Musician Elliott Kozel is a lucky guy. Like any true performance artist, he manages to completely transform onstage. Based on his music, live shows, and highly stylized videos, you'd think Kozel spends most of his time making music at earth-shattering orgies.
Since going solo as Tickle Torture after performing with a number of Twin Cities indie-rock bands, Kozel has developed a titillating spectacle of a live show. Typically wearing very little more than sequin/studded marble-bag underwear, a jeweled veil, gold body paint, and a headdress, Tickle Torture backs it all up with buff and gorgeous, nearly naked male and female dancers, and topless bandmates. Amid revved-up electro-funk and hyper-sexual lyrics, Kozel and crew deliver a deliciously erotic, sex-positive performance that'd make early Prince blush. It's already the stuff of local legend.
Kozel, who's known to hand out condoms with free music downloads on them, has released three records as Tickle Torture, most recently last year's Spectrophilia EP. Since setting up camp in Los Angeles this fall, he has been putting the finishing touches on a new record while working to initiate a West Coast cast to publicly explore his ambiguous sexual fantasies on stage.
Calling City Pages last week from his mechanic's garage in L.A., Kozel speaks with an air of self confidence, sounding optimistic about his new life in La-La Land. With focus on his soon-to-be released new Tickle Torture record, we talked about life on his new home base, how Tickle Torture has evolved, and plans for his NYE homecoming show at the Fine Line.
City Pages: Hey Elliott, I have to say, I think people in L.A. are more friendly than you would expect. There’s this sort of energy. Everybody’s sort of doing five different things at one time. How's it been so far?
Elliott Kozel: Everybody’s super friendly here. Regular Joes on the street. I think between the sunshine and weather everyone is so laid back. It’s normal to have a five or 10 minute conversation on the street.
CP: What are some good conversations you’ve had on the street lately?
EK: I don’t know, man ... talking about dolphin sex. I’ve been researching the Michael Jackson pedaphilia case. It’s pretty much bullshit, though, if you look at the facts. It’s kind of just bullshit. He was totally just being totally extorted for money.
CP: What are you saying? You think he was innocent?
EK: Yeah, I’m pretty positive he was innocent, from all the facts that I’ve seen. It seems like it was the dad of the first time he was accused, he seemed like the dad was just jealous that his kid liked hanging out with Michael Jackson better than him, basically. And [he] just saw the opportunity for a money-grab situation. There’s recordings of what he’s going to do before he does it; he was telling his kid what to say. The kid wouldn’t talk to him anymore and asked to be separated from his parents when he was 16 or 17.
CP: Uh, sounds like you are really busy then?
EK: [Laughs] I don’t know. I work from home, I had one of these days on the internet where you go down that hole and a few hours slip away and you’ve been researching Michael Jackson.
CP: What is your favorite era of MJ?
EK: Lately I have been super into Dangerous. I feel like that album didn’t get a lot of love and it has that New Jack Swing on it. I like that stuff. I think the songwriting is pretty strong on that one. It also reminds me of my youth because it was probably one of the first cassettes I had. It was probably the “Jam” or “Black and White” video that was the first couple things I heard. I got the tape when I was a kid and loved that crazy cover of that weird cornucopia, circus of Michael Jackson stuff. There’s some great tunes on there!
CP: Have you ever done any MJ covers?
EK: Yeah, this wedding band I was playing in did “Billie Jean”. That always won everyone over, young and old! We would play “Wonderful Tonight” but we’d play that solo one night wrong. It’s always fun to fuck with people. “I Don't Wanna Miss A Thing" ... “Toxic” by Britney Spears. All the hits!
CP: So tell me then how Tickle Torture became a thing?
EK: I had the concept and knew I wanted to make noise music mixed with R&B music, and knew I didn’t want to work with anybody else. It just felt like I was in a band and had like five girlfriends that aren’t happy with you and you are trying to please everybody. The band politics got more powerful than the fun part, so it was time to stop and I was like, “I’m never going to have a fucking band again! I’m going to do this shit by myself.”
So, the first year or so was just me and an MP3 player with confetti cannons and a bubble machine. I’d just roll up to shows in a taxi cab with a bubble machine in the back. It was great because it was just me. And then slowly over time, there’s like 30 people involved. Now, it’s like having 30 girlfriends!
CP: Nice. So what is everyone doing? You have a band, dancers, the production crew ...
EK: The lighting and special effects, confetti cannon stage-building guys. There’s stage-management people, costume designers, poster artists, the list goes on. I love these 30 girlfriends! There’s a lot less maintenance. Each person’s role is different. Like the costume designs that are happening for this upcoming show right now, I have no idea what they are going to be! I always want to keep other people’s energy involved because I think that’s what makes it really special.
CP: Do you see this as a character other than yourself? I mean, is this you or is this just something you’ve created? How do you think of it yourself?
EK: Well it’s definitely a part of me. Otherwise it wouldn’t come out that way. But, am I taking Molly and having sex with people all day everyday? No.
CP: Oh man!
EK: Naw, I’m not that guy. I wouldn’t have time to make music! The whole band came out of a really sexually frustrating period of time for me. And this was kind of just a way of getting that feeling out. It evolves and it changes and a lot of it is really about love and not just straight fucking or whatever. There’s a lot of me that’s still in it. But yeah, there’s this element of this character, Uncle Tickle. Like what’s he going to do? I don’t know! I don’t know what’s going to happen?!
CP: Do you ever have the thought that this has become something that you didn’t really want it to be or has has turned into something you never thought it’d become being?
EK: No, it's exactly what I wanted! But yeah, I wanted it to be this sort of "fake it 'til you make it" — just like pretend that you are sexy for a long time and people will start to think it's true. So, eventually, it seemed to have evolved into that.
CP: I think that's known as the Har Mar Theorem!
EK: Yeah! There's definitely moments where it feels like a trap and I don't necessarily feel like being that guy, though. Because it's not entirely me. But I think as it grows and as it evolves and changes there'll be other sides of the Tickle that will come out.
CP: Is there a sensitive side to Uncle Tickle that might come out.
EK: Actually, the record I'm working on right now that's almost done has a lot of the sensitive Uncle Tickle on it. A lot of sad moments. There's definitely a little more sad, depressing slow-jam-type vibes. Crying at six in the morning after the cocaine's wore off and someone's playing horrible techno music and it doesn't seem to stop. Somebody's making out with someone else on the couch next to you and you're just like, "What am I still doing here?" Music for the walk home from that.
CP: Right on. Is there going to be any solo lute kind of jams to show your sensitive side? Ya know, like acoustic meditations?
EK: Solo lute?! No, I have been inspired by the sound palette of Enya, though. That's about as close I can get to that. I had about seven or eight songs done when I left Minneapolis, so now I'm just continuing to write. One the reasons I left i thought I was getting too comfortable. I really felt like I needed to struggle again. What better place to go than some place where nobody gives a shit about my project what so ever? It feels good to struggle again and feel like I have to prove myself.CP: Totally. So are you hooking up with people that are excited about it and becoming a part of it?
EK: Yeah, there's definitely a crew of Ticklers out here. it's small but growing. I thought it'd be a nice opportunity to rebuild the idea of it in an honest and sincere way that feels like something I artistically I'd really like to do. Instead of feeling trapped inside what I built there.
CP: So talk to me about what to expect on New Year's Eve. Having seen you it always seems to be a unique event. What's going to be poppin' beside bottles at the Fine Line?
EK: We have a lot of weird plans in the works, man. But if I told you it wouldn't be a surprise would it!? Trying to make it better and crazier than the last time; we always to try to blow people away. It's difficult because the last time we played it was outdoors, we had guys come in with flamethrowers.
After that I just don't know what to do anymore! For New Year's, we have some new stuff with LED. A new approach and different lighting thing. I'm just really excited to do this show. I miss so many people from Minneapolis. I miss a lot of things about it.