But it’s not my fault. This faintly ridiculous situation has come about because Kelley Polar has such an air of mystique about him. In interviews, he makes stuff up about himself—such as claiming he’s the son of a tennis pro, or that he got kicked out of Julliard for starting a riot. He dresses up in white robes and eyeliner for press shots. He supposedly lives in a two-room shack in the middle of nowhere, and rumor has it he moved up there because things were “getting really out of control” in New York City (The story goes that he left after a night mushroom tripping with Icelandic ballerinas on a Chinatown rooftop. This self-mythologizing, of course, should be taken with a pinch of salt.)
On top of this image, there is also Kelley Polar’s music—eccentric, hyper-composed, hyper-passionate disco pop—which casts a similarly otherworldly spell. You could say that Polar is the black sheep of the New York disco world: a guy who doesn’t really know how to make dance music publicly figuring out how to make dance music. And failing spectacularly. Lyrically, his new album I Need You To Hold On While The Sky Is Falling (Environ, 2008) addresses the most un-disco subjects imaginable: mathematicians, seas of sine waves, or body-switching aliens having sex in a pick-up truck at the exact moment that a nuclear bomb goes off in the distance.
“Oh, says the real Mike Kelley in the coffee shop. “He was meant to be a slug”. Okay then. So the first thing that I actually do do when I met Mike Kelley is touch him. Shake his hand, to be exact. And we get to talking, and it turns out that Kelley is a rather ordinary, well-adjusted person with few distinguishing features to speak of. If you saw him commit murder, you’d have a hard time describing him to police. Medium height, medium build, brown hair. Gregarious, but not overbearingly so. He tells me he’s a New England Patriots fan. For a day job, he dresses up in a tuxedo and plays viola in The Apple Hill Chamber Players, a rather straight-laced string quartet whose latest project is teaching classical music to Burmese children so that different cultures can “find new ways to communicate through music”. Suffice to say, by the end of the conversation I am not particularly interested in touching Mike Kelley. But something else ends up bothering me: How did such a buttoned-down, serious muso end up making these strange records at the outer limits of disco?
The initial catalyst, it seems, was Morgan Geist, one half of Metro Area and head of Environ, who enlisted Kelley to play viola on Metro Area’s debut 12-inch back in 1999. True, Kelley had been interested in disco before that—he grew up listening to the stuff——but ensconced in a classical music world after training at Oberlin and Juilliard, the Geist connection was key. Metro Area 2 features strings from the Kelley Polar Quartet, a name Kelley would keep for his string work with Metro Area as well as later a trio of throwback disco 12-inches of his own on Environ.
These records were restrained, club-length, and heavily indebted to Metro Area’s sound, which made Kelley’s next move seem particularly unexpected. His debut full length Love Songs of the Hanging Gardens (Environ, 2005) was not straight ahead disco but full-blown, science fiction pop fantasia—ten tracks each clocking in under five minutes, packed with verses, choruses, and unexpected twists. And lots of strings. You could say that with the release of Love Songs…, Mike Kelley had become Kelley Polar.
In the coffee shop, I grill Kelley about his new album I Need You to Hold On… and its dancefloor potential. “My whole kinda fascination with all this is making dance music,” he says. “The reason that I think Morgan likes my stuff is because I’m trying to make dance music and I’m not very good at it. He has a whole bunch of people deluging him with tracks that are.”
Kelley’s serious classical background makes him an outsider to the disco scene, and it also lends his music plenty of oddness. The episodic track ‘A Dream in Three Parts’, for example, liberally borrows from Romanian composer George Enesco, while the lyrics of ‘Rosenband’ are taken directly from a Schubert song. “It’s all about trying to deviate from the format,” explains Kelley. “For instance, trying to have tracks that could change sections. Like the Enseco one, where you stop having a beat, or ‘Zeno of Elea’, where the song changes meter, you just can’t do that stuff when you’re doing a ‘track’.”
01. Kelley Polar - Entropy Reigns (In The Celestial City) [Environ]
The new album's second single is an electro-pop burner.
02. Kelley Polar Quartet - The Rhythm Touch [Environ]
A totally sublime disco throwback, heavily indebted to Morgan Geist's production.
03. Kelley Polar – Rosenband (Magic Tim's Instrumental Version [Environ]
A pseudonym of Polar's takes a moody B-side to the dancefloor
04. Kelley Polar - Ashamed of Myself [Environ]
Jittery, quavering funk that'll have you believing that Timbaland's gone disco.
05. Kelley Polar – Sea of Sine Waves [Environ]
Float away on the endearingly untrained vocals.
“I think one of the biggest things differences between classical music and dance music is that in classical music there are certain parameters, like sonata form, which you have to adhere to that gives it a certain focus that makes it a really successful genre,” Kelley explains. “But it makes some things very unsatisfying.” How does that compare to dance music? “There is a format to follow there, too. It definitely focuses you. It’s both why there’s so much awesome dance music and there’s so much deathly boring dance music.” Then he shrugs. “I just wanted to be able to experiment.”
So, uh, do any of the tracks from I Need You To Hold On While The Sky Is Falling actually work for the floor? “I think ‘Entropy’ and a couple of other tracks can really work. Actually Ewan Pearson did a functional mix of ‘Entropy’ that will be coming out soon”.
“He seems really nice. Not weird at all,” my girlfriend offers up in the car. We’re navigating icy roads on the way to Mike Kelley’s cabin in the woods. We eventually make a turn up a road that looks promising. Then we drive. And drive some more. “He’s not kidding about the whole secluded cabin thing, huh?”
He’s not kidding at all. The makeup, the football shoulder pads, and the slug might be props, ways to perform Kelley Polar even, but the whole Unabomber cabin in the woods schtick turns out to be very real. Outside the cabin there is a porta potty. Inside there is no running water. Kelley’s home is very much set up to make music, but it’s about as far away from the glamour of the New York disco scene as you can get. No neighbors. No internet. No landline phone. No wonder I could hardly hear a thing he said when I called him to set up this interview (“Sorry, Todd. Reception here in the…Do you…to meet… at around…”) He's not even hooked up to the 20th century, let alone the 21st.
“Does it get quiet here at night?” I ask stupidly. “Yeah, you can’t hear a thing”. You get the feeling that if you stayed here long enough, your imagination would run wild. Maybe Mike Kelley invented Kelley Polar just to stave off the boredom. I think about pressing him on what all this is all about, why a seemingly normal fellow would choose to hide himself away from the world up here in the woods, especially now that all eyes are on him. In other words: How could someone make such nakedly public music live so privately? The Kelley Polar question is easy: that is something that he does, not who he is. An experiment. A persona. But the Mike Kelley questions are more difficult. But just stepping into the cabin felt like it was intruding. We decided to leave, and leave him to his privacy.
Three weeks later at the Environ Bar Mitzvah in Brooklyn. We awaiting the arrival of Kelley Polar on stage—this will be only his second show ever in America, something of a follow-up to the show I caught at the Knitting Factory back in 2006. I guess I’m looking forward to it, but when Polar takes to the stage dressed in a white robe with a stole of small mirrors running down to his waist, somehow the effect isn’t as magical as before. I’m looking at the spectacle that is Kelley Polar, but all I can see is the rather ordinary face of Mike Kelley talking to me across a table in New Hampshire. I wonder whether the interview has cured me of my fandom.
But then Mike Kelley Polar opens his mouth, and a beautiful bit of verse comes out, and in that startling moment my vision of Kelley Polar returns. The verse is from a Chinese poem, which you should read actually—it’s well worth it. It’s called ‘Amidst the Flowers a Jug of Wine’ by Li Po. And I must have walked out of the concert a Kelley Polar fan again I guess, because like any true fan would, I cross-checked it on Google when I got home.