When the Khrusty Brothers took the stage at the Record Bar a couple of months ago for their first show, the sold-out crowd had little idea what to expect.
The first clue came from a character named Cowboy Jesus, who introduced the band with a rambling, cryptic monologue that included the line "Good luck finding a greater show on Earth, or at least good luck finding another show that you've already paid to get into."
With that, six grown men in painted eye masks lived up to that promise.
"We don't get up and tell the story. We just live in the story," says guitarist Ian Davidson, aka Hinus King Gustav Huffelheimer. "By the end, it seemed like everyone was so onboard, even though we scared the bejeezus out of them at the beginning."
The indie-rock concept piece tells the fictional tale of an Appalachian family band carrying forth the legacy of its deceased, opium-addicted father (who kills himself at the end of Act I).
"In his will, he wants his casket driven around on tour and incorporated into the show," explains Don Chaffer, the story's author. "The only one who wants to do it is Khorky Custer Khrusty, who stashes his body in the van before they hit the road."
Behind the masks, the Khrusties are an accomplished ensemble of local musicians. Chaffer and drummer Brandon Graves play in Waterdeep, a Christian band (the not-sucky kind) that has released 10 albums in 13 years and amassed the kind of dedicated following most local bands would give their left nuts for. Second drummer Billy Brimblecom (ex-Blackpool Lights, Be/Non, Creature Comforts) and bassist Jeff Harshbarger (Snuff Jazz) both have encyclopedic histories in the Kansas City music scene. Their mere presence signifies something worth a damn and a half.
Brimblecom — who parted ways with Blackpool Lights last summer — says he signed up with the Khrusty Brothers to put music back in his "fun" category.
"I thought it was so awesome and weird," he says. "I was always in these bands where our gimmick was not having a gimmick. Frankly, that didn't work out so well. I think sometimes people want pomp and circumstance."
That sentiment is echoed by Chaffer, who wants to turn the Khrusty Brothers into an off-Broadway musical. He recently connected with New York City director Steve Day, who enlisted actor and playwright Jay Duffer to write a script.
"There's something very gratifying to me about the story and the whole art of it," Chaffer says. "The music is fairly dense, and a lot of the lyrics are pretty sad, but everything else is tassels and blow horns."
For Chaffer, the project also offered an opportunity to do something that wasn't boxed in by the expectations of the Christian music scene.
"The Christian market is prone to over-reaction when the lyrics are perceived to be offensive," Chaffer says. He notes that one distributor refused to carry Waterdeep's album What You Don't Know because it used the words hell and damn. (The band later released an edited version jestingly titled What You Don't Know Won't Hurt You.)
"The broader problem with broad swaths of evangelical subculture is dishonesty at an emotional level," Chaffer adds. "I was at a point in my life where I couldn't afford that. I had to get this stuff down."
As a result, Chaffer freely uses words such as shitty and laid on the Khrusties' debut self-titled album. Released last July on iTunes and more recently on CD, the record offers 13 melodic indie-rock tunes with electronic infusions such as loops, sound effects and drum programming. Points of reference include David Byrne, Grandaddy, Sufjan Stevens and Brian Eno — a marked departure from Waterdeep's rootsy folk rock.
"I wanted to do something really different, and it took me about a year and a half of irritating my wife before I figured out what that was," says Chaffer, who collaborates with his wife, Lori, in Waterdeep and various solo endeavors.
The album showcases the creativity of Chaffer — who runs a local studio called The Conductor — and co-producer Will Hunt. It becomes even more of a spectacle onstage, where two drummers re-create the dense drum tracks against a backdrop of custom film projections.
The whole shebang is a spiritual affirmation of sorts for Chaffer, who wrote much of the material in the wake of his parents' passing.
"I think my faith was reduced to more critical components," he says. "I cut some of the crap away. It's just real easy to be an American Christian and full of crap."
Amen to that.