In Memoriam: Joshua Pfeiffer interviews Paul Roland, Part I

We’re thrilled to have not just one, but two spe­cial guests here today at the 2.0 Fac­tory: Vern­ian Process’s Joshua Pfeif­fer and psych-pop and proto-Steampunk musi­cian Paul Roland. I can be cer­tain our read­ers are aware of Vern­ian Process and Pfeiffer’s Steam­punk music col­lec­tive label Gilded Age Records, but many may not be as famil­iar with Roland.

Paul Roland was one of the first musi­cians to write about Vic­to­ri­ana and Edwar­dian themes.

Rock­ing for over 30 plus years, Roland’s music flirts with var­i­ous gen­res like goth, psych-pop, and folk, with a uni­fy­ing theme of explor­ing sci­ence fic­tion and hor­ror tropes, espe­cially those with a Victorian/Edwardian bent. Within his songs, lis­ten­ers willl find tales inspired by H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, H. P. Love­craft, and Edgar Allan Poe, as well as orig­i­nal his­tor­i­cal and roman­tic char­ac­ters like opium addicts and Rip­peresque murderers.

The first to fea­ture uchronie mate­r­ial in his tunes, Roland’s music has been the inspi­ra­tion for sev­eral promi­nent Steam­punk musi­cians like Pfeif­fer, as he told S. J. in an e-mail exchange:

As for Paul Roland, if any­one deserves credit for spear­head­ing Steam­punk music, it is him. He was one of the inspi­ra­tions I had in start­ing my project. He was writ­ing songs about the first attempt at manned flight, and an Edwar­dian air­ship raid in the mid-80’s long before almost any­one else….”

Know­ing Roland was inter­ested in an inter­view, it seemed only nat­ural that one icon inter­view another, and we’re thrilled that Pfeif­fer agreed to helm the fol­low­ing inter­view with Roland.

This spe­cial will be fea­tured in two parts. The sec­ond part, which will be run­ning Wednes­day, will include a give­away with lucky win­ners receiv­ing Roland’s IN MEMORIAM, a double-CD com­pi­la­tion fea­tur­ing the best of his goth and Steam­punk work over the past 30 years. Stay tuned for more details, but if you are inter­ested in sam­pling his wares, he has made sev­eral tracks avail­able for free down­load here.

With­out fur­ther ado, let’s hand it over to the maestros.

Joshua Pfeif­fer: When you first hit the scene in the early 80’s, how did your lis­ten­ers react to the Vic­to­rian Fantasy/Occult/Horror themes in your music? Did you find that a lot of peo­ple under­stood your influ­ences, and/or appre­ci­ated your old world sensibilities?

Paul Roland: The first album I made, The Were­wolf of Lon­don, was released in March 1980 under the band name Mid­night Rags (an allu­sion to shrouds, not jazz! because I had an obses­sion with old black and white hor­ror movies from the 1930s and I had been addicted to Amer­i­can hor­ror comics such as Ghosts, The Witch­ing Hour and House of Mys­tery since the age of ten or so). But there was no Vic­to­rian ele­ment in my lyrics at that time unless the sto­ries hap­pened to be set in that period, as with the title track, which I had bor­rowed from War­ren Zevon because I felt that songs about Were­wolves should only be set in the fog of Vic­to­rian Lon­don and it was too good a title to be used just once.

I was still find­ing my voice then (I was 19 when I recorded that album), and was writ­ing in a vari­ety of styles which is why there are sparse acoustic songs (“Lon Chaney” and “Fly­ing Ace”) along­side rock songs dom­i­nated by key­boards in a cross between Ultra­vox and Gary Numan! Not that I was into those bands, but the key­board player that I worked with had been in a prog rock band called Sev­enth Wave and he was both a bril­liant musi­cian and had good taste when it came to blend­ing key­board sounds, so I was happy to give him the space to show me what ideas he had for the songs.

The album was a very low key affair, financed by myself with a press­ing of just 1,000 copies (it was later reis­sued by another label who had The Soft Boys with a slightly amended track­list­ing and a colour cover). That was the thing to do at the time for bands who didn’t want to be both­ered doing the rounds of the major labels and who actu­ally enjoyed the busi­ness of design­ing their own records, dis­trib­ut­ing and pro­mot­ing them them­selves. It was the end of the first inde­pen­dent labels period that fol­lowed on the heels of punk and so there was no real Goth or other move­ment to embrace it. DIY labels were a genre in them­selves. I made the album I wanted to make from a col­lec­tion of songs that I had writ­ten and hoped that it would find lis­ten­ers who would enjoy it. I wasn’t aim­ing at a spe­cific audience.

Thirty years later when I was told that the author of a book on Bauhaus cred­ited Bauhaus and myself with intro­duc­ing Goth rock to Britain, I couldn’t take it seri­ously, as I had sim­ply sold the 1,000 copies of the Were­wolf, had a few radio plays, one or two reviews (Zig Zag called me “a name to watch”) and a cou­ple of inter­views in the lesser music week­lies. But it appears that the album was a favourite at the Bat­Cave club in Lon­don, so per­haps the album made an impres­sion that way, by word of mouth, because it couldn’t have gone far with such a lim­ited press­ing. And in those days peo­ple didn’t make copies of albums for friends unless it was a cassette.

So, to answer your ques­tion, finally, I had no idea what if any impres­sion my music was mak­ing until I returned to music in 1985 (after tak­ing a three year break) with the Burnt Orchids mini album on which I indulged my predilec­tion for  Vic­to­rian and Edwar­dian sub­jects. I can’t say where that orig­i­nated, other than per­haps a child­hood fond­ness for the tales of H.G.Wells and the abid­ing mem­ory of a children’s TV play in which a dom­i­neer­ing father destroys the orchids that his son had been nur­tur­ing because he thought it “unmanly.” (It was the inspi­ra­tion for the title track in which the son poi­sons the father, a theme that was not in the orig­i­nal play).

But as I wasn’t play­ing live at the time, I had no idea how many peo­ple were actu­ally lis­ten­ing to the album or what aspect of the songs might have impressed them. My only feed­back came from fanzines who raved about it and helped spread the word. At the time I thought it was because they saw me as some part of a Six­ties revival!

JP: Your music shares a lot of sim­i­lar­i­ties to 70’s Prog-Rock, and Neo-Folk music. Are there any acts or artists, that you cite as major influences?

PR: I was a big Marc Bolan fan from the age of 12 and lis­tened to prac­ti­cally no one else until I started mak­ing records myself, so that is why I sound like him on that first album.

Marc Bolan has been Roland’s hero since he was twelve-years old, and has hon­ored the rock leg­end in this com­pre­hen­sive biography.

But after the three year break, I lost that per­va­sive influ­ence and found my own voice in time for the Burnt Orchidsalbum. By then I had realised that I wasn’t going to be and didn’t want to be signed by a major label, so I may as well make the kind of music that I wanted to make and to hear. No one was using real strings at the time and I had always loved that rasp­ing string sound on Bolan’s early records, so I thought I would cre­ate a cham­ber music ensem­ble sound to give the his­tor­i­cal and super­nat­ural songs a suit­ably Vic­to­rian ghost story type set­ting. It was only years later that I heard The Left Banke and Dono­van, although their songs had con­tem­po­rary themes and Dono­van favoured a more jazzy approach. Per­haps it was because I didn’t have any sem­i­nal influ­ences that my music sounded dif­fer­ent and because I always wrote on an acoustic gui­tar which meant that the songs were enriched by other instru­ments but could still sound inter­est­ing if stripped down to gui­tar and voice.

I had also liked 50s rock after see­ing the movie That’ll Be The Day in ’73. Those early rock records instilled into me the idea that you should say every­thing you need to say in 3 min­utes or less and get to the point from the first few bars or risk los­ing the listener’s atten­tion, an approach shared with Glam Rock which was at its peak when I first dis­cov­ered music. Writ­ers of news­pa­per arti­cles and fic­tion have to do the same and as I had been writ­ing short sto­ries since the age of nine, that idea of hook­ing the reader or lis­tener from the first sen­tence or verse must have been upper­most when I began writ­ing songs.

My school friends intro­duced me to Yes, ELP, Led Zep­pelin but they were just for plea­sure. They didn’t influ­ence me as I didn’t want to make that kind of music myself. Though I must con­fess that “In The Court of the Crim­son King” by King Crim­son became a sig­nif­i­cant ref­er­ence point for the lat­ter Duel album, but noth­ing else by King Crim­son touched me as they didn’t repli­cate the medieval majesty of that debut album once Greg Lake left them top form ELP. Now I am into so many artists I couldn’t list them all, every­thing from rock­a­billy to Ramm­stein, but again, these are for plea­sure, they don’t per­vade my own imag­i­nary world.

JP: Any cur­rent musi­cians you are lis­ten­ing to that you would rec­om­mend to your fans?

PR: Too many to list here. I have a very eclec­tic taste. I wrote a biog­ra­phy of Marc Bolan last year so I have been lis­ten­ing to his entire back cat­a­logue and still never tire of any­thing pre 1974. Psy­chobilly CDs are con­stantly on the stereo along with Iggy Pop, Stax clas­sics, The Doors, early 70s Stones, Cap­tain Beef­heart and loads more. I also play Michael Nyman’s sound­track to The Draughtman’s Con­tract a lot but reserve that for spe­cial occa­sions as it’s like a fine wine or a good cigar that must be savoured. I would like to think that peo­ple feel that way about my music.

JP: You men­tioned writ­ing short sto­ries at nine, and your bio of Marc Bolan. Why did you choose music as an out­let for sto­ry­telling, instead of pur­su­ing a career as a novelist?

PR: I don’t make a dis­tinc­tion between writ­ing songs and writ­ing fic­tion. Both involve the cre­ation of char­ac­ters and an envi­ron­ment using words to con­vey what one sees in one’s mind. I’m very for­tu­nate in being able to tell a story in verse with suit­able musi­cal accom­pa­ni­ment and also in prose form, whether fic­tion or non-fiction. I pride myself on bring­ing his­tor­i­cal char­ac­ters to life whether they are Jack The Ripper’s vic­tims (‘The Crimes Of Jack The Rip­per”), noto­ri­ous ser­ial killers (“In The Minds Of Mur­der­ers”) or eccen­tric eso­teric fig­ures (“The Dark His­tory Of The Occult”). But mak­ing a liv­ing as a nov­el­ist is pre­car­i­ous at best and can be soul destroy­ing if you spend a year writ­ing it only to receive count­less rejec­tion slips. Whereas songs can be writ­ten and recorded com­par­a­tively quickly and you don’t have to have the approval or back­ing of a record com­pany to release them. I have only writ­ten one novel ‘on spec’? – ?with no com­mit­ment from a pub­lisher–The Magi­cian of Grimm, but I did that as an exer­cise, to see if I could sus­tain a story for the length of a novel. It was my appren­tice­ship and it took me many months of hard con­tin­u­ous work. My non-fiction books have all been com­mis­sioned by pub­lish­ers though some of the sub­jects were my idea and oth­ers I accepted because the sub­ject inter­ested me and they don’t involve months of work with no guar­an­tee of pub­li­ca­tion. I can now write a book in six weeks and I have a con­tract guar­an­tee­ing pub­li­ca­tion. But if a pub­lisher offered to pub­lish my nov­els or short sto­ries I’d start writ­ing one tomorrow.

Stay tuned for the sec­ond install­ment of the Paul Roland inter­view by Vern­ian Process’ Joshua Pfeif­fer.  Mean­while, if you’d like to know more about Mr. Roland, check out these url sundries:

To sam­ple some of Mr. Roland’s Steam­punk songs, he has made some free down­loads avail­able for our read­ers here:  http://paulroland.wordpress.com/downloads/

You can also find more info about Mr. Roland at the fol­low­ing venues:

Wikipedia

Offi­cial website

Online discog­ra­phy (with samples)

MySpace

Face­book

Twit­ter: @paulrolandmusic

“In Memoriam: Joshua Pfeiffer interviews Paul Roland, Part I” was published in 2.0 exclusive material, Giveaway, Guest Post, Interviews, Music, performance art.

One Response to In Memoriam: Joshua Pfeiffer interviews Paul Roland, Part I

  1. Pingback: Sepiachord.com - Sepiachord.com: Music now for a past that never was

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