The Leper Ballet burnt so brightly and so quickly that it’s astonishing they didn’t garner wider acclaim. Like Iggy and his Stooges during the epochal hey-day, the group were a writhing, for-the-moment ball of energy, engulfing rooms with pulsating sound and an engaging, contagious enthusiasm – i have never seen audience take to new bands like they did they Leper Ballet, they just drove the kids insane.
Basically the initial idea came about one night when Janus and myself were at the Wunderbar watching this punk-metal band called Fisting Mary. I pretty much thought they where a whole lot of messy shit, and hardly anyone was watching them, but still the good folk at the Wunderbar where dishing them out free beer after free beer. I was still at school at the time and didn’t have all that much money to buy beer, so i said to Janus that we should start a band just for the purpose of getting it for free.
For a year the only thing that came of that was the band name, we thought it was great and celebrated by buying beer (still not quite understanding the concept of ‘getting out what you put in’, or whatever it is).
So it went until the Christmas of 2003 when this dude (his name was Delaney Davidson, from a band called The Dead Brothers who are signed to a Swiss label called Voodoo Rhythm; all of which are fucking amazing, look them up on the net) came back to his home town of Christchurch and set up a couple of gigs. Being it the holy celebration of Christmas Jani and I where drunk enough to tell this guy we were in a band and would gladly play at his show in two weeks… And so it went. In those two weeks we managed to write five songs and do a couple of covers and find some pretty nifty looking suits at the salvation army op-shop.
– Herbert Palmer
Though their debut didn’t quite go as expected (as they don’t give out free beer at the Media Club), the seeds were sewn. Over the next couple of years the boys gathered steam, eventually fleeting to Berlin – ‘a city where the beer is only 30 cents for a 500ml bottle and all the homeless alcoholics look like pirates’.
After a couple of fumbling steps the group fell into a tight 4-man permanent line-up. Janus Currie produced warped and slanted rants, sprinkled with obscure references and loaded language, adding to the dark feeling of their songs – a touch of Mark E Smith via Elizabethan-era gutter poetry. Meanwhile Herbert Palmer rushed through a literate, complicated and frenetic set of nasty guitar riffs – sprinkled with his rock-a-billy, old-timey country and gothic-pop influences. Herb’s grasp of guitar styles and approach is hugely impressive, not to mention his song-writing and additional musicianship. Strung together by a fantastic, upbeat rhythm section in the form of Kris Taylor and Rush Jopson, the group was the most unlikely of dance sensations!
My initial impressions of the group seemed to revolve around the visual look of the group – in particular their striking ‘dirty suits’ dress style and Herbs’ resemblance to a young Nick Cave, which was thoroughly appropriate considering the sound his guitar made on their more gothic numbers. Tracks like ‘The Cabaret’ and ‘I’m Ian’ spewed forth the kind of cataclysmic noise and rhythmic orgasms that prime era Birthday Party channeled (though without the heroin addiction and leather pants).
You never knew what you were going to get with the Leper Ballet – their songs swung wildly from gothic poem’s over a slow and dirgy beat, through sea-shanty carnival romps (thanks to Herb’s secret weapon – the piano accordion) to full-on, full-tilt assaults, usually hastening a messy ending to the set. The group wasn’t afraid of covers, choosing to completely destroy ‘these boots are made for walking’ (complete with an introduction ‘This ones’ for Nancy!’, and bringing things to a close with what almost became there theme – a free-for-all take on the stooges ‘I wanna be your dog’. Usually an indicator that Janus was opening up the stage to crowd participation.
Janus was certainly a polarizing front-man – possessing a down-on-his-luck showman look and comical approach to fronting the band, he never really saw himself as a musician in the group, but rather an entertainer in the Tom Waits mold. It almost seemed as if Janus was a host for the groups’ events – and as Leper Ballet performances often divulged into hands-on and frenetic finales, it’s pretty succinct.
Over the course of just over a year the group played a huge amount of shows, often rushed in approach and result – and no wonder! Herb was double-timing as the Shocking Pinks 5th generation guitarist, often leaving for out-of-town sojourns (which included a memorable show up in Auckland; known for the interaction of a certain 8 Foot Sativa member), whilst Rush took a couple overseas holidays – leading to my own hasty initialization into the group as backup bassist. Eventually Herb, Kris and I formed our own retro-rock-a-billy covers group we dubbed Herb and the Spices – supporting the real group proper as the band wound down.
Though hastily produced, they did manage to get some recordings together – a single session in a home studio produced some (admittedly slightly underwhelming) results, but later live recordings and a bit of remixing allowed the group to produce a pretty strong (if messy) parting album. A limited edition CDr with striking artwork in the Ralph Steadman tradition captures some of the feeling of Leper Ballet shows – with all the grandstanding and pomp, not to mention the carnage.
In May 2005 the boys played a series of shows that both defined them as a live force, but also signaled an end to a chaotic 18 months. Raising some funds through their final hurrah, Janus and Herbert left our shores for England and then Germany – taking in the music of their idols in London before settling in Berlin. It’s unclear what plans the boys have for the future, though their partners in crime back in Christchurch have been keeping themselves busy.
Rush Jopson has spent some time trying to get his own project up and running, along with a reunion of his old band Spankdirt, meanwhile Kris Taylor has made a tremendous impact on eclectic locals the House Of Dolls; filling out their sound with some punchy, rumbling drums and turning them into one of our cities finest almost over-night.
I still anticipate a triumphant return for the Leper Ballet – though i can imagine Janus and Herbert fit in perfectly in the bizarre Berlin underground. When they eventually return they’ll come back to a strong all-ages environment that’s developed in their absence – a scene they helped spark.