The darkened stage twinkles with the exotic sounds of a vibraphone and the rattle of congas, while a horn section lets loose a brassy blast. As tiki torches flicker to the rhythmic Polynesian beat, four singers join in wordless, eerie harmony. Beside them, a percussionist throws his head back and literally becomes a human volcano, a great ball of fire erupting from his lips.
The band is Clouseaux, quite literally the hottest new thing out of Texas, awarded "best new act" by the Houston Press and already asked to perform at the 2004 Super Bowl.
A recent addition to Clouseaux's 13-member lineup is vocalist Alice Berry, whose long career includes tenure in various Georgia-based groups, often under her colorful stage name Formica Dinette. Berry returned to her native Texas last year and, without a current band project, kept her eyes and ears wide open.
"I saw an article on Clouseaux in the Houston Press, which completely wowed me," she recalls. "An exotica/tiki/lounge band, right here in Texas!"
Berry soon learned Clouseaux was seeking additional singers because its sole female vocalist, Steffany Johnston, had other projects that occasionally kept her away. Berry and another chanteuse, Johanna Harris, immediately signed on.
"It works out perfectly," she says. "We can trade around most of the parts. It's best, though, when we can all be there, together with the horns, creating a Spector-like wall of exotic sound."
Leading the big group is another native Texan, bassist Jay Brooks, who conceived the band in 1999 after hearing some Esquivel music during a friend's wedding. "Right after the wedding, I rushed to the record store and bought Space Age Bachelor Pad," remembers Brooks, who jokes that "it was all downhill from there." Digging deeper into the lounge/exotica genre, he fell in love with Combustible Edison, Martin Denny and Les Baxter. Eventually he decided to try his own hand at it.
After rejecting various names (the Noctopians, Manta Ray, among others), the group settled on one offered by its male vocalist, Tomas Escalante, who loved Henry Mancini's music in the Pink Panther movies. Escalante suggested Clouseau, the name of the series' bumbling French police inspector. (An "x" was appended after the group learned a German band had already claimed the original spelling.)
Brooks' first notion was to use one female vocalist, but he quickly realized the value of adding more. Berry brings to Clouseaux many years' experience in groups such as Redneck GReece Deluxe, Don Horowitz & the Happy Haloes, and an early lineup of what became the Vigilantes of Love. Berry was also an "Elvette" for El Vez ("The Mexican Elvis") and the Elvis-related projects of Kingsized's Mike Geier.
However, she's still best known as the original lead vocalist of Hillbilly Frankenstein, the Athens band with whom she recorded the 1993 album Hypnotica! Berry laughs, recalling how that disc's swanky cover design misleadingly portrayed the rollicking garage band as a lounge act. "That artwork," Berry says, "is exactly what Clouseaux sounds like!"
No mistakes will be made about Clouseaux's latest CD, the six-song Destination: Oasis, with its leering tiki god cover art. Standout tracks include the humorous "Chic Alors!" in which Berry's cheerful Formica Dinette character speaks French with a decidedly Texan twang. The group has since signed to Burbank-based Dionysis Records, with a full-length album in the works.
This weekend, Clouseaux's lounge/exotica will follow such notoriously wild rock acts as the Woggles and Dexter Romweber, during the annual Drive-Invasion concert at the Starlight Drive-In. "We'll come out burnin'," Brooks says confidently. "We play with high-energy bands all the time in Houston, and it always works out fine."
"Our ties and evening gowns help us sneak into posh clubs," adds Berry, "but when the tiki torches are lit, the music starts and the fire-breather blows, your eyes will bug out. No one sits by idly when we play."