Interview with Voltaire
Last month, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to sit down with the King of Con Concerts….Voltaire. If you’ve watched Cartoon Network, if you’ve been to DragonCon in the past several years, or if you’re a guy who has worn black nail polish of your own free will, chances are that you have heard Voltaire’s music. Impossible to categorize, he has a die-hard following of science fiction fans, vampire-wannabes, filk-fanatics, and Goths who can take a joke. In addition to his music (bawdy gypsy pirate geek folk) Voltaire is an award-winning maker of short films, a toymaker (what kid wouldn’t want a Deady-Bear), author, and a comic artist. A self-managed, self-promoted entrepreneur, Voltaire has been cited as a preview of the future of the music business and of publishing.
Some of our readers may not have heard of you and your work. When someone asks, how do you answer the question “what do you do”?
I figured out long ago to not even try to describe my work, because…I’m not really sure what I do. When I meet someone who hasn’t heard of me, I ask them if they’ve seen “The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy”. If they say yes, I tell them that I sing the song “Brains” from that show, in which I am an evil meteor that eats people’s brains. If they are still blanking, I tell them I’m a musician who sings funny songs about spooky things. I also make comic books that tend to be dark and humorous. I’m a human being, and there’s more to me than that, but I just haven’t figured out how to describe myself and my work to someone who doesn’t already know who I am.
How did you get started in the music business?
My first show was a dare. This guy that I knew, God he was a giant tool, he was promoting a Goth night at a local club, and he invited me to see one of his shows. It was billed as a solo acoustic Goth performer. I cracked a lot of jokes about the lack of drum machines, but I went. I didn’t remember a single melody, not a word…it was completely unmemorable. Afterwards, the promoter asked me what I thought. In all of my pomposity, I told him that I do a better show every night in my living room. Well, he said “next Sunday night, you’ll be doing the show”. I was stunned. What I’d just said was so arrogant that there was no way that I could back out. I was so nervous that I had diarrhea for the whole week, but I survived. I had gotten an acoustic guitar just a month earlier, and taught myself how to play it, and I’d written a few songs. I did “Ex-Lover’s Lover”, a song about jealousy, angst, and fantasizing about killing the lovers of one’s ex. This went over much better than I’d expected. I told the crowd how nervous I was, and they just started cheering. After that, the nerves died down, and I have never been nervous since. This was 1995, and there was no sort of humor in a Goth club. You went there to be a vampire, stand in the corner, and look mysterious. The crowd spent the first half of the show trying to figure out if I was making fun of them. I wasn’t, not really. Then, one by one they started covering their mouths so that their equally mysterious friends didn’t see them smiling. Then, they were all laughing with me. What made it even better is that there had never been more than, like, twelve people show up for one of these things. Because I’d talked so much shit for the past ten years, and everyone wanted to see me make a fool of myself, there were 150 people in this tiny bar to see this show. The guy who booked me thought that he was really on to something, and talked me into letting him be my manager.
There are a lot of people who don’t really have a talent, or a skill, but who really, really want to be the center of attention. A lot of these folks end up becoming Goth club promoters, or some other sort of promoter, hoping to get attention by putting an event together. Well, anyway, this was one of those guys, and after a series of misadventures, I struck out on my own. Directing commercial spots and promos helped me make some contacts, but for the most part it’s just been doing what I love to do, and finding people who will pay money for it.
I’ve got a friend who’s an uptight accountant type. She’s never heard of you, but I think she’d love your show. What should I tell her about you and your music to get her there?
I’m not sure she should come (laughs).
Her husband says the same thing.
Well, depending on how you’re spelling the word, that could be a problem (laughs). I don’t know if my shows would be for her. My shows are very bawdy. There’s a lot of dark humor, sexual humor, and there’s a tremendous amount of geek culture. If she’s not into Star Wars, Star Trek, vampires, werewolves, zombies she probably won’t “get it”. There is a lot of “inside humor”. Well, if she’s not a fan of sci-fi, horror, fantasy, AND if she can’t appreciate bawdy, dark humor, she might not be in to what I do. Maybe she should stay home…or maybe she should come, I’d like to think she’d have a good time.