cabaret dancers”—“and, like, four peeled coconuts on their rider!,” Morgan chimes—“and I thought if I had that, you have no idea what I’d fucking do. And instead I was just this country bumpkin who sewed my own costume together, but people were into it, so I guess that’s good. A couple times I had to go out after these insane, pumped-up ragga guys, just wearing muscle T-shirts and shouting, and there I am, backstage with my new all-white costume and this big white robe and all these flower garlands, and you just have to go into your own world because if you start looking at it from these peoples’ eyes, you just think”—he’s whispering now—“what the fuck are you doing?”