Artwork by Daarken www.daarken.com
Interview by Jordan Mooney.
Of all of the musicians on the Goth circuit, there are few with the sheer scale of Aurelio Voltaire. The man is a jack of all trades, constantly working and pushing his own boundaries. The result is that by far he has the largest amount of media affiliated with him than any other ‘Goth’ musician. He is the powerhouse, in many ways one of the people responsible for keeping the movement alive.
With animation, literature and music under his belt it becomes exceptionally difficult to write about the gentleman. He practically oozes talent, and to mark up all fields simultaneously, well, it’s simply impossible to maintain a limelight on a certain feature of his repertoire.
Aurelio Voltaire is also a very pleasant man, despite having a practical army at his fingertips he constantly takes the time to answer emails (rumoured to be over 500 a day, no less!), meet his fans after every single show, offer hugs, condolences and support to the people whom follow his every move, something that is not only very commendable but inspires many people into becoming a person rather like himself.
It took a while, but Mr. Voltaire finally got a window of spare time to answer a few questions, and he certainly delivered! So sit down, have a cup of coffee in a mug with bats and skulls painted on it, a few biscuits, and perhaps put on The Cure…
Cat On The Wall: Good day to you, Mr. Voltaire! It’s a pleasure to have you here for Cat on the Wall. A few of us still aren’t acquainted with you – so would you care to introduce yourself to our readers?
Voltaire: I guess the short version is that I make things. I make things that are more often than not both dark and humorous. I write songs with titles like Zombie Prostitute and Cannibal Buffet, I make creepy stop-motion shorts, I design huggably gothic toys, I’ve written books about Goth culture that are earnest and sincere and at the same time very tongue in cheek. I’m just a big spooky kid that never grew up, I suppose.
COTW: You are of course a musician primarily, but you’re no stranger to animation, writing, acting or design. Was music always going to be your focus, or do you sometimes wish your career took a different route? While you do these varied things concurrently, do you wish you were in a different primary field?
V: My first true love was stop-motion animation. I was a monster fan from as far back as I remember, but after seeing the films of Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad), I was completely in awe of stop-motion and knew that I wanted to dedicate my life to bringing monsters to life. At the age of ten, I got a super 8 camera and began making stop-motion films. Music didn’t happen until later. Growing up in the 80s and literally having witnessed the birth of MTV, like any teenager of that era I dreamed of being a rock star. I had a band in junior high school, but stop-motion was my main focus and when I ran away from home at 17 and relocated to New York City, my first real job was as a stop-motion animator working on TV commercials. I played music at home for my own entertainment, but I did not play my first live show until I was nearly 30 years old.
Do I wish things had gone differently? No, not really. It’s been a very interesting and colourful life and I can’t complain because I’ve gotten to make a living for myself doing what I love, creating all manner of strange and wonderful things in various different media. I think my next step is to finally bring them all together by making a feature film where my music, my animation, writing and performing can all come together into one project. I think this is probably where it’s always been headed. It just took thirty years to gestate.
COTW: Going to your roots in animation, it’s fairly evident that (the sadly now late) Harryhausen is your biggest influence, but are there any others you’ve found particularly influential? As an extension, are there any pieces of animation you believe deserve further recognition or you have found particularly impressive?
V: When I was a teenager, I caught a clip from a black and white, stop-motion film from the turn of the century on a TV show called Night Flight. The clip was, I later found out, mislabelled “The Devil’s Ball.” It really set my imagination on fire and I didn’t realize it then, but had a massive impact on what would become my “style” as a stop-motion animator and director. I searched for this 5 minute clip for close to 30 years in the hopes of seeing it again. I finally discovered that it was just a small piece of a film called The Mascot by a Russian animator and pioneer of stop-motion named Ladislav Starewich. His films had all been lost for decades and only recently were prints found and restored and now his work can be seen on Netflix and Youtube and many other places. I highly recommend watching his work. What this man was able to do with puppets in the early 1900’s is truly astounding and marvellous.
COTW: In all of your creative output, what formal training do you have, musically, artistically, etc..? Do you think formal training in any art form is essential, or more of a nudge/refining point?
V: None. Having run away from home as a teenager, I’m completely unspoiled by higher learning. I think that an art education is very helpful when it comes to technique, but I’m not sure one can be taught to have ideas, especially ones that are original. I do think that art takes a certain amount of natural talent and I’m not sure one can be taught to possess that spark.
COTW: Your music covers a massive array of themes, genres, concepts and styles that have gotten more and more diverse over the span of your career – What would you say is the best ‘starter’ Voltaire release for our readers whom aren’t as well acquainted with you?
V: It might make some sense to start with my first album, The Devil’s Bris. But as for the more recent material, my album Riding a Black Unicorn Down the Side of an Erupting Volcano While Drinking from a Chalice Filled with the Laughter of Small Children (Yes, that IS the album title! – Ed) is also a good bet. I think that album represents the full spectrum of all I had done until that point from serious songs to funny songs, dark, bouncy, sad… ranging in styles from cabaret to Goth to old school jazz, folk and steampunk… I think I consciously wanted to revisit most of the places I’d explored previously on one definitive album and I think it does that effectively.
COTW: You’ve toured the United Kingdom regularly for many years, including, of course, Whitby Goth Weekend. How do you like our British Isles, and perhaps more importantly, WGW? Do you think it’s an important event?
V: It is an important event because as I see it, it seems the Gothic subculture is fading and in many ways dying out. At one point, I think every major city had a Goth night at some club somewhere. More and more I’m seeing that a weekly Goth night is too difficult to maintain. Even in a city like New York, our weekly Goth nights have become once-a-month events. I recently performed in Raleigh, North Carolina at a Steampunk convention and one of the locals told me that their local Goth night at a club happens only twice a year! So yes, I think it’s important that people like Jo Hampshire who runs Whitby Gothic Weekend, are keeping it alive. As for England… it’s lovely!!! Except for the chavs. God, I hate those damn chavs! We have something similar in the States but we call them douche bags. ; )
V: My London shows have always been a real treat! With the exception of my first time performing in London back in 2000 at the Slimelight, I may have sold out every venue I’ve performed in since. There is nothing that compares to having a standing room only crowd, all eyes directed at you, showering you with love. Truly. It’s hard to explain the feeling but it’s very emotionally overwhelming in an amazing way. I’ve always felt that same way at Whitby Gothic Weekend whether I was the opening act, main support or the headliner.
COTW: Your novel, Call of the Jersey Devil, is out now! Did you find writing a novel to be a refreshing change from writing an album? Do you feel it’s an easier process, or quite the opposite?
V: Well, the biggest difference between making an album and writing a novel is that in the former, you must work in a studio with many other musicians, engineers, etc, to create a final product. It’s like making a giant puzzle with a team of people. There are just countless variables and you relay on other people’s strengths and sometimes are shackled from realizing the vision you have in your mind due to their limitations, instruments not sounding exactly how you want them to and the endless and maddening process of mixing an album, where you take EVERY TINY THING that was recorded and try to find its proper place in the song. It’s truly, truly maddening and every change you make creates more problems and challenges. But you also benefit exponentially by having people bring their own ideas, their own creativity and strengths to your vision making it become something greater than you could ever have constructed on your own.
Writing is totally solitary. I wrote my book between the hours of midnight and 7am in an all night café in New York City called Yaffa. It was just me and a laptop and a bottle or two of wine, every night for weeks. There is no input, no opinions, no gear, no instruments other than the one thing you write with be it pen or pencil or keyboard. Just the ideas in your own mind and how you formulate them on the page. I love to work that way, I love the solitude of it, especially doing it in public. I love the aspect of being all alone in a crowd of people, a story forming before me in the midst of silverware clinking and people talking and music playing, like a creature rising from a cauldron. But, of course, the biggest drawback is the lack of collaboration. Not until you hand it off to an editor do you have the benefits of someone else’s expertise to help flesh out, round out and polish the work.
COTW: They say a band is only as good as it is live – many would have difficulty judging as you, for the majority of the time, don’t HAVE a live band! Do you find some people are surprised by your simple (but incredibly entertaining!) shows? Do you feel it’s nicer going by yourself, or would you rather cart a band along with you?
V: I much prefer playing solo if simply because I’m not constrained to playing only the songs the band has rehearsed. When I play with a band, I need to be aware that they are on stage with me. I can’t decide in the middle of a song to stop and tell a story. I can’t decide that I’m going to try to write a song on the spot or play a song from one of my albums from fifteen years ago that I haven’t rehearsed or played in years. I can’t look out into the audience and see something funny and decide to have a conversation about it with an audience member for the next ten minutes during my show! But I do all of those things when I perform solo and because of it, no two shows are the same and I think people go away with a feeling that they didn’t just see a “band” play a concert but rather were sitting in my living room having a one hour chat with me that included me playing some songs. I really love that aspect of the solo shows. Playing with a band is great to bring the audience the full musical spectrum of the recordings, but they could of course just buy the album and hear that at home. I much prefer when they come see me, that it’s like visiting a creepy uncle who drinks too much and has preposterous and often dirty stories to share about his exploits.
COTW: On behalf of everybody from Cat on the Wall I’d like to thank you very much for giving us the time to ask a few questions. We’re glad you enjoyed our WGW review and we hope to be writing about you again very soon!
V: My pleasure entirely! Thanks for having me! If your readers would like to know more about my books, toys, films, music and er… other stuff I do, they can join me at www.voltaire.net! Also, they can hear a whole heck of a lot of my music on my Youtube page where I post entire albums of mine! That’s here: www.youtube.com/voltairemusicpage