At their seasonal debut this year in LA, Santa Youth took the stage close to midnight. The band consists of five lean dudes in sooty, sagging Santa costumes: singer Mateo Katsu, guitarist Gibbons, bassist Robert Quijano, drummer Donnie Pepper, and Krampus (Devin Andersen) as a ‘hype man/bell wizard’ bedecked in plastic horns. A chorus of guitar feedback signaled the crowd to whoop and whistle, and Katsu quickly tapped into the energy. ‘Who’s feeling joyous?’ he drawled, leaning on his microphone stand as if spring-loaded for the minutes to come.
As Santa Youth kicked off with ‘Jingle Bells,’ Katsu began to convulse on cue and the crowd jumped into action. They spent the next blurry hour boxing each other, rained on by shredded newspaper snow and droplets of Miller High Life. Fake blood, sweat and glitter spattered the faces and torsos of the raucous congregation as Katsu’s voice surged through punk renditions of ‘Joy to the World’ and ‘Deck The Halls.’ At one point Katsu casually dropped a lit sparkler into the newspaper; five audience members panicked and dived after it.
When at long last the music died, people began to rummage among the crushed cans and fallen paper snow. ‘I lost my glasses!’ shouted a Christmas elf with mussed hair. Another show-goer asked, ‘My car keys” Where are my car keys?’
Santa Youth began as a joke. Five years ago, Katsu and Gibbons lived at the same warehouse — ‘often on the same couch,’ quips Gibbons — and started playing together for fun. A friend of theirs, Reverend Joe Borfo, assembled the band for the Midnight Ridazz All City Toy Ride, a homegrown holiday bike ride for charity. ‘The name is kind of a reference to the [classic punk] band Reagan Youth,’ says Katsu. ‘And their name is itself a reference to Hitler Youth, which is more a commentary on Reagan than Hitler if you know their politics.’ Their first show was allegedly an ‘entertaining mess,’ so Mateo continued the project by recruiting the musical talent in his circle of friends to play his arrangements. Gibbons was naturally the first to be on board. ‘I started on drums; 30 minutes later, I was playing bass,’ he jokes. ‘An hour later, I was playing guitar.’
When the band departs the stage, the projected punk personae quickly fall away. Katsu’s voice loses its grating edge and returns to the velvety, soulful sound that colors his band Circus of Books. (He and the other members of the band play in an assortment of non-seasonal projects, most of which are looped into Katsu’s own Miedlena Records.) Pepper meanwhile, is a slow burn who brightens up at the mention of complex musical terminology like ‘metric modulation.’ He also plays in an experimental math rock duo called Kick A Ten Year Old In The Head. ‘I don’t even like punk rock,’ he says. Katsu grins and adds, ‘I love making Donnie do things he doesn’t want to do.’
The band members don’t necessarily peg themselves as anti-Christmas; any of them would be happy to tell you their favorite Christmas carol. ‘”O Holy Night,”‘ confides Katsu solemnly, ”cause it’s fucking awesome and really pretty — I don’t care if it’s about Jesus.’ Rather, Santa Youth is an entity that celebrates the unsavory parts of Christmas culture. ‘[We ask] a question of this culture that Christmas has evolved into, with consumerism and the role of Christianity,’ says Katsu. ‘I hope to make people think of the contradiction between the beauty of this culture and what it’s produced, and the depravity and decay that’s inherent in that same culture.’ Spoken in true punk fashion.
The morning after the show, the back lot was still populated with a handful of straggling ‘Church-goers.’ Most were bleary-eyed, but the spirit was festive as they chatted about how much fun last night’s show was. Gibbons, splayed out on the couch, still in his Santa costume, pulled out his guitar and led the throng out of their collective fog and into a howling rendition of the ‘Hallelujah Chorus.’
The response was as implausible as a movie musical: a backyard of sleepy punks stopping in their tracks to shout Handel’s Messiah in unison. Togetherness, after all, is what the Christmas spirit is all about for Santa Youth. ‘It really is a band for our friends,’ says Pepper. ‘People actively wait for these shows throughout the year and when it happens, everyone comes out wearing whatever type of Christmas fashion they come up with in their twisted minds, and they have a really fun, long night making a huge mess.’