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The Double Life of Mike Kelley (Polar)

Plenty of people fantasize about living two different lives. Mild-mannered accountant by day, crime-fighting avenger by night. An international spy who's also a bumbling, bookish archaeologist. It's the stuff of comic books, pulp novels and Hollywood movies.

Actually pulling it off in the real world is more difficult. But musician Mike Kelley thinks he's figured out how to live in two worlds.

Kelley spends a lot of his time at the Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music, where he's the violist in the resident string quartet. The campus is tucked away in the hilly, southwestern corner of New Hampshire.

"Yeah, I love it up here," he says. "Beautiful view — the sunset goes down over the hills."

A former child prodigy, Kelley went to the Oberlin Conservatory and on to The Julliard School. As a member of the Apple Hill Quartet, he has performed around the world.

The Apple Hill campus feels like the setting for an L.L. Bean catalog photo shoot: a refurbished wooden barn, a west-facing gazebo, a dirt road visited by the occasional station wagon.

But this world is nothing like Kelley's other one.


"Kelley Polar is the kind of anarchist, hedonist, space-traveling, disco/dance-music-loving, far-out cosmic space traveler," Kelley says.

Kelley Polar, Mike Kelley's other identity, is an electronic dance musician. As quiet and refined as Mike Kelley's New Hampshire classical music world is, Polar's pop music world is equally decadent, bizarre and extreme.

"One thing I learned about doing live Kelley Polar shows," he says, "however out-of-control I was, it was always better if I was even more out-of-control the next time."

Life in this weird world has led Kelley Polar to some amazing places. A few weeks ago, he was performing at a club in East Berlin.

"The music is deafeningly loud," he says. "And there are people dancing around, people screaming; there's people getting out of their heads. There's absolutely, unbelievably bizarre things going on.

"And below it is this club Berghain. And as you go further and further down, it gets kind of more and more hardcore in terms of debauchery, and then finally, on the next-to-last floor, there is a grate..."

What happens under the grate is probably best left to your imagination. "It's really far out," Kelley says.

Mike Kelley came to New Hampshire almost seven years ago, after his high-octane big-city life started to come down around him. He remembers those nights right before he decided he had to leave New York.

"There was a visiting delegation of mycologists, who were studying mushrooms," he says. "We ended up partying on a rooftop in Chinatown with a troupe of Icelandic ballerinas, and eventually flooded the apartment building, a huge police action. Some or all of that may be completely true."

Pastoral Fantasy

The New York club scene fed the Kelley Polar part of Mike Kelley — that hedonistic, decadent part — and it had gotten the best of him. So he escaped to Apple Hill, a safe place where he had played music as a kid. Here, he could both enjoy classical music and let Kelley Polar roam without getting in trouble.

"I have to say, even though it's probably really psychologically disturbing, I love the fact that I basically have this really probably bizarrely overdeveloped inner fantasy world, and that wouldn't have happened if I was here," he says.

Kelley says this world has unfolded on his runs along the old logging roads, which cut through Apple Hill's 10,000 acres of woods.

"Creatures living out in the middle of space, communicating by gravity waves," he says, "or maybe you have a concert that is going to be so loud and so big, you have to do it on a planetary scale."

That vivid fantasy landscape has helped him produce two Kelley Polar albums since 2005. Polar says that on his first album, he tried to reach out to those creatures and intergalactic worlds. He laced his lyrics with messages about his desire to get off the planet.

"Subtle or not-so-subtle messages," he says. "Like I can keep a secret, and I have a planetary claustrophobia that I would appreciate having addressed."

Part of Kelley Polar's whole shtick is being an outrageous man of make-believe. To him, it's just another facet of the absurd world of pop music.

He figures there's no reason to correct reports that Kelley Polar is originally from Croatia, even though Mike Kelley is actually from Providence, R.I. Or why not exaggerate that story about the Icelandic ballerinas on the rooftop in Chinatown?

Kelley admits that his habit of playing fast and loose with the truth got him in trouble in New York. It's a part of himself he had tried to leave behind.

"And so the fact that I have this duplicitous alter-ego double life, it seems like I am not making much progress," Kelley says, laughing.

But at 34, he says he's found an equilibrium of sorts, both personally and artistically. Kelley is planning to move to Providence — also symbolic, he says, because it's halfway between both worlds.

"I think the danger now is if I get too comfortable, Kelley Polar will be too boring, and Mike Kelley will get fired," he says.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dan Gorenstein