The Boston band Sleep Chamber spent most of the ’80s building an audience for a self-styled music that blended ritual magic, eroticism, and churning industrial sounds. At first, they booked gigs in small clubs and tapped into the goth scene, drawing new fans with their dark music, their incense-scented atmospherics, and black-clad leader John Zewizz’s brooding intonations about obsession and submission. They were part of a network of bands that included Holy Cow, Peeling Autumn, and the Five — habitués of a demi-monde that gave a warm embrace to the groups and their fans while being largely misunderstood by other factions of local rock culture.
As the decade turned, Zewizz fashioned Sleep Chamber into a cottage industry. The group’s local popularity increased to the point where they could sell out rooms like Axis and Man Ray, demanding substantial guarantees. Out of town, Sleep Chamber, augmented by a troupe of scantily clad female dancers called the Barbitchuettes, headlined prestigious New York venues like the Limelight, toured the country, and crossed the Atlantic. Zewizz and his shifting pool of musical collaborators released a substantial catalogue of albums whose titles — which include Submit to Desire, Siamese Succubi, Sexmagick Ritual — were either a magnet for those attracted to Sleep Chamber’s deliciously opiate combination of sex, mysticism, and otherworldly sonics or a distasteful puzzle that seemed too deviant to bother sorting out.
Then, at the peak of their popularity, Sleep Chamber almost vanished in a cloud of drugs and scandal. The frantic outflow of Sleep Chamber recordings (roughly 21 CDs, 12 vinyl albums, nine seven-inches, plus odds and ends) slowed to a trickle after a 1997 tour of Germany. Zewizz was addicted to heroin; he was also under suspicion for the terrible murder of Swedish au pair Karina Holmer, whose upper body had been found in a dumpster a few blocks from Zewizz’s Fenway apartment. Even after newspaper accounts of the investigation tapered off and one potential suspect from Andover committed suicide after being asked to visit the police for questioning, Sleep Chamber did not regain their pace.
The band’s most recent performance was a one-off New Year’s Eve gig at Man Ray two years ago. And contemporary releases, like last year’s 45 "Kum Kleopatra"/"Nessus" on Germany’s Membrum Debile Propaganda label, plumb the band’s vaults. So it’s commonly assumed that Sleep Chamber are no more. Even some of Zewizz’s former associates believe that he’s fallen prey to his addiction and has simply faded into the woodwork, as junkies do.
Zewizz acknowledges that perception as he tears into a plate of seafood with pasta at Floramo’s, the old-time family restaurant in Chelsea, just a few miles from his home in Everett. He’s chipper when one of the restaurant’s crackerjack waitresses asks which one of us is emitting the heavy whiff of patchouli, a fragrance familiar to anyone who’s ever attended a Sleep Chamber gig. "I am," he chirps up, then listens respectfully as she explains that it’s her favorite scent but she can’t wear it at work because "the owner hates it." And he talks candidly about his battles with heroin; his love of sex, magic, animals, and music; his frightening scrape with the law; and how — despite the odds — Sleep Chamber continue to survive and evolve.
For one thing, he’s been quietly striking deals with European labels for reissues of previous Sleep Chamber albums and unreleased material. Largely thanks to Germany’s Fünfundvierzig and Italy’s Musica Maxima Magnetica, almost all of the band’s albums and several collections are in print and available as imports or through the www.sleep-chamber.com Web site. Further, Zewizz has 30 sets of lyrics written for a new Sleep Chamber album that would mark their 20th anniversary. He is collaborating with a pair of musicians/programmers on a new sound that will be a dark variation on techno, fittingly dependent on the low-end sonorities and electronic distortions that have long been Sleep Chamber’s stock-in-trade.
"But the songs are going to be more personal," he explains. "In the past, the lyrics have been more cold and distant, maybe exploring a theme, like a particular kind of fetish or an animal-rights issue. Now my lyrics have become almost a diary of my life. I’ve been drawing on personal relationships, my experiences."
Certainly there’s plenty to draw on. The interests that Zewizz incorporated into Sleep Chamber invited the intolerant to cast him as a misanthrope right from the start. "When I was beginning the band, it was around the punk era, and I didn’t want to jump on a bandwagon. I wanted to be creative and original. I’m a science-fiction fan, so I wanted to bring that into it. And I wanted the band to be a manifesto of everything I believe in: the importance of individuality, sexuality, animal rights, and magic."
In keeping with his faith in individuality, Sleep Chamber’s live and recorded performances left room for his shifting cast of musicians to improvise. And his search for imagery for the band that reflected his naturist system of beliefs and related interest in sexuality and eroticism has led him to depictions ranging from the titillating to the provocative to the unintentionally troublemaking.
When Zewizz talks of believing in magic, which he spells "magick," he’s not referring to prestidigitation. He describes it as a higher state of consciousness, to which practicing certain rituals contributes, that allows him to relate better to other people and the world around him. It’s nothing dark or sinister. He also says that though he’s used S&M imagery extensively in Sleep Chamber art and performances, he’s doesn’t practice sadism, masochism, or erotic discipline himself.
Nonetheless, it’s these things that triggered his questioning in the Holmer investigation — which is perhaps the best example of how grossly his art and interests have been misinterpreted over the years. It started when he threw a party in June 1996 and some of his guests in turn brought guests who were unfamiliar with him. "I have very esoteric stuff in my home," he explains. "Ritualistic art work, books on magic. I have human thighbones that we use in ritual magic. They’re hollowed to produce a low-pitched trumpet sound. And I have some things I picked up in witchcraft stores with human bones in them. This one girl couldn’t understand why I had these bones, and with the books on magic and the occult, she assumed I was a sinister character."
When poor Holmer’s severed upper body was found shortly thereafter, this party guest told her mother about Zewizz’s collection, and soon the police were at his door interrogating him. "They were brutal. ‘Do you worship the Devil, John?’ ‘Where do you work, John?’ ‘We hear you have body parts in your home, John?’ ‘Can we come in and look around, John?’ They asked the questions real fast, every one ending in ‘John,’ but really condescending. My girlfriend was there, and she walked by and one of them yelled in, ‘Ma’am, are you okay?’ They had gone to Tower Records and bought one of my CDs, Some Godz Die Young, and it had the tarot-card figure from the Nine of Swords — lying down full of swords, chopped up — on the cover. ‘What does this mean, that young people die, John?’
"I thought, ‘How ironic that this is going to fall into place.’ All I could think is that the things they were pasting together might be brought to a jury and I could become one of those innocent people who get put in jail." Zewizz says that for about a month federal agents who were called in to investigate the case trailed him. "It was frightening. I understood that when something like this happens, it’s no longer ‘innocent until proven guilty.’ You’ve got to prove you’re innocent.
"Once that happened, nobody would come near my house. Even the people I knew would be like, ‘We know you didn’t do it. It’s crazy. . . . But it’s always the person you expect the least,’ and then they’d give me a double take."
The taint of suspicion has left him, but Zewizz says the shadow of his addiction will always be present. "I’m clean, but once it gets you, you can’t get rid of it. It’s like alcoholism. If you do it, say, three times over two weeks, you’re back into full-blown addiction again. You can’t dabble. I know. I went back and forth before I got it under control. And every time you stop you have to go through a withdrawal that’s very emotionally and physically painful."
Like so many artists who become junkies, Zewizz at first found that heroin gave him the confidence to feel more creative. "And it might take a year of dabbling with it until you have an addiction. But then as you try to maintain that habit, you’re spending at least $40 to $100 a day and you’re constantly chasing the drug down. There’s no time for anything else. Eventually you find yourself withdrawing from public, then from your friends and family, and there’s no time for making music because getting money for heroin becomes a 24-hour/seven-days-a-week thing. It is not a recreational drug. You don’t hear about people robbing banks to get money for LSD or weed. I’m fortunate. I always had an income or royalties, so I never had to go the route of ripping people off or doing anything desperate, but I’ve had friends who did crazy things like try to rob a store. And I’ve had friends die. It’s a respiratory depressant, so some people go to sleep and they just stop breathing."
Zewizz began the process of sobering up during Sleep Chamber’s 1997 German tour, after a representative of his record label took him to a doctor when he was dope-sick. He was put on methadone. But in retrospect he wishes he’d gotten clean before that tour. "Sometimes I think that if I had been paying attention, the promoter wouldn’t have run off with the $22,000 we made."
If his new Sleep Chamber songs are like a diary, he obviously has plenty to draw upon. Meanwhile, he’s contemplating a 20th-anniversary performance in October — a potential last live fling for Sleep Chamber and the Barbitchuettes. "I think 20 years is a real good run. How many other bands that aren’t making hits last that long? Maybe one big show and one more album, and it’ll be time to move on to something else."