It’s nearing bar close on a Saturday night at the 331 Club, and somehow, over the last half hour, amid a flurry of flashing laser lights and flutters of metallic confetti, Elliott Kozel has removed his skin-tight black pants and is running through the crowd completely naked.
On second thought, he’s not completely naked, at least not if you count the purple feather boa that he’s doing a fairly good job of positioning in front of his crotch, and a sequin-studded, Damien Hirst-meets-Hannibal Lecter mask that’s covering the lower half of his face. But aside from those two sparse accessories he is a tall, thin blur of skin and sweat as he works the packed room, firing off confetti cannons and crooning sex anthems as his mp3 player blasts scintillating, avant-R&B beats.
As the house lights turn back on and unsuspecting attendees turn to one another and fish the confetti out of their drinks, there’s only one question on everyone’s minds: What was that?
That, as it turns out, is what happens at a Tickle Torture show.
“So many bands don’t even try to entertain, you know?,” Kozel says. “I don’t want to be a band that’s just standing there and playing. And with this stupid band, where it’s just me and an mp3 player, and I’m doing basically what comes down to karaoke, I feel like I have to bring some kind of performance. So I have my little arsenal of weapons. The strobe light, the fog machine, sometimes I have my antelope heads. I’ll be singing and I’m like, ‘Oh man, I feel like everyone’s getting bored, everyone’s getting bored’—and then I’ll grab [a confetti gun] and shoot it.'”
A few weeks have passed since that show at the 331 Club, and Kozel is sitting cross-legged on the floor of the bedroom of his apartment, dressed plainly in jeans and a t-shirt and wearing a pair of wire-rimmed glasses. This is the version of Kozel I am more familiar with—the musician who, until now, has been known in town as the frontman of psychedelic punk band Sleeping in the Aviary. When Sleeping in the Aviary broke up last year (they concluded their seven-year run by performing with Daniel Johnston at the Cedar last November), Kozel finally had enough time to start working on his Tickle Torture project.
“I had been working on [Tickle Torture] since I moved here, actually, since 2009,” he says, remembering back to the period when he uprooted Sleeping in the Aviary from Madison and first moved to Minneapolis. “I had the idea that I wanted to combine dance music and noise music, because at the time noise music in Minneapolis was the coolest thing. I’d go to these shows and be like, ‘Oh yeah, this is kinda cool… kinda boring though, I wish there was a hook.’ So that was my idea. I just wanted to try to make something new, a combination of music that I hadn’t heard yet. R&B and noise music—trying to make those go together.”
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Kozel made his Tickle Torture debut last August with Spiritual Machine, a six-track EP that combines subversive dance beats with funky grooves and shrieking falsetto vocal melodies. Spiritual Machine and a follow-up single “Together Again” capture sex pop at its weirdest, and the releases have already earned him plenty of comparisons to that other sexually charged R&B artist from Minneapolis, Prince.
I ask Kozel what he thinks of all of the Purple One comparisons, and he smiles and shrugs. “Sounds good to me! Because nobody else is doing it. And Prince’s music, these days, isn’t as good anymore. So someone from Minneapolis should be trying to rip off Prince,” he says, grinning. “I don’t think it’s an exact rip-off. I bring other things to the table. I think people just hear a man singing falsetto about sex and, well, it sounds like Prince. There’s hundreds of other funk and soul bands from the ‘70s and ‘80s that did the same thing. But yeah, why not? Dude’s the master. I’d rather be compared to him than Creed.”
His debut EP was strong enough that it started getting shared on blogs across the country, and before long he found himself on the radar of Los Angeles-based film editor Josh Hegard, who has worked on music videos for high-profile artists like the Killers, Green Day, and Tim McGraw.
“He found me on the internet,” Kozel says. “He heard my music on a blog and was like, ‘Hey, that sounds cool, do you want to make a music video?’ And I happened to be in L.A. at the time, and he had a lot of the same concepts that I did, and he’s from Wisconsin, too. So it was like a bromance. A Midwestern bromance. We shot it in one 14-hour day. They somehow found a 1978 Cadillac convertible on Craigslist that we could borrow, so I’m rolling in this thing. We had some people making out in the back of it for like four hours. Some actor and actress who had never met each other, and pretty much the only thing they did the entire day was make out.”
(Video contains NSFW and explicit content)
Kozel has always been an intuitive and artful pop songwriter—see every song on Sleeping in the Aviary’s 2008 release Expensive Vomit in a Cheap Hotel for evidence—and Tickle Torture finds him combining his talent for crafting melodies with another more carnal, until-now closeted side of his personality.
“I must be a secret exhibitionist or something. Or a not so secret exhibitionist, I suppose,” he says, laughing. “A lot of the Tickle Torture songs talk about sex and sexuality and love and all that kind of stuff. And being naked is a big part of that part of your life; being naked, you’re showing somebody everything, not trying to hide anything. So I think for the shows, I’m trying to do the same for the audience.”
What started as the occasional striptease has now turned into an anticipated part of each of his Tickle Torture shows, and as his live performance gets more and more outrageous he wonders if he’ll be able to continue raising the stakes.
“The problem is I can’t help myself,” he says. “I’ll go into shows being like, alright man, you’re not going to take your dick out at this show. I’ll tell myself, don’t do it this time, man, because then next time they’ll want more. And then I f*ck up and I’ll take it out anyways because I just can’t help it. Because I’ll be like four songs in and I’m like, man, all my confetti guns are gone, I lost my strobe light, the bubble machine isn’t working, I’m totally screwed. Well, I’ll take my dick out.”
I ask him what he has in mind, and his eyes light up. “That’s the real question. Because I’ve taken my dick out at every club in Minneapolis, twice. And nobody has ever told me not to do it… I’m hoping that someone will call the cops and drag me off the stage, because that’d be good street cred, you know? But they won’t. So it’s like, what’s the next level? What do I have to do? It would be nice to get banned from somewhere. Hopefully the Cause. I’m trying to get banned from the Cause.”
He pauses, a mock serious expression taking over his face. “There’s gotta be some way to push the boundaries, when taking your dick out just won’t do it anymore.”
Tickle Torture headlines the Kitty Cat Klub this Thursday, April 25 with openers Driftwood Pyre, Fire in the Northern Firs, and DJ Dig Dug. Follow him on Facebook and stream all of his music on Bandcamp.