Diamanda Galas could have been famous just for her beautiful, phantasmagoric voice: ranging from a guttural multiphonic growl to a nerve-shattering shriek, it's powerful enough to contain oceans of horror and grief, yet so razor-sharp and tightly controlled it could carve an epigram into a wedding ring. But Galas is much more than a singer. She's made herself a mourner for the world's victims and an avenging angel to their oppressors and murderers—her 2003 double album Defixiones, Will and Testament: Orders From the Dead is dedicated to "the forgotten and erased of the Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek genocides." Most notoriously, she's attacked the Catholic church for what she sees as its complicity in the suffering caused by AIDS (she has the words "We are all HIV+" tattooed on the fingers of her left hand), and she indicts the cruel, the cowardly, the bigoted, and the falsely pious wherever she finds them. Galas's long career has included collaborations with avant-garde composer Iannis Xenakis, Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, and Erasure; she's also a huge fan of Doris Day. On Thu 2/23 and Sat 2/25 at the MCA, she performs a program for voice and piano called Were You There When They Crucified My Lord? It includes new songs, blues covers, and material from her late-80s Masque of the Red Death trilogy; both shows are sold out. The short film Schrei 27, which includes some of Galas's most extreme and experimental vocal work, screens in the museum's theater from 1 PM till 4 PM on Fri 2/24 and Sun 2/26.
For this week's Artist on Artist, Galas spoke with Mark Solotroff, who founded power-electronics group Intrinsic Action in 1984 and is probably best known today as the vocalist for Bloodyminded. The venerable noise veteran's first rock-oriented project, Anatomy of Habit, released its self-titled debut full-length this fall; the band opens for Arriver at the Hideout on Sat 2/25. —Philip Montoro
You've moved from the sort of mid-80s era of [experimental music like] Divine Punishment, et cetera, and even earlier with Panoptikon and whatnot, then into, say, blues and jazz, interpretations of standards, and then soundtracks—even working with Rotting Christ in the metal field. . . . With these different styles, do you get different things out of them by singing maybe something that comes from the blues tradition versus some others? Yes. Well said—excellent question. When you're singing "O Death"—albeit when [Ralph] Stanley sings it, he's singing it as the cowboy song, the loner—the song, the bluegrass holy song, is a man singing to the sky. It's the same idea as the blues, but it's coming from a different vocal tradition. When I'm singing it, I sing it within the context of the blues and with some inclusion of the amanathes—that is a Greek-Anatolian tradition, and also the Turks and the Assyrians and the Armenians sang it. I'm really going in a different area than when I'm doing bel canto. Completely. And it brings out a different personality. In a sense it's more extroverted.
One of the small themes that I wanted to address relates to the song "Gloomy Sunday." I worked with a local band called Rabid Rabbit, who have a fantastic female front person, Andrea [Jablonski], who—we actually sang it, I recorded it with them and then sang it a few times live as a duet. And we have actually, I think, approached it as a love song, as a tragic love song. It is a tragic love song. It is.
Yeah, I think we tried to look at it a different way, because it's been sung and recorded by so many people. So I was wondering what it meant to you at the time you chose it. I have to say that I did approach it that way—"I waited for you. I waited for the flower that never came. I waited and waited and waited, and then I killed myself." And that actually is the theme of the Cesare Pavese [the poem "I Gatti Lo Sapranno," which Galas sings]. That is why he killed himself actually, because of a relationship like this, and he just gave up.
A lot of my work has involved me utilizing multiple microphones onstage, sometimes up to ten microphones in a bundle in my hands. I don't know why people have not familiarized me with your work, because I didn't know that there was anyone else using other microphones.
There's a few people in the noise world, more experimental world, who have tried different things with microphones. It seemed, when I started doing that, that it was an intuitive thing, until I looked back at a photograph on the cover of your self-titled record from '84. Of course that image of you holding the two microphones was completely burned into my head as well. I know which one you mean. It was unfortunately on the album colorized in a way that I did not like. But anyway, the microphones initially represented all the different personalities. . . . [Iannis] Xenakis was dealing with white noise, which was a subtractive synthesis—experiments that he did with computers, and then he would obtain, at different times, frequencies that would then go into a fuller noise spectrum, and then become attenuated into another frequency. And it was very, very loud. This was something that was inspirational to me, along with the idea of changing the size of the room at will and changing—obviously a part of quadraphonic sound that you can use with, when you have the four microphones, and then you have one in your hand that goes to all the channels, all the speakers. . . . In Insekta, which was 1993, I had a cage full of microphones—I had a harness that was strapped to me with microphones, and then I had microphones in different parts of the cage.
I love the idea of personalities, first of all. That's a great thing. They can represent different things. For me, I've worked so much with feedback and my voice, so what even starting with two microphones can do, let alone a host of microphones, whether they're on stands or in your hands, and the way you move around a room. . . . Speaking of live, I know that since the early 90s the majority of your recorded works that have been released are live releases. I can think of exceptions, like The Sporting Life with John Paul Jones. That's because my record company was sold to EMI. Mute was sold to EMI and suddenly everything changed. . . . Suddenly there wasn't the kind of money that there was before. There were no recording sessions, there was no studio stuff, there was nothing. So I was basically recording everything live. And that is never going to give you the same fidelity—obviously it will give you a different kind of vibe. But it's a sad thing, and I don't know what the future is.
And that's what I was going to ask, because the business side of music has changed so drastically that recorded music in a physical format, except for a smaller, devout audience, it's lost its value. I was wondering if budgets and whatnot were changed. I will never know actually what's going on. Daniel Miller bought back me, Nick Cave, Erasure, and a few others to Mute from EMI. He did it last year. So that would change—however I do not know if that will change, so until I find out I've been releasing my own work online on Cleopatra Records, the Cleopatra editions. And I will continue to do that and then release CDs that I can sell on the road. Because EMI has charged the artist something like $15 per record to sell on the road, so I have no records to sell in Chicago. Because I'm not going to pay that kind of money.
Of course. I don't have it. So it's a very unfortunate situation, and they in the meantime have not distributed my records anywhere. . . . I'm going to have to see what Mute's proposition is, because ultimately, you and I understand that we can all record our own records. Not necessarily to the finish and polish that it was done in the old days, but one needs to, on tour, sell something, sell records. If they're not going to be distributed, then you better sell them. I'm not the first one. I remember when I was growing up and I was listening to Betty Carter, and I thought, Bet-Car Records? I said, "Are you kidding? Bet-Car Records? Nobody will fucking put out Betty Carter's records?" Here she was, this major innovator in the jazz world—and I met her, and she heard me, and she was so encouraging and she was really great. I thought, "What the fuck? She's incredible and she has to put out her own records?"
Or she figured it out, years and years ahead of Prince and everybody else who realized, "Wait a minute, why aren't we cutting these guys out? They're just sucking the blood out of us." Well, Prince is a guy that I would love to meet and do something with, especially within my blues category, because he's a real musician, and just like the work with John Paul Jones, I think we'd have a blast together. I really, really do.
As far as collaborations go, I would be neglectful if I didn't ask you about the Rotting Christ song. Well, what it was, is that [front man] Sakis [Tolis]—you know, here I am a Greek and he's a Greek, but I'm from the diaspora, so I'm from America. My family lived—their funereal kind of music, the image historically goes back to the Maniatissas. Mani is near Sparta, so they have this funereal dirge. But his family comes from Epirus, and they have a different tradition of funeral singing. And he brought some Epirotissas, these women from—Epirotissas means women from Epirus. So he brought them and he had them singing on the track also. In a sense he reorchestrated the track, but to include what I had already done in some parts, and then added the band to it in a wonderful way. He did a magnificent job.
Sakis and I became very good friends, and we're going to work together in the future. He approached me because he loved this song and it meant a lot to him, because he also has relatives from Smyrna where the genocides took place. This is very important, and this is what the piece is about, is the genocide of the Greek population in Smyrna at this particular time. He was very invested in making sure that the population of Greece was very much aware of it. So he was very pleased when he heard Defixiones and that's what the record concerns, the genocides of the Greeks, the Armenians, and the Assyrians.
If some of these other pairings you're alluding to are possibilities, I'm looking forward to them too. I want you to spell your name, because I'm going to go downstairs and look up all your stuff.