Italian Interview Oct 2004
One of the things that strikes about your songs is that they are filled with references to the world of literature and movies. You seem to be really into cult horror and fantastic films. Can you tell me something more about this passion of yours? When and how did you catch the film bug?
When I was young I enjoyed watching old black and white gangster movies with my mum and dad, but it was only when I took a course in Film Studies that I realised there is a subtext to film which is not appreciated by the casual film goer. The more you understand the language of film, the more pleasure you derive from watching a good, well constructed movie. As a child you just follow the plot and rarely feel that you need to see a film more than once, but once you understand that there are so many individual elements working to create the fantasy you can focus in on any one at subsequent viewings. I saw my first horror film when I was about 12. I was in hospital having had my appendix taken out and was alone in the TV room at midnight watching ‘House of Frankenstein’. It was the dream-like atmosphere that struck me. It was a magical experience – a fairy tale world inhabited by fanciful creatures who were searching in vain for love and to be accepted as human beings and not as freaks while the towns people were prejudiced and suspicious. That appealed to my feeling of being an outsider. But I also adored the world of heightened reality in which these stories unfolded - the misshapen German expressionist villages with their foreshortened perspective and deep shadows.
There is a song on "Pavane" called "Musette", for which you claimed you watched many French movies "in order to get the theme and lyrics for this charming little tale of obsessive love". French fantastic cinema (Cocteau, Franju's Les yeux sans visage, etc.) seems to me a neat influence on your work.
For a long time my main influences were British and American horror movies with a little Mario Bava for extra spice, but recently I have grown restless with the largely predictable commercial mainstream cinema and found more believable characters and more serious themes in French cinema. I have always loved Cocteau but now I am particularly fond of Melville and individual films such as ‘Brotherhood of the Wolf’, ‘Le Chateau de la Mere’, ‘Le Bossu’ (Directed by Philippe De Broca) , ‘Crimson Rivers’, ‘Wages of Fear’ ‘Riffifi’, ‘Pepe Le Moko’ and ‘Sweat’ staring Joaquim de Almeida (which has become a favourite bedtime story for my children who like the bit where the dog gets blown up!). The only French directors who leave me cold are the realists – Goddard and Truffaut. The French have a different way of looking at life – its absurdities and the uniqueness of the individual and the subtle but significant our actions have upon other people which makes their films more real and truthful than contrived commercial cinema whose prime purpose is pretty mindless entertainment. They also have an eye for interesting characters whereas the American cinema seems to be only interested in action and cliché.
Also, your love for '60 British horror cinema is evident in songs like "Witchfinder General", which takes its title from Michael Reeves' final film starring Vincent Price, "Dr. Syn Is Rising Again" and "Come to the Sabbat", which even includes an audio snippet taken from Terence Fisher's "The Devil Rides Out"...
I have to admit that often it is own the title that appeals to me. They can act like a trigger to stimulate my imagination and when I eventually see the film that inspired my song I can be a little disappointed. ‘Witchfinder General’ is too low budget for my liking. I want films that invite me to step inside because their world is more exciting than the world we live in. Reeves recreated the horror of the period, the random violence and the squalor, but I don’t want to live in that period – I want to live in a romanticised version of that period.
‘Dr Syn’ is a great story – the mild mannered country vicar who has a secret life as the leader of a band of smugglers – but no one has made a good film of that to date so I had to make my own in the images of the song. ‘The Devil Rides Out’ was good though – one of my favourite films because the occult elements are true. I have known magical societies like the one in the film and of course Mocatta, the leader of the cult, is modelled on Crowley so that film rings true and has a good occult ambience you can believe in. And of course Christopher Lee is perfectly cast as the sauve, elegant adept who knows so much but doesn’t brag about it as so many pseudo magicians do.
I wish I had met Lee. I interviewed Peter Cushing in the late 80s and was delighted to discover he was the perfect gentleman, but he didn’t have any solid background information about the films he had been in. All he would say is ‘dear boy, you know more about those film than I do!’ He was a sweet charming man and I still get a kick out of knowing that our paths had crossed even if it was only for an hour or so. That was a rare privilege.
Are you into Italian horror cinema? Mario Bava films have especially become cult favorites, especially after the hype caused by directors such as Tarantino, Scorsese and Joe Dante, who admitted their love for '60s and '70s Italian b-movies - this year the Venice festival even dedicated a retrospective to Italian genre cinema ("Italian kings of B") which met a huge success.
The only Bava films I know are ‘Mask of Satan’ (aka Black Sunday) one of my absolute favourite movies, and ‘Long Hair of Death’. Both are visually stunning. When I first saw ‘Black Sunday’ with the hearse moving in slow motion through the fog and the early scene in the crypt with Barbara Steele I heard myself humming ‘Blades of Battenburg’ in my head because the imagery was such a perfect match and I never sing my own songs!
I never made a video because only Bava, Orson Welles or Peter Greenaway could have made the film I wanted.
The opening and closing tracks on your latest cd "Pavane" pay homage to Michael Nyman. Did you ever consider writing music for film? What's your opinion on the Nyman-scored Greenaway films?
It has been an unfulfilled ambition of mine to write a film score but I never had the opportunity. Fortunately that is one thing that could still happen because it doesn’t matter how old you are. Nyman is a supreme stylist. He is the only film composer I can listen to on CD without needing the images. So much film music is clichéd sweet strings and biting brass – completely interchangeable and indistinguishable from each other. But Nyman is unique and distinctive. He claims to be mathematical and clinical but there is such an emotional charge in his music created by the tension of repetition and release. I love the combination of Purcell motifs and rock bass and riffing saxophones particularly in ‘The Draughtman’s Contract’. Its bizarre and sublimely beautiful at the same time. I had to imitate it as its under my skin and my ambition is to recreate that same eccentric mixture because it unlocks the door to an Alice in Wonderland type of world where elegance, decadence, music and murder coexist and where it is always a late English summer afternoon.
My idea of paradise!
Judging from such songs as "Ghost Ship", "Dr. Strange" and "The Mind of William Gaines", you are a fan of comics. What do you think of Hollywood's current trend of films based on popular and/or cult comic books (i.e. Blade, Hulk, Spider Man, Hellboy, Daredevil)?
I find them empty and bombastic. The comics I am paying homage too are much more imaginative. Comics such as ‘House of Secrets’, ‘The Unexpected’ and ‘Ghosts’ were scary but reassuring at the same time. They were addictive and always had a great twist in the tail. I probably would have thought the pulp horror comics published by William Gaines (EC Comics) were too graphic for my taste, but I’d like to read them now as an adult. I bet there are some terrific ideas for songs in there. Everytime I’m near a comic collector’s shop I try to find reprints of those old DC horror anthologies, but no one has them, they’re gone and forgotten. Very sad.
If you were to name one contemporary director whose vision and work you feel someway similar to yours, who would you pick? And, by the way, what's your opinion on the actual state of fantastic cinema?
As I said, Bava comes closest to my vision. My songs exist in a black and white world or in the lurid colour of an American horror comic. But if I had to pick a contemporary filmmaker I’d have to name Tim Burton. I think he has the same twisted macabre sense of humour as I do and he has the vision which finds beauty in darkness.
Have you seen any Guy Maddin film? I think they have a timeless quality which I think is somewhat similar to your work. Your acoustic mini albums "Cabinet and Curiosities" and "Happy Families" come to mind, with their use of old-fashioned instruments and arrangements and even sleeve artworks.
I have to confess I’m not familiar with his work at all.
You dedicated one of your early songs, "Lon Chaney", to one of horror cinema's greatest icons. Yet your vision of Chaney's work and persona is exquisitely peculiar: in the final verse, which quotes Browning's "The Unknown", the man and his characters have become one and the same.
I’m glad you noticed that – that blending of the on-screen charcter and off-screen persona was intentional. I wrote about Chaney because I was touched by his tragic life and the degree to which he subjected himself to suffering in order to reach other people. He willingly became a freak so he could touch the audience. I think an artist has to have an empathy for the characters he creates or write about and the most compelling and attractive subjects are those who are misunderstood such as Chaney or the failed pre-Raphaelite painter in ‘The Poets And The Painters’. If I only wrote fantasies people wouldn’t be able to relate to them. The listener needs to have an empathy for the characters to give the song a heart and the same is true of films and novels. A plot without an empathic character is like reading an instruction manual on how to build a wardrobe. All action and no meaning.
One of the most interesting things in your songs is the use of a cultured, refined, literary language. Not only the rhymes are never banal, but each song conveys the feeling of the period the song is set in with minimal, subtle touches. That's especially the case with "Happy Families", which in my opinion features some of your best lyrics ever, such as "The Curate of Cheltenham", "Journey to the Pole" and "Animal Crackers". What's more, you also published short stories, essays and novels. Would you like to name some of your literary influences as well?
Thank you for appreciating that. I always felt that much of the subtle ironic humour in my songs was lost because most of the people who listen to my music do not have English as their first language. But you cannot worry about what the audience might pick up and what might be lost in translation, you have to do what is right for the song.
As for my literary influences I would say the Edwardian writer H.G.Wells was and has always been my biggest influence – ‘The Great Edwardian Air-Raid’ and ‘Wyndham Hill’ are directly influenced by his work. But I also admire M.R.James and to a lesser degree Poe. I must admit I’m not a great fan of H.P. Lovecraft. I find him verbose and frustrating as he nearly always fails to describe his ‘nameless horrors’ after dozens of pages of build up and suspense. Conan Doyle guarantees a good atmospheric read and he achieves it with the lightest of touches like an artist who sketches in pen and ink unlike Lovecraft who daubs thick wads of lurid colour all over the canvas.
Some of your songs explore vampirism, with decidedly interesting subtexts. The outstanding "Nosferatu" comes to mind, with its lonely, tormented vampire figure, Herzog' s film starring Klaus Kinski comes to mind. Was that your favourite adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel?
I have to admit that left me cold. I much prefer the classic Hammer version with Christopher Lee and the Coppola update. I prefer comic book theatricality to sordid realism. I think you have to make a distinction between the morbid and the macabre. I prefer the latter.
"Jumbee" and " Voodoo Doll" deal with voodoo in a way that reminds me of that old Bela Lugosi film, White Zombie, as well as I Walked With a Zombie.
Yes, again it’s the dream-like quality. Dreams are so much more interesting than reality, don’t you think. Perhaps that is why we love movies so much. We are not physical beings by nature, but immortals whose essence is pure consciousness. We are in our natural non-corporeal state during sleep and are senses are dulled when we return to the body. I yearn for the dream world and have to make do with fantasy in the form of movies, music and stories. If you listen to the first verse of ‘Voodoo Doll’ and watch the first scenes of ‘I Walked With A Zombie’ you will see the connection and understand the lines about the glistening waters and the dying stars. I couldn’t let an idea that beautifully sad go without putting it in to a song.
You wrote a Guide to Pop and rock music. Would you like to name some artists/records which can be considered your main musical influences? And what bands/artists do you rate higher nowadays?
I don’t listen to music much these days. I prefer movies. But when I do put something on it will be Muse or Morrisey, Marc Bolan’s early acoustic albums recorded as Tyrannosaurus Rex, Rory Gallagher, The Who, Yes, Jerry Lee Lewis, Howling Wolf, Purcell, Handel and of course Michael Nyman.
May I take this opportunity to say thank you for showing an interest in my work and I would like to invite anyone who is interested to write to me though my website www.paulroland.co.uk and to visit www.paulroland.de for more information.