In English_Interview: Paul Roland
The Gentleman of the Dark
His music arouses visions of dusky alleyways, faintly illuminated by flickering gaslight lanterns, with uncanny shapes lurking in the shadows ...
Fearless Thomas Fröhlich interviewed the Godfather of Neo Folk. 05.01.2011
There's a lot of links to literature in your lyrics. And there often is a touch of Poe and Lovecraft in your work. Though you keep saying that you are not that fond of them. But there is (to my opinion) a strong influence by them. So how come ... ?
I must confess that I had not read much of either author when I said that. The little of Lovecraft that I had read I thought overwrought (overdone) and I felt cheated that he backed off from describing the creatures by saying they were too hideous to talk about. But since then I have read them with a less critical eye and I now enjoy them very much, but I get a different pleasure from Poe and Lovecraft than I do from other authors. It’s the same with film directors and musicians - you find a different quality in each artist’s work. It doesn’t make one better than the other. You go to each with different expectations and they each satisfy a particular craving.
And: are there any authors you admire who probably have inspired you this way or another. Even comics seem to be a kind of inspiration ("Dr. Strange" ... ). Can you tell us a little about it?
As you rightly say, I also love horror comics and have done since I was 11 or 12 years old. They offer an instantaneous access to our subconscious fears and the artwork often has a macabre beauty that I find irresistible. Opening an EC or DV horror comic from the late sixties and early seventies is like drawing back the curtains on a miniature Grand Guignol theatre production. You know that if it gets too scary you can always shut the book, but it’s a pleasant, addictive frisson like a Hammer horror or Universal horror film of the 30s and 40s. They have a dreamlike quality that I find somehow comforting.
As for authors, I enjoy the more whimsical British fantasy writers such as H.G.Wells, John Wyndham (a unjustly forgotten English author), Mervyn Peake (whose macabre poetic novel "Gormenghast" was the prime inspiration for several songs on the "Duel" album) and also M.R.James, England’s finest ghost story writer. The Americans have a very different style and the setting is not so appealing to me.
What inspires you generally?
Images. Scenes from films and the ideas behind certain films usually spark my imagination. Sometimes I will take a tiny aspect of a story and develop that or empathise with one particular character as I did with "Walter The Occultist" from the "Cabinet of Curiosities" album. The idea came partly from seeing a seedy palmist’s shop in a seaside town and partly from my memory of a specific scene in the film "Night of the Demon" (aka "Curse of the Demon", which was directed by Jacques Tourneur and one of my favourite horror films. There aren’t many intelligent films that deal seriously and intelligently with magic and the occult but that is one of the very best.)
Historical themes and incidents can inspire me but I generally find that it’s the more bizarre characters and situations in history or in novels and films that get the adrenaline flowing. The hardest thing for me to write is 'straight'. I couldn’t write about Jack The Ripper, for example, unless I had an unusual 'angle' because the story itself has been done so many times that all the blood has been drained out of it, so to speak. The only way I could approach Jack The Ripper, as I did on the album "Nevermore" was to write a macabre Victorian nursery rhyme or street ballad ("Eight Little Whores") or a song from the perspective of one of his victims ("The Ballad of Mary Kelly" on the "Demos" project).
At the moment I am having great difficulty writing the lyrics for a new album which I have finished recording based on the Grimm fairy tales simply because they are not my original ideas and I can’t find a macabre or blackly humorous angle to get into that world, so I am writing another set of lyrics on a completely different subject which is just pouring out of my head while this Grimm project is sitting on a shelf waiting for inspiration to strike me. So I don’t have trouble writing lyrics if the subject strikes me as unusual and 'off-the-wall', as we say, but I can dig myself into a hole if I chose a subject that is too ordinary or has been done to death in the past. I need to find the 'Roland angle' to bring such well worn themes back to life.
There's a - very poeticly driven - feeling of the uncanny in your lyrics, in your music. You seem to prefer the "old school" horror of years gone by to the straight-in-your-face torture splatter of today. Even in "Jumbee" you are singing about the classical Haitiian zombie (and not about the modern "Living Dead" Romero style). Although you do songs about Leatherface ...
A few words (or more, as you like) on (good) horror as you see it ... ? And how and when has horror struck you first ...
I am attracted by the dreamlike quality of old black and white horror movies of Universal and Val Lewton’s subtle series of B movies in the 1940s but I also love the Hammer and Amicus horrors of the 70s because they are set in a world that is so much more interesting than our own. There are no ideas behind visceral horror movies such as "Hostel" or the "Saw" movies (although I like the first one in that series) because they are simply exploiting our fear and fascination with pain, torture and injuries which makes them the equivalent of watching a car crash. There is no personality behind these movies and no problems for the protagonists to solve or challenges to overcome, only the extent to which they can suffer, and by inference that means how long the audience can bear to keep their eyes on the screen while someone is being butchered. That’s not cinema, that’s celluloid surgery without anaesthetic. I do watch a lot of new horror movies but they tend to be stylish, eye candy and powerful thrillers with a very black heart - the remake of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre which I found very funny for some reason, Wrong Turn, Jeepers Creepers, The Descent, Dog Soldiers, The Bunker, I Sell The Dead, Silence of the Lambs, Red Dragon etc etc
I don’t get anything from teen slasher pix unless the central character is cool (like the killer in "Cold Prey") or the film is stylishly directed (as with the original "Halloween").
I wanted to like the remakes of "Halloween" and "Friday the 13th" but the scripts were so stupid and the characters so shallow and irritating that I couldn’t even wait for them to be killed off. And in "Halloween" Rob Zombie committed the unforgivable sin of explaining everything regarding the killer’s motives which robbed the faceless 'shape' of any menace he had in the original. Bad mistake.
You also seem to prefer a very beautiful and charming "old-fashionedness" in language as well as in content to the the "yo-man-what's-up-suck-my-d***"-(youth)-culture of today's globalized MTV-Nation.
Is that true? And if so why? A question of style? I sense a deep melancholy in everything you write and sing. Are you sad living now and not some years (or centuries) ago ... ?
Language is a beautiful art form to me and when I write lyrics or books I feel I am creating a sculpture or symphony in words which might sound pretentious but I just love to play with words and shape my sentences so they are concise and sound right. It is not a question of showing off the fact that I am literate and have read a lot. I was actually self-educated and most of my ideas come from my own mind and not from things I read. In fact, I have very little patience with reading - there are too many books that I want to read and too little time, so it’s often the idea behind a book that gets me started. I’ll have finished the lyric before I’ve had a chance to read more than the first few pages so there isn’t much point in trawling through the rest of the novel once I’ve done that. I’d rather move on to the next subject.
There is no beauty in plain speaking. Using street slang only betrays ignorance and lack of sophistication which is not a virtue, its simply lazy and aiming at the lowest common denominator in society - the uneducated masses. I have nothing against the masses, but I don’t see why we should be expected to lower our standards to appease them. If we go on like this we’ll all be grunting like Neanderthals by the next millennium instead of celebrating the potential of the human spirit. Or am I insane?
If there is a sadness in my music it is this overwhelming sense that we have lost something, a quality, a hope of adventure and discovery. We seem to have given up on making life interesting and are simply passing the time, obsessively craving possessions which we don’t need and which will not make us happy. Life seemed more certain in the past centuries and people were generally looking to "better themselves" not simply add to their personal wealth and social status. There has to be something wrong when serial killers and talentless wannabe pop idols become celebrities and real artists with something worth saying are struggling to be heard above the dross. Or am I (still) insane?
By the way: having mentioned style I'd like to know if you are familiar with the guy Sebastian Horsley who sees himself as "the last British dandy living". I've seen a performance by him recently here in Vienna and he will also appear in the same issue of "Rokko's Adventures" in which the story (and interview) of Mr Roland will be published. You like his ways?
Sorry I haven’t heard of him, but then again I live in the top of an old crumbling tower and haven’t seen a living human being for years.
For many people you are the "Godfather of Neo Folk"; and you seem to have a lot of fans within the Gothic community. How and why does that happen?
And what do you think of the music produced today generally (and especially the Gothic / Neo Folk "movements")?
I am proud to be the Godfather of anything and honoured to be remembered at all. But my music has more elements to it than folk (neo or otherwise) and Goth too is only a small aspect of what I do. But I can see why these particular groups have an interest in my work. The thing is that I never set out to create a song or album for any specific audience, only myself. I might deliberately shape an album or set of songs to reflect a theme or interest of mine but the songs dictate the instrumentation, not the artist. If the song has a Victoria theme, for example, you can’t imbue it with the right period atmosphere by having layered thrash metal guitars. And conversely, if a song is set in a mad doctor’s laboratory you can’t have a tinkling piano and acoustic guitar unless you use dischords and weird scales which I am not familiar with. I am trying to evoke a scene in my songs and I happen to be obsessed with macabre, supernatural and historic subjects so that tends to colour my palette, so to speak.
I think we are living through a great time for music - sure there is a lot of contrived commercial conveyer belt pop, but there are also lots of bands and songwriters with a personality and ideas. If you had lived through the 80s which was dominated by the Human League, Tears For Fears and all that electronic soulless machine music you would be as happy as I am now to hear real songs and real instruments again. Trashy 3-minute commercial pop is great (I grew up with Glam Rock and still love it) but there has to be a certain self mocking humour behind it and the energy and melody and rhythm have to be there to kick it into life.
How do you describe your own music?
Dark and sad and imaginative and literate would do it. Each song is a scene from an old fashioned horror movie but without the images. The listener supplies the images suggested by my words and the soundscape that I have created.
In your music you often deal with the darker side of human condition. On the other hand you have written a lot f books on meditation and even angels (and encounters with angels).
How does that fit together? Kind of yin/yang thing ... ?
The great thing about being schizophrenic is that you always have someone to talk to.
Like everyone else, I have a serious side and a wryly humorous side which helps me cope with life. You have to see the absurdities of life if you are going to survive. If you take everything seriously and get upset at all the injustice in the world you will drive yourself mad or jump off the roof which doesn’t solve anything. The fact that I have a deep sense of the spiritual dimension helps me to explore these darker worlds without going over the edge like poor old Poe.
In your biography you have mentioned your first out-of-body experience at the age of 5 or 6. And since then you have become more and more interested in the occult, if I am correct.
Can you describe all this a little for our readers?
The question that haunts most people, 'is there life after death?' was answered 40 years ago for me when, as a child, I had an out-of-body experience that altered my perception of reality. In fact, it was the first of many such experiences.
I can still recall waking from a dream to find myself soaring over the sea to 'visit' my grandmother and aunt in Ireland. I remember the sense of exhilaration of flying and the calmness with which I accepted the fact that I was hovering over them as they sat watching TV in the same room that I had played in whenever I came to visit them during the school holidays. After a few moments, having assured myself that they were fine, I snapped back into my body and woke with a jolt. There was no doubt about it. That was no dream.
As I understand it, the experience had been triggered by a strong unconscious desire to see my aunt and grandma combined with a latent ability to float free of my body - an ability that I believe we all share.
I have experienced OBEs on several subsequent occasions and each time I have been fully conscious that I was outside my body and in a state of heightened awareness quite distinct from the dream state. As an adult I would often wake from sleep to find myself in another part of the house and always with a feeling of intense relief and delight at being free from my physical shell. Unfortunately, the realisation was enough to pull me back into my body. However, one morning I awoke to find myself floating an inch or so above my body. I knew that if I opened my eyes I would return instantly to the physical so I remained in that transient, disconnected state for some minutes, enjoying the sensation. I could have drifted off on another astral journey, but at the time I lacked the courage to let go and so I didn’t take advantage of the opportunity. But each time it has been a liberating sensation and one that appears to confirm that the astral, etheric, subtle or dream body is our natural state.
The survival of the soul is therefore, for me at least, not a question of faith but a fact. It is a natural phenomenon, not a supernatural one.
Unfortunately when I was 12 or so and at an impressionable age I tried to force myself out of my body instead of letting it happen naturally during sleep and that combined with seeing a documentary on exorcism ("The Exorcist" had just been released) put a fear into the whole experience which stopped it occurring for many years afterwards. But then as an adult I joined a meditation group to have a safe situation in which to experiment and develop my psychic sensitivity and very quickly I started to have many other incredible experiences which gave me an insight into out latent abilities and other realities, and it also took away all fear of the unknown. But there is no space to go into those here. If your readers are interested in knowing more I would suggest looking for one of my books.
You have also written the books "Nazis and the Occult" and "Illustrated History of the Nazis". Is it the dark side (again) of the occult? I mean, from angels to Nazis seems to be a long way ...
Can you comment on this?
Again, its because I have such a strong positive outlook on what lies beyond this world that I can afford to gaze into the darker aspects of human nature. But also my understanding of how real magic works (by which I mean our ability to make our subconscious desires manifest through the will) has given me an insight into why and how such traumatic events come into being and a different understanding of the nature of what we call evil.
Your next project(s)?
I am working on a soundtrack for the Bela Lugosi film "White Zombie" on my own, having learned a lot from collaborating with German musicians on a soundtrack of the silent horror classic "Haxan".
I am also finishing a new album, as I mentioned, on the theme of Grimm fairy tales and writing the next album which will be more 60s influenced psych pop with quirky themes and my usual twisted macabre humour. But I have so many projects that I want to do that I have to discipline myself to deal with one at a time to make sure they all see the light of day. There is nothing worse than an artist who promises the people who like his work a lot of intriguing projects then fails to deliver. I always deliver but its hard to keep the lid on the ideas bubbling out of my head sometimes. Self-discipline and the ability to focus and see things through is as important as talent, I believe.
Is there anything you want to tell us ... please do it now!
I think I have taken up far too much of your time so I will just like to thank you for asking me to contribute to the magazine and I hope some of your readers who had not heard of me before might now listen to one of my albums and hopefully they will like it.