INTERVIEW: Voltaire

By Rat Bastard

Chain Border

During my all-too brief jaunt to NYC for Convergence (the annual net.goth gathering), I managed to arrange an interview with NYC's gothic renaissance man, Voltaire. This was actually more of a challenge than one might think, as I had to break away from the confines of the drunken haze that I was in for a sizeable portion of the weekend, so that I could conduct a semi-coherent interview. With that accomplished (with at least a certain degree of success), I was able to meet up with Voltaire on the final day of Convergence. After taking command of a piano on the second floor of the Warwick Hotel, Voltaire discussed his past, present, future, and whatever else came to mind, in the hour-long chat that ensued:

VoltaireRat Bastard: I'll start with a nice generic question: How did you get your start as a musician and artist?

Voltaire: It's hard to say, because I've always drawn. My grandmother tells me that, as far back as I could hold an pencil, I'd always be drawing. She'd always point out that I started with the tail. I'd literally draw the animal, starting with the tail, and work my way forward. I suppose I was always attracted to drawing, art, and things of that nature. At some point, I saw the films of Ray Harryhausen (7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts, etc), and I really just fell in love with stop-motion animation. I got a Super8 camera when I was 10 and started making stop-motion films. The beginning of being a musician probably happened for me around junior high school, when I started a band. We were probably absurdly awful, but we thought that we were pretty good at the time.

RB: What was your band called?

V: It was called First Degree. We played covers of Judas Priest, Rush, and Duran Duran. We played in junior high/high school talent shows, battle of the bands, and things like that.

RB: Well, playing Rush covers would require some degree of talent. I guess? (chuckles)

V: Not if you play them very badly. (smiles) Anyway, it was all just something that came very natural to me. While all of the other boys were outside playing baseball, I was drawing...which made me a "freak."

RB: So, you were 10, making films with your Super8 camera. At what point did people start to take notice?

VoltaireV: People actually started to take notice right away, because there was this 10 year old kid making stop-motion films. That was a little creepy to them, I think. Especially since, in the first film that I made, I created this little clay monster and animated him behind this big laser cannon, which was shooting. The lasers were actually pieces of wire that I would hold into the frame for one frame. When the film got developed, we were all sitting in the living room, with my parents and a few other people. The first half of the film was a family reunion that I shot, so they're all sitting there watching, when, all of a sudden, this green alien with a laser cannon appears and starts shooting...and everyone lost their fucking minds. They all turned to me and said, "How did you do that?" At that point, I thought, "I want to be a stop-motion animator! This is great!" So I started making more films. I generally refused to read books or do homework, but I graduated from high school a year early with flying colors. It was largely due to the fact that, instead of doing book reports, I'd just make a super8 film and show that in class, and just the novelty of showing a film usually got me an A, even though it didn't necessarily have anything to do with the book that I read (just a little tip for you kids out there!).

RB: Where exactly did this happen?

V: I was born in Cuba. But all of this nonsense took place in the suburban sprawl of New Jersey. People did take notice right away and made a big fuss about it, and I think that this encouraged me as a child to later take it more seriously, because it seemed like I was on to something.

RB: At what point did you get involved with MTV?

V: Well, when I was 17, I left home because living at home sucked something awful. I started growing out my hair and got an earring, and that alone made pretty big waves at home. So, I moved to Manhatten, and needed to find a job. The woman I was living with said to me, "You're an animator. Why don't you go to an animation studio and show them your work?" It had never occurred to me that someone would pay me to do stop-motion animation. It was just something that was so much fun and that I loved so much, and you generally think of work as something that you don't want to have to do, because it's "work," and this, to me, was "play." So I went to this company, and I showed them my films and they hired me. So, at 17, I worked on animating Parker Brothers commercials and Budbowl. Then, two years later, MTV contacted my animation studio. They were looking for station IDs that were kinda dark and weird, and the people from my studio were like, "Oh boy, do we have a dark and weird guy for you!" And so they gave me an ID to direct. I came up with an idea to do one based on "The Garden of Earthly Delights" by Hieronymous Bosch. I had to do it mostly myself, because the studio didn't give me a lot of money with which to produce this piece, but it won a couple of awards in 1988, and I thought to myself, "Wow! I'm a young hotshot director! I'm going to be rich and famous!"... then shortly after, I realized that the road to success is a much longer and harder one than I thought it would be.

RB: Do you see CG, being the current 'big thing' in special effects, as a threat to stop-motion animation?

Chi CianV: There is no question that it is, was, and probably will continue to be a threat to stop-motion animation, in the sense that, from 1985 to 1990, I was working every day. I don't think I had a single day off. It was insane. Nearly every TV commercial had stop-motion in it. Around 1991, CG made a sudden leap. In many ways, CG is more convenient than stop-motion. After all, if you screw up in stop-motion, you have to do the shot all over again. In CG, you'd just need to go back and fix that one little screw-up. So, producers like it because it can save them a lot of money. Directors like it because it gives them more flexibility in changing things around. In any case, as of 1991, I couldn't even get arrested. I don't think I worked a single day in 1991. It was a really harsh switch-over, because the advertising world is very much about trends and catch-phrases. I'd walk into an ad agency, show them my reel, and they'd say, "Do you do any of that CG stuff?" and they'd get this big stupid look on their faces when they said "CG" because it was a "new term" that they had just learned that they would say because it makes them seem cool. So, yeah, CG killed stop-motion in the commercial world, and put a lot of stop-motion animators out of work. I think that there was a period of time after 1991 in which I was the only stop-motion animator in New York City, out of a couple hundred. They all either moved or switched occupations. I just stubbornly stuck around because I didn't feel like doing anything else. Though, I think that this ended up doing stop-motion a favor, because, since stop-motion was no longer needed in the commercial world, stop-motion animators who really believed in the artform had to find some other venue to implement their craft in, and hence, the stop-motion art film became very popular. Suddenly, all of these animation festivals popped up, that were full of beautiful stop-motion films by Jan Svankmajer, The Brothers Quay, and others. Now, stop-motion has its own little 'return to its roots' as an artform with a quirky, surrealistic, and (dare i say it) fine art feel.

Oh My GothRB: The Chi Chian series, which you did for Scifi.com, has a very stop-motion look.

V: Well, when I was approached to do an animated series by the Scifi channel for their website, I wanted to try to do something with stop-motion. I knew that it was going to be a problem putting that on the internet, but goddammit, I was going to make it work one way or the other. So, I started looking into Flash, and noticed that Flash is basically all done with vector art, which is flat cartoonlike art, and I wanted to do something that was photographic, which would use bitmaps. But Flash doesn't like bitmaps, because each little bitmap makes the file size bigger and bigger, until the file size is so big that no one would be able to download it. I went to several Flash production studios for help on this project, and no one wanted to touch it. Literally, people said "You are out of your mind. You cannot do an entire series that is photographic in Flash." Eventually I ran into two guys, Michael Lee and Daniel Govar. The two of them put together the series. It has a very photographic stop-motion Harryhausen look, or rather, a Harryhausen-meets-anime look. It also owes a lot to the Terry Gilliam Monty Python photo collage-type style. I took photos of the stop-motion models. Then I cut the digital photos up into pieces using Photoshop, sort of like a paperdoll. Then I would email those pieces to the animators, who would animate them, two dimensionally, in Flash. It's exactly the same technique used to animate South Park, except that ours strives to look like a Sinbad film, directed by Tim Burton in Japan.. while South Park is South Park.

RB: Chi Chian began as a comic book series, and I noticed that there was a wealth of background information in the Flash series. How far back does that go? Are the comics still available anywhere?

V: I started drawing the Chi Chian comic book in around 1996. It was published by Sirius in 97, and they commissioned a six issue series to be published bi-monthly. So, by the end of 98, the entire series had come out. Slowly, the comics started falling out of print.

RB: Any plans for a graphic novel?

V: There were plans for one years ago. But the contract expired. Then I went on to do the animated series. However, I'm again working with that same publisher for my new "Oh My Goth!" book. So there still could be a graphic novel in the future, but it remains to be seen.

RB: Perhaps the animated series will increase interest in Chi Chian and make that more likely to happen.

V: Well there is some talk about the possibility of a Playstation game. If that happens, then I will be the happiest man alive, because getting to work with Chi Chian every day for 10 months was the best year of my career. I just love that girl, and I like to work with her. Heh, I talk as if she's a real person, but she kind of is.

RB: Is she based upon anyone in particular?

V: She's an amalgam of a few different people. Basically, she represents innocence, which is something that I really really love. Children are really innocent. They say things that reveal this innocence, and it almost makes you want to cry, because you know that, at some point, somewhere down the line, they will realize that things aren't the way they think they are. And that's a dynamic that I find really interesting and that I like to work with. Anyway, that's what Chi Chian represents to me, and I'd like to continue working with her.

RB: So, you are planning to expand the series?

V: I don't know about expanding the series, though there is always the possibility that SciFi might want to continue the series online when they start planning their roster for next year. But, right now, I'm just pursuing the Playstation game idea and looking into other opportunities.

RB: As I mentioned earlier, there is a wealth of background information in the Chi Chian series. For example, you've got a several page long writeup on the characters, Ick and Nuff. Then, when they make their appearance in the series, they get killed almost immediately. So it seems like you've got a lot of history within every bit of the story.

V: Yes, there is a huge amount of background for Chi Chian. I came up with the idea when I was working in Tokyo, in 1989, but I didn't start drawing the comic book until 1996. I'd be working on TV commercials during the day, and well into the night (and sometimes two or three days at a time), but when I'd relax, I'd go into a cafe, where I'd sit and write and draw on napkins. I'd always draw Chi Chian and I was always writing about Chi Chian. So this world was expanding on a weekly, monthly, and yearly basis, until 1996, when I thought to myself, "Jesus Christ, I've got this huge saga! It's time to do something!" So, in the animated series online, because the files are large and could take 15 minutes or so to load on a 56k modem, we had to include loaders to entertain people while they were waiting. So we decided to use the background information on the characters. For the main characters, all I had to do was transcribe the information from the comic series. But when I ran out of main characters, I needed some new ones, so I'd go to Yaffa Cafe, where I'd draw "Oh My Goth!" all night long. I'd eventually get back to my place at 5AM and I'd be in a coffee-induced frenzy, so I'd start writing background information for characters that would go online in about an hour... and that's how I wrote almost all of the backgrounds for the characters in the animated series who do not appear in the comic. I would generally try to come up with a story that had an immeasurable amount of pain and anguish in it, because I figured that, if these guys are bad, they're probably bad for a reason. They probably started out as really sweet kids and then somebody fucked with them really badly, and that's the motivation behind a lot of those background stories.

RB: You said earlier that you played music in high school. When did you start playing music similar to your current style?

Devil's BrisV: After I moved to Manhattan, in 1984, I continued to play music, but I never thought about it being a career or about going out and playing shows. I did it pretty much just for my own entertainment. Around 1995, I moved into an apartment that had no electricity. It was really beautiful. It was completely candlelit. There was no phone or fax machine. It was very quiet. I realized very quickly in that place that I desperately needed something to entertain myself, because I didn't have a TV or a radio. A friend of mine gave me an acoustic guitar. So I figured out how to play it and started writing songs.

RB: So, what did you play in your high school band?

V: I just sang... which is really a difficult position to be in if you want to write music, because people expect there to be an accompanying instrument, so it's difficult to write music by yourself if you're just the singer. So, when I came up with melodies in my head, I would sing them into a cassette recorder. But, you know, people don't necessarily want to hear acapella versions of songs. So, in those first few months of 1995, I learned to play the guitar at least well enough to accompany myself, and I played my first acoustic solo show in March of 1995. I knew that I didn't want it to be a spooky ooky goth "i want to kill myself" sort of show, so I wrote in some funny stories and my songs were kind of sarcastic and tongue-in-cheek. I think that people were stunned. At first they weren't sure quite what to make of it. So there was a sea of black-clad people, holding their faces, trying not to smile in public, wondering if this is supposed to be funny. Then, about midway through the set they realized that this was, in fact, supposed to be funny, and it just took off from there.

RB: How did you get signed to Projekt?

V: I played solo acoustic shows from 95 to 96, and ironically enough, my demo had violin, cello, and other instruments on it, played by studio musicians. That's the way I had always heard my music. So I decided that it was time to put a band together. So I did this, and our very first show as a band was as the opening act for Christian Death and Switchblade Symphony. Those guys went back to Cleopatra and told them "Hey, you should check out the guys that opened for us in New York! They've got a very different sound and they were really funny." So we had conversations with Cleopatra over the next few months before we realized that it wasn't really the place for us, which is fine. Then, at some point, we played a show at the BatCave, opening for Black Tape for a Blue Girl. After the show, I gave away about 150 cassettes. One of those cassettes fell into the hands of Lisa Fuer, from Black Tape for a Blue Girl, who is also the wife of Sam Rosenthal, who owns the Projekt label. So, they popped the tape in on the way back to Chicago and listened to it. Ironically, that was the first time they had heard my music, because they were backstage dealing with band drama while I was playing my set, so they didn't actually get to hear any of it. Then I got a call from Projekt, saying that they were interested in seeing a showcase. So they came to New York, we played for them, and the rest is history. So far, I've put out two albums, The Devils Bris (1998) and Almost Human (2000). We're slated to put out a third record, called Boo Hoo, on Valentine's Day of 2002. It's a break up record.

Almost HumanRB: At your show last night, you mentioned your "Star Trek songs'... what are these?

V: Oh yeah. I'm a big Star Trek fan. I was at DragonCon last year, and some guy came up to me and asked, "Did you come here to Filk?" and I was like "Hey buddy, I'm not into that." (laughs). Anyway, I found out that filking is science fiction folk music, essentially. So I went in and was really amazed. There were all these people with acoustic guitars playing songs about Chewbacca and Klingons. And so my love of Star Trek and my love of music collided that night and I started writing Star Trek parody songs. So, I've got four Star Trek parody songs up on mp3.com. There's a Klingon rap. There's one about having sex with Data. We're actually releasing a disc of those songs, limited to 1000 copies, called Voltaire - Banned on Vulcan. Because it's such a limited release, we'll probably just sell them at shows.

RB: Tell me about the "Oh My Goth!" comic.

V: "Oh My Goth!" has been going pretty well. I started out with a four issue mini-series, which was later compiled into a graphic novel. Then I started the second series, called "Humans Suck." Issue one came out...then issue two came out.. nd then I got into a big fight with the publisher, and they cancelled my contract. So, issue three never made it out. It was called "Vampires from Outer Space, or Halloween in Harlem", and was supposed to come out in October of 2000. Since then, I've kissed and made up with the publisher, and they are releasing a new version of the "Oh My Goth!" graphic novel, entitled "Oh My Goth! Version 2.0," and it contains the four previously released issues of "Oh My Goth!," the two previously released issues of "Humans Suck," plus the third issue of "Humans Suck" that never got to see the light of day.

RB: Ah, so it's The Complete "Oh My Goth!"...

V: Hey... I should have called it that (grins)... In any case, it will be in stores this December.

RB: "Oh My Goth!" has lots of characters that seem to embody many of the stereotypes in the goth scene. Are any of these characters based on particular people you've known or met?

V: Well, I draw my inspiration from people around me in the scene and, because I feel that everyone has the unalienable right to make a complete jack-ass out of themselves, I tend to get lots of free material. So, a lot of the people in "Oh My Goth!" are people I actually know, and many things said in 'Oh My Goth!" are things that I've actually heard. The bottom line is that I consider myself a goth, and I'm just making fun of "us." We just can't take ourselves so damn seriously. If there ever was a scene that takes itself too seriously, it's this one. So, I think it's important to look around and laugh.

RB: Yeah, it's like when a lot of people who I run into say things like "goth is about death and darkness and decay." This makes little sense to me. After all, if we sat around fixating on death and decay, then we wouldn't be able to go out to clubs, see bands, have fun, etc.

V: Exactly. It's like the whole "I'm all alone in world" thing. Yeah, you're all alone…with 25 of your friends at a goth club. Come on!

RB: So, you mentioned earlier that your upcoming album, Boo Hoo, is a breakup album...

V: Yeah, it's a breakup record. I just got out of a twelve year relationship...

RB: Ouch.

V: Yeah. Owie...so, for the last six months, I've been writing a lot of songs in that vein.

RB: Well, there are quite a few songs in that vein on your first album as well.

V: Ironically enough, I broke up with the same damn woman X number of years ago before I wrote that record! We broke up for the first time back in either 92 or 93. We were apart for about three years when I wrote The Devil's Bris...and then we somehow mysteriously ended up getting back together (which I honestly had believed was completely impossible). I guess I was feeling pretty good when I recorded Almost Human. It's more upbeat and lighter. Now…I feel like fuckin' shit again! Devil's Bris II, here I come!

RB: Speaking of Almost Human, the title track has a very Miltonesque take on the character of Lucifer. So, would you like to talk about Lucifer some. (grins)

V: I don't believe in the Devil. I think that anyone who calls himself a Satan worshipper is just a broke-ass Christian. In order to believe in Satan, you'd have to believe in Christianity, and I personally don't believe in either. That's not to say that God doesn't exist. I just don't have any personal information on that, and why should I? I'm a fucking puny human. Who the hell am I to think that I know about God, or his son, or whatever else people think that they know about him. So, yeah, I don't believe in the Devil, but I do find him fascinating, because he's such a colorful character. Between Heaven and Hell, Hell is a lot closer to where we are now, so it's a lot easier to relate to. Christians make it seem that the Devil is just pure evil. People today are just really uncomfortable with grey areas. They make judgments, like "That boy with the black lipstick is EVIL," even though he may not have hurt a fly in his life, and meanwhile, "That businessman with the briefcase who went to church this Sunday is GOOD," even though he may be molesting his son at night. So, people look for quick and easy symbols, and end up simplifying everything, and it's not necessarily the right way to see reality. I think that that is what has happened with Lucifer. Lucifer was God's favorite angel. He was the angel that all of the other angels looked up to. But he was jealous of God's love for man, so he got booted out of Heaven. Now, you've got to imagine that, if you love God with all of your heart, and then you get booted out of Heaven, how much pain you must be in.

RB: It's kind of like something that I heard, to the effect of "You can only truly hate the people who you have truly loved."

V: But I don't think that it's really hate. I think it's more "I love that person so much, and they've cast me out of their life, so I hate them. Bbut only because I love them so much and they don't love me back." It's almost like an intensified version of love, twisted around.

RB: That turns him into a very tragic figure.

V: He's an extremely tragic figure. He's at least a realist. After all, we live on the physical plane, here on Earth, so we should be following our biological imperatives. If you feel sad, you should cry. You shouldn't feel that it's wrong to cry or be sad, as people will tell you, "You shouldn't be sad! You should be smiling! Hey, everybody smile!" If you feel horny, you should have sex. There's nothing wrong with sex. If it wasn't for sex, no one would be here. Likewise, if you feel like going out, getting drunk, and acting like a fool, then that's what you should do. I don't understand this whole crazy morality system based upon a fictitious place where we might go when we die. Fuck that. I'm more concerned with right here and right now. My philosophy is "don't step on other people's toes, don't hurt anybody, and do what your body tells you that you should do…and don't feel bad about it." Ironically enough, this is basically the teachings of Satanism. If you listen to the teachings of Anton LaVey, it's pretty much just that. Be kind to those who are kind to you. Fuck those who aren't (well, not literally). And I have to agree with that part of his teachings, at least.

RB: So, why did you choose the name Voltaire?

V: What makes you think that I chose the name Voltaire? You American fool. (grins)

RB: Er…well, is Voltaire your born-name?

V: Nah. Ya blew it. I shan't say. Next question. (grins)

RB: Er. Damn! (laughs)

V: Actually, I have a tremendous amount of respect for Voltaire. I don't think that there is any other human being who has been on this Earth who I so much relate to. The guy would give social commentary by satirizing people who did not at all want to be satirized. He got thrown in jail quite a few times for it. I just think that he was really on to something.

RB: I heard that you're collaborating with Neil Gaiman. Is this true?

V: That's what they tell me. We're working on a narrative circus. Neil Gaiman is writing the script. It's called "Circus of Night," and opens October 2002 in Los Angeles. He's writing a script, in which everyone dies, and I'm writing the score. They tell me that I'm also playing The Devil, which apparently involves wearing high heels, singing, and chopping someone in half...so basically, it's my average Friday night, so it shouldn't be too much of a stretch. So, those are the plans, as of right now. We're sort of in pre-production.

RB: So, any closing remarks? Words of Wisdom? Death threats?

V: Email me. I read every single email that I get, and I desperately try to respond to every last one of them. I don't always get a chance to (like when I go away for two days and come back to 500 emails), but I certainly read them all.

www.voltaire.net

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