Blast from the past: Masque interview – 1990
FOR those of you who managed to secure a copy of the recent ‘Masque’ reissue, we thought you might like to read this interview from the time of the album’s original release which we have just unearthed in the musty library at Roland Towers.
Paul Roland ‘Masque’ Interview 1990
In autumn 1990, just prior to the release of the album ‘Masque’, journalist and friend Mike Taylor interviewed Paul for an Italian music magazine.
There is a stuffed dodo on the large circular lawn whose eyes seem to follow me as I walk up the driveway towards the house. The gardener too, surveys me with a glazed expression. His rigid pose, suggesting the work of an expert taxidermist!
I know that if I venture down the long echoing hallway I’ll find further horrors. Perhaps even the owner of the house himself engaged in some curious research on a carnivorous orchid. This, my friend, isRolandTowers, the stately home of that charming English eccentric Paul Roland whose new album, ‘Masque’ has prompted my visit.
Meeting the reclusive Englishman is an unnerving experience for he is quiet, polite and the perfect host, not at all what one might imagine the teller of such weird and wonderful tales to be.
Paul’s new album certainly contains both the weird and the wonderful. It opens with the rousing folk rock of ‘Dr Syn Is Riding Again’, a tale of smuggling on the Romney marshes along the rugged Kent coast complete with a frenzied violin solo.
“Originally I wanted to write a folk-rock album,” Paul confesses as we settle down before a crackling fire in the library. “But as always I had so many other themes bubbling up inside of me that only a few folk flavoured tracks made it onto the final record. Two songs that I was particularly proud of, ‘The Rat Catcher’s Daughter’ and ‘The Sea Captain’ I had to leave as extras for the CD because they were too slow. It’s hard to write a lively folk song!”
With the next track ‘Pharaoh’ it’s off to Egypt to hear the words of a long dead mummy. Through the imaginative use of exotic sounds and vivid imagery one can almost smell the fragrant spices used to embalm the dead. Chilling stuff.
But with even his most macabre and bizarre themes Paul weaves a beguiling melody. The best example, perhaps, being the third track ‘Candy Says’, a wistful portrait of a little girl who has retreated into a fantasy world of her own with the companionship of an imaginary friend. Paul’s vocal takes on a soft dream-like quality and is complemented by a driving rhythm, sparkling piano and haunting flute solo. It’s songs like this which have widened his audience considerably, being the perfect balance between his fanciful lyrics and strongly melodic Sixties-style pop. But there is also a strong classical influence in the pastoral ‘Grantchester Fields’ and the title song with its ballet theme.
“I have always liked the sound of classical music, but not the music itself. It’s the idea, the atmosphere of a lost era or place which appeals to me and which I try to evoke in both my music and my lyrics. It was the atmosphere of an English village cricket match on the eve of the First World War which appealed to me and inspired ‘Grantchester Fields’, not the sport itself. Similarly, it was the gifted but tormented character of the ballet dancer which inspired the title track, not a love of ballet itself. The original idea came after I saw Ken Russell’s film on the life of Nijinsky, but that was just the initial spark. After that I read several books on ballet, including a biography of Nijinsky, and I watched a number of ballets to capture the atmosphere of that world in the song. I didn’t want to write a superficial pop song that was simply set in the world of ballet. It was important to me to be authentic and faithful to those characters, to convey a genuine feeling for that milieu even if I only had time to sing three or four verses. A listener knows when you are just using the same old clichés that other writers have fallen back on because they haven’t immersed themselves in the world they are writing about and when you have taken the trouble to research the subject and are speaking with some knowledge and authority. It’s not just a question of credibility, it’s about creating the mise en scene, the setting which your characters inhabit. They cannot have life if the environment is one-dimensional and false.”
On a more whimsical note are the tracks ‘Meet Mr Scratch’, in which a young gent is tempted by the devil in Regency London and ‘The Mind Of William Gaines’, whose eponymous villain is executed and his head subjected to scientific experiments.
“I had read something about the Victorian theory of Phrenology which purported to explain that criminal tendencies resulted from the shape of the skull and were housed in specific areas of the brain. I had a strong picture of the decapitated head floating in a glass tank wired to an apparatus and projecting pictures onto the wall. With the ingenuous scientists eventually falling under its baleful influence and carrying out robberies under its orders. It was an entirely intentional conceit and a nice twist, I thought, to name the deceased Victorian criminal mastermind after the real life publisher of EC horror comics, William Gaines.”
Recalling what I had seen upon my arrival, I resisted the temptation to ask what had inspired paul to pen the macabre ‘Triumphs Of A Taxidermist’, nor the sweet melancholic ‘Cocoon’, about a botanist who has been infected by the spores of a mutant plant and is slowly turning into a hideous cactus!
All of these, together with the vivid picture of a public hanging described in ‘I Dreamt I Stood Upon The Scaffold’, constitute the fanciful world of Paul Roland and so it was surprising to find a cover of the traditional song ‘Matty Groves’ as the closing track.
“I heard Fairport Convention’s version while researching the folk rock album,” he explains. “The story appealed to me particularly – I like narrative songs and those about colourful characters – but I had to cut out a number of verses which I thought were unnecessary. It was far too long for something with such a repetitive, though infectious melody. I wanted to see if I could vary it dynamically and of course it consolidated the folk-rock theme.”
With such strong English themes running through his songs, why is he not better known in his own country?
“I haven’t played a great deal in England, because if you want to generate sufficient interest to get noticed by the music press you have to play hundreds of horrible little pubs which barely cover the band’s expenses and at which the audience seems to be very small and rather cynical (or at least that was my impression when I was reviewing gigs for ‘Sounds’ in the early 80s). I’m not prepared to hustle for gigs here. It’s exhausting and it saps your creative energy. I’d rather put my energy into writing and recording. In countries like France, Greece, Germany and Italy my labels organise the concerts, the music press are not afraid to say they like you even if you are not fashionable and the audiences are loyal and honest about what they like and they will not be so easily influenced by cynical music journalists who tell them what they should like this month and what they shouldn’t listen to anymore because it doesn’t have the NME’s seal of approval.”
Thanking my genial host for the interview I make my way back to the driveway, taking one last look at the ornaments which caught my interest at the entrance. Is it just my morbid imagination or does the gardener bear a striking resemblance to a past Editor of the New Musical Express – a man who disappeared under mysterious circumstances some years ago? MT.