It’s a Wednesday night in the basement green room of the Jackpot Music Hall, and Sam Wright, backing vocalist and cowbell player for Kansas City band the Popsicles, is strapping on his hubcaps. No, that’s not a drug euphemism.
One mismatched plastic hubcap goes on his chest, and another goes on his back. He wears a black wig, held down by a cap, and black-leather chaps adorned with chains, one of which holds a tambourine against his thigh.
He looks like a gay road warrior.
Wright prefers to remain ambiguous on the question of his sexual orientation, despite the fact that he has sometimes worn a rainbow triangle onstage. Whether he’s gay or straight or bi doesn’t matter — this is a band that fights social designations.
“We love sex,” chief frontman Erick Sharda says. “We don’t care how it happens or who with. Otherwise, it’s too political.”
With personalities ranging from fairly stolid rhythm players to wildly over-the-top singers, the Popsicles could be the closest that any human band has come to replicating Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. In fact, according to bassist Ian Wilcox, at least two people who have seen the Popsicles have pointed out the band’s seeming spiritual kinship with the Muppets.
Unlike Jim Henson’s merry creatures, however, the Popsicles aren’t kid-friendly.
What began with a boy-girl duet two and a half years ago has quadrupled into an octet. A show at the Record Bar last November, for which the group added a drummer (with whom some of the members had never practiced before), marked the Popsicles’ debut as an eight-piece.
Holding steady with that expanded lineup, the Popsicles are testing themselves on the local scene with a brash pop that, at its most cohesive, brings together danceable postpunk, bubblegum-rock synthesizer, charging bass lines and — with four singers belting out salvos of oohs, aahs and la-la-las — avant-garde musical theater.
At the center of it all are two childhood friends.
Sharda, the band’s executive power, has known Erika Marshall, the band’s flamboyant muse, since he was about 12 years old. Even before that, by an eerie coincidence, Marshall’s stepfather, who died in a car accident, was the doctor who delivered Sharda.
“The earliest vivid memory I have of Erika is that she ate macaroni and cheese off my chest — my naked chest. I was 15, and she was 19,” Sharda recalls. “It was probably statutory rape.”
Now in their 20s, Sharda and Marshall are in a musical partnership that began as a wildly expressive country-glam duet called the Suicide Club, named after a Robert Louis Stevenson story. When they discovered plenty of other bands by that name in the heavy-metal camp — the inconvenient coincidence led to gigs at a couple of metal clubs — they changed their name to the Popsicles.
By any name, they weren’t sweet. The full band hasn’t yet cut a CD, but as a duet, Sharda and Marshall recorded an EP and an album of stripped, raw and dark pop tunes called The Popsicles Sing Their Favorites.
The basic elements are the voices. Marshall’s delivery drifts between Nico-style crooning and operatic punk belting. Sharda’s baritone begins at the back of his throat and issues like juice from a crushed orange. He sounds like a ’50s balladeer who has lost all faith in humanity. His simple guitar strumming drives the musical flow, and incidental sounds — gentle keyboards, handclaps, wheezing harmonica, reverberating tambourines — add color.
The closest analog to the Marshall-Sharda Popsicles is probably the Kills, a blues-punk band on the Rough Trade label made up of a man, a woman, a guitar and a flaming pyre of angst and sexual tension. The Kills tell listeners: Keep on your mean side. Marshall and Sharda flail at each other as though, for them, there is only the mean side.
Their show stopper is “Oh My Dear (My Darling),” a song with an argumentative, spit-back dialogue in the chorus that invariably moves Sharda and Marshall to physically clash onstage. (At the Jackpot show, Marshall walloped Sharda in the head with a papier-mâché animal mask, and Sharda kneed Marshall in the crotch. The band kept going.)
The early duet’s violent collision of smart, tuneful songwriting and raw emotion caught the attention of Devin Brown, one half of the experimental electronic act Onemilliontinytinyjesuses. Brown says he begged Marshall and Sharda to let him join their band from the first time he saw them.
“There always seemed to be a genuine anger going on when I would see them play,” Brown says. He adds that the lyrics helped draw him in.
Popsicles songs teeter between playful absurdity and bitter heartbreak. The song “Don’t Fuck That Zombie,” with its verse Don’t fuck that zombie/You don’t know where it’s been/It’s probably dead/For a damn good reason, leaves listeners to speculate that the song is a comment on Kansas City’s hipster scene. By contrast, “Lips” ends with an arresting lament to dried-up love: I used to be a river/But now I’m just a hand on your thigh.
Brown was the first to join Marshall and Sharda, and once the door was opened, other players began virtually streaming in. In the past year, they’ve added two backup singers, Wright and Rebekah Perry, plus Wilcox on bass and local singer-songwriter Joel Kraft on lead guitar. (Kraft’s fully realized 2005 solo album, Big Ideas, was one of that year’s underrated gems.) The last to join was drummer Nick Baker, who plays for local bands, including the Boon. Before Baker’s recruitment, Brown held down the beat with a drum machine and a snare.
“I never really knew what was going on,” Marshall says of the process. “I would just show up to practice, and there would be new people there.”
The addition of new musicians deepened and added complexity and power to the Popsicles’ sound. The presence of new personalities also saved the Popsicles from collapse. Marshall says she was on the verge of quitting right before Brown came aboard.
“I was just glad when they [the others] joined the band, because I was Erick’s sole baby-sitter,” she says. Sharda, she says, has a tendency to “spiral out of control.”
That assessment — which Sharda doesn’t deny — should come as a surprise to anyone who has seen the two in person. With her wild-eyed, Thin White Duke-in-drag look and her explosive conversational voice, Marshall seems far less predictable than the soft-spoken Sharda, who, in his customary blazer and ankle boots, looks every bit the hipster dandy next to Marshall’s glam-rock madwoman.
Whatever the case, when the Popsicles take the stage, the band divides into wild party starters (Sharda, Marshall, Wright, Brown) and anchored facilitators (Kraft, Wilcox, Baker, Perry). At times, the outlandish visuals fight to upstage the catchy, competent music.
The band will soon take its first steps toward recording and touring as a big-ass outfit, and it remains to be seen whether, despite each member’s palpable enthusiasm, things will fall apart at the seams. Some nights, the Popsicles seem just moments away from melting.
But it’s that tension — between artistry and chaos, coolness and kitsch, love and violence — that gives the Popsicles their identity.
Here’s hoping they keep their hubcaps on.