Darned to Heck
by Frank Mullen
An evening with Voltaire is like a night of stand-up comedy in the Dark Ages.
He has a diverse background, including commercial animation, underground comics, and music. His distinctive style of stop-motion animation(the effect behind Frosty the Snowman or King Kong )has been used by clients such as Kellogg's,Cartoon Network,MTV and the Sci-Fi Channel, and resemblesnothing more thana Heironymous Bosch nightmare brought to life. His6-issuecomic saga Chi-Chian (pronounced "chee-chon") is a dark tale of 31st-century Manhattan, with the heroine pitted against giant insects,samurai robotsand other villainsas she tries to save New York.His recent album, The Devil's Bris , sounds like a cross between Boris Karloff and the Pogues (if they'd discovered heroin instead of the bottle).His other comic project, Oh My Goth , is a self-deprecating send-up of the oh-so-serious goth lifestyle.
His live shows are a blend of all these things -- the gothic imagery of his characters and films, the dark ironic humor of his comics, plus blatantly self-promotional patter ("So I said to myself, where can I get a really funny comic book?"). Typically, he's accompanied by a sparse group of highly skilled classical musicians -- drums, cello, guitar and violin combining like the soundtrack to a party for 19th century morticians. It's also a goth lovefest -- teen vampires loving every word while trying their best to look like they're not enjoying it.
On stage and in person, he's got the earnest, comedic evil of the Grinch as he delivers biting critique of his fellow man. This comes through in The Devil's Bris , as well. With forked tongue in cheek, songs like "When You're Evil" and "The Man Upstairs" are guaranteed to piss off those blessed with neither a sense of humor nor the intelligence to recognize sarcasm.
Anyone aggravated by his songs should read one of the lists from his Oh My Goth comics. For example, one of the Top 13 Reasons You Suspect Your Little Brother Has Gone Goth: "His new favorite breakfast cereal? Anne Rice Crispies!" For more not-so-darkness, read on...
photos by Frank Mullen
You were animating for Parker Brothers at age seventeen. How did that come about, and how did you know what you wanted to do at such an early age?
Voltaire : I think the very first thing I realized about myself is that I loved monster movies, and I was watching monster movies as far back as I can remember. At some point, I realized that I was particularly fascinated by the films of Ray Harryhausen ( Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger , Jason and the Argonauts , etc.), and there was something about the technique that he was using that I thought was very magical.It looked very real to me, it didn't look like a man in a suit. You know, there's something very surreal about stop motion, because it's a three-dimensional object moving, but as far as you can tell, nobody's moving it. I was fascinated by the technique.
At the age of ten, I got an 8mm camera and started experimenting, animating action figures and clay models and things of that nature.
What was your first movie?
My first film was a family reunion that I filmed at age ten -- it was the very first thing I ever filmed on my Super-8 camera. I went to this family reunion, and I was already somewhat bored with the concept of just running around with a camera and just documenting what was going on. So I started shooting different scenes to give the impression that there was a plot to assassinate my uncle.
I would run around and say, "Oh, aunty, could I get a shot of you carving that turkey?" and keep the turkey out of the frame and insinuate that perhaps it was my uncle that she was carving up.
I went about making this 30-minute film that basically took the events of this family reunion and made it seem that something terribly wrong was happening. When I got home, I realized that I had a few seconds of film left, and since there was a one frame function on the camera, I thought that this would be a great opportunity to actually try and do stop-motion myself.
So I made a clay character, this alien, and put him in a miniature set made of styrofoam boxes, animated them one frame at a time and really had absolutely no idea if it was going to work or what it would look like. A week later, everyone gathered around to watch this film, completely horrified that my uncle had been assassinated. And at the end of it, all of a sudden this alien popped out shooting this laser gun, and everyone just froze. None of these adults could tell how it was done and how this ten-year-old had brought this creature to life. They were mesmerized, and having that kind of spell cast over a group of adults for me was so incredibly exciting that I thought, "this is what I want to do."
And I just kept making stop-motion films from then on, and at seventeen I moved out and needed to find a job, and the natural thing to do was go to an animation company in New York City and show them my films, and they pretty much hired me on the spot. My first job was animating a toy commercial for Parker Brothers.
Did you learn on the job and progress? How did you finally get the resources to do things as they should be done?
From the time I was ten until the time I was seventeen, it was just a daily disaster. Every day, there was some new disaster -- like, I would try to make a wire armature out of soldering wire.
My first plaster mold was probably the most common early mold-making disaster. I took a clay sculpture that I'd worked on for about three weeks, and I put it in a bucket and filled the bucket with plaster. Then, when the plaster hardened, I sat there wondering, "How the hell am I going to get that thing out of there?" I basically made a cinder block with my model inside. I must have made about twelve of those until I finally realized that's not how you make a mold.
But, it was basically just trial and error until, little by little, I figured these things out. I think one of the key turning points was when I was fourteen and went to a sci-fi convention, and suddenly I found myself in a room with other people who were doing this type of work. They were able to point me in the direction of suppliers where I could get the appropriate supplies. They were capable of giving me information so that I could start to do things properly. Ironically, now I teach a class at the School of Visual Arts in New York City where, over the course of a semester, I teach my students all of the information it took me seven years to learn on my own. That's certainly very gratifying to see that they don't have to go through all of the same daily disasters.
How did you move into some of the other media, like comics?
Comics was the first non-animation genre that I went into. Basically, that happened in 1989 when I was in Tokyo. I was having a meeting with Bandai, the Japanese toy company, and they mentioned to me that they wanted me to direct a film.I was really excited -- I was about 22 years old. I was really young, and I went over there and showed them my reel, and they said "Well, your work is great, we love it, so what's the film?"
I was completely perplexed - I thought they were going to hand me a script, but really what they wanted was for me to write a script.Up until that point, I had only ever worked on projects that were 30 seconds long for American television commercials, so I was really baffled as to how I would even begin to write a feature length story.
So I left there asking myself, if I was going to create a character and build a world around that character, who would that character be? And subsequently, Chi-Chian was born.She was a character that I felt very emotionally connected to -- anything that happened to her would be something that would emotionally affect me, and that was really what I wanted to create. Caught up in the world of directing TV commercials, I subsequently put that idea aside, and it developed on its own in my brain.
Over the next eight years, I ended up doing thousands and thousands of drawings of her on napkins, until one day I stopped and realized that this entire saga had developed, and I realized that the most affordable and most likely way of telling this story was to create a comic book.I had never drawn a comic book before, I had never worked in the comic book industry, so I very naively just sat down in a cafe in New York City one night and started drawing issue one of Chi-Chian .
Because you didn't know any better.
I just didn't know any better, and I thought working on a comic book was something that a person could do by themselves with little or no financial investment. All it requires is an idea, some skills and lots and lots of time.
So I just sat down and started drawing, and eventually I had completed issue one of Chi-Chian . I went to a comic book store and started looking at comic books to see which companies had subject matter that was similar to the world Chi-Chian lives in, and I finally came across Sirius. One of the things that really struck me about Sirius is that all of their books are creator-owned, rather than most of the other comic book companies where the comic book company owns the copyright. That was very enticing.
I contacted them and sent them a copy of the first issue, and I think they were really surprised, because they're used to getting one or two drawings and a synopsis. I think they saw my package and said, "Oh, this guy is probably serious about doing this." Subsequently, they commissioned me to do a six-issue series, which allowed me to tell this entire saga. The first issue of Chi-Chian came out in October of '97 and the last issue came in November of '98, so the series wrapped up last year. But, now there's a line of merchandise coming out from a Japanese toy company called Fewture Models. They're making a cold-cast porcelain stature of Chi-Chian, and I saw the prototype and was completely blown away -- she was so beautiful. That'll be in stores in October.
Are there other vehicles besides comics for Chi-Chian? Is there more to come?
The Chi-Chian story is somewhat of a virus in my brain -- it sort of grows exponentially on a daily basis, beyond my control. I've already been informed by the powers-that-be in my cerebellum of what takes place in the next series.
It's out of your hands, huh?
Right, I'm just a puppet. It's really just the coffee talking. But, in any case, the next step for Chi-Chian is a graphic novel which is a collection of the first six issues, and then I imagine we'll be moving on to another series. But the eventual goal for Chi-Chian is really to make a film, as was the original impetus for the creation of the story.
Do you struggle with the issues of commercial work - selling out, losing control, or diluting your vision?
"Selling out" is a term that is used far too often by people who have never done anything.I don't really believe so much that it's selling out -- I try to go after jobs that are somewhat in my style, jobs that I really want to do. Yes, occasionally my reel goes out for the Scott Tissue commercial with the singing toilet paper roll...
And you get a nice letter back?
Right! Generally speaking, I get a reply from the ad agency akin to, "Thank you very much, and as soon as we start worshiping Satan, we'll give you a call."I end up getting mostly jobs that are sort of alternative and edgy, so selling out isn't really something that comes up very often. And on the occasion that I do something that's very commercial, I don't think of myself as a two-dimensional person. There are many different aspects of pop culture that interest me, so I just try to do the very best job I can and be thankful that I'm not flipping burgers somewhere.The fact is, I'm animating and bringing creatures to life -- whether it's some spooky gargoyle or whether it's a roll of toilet paper, it's still an art form that I really enjoy being a part of.
Are there any books that have influenced you?
I've never read anything. I think I read a TV Guide once.
How was it?
It was riveting! I'm really not much of a reader.
I don't really see you as much of a consumer.
No, as a matter of fact, I think that's a character flaw that I'm going to have to work on. Seriously! I don't really buy CDs, I don't read novels, I don't even read many magazines -- I had this theory that I wanted to try to maintain somewhat true to my vision, and that I didn't want that to be altered by outside influences, until one day I realized that that's completely ludicrous, and that everything that you do is derivative of something. We're constantly being influenced by outside forces, so that's something that I'm consciously trying to be more aware of.
What's the first monster movie you remember?
Definitely my earliest memory, as well as most likely the most influential, was King Kong .
When did you see it?
I couldn't tell you. Four? Three, four, five? But it really stuck with me. Obviously that's a stop-motion film, and I think it really had a profound impact on me at a very early age.
That's wasn't a Harryhausen film, was it?
No, it was actually Harryhausen's predecessor, Willis O'Brien. He is really the father of American stop motion, and Ray Harryhausen ended up assisting him when he was seventeen years old on another O'Brien film called Mighty Joe Young .
There aren't too many other people working in the stop-motion style these days, except obviously Tim Burton.
I'm a huge Tim Burton fan, and of course a lot of people make comparisons when they see my work, and they always bring up Tim Burton. "Oh, this is very Tim Burton. Have you and Tim Burton worked together yet?" And I always used to get so pissed, because I'd think to myself, "That bastard hasn't called me once!"
You went off on Todd McFarlane (creator of Spawn ) at the Dragon Con show, that was pretty funny.
Well, my live shows can get pretty volatile. It's basically live therapy -- public therapy.
You were joking with your cellist about taking a cello up the ass, and my question is, why start with a cello right away? Wouldn't you start with a violin and move up to a viola first?
Not if you're an old pro!
So this wasn't your first time?
No, this wasn't my first time.You know, it's really funny, because I used to do shows that were scripted from start to finish. Eventually, I did a string of shows that I was completely unprepared for, that turned out to be the funniest shows I'd ever done. Now, I pretty much just let the demons do the work. We just get up there and whatever happens, happens. Our violinist, Gregor, had sex with a chicken at our show in Philadelphia. Well, it was a dead chicken, but it was a chicken. You really had to be there to understand.
The beautiful thing about the shows is that it's such a wonderful vehicle for being ludicrous, as opposed to animation, which is so precise -- every single frame has an effect on the outcome. A show is a place where any ludicrous idea that pops into my head can become a monologue. Moments before one of our shows in NYC, someone blurted out the word "pirate." I think they said that "Ex Lover's Lover" sounded like a pirate song, and so I ended up doing the entire show with a Scottish pirate's accent. And henceforth, the chicken-shtupping. So you just never know what's going to happen with the show.
I think 50% of our audience is horrified when they find themselves at an allegedly gothic performance, and suddenly that smile starts to creep across their face. They just don't know where to hide! They look around and they think, "Must not smile! Mustn't let them see me smile!" But usually, everyone gives in by the end.
You must be a pretty good comedian, or psychologist, or something, because you're pretty much ragging on your core audience the whole show. 80% of the crowd was in black from head to toe, with those little daggers around their necks, and all serious, and here you are just ripping their lifestyle.
It's self-mockery. But, I think the key is that the audience realizes that I'm laughing at "us," I'm not laughing at "them." I consider myself part of the same group, and I think, generally speaking, my shows are about saying things that everyone is thinking, but that no one would dare say. And that's where a lot of the material comes from.
Which is also true of the lyrics of the music. Most of the lyrics are talking about really vicious, jealous, sarcastic or self-loathing moments that everyone feels but that people generally don't find too glamorous. People don't want to reveal these things about themselves.
Like piling high the bodies of your ex-lover's lovers?
It's easy to assume that a songwriter is writing about themselves or from moments in their life, but you seem to be more of a storyteller. How much of your writing comes from reality, and how much are you just looking from someone else's point of view?
Well, to best answer that question, I have to say that the other day someone e-mailed me and said, "how many of your lyrics do you take seriously?" And the answer to that is, "all of them." And then, of course, they were really horrified because they thought I was some crazy psychopath calling for the death of my upstairs neighbor, and my ex-girlfriend and everyone else on Earth. But the full answer is, I take all of those lyrics seriously for a moment. All of those stories come from feelings that I have or that anyone else would have, that you really feel very intensely for a few moments perhaps. And then you realize, "I wouldn't really go out and kill all those people, but I really would love to right now," you know?
That's exactly the motivation - "Wouldn't you just love to see their faces when I walked in and hacked everybody to pieces?" We all think these things, but as reasonable human beings, we also realize that you don't really want to act on those impulses. It's certainly very healthy to sing them and get them out of your system. It keeps you from creating a McMassacre.
Well, for such an evil guy, you seem to be having a hell of a good time. Do you believe in the devil?
I don't believe in the devil at all.I don't believe in anything I haven't personally experienced, so I guess you could call me an agnostic. I don't believe in the Judeo-Christian God.I certainly don't believe that there is a red man with horns and a tail, living in the Earth's core, who is going to punish me for eternity because I touched my pee-pee.I really don't think that's going to happen.
But, I certainly do believe that all of these different things are aspects of humanity -- on a daily basis, there are countless opportunities to choose to do the right thing or to choose to do the wrong thing. I personally like to choose to do the right thing, because that is what inevitably makes me feel good about being here and interacting with other people. But I love to sing about doing the wrong thing, because it's so much more fun.
What would your idea of hell be?
Have you ever sat in the Department of Motor Vehicles waiting for a license for twelve hours?
Um, what is my vision of hell? Well, I know this sounds extremely cliche, but I have a really hard time believing there is somewhere worse than Earth. This is a pretty horrible place full of pretty horrible people that do really horrible things on a daily basis. Certainly that doesn't mean that everyone is that way, and it doesn't mean that the opportunities for peace aren't there, but I think that you have to strive to find peace on this planet as opposed to looking for trouble. Trouble seems to be everywhere. So, to a large degree, I just try to laugh at the ugliness.
Your son, Mars, is in the artwork of the record with horns and a tail. What's he going to think when he looks back and sees that?
I would love to believe that being raised in an environment populated primarily by artists and free thinkers, I would like to think he would grow up to have a very broad outlook on the world. But judging from the way children seems to rebel against their parents, I have no doubt that he'll grow up to be a Republican football player, and a disappointment to us all. I'm just kidding -- he is a really, really, great kid and I have to say that every day is an adventure. Watching them grow and watching them become aware of things is so fascinating. He's a year and a half old, and every day is some new discovery, and it's just an amazing process. You also realize, when you're a parent, the great potential that humanity has, because there is so much innocence and wonder in children.
I hope I'm not making the wrong choice, but I firmly believe that you should tell children the truth from the very beginning, so I don't fear the moment when he asks me, "Daddy, why is my pee pee different from her pee pee," or "What is death," or "What are drugs?" I really don't fear those moments because I think that a lot of the disfunctionality that people live with is largely due to not being told the truth, to having been told some kind of weird, twisted alternative to what is real.
Why do you think people do that?
I think mostly people do that out of shame and embarrassment, and also out of fear that their children will grow up the wrong way. I think that people don't tell their children about sex because they don't want them to grow up to be some kind of crazed pervert; but I have the opposite opinion. I think that when you give children an unrealistic notion about what sex is, they grow up to be crazed perverts. I think when you're dealt the cards, and the cards are all right there in front of you, I think you can make healthy decisions about what to do with your life.
I look at it as each human being having certain needs, and they need to have vents for those needs. So, the different aspects of their personality need to come out in one way or other, and if they have a healthy and honest perspective on what being a human is, those needs will be answered in a healthy and honest way. When you're repressing people or keeping them from expressing themselves in a natural way, then it's like a box with no vents. That stuff is going to come out one way or another, and that's when it starts coming through the cracks and finding weird strange corners to come out of, and that's when you start really creating a disfunctional human being.
What would you say to people who look at your different creations, and look at your record and listen to your music and are horrified, and they're not getting it and they just think it's evil, and come down on you for the things you're saying?
"Get a grip, it's just a record. Get a grip, it's just a comic book. Get a grip, it's just a film." It's entertainment, and in my own strange way I'm trying to dispel what the taboo is. I'm saying these things are not truly dangerous, these things are only perceived as dangerous. If you can run around the house in a devil costume playing funny songs, chances are you're not going to have the same fear and awe for the devil that you would if you were afraid to mention his name. That's entertainment, folks.
Anything new on the horizon?
We've been getting a lot of requests for the next record, and so far it looks like it will probably come out in the spring of 2000. It's really funny, in the sense that there's probably only one or two songs on the next record that call for the death of someone. I really feel like, to a large degree, that I've gotten that out of my system. And, I don't think the next record is anywhere near as funny as the first one, because I lost a lot of my sense of humor in the process of releasing the fist record.
People warned me before the first record came out. They said, "Voltaire, this record is too funny. People are going to think of it as a comedy record," and with the title, The Devil's Bris , people really felt that I was going overboard with that. My outlook at the time was very simply, and perhaps very naively, "this is who I am." I am attracted to this dark, gothic aesthetic, but I also have a very humorous outlook on life, a very sarcastic outlook on life, and this record represents how I feel and who I am, so this is the record I'm going to put out.
But the end result was that a lot of reviewers focused on the humorous content of the record -- although they commented on the music being very beautiful and very deftly played, a lot of the reviews did focus on it being funny. Particularly in the goth scene. I think if you so much as smile in the goth scene, people are going to assume you're a comedian. So I did get a lot of people focusing on that aspect of it, which really bothered me, because I felt that it really took away from the musicianship and from the songwriting.
The band you played here with was amazing.
They're great, aren't they? The violinist we played with in Atlanta was a substitute, but she was just as good as our...
The chicken humper?
The chicken humper. They're classical musicians, and they don't often play in what you would call a rock band. I just happened to get extremely lucky when I found those guys.
Are you still playing with your violinist, Gregor?
Oh, yeah, he just wasn't available for this show. For any given show, the first thing I have to do is check the availability of the musicians, and on any given night, it's possible that Gregor Kitzis will be playing at Carnegie Hall, or that Matt Goeke will be at Lincoln Center, and they generally are playing symphonic gigs. Our drummer Grisha Alexiev plays very often with jazz bands and things of that nature. So, trying to get us all in the same room at the same time is usually a challenge.
It was funny to hear them comparing notes about different musical directors of different Broadway plays they'd been in, and trading anecdotes.
And then there's me. I'd hate to be a fly on the wall and hear what they have to say about me.
Ironically enough, I think that being in the band is an opportunity for them to let their hair down, so to speak. They're probably a lot wilder when they play with me than the average rock musician would be, because they really have a lot to let loose when they get an opportunity to do so.
After a hard month of playing "The Lion King," or something?
Exactly. We played a cello festival last month, and that was quite an experience for me. It was very much their environment. I got up on stage, and I didn't realize we were going to be playing in a classical recital hall. So I walk up there, basically dressed like Nosferatu, standing in front of a crowd of people who think "goth" is a game you play on a green with a club and a little white ball. For a moment I froze and I thought, "Oh my God, none of my material is going to work...," and suddenly I realized, that's the angle for the show. So I walked out and I said, "Well, this is the brightest place we've ever played. And I don't think I'm going to have the usual problem getting the black lipstick stains out of my underpants after the show." And they flipped, they had a blast.
Voltaire, why so glum?
Well, I hate saying stuff like this because it's so cliche, but if you're walking around on the same planet that I'm walking around on and you're not glum, something's wrong with you. But, I do try to find the humor in everything. "Switch on the black lights, daddy's home!"
I can see that. A little black light over the crib, and some day-glo rattles?
And some rubber bats.
You have a web site that talks about all your different projects.
Yes, but I was so afraid of computers up until a couple of years ago. Once again, with fear being the motivation for hate, I hated computers. But the truth of the matter was that I was just really terrified because anybody three years younger than me was born with a calculator up their butt, and I was still trying to get my VCR to stop blinking "12:00." But eventually I figured it out, and computers are a wonderful thing. They're a wonderful tool, you just can't get too attached to them.
People do get absurdly attached to their computers. One day, when the big mega bomb goes off and the electricity is shut off, there are going to be some people that say, "oh, well" and move on, and there are going to be some people whose entire lives are going to fall apart.So I think that computers are a wonderful tool, but I think you need to perceive them as just that.
I lived in a studio apartment on the lower East side of Manhattan for six years with no electricity, which was wonderful. The apartment was candlelit, there was no phone, there was no interruption -- it was nice and quiet. It was very peaceful, and it was really a little sanctuary to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Would you believe that the most frequently asked question was, "How do you live?" I would get so angry at people for asking me that, because I would just think, "How could you be so ignorant as to think that you can't 'live' without electricity?" I mean, we've had electricity for the blink of an eye in the spectrum of all of human history.
Well, you could take a bow and arrow or a gun and hunt your own food on the lower East side?
Yeah, but before you even get to that, you light a candle, for God's sake, and you move on.
I wonder how many other people have done (or are doing) that, by choice?
I'm sure it's a small handful, but I have a lot of respect for those people.I had to eventually move and get electricity when the baby came, because --
Because, how could you live?
[laughing] It's certainly far more convenient, and you really don't want to have a mishap that was avoidable. But I'm all for no electricity.
So you sold out, is what you're saying.
I sold out! Hey, it's better than flipping burgers.
More evil info at http://www.voltaire.net/.