Nox Arcana (Joseph Vargo)
By Marcus Pan
Artist, occultist and musician Joseph Vargo
gave me a chance to talk to him about some of his projects. From the
theme-laced Halloween favorites of Midnight Syndicate to the orchestral scores
of Nox Arcana, Joseph Vargos music is widely known and has forever
blasted away the old school Halloween sound effects CDs and
replaced them with scores worthy of feature films. His work with horror fiction
is likewise known as is his amazing artwork that has graced everything from
books to CDs to one of the most beautifully crafted Tarot decks ever before
seen. In this exclusive interview Joseph answers my questions about all this
1) Nox Arcana and Midnight Syndicate, at my first
impression of receiving work by both, was that the former was more of a side
project of Joseph Vargo rather than a new band. Were you involved with their
latest release this year, The 13th Hour, at all?
Actually, the gothic incarnation of Midnight Syndicate was
originally started as a side project of mine. I was approached by Ed Douglas at
my art gallery in Cleveland in 1997. He had just released the first MS CD, but
was having trouble finding an audience for its assorted styles of music. The CD
went in a lot of different directions and contained rap songs, country music,
easy-listening and new wave music. He told me how much he admired my art and
asked if Id like to work with him on a future project. I explained that
my forte was in the gothic field, and that if he would be willing to
drastically change his style, I could streamline his sound to appeal to a
gothic audience. We began to work together and I agreed to produce his next CD
through my company, Monolith Graphics. I directed the music, wrote the
storyline and recited the creepy intros to the songs, created the cover art and
new band logo and paid for the entire project. The new music was such a
departure from his first CD that, for awhile, I was considering changing the
name of the band so that it wouldnt be associated with Eds initial
effort, but eventually he stopped selling the first CD and now it remains a
skeleton, buried deep in his closet.
Although I had been in several rock and
metal bands throughout the years, I always had a love for dark soundtrack
music. I had compiled my own soundtrack for my art gallery, comprised of music
by John Carpenter, Danny Elfman, Wojciech Kilar, Enya and various others. The
sound I was going for was a combination of the best of these artists. I worked
with Ed for a while as director and producer to keep the new project along
these lines. The CD was titled Born of the Night, after a series of art
prints and calendars I had previously produced. Gavin, the third contributor to
the project came on board late in the game after most of the songs were already
Once the CD was finished, the hard part began. We had to try
to market a band that never played out and got no radio play. My partner
Christine Filipak, who photographed the band and did the album layout, designed
several promotional campaigns to market the CD. Among the long list of things
she did, she designed and assembled hundreds of original point-of-purchase
displays for the band, and she negotiated a deal with the Hot Topic buyers so
that all their stores would put stickers on their poster bins (which displayed
several of my posters) advertising the Born of The Night CD. We did this
again the next year to advertise the Realm of Shadows CD. We also began
marketing the CDs through local Halloween stores and attractions. I even custom
built and hand-painted a huge illuminated trade show display to advertise the
band at various events.
As far as their latest release is concerned, no, I was not
directly involved, but it seems I was indirectly involved in a very big way.
The storyline that MS has posted in their press releases and on their website
seems to have been patterned directly after Nox Arcanas 2003 release,
Darklore Manor. It appears that they are still looking to me for
inspiration and creative ideas, however, whereas our CD and website contain a
detailed story and back history of Darklore Manor, the MS release offers
nothing of the sort.
2) On the top, Midnight Syndicate and Nox Arcana are
strikingly similar in music. Whats the differences between them to you
and what lead you to form the latter?
Yes, they are both in the same vein, a
style that I had originally envisioned several years prior to working with MS.
Anyone who has ever heard Midnight Syndicates debut, self-titled release,
can easily ascertain that they were a band without direction, and certainly not
a gothic band by any stretch of the imagination. The album was a jumbled
mish-mosh of musical styles and went in every musical direction possible with
rap songs, country songs and easy listening music. Ed Douglas changed his style
at my insistence in order to make his music more marketable, but they seem to
have lost their direction once again and I think their music has suffered
greatly with their last few releases. The music of Nox Arcana is exactly what I
had originally envisioned. My partner, William Piotrowski, and I work very
closely together with each composition. Its a much more creative working
environment. As for differences in the musical styles of our two bands, our
songs are more melody-driven, some have lyrics, singing, chanting, and creepy
little narrations, making them more than just background ambiance. We also
incorporate a much wider range of instruments and vocalists and we also cover
concepts that we have very deep interests in, giving detailed background
stories for our themes. Each of the Nox Arcana CDs comes with a 12-page booklet
filled with artwork, lyrics and background stories about each specific concept
that we cover.
3) Nox Arcana releases have been coming out pretty
steadily with four, that Im aware, this year already. Is there a reason
for the prolific nature of this new project?
We released our first album, Darklore
Manor in 2003. Our second album, Necronomicon, was released in 2004.
We put out two albums in 2005 with the releases of Winters Knight
and Transylvania, mainly because Winters Knight was a
slight departure from our horror-based themes, so we also gave our fans
Transylvania to appease their darker desires. William is just as driven
as I am and we never stop writing music. We put in about 60 to 80 hours a week
in the studio when we are working on each new album. Currently we are about
halfway through our next CD, Carnival of Lost Souls, but we already have
some great tracks written for the following release.
4) All of Nox Arcanas releases take on a theme
Christmas, haunted mansions, vampire myths and one of my favorites, the
Necronomicon itself. Do you choose your themes first or do you begin
writing a score and determine what it resembles in your mind?
We select the themes in advance, based on our own personal
interests. Once we have the theme set in stone, we begin outlining the type of
music and instruments that will fit the concept and convey it to the listener.
For example, to convey a Victorian theme on Darklore Manor, we utilized
pianos, harpsichords, violins and pipe organs, whereas with
Necronomicon, we achieved a more mystical feeling with sitars, flutes,
primal drums and big creepy choirs. We have full concepts set for our next five
releases, but because weve had the aforementioned problems with other
bands copying our concepts in the past, Im sworn to secrecy as to what
dark themes our future albums will explore.
5) How did you come about writing scores for the
Necronomicon and was this just in passing or are you a Lovecraft fan?
Whats your favorite story from the mythos if so?
Im a huge Lovecraft fan and I think that the Cthulhu
Mythos is a great source of material. The album booklet art and liner notes of
Necronomicon were designed to initiate those who were unfamiliar with
Lovecrafts genius. Over the years, many writers took their own liberties
with Lovecrafts concepts, but our album strictly adheres to
Lovecrafts original vision of The Great Old Ones and The Elder Gods. The
Necronomicon album is also marketed by Chaosium Games as a soundtrack to
its Call of Cthulhu RPG, and has been their top-selling soundtrack since
its release in 2004.
I have several favorite stories by H.P. Lovecraft. I
cant narrow it down to just one, but my top five would have to be
The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The Dunwich Horror,
The Hound, The Haunter of the Dark, and of course
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.
6) Have you felt any backlash at all when you put out
albums like Transylvania in as far as being called or considered
cliché at all? Id think it might be difficult to touch upon such a
continuously visited subject without fearing that sort of thing especially
within the goth subculture.
Quite the opposite. Fads come and go, but Dracula is
a classic. The novel and main character have been around for over 100 years,
and now theyre more popular than ever. We have received stacks of letters
from people who have applauded us for creating an album that adheres to
Stokers novel. Our Transylvania CD combines those classic elements
of romance and horror. This wasnt just a random collection of spooky
sounds and background music that was slapped together with no reverence for the
source material. Our fans are quite discriminating and they know the difference
between class and cliché. Also, Ive amassed a large and loyal
following throughout the years by painting vampires, g argoyles, ghosts and
other creatures of the night. We always choose topics that are close to our
hearts and our audience knows that when we tackle any subject matter, we take
it very seriously and do our research. Transylvania has also been used
to score the 1922 silent film, Nosferatu, which premiered on New
7) Aside from your music, I understand
you delve into the occult a bit. Tell us a bit about The Gothic Tarot and the
imagery you chose for these cards.
The Gothic Tarot contains many of my most popular images
previously featured in calendars and posters as well as other paintings from my
private collection. Several new works were created specifically for the deck.
The original concept was to only create full illustrations for the 22 cards of
the Major Arcana and to utilize repetitive design elements of the four suits to
illustrate the Minor Arcana. However the more research I did into the symbolic
representations of classic Tarot decks, I decided to commit to a full-scale
project of creating individual illustrations for each of the 78 cards.
In some instances existing paintings were altered to fit the
concept of a specific card, but in other cases new artwork had to be created to
express the cards traditional meaning. I had seen other Tarot decks by
popular fantasy artists that were simply a collection of random images
unrelated to the meanings of the specific cards. These decks, though
aesthetically pleasing on the surface, were completely impractical. I
didnt want people to look at my deck and say, Cool art, but this
guy doesnt know a thing about the Tarot. I wanted people to be able
to use the cards for their intended purpose.
Since there are so many decks
in existence and each has its own subtle variations, there are some options in
naming the suits. You have to decide wands or staffs, coins or pentacles. I
chose to go with wands and pentacles because they best represented the Old
World mysticism that I was striving to capture. The Rider-Waite deck is
probably the most widely used deck of the modern day. The instructional text
was researched and written by Arthur Edward Waite, and the black and white
illustrations were drawn by Pamela Colman Smith, based on Waites
descriptions. This deck was fairly consistent with earlier Tarot decks like the
Tarot of Marseilles and was the first one to illustrate the Minor Arcana with
artistic depictions as opposed to symbolic designs. I used the Waite deck as a
preliminary guide in order to stay true to the established divinatory meanings
of the Tarot. I utilized vampires, gargoyles, ghosts and dark angels for my
main characters in order to convey a gothic mood, and tried to incorporate the
designs of the suits into the artwork whenever possible to make the work more
cohesive. Weve had great success marketing the deck throughout the
8) Tales from the Dark Tower and Born of
Night are books recently released featuring your artwork and editing. How
did you find the authors and stories for the Dark Tower collection and
how did you go about choosing which to include in the thirteen that
Tales from the Dark Tower began when my writer friend
James Pipik approached me with the idea to write a book of short stories based
on my gothic art. I knew several other writers and offered each of them the
opportunity to write a story for the book and gave the interested parties an
image to work from. I worked on the main story with James, then outlined a
series of stories and worked closely with the other writers to maintain
continuity throughout the book. Christine Filipak and I wrote and co-wrote
several of the stories ourselves, and as time went on, the responsibilities of
editing this project fell upon us as well.
The 13 gothic tales of vampires, ghosts and
other things that go bump in the night are set in and around a haunted
gargoyle-encrusted castle known as the Dark Tower. Each of the stories stands
alone, yet they all fit together, weaving back and forth throughout the
centuries to create the saga of the curse that overshadows the Dark Tower. The
tales add a new dimension to the artwork, bringing some of my most sinister and
haunting characters to life, so to speak. Tales from the Dark Tower is
currently in its third printing and we are beginning work on the sequel,
Beyond the Dark Tower.
As far as my art book, Born of the Night, is
concerned, the book features over 100 of my most popular paintings as well as
dozens of sketches and previously unpublished works. Born of the Night
only contains about half of my work to date. A second art book will be released
within the next few years that will feature a lot of my early fantasy paintings
of sensuous women, dark warriors, dragons and other mythical creatures as well
as my newest gothic pieces. I still have a large body of personal work that has
never been published.
9) Monolith Graphics itself has shunned many forms of
distribution and has built up an impressive distribution format and network of
its own. How did you go about convincing shops like Hot Topic to carry your
work and why did you decide to go it alone in the first place?
Many traditional distribution channels do not provide the
personal attention or care to the customer, and the artist gets a very small
portion of each sale. We heard about Hot Topic in 1997 when they opened a store
in Cleveland, and just sent them some samples of my work. I had amassed a
substantial portfolio of gothic artwork by then, and we were selling calendars,
prints and t-shirts of my art at local stores and events, as well as through
our mail-order catalog. The buyers at Hot Topic loved everything they saw and
weve developed various gothic products with them over the years.
I work very hard at all aspects of my craft, but I feel very
fortunate to have enjoyed the success that weve had with all our
merchandise. I am a firm believer in the old saying that success is hard work
meeting with opportunity. Many people who want to pursue careers as artists or
writers think that theyll strike it rich with one big break. Inevitably
they fail because they arent determined to put all the effort into
polishing their work, nor doing all the marketing to get their work out there.
If publishing companies havent ever seen your work, theyre not
going to come knocking at your door. You have to make all the contacts
yourself, or hire an agent who you can trust to do it for you.
Occasionally we license some artwork out to other companies,
but weve been burned by dishonest distributors in the past, so now we
insist on writing our own contracts. Still, I feel that experience is the best
teacher. It was a long, hard road, but looking back, I wouldnt have done
it any other way. It gives you a real sense of accomplishment to know that you
created something substantial by following your dreams and doing things your
10) Youve done quite an impressive amount of media
from music to books and art. Is there a favorite out of these, if any?
Thats a tough one.
Im very proud of all of my work. Its like asking someone with kids
who their favorite child is. I love creating things from my own imagination, be
it art, music or literature. Whereas writing is more of a hobby to me, Im
much more serious when it comes to my career as an artist and musician.
Although Ive been putting a lot more time into my music over the past few
years, art has always been my primary passion.
11) Of course the final question of most interviews is a
whats next sort of line. In your case it can go down any
number of trails. What can we expect from Joseph Vargo in 2006 and
We are finishing up the next Nox Arcana CD, Carnival of
Lost Souls, which will explore a creepy old-time carnival that harbors
living nightmares and sinister secrets. We also have plans to shoot a video for
the album. Recently, Nox Arcanas music was used exclusively to score the
1922 silent film classic, Nosferatu. The editing for this was done by
horror movie host, Dr. Gangrene. The audio enhanced version of Nosferatu
premiered on New Years Eve on the WB Creature Feature. We are discussing
the possibility of marketing a DVD of the film with our music. Eventually,
well begin production on some original gothic horror movies as well. We
also have a new line of posters that will be available through Spencers, and
writing for the second Dark Tower book will begin later this year. In
the meantime, Ill be busy creating new cover art for Dark Realms
magazine. My dream project would be to build a gothic manor that would act as a
weekend retreat where the guests would become involved in a live-action
supernatural mystery. It may take a few years, but itll happen