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Photograph by George Sakkestad

Undercover Chaos: Though they have a winning stage show, most of Chaos Lounge's empowered times take place at band practice.

Order and Chaos

With an appealing, eclectic indie-pop sound, Chaos Lounge takes on the over-testosteroned Santa Cruz music scene

By Matt Koumaras

THE RECENT ASCENSION of Chaos Lounge from relative obscurity to one of Santa Cruz's most promising rock bands has been remarkable. Loads of influences swim through the group's songs, appealing to a wide spectrum of fans--a dash of Heart, a sprinkle of the Gits, a dose of Guns n' Roses. The end result, though, displays originality all the same. The fact that no two Chaos Lounge songs share the same sound could explain why the outfit has quickly earned such an enviable reputation.

Chaos Lounge also has a knack for getting on solid bills with local hard-rock institutions like Spaceboy and Vincent's Ear, which undoubtedly opens up doors to new fans. And yes, Chaos Lounge's rise could be attributed to the fact that it's rare to see five beautiful women storm a stage generally reserved for Club Testosterone (although I blindfold myself before every show so as not to bias my businesslike reviews). But it's the band's fresh-faced enthusiasm and amiable stage presence that keep Chaos Lounge's faithful minions flocking back show after show.

The five members of Chaos Lounge moved to Santa Cruz for school and work via Southern California, with the exception of drummer Kierstin Testorff, who came from Tahoe. Guitarist Phoebe (no last name, like all proper rock messiahs) jokes that it was the "reggae scene" that inspired them to relocate here.

Testorff decided to bang away at her husband's drum set (she's married to Pete Testorff of Vincent's Ear), which was taking up space in the house. Amy Gross solidified the rhythm section on bass, and Gross' longtime friend Krissy Broughton, who had been singing in choirs since the fourth grade, added the vocals. Phoebe decided to take on the guitar after previously conquering the clarinet and organ. The final piece was complete when singer Anji Gonzalez joined in a few months later. The Lounge's impressive two-headed vocal attack was ready to escape the garage.

"Chaos Lounge pretty much formed at a New Year's Eve Party we jammed at three years ago," Testorff recalls. Chaos Lounge started to write songs and rehearse at Vincent's Ear's Watsonville practice space. "We're family" says Gross of the band's tight relationship with Vincent's Ear.

"As (Vincent Ear lead vocalist) Michael put it, we're all very well entwined in each others' lives," Testorff adds.

After a band vote turned down the name Purge and the very San Fernando Pleasure Sluts & the Chaos Lounge (because "some members didn't want be Pleasure Sluts"), the band finally settled on Chaos Lounge.

"We're in a musical time period right now where there's nothing you can attach something to," Testorff says, describing the band's music. "Alternative has come and gone in terms of labeling."

They've been called bitch rock, femme rock, hard rock, poppy rock. Testorff, a talented photographer on the side, adds, "All of us really have a deep appreciation for different kinds of music. Even though we don't know how to play them, we're willing to try them."

AFTER A STRING of successful Catalyst and Aptos Club shows, the band recently had its biggest opportunity in September playing at a Sessions snowboard movie premiere party in San Francisco. Taking the stage before a packed crowd of 300 mostly drunk men on a Wednesday night was not what the band had in mind for fun.

"We finally took a lump in the city," Testorff sadly confesses.

At home, though, things are different. In addition to a blistering show with Vincent's Ear and Spaceboy at the Catalyst a few months ago, most of the band's empowered times simply take place at band practice.

"When we create something new, we have so much fun that we just start cracking up," Gross says, flashing a warm grin. "We're trying to do something that we don't really know how to do, and then we do something, we're like--'Yeah! Let's do it again!' "

The band's long-awaited debut CD is due out this month. Its musical complexities show that Chaos Lounge truly knows what it is doing. Recorded with House of Faith studio whiz Bart Thurber, the final product knocks my knee-high socks completely off as the five-piece adeptly pulls off incredible harmonies and combines them with solid guitar flurries that radiating between hard-edged, serpentine rhythms.

The opener, "Chaos" (also the first song the band ever wrote), is a moody, rough ride at a rodeo tempo. Gonzalez's and Broughton's vocals exhibit a soul and vigorous complexity that make the blood boil. Testorff unleashes a flood of flawless tom and snare fills. The pop-tinged emotion this tune generates could definitely send the Dixie Chicks' country-fried asses hitchhiking all the way back to Texas.

The bound-to-be-bleeped "Napoleon" boasts the primal mantra "You're a pint-sized man, and I hate you, so f*ck you" that flat-out seeks and destroys. Its volatile surge had me dashing around the house for that pair of Gary Coleman stilts I pilfered during a San Diego Padres game. Gonzalez's intense yelps mixed with the secret, soft-spoken narratives laced with hurt evoke Babes in Toyland's Kat Bjelland body-slamming her mother's collector doll set.

"It's about a very bad situation where I was obviously very pissed off," Gonzalez explains. "It's a release."

The pick of the litter is "No Sleep," which features a catchy sea breeze melody that revolves around Broughton and Gonzalez's inspired point-counterpoint delivery. Broughton wrote the lyrics while on the road by herself to Los Angeles one evening when she couldn't deal with listening to the radio anymore. Gross' simple-yet-deadly three-pronged bass hook makes the big bang of the song even bigger. Phoebe's guitar sends shards of heaven-sent distortion to all the right spaces. And when the whole band joins in for over-the-top wails of "You make me wanna scream," it's one part Josie & the Pussycats, one part Battalion of Saints and all parts rock & roll.

With the new CD, hopes are high that the band will have even more opportunities to play shows and tour.

"If the opportunity presented itself where we could go on the road for a long time, I think we'd go for it," Testorff says.

"Let's go to Europe!" Phoebe jokes.

"It's always changing," Gross says. "When the Aptos Club wanted us to open for someone, we were like, 'What? We don't do that--we're not like a real band. We just like to hang out.' "

"It's been a whirlwind year," Testorff says. "We just would like to have the time in life to play music, and if we get paid, that's great!" "We're having a good time--now smile," Gross says, suggesting a band motto, which causes the rest of them to erupt in infectious laughter.

Chaos Lounge's debut disc, Red, hits local record stores this month, and the band plays a benefit show for Levi Castro at the Aptos Club Nov. 20. Write to the band at [email protected].

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From the November 3-10, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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