The first time I saw Justin Bond and Kenny Mellman perform as Kiki & Herb, I had the revelation that I wanted to be a performer. Their show was nothing short of a heart attack. The rage, the pathos, and the physical sacrifice I witnessed in the presence of these two old wheezing windbags was like a kick in the face. Years later, sobbing into my open hands while watching Kiki have a nervous breakdown on stage at Carnegie Hall, I realized I was watching one of the great performers, and quite possibly one of the greatest performances of our time. When Kiki & Herb say that they’ll “die for you,” I don’t doubt for a second that everyone’s favorite 40- to 70-something-year-old washed-up, alcoholic, deadbeat lounge singer and her “gay Jew ’tard” piano player mean it. I had the pleasure of sharing a few words with Justin on the phone from London last week.—Jake Shears, the Scissor Sisters
JAKE: How is Kiki doing?
JUSTIN: Oh fine, you know. We did Fort Lauderdale last weekend in this old regional theater, so I was in this dressing room that had been used by Elizabeth Taylor and the Little Foxes. There were pictures of Carol Channing and, like, Faye Dunaway and the master classes. It was funny to go from playing these little dumps in New York to playing these major regional theaters.
How was the Fort Lauderdale crowd?
I wasn’t sure what to expect because our show, you know, [contains] stuff about fundamentalism. I wouldn’t say [it’s] irreverent, but it’s a bit of a reaction to all the fundamentalist right-wing bullshit that’s happening in the States right now. They took it really well, so that was nice. Of course, if they are coming to see our show, obviously they aren’t really looking for a Billy Graham moment (laughs).
I have been thinking of you lately, because I have been listening to the Judy Garland tapes.
It’s really crazy, isn’t it? I heard those after I came out with Kiki and I went, “Oh my god.”
For those who don’t know, the Judy Garland tapes are bootlegs of Judy speaking into a recorder by herself in her hotel room for an autobiography that was never written. She’s completely shitfaced. [It] made me think of what Kiki’s autobiography will read like one day. Do you think Kiki has changed over the years?
I was really sick of doing Kiki, to be honest with you. When we were off Broadway we had done that show for a long time and I said I am never playing Kiki again and made up my mind to go away to school. Until October, Kenny and I hadn’t worked on new material or new songs in like three years. We went in and got a whole bunch of new songs and decided to do this tour. I was suddenly really inspired. There are a lot of exciting new revelations—majorly big transitions in the history of Kiki & Herb that kind of throw people for a loop. It has really opened up the narrative of Kiki & Herb.
I have [also] been performing with my band here in London again, Justin Bond and the Freudian Slippers. That’s gone very well. Just knowing that I am not trapped in it is a big thing, too. And Kenny and I have found this real nice plateau where we are really enjoying each other and our respect for each other has just really grown.
You were talking about how the show has a lot more material on fanaticism and fundamentalism…
Not even just religious fundamentalism but free-market-economy fundamentalism. I read this great book by Slavoj Zizek. It was sort of his take on how people became more polarized after the response to 9/11 and the post-9/11 world. I found it really interesting and inspiring on a certain level. I always get these weird philosophical books that I end up reading. We did Stop, Drop, and Roll right after I read Michael Warner’s book The Trouble with Normal. Somehow those weird intellectual tracts make their way into the show and no one would ever know. But I don’t think anyone would ever accuse us of being intellectual (laughs).
Oh, but you are.
(In character) I do think about it. I really do.
Living in London, you must feel the difference of being outside the States and looking in on it.
It was interesting when I went back [to the U.S.] and I was there for a month in October. It was great to be there post-Katrina when everyone had just had it with George Bush. There does seem to be some sort of discussion of taking [Bush] to task. In that way, it was great to go home and see that that was finally starting to happen because before it just seemed to be like a lost cause.
Was that one of the reasons why you left?
Yeah, I couldn’t bear it. I was just too upset all the time. I mean, here I am in England and starting on the 21st of December gay people are going to be able to get married. Even though Tony Blair and this country got involved in the Iraq war, the majority of the population here were against it from the get-go. At least here it is a more liberal society, a more secular-humanist society, as opposed to the States where there is more fundamentalist, knee-jerk reactionary kind of crap.
Is it true that when you and Kenny started performing you were always on mushrooms?
For the first year and a half we performed as Kiki & Herb we took mushrooms before every show. We performed every Friday night and we took mushrooms in the cab on the way to the venue and we would be at the venue about a half an hour before the show. Sometimes we would do two or three sets, and at some point during the evening we would come on to our mushrooms. Word got out that we were ’shrooming and people started taking acid and mushrooms before our show. One night Kenny’s parents came to the show and were sitting at the table with these people that were tripping and Kenny’s mom was like, “Your friends, they are so nice” (laughs). But we don’t do that now. The stakes are getting too high.
Can you name one of your worst moments performing?
I was performing in, I think, 1994 and it was New Year’s Eve and I [became] ill. We were playing at Eichelberger’s in San Francisco. I was feeling really [bad] and I just really didn’t want to do the show. There was this table of really poncy, arrogant, obnoxious, rich faggots who got this table for like 15 and it was a really small place. And they had this table right in front. Anyway, I cannot tolerate cigar smoke. It just makes me sick. So I am trying to sing and this obnoxious queen in a fur coat, if you can imagine, with a toupee and a cigar kept blowing the smoke in my face. Well, I asked him to stop and they kept talking. And they were just the rudest. I asked them to put the cigar out and they wouldn’t. Finally, I just grabbed the cigar and put it in his drink and I had to run off stage so I could vomit. It was just awful, like, “Happy New Year” you know?
Was it worse than Madonna’s birthday party?
Oh, no, Madonna’s birthday party wasn’t the worst because I got paid so much for doing it and I didn’t have high expectations of her because I wasn’t a fan to begin with. It just so happens that a lot of people were more interested in that because it was Madonna and people were surprised to find out she was an asshole. I was shocked that people were surprised to learn she might be an asshole because that is the only thing I ever really heard about her.
I don’t mean to put it in a shoebox, but it kind of feels like [in the past few years] the gays have sort of been doing it for themselves.
It is so funny. Kenny and I have done relatively well for ourselves. We are not pop music so we are not on that kind of pop-music scale, but as far as the cabaret world, we are doing very well. I mean, to say that for someone who is putting on a dress and acting like a 40- to 70-something-year-old has-been and her gay-sweetheart piano player to be all of a sudden playing the world and selling out major concert halls is really amazing.
But, also, like, Antony [& the Johnsons], who is from the East Village and who started out at the Pyramid, is all of a sudden winning a [Mercury] Prize and is the fourth coolest person of 2005 in England. You guys are like the top selling band in England and you won all these huge fucking awards. Rufus [Wainright] is this critically acclaimed artist who is just about to go gold. All of us used to hang out in the same rotten little bars and, you know, eat in the same cafes and just hang out in the East Village just a couple years ago. It is just fucking amazing and freaky and weird. I mean, I don’t know how that happened, but I am glad that it did. I think that on a certain level we have all inspired each other and kind of looked out for each other and it is just amazing. When I think about it, it just blows my mind.