Puerto Muerto: Going down in a ball of flames

February 11, 2010


Though they've always been wildly ambitious and impressively prolific in the studio, the moody musical duo Puerto Muerto holds a much lower profile on the local music scene than their sophisticated and entrancing sounds deserve.

"Thanks, and I think that's true," vocalist and percussionist Christa Meyer says with a self-conscious chuckle. "We don't party enough, and we don't play out enough. But we have a good time recording, and that's where it counts."

Indeed, since the chance meeting that led Meyer and guitarist-vocalist Tim Kelley to begin collaborating early in the new millennium, the couple, who soon married, have produced a dozen strong releases for the British indie Fire Records, starting with their acclaimed 2001 debut, "Your Bloated Corpse Has Washed Ashore."

As that title might indicate, Puerto Muerto has never made easy-listening music: From its debut through its stunningly powerful new album "Drumming for Pistols," the group's best songs evoke the raw emotions of Nina Simone, Tom Waits and Nick Cave at their most tortured, jamming just before dawn at the end of an all-night bender.

Think haunting but gorgeous torch songs for dark nights of the soul--and the new album may be even darker than that, for a number of reasons.

"When we were writing the record, the banks were collapsing, Bernie Madoff was getting in trouble and things were kind of imploding. I think it definitely captures that sense of doom," Meyer says. Of course, doom is not for everyone.

"We always toured overseas a lot, and since our label is based in the U.K., I guess somehow we concentrated more on the U.K. than here. We kind of felt disconnected from the Chicago scene because of that, and because of our aesthetic. I think people now like it more than they did maybe five years ago. Five years ago, people were like, 'What the hell?' Now, I think people are more open to it."

Sadly, this hometown embrace may be coming a little too late.

"This is probably going to be our last record, because I think I'm going to set out on my own musically and personally," Meyer says. "We haven't really let anyone know [before now], but we are getting a divorce. The promotion schedule is going to be interesting: In the past, it has always been O.K., and we have had a great time traveling and performing together. That's partially because the writing process was kind of seamless: It came from a natural place, and we didn't have to set up a time to hang out and write together. There was a definite intimate feeling to the process, and I don't think that would be coming from the same place if we weren't living together.

"But I think I'm ready [to move on]. When you start a band, you kind of see the whole world as this vast universe of musical ideas that you can pick from. The longer you're in a band and the more you put yourself in a box, the smaller your universe becomes. I'm ready to step out to another universe musically and kind of explore a little more."

Nevertheless, the new album may be the duo's finest moment, despite the behind-the-scenes drama--or maybe, in the mold of a classic "divorce album" such as Richard and Linda Thompson's "Shoot Out the Lights," because of it.

"The nature of marriage and intimacy are always shifting, even when things are going great," Meyer says. "Definitely when there is an imminent kind of break-up feeling to things, especially when you're recording together, it's very strange, yet it's also an artistically vibrant place to be. You always hear about people writing records when they are going through hell, and it's usually their best work.

"There is always a silver lining to personal pain, I guess. What I love about being a musician and a songwriter is that you can really put it out there, and hopefully someone will be able to relate to it and be touched by your pain. Hopefully they can come away with something really great from something in your life that was really negative. In that way, you're able to turn something sad into something really beautiful."

Whatever the future holds for Meyer musically, she remains proud of the band's recorded legacy. "I'm going to keep performing, and I would hope that people would get turned on to Puerto Muerto's music through whatever I do and whatever Tim does next," she says. "We have done too much work for too long to let it die, and we'll definitely try to nurture that little cult following."

But first, the pair will both celebrate the new disc and bid farewell with what promises to be an explosive free show on Monday at the Empty Bottle.

"We want to get some of the instrumentalists that played on the record to come out," Meyer says, referring to contributors such as tuba player Gary Schepers of Devil in a Woodpile and violinist Tiffany Kowalski of Bright Eyes and Head of Femur. "We want it to be a fun, crazy night--a big blowout. Go down in a fiery ball of flames! You only have so many chances in life to go down in a fiery ball of flame, and if you're going to bow out, you might as well do it dramatically."