Terrorizor magazine, July 1998
Ever since she first emerged singing 'wild
women with steak knives' and 'the litanies of satan' in 1982, no one has been able to match the
startling and unutterably extreme voice of Diamanda Galas. With the passage of
time expanding her repertoire to include the dark balladry showcased
on her latest album, 'Malediction and prayer', she's also shown a musical
breadth and range that few can equal. Nick Terry met up with the singer to talk
about her concerts for the damned, her new project 'Insekta' and the best
ways to serve the cold dish known as revenge.
Welcome, Princess of Hell
"So how's it been going with your friends in Cradle of Filth?" says Diamanda Galas, just seconds after we're introduced in the bar of the West London hotel she's been staying at after playing the Royal Festival Hall the night before.
"I've been reading about them, they're really sweet!" the singer continues enthusiastically. "They say such sweet things! They always write these things about their influences and I'm always seeing my name in their little lists."
Cradle of Filth. Sweet? Them? Only Diamanda Galas could say such a thing and have you believe it. For here is an artist whose rendition of extreme music is so far removed from the run-of-the-mill norm within Metal, that just about anything else pales by comparison to it. Ever since Galas first came to popular attention sixteen years ago, unveiling 'wild women with steak knives' and 'the litanies of satan' onto an unsuspecting world in 1982, she has been recognized as indisputably the most extreme vocalist to mount a stage.
"From the very beginning of my career I was called a freak," she reminisces with a snort. "I mean, y'know, I received descriptions about my vocal style which are really unparalleled. And I think that nothing surprises me anymore, descriptions of syphilitic barnyard animals of whatever, ad nauseam."
Her work has been called Satanic, which it is, but this is a 'Satanism' far removed from that of her contemporaries in Venom, Mercyful fate or Bathory. The 'Masque Of Red Death' cycle of albums from the Eighties, culminating in the astonishing 1991 live album 'Plague Mass', recorded in The Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York, instead used Old Testament texts to attack the Catholic Church for its hypocritical indifference to the AIDS crisis. The church was made to burn with sound, not fire. Galas' reputation for 'blasphemy' earned her public condemnation in Italy in 1990, while her involvement with direct-action protests against Catholic services in New York's St Patrick's Cathedral in 1989 saw her arrested.
Posing for photographs while near-naked, covered from head to toe in blood, may well be on further reason why Galas and her blasphemies have excited some of the more discerning Metal acts of the Nineties, including Cradle of Filth and Emperor, as well as even the mainstream shock rockers in Marilyn Manson. But over the course of this decade, her work has taken a new twist, one developing of her past concerns with plagues, death and social or religious quarantine laws. 1993's more hushed yet palpably more powerful 'Vena Cava' dissected and anatomized the mental states of patients in long-term institutions as they wasted away from mental of physical debilitation which rendered them incapable of recognizing the outside world ( above all, on the haunting 'Yes I Like The TV') 1996's 'Schrei X' saw her return to the sonic assault mode of 'Litanies of Satan', only this time the screams came from as if directly from a trapped animal or confined human being.
This concerns with confinement in all it's forms has more than a few echoes in the Metal tradition, whether you site crass examples like Judas Priest's 'Death Row' ("whoa/you best beware/it's not very nice in the electric chair"), or point to the brilliant cycle of peak period Metallica songs written about extreme situations, from 'ride the Lightning' to 'Welcome Home (Sanitarium)' to 'One'. Singing about executions, prisons, insane asylums, come victims - think of Death's 'Pull the Plug' - and other confinement situations come to Heavy Metal as it does to Diamanda Galas. In short, as we pointed out last month and as more than few have discovered to their delight or terror, Diamanda Galas is an honorary Metaller. Be glad - you'd rather you had this remarkable woman on you side than against it.
Concerts for the Damned
All of which may make yet another strand of her work seem quite dissonant and out-of-key with the remainder of her oeuvre, but only at first glance. In Britain, Galas is perhaps best known for her solo voice-and-piano performances, first brought to light on 1992's 'the Singer', and refined over the course of 'Malediction and Prayer' and 'Concert For The Damned' concert tours. Taking songs an lyrics from blues, country, jazz and traditional music as well as the poetries of almost every culture in America and the European Community, the voice-and-piano music may lack the nuclear-fission-quality vocal extremity of her earlier work, but it more than makes up for this in terms of the sinister unease of its lyrical undertow. The few love songs are so at-the-end-of-their-tether as virtually to constitute suicide ballads, while the balance either concern themselves obsessively with death ('Si La Muerte', 'Death Letter'). murder ('Abel et Cain') or those self-same confinement situations talked about above (the executionee's songs that are Phil Ochs' 'Iron Lady' and Johnny Cash's '25 Minutes to Go')
Still, one wonders whether the Guardian-reading contingent of her audience might be misled into thinking Diamanda had mellowed.
"Hahaha!" she laughs incredulously. "I don't think so! On the other hand, when you do the voice-and-piano stuff. it's its own art form. And anyone who just sits at the piano and does 'litanies of satan' at the piano is just a fucking idiot. They each have their own tradition. When you do Pasolini has to be done, and 'Abel et Cain', and 'My World Is Empty Without You'... It's much more sparse, more minimal. It's not about mellow, it's about a lot of use of space and time, and every time it's played it's very [she makes as if to scratch down a blackboard] and then, when you do stuff like 'litanies of satan' and 'Insekta' it's almost a maximum amount of sound over time. It's a totally different aesthetic. And so that's why I like going from one to the other, cause then I get to do a real balance, If you just do one thing, there's people in bands I know who've done the same old fucking thing, and you know what? They sound like it. The shit just doesn't change and it's so fucking boring. It's because they've approached their music through this on limited aesthetic."
Are we likely to see any of the more extreme performances over in Europe any time soon?
"The problem is with that sort of piece, is it's really hard to get presented. I do them more in America, so when I come over to Europe, they freak out when I ask for two engineers and quadraphonic sound systems and say, we don't think we can really afford that. So usually I do a lot of the solo stuff here, because that's all they can afford. But I've demonstrated an audience attendance level, so now I can do some of the other stuff I've been able to do in America. I'd like to do a run of 'Schrei', I'd like to do a run of 'Vena Cava', of those things. But the audience I want for 'Schrei', for example, is no more than three hundred people in a venue, because it's an audience inside a quadraphonic space, and it's real intimate sensory deprivation, in the dark - it's not about six thousand people in an arena. So the circumstances dictate a fixed kind of environment, and it's harder for promoters to do that stuff.
But I'm now in the position when I can ask for that."
But even within microcosm of piano music, it's still so diverse!
"That's why the audience is very wide and eclectic. The Greek people in London and everywhere else are always happy to hear me because their community has no recognition anywhere, and they were screaming last night when they heard their music, they were so happy when they saw me afterwards. It's not just this old, dead folk music which has been diluted until it's belly dancing music in the worst sense. It's got a political power. You can't just go to all these places like Thessaloniki or Tel Aviv and sing in English all the time, because what the fuck does that mean to them? It doesn't mean shit to them. They won't understand me if I do that."
With two albums and several tours' worth of voice-and-piano material now completed, the time is certainly right for Galas to return to her other passion and approach.
"At the moment, what I'm doing next is a project called 'Insekta'. Most of the record is recorded already. That's electronic music with ring modulators and a lot of tapes; the tendency more towards the 'Litanies Of Satan' kind of music, which I love doing as well and which I'm known for."
What is it about?
"It means, or rather refers to a population which for the most part is invisible, is therefore faceless, anonymous and perceived as powerless, and is therefore available for experimentation and research. I am certainly referring to the populations of government-sponsored mental hospitals or places like The Willowbrook in New York, where the families of the mentally retarded would allow research into hepatitis to be carried out on their relatives. Over thousand people died there from hepatitis. It also makes reference to chemical and biological warfare research coming out of Fort Dietrich in Baltimore. In 1974 there was a Senate ratification of a treaty against CBW research, but it was continued under the name of defensive CBW research, so there's absolutely no way it's not continuing and anyone who thinks otherwise is being naive.
"On an intimate level," Diamanda continues, "the work also deals with an individual in a cage who is unable to affect the stressives that manipulate his or her behavior, so in that sense, it can also be removed from any grosser political context and just seen as a behavioral study. I mean, the concept of a woman in a cage is one of the oldest concepts of art, ever since the Austrian Expressionist Kokoschka. I've been working on this since 1993, and we've changed a lot of 'Insekta' since then. It's a larger piece, and we're working on touring it in 1999 to the year 2000."
Anything else? You're well-known for never having just one iron on the fire.
"A piece called 'Caligula'," Galas chuckles, "but I won't say anything about that. I'm also writing a piece for an organization which I really can't discuss too much until it's done, but it's a piece based on the texts of Henri Michaux, who was a French Poet, he's dead now. He wrote poems as hexes, all his poems were written like that. It's really violent, it's the most...Iike curses and these are real curses. So I'm enjoying this immensely. His wife was burned to death in this fire, and he kept writing these hexes about if he had only been able to prevent it. He said that even if they didn't work, he was responsible for making them as perfect as possible. He was very precise about his language and the rhythms, and he was insane, a fucking dope fiend and he did all these experiments with acid. He's Allen Ginsberg's hero. His work is very incantational, so it's a natural setup for me!"
The 'Plague Mass'?
"The Plague Mass per se is continuing, but curiously enough, it's continuing through 'Insekta', because 'Insekta' has become more and more focused on chemical and biological warfare and the research on invisible populations since I started it, so it's really going back to some of the research theories dealing with the nature of viruses, like Hepatitis C..."
At this point, Diamanda drops a bombshell.
"...which I have. That's unfortunately been my work for the last few years is working out how to stay alive with Hepatitis C, which is a really bad virus. You have to take big shots of Interefon three times a week which don't work any more when you stop taking them. It leads to liver cancer, to lots of shit. That's how Allen Ginsberg died, and a lot of people have it now, even here. You getting through shooting dope, through needles, cause it's a blood born disease, so that's how I got it for sure. I got C where I could have gotten AIDS, so I got one, and I could have got both. I've had to do a lot of research on that, taking a lot of different kinds of alternative therapies. This disease progression can really get kinda devastating, so..."
As if she didn't already have enough strings to her bow, Galas also unveiled another project in 1994, a collaboration with ex-Led Zeppelin bass player John Paul Jones entitled 'the Sporting Life'. Raucous, raunchy and very muck rock- based, she fronted a band that was a little more than a killer rhythm section with the occasional addition of piano - absolutely no guitars - yet managed to make the songs swing as hard and as violently as anybody since The Birthday Party. the lyrics, too, echoed some of Nick Cave's (especially '6' 'gold ballad'), but by the heroic act of reversing the roles. Instead of the usual serial killer fantasies about women being stalked, trapped and cut down, Diamanda placed the knife squarely in the hands of the sisters.
"I don't like him... let's kill him!"
"Did you see how he looked at me?"
"What? One way ticket, motherfucker..."
"Let's fuck him and then let's kill him!"
"Nah, let's tie him up and cut him, fuck him and THEN let's kill him!"
-The Sporting Life
It was, in short, hilariously, wonderfully funny.
"Thank you! I thought so too! That record was too timely for most people, cause what they want to hear is sentimental love songs about people breaking up. Why not have a sense of humour over this shit instead of whine, whine, whine, I'm the only person in life who's ever been stood up by a man? For me, I was more interested in talking about a woman stalking a man and how she terrorized him and fucked him up and left him, laughing, saying, 'I'll be back but I got some shopping to do...'. Instead, I could just see a lot of male population totally disgusted by that. They much more prefer a woman in a pretty slip, crying over her boyfriend. Boring."
Will you come back to the project?
"I just saw John and his wife last night after the concert, and we talked last night about doing another record. It's a natural team. He's just so much more advanced than those old buddies of his. They're just over. They should just go on the farm and...raise geese or something. John has always done a lot of stuff with electronic music and people don't know about that side of him. In any case, the stuff from 'The Sporting Life' you can see is related to 'You Must Be Certain Of The Devil', that style of music, that sleazy Americana style with seedy lyrics. Again, it was a record that a lot of people did not understand because it wasn't sentimental.
Talking of sentimental, there's an interesting dedication on the new album 'Malediction and Prayer', for the song 'Iron Lady', which you sing for the female 'serial killer' Aileen Wuornos...
"Oh what a huge hero she is," comes the instant reply. "She is an example of what critical mass means as afar as females are concerned. You take this abuse, nobody believes you, nobody listens to you, nobody thinks you know what you're talking about it; even if they do you have no power in the situation she was in, which is this total whit-trash lesbian prostitute in Florida. I mean, talk about powerless! A total incest survivor, really bad upbringing, her father hung himself. There's no way she could have operated by anybody's standard rules and regulations, because that system is just out to fuck her up. Indications were when she turned a trick, and one of the guys posing as a trick was a cop, he filled her anus with sulfuric acid after he rimmed her, that kind of shit. That sort of thing is so much more common than people know, because prostitutes can't go to cops, what can they do? When it came out, it was like, 'she's a serial killer', but in fact, she doesn't perceive herself as a serial killer; she see herself as just a woman in a very difficulty profession."
It's also back turning the tables, since prostitutes have so often been the victims.
"That was happening with green River killer at the same time, precisely the time when that was at it's strongest, and all these prostitutes were really scared, especially when some guy wanted to drive them out to some weird place. Sure, maybe they'd turn the trick but if it looked as if it were going to be any hesitation after that, then you had to make up your mind whether you were going to beat it or you were going to make him pay. They were also saying that Aileen Wuornos was in her fifties, she's so fucking ugly we can't believe anyone would pay her to turn a trick, so that was the justification for making her unbelievable.
"That shows no comprehension of what prostitution is about," Galas continues. "it's totally the opposite of 'Pretty Woman', because it's not about how pretty the girls are, it's about the tricks and what they want. so, in any case, she's a hero to a lot of women. Her lawyer, who convinced her to cop a guilty plea thinking that she would get off the death penalty, he was in this documentary about her in which he sang 'Iron Lady' to her, in a joking kind of way, and then she got the death penalty. She freaked out, realizing these people had tricked her, and so I wanted to sing it to her beautifully. I don't know her, but I just thought there should be a beautiful version of it dedicated to her. I think she was arrested around '93,'94, so as a matter of fact, it was around the time of 'The Sporting Life'. Ironic!"
So, in tune with the times, out of step with the culture, then?
"I think it's a very English and American thing these days, that sentimentalism. Like if you look at that Lilith Fair, with all that what I call 'four-string gash' music. I can't stand those fucking broads! I can't stand that women's music shit. I think the problem is, they're taking too many anti-depressants, too much Prozac and they're seeing their therapists who convince they deserve to be onstage playing and singing about their problems and that anybody should be interested."
Pardon the choice of language, but Joni Mitchell had more balls than that.
"Oh by far! She hates them all. She's like their malevolent grandmother and they don't like her because of it. 'Joni should be nicer', they say? Why should she be nicer and want to listen to - I call them 'morphic resonators'. They're just morphic resonators. I have a lot of them, too. They just try to look like what you do, try to sing the same, but they're just dead, their art has no importance. Just clones trying to make money. They should just go and sell stocks and bonds and be more honest."