Ruta 66 Interview (Spain)
1-In 1997 you took a break from music that lasted seven long years. This is too much time. I know you’ve been writing books (and we´ll talk about this later), but, are any other factors that prompted this exile from music, maybe disenchantment with music bizz?
In 97 the labels that I was recording for in France, Germany and Greece closed down so I was left without support. It seemed a very obvious time to stop. I was getting older too and thought maybe it was time to forget my dreams. 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. I also wrote a lot of film reviews for video and DVD magazines so I satisfied my other interests and ambitions during those years.
Then one day in 2002 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 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. But it wasn’t easy. 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. The music flowed effortlessly through me and so slowly I got enough confidence to record a new album and rediscover the old Paul Roland. I started to believe in myself again.
2-Like your previous two albums, «Pavane» it´s been released thru your own label Gaslight. Does that mean that no other record label is interested in your work nowadays?
No. I chose to release the album on my own label so that I would have complete control over the contents and the artwork, the promotion and the distribution. I enjoy being totally involved with both the creative side of music production and the business side, but doing everything yourself does have its problems. The biggest being that distributors do not like to deal with a one-artist label. And it is also impossible to sub-license albums to labels in countries such as Japan. They will only deal with established companies who have at least ten artists on their label.
But now that ‘Pavane’ has stirred up interest in my music I have two labels that are very enthusiastic to work with me – Black Widow in Italy and Prophecy in Germany. So I feel I now have the support I need to follow whichever projects I want to develop and if the labels don’t want them, I have the option to release them on my own label. That is my ideal situation.
3-After a 25 year career and more than 10 albums Paul Roland is still a cult figure. How do you deal with this situation? Isn’t it frustrating?
Yes and no. I never wanted to be on a major label. I was afraid that I would lose creative control and even more important, control of my life. I have seen enough of the music business as a journalist for Kerrang and other English music magazines to know that you really do have to sign away your life to the company for ten years or more and that would drive me insane. It is an album-tour-album-tour-album-tour money-go-round, as the Kinks said and you can never get off. Of course I would love to have more success but all I ever wanted was respect as an artist and a certain amount of recognition so that I know that people are listening to me and enjoying my music. And I have that. I wouldn’t make music for myself alone. I need to know my music is being enjoyed by others. That’s why I play concerts. I need contact with the audience.
4-With magazines like Bucketfull of Brains, Nineteen and Ruta 66 praising your work, and labels like Bam Caruso and New Rose releasing your albums, the 80s and early 90s were much more receptive years. Now this seems uthopic. How do you perceive the actual state of things on rock music and what do you think is gonna happen with rock/pop culture in the future? There will be room for poets and dreamers?
I hated the 80s – music was in as bad a state then as it had been in the mid 70s just before punk. It was bland, boring, bombastic, pretentious, contrived and artificial. The only ‘real’ music was being made by The Smiths and a small circle of guitar bands. Everybody else was using electronic drum kits and soulless synthesisers. And the vocal style of mainstream pop was all one type – there was no individuality, no personality in the music, no soul and certainly no imagination. It was manufactured conveyer belt pop. But then in the 90s Britpop brought back real instruments and real songs and it has become better and better. I believe we are in a golden age. I am more interested in cinema now, but there are so many great bands making music – such as Muse, Green Day, Placebo and Rammstein.
5-You already know about this last trend of independent-alternative US music that is the so called Americana. Could we say then that Paul Roland´s oeuvre is English own kind of Victoriana/Edwardiana?
That is a perfect description. I wouldn’t feel honest or comfortable writing contemporary dance music or commercial pop so why should I. I have created a world of my own which is partly fantasy and partly historical and I am happy to play the role of the curator who waits to welcome those with imagination to this other reality and to show them the wonders which await them.
6-Let´s talk about your fixation with this span of British history. What is so appealing from it? I understand it was a very intriguing period, plenty of social and cultural changes, with a strong mythology...but also it was a dark period, marked by poverty and injustice.
I think that is the essence of its appeal – the contrast between the superficial elegance of high society and the dark hell of the underworld. And the fact that they existed so close to each other so that it was possible – and very tempting - to have a secret double life among the opium dens of the east end of London at night and then return to the rarified atmosphere and culture of genteel society the next morning. That is the essence of the appeal of the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and of the legend of Jack The Ripper and my own Dr Cream. We all have our shadow side and this period in England between 1880-1920 was the personification of that idea.
7-The occult, the bizarre and the supernatural are very Victorian topics always present in your songbook. Let´s talk about the most recent examples: the macabre «Dark Carnival» and «Dice with the Devil», the devilish «Lucifer´s Servant», the sinister «Phantoms» and «Voodoo doll»...
Well, I felt that I was being given a second chance to get things right with this album so I returned to some of my favourite themes.
‘Dark Carnival’ was my second attempt to write a song inspired by Ray Bradbury’s novel ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ – the idea of the devil coming to a small Midwestern town to tempt the vain and frustrated inhabitants to sell their souls for a second chance at life. ‘Dice With The Devil’ also revisits a favourite theme of mine – the debauched Regency rake (gambler) who, like Don Giovanni remains unrepentant even at the moment of his death, while Lucifer’s Servant is tongue in cheek humour which I can afford because I don’t believe in the existence of the devil. ‘Voodoo Doll’ is another atmospheric tale of West Indian magic which I first attempted in ‘Jumbee’ but this music couldn’t have been describing any other scene so I had to write voodoo lyrics to accompany it. But I wouldn’t describe ‘Phantoms’ as sinister. It is a sad story of bereaved parents who attend a séance in the hope of contacting their son who died in the First World War. In the first verse they go to a photographer who makes a fake photo of them together with their son using his assistant dressed in a British army uniform and then superimposing the face of the son from an old photograph. Such practises were quite common in the years after the war and I thought that was a very poignant scene.
8-Death seems to be the main character of «Pavane». Morbid, isn’t it?
No I would describe it as macabre. There is an important distinction. ‘Morbid’ means an unhealthy obsession with death, whereas ‘macabre’ describes a fascination with a melancholy atmosphere in which you consider death as the next stage of existence – in the same way that waking life and dreams are interconnected. Poets are fascinated by death as they exist in a borderland between life and death through the facility of their imagination. Artists have an acute sensitivity to the fragility of life.
9-Maybe I´m wrong, but I see echoes from Poe´s poetry in «Pavane», the song. Are you still into him and other of the writers you´ve been related to like Doyle, Shakespeare, Machen? Which are your main readings and what other authors have you studied recently?
You’re right. ‘Pavane’ is heavily inspired by Poe. Funnily enough I haven’t read much Poe, I feel I don’t need to as I exist in a similar world to his – although fortunately I am not mad nor morbidly obsessed with being buried alive!
I still enjoy the authors I have always read – the Edwardian writer H.G.Wells was and has always been my biggest influence – my songs ‘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 and H.P.Lovecraft. I must admit I’m not a great fan of Lovecraft though. 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. I have a problem with Lovecraft. I like the idea of Lovecraft, his world and the idea that a thin veil separates our physical world from an alternate reality, but he lays it on too thick for my taste. He is contrived and overwrought. I can only read him in small doses. I also find his tendency to anti-climax very frustrating. After a hundred pages of build-up he will frequently fail to deliver anything of substance, describing the eldritch creatures as ‘nameless, indescribable horrors’ and leaving readers like me feeling short-changed or cheated. 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.
I have recently discovered a small clique of modern writers who set intriguing crime mysteries in a historical setting - Erik Larson, author of ‘The Devil In The White City’, Charles Palliser ‘The Unburied’, Caleb Carr ‘The Alienist’, Jane Jakeman ‘In The Kingdom of Mists’ and Nicholas Griffin ‘The House of Sight And Shadow’ to name a few.
10-These books about mysticism you´ve been writing in the 7 years hiatus, what are they exactly about?...
I have written about the major aspects of occultism, spirituality and the supernatural including two books about angels (one published in Spain), two books on Kabbalah, three on meditation, one on dreams and one book which includes some of my own psychic experiences called ‘Investigating The Unexplained’. In all of my books I take a common sense approach to the supernatural and try to take the fear out of the unknown so that the reader is encouraged to explore using the exercises I have devised their own psychic sensitivity. I have always been fascinated by mysticism and the occult – ever since I had out-of-body experiences as a child – but I also had a fear of what I might find ‘out there’ so I took to writing books on the subject in an effort to explore the unknown step-by-step. And the more I learnt and the more incredible the experiences that I had, the more confident I became and the less fearful I was. And that is what I try to do for the readers – to help them to understand that the supernatural is an extension of our natural world and that psychic powers are also natural and not superhuman in any sense. We are limiting our potential if we restrict our senses to the physical world alone.
11-15 books are many books, a colossal job, let me know about process and method.
Paul: The way I work is that either a publisher will approach me and ask me if I am interested in writing a book on a subject they need to cover, or I will give them a list of ideas and ask them to choose one that appeals to them. The first few books I wrote were on subjects chosen by the publisher but I didn’t mind because I saw each book as a learning experience. For me each book was the equivalent of a university course in occultism and each gave me a basis on which to understand how the universe works and the purpose and meaning of life. The more I wrote, the stronger became my connection with my Higher Self which then began to take over the writing so I hardly have to think about what I am writing – it flows through me and ideas for original exercises come to me naturally and without effort.
12-Also you’ve been busy working on a tarot of your own, The Kabbalah Cards. Kabbalah in the Alisteir Crowley´s sense? Details, please.
My understanding of Kabbalah and magic has nothing to do with Crowley – he gave it a bad name.
There are a number of Kabbalah tarot packs currently on the market, but my Kabbalah Cards are unique in that they do not predict events as random episodes in our lives, but instead provide a psychological and spiritual profile of the person consulting the cards using the pictographic meaning of the Hebrew letters. In this way the cards explain why we encounter particular problems and what lessons they are trying to teach us.
Although the Kabbalah cards can be used for divination they are distinctly different from tarot cards and other oracle decks in that they do not predict your future as the result of random events, but as the result of the choices you make given your current circumstances and your personality. In Kabbalah the exercising of an individual’s Free Will determines their destiny, not Fate.
13-Counterpoint to all that pagan stuff, a song like «Hymn» prays to the Lord moved by regret. I think this is your first obvious reference to religion...
No. I had a bash at organised religion in ‘Witchfinder General’ and ‘Luther’, both of which expressed my distrust of blind faith. ‘Hymn’ is not however a song against religion, but a ghost story in the M. R. James tradition in which an elderly cleric is haunted by his refusal to give a Christian burial to executed criminals and he wonders if the heaven he has been preaching about all his life might be a lie after all, that he may instead be damned to an after life in hell.
14-What episode of Irish independentism refers to «Easter 1916»?
That song is about the ill-fated Easter Rising in Dublin which was cruelly put down by the British Army who over reacted and executed the leaders of the rebellion. By doing so they made martyrs of the rebels and turned Irish public opinion in favour of the IRA. Before the executions the Irish people were angry with the rebels for causing the destruction of large parts of Dublin.
As you can tell, injustice is a big theme with me – it gives my historical songs the emotional charge they need to be more than just scenes from the past.
15-Is «Mr. Nyman´s Garden» inspired in Michael Nyman? What´s the story of this offer to work with him and members of Velvet Underground? It is inspired by Michael Nyman, the film composer. In the mid 80s I interviewed Nyman for a magazine when he was working with Kate Bush and told him about myself at the end of our conversation. He offered to write a piece based on a theme from one of my songs, but I foolishly didn’t accept his offer as I was afraid he might not like my music and he was my favourite composer. It is a decision I have regretted ever since so I wrote ‘Mr Nyman’s Garden’ to show what might have been.
About the same time I interviewed Sterling Morrison for a Sunday Newspaper and he agreed to record some guitar for ‘Danse Macabre’ but we had problems with the format of the reel-to-reel tapes I sent over – they weren’t compatible with the American multi-track machines so it didn’t happen. I didn’t realise how important recording with these two names would have been at the time and I didn’t pursue it. I wouldn’t have let them go so easily now!
16-Psych pop, gothic-baroque, british pop...are usual tags when describing Paul Roland´s music. Please discuss each of them and give us your own taxonomy
I’m certainly not Brit pop in the usual meaning of that term. Although I do celebrate Britishness in the same way that Ray Davies celebrated the eccentricities of the British character at a particular time. If I was compared to Ray Davies I would see that as a great compliment. Gothic-baroque tends to refer to a very narrow type of music – heavy organ sounds, heavy guitar chords and Hammer horror lyrics which I have done my share of but I would like to think I am much more than that. Psych pop is probably the most accurate description of what I do, but it doesn’t convey the Edwardian/Victorian aspect or the folk themes which occur periodically in songs such as ‘The Sea Captain’, ‘The Ratcatcher’s Daughter’ and so on. I’d like to think that I defy categorisation. But ‘baroque-folk-psych-pop’ is as good a description of my music as I will get.
17-Plans for the future?
Paul: My immediate plans after appearing at the Wave-Gotik-Treffen festival in Germany in May is to finish a psych-pop album which I recorded with my old band and guest musicians from Caravan. It is the strongest album I have made so far and is hopefully going to be released in September. Then I will be writing a new acoustic album for next year and looking for concert dates in Greece and other countries for late 2005. I would love to play in Spain, as that is one of my unfulfilled ambitions and have an album released in Spain – a compilation to introduce myself to a Spanish audience. I have promised myself not to retire from music until I have fulfilled that dream.