The Emotron is evolving. Kyle Knight's solo show, equal gross-out dance party and inbred comedy routine, no longer features him crapping on the floor. He went through a phase of putting rubber bands all over his face, and then a six-month tour in which he writhed on the floor and wouldn't use his legs. Now, he's developed a more psychological approach, inhabiting a discomforting character he describes as "if Jim Varney was a character in the movie Gummo."
Yet Knight is such a polite Southerner, even as he admits a textbook traditional rural upbringing might have unwittingly propelled him in the direction he's taken. "If I were to go back in time and show this project that I'm doing now to that kid in Ooltewah, Tenn., that goes to church every Sunday and shit, I would be amazed," he says. "Like, 'Really? Am I really doing that kind of weird shit?'"
Knight grew up Baptist in small towns, first in Tennessee, then in Georgia, where there wasn't much music or art. And he was a shy, quiet kid. "That's not who I was," he says. "I wasn't supposed to go down that path. I was bound to be a performer."
In the late '80s and early '90s, MTV exposed the young Knight to outbound art and music with shows like Oddville, Beavis and Butt-head, The Maxx and Aeon Flux — programming that brought weirdness (and controversy) to the then-daring cable channel. More importantly, it brought all this to the art and music vacuum of his small-town upbringing.
"The fucking 'Smells like Teen Spirit' video? That, in my mind when I was a kid, fucking blew me away," he says. At that age, he didn't necessarily understand what he was seeing, but he was quickly hooked.
This eventually led to inspiration from David Bowie, Klaus Nomi and early Peter Gabriel, to whom the stage was a conduit of weirdness and transformation. His mother's side of the family had always treated him as an outsider, Knight says, which left him more perceptive to art's dark and twisted side. "I think that my family kind of viewing me as an alien kind of made me seek out weird shit," he recalls without bitterness.
So no surprises when, in 2001, Knight joined a weird band and made it weirder. As Treephort's mascot, he would ride an exercise bike onstage, drinking gallons of milk until he vomited. This was also when Knight developed his now-retired signature move — lighting his own dick on fire. "That band definitely molded me into the performer I am today," he says.
In 2003, he quit Treephort and set out on his own. Inspired by Atom and His Package, Knight got a Yamaha QY700 sequencer and began developing the Emotron character. "I'm not that great at guitar and I sure as shit can't play the drums," he says, "but I can get up there and expose my weird brain and think of different characters and different things to put on my body."
Knight went in headfirst, exploring and expanding gross-out performances he'd developed for Treephort. From 2005 to 2009, he would ignite his crotch while performing or relieve himself, in conscious homage to GG Allin, on venue floors. Yet he always cleaned up after himself. "A lot of people in those four years, they would kind of be weirded out if I was staying at their house, thinking I would vomit or shit or piss in their house," he says. But he often volunteered to clean his host's kitchen. "It's pretty funny to me."
The original upbeat, danceable material eventually darkened, particularly since 2009. He describes his recent output as Depeche Mode in a stoner metal trope. And the 2011 EP, Vampire Lunch Lady Tits, fits the description. On the closing track "The Coin Collector," Knight alternates between hollered rants over semi-industrial pummel and poppy singsong over synthtone ska before fixating on a neurotic, wounded mantra. And "Porch Unplugged" is a wickedly dark, wickedly funny take on Pearl Jam's 1992 MTV unplugged set — particularly Eddie Vedder's hysterics. "I'd never be a better man/if I didn't have pro-choice," Knight sings.
Unlike Vedder, Knight means to be ridiculous. And his output may age better, with Vedder's early melodramatic stage persona unintentionally funny in hindsight. And the man behind the Emotron seems quite well-adjusted for all his stage-bound grotesqueries. "In the past few years, I've slowed down," Knight says. He's 31 now, and he's focused on songwriting more than lighting his genitals on fire. And more importantly, his family accepts where art has taken him.
"My mom and dad, they're pretty cool with the Emotron," he says. "I hope one day that they come out to a show."
With One Another, Mr. Invisible, Hectagons, Hungry Girl. $7. Dec. 31. 9 p.m. The Milestone.