The Raven's Perch, May 28, 2006
Interview with Joseph Vargo by Athena Schaffer
Is your music inspired by your artwork or vice versa?
I see my art and music as two separate forms of artistic expression. Most of my artwork comes from my own imagination, but it's also inspired by ancient mythology and various dark legends from around the world. Our music is based on original ideas as well, but some of our albums have been inspired by classic literature. Darklore Manor and Winter's Knight are two completely original concepts, whereas Necronomicon was inspired by the works of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft and Transylvania was an ode to Bram Stoker's Dracula. We have several varying themes lined up for future concept albums. Whatever we do, it will always have a darkly gothic flavor.
Is your story writing/editorial work tied in with your other forms of artistic expressions? If you get into one train of thought like "Transylvania" or "Winters Knight," does that idea spill over into all of your projects?
No. While I am creating and developing the music, art, and story for one of our concept albums I am juggling all these related ideas in my head, but I also have various other art and writing projects that I work on during the same time period. I am always writing music, so in between mixing tracks for our current cd, I am also composing music for the next one as well. I just have to shift gears and adapt a separate mindset. I would prefer to totally immerse myself in one artistic project at a time, but due to time constraints and the variety of projects that I am involved with, I am rarely, if ever, afforded this luxury.
Do you do all the songwriting, or is William involved in the songwriting process, too?
We work on the all of the songwriting as a team. We both bring different ideas to the studio and develop the songs together from there. We try out various instruments and melody and key changes and flesh out the songs from their original skeletons. Its a great collaboration. There aren't any egos involved. We bounce a lot of ideas back and forth while we are composing and the best ones rise to the top. It doesn't matter to either of us whose idea we go with, we just do whatever is best for the music. But we are both very critical about what makes it onto our CDs and we've axed a number of completed tracks because we felt that they weren't exactly what we wanted.
Tell us about your latest release "Transylvania" and your upcoming album Carnival of Lost Souls.
Transylvania is a musical journey into the land of vampires, witches, werewolves, and other dark creatures of the night. The music is a mixture of gothic horror and romance. As I've said, the concept was inspired by Bram Stoker's Dracula, but it puts some of our original elements into the storyline. It really is like taking a musical journey to a dark land where the supernatural reigns supreme.
Carnival of Lost Souls takes the listener into a creepy old-time carnival after hours. The carnival, called the Circus Diabolique, has a dark reputation, and rumors of missing children follow the show from town to town. There are all sorts of strange and sinister attractions like an old gypsy fortune telling machine, a mad house called the Hall of Mirrors, a menagerie of living dolls, evil clowns and puppets, a haunted carousel, a wicked ride called the Soul Stealer, a diabolical act called The Devil's Daggers and monstrous caged freaks that may or may not be human. The music ranges from haunting piano and music box melodies, to twisted calliope music, to pulse-pounding orchestrated pieces with chanting choirs. You can see and hear a preview of it at our website.
Do the lyrics come first, or does the music come first? What is the songwriting process like for you?
Once we have selected a theme, I begin to wrap my mind around the various moods that we want to express. William and I decide what particular instruments will best capture the intended mood and results, then we begin to write some basic melodies with this in mind. In the meantime, I'm also sketching ideas for the cd booklet art, as well as writing various storyline elements, including song titles and lyrics. Everything goes through a lot of changes before the final version. I am constantly refining and tweaking my work.
The music is so multi-textured; how do you accomplish that with just two of you?
We use a wide variety of instrumentation and layer numerous tracks on top of each other to achieve a full-bodied sound. William and I both play the piano and different percussion instruments, and he also plays the guitar and violin. Various sampled instruments allow us to create a symphonic orchestra sound in the studio. We also multi-track our vocals, which enables us to create harmonic choir effects. In addition to all this, we've also used other guest vocalists in the past, such as Christine Filipak, Michelle Belanger, Jeff Endemann, and Eric Gustafson. We really enjoy working with our friends in the studio.
What's your personal favorite song on Transylvania?
It's always tough to choose one favorite. We covered so many moods on that album, from the romantic melodies of "Castle Dracula," to the creepy tones of "Gothic Sanctum," to the wickedly powerful "Lair of the Vampire." There's also the hypnotic rhythms of "Gypsy Caravan." I guess it depends on what mood I'm in. I really love the whole album, but one of my personal favorite tracks is "Night of the Wolf." It's a very dark and powerful piece, and the chanting and gothic choirs give it a really sinister sound.
Do you play live, and if so are there any Tour plans? If not, have you considered doing "Special Event" live appearances?
We are strictly a studio project at this time. As soon as we finish mastering one cd, we begin recording songs for the next one. We've put out four albums in two and a half years, and our fifth album, Carnival of Lost Souls, will be released on June 6th (6-6-06), and we've already begun working on our next album. In fact we already have some melodies written for the one after that.
If so, what is your live show like?
It would be very extravagant with lots of visual elements and special effects to set the perfect haunting mood.
Any long-form DVD plans or video plans for any songs?
We have a few irons in the fire with regard to music videos, but we still haven't decided which direction is best at this time. We may release a video for Carnival of Lost Souls.
Your artwork has been featured on shows by many broadcast companies. Are they using music from any of your Nox Arcana albums as well?
Yes, in addition to my previous work being used by Universal Studios, the music of Nox Arcana has been used in a variety of independent film projects. The majority of our tracks are very melodic and most soundtrack music usually just drones along in the background, so it has to be utilized in a way that enables the music to really be a major part of a scene without overpowering the dialogue, or simply to set a mood during scenes without dialogue. Recently our music was used to create an entirely new score for the silent film Nosferatu by horror host Dr. Gangrene.
Are you exploring getting your music into maybe movies and/or videogames?
Unfortunately, we don't have any spare time to really pursue those avenues, but I think that our music is tailor-made to enhance any gothic visuals, be it film or videogames. We plan to eventually produce our own films sometime in the future.
What other projects are currently in the works?
We've begun work on Beyond the Dark Tower, the first sequel to our illustrated anthology Tales from the Dark Tower. We are also working closely with Tarot expert Alissa Hall to create the Gothic Tarot companion book. We've gotten numerous requests from our fans for a book that gives more in-depth meanings to the cards. Once the Gothic Tarot book is finished, we'll begin work on a companion book for our Madame Endora deck.
In addition to our book projects, I've already created some new paintings that will be featured in next year's Born of the Night calendar as well as new cover artwork for Dark Realms magazine. The magazine keeps us very busy on its own. Dark Realms issue 1 was released in December of 2000 and in June we'll be releasing our 23rd issue, making it one of the longest running Gothic magazines out there. Aside from these various projects, as soon as we release Carnival of Lost Souls, William and I will begin recording our sixth cd.
Could you explain to Perch readers the rift between you and Midnight Syndicate?
It's a long and ugly story, but it basically boils down to the fact that after I had made a name for myself in the gothic realm back in 1997, I helped a couple of struggling local musicians. They had previously released one unsuccessful album that combined rap, country and easy listening music, but wanted to capitalize on the gothic market by riding my coattails. After sinking countless hours creating a gothic identity for them, arranging songs, conceptualizing two albums, investing my money to fund the entire project, and even providing them with market and promotional resources, I then handed over the financial distribution responsibilities to Ed Douglas in order to set him up as an independent music division. I simply trusted him because at the time I considered him to be a friend. That turned out to be a big mistake and I can honestly say that he turned out to be the biggest weasel that I've ever had the misfortune of working with.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, Ed began taking credit for the contributions I made. This escalated over a period of years and eventually Ed began telling people that I had nothing to do with Midnight Syndicate. A lot of fans were outraged by his comments since I appear in the band photo on Born of The Night, I'm listed as writer and copyright holder for the songs I wrote and performed on, and I am also credited as being the executive producer of the album. This was all above and beyond my painting two cd covers for them and conceptualizing and directing both albums.
When I began Nox Arcana in 2003, it seems that weasel boy became so threatened by the competition that he begin a smear campaign against us on the internet and with several business owners. Since that time, we have looked more closely into Ed's business practices and discovered that he and his father, who is a CPA and the band's financial advisor, have been doing some creative bookkeeping in regard to the royalties that were due me. Ed also omitted my name from the copyright forms for the songs I had written and performed on. The copyright forms were later amended, but only after he was caught and confronted about it. As it stands now, he has still refuses to amend the BMI registry (BMI is a group that protects the rights of musicians and collects royalties from music used on radio and in certain performances), presumably so he doesn't have to pay royalties to me for usage of my work. So, that's all the thanks I get for investing thousands of dollars and years of hard work into helping two no-name ingrates.
Earlier this year, they announced that they planned on ceasing production of the two cds that I produced with them. They actually had the audacity to tell their dwindling fans that it was because of some sort of contract flaw between a "third party," when in fact, it was completely Ed's doing and was based on him refusing to supply cds, then spreading a lie that the cds were "out of print," while he was actually holding onto hundreds of cds. This is just the latest revisionist tactic by a desperate little boy who is very frightened that the public may actually learn the ugly truth about him. As I see it, this band doesn't give a damn about what its fans want, they only want to tap into where the money is, rewrite their own history, and take credit for other people's ideas. I think their music has become increasingly stale throughout the years, and they've ceased production on three of their own albums, so I really don't consider them competition.
You're taking legal action against Midnight Syndicate?
Yes. The situation has gotten ridiculous over the years and we have no other option than to pursue justice in the courts. I suppose it's actually a good thing, because aside from the money that's involved, it will finally give us a chance to officially set the record straight and force them to tell the truth. Once the trial gets underway, we'll be setting up an area on our website that will provide updates.
What does the future hold for Nox Arcana? Where do you see the musical side of your creativity in, say, five years from now?
The future has always been full of surprises for me, but the possibilities are limitless. We will definitely move toward film and computer game production but you never know what other opportunities will arise beyond that. I feel that creative people are only restricted by the confines of their own imagination, so there are no limits as to the goals we can attain.
Is there anything that I didn't ask that you want to tell Perch readers?
I think that covers quite a lot, Athena. Thank you for the opportunity to reach your readers and keep up the great work with The Perch.