Dave Alvin’s big scene in the 1987 movie Border Radio sees him ad-libbing about how punk singer Jeff (played by Flesh Eaters frontman Chris Desjardins, or Chris D. for short) is “serious”, “arty”, and “obsessed with death”.
You get the feeling that the lines are meant as a poke at Desjardins’s personality. And indeed, once you get Chris D. on the phone, you kind of see Alvin’s point. In stark contrast to the yowling, manic singer of songs like “Pray Til You Sweat”, “Hand of Glory”, and “Satan’s Stomp”, Desjardins is soon calmly and soberly chatting about death, the afterlife, and souls—fairly serious topics.
“I do believe in the soul, in spiritual beings,” he tells the Straight, speaking by phone. “When I’m thinking rationally, I don’t believe in a God with a personality that’s looking after some people and not others, but I do believe that there’s a realm of spiritual beings. I believe in the supernatural to some extent.”
The topic arises through discussion of Desjardins’s low-budget 2004 vampire film I Pass for Human, “about spirits of people who died of an overdose, that are into feeding off the negative energy of still-living addicts”. The film was inspired by nightmares Desjardins had along those lines, informed by readings into “sex demons that prey on people, because the only way they can still experience that sexual thing is through melding onto the spirit of someone who is still alive”.
Possession and exorcism are also themes on the Flesh Eaters’ best-known album, 1981’s A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die, regarded as the band’s masterpiece, and featuring the Flesh Eaters’ most famed lineup: Dave Alvin and Bill Bateman of the Blasters, John Doe and DJ Bonebrake of X, and Steve Berlin of Los Lobos. That’s the lineup soon to play the Rickshaw, for the Flesh Eaters’ first Vancouver appearance.
There’s definitely some heavy juju present, from the album cover, depicting the severed hand of a hanged murderer, used in black magic, to lyrical images of a mourning mother squeezing out her milk on her baby’s grave. The music, meanwhile—in part due to Bonebrake’s marimba—has hints of voodoo and African ritual. As Chris D. has stated, “the album is meant to be a spiritual/personal exorcism of demons—demons of my love life…”
But it’s not evil or death-obsessed at all, he thinks.
“All the religious and spiritual imagery that’s on A Minute to Pray” is informed by “the idea of getting on-stage and using music as a way of transcending your physical self, lifting yourself up to a spiritual realm,” he explains. “To me, art and creativity are kind of a sacred thing. It’s a sexual thing, it’s an expression of love, it can be an expression of sorrow and grief and loss and anger, but those things are very cathartic and therapeutic to the human psyche. It’s the way we work things out, a way we transcend our physical limitations, our petty attachments to material things.”
That sort of art is in short supply nowadays, he feels, with blockbuster movies and homogenous pop stars standing as “empty spiritual calories, heavy-duty carbohydrate intake that supplies you with momentary energy but in the long run has no nutritional value”.
Desjardins has two Vancouver stops. He’s presenting Border Radio, costarring John Doe and Dave Alvin, on Wednesday (January 24) at the Vancity Theatre, with a Q&A alongside film writer Kier-La Janisse.
Then in a show the next day, the Flesh Eaters will do all of A Minute to Pray, plus “The Wedding Dice” from Forever Came Today. “There are a couple of other songs I’d like to learn, and I’ve made that known to the guys, but so far we haven’t been together in a room to discuss it. The jury is still out on how easy it’s going to be!”
The Flesh Eaters play the Rickshaw Theatre next Thursday (January 25).