6 Oct 2014
Interview: Paul Roland
Paul Roland Interviewed by Grey Malkin
Paul Roland is an artist of no small renown in psychedelic circles. Since his first release ‘The Werewolf Of London’ in 1980, Paul has amassed an extensive, eclectic and impressive back catalogue that ranges from the chamber folk acoustic of ‘A Cabinet Of Curiosities’ to the gothic Nyman-esque piano of ‘Pavane’ to the dark, full blown psyche rock of ‘Duel’. Described by erstwhile collaborator Robyn Hitchcock as ‘the male Kate Bush’ Paul is a true original whose music, no matter which style or era, remains resolutely recognisable as ‘Paul Roland’. And a good thing too.
Paul, your new album, ‘Professor Moriarty’s Jukebox’ is a limited edition collection of rare, re-recorded and radio session tracks. How did this come about?
P: A couple of years ago I was asked to play a charity gig in London organised by the actor and TV presenter Stephen Fry and invited to put together a new band for the occasion. I found a really great violinist and drummer and my son Joshua was playing bass. But the charity gig didn’t happen, so I took the band into the studio to record our live set for various radio stations in the UK, Greece and America. Then I met Mick Crossley, guitarist and singer with Flyte Reaction and a one-time collaborator with Bevis Frond who recorded the freakier guitar parts and some off-the-wall backing vocals to make them very different from the original album versions. I also invited the Clockwork Dolls from Baltimore to add vocals to some other tracks which included cover versions of Marc Bolan’s unreleased song ‘Meadows of the Sea’, The Kinks’ ‘I’m Not Like Everybody Else’ and Joy Division’s ‘Day of the Lords’ (which I had been asked to record for a JD tribute album). Add half a dozen unreleased or alternate versions of songs I’d dusted off in the vaults and hey presto – Professor Moriarty’s Jukebox!
Your music (and writing) often touches upon some of the more macabre and gothic edges of literature and folklore, from ghosts and witchcraft to Nosferatu and Norman Bates. What draws you towards the darker side of things and is this an interest you have always had?
P: I think my fascination with the supernatural originates in childhood when I had out of body experiences and wanted to know what they signified and whether I could develop this psychic sensitivity and attain altered states at will. But if I hadn’t practised various forms of meditation and psychic development in later life - which have helped me to distinguish psychic impressions from figments of my imagination - I couldn’t afford to indulge in macabre fantasies because they would have unhinged my mind! Seriously, even in my darkest songs I try to find an empathy with my characters so that they become human, as I did with ‘Nosferatu’ who I saw as a tragic figure and not a monster. Otherwise they would be no more than two dimensional comic book characters, although I’ll admit sometimes there is an element of The Addams Family in my more morbidly humorous songs.
Often your albums take either a very intricate, string based acoustic approach or alternatively a full band/full on guitar approach. How do you decide which style is going to suit the material?
P: I nearly always write the music first, so that will determine what tone I take with the lyrics. If it’s an intimate, introspective confessional type of song that will obviously require quiet and subdued instrumentation, whereas a lyric or theme describing action or terror will demand a hard rock approach. But it’s not something I have to think about. My songs are constructed like mini movies but without the visuals so I have to convey a specific mood through the music, lyrics and instrumentation to ensure the listener sees the same movie in their mind as I did. Nothing kills a track more effectively than using an anachronistic sound such as a synth when the setting is a 19th century environment. If I use a keyboard in that setting it would either be an organ, piano or an unidentifiable sound that evokes the unearthly. I’m a bit of a stickler for that – being authentic. You have to enhance the scene, not detract from it if you want to carry the listener with you.
At one point your albums were going for three figure sums on Amazon due to their rarity and collectability but an extensive reissue programme has brought many classics such as ‘Duel’ and ‘Danse Macabre’ back into the light of day. Is everything that you would like to be in print now available and what was it like revisiting those earlier albums during the reissue process?
P: There are only two albums that have not been reissued - ‘Pavane’ and ‘Gargoyles’ - but I don’t have any great urge to revisit those. I’m happy with them as they are, although the label has asked me to release them to complete the reissue program. If and when I do, I’ll put both on one CD as one is a mini album and the other full length. I’ve always tried to put two albums on one CD whenever I could squeeze them in, or add a lot of extra tracks to make the release as appealing as possible and special. I reissued those old albums because I didn’t want anyone paying crazy prices on Amazon and Ebay. I also wanted to take the opportunity to add extra instruments or vocals where necessary. They had all been recorded comparatively quickly in an effort to capture the spontaneity and energy level, but in retrospect I could hear that certain elements or parts on some tracks were missing. Sometimes it was simply that the lead vocal needed doubling to strengthen it, or a very simple part was needed to add interest at a certain point or a bit of percussion was needed to lift the track at a crucial moment. I don’t like it when other artists fiddle with their old recordings but there are so many people who have discovered my music in the last few years and who hadn’t heard the originals that I thought it was the right time to add subtle but significant embellishments to complete the odd track or two that sounded unfinished. A couple of albums such as ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ I didn’t feel the need to revisit at all, while others had a major makeover and were then issued in a ‘director’s cut’ with a number of stronger songs that had been recorded at that time to replace the weaker tracks. I did that with the reissue of ‘Roaring Boys’/’Sarabande’ which now has a total of six new songs. It was very satisfying to be able to finish them or correct small mistakes, but it was always done without altering the character of the original track. I wasn’t remixing – I couldn’t do that even if I’d wanted to as I’d thrown all my master tapes out when I ‘retired’ from music back in ’97 (!)
That 6 year break from music wasn’t lost or wasted though because it gave me the opportunity to hear my old albums from a new perspective. It was as if I was listening to someone else and I could hear what worked and what didn’t work so well. And when I started writing new songs I wrote so many in six weeks that I had nearly enough for the next three albums (‘Pavane’, ‘Re-Animator’ and some of ‘Nevermore’). It was as if I had been suppressing a part of me for so long that they just poured out in a great flood. But best of all, the new songs benefitted from the maturity that had come with writing 20 books in those intervening years. I believe I am a better story teller because of it and I’ve since learnt to play other instruments so I can now write and play those parts that I used to need other people to do and that gives me the feeling that I’m still exploring new possibilities. I always approach each new album as if it’s my first, as if I have to prove myself and surprise people. The one unforgivable sin that an artist can commit in my mind is complacency. I set myself a very high standard and I won’t put out anything that I don’t feel is special in some way.
Your music has been hugely influential and consistently popular, especially in areas across Europe such as Germany, Italy and Greece. What do you think it is about your music that translates to such a wide audience and such diverse nationalities? You take a very literate approach to your songwriting, often telling stories or tales within the song, so I’m guessing there must be something in the lyrics that is also universal?
P: I wondered about that myself at times and I think it is that those countries have a strong story telling tradition so even if they don’t understand all the nuances and the irony (or the humour!) they get the general impression that they are being invited into a world of fables and dark fairy tales. I also use a lot of acoustic and classical instruments that have a universal appeal and are not too frequently used in rock music.
How has the music business changed since you first released 'The Werewolf of London', considering the rise of the internet and the increasing dominance of digital releases? Are there any plans for a Paul Roland digital release site or will you continue to make physical copies of your work available?
P: It’s changed completely. It’s an entirely different world and culture. There are some very positive aspects – digital recording means that so much can be recorded outside the studio or recorded in another country and then emailed, burnt to CD and uploaded on to a track, so an artist is not restricted by having to get everyone to a particular studio on a specific day, but it also means that there is a culture of expecting everything for free which is killing creativity. I find the instant accessibility of new music online very exciting and the internet has helped me to reach new fans in countries where my albums wouldn’t have been distributed, but if an indie artist has to pay several thousand euros to record an album they need to be able to sell several thousand CDs to recover those costs so they can record the next album. Downloads pay pennies or cents. You only have to look at online comments from artists who have had a track downloaded hundreds of thousands of times on Spotify but only receive a couple of hundred dollars to realise that something has gone seriously wrong.
It’s wonderful that anyone and everyone can record and release their own music without having to form a band and manufacture and sell a thousand LPs, but there is something special about having a physical album with the cover and lyric booklet. It was a proving ground and an apprenticeship that helped you learn your craft. That’s gone now. I don’t knock anyone who is making their own music and distributing it on-line, but there is no substitute for getting a band together and the feeling that generates and playing live in front of a real audience and entertaining them.
My own personal favourite Paul Roland album is ‘A Cabinet of Curiosities’. This sound on this is a kind of English baroque psychedelia, with much of the subject material predating and predicting the Steampunk movement (indeed, you have been called the ‘Godfather of Steampunk’). What do remember from the recording sessions for this album? And which is your personal favourite of your releases?
P: I like all my albums (especially now that I’ve fixed all the faults!), but for different reasons. ‘A Cabinet of Curiosities’ was the one that I felt was the most personal because I did it purely for fun, for my own pleasure. It was my baroque chamber album project on which I indulged my very personal taste for quirky acoustic songs in a string quartet setting and with the most idiosyncratic lyrics to match. It was a collection of songs that I considered too left-field – too bizarre for a regular album (not that there was anything conventional about my rock albums!) but these songs were more ‘me’ than anything else I’d recorded at the time. I’m thinking particularly of the acoustic regency-styled cover of ‘Gary Gilmore’s Eyes’, ‘Demon In A Glass Case’ and ‘Wyndham Hill’ which were hatched in my own private world of Edwardian inventors and Victorian eccentrics which I didn’t think for one minute that anyone else would like. I still find it ironic that it is the album that people seem to like the best.
The French label New Rose had approached me to make a record for them but as I had just released a full length rock album (‘Danse Macabre’) I couldn’t make another rock album for them. However, at that time mini-albums (8 songs) were fashionable so I took the opportunity to record a long planned pet project of mine between ‘real’ albums thinking it would be seen as an ‘interesting’ idiosyncratic side project. I have to say I was extremely fortunate in having a brilliant keyboard player –Chris Randall- to write the string arrangements. It wouldn’t have been half as interesting if I hadn’t had the privilege to work with him.
I love recording more than anything and it’s always a thrill to hear the tracks coming together, but that particular album was a very special experience because it was a unique sound coming together moment by moment as the various classical instruments were recorded, not over a couple of weeks or more as you would do with a rock band. I’d only ever heard that chamber ensemble in my head so to hear the violinist play the first part straight off the score in one or two takes, then the second part and finally the third part (with the cello and harpsichord parts to be put down the next day) meant I heard the tracks materialise in a matter of minutes. And on those particular songs which only came to life when the ensemble was complete it was like colouring in a painting-by-numbers picture. Instant magic. It was even more fun recording the next album ‘Happy Families’ because the songs were unrestrained Roland and the instruments included a bassoon and other ‘odd’ instruments that helped bring those characters onto the stage, so to speak, right before my eyes. Recording with a rock band is a buzz but creating something quite new like that – something I had envisaged and heard in my head since I started writing songs at the age of 14 – was exhilarating. I intend to do something similar again with a new album I’m writing now based on the ghost stories of M.R. James.
As well as being a renowned psychedelic musician you are also a prolific author and writer. Can you tell us a bit more about this side of yourself? Your most recent books have covered such factual topics as the origins of Steampunk and the biography of HP Lovecraft yet you also write incredible dark fantasy fiction such as ‘The Curious Case of Richard Fielding’ and ‘The Magician of Grimm’. What differs, if anything, between the processes of writing a book as opposed to an album?
P:I consider both to be aspects of storytelling, whether its lyrics for songs or non-fiction books when I am attempting to bring characters and the past to life. It’s never the facts of someone’s life that interest me but their mindset and the world they inhabited, or in the case of Lovecraft and the steampunk novelists, the world they created. I couldn’t live with only one – the music or the books – I need both. But while I might be covering a subject we are all familiar with in a book, with the music it is all from my own mind, so that is more personal. You could say the books are products of my mind, or intellect, and the songs are from my imagination and soul – if that doesn’t sound too pretentious, but I think there is something in that.
What does the future hold? Is there the possibility of any live dates in the UK?
P: I don’t plan to play any gigs in the UK – as it’s a very different situation from Europe. But I have plenty of album projects, including an album of original voodoo chants that began as a soundtrack to the early Bela Lugosi film ‘White Zombie’ which is being recorded this autumn and a new psych-garage album to follow ‘Bates Motel’ that I’m writing at the moment, so watch the Facebook page and website for details – including how to win free copies of the CDs and books! Thank you for your questions and your interest in my music. P
You can read Grey Malkin's review of "Professor Moriarty's Jukebox" here.
"Professor Moriarty's Jukebox" is available directly from Sirena Records here.