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Face Forward

The Kissing Virus' Kim Koehler finds refuge in her music

by Shelly Ridenour

It's not often that a local band profile veers far from the path of "these are our influences/these are our goals/this is what our name means/this is how we write songs as a unit/insert joke here." These things can all be interesting, mind you, and amusing; but they're not usually the most revealing look at a human personality. The story behind The Kissing Virus--or, more appropriately, the Kissing Virus's music--is different and, thankfully, unusual. It is the story of Kim Koehler, and it is all too human and very personal.

Cliché as it is, the truth is Kim has done more living in 28 years than a lot of people do in a lifetime. She left her Mississippi home in the ninth grade, quitting school because she simply "wanted to hear music and see the world." Her life's journey took her from the burgeoning Austin, Texas, music scene of 1985 and some self-destructive punk rock years in Memphis, before she finally ended up in Knoxville a few years ago and worked her way through a couple of different projects before settling into The Kissing Virus.

At heart a garage band that practices in a shabbily decadent Fourth and Gill dining room, The Kissing Virus is a coolly kinetic frequency of off-the-cuff charisma and primitive-yet-urban rock 'n' roll. Koehler's is a blues-influenced, but not blues-based, woozily intoxicating slide guitar style that provides a sometimes cozy, sometimes prickly cocoon for her primal and sultry, Thalia Zadek-like voice. Beside and behind her, Steve Schmidt (guitar) and David Burns (drums) take a left turn from their usual cacophonic gig in Thumbnail, while Matt Juroff (formerly of Chug-A-Lug Donna and Soul Penny) traipses roguishly between a bass and a vintage Farfisa organ. The sound is at once dark and primal, sexy and urgent, made all the more so by the obvious chemistry between real-life couple Koehler and Schmidt.

"I always just sang until three years ago," Koehler says. "I realized that I wasn't able to articulate what I wanted to say just through words, and that I needed to play guitar to be able to do that."

Only a year after leaving home, Koehler's life was forever changed by a situation so large it called for a more physical expression than simple words could provide.

"I first found out I had ovarian cancer when I was 16. You can just imagine how scary, how unbelievable that was, to be 16 and be told you have cancer. Plus, I was a runaway, and I had to go to a horrible free clinic," she remembers.

Returning home for treatment, Koehler went through the first of seven surgeries to remove the cancer from her body. "After the first time, I did go through a real self-destructive period. I did heroin for three years; I was a topless dancer to support my drug habit. I just hibernated in my own body. I was layering sicknesses, and I had to get over that. And, either through sharing needles or a blood transfusion, I got Hepatitis C."

Stories of Koehler's past have almost become legend throughout Fort Sanders, the rumors and stretched tales whispered in enough bars to take on a life of their own. Yes, she has needle track scars on her arms; yes, she has hepatitis; yes, she has cancer; yes, she writes dark music; and yes, she cuts quite the dramatic figure with her black hair and dark charisma. But, no matter what else you might think, Kim Koehler is not a tragic figure.

"I don't know why anyone would want to romanticize my life, and it really irritates me," she admits. "I'm not tragic. I'm productive, and I'm excited about what I'm doing.

"That's a big problem with my peers--not necessarily my friends, but people within the local scene. They see the scars and they know I'm the girl with hepatitis and cancer...but that's all just circumstances that led to who I am."

Recently, the cancer doctors thought was cured reclaimed her body, and Koehler has undergone three surgeries in the past month alone. But she doesn't want pity, and she doesn't feel pitiful.

"People need to understand you can hold on to your pride and your self-esteem," she stresses. "I'm not wallowing. There's a difference between sympathy and empathy."

It's empathy that is bringing together several of her friends this weekend for, as the show's flyer calls it, a "candlelight evening at Gryphon's." Six bands are listed on said flyer, including The Kissing Virus, Atom Bomb Pocket Knife, the Lonely Heart Killers, The Satellite Pumps, The Holy Ghosts, and Picks & Lighters. Unlike any other Gryphon's show, though, a donation of $5 is requested and will go to help cover Koehler's myriad medical expenses. In return, everyone will be welcome to share in free food, courtesy of Southbound.

"Music is the only outlet I have to get some of this stuff out of me. Sometimes I don't feel like I'm as good with my words when I'm talking," Koehler says. "Music is the thing that keeps me going, and it keeps me from being self-destructive. When I started playing, I really feel like it saved me. It gave me something else to focus on, and a way to bide my time."

And, with music as appealing and as liberating as hers, it's certainly not a bad way to bide time at all.

© Metro Pulse