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Bolivarian Headbangin’

Paul Gillman is without a doubt the most famous hesher in Venezuela and an institution in the Latin American heavy-metal scene
Bernardo Loyola
Κείμενο Bernardo Loyola

Paul Gillman at Gillmanfest, a metal festival he organizes anually. Photo by Angie Gillman. Paul Gillman is without a doubt the most famous hesher in Venezuela and an institution in the Latin American heavy-metal scene. Like any other teenager who grew up in the 1970s, he was inspired by the music of Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, and Alice Cooper. While Menudo was sashaying around in leather vests and selling out stadiums all over Latin America with the full support of the media and corporate sponsors, Gillman’s band Arkangel was shredding apart independent venues, singing politically charged songs (“Latin American Repression,” “Unemployed,” “The Maggots of Power”) denouncing the corrupt governments that ruled Venezuela. But when Venezuela’s leftist president, Hugo Chávez, took power in 1999, Paul, once the scourge of the political establishment, became one of its most vocal defenders. For a few years he even changed the name of his act to “Paul Gillman and His Bolivarian Band,” a nod to Chavez’s “Bolivarian revolution.” The idea of a metal musician openly supporting an incumbent government—even a leftist one—seemed pretty strange to us, so we called Paul at his house in Valencia, Venezuela, to talk about his music, the political situation in his country, and his friendship with President Chávez. VICE: Your 2003 record Despertando en la Historia (“Awakening to History”) sounds like Metallica suddenly decided to record a cover album of Woody Guthrie songs.
Paul Gillman: To me, it was a dream. The famous Venezuelan singer Alí Primera played folk songs with the acoustic guitar and the cuatro, but had the same ideals I did. He was doing his work and I was doing mine, and we never met. So, years after his death, we decided to make a tribute album, keeping the lyrics but adding the explosiveness of rock. All the songs are Alí Primera covers, except for one original called “Revolución.” In the video for “Revolución” the whole band is dressed in red t-shirts with white stars, symbols of the Bolivarian revolution. I’m guessing it pissed a lot of people off.
When we released the album in 2003, it was during one of the most polarized moments in Venezuelan history. We really were on the brink of civil war, and one had to take sides. Of course, we chose the progressive side, the revolutionaries. Alí Primera once said, “I would like to see the revolution with my elderly eyes.” But he was never able to see it because he died before it happened. What better way to tell him about it than with a song? So we decided that we had to include a song about the revolution, composed by the band. We also think that Hugo Chávez’s great inspiration, after Simón Bolívar, was Alí Primera. Primera was the great musical ideologist of this revolution, and that is why we dedicated a record to him, and the song “Revolución” to the Venezuelan people. Hugo and Paul, two Bolivarian peas in a revolutionary pod.


With the release of this album you changed the name of your band to Paul Gillman and His Bolivarian Band. In what way was the Venezuelan context different when you recorded Levántate y Pelea (Get Up and Fight) in 1984 and when you wrote “Revolución” in 2003?
In 1989, the Caracazo uprising happened, when people took to the street to fight for what was theirs. And then there was the coup in 1992, when a person appeared on the political scene who seemed to be from a dream—our own Che Guevara, our own reincarnation of Bolívar: Hugo Chávez. Rock musicians and politicians don’t usually get along, and Chávez, in the end, is still a politician looking for power. Have you ever been skeptical about his intentions?
That’s what is really interesting about all this. When I first spoke to him, it was with a certain distrust, because politicians often say, “Yes, everything is going to be all right,” but then they are elected and they don’t know you anymore. That is what we were used to. After the coup attempt, Chávez continued his fight, but in a democratic way. I promised him that if he ended the military draft, he could count on me. He told me that he hated the draft and that it was a violation of human rights. He gave an amazing speech about it, and I believed him. I left his house and made some flyers explaining why the Venezuelan rock movement should support Hugo Chávez. I traveled all over Venezuela with these flyers, handing them out in an almost subversive way, taking my music and lyrics to the people with the hope that this man would win. And against all odds, the people rose. When this happened, the band that played with me—and I thought they were behind me because they were conscious of my lyrics and political stances—fled in terror. It turned out that being on Paul Gillman’s side was a dangerous thing. That doesn’t sound very metal of them.
I was left without musicians! And that is when the Bolivarian Band was born. I demanded that if they played with me, they had to get behind the government. I told them up front: “I agree with this revolution. Do you?” We played more concerts than any other time in my career. In fact, we played in Argentina when the president went on an official visit there. It was the first time that Chávez was broadcasting his famous television program Aló Presidente outside his own country. He wanted a rock band to play on his show, and sent me to Argentina to look for one. Imagine, a military government that wanted a rock band! We picked a band named Tren Loco because of their social activism. During the live broadcast, the president called on me and his minister of culture to organize an international rock festival, and the Urban Music Festival was created. That was a one-off deal, though. Later, we created Gilmanfest as a free annual concert to showcase Venezuelan bands.

Cover of Gillman’s album Cuauhtemoc (2003). Derek Riggs, the guy who created Iron Maiden’s Eddie, designed it. Cover of Gillman’s album Inevitable (2007).

Have you ever gotten in trouble because of your support of Chávez?
From the very first time I visited his house, before he was president, he said: “Look, brother, you came to my house. I didn’t ask you to come, and now you’re in trouble. From now on, the secret police are going to be after you. They are going to make your life impossible.” The second time I visited him, I was staying at my aunt’s house, and got a threatening phone call saying that if they saw me again with comandante Chávez they would put drugs in my car so I’d be arrested. I called the comandante and told him what happened. He said: “Let’s do just like Bolívar, throw your fears to your back, and let’s move forward with the revolution. It’s your decision if you if you want go on.” I replied, “Yes, Comandante, I’ll carry on.” And from then on, Chávez’s enemies have done everything to us. They have spat at us in the supermarket, called our children murderers, damaged our cars, and screamed at us, “Go to Cuba!” Still, there’s lots to do about Venezuela’s security, right?
Yeah, well, sure, violence and lack of public safety is a phenomenon that occurs throughout Latin America. I think it’s something that we cannot avoid. In Colombia and Mexico—and everywhere in the world—violence is very common. Our own media make us look bad to the outside world. Are there rock bands in Venezuela that take vocal stances against the Chávez government?
Yes, but I think that it’s a trendy position. Unfortunately, we still have a colonialist mind-set that everything from abroad is better. Unfortunately, among middle-class and upper-middle-class students, it’s not cool to be Chavista; it’s more trendy to be escuálido [anti-Chavista]. There are commercial rock bands formed by hijos de papá—children of people with money. But the bands that come from the barrios, they identify with the true ideals of rock ’n’ roll. Rock musicians around the world, in general, have always gone against the establishment. Are you considered a pariah?
I really think that I must be the only pro-government musician in the history of rock. But let me tell you one thing: I’m a critical person. I have criticized the government. I have criticized government employees. For example, on my next album there is a song called “Malo, el funcionario que no funciona” (“Bad, the Government Employee Who Doesn’t Work”), and it’s a parody of those bureaucrats who provide terrible service. I’m happy, and I think we have achieved a lot of things, but we haven’t achieved it all. If tomorrow, God forbid, this revolution betrays the people, I will side with the people. I will always side with the people, I can assure you of that. Is it true that you are the voice of Patrick Star in the Spanish-language version of Sponge Bob Square Pants?
Yes, I have done quite a bit of voice work over the last five years. I did the voice of Patrick in Sponge Bob Square Pants, Cyclops in the X-Men movies, and a character in Batman Beyond. And I’ve also done voice overs for countless documentaries—stuff for the History Channel and Discovery Channel—on all sorts of subjects. But the pay is really bad and, in the end, rock ’n’ roll is what really matters to me.