In Memoriam: Joshua Pfeiffer interviews Paul Roland, Part

Published on April 12, 2012 by Mecha Underwood.

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:

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