UK magazine interview
What first got you interested in music and when did you start writing your own songs?
‘It was at the age of 14 after I saw the film ‘That’ll Be The Day’. I loved the 50s soundtrack and I was fired by the idea that I might be able to escape school, college and regular employment by becoming a rock star! The soundtrack to the film conjured up a particular era and that is one reason it appealed to me. There was a distinctive sound to the records of that period with their tape delay and deep reverb which made them sound as if they were coming from a vanished world – it made me nostalgic for a time I hadn’t actually lived through, which is part of the magic of music. And of course they said all they needed to say in under three minutes which was an ideal I have tried to stick with ever since. Soon afterwards I became obsessed with Marc Bolan, who incidentally was criminally unfashionable at the time. He also practised the three minute hook-em-‘n’-hold–em philosophy but added a mixture of other worldliness with his bizarre fanciful Tolkeinesque imagery (at least in his earlier records as Tyrannosaurus Rex). And he made it OK to switch from acoustic tracks to electric on the same album. So that’s the world or background I grew up with and where my values come from.
Unfortunately, when I came to record my first album, ‘The Werewolf of London’, in 79 I thought that you had to be a rock star to be a serious contender. So only a few of the tracks were true to my own creative spirit and the remainder were my teenage attempt to mimic Bolan which I now find embarrassing’.
How did you first get involved with Robyn Hitchcock and later with Bevis Frond?
When a small independent label called Armageddon offered to re-release a revamped version of my privately pressed ‘Werewolf’ album I shrewdly asked the label boss if any of his other artists would be willing to make a guest appearance on my next album. The Soft Boys were on the label at the time with ‘Underwater Moonlight’ and Knox of the Vibrators also came along for the session (and later appeared on several other tracks over the years). I remember Hitchcock quite well because I had been warned that he might be strange and indeed he answered the phone by imitating a parrott (‘pieces of eight, pieces of eight’). He sang on ‘The Puppet Master’ (which was a creepy story I had adapted from an old EC horror comic) and he played a weird buzzing psyche guitar on ‘Mad Elaine’ which was about a young girl alone in her dead father’s mansion. He also read a couple of verses of a poem on an unreleased track called ‘The Old Dark House’ which only saw the light of day as a bonus track on a bootleg (‘Live In Italy’). After hearing the tracks he called me ‘the male Kate Bush’ which I took as a compliment.
I think I met Bevis Frond after his magazine ‘Ptolemaic Terrascope’ interviewed me in the early 90s or it may have been through Jon Storey, the then editor of ‘Bucketful of Brains’. Nick (Bevis) came down to quite a lot of sessions and played some amazing psyche guitar. I’ve also had the privilege of recording with Andy Ellison (of John’s Children) and Nick Nicely (of ‘Hilly Fields’ fame). But offers from Brian Connolly of The Sweet, Dave Cousins (of the Strawbs), Sterling Morrison of the Velvet Underground and film composer Michael Nyman didn’t come to anything and easily could have, but I didn’t have the ruthless ambition to make it happen which someone else might have done. I used to think that if I was talented that would be enough but I now realise you have to make it happen. You have to push and charm people. You can’t rely on the quality of your music to attract the attention or the mentors you need to get noticed.’
How would you compare your earlier material against that on 'Pavane'?
I think the seven years abstinence from music has resulted in ‘Pavane’ being a more mature and less intense collection – a distillation of the styles and themes I explored on earlier albums. It has a dark folk setting for my favourite supernatural themes (‘Voodoo Doll’, ‘Phantoms’), historical songs (‘Easter 1916’, ‘Dice With The devil’), whimsical ditties (‘Lucifer’s Servant’), lyrics inspired by fantasy literature (‘Dark Carnival’, ‘Hymn’) and my first instrumental piece (‘Mr Nyman’s Garden’), a minimalist baroque pastiche in the manner of Michael Nyman which hints at what might have been had I taken up his offer of arranging something based on one of my themes.’
‘Pavane’ is the first offering from this second phase of my creativity and so features certain instruments that I had always wanted to use such as mandolin and it also includes my second attempt to tackle subjects that I feel I didn’t do justice the first time around, such as Ray Bradbury’s ‘Something Wicked This way Comes’ (the inspiration for ‘Dark Carnival’) and voodoo (previously tackled on ‘Jumbee’ and now revisited for ‘Voodoo Doll’).
How do you feel that the music scene in the UK has changed from the time of release of your first album to now?
‘When I recorded ‘Werewolf’ it was passť to use acoustic guitar and de rigeur to use synth drums and masses of keyboards. Songs were constructed from a synth pattern and vocals were strained and as contrived as the tracks. There was no personality. It was so artificial. It was the pits as far as I was concerned. I really thought rock would never recover. The only band I could listen to was The Smiths. Just thinking of the ‘bands’ - and I use the term loosely as most were constructed in the studio – reminds me of the nightmare that was the 80s – Human League, Tears For Fears, ABC, Haircut 100….crap all of them. Now in the wake of Brit pop we have real song writing again, real bands and real instruments. Its hard to believe that all those shop window dummies I mentioned ever existed when you hear Muse, Rammstein, Green Day, Suede etc etc. I just wish some of them would record my songs!’
There is a very English feel to your music and especially to your lyrics, combined with the supernatural, where do you feel that this came from and what inspires and intrigues you?
I can’t explain the quintessentially Englishness to my music and lyrics other than to guess that it must be because the English landscape expresses my yearning for a Tolkeinesque fantasy and a pastoral idyll. The supernatural element comes from my childhood out-of-body-experiences and subsequent fascination with mysticism, magic and the occult. Strangely, in the seven years I have been away from music I have experienced a lot of the things I used to write about and imagine for the characters in my songs and I have written nearly 20 books on occult subjects as well as creating my own tarot cards (the Kabbalah Cards), so that fascination with mysticism must come from my own spiritual sensibility.
But my own psychic experiences don’t inspire my lyrics – real experiences tend to work their way into my books. I usually find the initial spark for a lyric from a film, novel or a story I read in a horror comic during my youth (‘Blades of Battenburg’. ‘The Puppet Master’ and ‘Ghost Ships’ being good examples). I try not to take an idea directly from another source but rather use their imagery to stimulate my own mental movie. I write ‘Buccaneers’ just by holding a book about pirates – that was enough. I didn’t even have to open it. Some of the imagery for ‘Voodoo Doll’ comes from the film ‘I Walked With A Zombie’ and in ‘Hymn’ I tried to recreate the clammy academic atmosphere invoked by M. R. James, England’s finest writer of Ghost Stories. H.G.Wells is another strong influence (‘the inspiration for ‘The great Edwardian Air-raid’ and ‘Wydham Hill’) as is Poe (ie ‘Christine’ in which the narrator attempts to force his new young wife to act and dress exactly like his first, dead wife).’
When you decided to record 'Strychine' how did you choose which songs to cover?
Its partly the strength of the melody, partly the narrative and partly the possibilities it offers me to re-interpret the song in my own style. Donovan’s ‘Guinevere’ appealed for the beauty of the melody but also fitted into my fantasy world, as did Kevin Ayer’s ‘Lady Rachel’ and Bolan’s ‘Iscariot’. ‘Strychnine’ got me on account of its black humour and ‘Venus in Furs’ resonated with the decadent aspect, or my ‘Dorian Gray’ side, as you might call it. That album is an odd one because it is a collection of cover versions by someone who is known for the originality of his song writing but it has garnered some great reviews which I find bizarre. Also the original release was an 8 track mini album whereas the recent reissue collects all the cover versions I have recorded and doesn’t indicate where the original album ends and the bonus tracks begin so it might appear to the new comer as if I have recorded an album of 19 cover versions!’
What gave you the idea of taking the punk classic "Gary Gilmore's Eyes" and arranging it in such a fashion?
That was a case where I liked the novelty of playing a punk classic as an acoustic song and also the theme of an innocent guy being given the eyes of a murderer fitted right in with my comic-horror world. It was the kind of song I would love to have written and it was inspired by one of my favourite films – Mad Love (with Colin Clive and Peter Lorre).
'Pavane' is your first album for seven years, why is that?
Paul: At the risk of sounding melodramatic, a combination of events conspired to kill my enthusiasm for making music back in 97. The first thing was that the labels that I recorded for closed down – the owners of New Rose in France sold their company to a chain store called FNAC and the people behind DiDi Music in Greece closed the label to concentrate on live concerts and the owner of the German label allegedly had a nervous breakdown and left his label in the hands of two young girls whose only talent was to upset all their artists including me! So I was left without support for new recordings, distribution, promotion and live concerts. I decided therefore to record and release the next album myself, which was ‘Gargoyles’. But although the pressing was sold out I didn’t know how to get the reviews, promotion and distribution I needed. Distributors generally don’t deal with small labels owned by the artist and at that time dance music and techno was the only thing selling so I felt rejected and disheartened.
So it was a very obvious time to stop. I was getting older too – I was 36 and felt it was time to forget my dreams. I had a good run and it wasn’t practical to be an independent artist anymore. So I threw all my master tapes in the dustbin and put my love into raising my two little boys instead of into music. I wrote 15 books on magic and mysticism during that time and had a lot of incredible psychic and spiritual experiences which I included in some of the books so I began to live the life of some of the characters I had created in my songs. I also wrote a lot of film reviews for video and DVD magazines so I satisfied my other ambitions during those years.
Then one day in 2002 I became curious about my past and listened to a couple of the CDs again and heard myself as other people must have heard me. It gave me a new perspective – I realised what my qualities were and also my weaknesses. Then I re-read some of the messages that fans had written to my Italian website and I started to believe in myself again. About the same time I got an unexpected offer to appear at a Goth festival at an old castle in Berlin and it was too good to turn down. I had to learn to play the guitar all over again – I was so stiff! And then I had to re-learn the songs. At the festival I met some fans backstage and recovered some of my old enthusiasm.
After that I wrote 2 albums of new material with the same pleasure I had always derived from writing. The music flowed effortlessly through me and so slowly I got enough confidence to record a new album and rediscover the old Paul Roland.’
'Pavane' is instantly recognisable as being by Paul Roland but the instruments and approach are quite different. What were you trying to achieve with this CD and what extra influences do you think you took on board (by the way, it reminds me at times quite a lot of Dulcimer)
I don’t think I took on any new influences as the bands I was listening to at the time had no influence on my own music. But I put myself in the mindset I had when I was 19 and writing my first album. I wanted to have the same hunger and enthusiasm as I had then. But I also had the experience that comes from 20 years touring and recording so it was that combination that gave the album its atmosphere and feel. It’s a 19 year old writing and performing through the body of a grown man. Sounds like one of my songs, doesn’t it!
How do you segregate your time within your different interests and what will be the next project that we can expect from you, musical or otherwise.
I have learned to separate my music from writing books and bringing up my children. Each gets a specific time of the day (or night) and I give whatever it is at that moment my undivided attention. Then I switch off and focus on the next task. That’s the only way I can do it. I am not the type of person who can divide their attention between different things all going on at the same time. I’m quite organised and conscientious. That’s how I managed to write three books at the same time in 1999. I wrote one in the morning, one in the afternoon and one in the evening. And I did that seven days a week for four months.
If I have 3 record labels willing to release an album I could easily write three different albums, one for each but if there is nobody, or if a label tells me I can only release one album per year then I don’t write songs for the pleasure of it. Some people do but I need to know they will be heard. I need an audience for my music.
I already have a psych space-rock album in the can for September release featuring members of Caravan and I have two books coming out this summer, ‘How To Discover Your Past Lives’ and ‘The Complete Kabbalah Course’. Then I will be writing a comprehensive history of horror movies and literature which has been a pet project of mine for many years. So I feel like I am making up for lost time.’
Paul’s books and CDs are available from Amazon and Play.com
For more information visit www.paulroland.de