Jan 2023 17

“The King is Dead – Long Live the Goblin King!” Aurelio Voltaire pays an ultimate tribute to David Bowie, while also delving into one of his most ambitious and theatrically minded productions yet.
 

 

An InterView with Aurelio Voltaire

By Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)

Over the past 25 years, Aurelio Voltaire has distinguished himself as a consummate performer and one of the goth scene’s most iconic artists. His music blends elements of folk, cabaret, and rock, and sprinkled with no small amount of whimsy and satire, while possessing a veneer of class and sophistication. His latest album, The Black Labyrinth ~ A Requiem For the Goblin King sees him inviting listeners on a magical journey through a musical fantasy that pays homage to one of modern music’s most beloved fallen idols, David Bowie; inspired by his role as the Goblin King in Labyrinth, the album is one of Voltaire’s most ambitious and accomplished presentations, working with numerous musicians that had been part of David Bowie’s band over the years, including producer Mark Plati, as well as a number of other high profile guests. With an accompanying graphic novel soon to appear, The Black Labyrinth is not just another album, but a full-scale production as much suited for a theatrical setting as for the comfort of one’s own daydreams. ReGen Magazine had the chance to speak with Aurelio Voltaire as he elaborates on the process that went into crafting The Black Labyrinth, as well as some hints about his other various endeavors.

 

First, let me ask… how are you? How’s your health?

Voltaire: Thanks for asking! I’m doing surprisingly well, but that might have something to do with the fact that I never go to doctors. So, if there’s something wrong with me, I’m blissfully unaware.

Your latest album takes heavy inspiration from the late great David Bowie, so let’s get the Bowie questions out of the way. Obviously, Bowie has had a tremendous impact on a great many artists in modern music, but I’d like to ask about your own personal connection to Bowie. How did you first experience Bowie’s music?

Voltaire: I’m a child of the ’80s MTV generation, meaning that I was glued to the TV set to see the very first seconds of MTV’s first transmission and then watched religiously every day after school from then until around 1984. That’s where I first encountered David Bowie during his Let’s Dance era. I thought he was about the coolest a person could ever hope to be and still do! And naturally, I wanted to be just like him. Around that same time, I also discovered Adam Ant, Peter Murphy, Gary Numan, and Richard Butler of the Psychedelic Furs, all musical idols of mine. It wasn’t until many years later though that I discovered that they were all inspired by Bowie as well! So, in one way or another, we all were, and perhaps still are, trying to somehow become David Bowie.

I know this sounds like a loaded, or even very obvious question, but what was it about his music that resonated most with you and the way you approach making your own music?

Voltaire: Ironically, since I discovered Bowie in the ’80s, I was mostly attracted to his Let’s Dance era music for most of my life. It wasn’t until much later that I came to discover that it was his least favorite period and that he himself, and many of his musicians that I recorded with, regarded as his sort of ‘sell out’ period. Over the three-year period it took to record The Black Labyrinth, I listened to at least one of his 20-plus albums a night to really do a deep dive into what made Bowie, Bowie. What I discovered is that despite the music changing quite drastically from folk to glam to pop to experimental to rock, what seemed to be running through the whole discography was just this seemingly effortless confidence, swagger, and coolness. The music has always been pretty great and the songwriting solid, but what really strikes me as the glue that holds it all together is an exceptional, personal charisma.

The album refers to Labyrinth and his role as The Goblin King, which is one of his most beloved performances/albums. Was there another particular era, persona, or sound that he’d explored that you’ve particularly enjoyed – the ‘Thin White Duke,’ Ziggy, his industrial/drum & bass years in the ’90s, etc.?

Voltaire: As a lover of fantasy, sci-fi, and the exotic, his most outlandish incarnations are, of course, my favorite. So, Jareth, Ziggy, and Earthling era Bowie are certainly near the top for me when it comes to his style. But let’s be honest, I’d probably sit and listen to the man read the phone book in his pajamas, if that were an option.

What about movies… he’d been in several, and my personal favorite would have to be his performance as Major Jack Selliers in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. Other than Labyrinth, was there a movie role of his that you feel stood out?

Voltaire: Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is certainly a favorite! But The Hunger is my all-time favorite film of his. I also love his portrayal of Andy Warhol in Basquiat. But as for movies that inspired The Black Labyrinth album, it was mostly more of the ’70s and ’80s fantasy I loved as a teenager like The Dark Crystal, The Never Ending Story, H.R. Puffinstuff, The Black Cauldron, Legend, and others of that ilk.

 

 

Bowie left us six years ago; was there a particular motivation behind your undertaking this album at this particular time?

Voltaire: I remember exactly where I was the moment that I heard Bowie passed. I’ll never forget it. I was at a goth party, sitting alone at the bar. I looked up and saw everyone crying. Grown men were sobbing openly and being consoled by their partners! I thought, something truly devastating must have happened. And when I looked at my phone, I found it was exactly the case. I went home soon after and, to be honest, I cried a lot. I decided right then and there that I’d make an album that was a tribute to Bowie. But I knew I didn’t want to make an album of covers. Making an album of ‘less-good’ covers of the man’s brilliant songs barely seemed like a tribute to me. I decided I’d make a full-on requiem, like Mozart’s Requiem Mass for the Dead. The moment I started writing the first song, ‘The King is Dead’ (which is the first song on The Black Labyrinth), and I thought the words ‘king’ and ‘Bowie’ in the same sentence, I thought, ‘GOBLIN KING!’ It was at that moment that I decided that my tribute to Bowie would come in the form of a musical inspired by Labyrinth.

One of The Black Labyrinth‘s unique characteristics is that you worked with people who had been part of Bowie’s bands throughout his career. Can you tell us more about the specific musicians on the album? How did you approach them to take part in this album?

Voltaire: It all started with me looking for a drummer for this album. I had met Bowie drummer Sterling Campbell at some point in the early ’90s when he was a member of Duran Duran. I reached out to him on the off chance he’d be interested in recording on this album with me. He was game and came and recorded a bunch of songs. He then recommended Gail Ann Dorsey and Mark Plati to play bass, and they recommended Earl Slick to play guitar, and so on and so forth! It was something of a snowball effect. Before I knew it, I had recorded with 15 members of Bowie’s cadre of collaborators over the years. Pianist Mike Garson, who was with Bowie from the Ziggy Stardust tour of 1972 plays on the album as does Steve Elson, who had played sax for Bowie since Let’s Dance. Ironically, Donny McCaslin, the sax player on Blackstar, Bowie’s last album, plays flute on this album and he does so really beautifully. It’s really quite a list of players and it was honestly a dream come true for me recording with each and every one of them.

As they had been playing with Bowie throughout his life, what sorts of insights do you feel you were able to glean from their participation – i.e. were there aspects to the music like a chord structure or anything of the sort that you’d not been aware of before?

Voltaire: A story that comes up again and again in documentaries about Bowie’s musicians is that he’d come in with a song and say, ‘I’ve written a hit song!’ People like Nile Rodgers or Carlos Alomar would later reveal that upon hearing these songs they’d think, ‘Dear God, this is a folk song!’ Ha! And then they’d go about adding their two cents until it did indeed have a current or modern sensibility. So, it was not lost on me that I’d be working with some of the legendary musicians who brought their own personal visions and artistry to the music of David Bowie. Needless to say, I let them run wild in most cases to insure that I wouldn’t be cheating myself out of what they had to bring to the album. The songs were all already written, so there weren’t any situations where the chord structure would change, but in most cases, the parts and the solos are their own, and they do elevate each and every song!

 

 

You also work with members of My Chemical Romance, Trans Siberian Orchestra, Vision Video, and more. With so many musicians involved, what in fact is your process of songwriting/composition? Do you have everything worked out and call upon particular musicians for specific parts (like a conductor), or do they take part in the actual writing?

Voltaire: It really depended on what was needed. I wrote all of these songs before I even started recording, so the structure and main melodies were always there. I also wrote the great majority of the orchestral parts, so I’d be hiring horn players, string players, etc., and I’d send them the sheet music for the parts they’d be playing. In the case of soloists like violinist Mia Asano, guitarist Ray Toro from MCR, or most of the Bowie players, I would have been doing myself a huge disservice to tell them what to play as they are masters of their particular instruments. What they have to bring to the songs would likely be better than anything I could think of. But ultimately, there has to be a band leader. Someone has to be there to decide what the overarching creative vision is for a particular song or for the whole album. So, that also had to be my role. Ultimately, it was a delicate balance of knowing when to let a player go completely wild and when to say, ‘In this part here, I really need you to play… this.’

Tell us about working with Mark Plati as co-producer; what aspects of his production style were surprising or perhaps even foreign to you?
What do you feel you as an artist and your album most benefitted from his involvement?

Voltaire: When Mark first started recording on the album, he invited me to his studio, which I was shocked to discover was about a block away from my apartment in New York City! He recorded and wrote there extensively with Bowie, and when he told me that Bowie and he would take lunch breaks and eat at cafes in my neighborhood, there was some part of me that was mad that I never ran into them! Ha!
Mark’s involvement as a co-producer on the album was a gradual process. Mark is a multi-instrumentalist who played bass and guitar extensively on Bowie’s tours. He started out recording bass tracks for this album, and he plays on a great many of the songs. Later, when it was time to mix, I thought it made a lot of sense to have a guy with an intimate knowledge of Bowie’s songs to mix the more rock-oriented songs on the album. So, Mark started mixing the more Let’s Dance and Scary Monsters era sounding tracks, and my usual co-producer, Tom Gardner, and I worked on the more dark cabaret sounding tracks that were more like my usual style. By the end, Mark had mixed at least half of this 20-song album, and his style and intimate experience working on Bowie’s music definitely gave those songs the right polish and feel. He also reconstructed the song ‘As the Word Falls Down’ from scratch as the version that I demoed was all of the wrong chords due to my limited guitar playing skills.
It’s also worth noting that all but a couple of the musicians who recorded on the posthumous Bowie album, Toy, which Mark Plati produced, are the same musicians that recorded on The Black Labyrinth!

The album is soon to be accompanied by an illustrated novel with art by Abigail Larson, Iren Horrors, and DreaD Art. Tell us about their involvement, how you came to work with them and how you feel their individual styles complement and strengthen the visual experience in tandem with the music?
Were there ever any conflicts (even the most minor) in terms of the individual artist’s particular vision vs. what you had in mind?

Voltaire: Abigail Larson is an old friend and we’ve worked together in the past. I love her gothic fantasy style and I felt it was perfect for this book. However, she is very in demand, so there was no way she was ever going to be able to illustrate 20 full-page illustrations for The Black Labyrinth while simultaneously working for Disney, Netflix, and DC Comics. I’m not too proud to admit that I’m a pygmy among the giants when it comes to commissioning art from her. So, the strategy was to find other really great artists whose style lived enough in the same world as hers to be able to have several artists involved. Naturally, that also involved first making character designs that they could all use as ‘control art’ to keep things consistent. It was challenging, but in the end, I’m super happy with how incredible the illustrations are for this book, and at no point do you turn a page and feel that the illustrations are suddenly in a radically different style. I should also probably say that when the book comes out, the full story of The Black Labyrinth will become totally clear, and the songs will suddenly have a deeper meaning. It’s a really rich and involved fantasy epic!

Although track length/album run times are not constrained by the limitations of physical media, 20 full songs makes for a rather large album, which almost seems counterintuitive given the ADHD age of Tik-Tok and social media.
What are your thoughts on the album format as it pertains to your music and in terms of the way people consume and experience music today?

Voltaire: For better or worse, I didn’t make this album to ‘blow up on Tik-Tok,’ or even with the mindset of making an album of music. This project from the very start was always intended to be a musical and I wrote it as such. That’s why it’s so bloody long! Ha! It clocks in at an hour-and-a-half, and when you think about it, even today’s audience of the short-attention-span Tik-Tok and social media enthusiasts are still willing to sit through a three-hour superhero movie or fantasy epic. So, it’s my hope that there are still people out there who get excited by the idea of putting on a record, closing their eyes, and letting an epic fantasy tale play out in their minds. It might be a tall order, but hope springs eternal! And hey, if I’m wrong, then people can most definitely enjoy a track or two from the album without sticking around for the rest of it. That’s okay, too!

At the same time, vinyl and cassettes have come back, and while we’re still reeling from the effects of the pandemic, bands are trying to tour and play live again, while livestreams are becoming part of the paradigm. What are your thoughts on this?
Is there a possibility or a plan in place to perform The Black Labyrinth live – either touring or perhaps a livestream presentation? What would such a presentation entail?

Voltaire: I play nearly every single weekend of the year. While most bands with multiple members are confined to planning a one or two month tour where everyone can take off from their day jobs to perform in 40 cities in 45 days, I as a solo artist can get on a plane and be anywhere in a few hours. And since it’s just me, it’s affordable for most promoters. So, that’s how I’ve been touring for decades at this point. And I imagine that’s how I’ll continue doing things. I played 40 cities in 40 weekends in 2022, and I’m hoping to beat that by a lot in 2023!
If I could go on tour with even a small handful of the Bowie players and play a bunch of The Black Labyrinth songs on a tour, I’d love that. But somehow, I doubt I could afford it! Hahaha!
Ideally, when it comes to The Black Labyrinth, my dream is to see it on Broadway! I sometimes put on the album and imagine I’m sitting in a theater on Broadway watching the play, and I get chills and even cry at some points. But that is some real pie-in-the-sky stuff! I’d honestly settle for seeing it as a high school musical! If some school staged this musical, I’d fly out to see that for sure.

Outside of music, what are you most enjoying right now? Watching movies? Reading? Hiking? What gives you the most joy?

Voltaire: I’m a workaholic, so my ‘free time’ is typically devoted to creating more work. Now that the album has been released, I will shift my focus to finishing The Black Labyrinth book. But there are always a million other things going on. I’m recording an album of my most popular songs in Spanish, I’m preparing my first comic book series, Chi-Chian, for a graphic novel release, and of course, I’m always working on my YouTube show, Gothic Homemaking. I’ve made over a hundred episodes since I began in 2016, and recently, the New York Times did a feature on the show calling me ‘The Martha Stewart of Macabre Homemakers’ and ‘a lifestyle guru for those who embrace spookiness in all seasons.’ That’s brought a lot of attention to my spooky home decorating show, which in turn means I’ll be focusing on creating more episodes and more spooky home decor items in the following year.
In the end, what brings me the most joy is the act of creating and that can come in the form of making music, drawing, writing, filming, or recording. I spend most of my time in daydreams, and then find ways to invite people to join me in them.
 

 

Aurelio Voltaire
Website, Twitter, Bandcamp, YouTube, Instagram
David Bowie
Website, Facebook, Twitter, SoundCloud, YouTube, Instagram

 

Photography by Gerrold Vincent, provided courtesy of Aurelio Voltaire

 

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