By Christian Schaeffer
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Whatever their technique, Puerto Muerto make something that's hard to force into any existing subgenre. Although they've made connections with Bloodshot honcho Nan Warshaw and opened for the Waco Brothers and the Mekons, they don't really belong in Chicago's burgeoning insurgent-country scene. "It's been really hard for us to figure out where we belong because we don't really belong in alt-country, and you can kind of get lumped into that pretty quickly," Kelley says, noting that they've probably sold more CDs in St. Louis than any other city. "I think it's punk-rock folk music," he continues. "That's the most concise."
Meyer demurs: "I don't even know if it's just that, though, because there's the whole cabaret influence. It sounds so pretentious, but I love Mahler. Of course, Ray Davies, the Clash -- we have a lot of influences. The Pogues, Bob Dylan -- just traditional music generally. I grew up listening to oompah music, and I think that's had a kind of effect -- like a virus."
Although they can't explain their appeal, they've certainly managed to make some influential contacts in a relatively short time. Besides making fans of Warshaw and Langford (to whom they owe their firstborn, Meyer claims, or at least some bread pudding), Puerto Muerto has landed gigs at prestigious clubs such as NYC's Knitting Factory; garnered nice reviews in No Depression, the Chicago Reader and Time Out New York (not to mention the RFT, which, for the record, gushed first and hardest); and enjoyed airplay on Australia radio stations. For an obscure band on a tiny startup label, Puerto Muerto have generated a disproportionate amount of buzz -- or at least endeared themselves to a few fanatical loudmouths.
Two years ago, for instance, Puerto Muerto decided to bum around Europe, busking in wind tunnels and Métro stations, singing to people in bars. "We played this Irish pub called the Quiet Man," Kelley recalls. "Some guy was there singing children's songs. The owner, who fancied himself a musician, would come down, and he couldn't find the D chord. He'd won a tripe-eating contest -- that was his big claim to fame. The guys at the bar learned to play 'Das Vidania,' which was, like, our signature song then. An old guy started crying. That was our first taste of Europe."
Right now, Puerto Muerto are getting ready to move back to Chicago, where they're busy recording a new CD, tentatively called See You in Hell; putting the final touches on Elena; finishing up a five-song EP by their alter-ego/side-project band, Tokyo Explode!; and writing an opera based on Günther Grass' novel The Tin Drum. "I don't know why no one's done it," Meyer exclaims. "I know this guy who's a contralto, this little teeny guy."
"He looks like Truman Capote," Kelley adds.
"He has this strange womanly voice," Meyer continues. "I think he might have that Gary Coleman disease. We're going to get him to sing."
"We'd really like to get Dr. Dre to produce something for us," Tim says dreamily. "He's the best producer in the world."