May 20 2013 05:07 PM

San Diego folkie sings about serial killers—and dabbles in cannibalism

Photo by Rick Rodney

Serial killers come in all shapes and sizes. There are fat serial killers and skinny serial killers. There are serial killers with all-American looks and serial killers from countries as diverse as Finland and Ghana. There are serial killers who drink blood, serial killers who collect skulls and serial killers who partake in even more unspeakable rituals. 

San Diegan Daniel Kiranos, the 25-year-old murder-folk songwriter who performs under the name Amigo the Devil, is not a serial killer himself—well, he says he isn't, anyway. But he surely is fascinated by serial killers. He even has a favorite type.

"I really, really like the cannibals," the friendly banjo player says in a recent interview at Old Mill Café in North Park. "I don't know, that obsession with consuming someone and having them be a part of you forever is really interesting."

Serial killers squirm their way into many of Amigo the Devil's songs. On his recently released EP, Diggers, Kiranos takes on the persona of Wisconsin flesh eater and body snatcher Ed Gein. Over spooky, acoustic-guitar-driven folk, the Devil drops oblique references to Gein's life and the sad fate of murder victims. 

Murder has long been a favorite topic among folk singers—a European and American tradition of "murder ballads" dates all the way back to the 16th century. These days, perhaps the best-known maker of bloody songcraft is Nick Cave, whose ferocious 1996 album Murder Ballads clearly serves as a source of inspiration for Amigo the Devil.

Kiranos is a straight-laced singer, possessing a calm and slightly raspy voice, but he shares Cave's gifts for lyrical dexterity and creating innovative arrangements. His songs are filled with biting humor, subtle wordplay and alluring storylines. "The Recluse," a haunting cut off Diggers, has the understated menace of a psychological thriller: "I need to feel comfortable in my own skin," he sings. "But I think I like the one that youíre living in."

It's these talents that have won Kiranos a rabid cult following during the past few years. At his shows, people often sing along to his songs, no matter how grotesque. His biggest hit has been "Perfect Wife," a catchy, banjo-pluckin' tune he wrote five years ago about a battered wife who takes revenge on her sadistic husband by way of a shotgun rigged to a door.

"It's really, really funny that that one's held on for so long," Kiranos says, sipping a cup of coffee in a booth beside his fiancée and manager, Hayley Miller. "I canít even imagine how The Eagles feel, how many times they've played 'Hotel California.'"

Kiranos is burly, gentlemanly and covered in tattoos, like a heavy-metal teddy bear. He grew up in Miami, where he played in metalcore bands and listened to lots of death-metal and grindcore while nurturing a secret love for country music. When he moved to San Francisco several years ago, he bought a banjo on a whim and, after a couple years, picked it up and started writing Amigo the Devil songs out of boredom. 

He released his debut EP, Manimals, in 2010, and it quickly gained popularity. Though he was pursuing a career in brewing beer—at one point, he even wanted to open a microbrewery with beers themed around famous serial killers and victims—he's now pursuing Amigo the Devil full-time. 

Listeners aren't always keen on Amigo the Devil's subject matter, and he's missed some opportunities because of it. Once, when he reached out to a PR company, the president sent him a polite letter back explaining that she couldn't support his violent songs because she was a mother. 

But with Kiranos and Miller taking a DIY approach—doing everything from booking to merchandise—they have the freedom to do things they might not get away with otherwise. For example, they've made an Amigo the Devil handbag that bears a shocking quote from Carl Panzram, an infamous arsonist and murderer who was executed in 1930: "I hate all the fucking human race. I get a kick out of murdering people."

Kiranos is drawn to serial killers because he sees them as the ugly flipside of a world full of wonders. For all of the people who've walked on the moon or crossed the Amazon rainforest on foot, there have also been average Joes capable of committing appalling acts of mayhem. 

"I just think it's amazing that a portion of someone's brain can cause that much devastation," he says. "It's not like they're huge monster trolls cruising around and destroying buildings. It's a tiny little portion of someone's brain that is fucked up beyond belief that is making them do these insane things."

Kiranos himself has occasionally crossed the line from fantasy to reality. A body-modification enthusiast, he used to have giant plugs in his ears, leaving his earlobes massively stretched out. One day at his buddy's tattoo shop in Los Angeles, he decided to pop a piece of earlobe into his mouth. 

So, what did it taste like? 

"So hard to chew," he says. "Ears are very granular. You can taste the fat." 

Still, that seems to be as far as he'll take his morbid fascination. 

"I donít think I can kill someone," he says. "I would definitely taste someone if it was offered to me. But I wouldn't kill someone."

Email or follow him on Twitter at @peterholslin.