Interview: Steve Olson
Photos: Bijoux Altamirano
A thought, an idea, a dream…. To allow yourself to be who you are is rare, very rare nowadays. But some do it—some have no choice. Kembra is this special breed.
To make the idea materialize is not easy. Kembra Pfhaler continues to do it in the form of art, music, photography, and writing. Whether it be the music of her Voluptuous Horror of Karen black or inventing new art movements, Kembra stops at nothing. There’s some- thing to be said for that…that thing being, “You fucking go, Girl.” Ain’t nothing going stop you, that’s for sure. Thank you for being you. Done.
What’s your name?
My name is Kembra Pfahler, the lead singer for The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black.
Where do you come from?
I come from Los Angeles.
And what did you do when you were growing up as a kid, in California?
For The young Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, my formative years were spent learning how to remove tar from my feet. We would use lighter fluid from the barbecue. I spent my childhood ditching class and going to the beach and walking along the Strand wall. I was kind of like an early parkour athlete, a skateboarder with- out a skateboard. I loved climbing on roofs and climbing over fences. I loved beating up all the boys in my neighborhood and wrestling and doing extreme sports, and I loved putting on little shows.
I would go to the ocean every day with my dad—Fred Pfahler, he was a surfer—and we would study the ocean every morning in Hermosa Beach, looking for currents, red tides, sharks, surf conditions. When there were no surf conditions we would drive into Inglewood and go to the racetrack to look at the horses.
It’s the only education that I can remember because I don’t remember any education in school. Most California public schools don’t really care about educating children in American history, mathematics…. My mother showed me how to make clothes. She was very creative. They were very young and very creative so they opened the door for me to become creative.
When did you get to Santa Monica?
Later on, we moved up north, which seemed completely satanic, to move up north from Hermosa. Hermosa Beach was such a bubble of surf culture. Even though I went to the Virginia McMartin school, which later became a center of this child pornography scandal.
You did not go to that school!
I love Virginia McMartin. It was a tradition with all the locals because we were a few generations in Hermosa— all the families sent their kids to the Virginia McMartin school. They were accused of being Satanists and mak- ing films with children, but that never bothered me.
Were you in any of their films?
No, I think it was just an extreme witch hunt. Maybe there was some scandal with one of the parents. They were always very, very nice. It was just a terrible, terrible California tragedy. But no, if I was abducted and participated in some sort of child pornography and satanic ritual, it made me the person that I am today.
So you go up north.
So we moved up north because, after that, it was like, my mother had loftier intentions for the children, and she thought, I want to broaden their education and go to “No Pants Lance” Malibu, where we went from The Beach Boys to Big Wednesday.
What year was this going on?
That was in the ’60s. In the ’70s we were in the Santa Monica-Brentwood area. I went to Paul Revere Junior High, which had some of the most incredible sports terrains. But I was a punk rocker and I was not popular.
Why do you think that was?
Black-haired people with green eyes are an acquired taste. And I was from the land of surf royalty. The Addams Family hadn’t quite merged with Five Summer Stories, OK? [Laughs] It was inspiring because it made me isolate myself, and I think the isolation helped me to become an artist. Pain and isolation and rejection made me look inward and I started painting and drawing and trying to find some sort of beauty away from a social network.
What was it that drew you to the early punk scene? Especially in South- ern California, because they all think, Why on Earth would you be interested in punk rock when you have the sunshine?
When I was a child I always felt really unsafe, and I felt like rock ‘n’ roll belonged to an older demographic that wanted to get you into their car and force you to listen to Steely Dan and maybe they would drive you up into the Hollywood Hills and rape you when you were a little surfer in your towel with your punk-rock hairdo. And punk rock was loud, fast, hard, and dirty. Who could tolerate the shows? Who could bear to go to Rhino Music just to buy 45s? It wasn’t appealing to this creepy, coked-out, ritzy, overly produced, overly embellished adult. Thankfully it just really annihilated a whole demographic and made room formetofeellikeIhadaplacetobe myself, even though I didn’t fit in with any group. That’s why I identified with punk rock. It was the kind of music that made you have diarrhea. It was so terrifying that it was unbearable, and that appealed to me. It was so violent, and so threatening. To go to a show was like taking your life into your hands. From my earlier days of loving parkour, loving to climb, loving to be really active, this music was very participatory. It made me want to be an artist.
What about going from the beach to Hollywood?
I was a young teenager and I was not popular, and the marriage of the cultures hadn’t really taken place yet, so I decided to move to New York in ’79. There was Lydia Lunch, there was No Wave, and I was very homesick for California. I can’t explain this kind of longing for California that you get when you’re from Los Angeles. My brother is in a band called Jawbreaker—he’s the original “emo power trio” artist. He writes about Los Angeles so beautifully…but there’s always this feeling that I had. I was always very homesick for Los Angeles, but that’s just like my indigenous culture. I can never erase it; it’s in my DNA, and it just comes out in everything that I do.
What did you do in New York?
I went to the School of Visual Arts. I was very unpopular because I was from California and I had a different kind of appearance. I was inappropriately dressed. It took a long time for my look to get popular. It didn’t really get popular until the early ’90s and then I got discovered by Calvin Klein andIwasamodelandIwasonthe side of buses. Heavy eye makeup, shaved eyebrows, shaved forehead, black hair. I used to be really ugly and then all of a sudden I was popular. That took a long time, though.
I was really lucky. I got to do and see everything. It was a very highly integrated situation. I worked at ABC No Rio. It’s a not-for-profit space in the Lower East Side. My teacher was Mary Heilman. Years later I got to be in the Whitney Biennial with her. I went from her assistant to I got to be in an art show with my teacher. It’s fantastic.
Yeah. That is really excellent.
So art school was good, but it was boring.
Why was it boring? ’Cause it was too “school?”
Yeah. School’s always boring. So I went to Berlin in ’82. When I got back, that was the late ’80s, and then around ’90 we started Karen Black and went on tour for ten years.
But you kept painting?
Nah, I never really painted. I just did drawings, mostly. …The performance wasn’t really that popular.
I’ve never seen a show.
It’s pretty good. I consider myself to be an availabist and an anti-naturalist.
An availabist is someone who makes the best use of what’s avail- able. An anti-naturalist is someone who lives in harmony with things that aren’t natural.
And how did you come across the idea for the show?
I like Karen Black the actress because I loved all those movies that people like her and Dennis Hopper made in the ’60s.
Trilogy of Terror is amazing.
The Day of the Locust, about the water in LA. I like Karen Black in her more non-horror roles, actually. I’m not an actress. I can’t access my emotions and recall feelings. As an anti-naturalist, I’m the complete antithesis of what an actress like Karen Black can do, and I just respect her so much.
It’s like paying homage.
Yes, we’re paying homage to her; we’re not satirizing her.
Did you ever think, back in ’76, that you would be where you are now?
Um…yeah. Sure. I knew that it was my job to do exactly what I wanted to do every day of my life. The people from the ’60s and my parents and the people that were around me…that’s what I was trained to do. And it’s not like every day is really whooping it up. There have been years of quietness and sacrifice and hardship. It’s really a full-time job.
Now that you’ve been living the way you want and doing the things you want to do, you’re gonna do that until you can’t do it anymore? Mean- ing, until the day you die?
When I was younger I was an availabist and an anti-naturalist. I feel like now the world is coming to an end. New York always kills anything of value. They have to redo Madison Square Garden and make it look new. They have to tear down the Chrysler building and put a new façade on it. New York loves to kill things with any kind of his- tory. If we had the Eiffel Tower in New York they would probably tear it down and the mayor would put up some stupid art park. I feel like I’m gonna have to become a “memorist” now. I feel like the ocean’s gonna be closed for good. It’s gonna go from blue to black. I have a very Philip K. Dickian outlook on things because we’ve caused so much harm. So I decided that I needed to make up a new art movement. I was invited by the great artist E.V. Day to be in her art project in Giverny, France at the Claude Monet Foundation. Claude Monet was an impressionist and he painted nature and he painted his impression of what he saw. And then we moved onto other art movements like surrealism and dada and futurism and post-modernism and slacker mini- malism, availabism, anti-naturalism, and now I feel like I’m going to be mak- ing artwork that’s from the memories I have. It’s a new movement. I just made it up yesterday, so I can’t really elaborate on it. Maybe in the next five years, if I remember to work on the movement, we’ll still have the memorist movement.