Kevin Thorton has come a long way from a boyhood spent watching The Breakfast Club and Molly Ringwald marathons in small-town Evansville, Ind. Where once was a charismatic child being groomed to be a youth pastor by fundamentalist Christians now stands a tatted-up crooner from the Nashville pop band Waves on Waves, whose current one-man show Sex, Dreams & Self Control, a mish-mash of spoken word, stand-up, and song, garnered him a spread in Unzipped magazine, air time with NPR, and a write-up in the Los Angeles Times.
Looking sharp in a porkpie hat and T-shirt/vest combo -- a hip, Jeremy Piven kind of ensemble (not too old and not too young) -- Thornton is a self-described late bloomer who, although he didnt graduate college till 28, is secure in his impending daddyhood (he turns 36 in November). Its a good age to be. Im a man, he admits. I wasnt a particularly good 20-something. Im a much better 30-something.
Those terrible 20s, as well as the nightmarish scenario of realizing his gayness in evangelical Evansville, form the basis of Sex, Dreams First performed as a lark during open mic nights while on tour with his band, Thornton stage-tested bits and pieces of vignettes and songs and eventually fused the best into a unified act. Drawing favorable comparisons to the self-effacing, balls-out humor of David Sedaris and the musical inclinations of Sandra Bernhard, the show, much like his tattoos -- which he admits are Japanese-themed cover-ups of earlier, embarrassing tribal mistakes -- is about the universal struggle to do whatever it takes to take control of your life and be comfortable in your own skin. From Cincinnati to San Diego and Boston to Austin, audiences have responded.
As we meander through an office in Midtown Manhattan, Thornton gives us the lowdown on just how explicit his show gets, whats next, and what his embarrassing 80s headshots might look like.
Out: How is your show different than other coming-out memoirs?
Kevin Thornton: Its a one-man musical pretty much. Also, its very empowering and funny. I went through great lengths to never fall into any sort of self-pity. I look back now and I dont feel wounded or full of pain as an adult man. Im a happy man. Im a proud man. I wanted something people could watch and relate to and laugh at and walk out of the theater feeling like theyre better off for having seen it.
Are there any low points youd rather not have experienced?
The funny thing is that Ive had a lot of people tell me that they cant believe they were laughing at such dark material. I take my show on this really absurd bent where I have these visions of a nightmarish hell for gays for all eternity. Its super dark but I think I take it so far that you just have to laugh.
On your CD of songs from the show, youve included some bonus tracks. Why did you cut them?
Theres one song in particular, I Will Tell You Everything, that people are always asking, Why did you cut that song? Its the best song! [Laughs.] The show used to end with this final moment of acceptance, me telling my mother that Im gay. As the piece grew, the main song in the show is now Let There Be Light. It fits the whole religious theme of the show better. Its more cohesive. When I first started out, the show was more fluid, just little vignette stories that were all about the same thing. But over time, things started to fall into place and there were a couple of songs that I wrote for the piece that seemed to slow down the dramatic movementso as much as I love this song, it just has to go.
Were there any other stories that were too personal or embarrassing that you didnt even think of telling?
The first couple stories that I wrote, before I even realized what this would fully be, were for this stand-up comedy open mic night. They were super embarrassing adolescent sex stories. You cant get more personal than that! I went all the way with revealing too much. Later I built up the more touching, sentimental, nostalgic stuff around that. I never really had a should I pull back or not moment, because those are the funniest parts of the show.
Where it gets raw, how explicit can we expect?
[Laughs.] In the first 20 minutes I go through all these little embarrassing vignettes, such as taking my dads video camera and filming myself jacking off, and my sister finding the tape and everybody in the family freaking out about it -- T.M.I.! But waves of laughter from something so embarrassing. Everyone -- especially boys -- does something ridiculous in his sexual exploration.
Do you find your audiences are getting more mixed as you go on?
I will say I wish my audiences were more gay and lesbian. My crowds have been very mixed, especially because Ive done lots of theater festivals this year -- smart, mixed, theater-going crowds. They appreciate it as a theater piece but probably dont relate too closely. So thats fine. But Ive found that after the show the person who comes up to me with tears in their eyes is definitely someone who has gone through something similar. Not to make it too grandiose, but those are the moments when I feel like Ive done a great deal of good in that persons life. I wish there was more of that.
Have you had any trouble with people not relating or being surprised by it?
Because I move around so much, sometimes the stars just line up right and its the right mix of people that need to hear this story, or theyre in the right mindset and the venue is just perfect and it just works. Other times, like when I did the show in a college town in Indiana -- the way it was advertised, I dont think they were incredibly explicit about it being a gay story -- I had a lot of people show up that were -- not to judge -- but looking at them on their way in, I felt like they didnt know what this show is about.
Too fratty? Too many popped collars?
Yeah! [Laughs.] I dont think what Im doing is all that shocking, but Ive definitely had people walk out. Ive had protestors.
What were they protesting?
I guess somebody wrote an article that it was about a boy reconciling God and his sexuality. I had a church group show up and stop people before they went into the theater, like I was fucking Planned Parenthood or something, giving them pamphlets on why it was wrong to be gay and how God can heal you. That was actually a very powerful night, because they set the stage for exactly what I went through. Itd be a brilliant piece of performance art if I could have someone do that every time.
In your bio it says your mom has become the hero of the show, but her only concern is that you dont perform naked.
[Laughs] She saw my press photo, the one with the guitar, and she knew what the show was about and read the reviews and stuff, and after all that and all the embarrassing family expos things that I could possibly say in the show, her only concern was, Youre not naked, are you? Really, thats your biggest concern? Do you know the things I say in the show?!
Where do you prefer to perform -- more intimate smaller towns or larger venues in bigger citites?
Well, prior to this I ran it for a month in L.A. I ran it for a month in Chicago. A weekend in Milwaukee and Cincinnati. For almost a year Ive been on the road with this. And the one place that I felt like I saw the crowd growing over the course of the month was Los Angeles. I was like, If I were here for six months Id be selling this place out! I didnt want to leave. So Im going back and giving that a shot in December.
Will you miss the touring?
I do enjoy the touring but I miss my boyfriend and I dont want to turn into that showbiz disaster relationship story where it doesnt work because Im never home. Hes in Nashville, but were going to L.A. together.
Youre breaking a lot of hearts right now
I know. I shouldnt have said that! [Laughs.]
Do you have any plans to go back to your band Waves on Waves?
The funny thing is that project is self-propelling. Logo just premiered my video on the NewNowNext PopLab. Were about to release an album of all unreleased tracks and B-sides. The music is out there. Its on the net and Logo. People seem to be catching on to it. Its possible, a year from now, if theres any kind of buzz or need at all to do more touring with that I totally will. But who knows? This is my priority now.
Youve got a book out as well.
Yeah. Exciting! The show was developed orally and I definitely went through it and tweaked things to make it read better, but its pretty close to what I say live, plus illustrations I did myself. The whole story has these innocent childlike tones, so I did these illustrations that look more children's bookish. Its kind of perverted.
Youve been compared to David Sedaris and Sandra Bernhard. What other comedians or performance artists do you love?
Im a big fan of Eddie Izzard and his weirdo surreal mind. My favorite stand-up comedian of all time is George Carlin, but Im not doing anything like him really. He was so harsh and political and thats not me at all. Im very much more passive and nostalgic.
Do you see yourself ever taking a political bent?
I dont know if thats my strength. I feel like Im making a difference now with this show. I know that I am. I have the ability to take people on an emotional journey, and I think that can change the mind. I dont know if its really in my nature to debate with someone and get somewhere. Im a more fluid creature than that, I think.
If you had one message that youre trying to get out with your show, what is it? You only get one.
Its hard to say things like that without sounding clich because I feel like clichs become clich because theyre so incredibly true. You know what I mean? But the message of my show is a message of self-acceptance. Im saying to people who are in a scenario or a religious setting or feel like their family is rejecting them because of their sexuality, You are OK! Its hard to say that and give it meaning because its like, No shit, Im OKThank you. But its so incredibly true that were all just really OK. Lifes so short dont beat yourself over the head with guilt and shame. [Laughs.] Yeah, I know this is just all clichs.
Reviews have noted the fun of reveling in all the 1980s details you put in. What was your 80s obsession?
The Smiths for sure. Morrissey is one of my biggest songwriting influences, and as a singer, I love the Smiths. I listen to them on repeat and I have for my entire life. I have never got tired of them once.
What kind of 80s kid were you?
My freshman year of high school was 1988. Nirvana broke in 91 or 92 and changed pop culture, but for most of my high school years, there was just alternative kids. Now they have all these sub-genres, like goth, but none of that really existed then. If you listened to the Cure you were a fag! [Laughs.] So my friends and I listened to the Smiths and the Cure and grew our bangs out, dyed our hair black, and wore baggy black pants tucked into combat boots. So that was the kind of kid I was. Not daring enough to wear eyeliner to school but daring enough to dye my hair black. This was small-town Indiana.
Do you consider yourself a role model?
Who poses in gay porn magazines? [Laughs.] Sure, why not!
Sex, Dreams & Self Control, the book and soundtrack, are out now. Waves on Waves Remixed Vol 1 is now available on iTunes. Visit TheKevinThornton.com for more info.Send a letter to the editor about this article.