Twilight's last gleaming
It is early on a Friday night and Club Clearview is almost full. A large crowd--dressed mostly in black--defies the unwritten rock rule: Thou shalt not hang around while the opening band is playing. Several hundred eyes are fixed on the stage, where a group of young people fills the air with a sound that you would think went out of fashion years ago when portentous bands like Bauhaus and the Sisters of Mercy enjoyed their heyday before they melted away like Dracula exposed to sunlight.
Nocturne blows the cobwebs off, then rewinds the antique clock: Suddenly it's grim chords, black eyeliner, and Gothic imagery all over again.
The five band members look like they just stepped off the set of a hip vampire flick. Long-haired, dressed in long black shirts and wearing sinister expressions, they bring to mind a time when a similar-looking band from England--the Mission--unlimbered their crepe-draped doom-rock caravan on this very stage for an adoring crowd. Now, the audience is a lot younger and the act is new, the music in the making; Nocturne, however, borrows the imagery more than the sound.
Singer Lacey Conner poses a sultry threat and snatches most of the attention with her metallic banshee voice. The band weaves a gloomy shroud of dark pop that brings to mind the numbing, funereal effect of Join Hands, the second Siouxsie and the Banshees album. Nocturne's elastic bass lines, sturdy drumming, and elaborate guitar riffs create a sound that is both visceral and elegant; even when the songs get harder, they never slip and fall into the heavy-metal cesspool. As alluring as a walk through a New Orleans graveyard, Nocturne plays with a passion that allows the audience to suspend its disbelief for 45 minutes.
It is this passion that puts Nocturne in the here and now and saves it from being just another revival act. Gothic rock--or death rock, as many called it then--was a short-lived monster that bared its fangs in England for a brief period in the early to mid-'80s, a fringe genre that romanticized death and anything dark and melancholy. Its practitioners never gained wide recognition, with the possible exceptions of the Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus. As in any other unique pop genre, the worthwhile were far outnumbered by poseurs who took it to ludicrous extents until Goth became a parody of itself, its dark themes mistakenly confused with Satan worship or the desire to shock.
As Nocturne plays the trippy "Hallucination" and the mournful "Lament," Satan and the poseurs take a back seat. It's a tight band, in possession of a commanding stage presence and songs that can hold your attention past the standard three-minute span. As it closes with the eerie and complex "Underworld," you finally realize that there is no other band in Dallas that sounds--or looks--like Nocturne.
At the end of the set loyal followers rush to congratulate the musicians and pick up free demo tapes and bumper stickers; some line up to put their names on the band's mailing list. Nocturne's tiny army is expanding, a sign that there are enough people out there who want to take the shaded path to Nocturne's imaginary world.
The next day, the band members recount the gig with enthusiasm. It was their first show at Clearview, and they were nervous about how they would go over with the club's mixed-bag crowd. Their apprehension was proven unfounded when, to their delight, they later found out that 20 new people signed their mailing list.
"What I love about this band is that we're all so young and we have a lot of time ahead of us to do our music," Conner says. "I don't wanna be 30 years old and just starting, playing in front of 40 people...We are extremely confident that this band will succeed because of the support from our fans and our families." Conner, guitarist Chris Telkes, and keyboard player Barling are all 20 years old.
Sitting in Conner's stylishly modern living room in Irving, there's nothing that suggests that the singer is a black-clad girl who likes to take her musical trips in the dark: no bookshelves full of Anne Rice novels, no black candles or velvet drapes or any other decorations that would reflect the Gothic atmosphere the band's trappings evoke. In fact, the members of Nocturne do not even want to be called Gothic; they reject the stereotype of the black-clad fan.
"I just don't like that label...It's too limiting," Conner says. "When I think of Gothic rock, I think of bands like Christian Death and Shadow Project. Gothic music to me is depressing."
"We're not Gothic rock," Telkes confirms. "We don't go overboard, putting crucifixes up on stage and wearing lots of make-up."
Upon listening to Nocturne's songs a little closer, the band members' rejection of the label makes sense; terms like "Gothic" often are lazy words used to describe easy first impressions. In the case of Nocturne, the deeper you dive into the material, the more pop sensibility you find lurking behind the shadows. After all, the somber Peter Murphy--who started his career with Goth pioneer Bauhaus and its song "Bela Lugosi's Dead"--once admitted that Bauhaus was nothing more than a pop act. In such a light, the musical mandrake root Nocturne offers is sugar-coated.
Talking about her influences, Conner surprisingly does not go through the gloom-rock registry of Siouxsie and the Banshees, Sisters of Mercy, Bauhaus, and Fields of the Nephilim; apparently the sounds of those bands must have crept into her subconscious through osmosis. The Cure was her first musical love, and she spent three of her formative years listening nonstop to Robert Smith's flirtations with dark themes; the inclusion of "A Forest" in Nocturne's live set is a Cure homage. Her current favorite--and that of the rest of the band members--is Nine Inch Nails, a prime example of a pop band that capitalizes on manufactured angst and cartoonlike aggression.
"I always liked darker songs because they create a mood; generally I'm a happy person," she says. "Dark music is a powerful thing, and I like the intensity of it. I like bands that hit you like a brick; pop bands, like Tripping Daisy, are happy and carefree, and you can take it in stride. Nine Inch Nails is right in your face and you have to take it."
"The things that make you want to write songs are the things that have caused you pain," Barling adds, reinforcing the theory that there isn't one noteworthy pop song about sunshine.
Nocturne is definitely Conner's baby. She writes most of the songs and only looks to Messrs. Smith and Reznor for emotional impact; the rest is her own style, lyrically and sonically. Therein lies part of the uniqueness of Nocturne: The collective influence of its members--Conner, Telkes, Barling, drummer David Gee, and bass player "Ivan"--comes from a band that is entirely synthetic, while Nocturne builds its own emotional glass house using the standard guitar-bass-drums. Barling, who adds the keyboard embellishments, is a recent addition and has not changed Nocturne's style.
Conner has played piano and guitar since she was 4. Her musical talent was nurtured by her father, Otis, an established jingle writer. Two years ago Conner put together the Furies, enlisting two studio musicians because she wanted perfection. But the hired hands were not as dedicated as she had thought.
"They tried to turn my songs to commercial shit," Conner laughs. "They wouldn't show up to rehearsal or even for shows, so I fired them," she says with relish. She then asked friends Telkes and Gee to join her; they learned the songs quickly and with the addition of bass player Ivan--who has not told anyone in the band his last name and is absent today--Nocturne came to life in July 1995.
"I believe in fate," Conner says with assurance. "I think there's a reason those other guys didn't work out, and there's a reason we all got together."
Telkes and the elusive Ivan have recently started contributing their own songs, matching Conner's style like peanut butter does jelly. Telkes, who has been quiet throughout, fiddles with a stack of Einsturzende Neubauten CDs and assumes a mock conspiratorial tone while Conner goes to the kitchen: "Me and Ivan actually write a lot more songs, but it's a matter of convincing her to play them."
"Chris and I have a similar writing style," Conner says when she comes back. "I wouldn't want to do songs that don't sound like me, but I like the fact that they write, because we expand a little, and I don't have the pressure to write new songs all the time."
As enthusiastic as they are, the members of Nocturne also are realistic about future recognition; right now most of them are too involved with the day-to-day obligations of life to consider extended touring: Telkes and Conner go to school, where they study music and music production; Ivan is a knight at Medieval Times; and Barling is a computer programmer. But they have confidence that their best music is yet to come, and that their fan base will keep expanding.
"I don't have a statement to make with my music," Conner concludes. "My whole goal is to be respected and show people that I love to write music. All I want to do is to be able to support myself while I write." Telkes, Barling, and Gee nod in agreement.
Nocturne performs Saturday, September 21, at Galaxy Club.
Get the Music Newsletter