Interview with Joseph Vargo by Serena Teresenza - October 2008

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Over the past five years the musical duo of Joseph Vargo and William Piotrowski, collectively known as Nox Arcana, have created a vast library of haunting soundscapes that transport their listeners to sinister and elegant realms of dark fantasy. These visionary musicians have conjured epic soundtracks to classic works of gothic literature such as Dracula, Grimm fairy tales and the stories of Lovecraft and Poe. With their tenth cd, Phantoms of the High Seas, the band sets a course for a haunted pirate adventure. I had the pleasure of talking with band founder Joseph Vargo and getting some insight from the man behind the music.

All of the Nox Arcana albums convey a different mood and are based on various dark tales. What is the basic concept behind Phantoms of the High Seas?

Joseph Vargo: The cd tells the musical tale of a pirate ship and its crew that are cursed to roam the high seas as phantoms in the misty dead of night. Legends say that they buried a priceless treasure on an uncharted island and that the captain left behind a coded map that reveals its secret location. The first half of the cd is filled with music that captures the spirit of pirate adventures on the high seas. The second half conveys the tale of the ghost ship and its cursed crew. The cd booklet and disk itself hold hidden clues to finding the treasure.

Is this story based on any real pirate legends, or is it strictly fiction?

Joseph Vargo: It's purely fiction, but it's kind of a conglomeration of classic pirate stories like Treasure Island and Pirates of the Caribbean and ghost ship legends like the tales of the Flying Dutchman. We also pay homage to John Carpenter's classic ghost story, The Fog. Anyone who knows me can tell you that I absolutely love this sort of thing. As for the treasure, it really is out there somewhere, just waiting for some clever pirate to find it.

I was intrigued by the several song titles before hearing the music. Is there a story behind "The Gallows Jig?"

Joseph Vargo: The idea of pirates entertaining themselves by playing music while aboard ship presented a challenge. The music had to be festive, but there couldn't be a lot of instruments involved. We ended up using a Celtic fiddle, bass and snare drums, acoustic guitar and an accordion. I came up with the idea of pirates joking about their fate if they were ever captured. The song represents a group of rowdy pirates showing off the jigs they would dance if they were ever to swing from the gallows. Its the ultimate form of gallows humor. But you know how pirates are.

Your music is mainly instrumental, but the song "Fate of the Tempest" has lyrics.

Joseph Vargo: Yes. The lyrics tell the tale of a pirate ship that sets sail and never returns home. The ship and its crew are cursed to wander the seven seas and the song warns other sailors to beware the whispering wind or suffer the same fate. I asked my friend Ty Cook to sing the song. He's really got a terrific voice. In fact we had to ask him to hold back and sing the ballad like a raspy pirate bard. He did a great job with it. We've done a few other songs with lyrics in the past on Winter's Knight, Carnival of Lost Souls, and Blood of the Dragon, and there will be more on our future releases.

A lot of bands get stuck in a repetitive rut creating the same type of sound because it's safe and familiar, but you seem to always be exploring new musical territory. There's such a variety of moods and styles in Nox Arcana's music, yet each album is very cohesive. What inspires such diversity in your work, and how do you make it all fit together so smoothly?

Joseph Vargo: We really research our subject matter thoroughly and spend a lot of time developing the story and different aspects of the concept. Certain themes require specific sounds to convey the mood correctly. It's also very important to exercise restraint with regard to instrumentation. For example, it would sound totally out of place to put a piano or harpsichord composition on an epic sword and sorcery album like Blood of the Dragon. It would destroy the entire mood of the cd. Likewise, we wouldn't write an exotic mystical piece for a purely gothic album such as Shadow of the Raven.
      Aside from symphonic instrumentation, we also use guitars, bells, pipe organs, and bagpipes, in addition to an array of ethnic instruments. We also incorporate lots of choirs and chanting, as well as specifically designed voice overs and sound effects.
       Most bands don't write concept albums. They just write a bunch of unrelated songs and slap them together on a cd. As you mentioned, a lot of band's are afraid to take chances or stray too far from one basic style. Eventually their sound becomes stale. We like to continually challenge ourselves and try new things with each successive album.

Your cds are filled with artwork exploring your themes. The visual aids work very well to enrich the listening experience. How important is it to give your listeners visual cues?

Joseph Vargo: I began my creative career as an artist, so visual elements always play a very important part in all of my projects. These days a lot of bands don't even bother to include a photo of themselves with their cds, let alone a cool album cover. It's like they don't care about their fans once they've gotten them to buy their cd. I love to make our albums something special that the fans can completely devour. That's why there's always a lot of extras like bonus tracks, additional artwork and hidden riddles to be discovered and solved. I want to completely immerse the listener in the fantasy. It's also an extra reward for people who actually buy our albums instead of just downloading the music.

As a writer, I can attest to the fact that your music is very inspirational to the creative process. It must be a great feeling to know that your cds have influenced other artists to create. I've even noticed several other projects that seem to have been directly influenced by your work.

Joseph Vargo: We get a lot of letters from writers and artists telling us that our music puts them in the perfect creative mood. Our cds are also used in hundreds of haunted attractions across the country and some of the major theme parks have even created themes based on our concepts. Busch Gardens created an entire haunted wedding based on Darklore Manor. Universal Studios used our Carnival of Lost Souls album in their "Carnival Of Carnage" attraction and has based their dark fairy tale attraction "Once Upon A Nightmare" on our Grimm Tales cd. There are even several haunts named "Darklore Manor" that are based on the storyline of our first cd.
       On the flip side of the coin, a lot of our concepts and work has been ripped-off by less-creative people. Other bands have attempted their own versions of our original concepts, but the results are less than satisfying. We recently had German rapper named Bushido who stole three of our songs and rapped over them, then released them on an album that went platinum. This talentless cretin actually had the audacity to put his name on his ripped-off compositions, even though he had absolutely nothing to do with writing or recording the music. I've had the misfortune of working with some major buttweasels in the past. I think people who leech off of other peoples creativity, try to rip them off, or take credit for another artist's creations are as pathetic as they are despicable.

Speaking of which, I know the history between you and your former band. It is quite obvious that you were the major creative force there. Was revenge a motivating factor in creating Nox Arcana?

Joseph Vargo: As far as I know, those clowns don't even work together as a band anymore. It's great to be doing my own thing without any restrictions or limitations. To answer your question, revenge wasn't the major motivating factor, it was just a gratifying byproduct. There was a lot of misinformation about my role in my past bands and I felt compelled to set the record straight. In just a few years Nox Arcana has become the best-selling artist in our genre and we made it into the top ten on the Billboard holiday charts.

You seem to never take a break from writing and recording. Can you reveal anything about the next Nox Arcana album?

Joseph Vargo: We are currently working on a new cd called Blackthorn Asylum. I developed the concept back in 1997, when I created an entire Halloween party around the theme of a creepy asylum with a menagerie of tortured inmates ministered by a sinister doctor. The music will be a return to our gothic horror roots and the sound effects will be very unsettling. Blackthorn Asylum will be released in the Spring of 2009.

That sounds great. I'll be looking forward to hearing what you do with the theme. I really enjoy all of your work, and I appreciate your time.

Joseph Vargo: It's been a pleasure. Have a great Halloween.