David E. Williams - Hope Springs A TurtleHope Springs A Turtle represents the first full-length recording in over 8 years for David E. Williams. Williams hasn't been on a complete hiatus though, the intervening years have seen the release of the Hello Columbus EP, and more recently he composed the adventurous soundtrack for The Strike Zone, recalling the golden years of Hollywood scores, and made a cameo appearance on Deathpile's power electronic assault, GR, based on the notorious Green River killer.
Musically versatile Williams weaves a perverse lyric over seemingly innocuous music - composed on keyboards with orchestral passages and steady percussion. It's easy listening for the terminally depraved. Williams, it seems, has examined the human condition and discovered the ugliness within: documenting in his inimitable style man's capacity for evil, exposing the sores and cancers that riddle the human body. It's part tragedy and part comedy - if gallows humour is your thing.
Hope Springs A Turtle carries cautionary tales of surgeons, pediatricians, game wardens, call centre workers, fast food workers, mobile phone shop staff. At the hands of Williams these individuals range from epilepsy sufferers, gay men seeking anonymous sex with the homeless before ending up deceased with a lampshade up the rectum, mothers who be classified as suffering from Munchausen by Proxy. You get the picture. Williams has a keen eye for detail and it's the finest rendering of the mundane since Brett Easton Ellis's clinical descriptions in American Psycho. Of course, abuse - particularly of the religious variety - is writ large here but what do you expect when Williams spent a number of years in Catholic schooling. I don't find the work of Williams juvenile, Hope Springs A Turtle is romantic and sophisticated and at its (black) heart there is optimism and a sense of redemption.
Hope Springs A Turtle is symptomatic of the times we live in and Williams is a savage chronicler of this decadent, debauched era. If the work of Williams can be compared to anyone it would be the Tiger Lillies, or any cut-price easy listening act if it weren't for the deadpan and moribund delivery that makes Nick Cave sound as though he's on uppers.
Hope Springs A Turtle unsurprisingly featured high on many end of year lists for 2004. We struck up a conversation with the fine Mr David E. Williams to find out what stokes the fires of that twisted and solitary mind.
It's been almost 8 years since your last full-length solo album, I Have Forgotten How To Love You, where have you been?
Well, I'm afraid I can't lay claim to anything as exciting as heroin addiction or self-imposed Tibetan exile. Those 8 years were characterized primarily by old age, exhaustion and the soul-sucking tyranny of a "day job" in advertising sales. On the bright side, I also fell in love and adopted 5 cats.
Music crept into the background of my life, but one can't accuse me of total silence. Hello Columbus came out in 1999. This CD had only 3 songs on it but for some reason took forever to complete amid great personal turmoil and the end of at least one longstanding friendship. It was recorded in not one but two 48-track studios and includes a live drummer and a live string quartet in addition to the usual ensemble. The world took little notice.
Meanwhile, I also worked on a movie soundtrack about a transvestite murderer (The Strike Zone), I played synth on a power electronics release by Deathpile (GR), and, of course, I supervised the postproduction of a live recording (Accept the Gift of Sin) made in 1996 with the late Rozz Williams.
Ah, that infamous show with Rozz Williams of Christian Death. That performance certainly created some controversy. How did you hook up with Rozz, and could you relate the events of the evening?
Back in the early '90's, I used to send demo cassette tapes to every "alternative" and/or "gothic" mailing address I could find. Somehow, one of these tapes ended up in the hands of Rozz's manager at the time. Rozz's manager generally would pass along tapes to Rozz so that Rozz could record things over them. (Rozz did not have a lot of money at the time, or, well, I guess, ever). For some reason - I don't know, maybe he liked the song titles or something - Rozz gave my tape a listen and began a correspondence between us.
We had always wanted to work together and got our chance in 1996 when a promoter wanted Rozz in Philadelphia but couldn't afford to transport an entire band from LA. Well, gosh, the kids and I jumped at the opportunity to be Rozz's personal band in Philadelphia! We spent a month arranging all kinds of musical backdrops for Rozz's haunting (and surprisingly versatile!) voice. We did 2 Christian Death covers ('Cavity' and 'When I Was Bed'), 2 songs of mine ('Sandra Lindsey' and 'Beautiful Brownshirted Man'), 'Tomorrow Belongs to Me' (from Cabaret), 'I'm Not In Love' (from 10cc), 'Dream a Little Dream of Me' and 'Mindfuck' (noisy spoken word from Rozz).
The show was going pretty well, until Rozz pulled out a prop for 'Tomorrow Belongs to Me'. The prop was a certain rather naughty flag (well, in fact it used to be the flag of Germany), and the bouncers at the club didn't take too kindly to it. Allegedly, they had gotten their asses kicked by some skinheads at a punk rock show a couple weeks earlier, so they were easily threatened by a homosexual and his overweight sweaty keyboard player.
Anyway, it was a mess. The promoter (an individual with fake fang implants!) ran on stage afterward and totally disowned us for our horrible, horrible crime. I'm pretty sure Rozz never got paid. People were threatening to beat us up (although they magically disappeared while my band and I were quite vulnerably removing our equipment from the club…). Days later on the internet, some fool claimed that no one in the audience was aware that Rozz was making reference to "some obscure movie". Cabaret?? I mean, I know it's not as "un-obscure" as The Crow, for instance, but geez.
Living as we do in a pop culture that so regularly co-opts the iconography of communist mass murderers, I guess I don't need to underline all the ironies here.
Perhaps one day Rozz will properly take his place among the great Halloween instigators in history. You know, like Orson Welles with his War of the Worlds broadcast!
Before we speak about your new album, could you tell us about the soundtrack you provided for Norman Macera's The Strike Zone? I understand that you're currently working on some others too. It certainly involves a wider palette of sounds. Do you enjoy recording for films? And if you were to rescore a film, what would it be?
The Strike Zone film is about a repressed transvestite who royally screws up an attempted murder of his father. Luckily, there's this Mephistophelean character who gives him a second chance to screw things up even worse! It's a pretty funny film - like a Satanic inversion of It's a Wonderful Life - and not too far removed from my own personal aesthetic. Not a single character is admirable (much like real life) and the script oozes with the kind of anti-sexual homoeroticism in which I personally always thrive.
Anyway, Norman's a big fan of the old Hollywood soundtrack composers like Bernard Herrman and he wanted something in a similar symphonic vein. Although I really only had my trusty Korg Triton to work with, I certainly tried my best! Most of my score revolves around variations of three popular American melodies: 'Take Me Out to the Ball Game,' 'Casper the Friendly Ghost' and a Whitney Houston song that shall remain nameless for fear of copyright imprisonment (sic?).
Recording for films is fun and challenging in a "working on a crossword puzzle" kind of way. It doesn't come as naturally to me as, say, writing a song about paedophile surgeons, but sometimes I fantasize that film scoring will one day allow me to earn a living as a musician. You know, like when I'm 60 or something. Boo hoo. I guess my rock 'n' roll fantasies have come down quite a steep hill since the days when I wanted to be the keyboardist for Pink Floyd.
Finally, if I could rescore one film, the obvious answer would be Triumph of the Will ... the animated version.
Your latest CD is titled Hope Springs A Turtle. Rape, murder, and abuse are just some of the basest vilest acts committed by mankind and they feature quite heavily on your latest CD, Hope Springs A Turtle. What attracts you to such subject matter?
Well, I could easily ask what attracts YOU to someone so attracted? My mom thinks we're all crazy. About 10 years ago, I had this really horrible problem with terrible and constant visions of evisceration. This will sound like some sick stupid joke, but every time I looked at another human being, I saw their entrails coming out! I went to a psychotherapist and he suggested I consciously manipulate the images into something more positive. For instance, if I saw myself ripping someone's heart out, I should imagine that I'm pulling a ball out of a drawer so that children can play. If I saw myself pulling out someone's intestines, I should imagine that I'm pulling rope out of a boat so that I can tie it to the dock. Those were really tough times. I think it was Prozac that finally turned me into a good wage slave again.
So do you think there is any hope for mankind?
Oh, gosh, no! In two or three hundred years, no one will believe that human beings once flew through the sky, replaced their worn-out hip joints and wrote songs about something other than fornication with big-assed prostitutes. It's really going down the toilet that quickly, don't you agree?
God, yes but I would be happy if people were nicer and displayed some manners. That's a twisted, morbid outlook you have but there's a stream of sadness and redemption throughout Hope Springs A Turtle, would you agree? Things could be better?
Thank you very much for noting these elements of sadness and redemption. But, truly, these qualities are necessary if my work is to move beyond sadistic pornography and toward something like, ahem, poetry. I appreciate my appeal among gorehounds and murder junkies, but, yes, in my own way I feel I'm plumbing the eternal verities. Marianne Moore once described poetry as "imaginary gardens with real toads," and that's the goal one strives for.
Things could be better? Well, the title Hope Springs A Turtle is a rather cheap pun, but yes, it is shall we say, "grimly positive." Hope is coming, just rather slowly and deliberately (and eating blades of grass?). As a title, it certainly expresses a different meaning than HOPE IS CUT OFF AT THE SOURCE BY THE DOUBLE FISTS OF CHAOS AND ENTROPY.
What creates such an individual with such twisted thoughts and what inspires you to wrap these up in such beautiful melodies?
I'd like to give you a funny answer. I'd like to give you an intellectual answer. But it's really as simple as this: there's a certain kind of story I like and there's a certain kind of music I like. If you put them together, you get something that sounds like one of my songs. The whole marketing campaign of "beautiful melodies with twisted lyrics" comes after the fact, and, frankly, as marketing campaigns go, it's not been all that successful!
And you are joking about the Prozac, aren't you?
Not at all. I was in the midst of a truly debilitating near-suicidal depression and used the Prozac to elevate my mood just enough to function and kind of think my way out of the mess. It was really good at killing the emotions and the sex drive, which is something I needed at the time, a little "holiday" from myself. This was 10 years ago; I took the medicine for 9 months. I remember it used to make my head "burn" if I mixed it with alcohol. Like my scalp was on fire. Not totally unpleasant, just odd.
Are there precedents for this sort of dark humour? Tell us a bit about your favourite authors, musicians, comedians, artists?
It's interesting that you mention comedians. Before any musicians or writers, the first "creative artists" to appeal to me in my youth were Monty Python's Flying Circus and Mel Brooks. My first "smalltown America" rock influences were the Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Who, Supertramp and Rush. I discovered Joy Division shortly after Ian Curtis' death and I believe I was the only person in my hometown to have ever heard of them. I read a review that described the Closer CD as "blood-stained art" and for some reason I thought "Wow, this is something I really need to buy." I still remember my first time listening to it in my parent's basement with my brother asleep on the couch and all the lights off. Over the years, I was also influenced by - in no particular order - Tangerine Dream, Eno's ambient albums, Siouxsie and the Cure, the Swans, Nick Cave, The Carpenters. In the 90's, I discovered Arvo Part, Henryk Gorecki and Scott Walker. Some of my favorite authors and poets have included (again, in no particular order) Kurt Vonnegut, Charles Bukowski, Vladimir Nabokov, Sylvia Plath, T.S. Eliot, Russell Edson and Eugene Ionesco. In movies, I like Martin Scorcese, David Lynch, Paul Schrader and Lilliana Cavani (well, I don't know about her other films, but I certainly like The Night Porter!)
I hope I haven't left out anyone important! OK, Lou Reed's Berlin album is absolute best…
Several of the tracks on Hope Springs A Turtle appear to make reference to true life stories. Obviously 'The Ballad of Bob Crane' is based on the true story of the former Hogan's Heroes star but how many of the other tracks have their basis in fact?
There are no other purely historical songs in, shall we say, the Al Stewart manner, but 'Seizure Dream Believe' and 'The Need for Less Sex in the World' *did* emerge from sadistic fantasies about real acquaintances. Actually, the instrumental piece '10048' kind of has a basis in fact, as it was heavily influenced by the World Trade Center attacks. 10048 was the postal zip code of the World Trade Center Post Office.
So how did you hook up with the Italian label Old Europa Cafe?
If I remember correctly, Rodolfo had always enjoyed my other CD's and he contacted me through Jon Canady of Deathpile.
Do you know who your audience is? Is there a typical David E. Williams fan?
If there were, I would surely have an easier time selling CD's! I'm afraid my work has always been problematic from a target marketing standpoint. Some of my fans are Goths, some of my fans hate Goths; some think the music is too serious for the funny lyrics, and some think the lyrics are too silly for the serious music ... and on and on and on. In the past few years, I seem to be getting more attention from the Faustian "heil boys", but that can only lead to worries of an inevitable night of the long knives.
You don't feel an affinity for the dark folk crowd then? But you must get some satisfaction from the fact that Naevus recently covered one of your songs, 'Less Than Queer'? And I believe you contributed to Naevus' Perfection is a Process CD?
Well, first of all, you should take it up with the members of Naevus as to whether they're either "Faustian heil boys" or dark folk. I think that's a bit off. Oddly, I've always seen them in the tradition of what we Yanks call Arty Brit Pop (a circuitous line of succession running from Scott Walker - although he's an American, I guess - through Wire, the Smiths, Pulp, etc.) A bit darker than much of that, but equally adept at tunesmithery. (Compulsion online note: before anyone takes umbrage we too see Naevus in the lineage of post-punk, this was merely a reference to the dark folk genre where the excellent Naevus often get bracketed.)
Secondly, please don't misconstrue my little Ernst Roehm joke as a dismissal of neofolk!! (By the way, whatever happened to "apocalyptic folk"?) My personal CD collection contains quite a few of the classic cornerstones of the genre (I'm 40 years old, so it's probably easy to figure them out). I remember when Blood Axis' Gospel Of Inhumanity came out, I thought it was a very, very interesting record; it's kind of cool that it's now become what rock critics like to call " a work of seminal importance." Good for Michael! He certainly deserves it.
Finally, I would never disparage the musical tastes of anyone who enjoys a good David E. Williams tune every now and then. Why should it matter to me what they listen to when my audio challenge inevitably tires them?
That was an interesting setlist you compiled for your opening slot with Death in June at the Pyramid Club, New York in April 2005. Do tell us the list, and just what made you think that those songs would appeal to the Death in June audience? And did it?
I'm as pretentious and "artistically pure" as the next guy, but the minute you schedule a gig in a music club with a cover charge where alcohol is served, you inherently have more in common with Dean Martin than with Antonin Artaud or someone like that. Crossing genres as I do, I always try my "entertainer's best" to tailor the set list toward the audience anticipated to attend. There's nothing inherently wrong with not annoying needlessly.
There's a time for gothic rock, there's a time for bitter love songs (there's even a time for Deathpile!), but at Death in June there was a time for... Christ! do I have to spell out?... Those who know my work will say, "oh yeah, that's a great set to open for Death in June." I suspect everyone else can get an idea by looking at the titles:
1. Sandra Lindsey
2. Sarah's Booted Boy
3. Legends of the S.S.
4. Beautiful Brownshirted Man
5. The Curious Pediatrician
6. Hello Columbus
7. Altar Boy
What's next on the horizon for David E. Williams?
In 2006, Old Europa Cafe has promised a NEW David E. Williams CD, and Autumn of 2005 will see a CD repackaging of Pseudo Erotica and probably a dozen other never-released songs from the same era. I'm calling it Pseudo Erotica And Beyond: 1986-1998. I've also recorded stuff for some tribute CD's and hopefully some of these will come out sooner rather than later: 2 Scott Walker covers ('Archangel' and 'Big Louise') for a Scott Walker tribute and a Rush cover ('Subdivisions') for an apocalyptic folk tribute to the 1980's. I've also covered the song 'You Can't Get to Heaven on the Frankford El' for the Positivespace Philadelphia arts group tribute to our public transportation system. I really need to dive into my soundtrack assignment for the new Norman Macera film. I think it's about murder committed by people with fucked up sexualities. Bit of a departure.
Finally is there need for less sex in the world?
I don't know how jolly your situation in the Scottish highlands is, but one day in Philadelphia might lead you to a different conclusion.
David E. Williams
Old Europa Cafe