PAUL ROLAND INTERVIEW for Blue Juice (UK magazine) 1993
Paul Roland has been called 'the male Kate Bush' by fellow cult artist and friend Robyn Hitchcock. Mike Taylor meets the elusive Englishman.
Pastoral English psychedelia and fanciful lyrics that might have been inspired by the ghost of M.R.James or Edgar Allan Poe are the main ingredients in the mesmerising melodic psych-pop of singer-songwriter Paul Roland.
Since 1979 Paul has been spinning bizarre tales, against an evocative backdrop of hard-rock, psych-pop, folk and, occasionally, baroque strings. His most memorable character creations include a crochety Regency magistrate, various 19th century murderers, a retired executioner, an opium addict and a entire court of medieval grotesques. But not all his dreams are dark. Among his more whimsical creations are the eccentric characters on the 'Happy Families' mini LP and the Edwardian inventor who sails into uncharted skies in his flying machine above Wyndham Hill, in the song of the same name.
'They gathered around the machine at the fete on the common,
winged with vellum stretched taut on a wood frame
and all judged the venture insane.
"Tell me," enquired the reporter, "are you really in earnest,
and what are the chances of it falling out of the sky,
and if it did, would you be certain to die?"' ('Wyndham Hill')
Paul's lyrics have the narrative quality of a natural storyteller and so it's no surprise to learn that he is currently working on his first novel, a blackly humorous medieval fantasy titled 'The Magician Of Grimm'. What is surprising, however, is that despite the quality of his language he has cultivated a loyal following in Europe, particularly in Italy and Greece largely through his own efforts. And now his records are to be released in Japan.
"I still find it difficult to understand why my music, with its strong emphasis on word play and black humour, is so popular abroad," Paul confides to me, as we talk in the garden of a riverside inn near his new home in Oxfordshire. "I've been told that there is a strong story telling tradition in the Mediterranean countries and that my songs are understood even by those who don't have a large command of English, because the titles are very descriptive and the music atmospheric enough for them to imagine the movies in their own heads."
The cinematic parallel is a good one for the imagery in his lyrics are often strong enough to stand apart from the music. Even his first album, 'The Werewolf Of London' recorded in 1979 when he was just 19, boasted a penchant for historical and supernatural themes in such tracks as 'Lon Chaney', a homage to the silent horror movie star, 'Werewolves Of London' and the gothic opener 'Blades Of Battenburg'.
"I began writing songs when I was 14 and for the next five years I recorded in my bedroom on a cassette recorder with a couple of school friends banging biscuit tins and badly tuned acoustic guitars with little hope of getting into a studio, unless I could get signed up by EMI. So that LP was the first chance I had to hear my music played by real musicians and I wanted to record as much as possible. Unfortunately, my influences were as diverse then as they are now and I had even less ability to discipline myself to control my desire to write in various styles to imitate my heroes - Marc Bolan, Elvis, Howling Wolf and The Ramones! The important thing to me then was to get in the recording studio and make the music I could hear in my head. I didn't find my own style until years later. I'm really embarrassed now when I hear of collector's paying up to 25 pounds for that record. I wish I could buy them all back!"
The 'Werewolf Of London', credited to a group pseudonym Midnight Rags, was initially released on a label owned by the recording studio who, seeing the potential, advanced the money for recording and manufacture. Paul sold 300 from the boot of his father's car on the day of release and the rest within a month. But more important was the music press coverage which he hassled for himself and which then led to the album being picked up for re-release, with an amended track listing, by Armageddon Records who, at the time (1980), also had the Soft Boys on their roster. It was there that he met fellow eccentric Robyn Hitchcock who appeared on tracks for a second LP, but the album was shelved when Paul was tempted to leave after offers from a major label. The deal fell through and after two years of running his own labels Aristocrat and Moonlight (which released records by Radio Stars and Bebe Buell with The Cars), Paul put his affairs in the hands of ex-Roxy Music manager David Enthoven and June Bolan, widow of Marc Bolan. However, that, too, proved a false dawn and for the next three years Paul immersed himself in writing music and film reviews for the British rock press.
"I was quite happy as a journalist," he confesses. "I was able to hear new music and watch movies seven days a week and it fulfilled my desire to write, although I was frustrated at leaving some unfinished tracks in the can from my days at Armageddon. Eventually my ambition returned and in 1985 I put together a mini album called 'Burnt Orchids' which I took to Armageddon, who by then had changed their name to Aftermath. The interest from that record led to me being contacted by Alan Duffy of Imaginary Records, who was still doing cassettes at the time and he compiled a tape from my past material and eventually released a single which led to interest from fanzines and then record labels in Europe. Since then I have always been open to interest from indie labels and small press magazines. Their genuine interest and enthusiasm is far more important to me than all the big talk and fat wallets from the majors."
'Burnt Orchids' produced a number of classic songs, including the exotic 'Cairo' with its WW2 setting, the electric folk of 'Captain Blood' the highwayman, the anti-war song 'Death Or Glory', characteristically set at the time of Waterloo, and the title track, which told of a small boy in Edwardian England who poisons his overbearing father. It was the first of many tracks to feature Paul backed by a small string and woodwind ensemble which have been a feature of all his albums to date. "I love the sound of baroque strings, I find them very evocative of the English country house atmosphere I am trying to create on my acoustic tracks, but I don't necessarily like classical music. I find a lot of it pretentious or overly precious. I wouldn't accept being compared to Nick Drake just because a lot of my acoustic songs are folk flavoured and introspective. I found him a bit twee whereas my music has a strong streak of black humour and fantasy. I'm not interested in writing love songs or searching my own soul. I'm not that self-absorbed."
The success of 'Burnt Orchids' led to Paul's first tours of Europe and label deals in France (New Rose), Greece (DIDI Music), Italy (Diva) and Germany (Pastell/Bouncing), not to mention a brief stint with Bam Caruso in Britain and Revolver in the USA, making his discography a nightmare for collectors. All along Paul has held onto the rights to all his material, preferring to deal with the labels directly, licensing the albums for a limited period and keeping firm control even if, as he admits, it means his popularity grows 'steadily rather than dramatically'.
"I prefer it that way. My records permeate the market slowly finding journalists and DJs who are genuine enthusiasts who then spread the word more sincerely and effectively and I can still keep in direct contact with the people who like my music. Though now that's mainly through the magazine of the Appreciation Society."
A series of increasingly intriguing albums followed 'Burnt Orchids' including 'Danse Macabre' and the acoustic based mini LP 'A Cabinet Of Curiosities', both in '87, 'Happy Families' in '88, the rockier 'Duel' in '89 (with its medieval five song suite 'The King Must Die'), the folk-rock of 'Masque' in 1990 and the harder rock album 'Roaring Boys' in '91 with three cover versions on the CD featuring Nick Saloman of Bevis Frond. The success of the latter led Paul to issue 'Strychnine', a mini album of covers, earlier this year, featuring, among others, unique versions of Kevin Ayer's 'Lady Rachel', The Banshees' 'Arabian Knights', The Velvet's 'Venus In Furs' and, of course, the title track, originally recorded by The Sonics.
It's a surprisingly satisfying collection in which he displays an eclectic taste and invests each track with his own distinctive character, but why, I wondered, had someone known for the quality of his own songs recorded an album of covers? "It was a project I had been planning to do for some time. The covers I had included on earlier albums such as Barrett's 'Mathilda Mother' and the string quartet version of 'Gary Gilmore's Eyes' had been very popular. People had been writing and asking if I could record more and even sent tapes of songs they would like to hear me record. That's how I discovered 'Lady Rachel' and 'Strychnine'. I felt I had gone as far as I could with a certain sound and I wanted to have some fun before coming up with something new. But I didn't want to do a full album of covers - it was just a fun project and so I added four of my own songs recorded for a Greek radio session to the CD. I always try to give at least three extra tracks on every CD. That's not the record company's policy, it's mine."
Mike Taylor, 1993