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Death of a skyrocket

L.A. fans witnessed the rapid rise of Bryan Harvey, who was found slain Sunday.

January 07, 2006|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

THE slayings of musician Bryan Harvey, his wife and their two daughters last weekend in Richmond, Va., has deeply jolted the small city where singer-guitarist Harvey played in a party band called NrG Krysys and by day worked in technology for the Henrico County school system. His wife, Kathryn Harvey, ran a store featuring whimsical gifts and toys, called World of Mirth, in nearby Carytown, Va. Their daughters Stella and Ruby were 9 and 4.

The far-away crime also provided a gut-punch to a certain breed of Los Angeles rock fan.

Harvey, who was killed with his immediate family in their home on New Year's Day, had been a memorable presence in the city's mid-'80s rock scene with his partner, drummer Johnny Hott, in the band House of Freaks. The two moved here from their native Richmond hoping to advance their careers in music.

It was Hott who made the 911 call when he arrived at the Harveys for what was to be a New Year's Day party and found the house in flames. Police are investigating it as a murder-arson case, with the presumption that the fire was set to destroy evidence of the killings. As of Friday, no arrests had been made and investigators were sifting through the evidence for leads to whoever left the family members in their basement, bound and with their throats cut. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that a family friend who had hosted Stella for a New Year's Eve sleepover said Kathryn Harvey appeared ashen and nervous Sunday morning when the friend dropped Stella off several hours before the party was to begin.

Capt. Norris Evans, head of the Richmond Police Department's Major Crimes Division, said in a statement issued Thursday: "We've received an enormous amount of useful information.

Police, who are working with investigators from the Virginia State Police and the FBI, are still awaiting the cause of death from the medical examiner's office.

Richmond Police Department spokeswoman Kirsten Nelson said a gag order was issued Friday and that police would not comment on the case, referring inquiries to the Richmond Commonwealth Attorney's Office, which prosecutes all criminal felonies.

House of Freaks, which disbanded in 1995, had just the two members and was in Los Angeles for only two years, but they made a lot of noise and went pretty far.

"They packed the place," says Debbie Drooz, who booked the band a couple of times when she worked at the downtown rock mecca Al's Bar. "The little time that they were playing in L.A. they sold out wherever they played, and they became so hot so fast.

"And there was a reason for that," Drooz said. "They were fabulous, and they didn't sound like anybody else. There were only two guys, and they made so much sound that it sounded like 10 guys. They kind of had this roots thing, but it was so intense and powerful that it was more than just roots rock. It was an exciting show, it was a 'make-you-believe-in-rock-'n'-roll' show."

That combination won over Gary Stewart the first time he saw them play. An A&R executive at the independent Rhino Records, Stewart signed them to the label, where they made two albums, "Monkey on a Chain Gang" and "Tantilla," that put them on the map.

" 'Monkey on a Chain Gang' is a work of considerable imagination and heart," Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn wrote when the album was released in 1988. "Harvey's vocals often reflect the innocence and desire of the late John Lennon, while Hott's primal drumming style complements Harvey's guitar work so well that the music seems to speak as a single voice. The result is one of the most stimulating debuts by a Los Angeles-based rock group during the '80s."

Two years ago, Stewart revisited the music when he oversaw the albums' reissue on CD.

"I just thought this is better than it's ever been," he said this week. "With everything that was going on, the garage-rock revival, what I had perceived as a renaissance in rock about two years ago, I wanted to take another whack at them."

Stewart noted the obvious link to the White Stripes.

"It was a two-person band that played in this sort of wild, visceral, even at times cacophonous way, with its roots in American roots music," Stewart said. "The only difference is Jack White was more Robert Plant, and Bryan Harvey was more John Lennon."

House of Freaks went on to make a major-label album, "Cakewalk," with Reprise-affiliated Giant Records, in 1991. But in a city of career-first consciousness, Harvey and Hott's real rarity might have been their clear vision of what they wanted.

"Even before their career was over, they went back to Richmond and they got other lives," said Stewart. "Once they had kind of got what they needed to get done, they wanted to go back to their hometown.... They only came out to Los Angeles as long as they needed to.... They realized there was more to life than the music business. They came in that way and went out that way."

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