Rozz Williams interview
Rozz Williams Talks Till He's Whorse
By Johnny Walker
Christian Death singer/lyricist Rozz Williams often gets lumped under
the "goth" musical tag, which, given your particular vantage
point, could be a good or bad thing, but which in the current rock scene
almost certainly delegates you to a "cult" status with little
chance at making an impact beyond a certain group of fringe dwellers
who hang at places called The Batcave. But while Williams certainly
has, throughout his career, delved into the riskier topical areas of
"dark" human experience, he has often done so more in the
spirit of artists like Jean Genet, William S. Burroughs, Jim Morrison
and Lou Reed than in anything which would connote goth icons like The
Sisters of Mercy.
familiar with the posthumous album by the Doors, An American Prayer,
might recognize the formula here, as Williams breaks from his usual
business of rock and rolling to deliver an impressively well-crafted
solo album which mixes spoken word with an empathetic musical backing
courtesy of his longtime musical cohort, the singularly named Paris.
Only Williams goes much further in his transgressions into the darkest
recesses of the human mind than The Lizard King ever dared, as he and
co-lyricist Ryan Gaumer poetically evoke the apocalyptic psyche of the
kicking heroin addict, which both men were at the time of The Whorse's
for example, is certainly one of the most chilling tracks ever committed
to disc, in which what can truly be described as the "evil"
voice of an actual obscene phone caller "named" Frank Lee--obtained
by Paris on a reconnaissance mission through an abandoned California
police station--is pasted together with a collage of samples ranging
from gay porn advertisements to "Porky Pig" cartoon music
to create a striking collision of childhood innocence and total amorality,
the Alpha and Omega of the human psyche where good and evil merge into
one blinding microcosmic fireball. Lee's ominous final warning, "Be
Aware!" is not one that listeners, especially those with children,
with soon forget.
tracks here impress with the postmodern chamber music that Williams
and his collaborators conjure up, featuring shards of classical piano,
clanging industrial effects, and eerie flute, with Williams' mannered
vocal presentation--a love it or leave it feature, admittedly, which
some may find slightly pretentious in tone--riding over the top, creating
striking, surrealistic, often excremental imagery along the way.
Who's In Charge Here
In Charge Here? (Beneath the Triumph of Shadows)" moves narcotically
along, its hypnotic percussive undertow cushioning Williams' verbal
images of "viral disease" and a decaying, fiery world of "no
boundaries, no limits." "A Fire of Uncommon Velocity"
features a chamber-like musical setting featuring piano and viola, its
ennui-laden aura close to that of An American Prayer, as Williams, in
the throes of withdrawal, laments the elements which "gave birth
to this unfortunate man-child... denied by those who fake at life."
any title here sums up Williams' overall stance, it's the bluesy "A
Brother of Low Degree," with its "Walk On The Wild Side"
bass-line and Genet-like attitude, in which the narrator finds solidarity
among those who, by accident or by choice, stand opposed to the bourgeois
world which values those only for their use-value in service of the
great capitalist machine. "I was hot to trot and ready for action,
any action... introduction to the underworld" Williams defiantly
intones. And, as he rummages through the wreckage of his existence,
cataloguing a litany of hate, self-loathing, and occasionally, bliss,
one gets the impression that Williams regards all of his experience
as ultimately edifying and instructive, that he really wouldn't have
missed it for anything: "Let me assure you that I was a brother
of low degree" he says, "and those were the days."
A Brother Of Low Degree
Whorse's Mouth, then, is not light going--but hardly any art worth its
salt is. In fact, it's a heroic effort by a talented artist whose many
years of toiling away in the rock and roll "underground" haven't
crushed his artistic spirit one iota. Considered alongside his stunning
recent album with avant-jazz diva Gitane Demone, the glam-cabaret classic
Dream Home Heartache, The Whorse's Mouth is further evidence that Rozz
Williams is just now reaching his artistic peak. Hopefully the kind
of ludicrous pigeonholing which allows similar works by people like
Burroughs and Kathy Acker to be proclaimed by critics as genius won't
deter potential listeners uninterested in the whole "gothic"
scene which Williams repudiates from checking out this vital, troubling
he made his musical debut in 1982 at the age of 16 with the group Christian
Death [Only Theatre Of Pain, recently reissued by Epitaph Records],
four high school buddies from Los Angeles fired by the energy of punk-rock
but also wanting to incorporate the more theatrical aura of punk's immediate
predecessors--Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop--into their work, Rozz Williams
has been what is usually known in rock and roll circles as a "cult
figure." And, while it probably hasn't done wonders for his bank
account, this status has kept his work relatively pure, free from the
kind of considerations that have led his aforementioned heroes astray
when they finally gained mainstream recognition.
recurrent bouts with a debilitating heroin habit, Williams has remained
prolific through the years, churning out intriguingly dark music in
a variety of styles and guises, from the "death rock" (don't
call it "goth") of Christian Death and Shadow Project, to
the industrial ambience of Heltir. His latest works for Los Angeles-based
Triple-X Records, from an inspired collaboration with ex-Christian Death
cohort turned avant-jazz diva Gitane Demone called Dream Home Heartache,
featuring inspired covers of Roxy Music and Jimi Hendrix, to his brand
new effort The Whorse's Mouth, which mixes "spoken word" surrealistic
depictions of his (successful) efforts to finally kick the habit, show
the singer gaining a newfound artistic maturity post-addiction, more
fully integrating not only musical, but key literary influences like
Genet, Baudelaire and Rimbaud into his work.
Williams remains, however, definitely--and defiantly--non-mainstream,
a man of extreme tastes, as the following interview confirms. Who else
could find time for both Jesus Christ and Aleister Crowley? And hate
Nine Inch Nails but not object to Marilyn Manson? Rozz Williams is one
of a kind.
Williams and I had a bit of chancy time meeting up--he's the kind of
guy things, well, things just happen to, you know? After a few false
starts, we finally connected via telephone, and immediately things began
going awry: "I'm trying to turn the volume on my TV down, but it
won't go down," said the voice on the other end of the line, "and
I'm trying to turn the power off and the power won't go off! Maybe I
should just unplug it! There..."
The electricity issue being settled, we could begin:
a big topic of conversation on the Internet. On alt.gothic yesterday
I read a hot rumour: You're actually dead.
I am [laughs]. You're talking to one of my several spirits at the moment!
on The Whorse's Mouth. I noticed a marked Jean Genet influence in the
writing, the way he always strives to transmute low, "gutter"
experiences into art. The title "A Brother of Low Degree"
is very Genet-like.
Thank you. Well, I am--if it's not obvious to many people, it's obvious
to a few, I'm a great fan of Genet. The imagery that he evokes has definitely
been something that stayed with me since my teen years--he's definitely
an influence. I feel that even the lowest point in life and experience
can definitely be made into something higher. Basically this piece was
made as therapy and to help get out of a bad situation. In order to
do that, we (Williams and co-writer Ryan Gommer] had to dwell in that
dark space, to get back out of it. And I think Genet does that too.
God, poor man!
is one of the most chilling pieces on The Whorse's Mouth. Where did
you come up with the section featuring obscene phone caller "Frank
was a very, very interesting find. We do a lot of scavenger hunting,
finding abandoned places--Paris [musician and frequent Williams collaborator]
had come across an abandoned police station out in middle of somewhere.
He and a friend went in and just started rummaging through things, and
they came across this tape. And it was a tape of this guy who had been
making obscene calls to this woman, but referring to her child...
chilling--what a voice!
was like--oh my God, Frank Lee is my hero. I was trying so desperately
when Triple-X records was doing its subsidiary label, Hollows Hill--they
were asking me if I had any ideas for a name, and I said, let's call
it Frank Lee Music!' They were like: "We can't do that, we might
get sued!" I said, "This obscene phone caller is not going
to get a hold of you [to complain]!" There's also both Porky Pig
and gay porno music in there: the combination of sounds and music in
that one was quite fitting.
influence I noticed: Jim Morrison's An American Prayer.
I'm flattered--that's actually one of my favourite albums! That's a
lovely piece of work, I really, really like it.
wrote a piece recently comparing the Morrisonian notion of the rock
star as compared to that of someone like Beck. To me, Beck as a Rock
God says something about the times we live in. The rock media has been
relentlessly hyping the guy, for reasons that we can only speculate
He's got what--three turntables and a microphone? I don't know--don't
get it. That's something beyond my thought patterns. I mean, obviously,
the Doors, the same type of thing happened to them, but I did sincerely
think of Morrison as a poet--if you read his poetry books, you see that,
if you just read his lyrics without listening to the music, you realize
that the man was a poet.
to me is just a middle-class little guy.
let me tell you, I have twelve turntables and twenty-five microphones
and the devil has no haircut compared to my cut!
week, you should be on the cover of Rolling Stone then!
next to Howard Stern.
turned over a new leaf: he did a "Sally Field" the other night
on Leno over his movie: "You love me, you really love me."
wish somebody would turn a GIANT leaf over on Howard Stern. As for Sally
Field, she's nuts! The movie Sybil was incredible, but now any time
I see her on anything, I think of Sybil. And she actually acts like
what living with Burt Reynolds will do to you.
Oh my god, yeah! I mean, look at Loni Anderson! What the hell is up
with that? And people talk shit about Michael Jackson, I'm sorry.
On a more serious note, French writer Jean Cocteau
once said that, having known opium, it was difficult to take the world
seriously. Do you have that problem?
Oh, I have absolutely no problem taking my world seriously...
but there are two different worlds.
you able to maintain your own world?
this point in my life, yeah. It took a lot of struggle, but it was well
worth it to get were I am now with my own world. The outside world is
something completely foreign to me. Obviously I have to go to the grocery
store, I have to go outside, you know, but for a long time it affected
me in a way where I would become very agoraphobic: I didn't want to
have to look at that. I wanted--I think like most people, I wanted to
remain entirely in my own world and never have to see anything outside.
is where heroin comes in?
is the great escape--but it's also the great escape to nowhere, unfortunately.
So definitely in my own world I'm a much happier guy than two years
ago when The Whorse's Mouth was written.
one theme is that art is another--perhaps superior--way of creating
your own world?
know that's what drew me out of it was being able to just sit, and just
every day write out something, whether it was one word, one line, or
an entire page. There are periods of time when things become kind of
stagnant, and I find myself just sitting in a chair staring out the
window, or at the television set. So then there are times when you have
to just break out. I recently went to these two William Burroughs exhibits
that they had down here, and also a Man Ray exhibit, all in a period
of one month, and I just went over and over again, and I would come
home and just be like, constantly working. That's always a nice thing:
definitely therapeutic and it keeps you away from a lot of other things...
[Art} is a form of escape, but it's a form of escape that's not negative.
brought about the collaboration with Gitane Demone, Dream Home Heartache?
original idea was to cover [Iron Butterfly's] "In A Gadda Da Vida"
[laughs]. I was like, 'That's an interesting thought, but take a listen
to 'In Every Dream Home, A Heartache' and let's think about that one!"
Oh my God, Roxy Music was so incredible!
I saw [Bryan] Ferry do that on his last tour--amazing.
bastard, I hate you! [laughs]. It was going to be just a limited edition
single, but then I flew over to Amsterdam and getting together with
Gitane's band and rehearsing, and it was one of those things where the
album was written in the studio, and recorded when it ws written. Working
with [producer] Ken Thomas was a very good experience. He's worked with
Bowie (Hunky Dory) and Current 93, who I admire a great deal. He was
an incredible producer to work with: very understanding and open to
the idea of how we were doing it--perfectly attuned to that.
you see yourself going further in that direction?
and I have spoken on doing some more work together. But right now I'm
concentrating on getting back to a rock, four-piece band.
you find that more satisfying?
find it all satisfying, because it's therapy for me, and helps me get
through my days. But right now I'm needing to get back to a more rock-oriented
thing, especially with performance, because I really enjoy... I mean,
I really enjoyed the tour I did with Gitane and working in a cabaret
type of style, was really nice, but at the same time, during the tour
we did for it, I would find myself sometimes on stage while she was
doing a piece, or I was doing background for her, I'd be sitting in
a chair sipping champagne, and I was like, "Well, this is nice,
but I wanna be bouncing off the walls and climbing off the amps!"
Right now I'm working on getting the new Shadow Project album ready.
It's kind of... I think it'll take a few people by surprise. It's more
acoustic-oriented. With Eva [Eva O., former wife and frequent musical
collaborator] finding Christ in her life, and me doing the same in a
different manner... she's completely--that is her life now, and that's
great because I've never seen her happier, and I've known her for like,
fourteen years. She's opened my eyes to some of the positive things
that can be attained by just realizing that force.
Records'] Bruce Duff told me he thinks [Shadow Project's] Dreams For
The Dying is one of the most genuinely evil records ever recorded.
heard that from a few people. At the time, Eva and I were at the height
of our hatred of everything: the world, ourselves, each other, the world,
everything that was going on. We were also in lockdown at the studio,
because it was recorded during the riots in Los Angeles, so we couldn't
leave, because of the curfew. So when you'd turn on the TV to try to
have a break, all you'd see are things being burned down and people
being beaten. It reflected on to the album. I think it's going to surprise
people with the new one, because it's completely opposite from that.
hear you're also working on a film?
a short film, at the longest an hour. My friend Nico is directing: he's
done film work before and owns a cult video shop in Amsterdam. I had
done this photo-shoot... at Halloween a couple of years ago, I found
this incredibly frightening pig-mask at a thrift store, so I decided
to be "The Pig Man." From that stint, there was a photo-shoot
that I did. I started thinking more about the character of this person,
who he was and how he thought of himself, and the film stems from that.
It's a really quite a dark look at... let's say, if I weren't doing
this on film, you would be talking to me from a prison cell right now.
I'm living out some fantasies on film. I'm writing and co-directing
with Nico: it's black and white, no dialogue, and I'm going to be doing
a soundtrack for it."
often pegged with the "goth" tag, but your roots seem to be
glam-rock: Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop:
you looked through my record collection, you'd find a lot of various
things: like, right now, Liberace is staring at me. But yeah, that's
what I grew up with--what made me want to do music, was hearing at a
very early age, Bowie, Iggy, Marc Bolan and Alice Cooper. I grew up
in a family heavily influenced by music, my parents were very into country
music, which I didn't care for that much, and my dad listened to a lot
of early blues stuff, which I liked. My two brothers and my sister,
who are all older than me, were into like Lynyrd Skynryd, Allman Brothers,
some of which now I can appreciate, but at the time, god, it was awful!
My sister at least was into The Doors, Janis and Jimi. I loved like,
The New York Dolls and Mott The Hoople.
The Hoople were a great band who have somehow disappeared from the annals
of rock history.
know! They were such a great band--it's amazing how overlooked they
are: Mott, The Hoople, and the live album. I was in a thrift store yesterday,
and I saw the live album, and I was so pissed off, I found the live
album, 50 cents, and I'm like "Oh my god, found my treasure for
the day!" I went to check the record to make sure it was in good
shape, and it was a completely different record by a completely different
band! I was so pissed off, I wanted to destroy the whole store [laughs].
And then I had to go through every single record and look to see if
someone had put that record in a different cover--I was there for hours
looking! I'm like, "I gotta have it!"
about the current edition of Bowie? Yea or nay?
saw the Bowie/Reznor tour, and I thought the best part of it was when
Bowie and Trent were onstage together, but unfortunately I have no liking
for Nine Inch Nails, it's all rehashed material from everything that's
ever been done, which isn't saying that music doesn't lend itself to
do that, but to me he's taken it to such an extreme it's ridiculous.
But once he left the stage, half the audience left, and I think Bowie,
his energy level completely dropped.
Bowie is basically for me, if I had to pick someone, both in music and
persona, that made me want to go out and do what I'm doing now, it was
Bowie and Marc Bolan [of T. Rex]. Thankfully, in a way, Marc Bolan died
at a point where he'd done no wrong for me.
about Marilyn Manson: Do you feel paternal? A lot of the motifs you
used in Christian Death seem to appear in their show.
Well, I don't know--I've never seen them, met them, I've just seen photographs.
Gitane's son is quite a fan of theirs, so I've heard a lot of their
stuff. It's not like a lot of new music that I hear, when I'm like,
"You must turn that off! You're in my home and I will not allow
that coming through my speakers." I can put up with it as long
as it's background--it's like, so many people come up to me and say
"You helped start this whole gothic thing," and my response
is, "Look at what Alice Cooper was doing, look at what Black Sabbath
was doing." The sad thing to me is running into a lot of people
at clubs and after I do shows--I mean, great, I'm obviously flattered
that people enjoy a lot of the things I've done and that I'm doing,
but, then, I'm just amazed when sometimes I get into a conversation
with someone, and they'll say "I never heard any music like this
before," and I'll reply, "What about Alice Cooper and Black
Sabbath?" And they'll say "Who?" [incredulous laughter].
I'm like "How old are you, ten?"
has made much of his association with The Church of Satan, and Anton
La Vey. I know you've practiced various forms of magick in the past--have
you ever met up with La Vey?
went through a period of time, because of my religious upbringing--my
parents were Southern Baptist--that's pretty intense. For me, I mean,
basically, aside from the fact I wanted to be doing music anyway--I
knew at nine years old that's what I wanted to be doing--with this very
strict upbringing religiously, I think that's what informed the first
Christian Death album: I was going to the other extreme. I had already
grown up in this one extreme, and I was like, "I know that this
is not right for me, so....
La Vey was always more of a showman to me, which I admire about him.
He obviously started out in the circus and never tried to fool people
into thinking he was anything more than that. But at the time I was
more interested in [Aleister] Crowley, actually practising ceremonies,
sure you've read Crowley's Diary of a Drug Fiend?
that's one of my favourite books! Some of his other ones were a little
too preachy. An idea can stem from someone else's, but for me you have
to make it your own. So even when I was doing that, I wouldn't follow
[Crowley's] rituals, I would make up my own. But I started getting so
far into that I realized I was digging myself in the same hole that
I was trying to get away from, in the opposite direction.
actually met Anton La Vey's son when I was living in Las Vegas with
Eva. I went to church with her, which was an odd thing for me [laughs].
That's where his son was, speaking at this church, he'd become a born-again
Christian! It was really interesting to talk to him and get his ideas
on the whole thing.
don't seem the type to really take up with anything organized, no matter
the creed. You're an individualist, then?
have a personal relationship with Christ, and that's mine--it doesn't
belong to a church or an organization.
think concepts like "God" and the "Devil" are merely
man's externalization of the parts of his psyche he can't accept? Or
are they literal entities?
me, there is definitely... I believe in these things as literal--it's
also things you see day to day. As simple as someone passing you on
the street and saying hello,' which most people do not do--they pass
you by and give you a dirty look or something. It's amazing to me, living
in L.A., and looking how I do right now, which is not that extreme,
and I'll get cars passing by with "Yeah, you fucking this and that!"
That's a form of evil to me as well. That is evil to carry that much
hatred towards yourself and project that out to other people. I'm not
saying I don't have hatred toward myself, there are certain things that
I despise about myself, but I try to direct those things out of myself
into something that can be positive: like with The Whorse's Mouth.
seems that art is now the place where you can go to extremes, rather
than always doing it in your personal life.
me the powers and energies that come from one extreme or the other is
art. The balancing is something that I need to keep in my life, but
in my artwork I tend to always go to extremes, because that's where
I find the balance in my life, by going to those extremes [in my art].